August 6, 2014
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.

 

FATHER BLESS ME FOR I HAVE SINNED: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) was warned that he would be killed in one week’s time by an insane confessor who was in the confessional booth. Although Father Lavelle suspects that he knows who threatened him, he decides to continue his life as usual without going to the police.

FATHER BLESS ME FOR I HAVE SINNED: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) was warned that he would be killed in one week’s time by an insane confessor who was in the confessional booth. Although Father Lavelle suspects that he knows who threatened him, he decides to continue his life as usual without going to the police.

While listening to confessions in church one day, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) receives the shock of his life. A disturbed man recounts in lurid detail, how, as a child, he’d been raped by a priest every other day for five years. Then, the anonymous confessor announces that since the pedophile who ruined his life is already deceased, he’s decided to even the score by murdering Father James in exactly one week.

The demented parishioner doesn’t care that his intended victim is innocent and wasn’t even a priest when the transgressions occurred. In fact, Father James was married back then and entered the priesthood relatively recently after his wife’s untimely death.

However, there’s no reasoning with the lunatic who is making the death threat through the opaque screen. He abruptly exits the confessional booth without asking for absolution, thereby leaving Father James in a quandary about what to do next.

The concerned priest consults his immediate superior, Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage), who suggests the matter be reported to the police. However, despite having a hunch about the identity of the unhinged maniac, Father James resumes ministering to the needs of his tiny congregation as if nothing happened, apparently willing to be martyred for the sins of another.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of suspects in the deceptively serene village that is nestled along the Irish seacoast. There’s an unscrupulous banker (Dylan Moran) who is unsatisfied by wealth beyond his wildest dreams, a cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd) with a bipolar spouse (Orla O’Rourke) who’s cheating on him, and her sadistic African lover (Isaach De Bankolé) who admits to beating her.

Other bizarre characters include a physician (Aidan Gillen), who flagrantly violates the Hippocratic oath; a closet cannibal (Domnhall Gleeson), who claims that human flesh tastes a lot like pheasant; and a cop (Gary Lydon) who secretly consorts with a male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). Additionally, there is (Killian Scott), who is considering enlisting in the Army, and a suicidal American writer (M. Emmet Walsh).

Yet, if anyone’s really entitled to want to kill Father James, it would be his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). She felt like she lost both of her parents when he entered the seminary at a time she needed him the most.

Directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Calvary is a modern morality play which walks a fine line between a playful whodunit and a sobering parable. However, Brendan Gleeson serves as the glue that holds the production together. He delivers an excellent performance as an introspective soul on a spiritual path who is able to maintain his sanity while facing his mortality in an environment where so many in his flock have clearly lost their minds.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, drug use, and brief violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

July 30, 2014

DVD revAn actor is an interpreter of other men’s words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child, and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerise a group of innocents.

—Alec Guinness (1914-2000)

Sir Alec Guinness would have enjoyed our mouse. More than that, he’d have been studying it, absorbing its essential mouseness, the intensity of its beady-eyed hold over two fascinated humans and two frustrated felines. For the better part of 20 minutes, the mouse occupied a miniature proscenium formed by the frame at the top of the bedroom window, poking its head over the lacy fringe of the curtains as it stared down at the brother and sister tuxedo cats glaring up at it. Every now and then the little rogue would run teasingly back and forth along the top of its curtain-rod runway or skitter up and down the outer fringe of the curtain before leaping onto a nearby wall hanging, where it was finally trapped in a plastic container and delivered to the wild the following morning.

For Sir Alec, the anthropomorphic fun would have been secondary to a meditation on what it was to be “in and of” such an agile life-form. “I go to the zoo,” was his answer when asked about “building a character” during a 1977 television conversation with Michael Parkinson. While working out the part of the Prufrock-turned-criminal in The Lavender Hill Mob, he visited the small rodent house, fixing his attention on “a nervousy little character rather sort of fluffy” and thinking “maybe something on those lines.” Looking for ideas when playing crookbacked Richard the Third onstage in Canada, he came to a zoo “every two or three days” to commune with “The Unsociable Vulture.” You can see hints of the bird-of-prey in the capacious hovering presence of his Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), the role that launched his film career. There’s also an aspect of  the Unsociable Vulture haunting his Malvolio in an “unfortunate” television production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1969).

“I Hate Great Acting”

Well into his memoir, Blessings in Disguise (Knopf 1986), Guinness delivers the sort of statement you’d expect to see at the beginning of the book. Recalling the words of actor/writer Alan Bennett — “I hate Great Acting” — he writes, “I know what he meant: the self-importance, the authoritative stage position, the meaningless pregnant pause, the beautiful gesture which is quite out of character, the vocal pyrotechnics, the suppression of fellow actors …, the jealousy of areas where the light is brightest, and above all the whiff of ‘You have come to see me act, not to watch a play.’”

The quality setting Guinness apart from most of his stage and screen peers is articulated in Keats’s definition of the poetical character, which has “no self” but is “every thing and nothing,” delights as much in playing “an Iago as an Imogen,” has “no Identity” but “is continually in for — and filling some other Body.”

Guinness also kept faith with Hamlet’s instructions to the players, not to “out-Herod Herod,” nor to “tear a passion “to tatters,” but rather to “use all gently” to “acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” and like Keats’s “chameleon poet” to enjoy “light and shade” and live “in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”

A Very Literary Man

Shakespeare, Dickens, and Keats were divinities to Guinness, who was, as Gore Vidal observed first-hand during the filming of The Scapegoat, “a very literary man.” The actor visited the poet’s grave in Rome before, during, and after the Second War, and undoubtedly read Keats’s letter defining the “poetical character.” Guinness not only loved poetry and literature, he lived it as a writer and reader, which is why Blessings in Disguise is one of the best books ever written by an actor, not so much for what you learn about acting, which is a great deal, but for the characters brought to Dickensian life in every chapter.

Guinness’s working interest in literature was not confined to the United Kingdom. In 1945, back from a tour of duty as an officer in the Royal Navy, he took on the formidable challenge of adapting The Brothers Karamazov for the stage, and although he terms the result “loose” and “lopsided,” the play was staged at the Hammersmith Lyric and directed by a young Peter Brook, with Guinness himself as the volcanic Dmitri. The year before the war he had adapted Great Expectations, which ran for six weeks after “a splendid notice” from James Agate. The adaptation for which he received the most attention, however, was Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth, which he mined for one of his most memorable film roles. As Piers Paul Read notes in the 2003 biography, Alec Guinness, “the precise punctual, modest, conventional, buttoned-up Alec Guinness” played “the anarchic, boastful, egotistical painter Gully Jimson.” It was quite a coup, to write your own role on your own terms and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay while winning Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and coming in second for Best Actor in the 1958 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

The B-Word  

When playing Fagin and Gully Jimson, Guinness speaks with uncharacteristic volume and vehemence; two such vivid characters almost demand to be performed. The risk in underplaying, in being too fine, too subtle, is the b-word. Discussing how to present Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai with director David Lean, Guinness flared up when Lean suggested that Nicholson would be “an awful bore” were they to meet him in a real-life situation (“You’re asking me to play a bore…No, I don’t want to play a bore”). The pernicious word surfaces again a decade later and suggests why Guinness remembered the television production of Twelfth Night as “unfortunate.” In Blessings in Disguise, he recounts watching a run-through of the film in the viewing box with Laurence Olivier, who zinged him thus: “Fascinating, old dear. I never realized before that Malvolio could be played as a bore.” Stung, Guinness heard the word “bore” running through the rest of his performance. According to Read’s biography, the production “left Alec on the verge of a breakdown,  physically, mentally, and spiritually. To recover, he spent 24 hours alone in a suite at a grand hotel in Brighton.”

Any actor who does justice to a character as complexly fashioned as Malvolio deserves a weekend of downtime in a grand hotel.  Harold Bloom sees the insufferable puritan as Twelfth Night’s “great creation” (along with Feste), pointing out that by the end “it has become Malvolio’s play.”

On YouTube there’s a sample of Stephen Fry’s Malvolio from the Globe production of Twelfth Night that migrated to Broadway last fall. The clip is from the denouement of the practical joke as Malvolio, gulled by a forged love note, struts before Olivia, the countess he serves, crooning and kissing his fingers at her while showing off his cross-gartered yellow stockings. Fry takes it over the top, milking the audience for laughs, no “bore” he. But Olivier was right, Malvolio is a bore, at least until he finds the forged letter. And so Guinness plays him, perusing and reading aloud the letter, which becomes in effect the script giving him, the actor/character, excellent material, his lines and cues, everything a plodding “bore” needs to appear light and amusing. In theatrical terms, this buoyant transformation allows him to take possession of the scene and eventually lay claim to the tragicomic soul of the play. Guinness is too subtle and wise an actor to milk the prank for laughs, though he enters like a peacock (remember his visits to the zoo), showing off his gaily embellished legs, at first plodding Big-Bird-like, but then stepping lightly, capering, almost Chaplinesque, coyly dandling a yellow-stockinged ankle. It’s his moment. And so his dark unfunny fate is to be “notoriously abused,” treated as a lunatic, and locked in a dark cell. Any actor playing Malvolio for laughs in the scene where he cluelessly struts his stuff is out of touch with the element of the play’s genius, its uniqueness, a work so deep that, as Bloom observes, “One cannot get to the end of it because some of the most apparently incidental lines reverberate infinitely.”

A Different Hole 

The Criterion DVD of The Horse’s Mouth features a talk with the director, Ronald Neame, who died in 2010 at the age of 99. In marveling at the intensity with which Guinness attacked the part of Gully Jimson and his determination to become the character (his wife complained, “He won’t even clean his nails”), Neame tries to find words for Guinness’s uniqueness. I was struck by the figure he used more than once to describe Guinesses’s chameleon-like ability to “change colors” from part to part: “He comes out of a different hole every time.” In fact, the oddly resonant metaphor was suggested by Guinness himself. As Neame admits in a 2003 L.A. Times interview: “We knew that whatever Alec said he could play, he could play. You’d send him books and he’d say, ‘I’m immensely sorry, Ronnie, but I’ve done this. I don’t want to come out of the same hole. I have to come out of a different hole.’ “

Sort of like, you know, a mouse.

 

BYGONE BARBERS: This shot of the interior of Jack Honore’s Barbershop, which opened on Nassau Street around 1913, is among the 90 bringing the town’s past to life in the show currently on view at the Historical Society of Princeton’s two locations.      (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Princeton)

BYGONE BARBERS: This shot of the interior of Jack Honore’s Barbershop, which opened on Nassau Street around 1913, is among the 90 bringing the town’s past to life in the show currently on view at the Historical Society of Princeton’s two locations. (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Princeton)

Most towns the size of Princeton have collections of historical photographs that offer clear clues to the past. But few can claim treasure troves as extensive as that of the Historical Society of Princeton. Thanks to the town’s bygone and long-active Rose Photography Studio, as well as others adept with a camera, everyday life in 19th and early 20th century Princeton is especially well documented.

An exhibit currently on view in the Historical Society’s two locations, at Bainbridge House at 158 Nassau Street and Updike Farm on Quaker Road, shows an exceptional range. Many of the images in “Princeton’s Portrait: Vintage Photographs from the Historical Society of Princeton” have never been previously exhibited. The show divides 90 shots  between the two locations.

During a break in the installation process last week, guest curator Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, who has developed past exhibitions at the Historical Society, reflected on its archives. “The breadth and diversity of the collection here is remarkable,” she said. “It’s especially strong for the late 1800s and early 1900s. I also appreciate it for its very rich collection reflecting the long-standing African-American community in Princeton. That, I think, is truly unusual.”

In a 1920 photo, Philip Diggs, Princeton Borough’s first African-American police officer, poses proudly in his uniform. Images run the gamut, showing many aspects of life in town and in rural settings. There is the interior of Hulit’s shoe store in the 1930s, a bit different from the way it looks today. A group of employees stand in front of 120 Nassau Street,  known then as Leggett’s City Market; another worker can be seen looking out of the window from within.

The show is divided into different categories, showing Princeton residents at home, at play, and at work. Dated 1911 is an exterior shot of the Central Hotel, which was later home to Lahiere’s restaurant and today houses the popular eatery Agricola. J. D. Lawrence’s ambulance, which doubled as a hearse, is shown in a 1923 photo. A group of salesmen inside Farr’s Hardware at Nassau and Mercer Street is dated 1900.

Among the photos depicting lighter moments is one from 1897 showing the Jared Wolfe family, clowning around with musical instruments on their porch at 19 Vandeventer Street. Another shot shows a potato sack race in Rocky Hill from 1908. In an image from around 1910, Princeton University students are dressed up for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A sign held by one student reads, “They furnish the beans, I spill the hot air.”

Princeton’s Rose Studio, which documented life in town and on the campus from the early 1870s to 1951, is the source for many, but not all, of the images in the show. “It was very hard to choose what to use,” said Daniel Schnur, the exhibition’s designer. “So we had our intern put them on a DVD that will run and show all the ones we couldn’t use.”

That intern, Princeton native and recent Princeton University graduate Isabel Kasdin, was struck by what she found when combing through the collection. “It was a true joy looking through every plate and print within our tens of thousands of photographs,” she wrote in an email. “I was struck with awe as I flipped over each new treasure. There were some wonderful surprises along the way, such as discovering an 1850s daguerrotype from the studio of Mathew Brady, one of the most famous early American photographers. I feel so  lucky to have access to so extensive a visual representation of the history of the town in which I grew up.”

Prints from the show are available for purchase, with proceeds going to help support the Historical Society. The organization will move all of its operations to Updike Farm in 2016. Bainbridge House is owned by Princeton University, which has yet to announce its plans for the building.

Admission to the show is $4. On Nassau Street, hours are Wednesday-Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The exhibit is on view at Updike Farm from 12-4 p.m. the first Saturday of every month. Visit www.princetonhistory.org for more information.

 

Princeton does not get to hear visiting orchestras very often, but thanks to William and Judith Scheide, there have been more recently. This year’s 7th Annual Midsummer Concert Series concluded last Wednesday night with a performance which continued the Scheide tradition of presenting great orchestras to the community. For this concert in Richardson Auditorium, the Scheide’s decided to focus on the rich depth of American orchestras, linking conductor Mark Laycock (a frequent conductor of Scheide musical events) and the Buffalo (NY) Philharmonic Orchestra in its first visit to Princeton and a world premiere. Mr. Laycock’s Flute Concerto for Jasmine Choi (Songbird’s Journey) showcased the young Korean flute virtuoso Jasmine Choi, clearly a rising star on the international music scene. In this Scheide-sponsored convergence of conductor, soloist and ensemble teamwork, Mr. Laycock, Ms. Choi and the Buffalo Philharmonic presented a mid-summer treat of well-played and well-appreciated music.

Mr. Laycock set up the premiere of his Concerto with a nimble and robust performance of Antonin Dvorak’s 1892 Carnival Overture. The Buffalo Philharmonic started off with a bang, with Mr. Laycock taking a quick tempo to the high-spirited work. The Philharmonic maintained a particularly stately approach to the second theme, with clarinetist John Fullam playing a resonant solo line and English hornist Anna Mattix providing a very sweet solo against concertmistress Amy Glidden. Mr. Laycock built the dynamics well to end the Overture with a grand flourish.

The keynote piece of the evening was Mr. Laycock’s own Flute Concerto, composed for Jasmine Choi, whose career Mr. Laycock has followed closely. Subtitled ‘Songbird’s Journey’ and completed in 2013, this three-movement work drew upon the full virtuostic abilities of the prodigious Ms. Choi. In composing the work, Mr. Laycock drew inspiration from Ms. Choi’s spirit, conceiving a piece that was ‘beautiful and happy, sincere, fun to play and hear.’ The first movement recalled pure late 18th-century counterpoint and musical style, with a soloist cadenza and almost operatic melodic lines. There were no sectional flutes in the ensemble; Mr. Laycock scored all the flute color and delicacy for the soloist. Ms. Choi played the joyful themes with clean runs, supporting the atmosphere of birds chasing one another. By moving the harp to a more prominent location within the violins, Mr. Laycock was able to add a tantalizing color and flavor to the music, and the movement ended as the bird flew away.

Mr. Laycock scored the second movement in a more somber and hymn-like manner, with walking strings as the songbird passed over, reflecting with the depicted monks on their daily prayerful walks. Throughout the work, Ms. Choi played with a great deal of physical energy and determination, fitting well into the majestic phrases.

Mr. Laycock subtitled the third movement ‘suave et enfumè’ (‘sweet and filled with smoke’), implying an impressionistic jazz character. This closing movement did show tinges of early 20th-century French impressionism, but was also colored with Benny Goodman-style swing. The winds, including solo flute, all seemed to go in their own directions, as if the songbird had landed in a downtown New York jazz club. Marked by a great deal of well-executed syncopation and unusual breath effects from Ms. Choi on the flute, this movement effectively closed a work which fit in well with the Buffalo Philharmonic’s mission of blending classical and cross-over music.

In the closing of Symphony No. 2 in D major of Johannes Brahms, the Buffalo Philharmonic preserved the light and sunny atmosphere begun with the Flute Concerto. Pastoral horns cleanly opened the Symphony, as Mr. Laycock moved the first theme along quickly in the violins. Mr. Laycock had the varied styles of the work well in hand, allowing the melodies to flower while eliciting a lean sound from the string sections. Conducting this work must have been a relief after the pressure of presenting his own world premiere, and Mr. Laycock clearly relished the moment as the swirling melodies played out. The brass sections of the Buffalo Philharmonic were impressively clean, and the quick wind passages of the third movement were well executed.

Summer has gone by quickly in this area, but the musical presentations sponsored by the Scheides made the month of July that much richer, and proving that despite the competition for people’s time in the summer months, there is always room for a good symphony in Princeton.

 

IT WENT THATAWAY:  Director James DeMonaco pointing something out to Frank Grillo, who plays Leo Barnes in “The Purge:Anarchy,” a sequel to “The Purge” (2013), which starred Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” and Princeton’s Ethan Hawke. “The Purge” grossed $89,328,627, and was turned into a “scare zone” for 2013’s annual Halloween Horror Nights

IT WENT THATAWAY: Director James DeMonaco pointing something out to Frank Grillo, who plays Leo Barnes in “The Purge:Anarchy,” a sequel to “The Purge” (2013), which starred Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” and Princeton’s Ethan Hawke. “The Purge” grossed $89,328,627, and was turned into a “scare zone” for 2013’s annual Halloween Horror Nights

Dateline: America, 2023. It’s now nine years since the country voted the New Founders of America into power. High on that elitist political party’s agenda was designating March 21st as the Purge, a day on which all law is suspended, meaning anything goes, rape, robbery, even murder.

Most citizens opt to stay inside for the duration of the annual ordeal, battening down the hatches with a Bible or a weapon in hand, since they can’t call upon the cops to come to their assistance in the event of an emergency. Yet, many turn vigilante to rid the streets of the dregs of humanity, others seize on the opportunity to even the score with someone they have a grievance against.

A couple of hours before the “fun” starts, we find Eva (Carmen Ejogo) rushing home from her job at a diner to be with her teen daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul). In the process, the attractive waitress ignores the crude passes of both a co-worker (Nicholas Gonzalez) and her apartment building’s custodian (Noel Gugliemi).

Elsewhere, Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford) are driving to his sister’s while debating about whether to inform her that their marriage is on the rocks. But the two soon land in desperate straits when their car conks out on the highway only minutes before the siren sounds signaling the beginning of the Purge.

That moment can’t come soon enough for revenge-minded Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) who’s itching to get even with the drunk driver (Brandon Keener) that not only killed his son, but got off scot-free on a legal technicality. However, soon after the Purge starts, the police sergeant reflexively comes to the assistance of Eva, Cali, Liz and Shane, all of whom are on the run from a bloodthirsty death squad.

So, he puts his plan on the backburner temporarily to protect the frightened foursome. That endeavor proves easier said than done in The Purge: Anarchy, a stereotypical horror sequel in that it ups the ante in terms of violence, body count, pyrotechnics and gratuitous gore.

Unfortunately, the film pales in comparison to the original, which was a thought-provoking thriller raising questions about poverty and privilege. This relatively-simplistic installment pays lip service to that intriguing theme in almost insulting fashion, envisioning instead a nihilistic U.S. which has merely degenerated into a decadent dystopia where blood-thirsty rich snobs relish slaying the poor purely for sport.

It is, thus, no surprise to witness the rise of an African-American guerilla leader (Michael K. Williams) who’s exhorting the masses to revolt by indicting the Purge as racist. An entertaining enough, if incoherent, splatterfest which unapologetically lifts familiar elements from such apocalyptic classics as The Hunger Games (2012), V for Vendetta (2006), The Warriors (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and Hard Target (1993).

A perhaps prophetic satire celebrating senseless slaughter as a natural national holiday in such a gun-loving country!

Good (**). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

July 23, 2014

book revA soft summer’s day in New York. When the rain falls, you can count the drops. I’m sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park reading Twelfth Night as a drop kisses the page, then one or two or three more, just enough to ripple the paper. My afternoon in the city began well with the discovery of a shady parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, free for the duration, no $3.50 an hour Muni Meter. My CRV is parked a few yards down the street from the house at 151 Avenue B where the jazz legend lived from 1950 to 1954.

The 1924 Oxford thin-paper edition of Shakespeare’s Works spread open on my lap is bound in soft leather like a Bible, with paper so delicate that it takes a touch as gentle as the rain to separate one page from the other. My reason for reading Twelfth Night; or What You Will (Harold Bloom thinks the secondary title more fitting) is that I’d been planning to write about the centenary of Alec Guinness, who played Sir Andrew Aguecheek at 23 and Malvolio at 55. Everything changed when I found that parking spot on Charlie Parker Place. It’s a “what-you-will” situation, by way of the “divinity that doth shape out ends.” Goodbye Sir Alec (for now), hello Shakespeare, hello Charlie Parker.

On this balmy Thursday afternoon everything makes Shakespearian sense, the diffidence of the rain, the interplay of sun and shadow, the sparrows’ chirping, the pigeons rumbling, a society of dogs romping in the dog playground, children squealing and screaming, a jazzy free-for-all of a comedy from 1601 spread open before me in bold black type on white India paper, and less than a stone’s toss to my left, the austere three-story brownstone rowhouse from 1849 where dwelt the man named on plaques from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation. The latter plaque notes the Gothic Revival style of the residence, “a style most often used for churches,” and refers to “the world-renowned alto saxophonist” and “co-founder of bebop.”

Jazz critic Barry Ulanov called him “the Jazz Mozart,” and Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz said he was “the jazz world’s Mozart” because he “gathered together” the styles that had come before and transformed them into “a brilliant new design,” everything “fresh and whole” and “precisely right.” When Gary Giddins cites Mozart at the conclusion of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (University of Minnesota Press $17.95), he’s thinking of more than the music: “As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.”

But Mozart isn’t enough. For the music, you need to bring in, among others, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Moondog, and the Rubiyat, which contains a stanza Parker was fond of quoting, the one that ends “the Bird is on the Wing.”

“That strain again!”

When it comes to quoting, however, there’s nothing to equal the supple book of riches in my lap. For instance the opening line of Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on!” And in the same speech, the most eloquent player of them all, he whose 450th birthday is being celebrated this year, plays on: “That strain again! it had a dying fall/it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound/That breathes upon a bank of violets” and over and among the flowers blooming in Tompkins Square.

The “dying fall” will make Bird sense to listeners who recall the dismissive moves the master performs in mid-flight, when as if to relieve himself of a cluster of “nipping and eager” notes, he simply drops them and soars on. He says it himself — “There’s too much in my head for this horn” — in Robert Reisner’s oral history, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (DaCapo 1991), where he tells Charlie Mingus “Would you die for me? I’d die for you.” It’s easy to hear a cadence resembling that one-two punch in the mid-flight moments that sometimes move audience members at certain crudely recorded club dates or concerts to shout, “Kill yourself!” Knowing his days were numbered, it was as if he had a special claim on death. More than once, as recounted by friends and acquaintances in Reisner’s book, he says his goodbyes days and months before 8:45 p.m. on March 12, 1955. Again, Shakespeare has a phrase for him — in Twelfth Night when Sebastian says “My stars shine darkly over me.”

Family

What sort of a family life did he lead with his white common law wife Chan in the ground floor of the brownstone at 151 Avenue B? His stepdaughter Kim, for whom he named one of his fastest, happiest compositions, remembers a black bedroom, a fireplace with a white death mask above it, and “family Sundays, family dinners.” In an online interview with Judy Rhodes, the eventual owner of the house, Kim remembers “Bird was a really wonderful father — very kind, very gentle with me.” When she was in first grade at a school “two or three blocks up the street” and had to make her own lunch and walk there by herself, she was “a nervous wreck” and would throw up every morning, prompting the school to send a note home demanding that she see a doctor. Her stepfather took her to an MD on 10th Street who said she was “terrified and needed to be reassured.” So “Bird walked me back to school and back to my classroom. I had no sense of colour or prejudice. When I walked into school holding my daddy’s hand I was at the top of the world — walking with this big Black man into the classroom full of little white snotty kids that I was terrified of. Being there with my daddy made it all ok.”

In Celebrating Bird, Gary Giddins quotes tenor man Al Cohn’s recollection of a visit to Avenue B (“They had a very nice place”): “It was a Ukrainian neighborhood and we went to three or four different bars. All the Ukrainians, working-class guys, knew him as Charlie. I don’t think they knew he was a musician, but it was obvious they liked him and were glad to see him. I saw a different side of him; he was like a middle-class guy with middle-class values.”

Interviewed in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz, Giddins points out the daily challenge Charlie Parker faced during this period. He had to live three lives: the working musician, the drug addict constantly scuffling to raise money for a fix, and the family man.

The Open Door

Robert Reisner begins Bird with an account of his first meeting with “a large, lumbering, lonely man, walking kind of aimlessly” on a rainy night in 1953. It was just after midnight, Reisner was coming home from a party when he recognized Parker and wondered what he was doing “in this poor Jewish neighborhood, walking by himself in the soaking rain.” Parker said his wife was having a baby and he was walking off his nervousness. Asked where he lived, he said “In the neighborhood, Avenue B,” and seeing that Reisner wondered why “a guy of his tremendous reputation lived in such an out-of-the-way poor section,” he explained, “I like the people around here. They don’t give you no hype.”

Later, after Reisner decided to stop teaching art history at the New School to become a jazz promoter, the venue he picked was The Open Door on 3rd Street south of Washington Square, a place “that had enough seating capacity to pay for a band solely on admissions.” He launched his first “Sunday jazz bash” on April 26, 1953. Three months later, Chan left 151 Avenue B with the tape recorder she’d been given for her 28th birthday the month before. According to the liner notes for the 2-CD set on Ember, Charlie Parker at the Open Door, the tapes Chan made were stored away until she sold them to Columbia Records where they remained for decades in the vaults until they were smuggled out and released in Italy on the Philology label.

My copy of the Open Door performance has been sitting on the shelf for years. One reason is the poor recording quality. It sounds as if Bird and the band, in particular Art Taylor, the drummer, are playing in two different rooms, and on some of the uptempo numbers the drums seem to be crashing randomly about in a void. One of the perks of studio albums that include retakes are those moments when you hear a glitch and everything stops as Bird shouts “Hold it!” But in this acoustical shipwreck of a setting he has to keep bravely blowing, which is what gives low-grade live recordings an existential subplot. It takes several numbers to adjust to the unreality, but with “The Song Is You” the man from Avenue B takes command, changing the “You” to “Me,” and when he gets to “Ornithology,” you hear what Giddins calls “the uncorrupted humanity of his music.”

Shakespeare’s Weaver

It isn’t really all that much of a stretch to speak of jazz in the same breath as Twelfth Night because, as in other Shakespearian romps, the effect is that of a group of players jamming, drunk on the elixir of language. Between Feste the Clown, Fabian, the hapless Sir Andrew, the perpetually soused Sir Toby, and the madcap diva Maria, you have the equivalent of an extended cutting session, or at least that’s how it seemed reading Shakespeare on a Tompkins Square park bench off Charlie Parker Place. For now, listen to Sir Toby Belch in Act 2, when after the clown sings “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” Sir T suggests rousing “the nightowl in a catch that will draw three souls out of one weaver.”

In case we need an explanatory note for Toby’s flight of fancy, the 1836 edition, the one Melville used, provides this: “Shakespeare represents weavers as much given to harmony in his time.”

And so it is at the Open Door on the night of July 26, 1953, as the weaver of souls, the stars shining darkly over him, plays on.

 

THE AWAKENING: Sited on the Meadow at Grounds for Sculpture, this 2014 cast aluminum work from J. Seward Johnson’s “Points of Departure” series is on display with 136 other works, large and small, in Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is on view through September 21. For extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org.(Photo by Jeff Tryon)

THE AWAKENING: Sited on the Meadow at Grounds for Sculpture, this 2014 cast aluminum work from J. Seward Johnson’s “Points of Departure” series is on display with 136 other works, large and small, in Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is on view through September 21. For extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org. (Photo by Jeff Tryon)

A retrospective of the work of sculptor J. Seward Johnson is currrently on view at Grounds for Sculpture (GFS), the sculpture park and arboretum founded by the philanthropic artist on the site of the old New Jersey Fairgrounds in Hamilton.

Known throughout the world for life-like bronze figures inspired by the everyday, Mr. Johnson is something of an institution in Princeton. Several of his pieces: the student with his books on Palmer Square, the gentleman reading a newspaper by Battle Monument, and the man taking a nap on one of Drumthwacket’s garden benches are familiar to all.

Similar works by Mr. Johnson can be see throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia; examples of the artist’s “Celebrating the Familiar” series depicting a trip to the grocery story, say, or arriving at a hospital, or a child enjoying an ice cream cone.

“My starting point was a wish to get people back out-of-doors in the early 70s when a crime wave had people avoiding public spaces,” said Johnson when interviewed for Princeton Magazine in 2012. “I wanted to put sculptures into parks to act like decoys and entice people back to parks.”

To date, “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective” is the largest exhibition mounted at the sculpture park, which is quite an achievement after its showcasing of the massive works of Steve Tobin in 2012. Not only are there 287 works by Mr. Johnson on display, some of his biggest pieces have been dismantled from elsewhere and brought here for the show.

The outsize exhibition is fitting for Mr. Johnson’s outsize personality. Some 150 pieces are installed indoors and outdoors at the 42-acre site and if you haven’t been there recently, make tracks; the show will only last through September 21.

Elements of surprise are characteristic of GFS. The park brings art and nature together. The winning combination drew some 160,000 visitors last year. “Each time you visit, you experience the park differently, the sequence is never the same and there’s a freshness that comes with that,” said Mr. Johnson in a recent interview.

As expected, the retrospective includes some of the 83-year-old artist’s most unforgettable works. His 26-foot-tall 34,000-pound steel-and-aluminum, Forever Marilyn, traveled all the way from Palm Springs back to New Jersey where it was constructed.

This iconic representation captures a moment from the 1955 Billy Wilder comedy The Seven Year Itch, in which Monroe luxuriates in an updraft from a subway air vent, her white skirt billowing around her legs. The sculpture was such a hit in Palm Springs that the town hopes to buy it from its owner, The Sculpture Foundation, and put it back on permanent display once the GFS show ends.

Mr. Johnson’s most famous work, Unconditional Surrender, is a must-see. It’s his 3-D version of the famous kiss between a sailor and a nurse in New York’s Times Square on V-J Day at the end of World War II and it is one of his most charismatic trompe l’oeil painted bronzes.

As anyone who has met the artist will tell you, Mr. Johnson loves to tell a story and relishes a battle. Unconditional Surrender, involved him in a battle of sorts when the owners of the copyright to LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image, refused him permission to use it. With typical bravado, Mr. Johnson based his work on another photograph of the same kissing couple taken on the same day at the same time by another photographer, one whose work happened to be in public domain.

When the sculpture was finished it took pride of place in Times Square where a kissing fest was held and written up by The New York Times. Not only did Mr. Johnson write to TIME to tell them about it, he asked them to contribute $50K to the project!

Also on a grand scale at 25 feet in height, the kissing couple has traveled the world from Times Square to San Diego, from Sarasota to Rome.

Besides these massive pieces and the artist’s Beyond the Frame life-size three-dimensional homages to Claude Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Addresse and Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, smaller pieces from the artist’s five-decade career are on display in three indoor galleries.

“At GFS we try to break down barriers,” says Johnson, who believes in separating sculpture from the landscape so that one “discovers” what is to be found. The avuncular octogenarian enjoys having fun with visitors. The sculpture park has numerous hidden spaces tucked away for quiet reflection: behind doors, through corridors of trees, around corners, over hills, or behind walls.

Were You Invited?, his three-dimensional life-size version of Renoir’s, The Boating Party, playfully allows visitors to get up close and personal with the work.

Such explorations cultivate what Mr. Johnson describes as “the visceral moment,” when viewers engage with art to transcend their own place in space and time. He deliberately provokes engagement between artwork, artist, setting, and viewer. “The real moment of art is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, “that’s a moment of consecration; if the artwork has changed a life, then it has done its job.”

GFS has grown since Mr. Johnson led the team that transformed the once derelict site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. What began as an offshoot of the artist’s foundry, The Johnson Atelier, and the need for a place to show the work that artists were doing there to prospective clients, is now a showcase for prominent and emerging artists. It became a non-profit organization in 1992.

Mindful of his legacy, the artist asked Derek Gilman for advice on avoiding some of the mistakes made by Albert Barnes. “There is a need for some flexible thinking here,” he said. “I don’t want what happened to Barnes to happen here. Barnes fell out with everyone. I like a good fight too, but there’s a difference, Barnes had no sense of humor!”

A sense of humor Johnson has. And fun is a huge part of the GFS philosophy. “Let MOMA tell people what good art is, we will find out what people enjoy,” said the artist.

For more information on “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective,” including extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org.

 

The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse summoned all the appropriate muses last Friday night for the opening of its current production of Christopher Durang’s highly acclaimed comedy, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. It’s a wonderful script, cleverly combining Durangian absurdity and hilarity with Chekhovian references (starting with the names of the three protagonists), a certain tone of poignant melancholy and a richness of characterization.

Also intriguing is the notion of the playwright himself playing the role of Vanya and the proximity of the theater just a few miles from the “lovely farmhouse in Bucks County” where the play is set, with numerous local references, along with Mr. Durang’s usual vast quota of humorous contemporary pop culture allusions throughout the evening. Production values here are consistently strong, and the Bucks County Playhouse (BCP), refurbished and reopened two years ago after a two-year hiatus, seems to be on a roll with high quality Equity productions (Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly premiered at BCP last season before debuting on Broadway four months ago). Marilu Henner and Deirdre Madigan lead a top-flight cast in Vanya and Sonia…, under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, who also directed the debut of Mothers and Sons.

A beautiful summer evening on the banks of the Delaware seemed to indicate all the planets and muses aligned, but the mother of the Greek muses, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, was a conspicuous no-show. Mr. Durang, at several points during the evening forgot lines, derailed in the middle of a long climactic monologue, and needed prompting from off-stage. His characterization of the middle-aged Vanya was appealing, mostly on-target and effective, and he has, in the past, successfully taken on major roles in his own works on stage, but here, the lapses undermined the power and credibility of the character and caused problems for both audience and other actors.

Tales of famous actors “going up” on their lines are legendary, but there is the inescapable irony of this happening to the playwright who created the lines, in a character who, like his creator, is a middle-aged Bucks County resident and who voices much of the playwright’s wit, humor, and attitude towards contemporary life. Spencer Tracy’s terse advice to actors — “Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” at least the first part, is not to be scoffed at, and let’s invoke the mighty Mnemosyne to bestow her gift of memory on future performances.

The three protagonists here are middle-aged siblings, given names from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (Mr. Durang), Sonia (Ms. Madigan), and Masha (Ms. Henner) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

The action of the play takes place in the sunroom, vividly and realistically presented in great detail in Lauren Helpern’s fine set, of the old family farmhouse where Vanya and Sonia have lived for their whole lives. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of a propitious blue heron.

Early in the first of two acts, Masha, a narcissistic, movie-star actress who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity, arrives with her much younger boyfriend Spike (Jimmy Mason), an aspiring actor who was “almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2,” and specializes in taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants.

Also appearing is a wildly dramatic cleaning lady Cassandra (Mahira Kakkar), who reveals an array of psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies, and excruciatingly painful voodoo techniques. Nina (Clea Alsip), a star-struck ingénue from next door also drops in, much to Masha’s dismay, on invitation from Spike.

Masha, who has been financially supporting her siblings, announces — shades of Chekhov, and, yes, they do have a cherry orchard — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Vanya and Sonia are devastated, but Masha, ever self-absorbed, moves forward with her plans to attend a local costume party as Walt Disney’s Snow White, with Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as attendant dwarves. She has, characteristically, brought all the requisite costumes with her.

As the action proceeds through the evening into the next day, Masha’s efforts to self-promote and hold onto Spike meet with some surprising obstacles, and Vanya and Sonia both experience potentially life-changing moments. As in Chekhov, in some ways it seems as if “nothing happens,” but indeed something meaningful does happen for all of the characters, and, in Mr. Durang’s play, those happenings keep the audience laughing throughout.

This vastly entertaining Bucks County Playhouse production in many ways compares favorably with the 2012 McCarter Theatre world premiere production that went on from Princeton to Lincoln Center then Broadway, where it enjoyed a long run and numerous awards including the Tony for Best Play.

Ms. Madigan’s Sonia is extravagantly funny and sympathetic, larger than life in her Chekhovian gloom and world-weariness (“I’m in mourning for my life”), delightfully energized in her anger and animosities, poignantly moving in her desire for love, attention, a life. She is especially memorable in donning tiara and sequins for the costume party to defy her sister and play the role of evil queen in the mode of Maggie Smith, then later in a tour-de-force extended phone conversation with her first-ever prospective suitor.

In the prima donna part, written for and performed by Sigouney Weaver in the McCarter production, Ms. Henner brings her own star-studded credentials — Broadway, movies and TV, most memorably perhaps in the long-running TV series Taxi. She embraces the aging, ego-centric starlet role with panache, and contributes a new, more appealing, more human dimension or two to the characterization.

Mr. Mason’s hilarious boy toy Spike provides an occasionally shocking, sexually-charged glimpse of the new generation and creates an entertaining incongruity in the Chekhovian setting and a source of sharp conflict for the older generation.

Ms. Kakkar in her flamboyant, attention-grabbing role and Ms. Alsip in a more understated, realistic part, both provide strong support and contribute significantly to the eventual outcome of events.

Ms. Kaller has directed with finesse, fine comic timing, and an intelligent balance between the serious and the hilarious. The ensemble interacts credibly and effectively, and we do care about these three engaging, aging siblings, as they struggle to work out their individual destinies.

This production does need the blessing of the goddess of memory and the advice of Spencer Tracy during the next three weeks of its run, and audience members who saw the McCarter-Lincoln Center-Broadway production will certainly miss the brilliant David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role of Vanya. But the script is a masterpiece of comic writing, one of the best from the pen of one of the finest American playwrights of the past fifty years, and Ms. Kaller and company have provided an evening rich in laughter and dramatic interest — well worth the trip to Bucks County.

 

For eleven years, a musical treasure has been taking place in Princeton in the summer. The Golandsky Institute has been presenting a symposium and International Piano Festival each summer, training artists in a specific technique known as the Taubman Approach, which develops virtuosity while preventing the injuries affecting highly-accomplished players. As part of the symposium, the Institute has presented public concerts to show off the faculty and talented students.

With the generosity of William and Judith Scheide, the Golandsky Institute took a journey through the history of the piano concerto in a performance last week at Richardson Auditorium. Last Thursday night’s “Scheide Concerto Evening,” offered two of the Institute’s long-time faculty members and two other talented participants in the Institute in four concerti spanning 200 years. Prominently featured were works by two of the biggest names in 18th-century keyboard music — Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed virtuosic works for other instruments to the keyboard; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who took the keyboard concerto form to new heights with an instrument that was still evolving.

Father Seán Duggan, a performance expert on the music of Bach, paid tribute to the hosts of the evening Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major a work originally for harpsichord and which was based on Bach cantatas first recorded by William Scheide with the Bach Aria Group. Concerti in Bach’s time were beginning to take the shape known today, with keyboard concerti characterized by virtuoso requirements usually seen from string instruments. Performing this concerto on a modern piano created a more powerful interpretation than Bach would have imagined, but Father Duggan’s playing was every bit as clean and precise as Bach would have expected. With graceful mordents and trills, Father Duggan well handled the virtuosity required of the work, especially in the extremely quick third movement. Conductor Mark Laycock kept the accompanying orchestra appropriately in the background, building tension between the strings and keyboard and elegantly bringing the music down to nothing to close the second movement Siciliano.

The other Golandsky faculty member featured in this concerto evening was Ilya Itin, a pianist with facility in all centuries of music. By Mozart’s time, the concerto placed certain expectations on the performer in terms of structure, and in Mozart’s case, melody. Mr. Itin’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major used similar orchestration to the Bach Concerto, but the lower strings in particular served a very different role, and all orchestral parts were responsible for line and drama. Mr. Itin perfectly matched the orchestral colors of the opening introduction and showed that he was capable of both a delicate touch and a forceful style within a graceful framework. The dialog between pianist and ensemble was exact, and Mozart’s humor was well brought out in the third movement interplay among the players.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed for a piano that was capable of conveying a full range of emotions and musical styles. An experiment by Shostakovich in neo-Baroque orchestration, Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra added the color of a brass instrument to the light instrumental character, with Mr. Itin again playing solo piano. The first movement seemed to incorporate a Russian folk tale, with a walking bass line and a musical atmosphere that was not as dense as other Shostakovich works. The violins of the New Jersey Symphony provided mournful tunes in the second movement, but with lean playing to accompany the Mr. Itin’s pounding left hand in the keyboard part.

The combined third and fourth movements were the most dramatic of the concerto, with the most virtuosic requirements of the soloist, and more technically demanding playing required of all the musicians. Shostakovich’s humor could be heard in the col legno playing from the strings, while Mr. Laycock kept the musical action moving right along. Shostakovich seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink into these two combined movements, and the players of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, as well as Mr. Itin, had it all well in hand.

The two Golandsky faculty members were joined by two younger members of the Institute in the closing work of the concert: Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos in A Minor. Originally scored for four harpsichords, this work was a transcription of a work by Antonio Vivaldi in its day, and in Thursday’s concerto showed all four players to be of equal artistry. Nathan Grabow and Sakura Myers both clearly have futures as concert pianists, and as the melodic material traveled among the keyboards, all players knew their roles as either featured soloists or harmonic background. Ms. Myers in particular showed a great deal of style at the keyboard as the concert closed with typically Vivaldi harmonic drive and intensity.

 

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

As an actor, Zach Braff is most closely associated with the character J.D. from Scrubs, the Emmy-winning sitcom which ran for nine years on network television. As a director, he’s best known for Garden State, the quirky, semi-autobiographical feature film where he played a struggling actor who returned to his hometown in Jersey for his mother’s funeral.

Wish I Was Here is more akin to the latter, and is a delightful family drama/comedy which Zach directed and stars in. He also co-wrote it with his brother, Adam, and the movie derives much of its mirth from Jewish culture in a manner evocative of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009).

The point of departure is suburban Los Angeles, where we find 35-year-old Aidan Bloom (Braff) in the midst of a midlife crisis. The struggling actor is on anti-depressants and is in denial about his dwindling career prospects, conveniently forgetting that his last role was ages ago in a dandruff commercial.

What makes the situation difficult is that he fritters away his time auditioning, oblivious to his wife’s (Kate Hudson) resentment. She hates being stuck in a stultifying government job where she’s sexually harassed on a daily basis by the co-worker (Michael Weston) who shares her cubicle.

However, she can’t quit her job because their children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), won’t have food on the table or a roof over their heads. As it is, they’ve already been forced to sacrifice some luxuries such as the built-in pool that sits empty in their backyard.

A change is forced when Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) suddenly announces that his cancer has returned and he can no longer afford to subsidize his grandchildren’s expensive private education. Not wanting to subject them to the substandard local public schools, Aidan grudgingly agrees to abandon his dream of Hollywood stardom in order to homeschool his children.

This turn of events provides him with an opportunity to not only have quality time with his offspring, but also to orchestrate an overdue reconciliation between his brother (Josh Gad) and their rapidly-declining father. Soon, adolescent Grace develops the confidence to blossom from a repressed wallflower into a show-off who is unafraid to wear a metallic purple wig, and 6-year-old Tucker finds fulfillment toasting marshmallows in the desert with his father.

By the film’s end, expect to be moved to tears by this poignant picture’s bittersweet resolution and its message about the importance of family.

Excellent (****). Rated R. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

July 16, 2014

book revJohn Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century — and lifts the hearts of the rest of us. 

—Studs Terkel

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) is known best for the book that inspired people in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to hang him in effigy from a traffic light on Main Street. The book is Black Like Me (1961), an account of his six weeks in the Deep South passing as a Negro.

A decade before Black Like Me, Griffin’s first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (Smith’s, Inc. 1952), had created another sort of stir. Hailed by the Saturday Review (“This first novel has in it the power of life itself”) and the New York Herald-Tribune (“this big symphonic novel sets up a theme worth writing about and attacks it with passion, knowledge, and the authority of experience”), the Book of the Month Club selection sold well (400,000 copies in hardcover and paper), and later in the decade the critic Maxwell Geismar declared The Devil Rides Outside one of the best novels of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Griffin’s “long, strong, and tormented story of the war between the flesh and the spirit” was condemned by the Legion of Decency and became the subject of a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The state [Michigan] insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.”

Blindness and Beethoven

The Devil Rides Outside is absolutely unique among American novels of its time, or any time, for that matter. How could it not be? It was written by a blind musicologist from Texas whose formative years were spent in France. Since he felt more comfortable speaking French, Griffin told the story into a wire-recorder each night, translating the French into English the following day and typing it. The blind author needed a week to learn how to get around on a typewriter and seven weeks to complete the first draft of what would be a 596-page novel. In Griffin’s autobiography, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, he says he began The Devil Rides Outside with Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131 in mind, “a work that I knew intimately. The characters enter as Beethoven’s themes enter and are developed in the same way …. When the thematics of the novel did not match the music, I changed the novel.”

A year before the book’s publication in 1952, Griffin converted to Catholicism, having written himself “into the church” by reliving in fiction his time in the monastery at Solesmes, France, and the Benedictine Abbey there, “the motherhouse of the Gregorian Chant,” where he had a cell and was allowed to work on various original manuscripts. At the same time,  his sight was “rapidly diminishing,” and when he became totally blind and could no longer work on the music, he experienced “an unexpected awakening to the realities of the spirit” that eventually led to a friendship with philosopher and longtime Princeton resident Jacques Maritain.

The problem with writing about Griffin is that his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction personal history diverts attention from his literary labors. This man’s whole life is like a novel written to enlighten readers about the nature of faith and vision in a world blinded and violated by prejudice. Born into a genteel Texas family that detested the vulgarity of racism but treated segregation as an absolute, Griffin went to France at age 15 as a scholarship student at the Lycée Descartes, then to the University of Poitiers in Tours to study music and psychiatry, becoming assistant to the director of an asylum where he experimented with the therapeutic effects of music, the Gregorian Chant in particular. With the Nazi occupation of France imminent, and having by then been shamed by his French friends into accepting that blacks were allowed to eat in the same restaurant with whites, he saw the lethal evils of another form of racism first-hand. Staying on to oversee the asylum when the director was conscripted, he joined the underground resistance, using the asylum ambulances to transport children of Jews out of Tours to the country and then to the port of Saint Nazaire. Discovered by the Gestapo while attempting to help an Austrian family, he escaped to the U.K., returned to Texas at the age of 21, joined the Army Air Force, was shipped to Guadalcanal, and then to the Solomon Islands on a special mission that involved living with the natives. Wounded by a bomb that caused the concussion that ultimately destroyed his sight, he married, had three children, wrote The Devil Rides Outside and Nuni (about his time in the Solomons), and in 1957, after a decade of blindness, he suddenly regained his sight and saw his wife and children for the first time. Two years later he dyed his skin and lived the nightmare of prejudice described in Black Like Me.

That’s only a shamefully superficial tour of Griffin’s “once in a century” life.

An Incredible Work

What is it like, then, this massive, passionately written novel? Right away you’re caught up in a first-person present-tense narrative that’s sustained throughout except for an 11-page past-tense flashback. The present-tense creates a sense of acceleration and sometimes seemingly involuntary forward movement. Griffin says he used it to “feel the immediacy of the experience in contrast to the eternal rhythms” of the monastery. He chose not to name his protagonist, intending his anonymity to match that of “those unknown masters who had composed the chants centuries ago.”

Knowing that Griffin, like the American music student who narrates the story, has studied Gregorian Chant, you become aware of the way the prose evokes a chanted rhythm that can seem alternately incantatory and prayerful; the effect is of intense, charged passages of prose encompassing long interludes of dialogue. In the notes I made even before I learned that he’d dictated the narrative in French, my way of describing Griffin’s often awkward, fragmented, unstable style was to compare it to reading something in a sound and occasionally eccentric English translation.

You can get an idea of what the reading experience is like in the following passage:

It grows late. Nothing satisfies. I open a volume of Rilke, but I can’t read. I stand at my window, nose pressed against the pane, breath fogging the glass, and stare down the street. Strange brassy tonality of the full moon, now breaking through the clouds onto clustered housetops: more abstract, more frozen than abstraction. We strive for warmth in color to forget these scenes, these moments, these liturgies of dissonance, these cold angles lost in heavy shadows, just as we try to live warmly to escape death.

It’s a passage in which you hear more than you see, with the “brassy tonality” of the moon on the other side of fogged glass, a moon that isn’t shining so much as blaring, an abstraction imagined by a man speaking into darkness, unable to make out the equally abstracted housetops. Rather than seeing color, he seems to want to wrap himself in its warmth. This is heavily, almost oppressively internalized writing, driven by a visceral “power of life,” that breaks through the divisions of the senses and not always gracefully.

“A frightful and horrible creature”

While the novel’s first third is essentially concerned with the American’s relationships inside the monastery, its most eventful scenes occur outside the walls in the town where he rents a room in a villa overseen by Madame Renée, a middleaged widow who sees to his needs, arranges for a maid, cooks delicious meals for him, and slowly, subtly begins to impose herself, body and soul, on his life. What begins as an innocuous relationship develops into a battle that by the end has become a matter of spiritual life and death.

The reviewers’ comparisons of Griffin to Balzac are inspired by the creation of Madame Renée, the embodiment of French subterfuge and perversity so vividly documented by the author of the Human Comedy. In his New York Times review, Orville Prescott refers to Griffin’s “gruesomely expert study of a hysterical woman consumed by vanity, hypocrisy, and old-fashioned meanness … a frightful and horrible creature, but never a monster. She is pitifully human, too.” He goes on to observe that she is “a character such as Balzac would have enjoyed writing about.” Of course Balzac, the master, not only wrote about such characters, he invented them and the France they inhabited, much as Dickens invented England.

In and Out of Print

The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown on this day, July 16, in 1951, was put into best-seller orbit by the Book of the Month Club. A year later, the BOMC did the same for The Devil Rides Outside. Salinger’s book has been read by millions and will be in print, it seems, forever. Unless you troll the net for a used copy, Griffin’s novel, which has long been out of print, is available only as an e-book. According to amazon, it can apparently be downloaded on Kindle for $7.95.

Anyone interested in knowing more about John Howard Griffin and his work should visit www.wingspress.com, which published the Kindle version of The Devil Rides Outside, along with other fiction, non-fiction, and photography by Griffin, not to mention a book I found especially helpful, Robert Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.

Black Like Me promises to be in print indefinitely, however. A 50th anniversary edition issued in 2011 is available at the Princeton Public Library. In February of that year, 50 years after his hometown had hung him in effigy and driven him and his family into exile in Mexico, the former first lady Laura Bush came to Mansfield to unveil a plaque honoring Griffin at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Mansfield Public Library.

Note: The image of the battered cover of The Devil Rides Outside shown here belongs to the copy I’d been meaning to read ever since I found it many years ago for 25 cents in a Hutchinson Kansas rental-library book store that was going out of business. My excuse for finally reading this amazing novel was due to an online error that gives Griffin’s birth date as July 16 when in fact it is June 16. Serendipity works in strange and wonderful ways.

 

DANCING SUNFLOWERS: Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo’s painting of this title will be among her works on display, along with photography by members of PEAC Health at Fitness, during the month of August at 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristine fineart.com. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

DANCING SUNFLOWERS: Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo’s painting of this title will be among her works on display, along with photography by members of PEAC Health at Fitness, during the month of August at 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristine
fineart.com. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

As part of its “Art on Display” program, PEAC Health & Fitness will showcase a combined artwork display of photography from PEAC members and paintings from local artist Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo during the month of August.

PEAC’s member photography exhibition will give PEAC members a chance to share their photography skills with others. “It’s a fun way to see the creativity and talents of our members,” said PEAC President, Michael Briehler.

In addition, Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo of Ringoes, will exhibit her paintings. Ms. Ochab-DiCostanzo has been interested in art since she was young, studied at the DuCret School of Art in Plainfield, N.J., and continually takes classes and workshops to develop her skills. She finds inspiration wherever she looks and believes that “art captures the love and feeling you put into it.”

She is a member of Artsbridge artist community. In April 2014, one of her pieces won the “People’s Choice Award” at the 28th Annual Byers Buck’s Fever Art Exhibition. She has also received Honorable Mention for the past two years at the Hunterdon County Library Art Show. This will be her first exhibit at PEAC Health & Fitness.

“Art on Display,” will run at PEAC Health and Fitness, 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, from August 1 through 31, during regular business hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristinefineart.com.
For more information about the PEAC Art on Display program, contact Christine Tentilucci, PEAC Health and Fitness, at (609) 883-2000, ctentilucci@peachealthfitness.com, or visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

 

 

What is enjoyable about the Princeton University Summer Concerts Series is that people tend to come as they are on a warm summer evening — anything goes with attire and the audience has an upbeat summery attitude. Apparently the Summer Concerts committee has also taken an “anything goes” attitude toward the ensembles presented, particularly stretching the imagination of the audience in last week’s performance of the Donald Sinta Quartet. Comprised of four highly-accomplished saxophone players, the Sinta Quartet took the instrument out of its more familiar jazz setting and showed that the saxophone can be just as virtuoso a classical instrument as the violin or flute. Last Wednesday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium took a “Then and Now” approach to the repertoire presented, alternating classical works (some arranged for saxophone quartet) and newly-commissioned pieces.

The combination of four saxophones is well known in jazz, and an element of casualness carried over as Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss sauntered onto the Richardson stage with their instruments. Freed by a lack of music stands, the members of the Sinta Quartet stood tightly together and communicated well throughout the concert, especially when passing musical fragments around among the players. The opening Quartettsatz in C minor of Franz Schubert was originally composed for string quartet, and Mr. Graser carried the long melodic lines well with the soprano saxophone. This instrument could reach quite high in register, and seemed to have two distinct colors — one for the upper register and one for the lower and richer range. The sound from the four players together was most remarkable when they played softly, capturing the Viennese flavor and subtlety of Schubert’s music.

The Sinta Quartet turned again to the string repertoire with a transcription of Barber’s timeless Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Graser described the saxophone quartet as made up like a choir (with soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone instruments) with the sound of an organ. The quartet began the Adagio almost imperceptibly, as the melodic line flowed from Mr. Graser’s soprano sax. The dynamic builds in the music were all the more dramatic because there was air behind them, and the quartet could uniformly break the lines with breath. One could hear a pin drop in the house during the rests, and tenor saxophonist Joe Girard combined with Mr. Graser for a smooth melodic duet.

The “Now” portion of the concert came from several very contemporary composers, including one commissioned by the quartet through a composition competition. Natalie Moller’s Phantoms began as if from afar, with a sound so well unified the instruments easily resembled horns. A haunting melody was played by alto saxophonist Zach Stern and one could hear more of the baritone sax from Danny Hawthorne-Foss than in previous pieces. A tenor cadenza played by Mr. Girard was definitely borrowed from jazz as Ms. Moller’s piece became sharper and more cutting toward its close.

David Maslanka’s 2006 Recitation Book draws on music from old sources for each movement, in the case of movement V, the 16th-century chorale tune “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt,” set multiple times by J.S. Bach. Mr. Maslanka’s “Fanfare/Variations on the Chorale ‘Durch Adams Fall’” recalled the majestic style of Giovanni Gabrieli, with superimposed jazz precision. Bach could never have imagined the sound of a saxophone ensemble re-interpreting his music or the musical idioms which followed the 18th century as this set of variations combined more 250 years of music history. The Sinta Quartet easily handled Baroque ornamentation, passing motives among all four instruments.

The Sinta Quartet has included film music in its repertory, with transcriptions of two selections from The Piano, scored by British composer Michael Nyman. “Here to There” and “The Promise” were played with chipper and bright attention to detail and smooth melodies. Speed Metal Organum Blues, which closed the concert, was a mix of several musical styles within the span of a minute, and one could hear the medieval organum influence, while the “blues” was led by soprano and baritone saxophones. This quick survey of musical history showed all the best aspects of the instruments and the polished manner with which the Sinta players work together.

No doubt many in the audience had not heard a saxophone quartet before, and certainly not in classical repertoire. The Princeton University Summer Concert series, known for the excellent string quartets in its series, stretched its range with this foray into saxophone ensembles, and the audience clearly enjoyed the ride.

The Princeton University Summer Concerts series concludes on Monday, July 21 with the Harlem Quartet, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be picked up at 6 p.m. the night of the performance.

 

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

What would the United States look like today if the Minutemen had lost the Revolutionary War and England had prevailed? That query is in the beginning of America: Imagine the World without Her, a right-wing documentary written, directed, and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza, a political pundit who immigrated here as a teenager in the 70s, proudly wears his patriotism on his sleeve, announcing at the outset, “I love America! I chose this country!” before launching into an attack on controversial left-leaning leaders and public intellectuals like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Eric Dyson, Bill Ayers, Howard Zinn, Saul Alinsky, and Hillary Clinton.

But he levels his most caustic remarks at Barack Obama whom he indicts as a liar by showing a number of film clips that show Obama saying “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor” and “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.” D’Souza goes on to explain that the president’s behavior is part of a socialist conspiracy that is bent on destroying the capitalist system.

The movie is an attempt to prove that the United States is a great nation with no reason to be ashamed of its past, as suggested by detractors like Reverend Wright who is heard again in his most notorious sound bite, “No! No! No! Not God bless America… God damn America!” D’Souza brushes aside shameful chapters in our history like slavery and the slaughter of the Indians by arguing that there were just as many black slave owners as white ones, and that Native Americans had fought with each other for millennia prior to the arrival of European settlers.

His goal is to inspire the masses to rise up and save the country before it’s too late. I suspect that the movie will serve as red meat to conservatives already inclined to dismiss Obama and other progressives as communists in liberals’ clothing. Unfortunately, it won’t do much to encourage civil discourse or bridge the intractable stalemate between Democratic and Republicans sitting on opposite sides of the aisle in Congress. Fair (*½). Rated PG-13 for violent images. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

July 9, 2014

Record revArt is the most beautiful deception of all!

—Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Debussy’s line about art and deception jumped out at me while I was searching for a quote to liven up a column on Gluck’s tercentenary. It’s one of those I-dare-you-to-dispute-this statements that gets your attention, starts you thinking, and then follows you around until you begin to distrust it. As for Gluck, Debussy has little good to say about him, far from it. The composer of Orfeo ed Euridice is “a court musician” whose music is tainted by the “pomposity of moving in such high circles.”

After bringing together art, beauty, and deception in the same brief essay for Musica (October 1902), Debussy bemoans the idea of incorporating “the everyday events of life in art,” which he hopes “will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” Yet when taking Gluck to task in a snarky February 1903 Open Letter to “Monsieur le Chevalier C.W. Gluck,” Debussy chastises him for being so far removed from the everyday events of life that “the common people participate only at a great distance,” as if Gluck’s music were a “wall behind which they know something is going on.” Debussy won’t even give the man credit for conducting the first performance of Iphigénie en Aulide in his nightcap; that spontaneous assertion of independence was only “for the sake of pleasing” his “king and queen.”

On Beethoven’s Wall

But what of Christoph Willibald Gluck? What did other composers think of his music? Beethoven kept Gluck’s portrait on the wall of his room along with Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, because “they can promote my capacity for endurance.” Mozart’s admiration is expressed throughout his letters. In Schubert’s diary, he contrasts the “pure, holy nature” of Gluck to Beethoven’s “eccentricities.” According to Johann Mayrhofer’s recollections (1829), Schubert was 15 when Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride left him “moved to the depths and to tears.” After that he embarked on “the keenest study of all of Gluck’s scores,” which “quite enraptured” him for years. As for Berlioz, Gluck inspired him to give up medicine for music. In his Memoirs, Berlioz writes, “The Jove of our Olympus was Gluck. The most passionate music-lover of today can have no conception how fiercely we worshipped him.”

Gluck’s Travels

Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in what is now called Bavaria, his father a forester who became head forester in the service of Prince Philip of Bohemia and who expected his son to, as Gluck puts it, “follow in his footsteps.” But at that time music was “all the rage” and “inflamed with a passion for this art,” Gluck “soon made astounding progress and was able to play several instruments.” His “whole being became obsessed with music” and he left all thoughts of a forester’s life behind.

After studying at the University of Prague, Gluck turns up in Milan in 1737 composing operas for the Milanese Carnivals, before venturing to London in 1745, where the future mover “in high circles” decides to raises some money, according to a handbill he had printed, “By performing a Concert upon Twenty-six Drinking Glasses, tuned with Spring water … being a new Instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a Violin or Harpsichord; and therefore hopes to satisfy the Curious, as well as the Lovers of Musick. To begin at Half an hour after Six. Tickets Half a guinea each.”

From London he goes to Dresden, Prague, and finally Vienna to the Hapsburg Court where he becomes Princess Maria Antonia’s music teacher, though she’s not much good at the harpsichord. According to Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette, she was “a dilettante,” but she “had a liking for this seemingly fierce man, broad in the beam and jovial” and when she went to Paris, Gluck went with her. He’d written Iphigénie en Tauride, which he wanted to present in the French capital. When court musicians called it “unpresentable,” Marie “insisted it have a fair trial.” But “the unruly and choleric Bavarian, animated with the characteristic obstinacy of the great artist,” in Zweig’s words, “did not make it easy for her to advance his cause. At the rehearsals he berated the ladies of the cast so savagely that these spoiled darlings complained bitterly to their titled lovers. He dragooned the instrumentalists, who were not used to the demand for such exactitude; and, in general, played the tyrant in the opera house. His mighty voice could be heard resounding from behind the closed doors as, time after time, he threatened to make an end of the whole business and return to Vienna. Nothing, in fact, but the dread of the Dauphiness prevented an open scandal.”

Marie was steadfast in supporting “her bon Gluck,” made his cause her own, and seeing that the opera seemed to be getting a lackluster reception at court, she “loudly applauded every aria” so that the courtiers and their ladies had to chime in. Though Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride would be remembered as a “famous event in the history of music,” it was Marie’s triumph, the first time she had “imposed her will upon the capital and the court.”

The Wig

As for the nightcap Debussy dismissed so cavalierly, Gluck kept one handy because he was prone to throw his wig at the ground whenever the singers and musicians were not performing to his expectations. His wife Maria had to go to rehearsals and performances to restrain her husband “within the limits demanded by French manners, and moderate the hostility that the orchestra and above all the women singers show him.” No wonder. According to the account included in Michael Rose’s recent book, The Birth of an Opera (Norton $35), “Gluck’s impatience with pretension was notorious.” When the “eminent soprano” Sophie Arnould complained that the music was all declamation and that she wanted to sing great arias, Gluck said “To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.” Rose provides an account that has Gluck running “like a man possessed from one end of the orchestra to the other; sometimes it was the violins who were getting it wrong, sometimes the basses, or the horns, or the violas. He would stop them short and sing them the passage.”

In time Gluck’s eccentricities became famous, the gossip going viral in the 18th-century Parisian version of the social media network. Accompanied as ever by Mme Gluck, he would be “bathed in sweat” and “had to be revived with hot towels and a change of clothing,” and when the rehearsal was over, “one could see great noblemen, even princes, eager to present him with his overcoat and his wig, for he was accustomed to throw all these off and put on a night-cap before beginning rehearsals, just as if he were about to retire for the night at home.”

Time to Listen

Earlier in the essay celebrating deception, Debussy looks back to Bach (“the essence of all music”) and the age when “music was subject to laws of beauty inscribed in the movement of Nature herself.” Listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Gluck’s arias from Orfeo, not to mention the overture to Alceste, and you’re hearing the essence of music and some of the most beautifully un-deceptive works ever composed. When a melody is close to the movement of nature, the effect is, for me, much as it was the first time I heard Orfeo’s aria lamenting the loss of Euridice. I had no idea what the words meant. I was in another room when it was playing and suddenly it was as if the music were coming from an open window on a street in another country, the prelude to a romantic adventure, a hauntingly beautiful song sung by a stranger. The effect was the same the first time I heard, really heard, Clair de Lune. The identity of the pianist was of no importance because in that moment, thanks to the “beautiful deception of art,” the music coming through an open window in some twilight dream of Paris was being played, thought out, composed by Debussy himself.

—Stuart Mitchner

Three hundred years after his birth, the glories of Gluck can be accessed on YouTube and Spotify. I found him the old-fashioned way in the form of the only secondhand record I ever purchased at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, a very used, musty-smelling Bach Guild boxed set of Orfeo ed Euridice featuring Maureen Forrester as Orfeo and Teresa Stich-Randall as Euridice, with the Akademie Choir and Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. There is an online version of the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from the 1982 production staged at The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with Dame Janet Baker in her final operatic appearance singing as she holds Euridice (Elisabeth Baker) in her arms. The quotes from Debussy come from Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977).

As usual, I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for the numerous Gluck recordings I listened to and for Michael Rose’s excellent book.

(Image courtesy of The B Home Project)

(Image courtesy of The B Home Project)

An experimental project to design homes based on sustainable building practices is the focus of a gathering this Saturday, July 12, on the grounds of D&R Greenway Land Trust, from 5 to 9 p.m.

The B Home Project is described as “out-of-the box spaces made from reclaimed materials” as well as “a living arts installation.” These sculptural-architectural-communal dwellings are the brainchild of artist Pete Abrams and engineer Graham Apgar.

The structures are designed to provide low cost shelters with applications ranging from disaster relief, to eco-tourism, to alternative dwellings for under-served populations.

Built from shipping pallets and other post-industrial and natural materials such as steel pipes, recycled tires, and bamboo, examples are currently on display at D&R Greenway, including three single cells and one three-cell structure. At Saturday’s event, a transportable bakery and community gathering space, the mobile bread house, will also be on view.

The B Home modular shelter system was developed several years ago in collaboration with Princeton University professor Wole Soboyejo and the Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) program. The idea is to provide a fast, cheap way to provide shelter and security for those in need. Unlike tents and trailers, the B Home is also designed to support a sustainable community.

As its name suggests, it was inspired by the geometric efficiency of honey bees.

“The display at the D&R Greenway is more of an art installation, although it was originally developed as an emergency shelter system,” said Mr. Abrams who lives in Princeton and works from a studio on North Clinton Street in Trenton. “I’ve been working on this since last August every month on the evening of the full moon. I’m a bit of a hippie, I guess, and the moon is a reminder of how much time I have left before my next effort.”

The installations can be explored outdoors at D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place (off Rosedale Road), Princeton through August 15.

For more information about the B Home Project, visit: thebhome.wikispaces.com/. To follow the project’s progress, visit: thebhome.blogspot.com or www.facebook.com/bhomenow.

 

TRYING TO TRAVEL INCOGNITO: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) and her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), set out on a road trip to Niagara Falls after Tammy’s life falls apart when she loses her car, job, and catches her husband sleeping with the next door neighbor. Since Tammy has no money and car, Pearl agrees to pay for the trip so she can escape from her retirement community, which she feels is like a prison for senior citizens.

TRYING TO TRAVEL INCOGNITO: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) and her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), set out on a road trip to Niagara Falls after Tammy’s life falls apart when she loses her car, job, and catches her husband sleeping with the next door neighbor. Since Tammy has no money and car, Pearl agrees to pay for the trip so she can escape from her retirement community, which she feels is like a prison for senior citizens.

After winning an Emmy for her TV sitcom Mike & Molly in 2011 and receiving an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids in 2012, Melissa McCarthy apparently was able to write her own ticket when negotiating with the studios. She used that leverage to create a production where she would not only portray the title character, Tammy, but also make her screenplay debut.

Keeping it all in the family, Melissa had the studio hire her husband, Ben Falcone, to direct and co-write the film, which might not have been a problem if it weren’t his first time attempting either of those tasks. The upshot is that their ill-advised collaboration has produced a road comedy that has precious few laughs.

And in the process, the picture squandered the talents of an impressive cast that included Academy Award winners Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) and Kathy Bates (Misery); Oscar nominees Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) and Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy); and veteran actors Allison Janney, Sandrah Oh, and Gary Cole. Unfortunately, the talented cast was given a cringe-inducing script that is more crass than funny.

As the film unfolds, we find Tammy having one of those days. First, when a deer darts in front of her car, she totals her Toyota Corolla on her way to a thankless job at a fast-food restaurant. Then, she’s fired by her exasperated boss (Falcone) for arriving late for the umpteenth time. On her way out the door, she launches into an expletive-laced tirade during which she trashes the premises in front of the mortified staff and customers.

Things go from bad to worse when Tammy arrives home earlier than usual and catches her husband (Nat Faxon) in bed with their next-door-neighbor (Toni Collette). Shocked and brokenhearted, she decides to take a break from her mess of a life, only to realize she can’t even afford to leave town because she has no cash and no car.

Her grandmother, Pearl (Sarandon), agrees to subsidize Tammy’s vacation provided she can tag along for the ride, since her retirement community feels like a prison for old people. The two set out for Niagara Falls and raise a ruckus at every port-of-call along the way, whether jet skiing, over-imbibing, trading insults, picking up strangers at bars and diners, triggering pyrotechnic displays, landing in jail, or crashing an all-lesbian barbecue on the 4th of July.

If only some of their sophomoric antics were witty or amusing. The film is a depraved escapade that will disappoint even diehard Melissa McCarthy fans.

Fair (*). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

July 2, 2014

DVD revI hate guns, have never had any use for them.

—Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

A week ago Eli Wallach, the actor who gave the world Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, died at home in Manhattan. Tuco was last seen, freeze-framed forever, shouting curses at the distant figure on horseback played with cryptic cool by Clint Eastwood, the supremely sane, enlightened Don Quixote to Tuco’s feral Sancho Panza.

Chances are there is no Actor’s Studio exercise for how to enter the body of a man standing on a crooked, creaking, perilously unsteady graveyard cross with a hangman’s noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, a fortune in gold spilled out on the ground below, shining in the sunlight. As the wooden cross teeters under his weight, the noose tightening, he’s sweating, gagging, his eyes darting up, down, and all around, he can hear the caw of crows as he struggles to keep his balance. Lose it and he’s dead with his share of the treasure at his feet. Since the mere effort to speak might be fatal, he can’t talk, can’t call for help, can’t finish the word “Bl–bl–” for Blondie, the name attached to his only hope, the bounty hunter who has strung him up and left him to his lonely fate. There’s no hangman present this time, no audience as in the past charades of execution he and his fair-haired cohort played out in small towns  across the West. With the Bad (Lee Van Cleef) dead and buried after a trumpet-glorious shootout, and the Ugly teetering between life and death, the Good lifts his rifle, sets the sight, aims, and fires, the shot severing the rope, and down goes the Ugly, a 51-year-old Jewish actor from Brooklyn howling out the closing seconds of a performance for the ages.

Filmgoers may question Quentin Tarantino’s claim that Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) is “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema,” but by now you’d think that anyone conversant with the motion picture medium would at least comprehend the possibility. The sad truth is that people who should know better still seem to be unaware of the magnitude of Wallach’s accomplishment, not to mention Leone’s. In the June 25 New York Times obituary (“Eli Wallach, Multifaceted Actor On Stage and Screen, Dies at 98”), there is only passing mention of the actor’s appearance in a “so-called spaghetti western.” In the late sixties it was worse; if you dared to enthuse about Leone to a “serious” film person, they’d have laughed in your face. No wonder Eli Wallach had doubts about what he was doing when he went to Rome in the spring of 1966, asking himself what does an Italian director know about westerns (“An Italian western sounds like an Hawaiian pizza”). But the money was good and he was curious.

“A Great Clown”

The notion of Tuco as a more villainous Sancho Panza was integral to Leone’s picaresque vision of a Mexican lowlife joining forces with a mysterious bounty hunter. The actor playing Tuco had to have a natural comedic ambience, a knack for one-liners, and an abundance of raw humanity to go with a crazed, unstoppable ferocity. Although he’d seen Wallach as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, what convinced Leone was a moment in How the West Was Won when the bad guy played by Wallach amuses himself by pointing both index fingers at some children and miming the firing of two guns. People had warned Leone to stay away from Wallach (“he comes from Actor’s Studio”), but the director “knew he would be a great clown.” And something quite a bit more, as it turned out.

Wounded in Brooklyn

Long before Wallach had anything to do with the Actor’s Studio, there was Brooklyn. In his memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage (Holt 2005), he remembers Saturday mornings at the Rialto watching westerns starring Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. One day after seeing a “particularly bloody” silent version of Beau Geste, “I lay on my bed and began to fantasize. Reenacting episodes that I had seen in movies always gave me a sense of power. I always seemed to be crawling around on the bed wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death. My light tan blanket was the Sahara desert, and I began crawling over the sand dunes … surrounded by enemy Arabs. Suddenly, a shot rang out and I was wounded.”

Another incident from Wallach’s Brooklyn childhood that foreshadows his penchant for darker film roles took place one stormy night when he saw from the front window of the family candy store “a man kneeling in the middle of the street, his hands above his head. Standing over him was a dark figure holding something in his hand.” Hiding under the counter, young Eli hears a shot, and is dragged to the back of the store by his father, who tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” Eventually the family moved from their Mafia-friendly neighborhood to Flatbush, where Wallach attended Erasmus Hall High School. From there he went to the University of Texas, as unlikely a destination for a Brooklynite as Leone’s west would be three decades later: “I felt as if I’d landed on another planet …. Here, everyone looked tall and strong, spoke slowly, and wore boots.”

Wallach’s time in the Lone Star State would come in handy. Though it was the low tuition ($30 a term) that made Texas his choice, he still needed to make money, and in addition to selling soft drinks at football games, he had a job working with polo ponies, which is when he learned how to ride; another job involved “sitting in the library typing up memoirs of old cowboys and their battles with the Indians in the Southwest.” More important still, after playing minor parts with a theater group called the Curtain Club, he was cast in the title role of Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom. Like Tuco, Liliom is flawed but essentially sympathetic, in  Wallach’s words, a “tough drifter … who got involved in a robbery, and was ultimately killed.” He felt “strong and secure” in a role in which all his “fantasies, dreams, and yearnings about acting came to fruition.” He knew “then and there” that this was to be his life’s work.

The Gun Shop

The scene where Wallach’s Tuco truly comes into his own as a character occurs in a gun shop run by a little rosy-cheeked Gepetto right out of a Commedia dell’arte farce. While the shop owner (Enzo Petito) winces and flinches and lovably rolls his watery blue eyes, Tuco, fresh from a desperate trek across the desert, rummages crudely but purposefully through the shop, swigging whiskey from the old man’s bottle while assembling the perfect gun and at the same time revealing qualities unexpressed until that moment; now you’re seeing an artist at work, as actor and gunman. Watching how methodically and expertly Tuco creates a perfect weapon, it’s hard to believe Wallach’s claim in the memoir that he hates guns and never had any use for them. His only direction from Leone was “to take apart some of the guns, then put them back together using different pieces.” Wallach writes, “I pretended to be an expert as I squinted through the barrel of a Colt … and spun the bullet chamber of a Winchester and put it to my ear.”

“Pretended” doesn’t do the scene justice. It’s almost as if Tuco were a musician tuning an instrument, gauging the pitch or timbre, which makes sense in a film lifted again and again to greatness and glory by Ennio Morricone’s score.

Ecstasy

In The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, when the composer wishes to express his feeling for the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who was born on this day 300 years ago, he writes, “An ecstasy possessed me.” Berlioz had been studying to be a doctor when he began to read and reread the scores of Gluck, which he not only copied and learned “by heart” but “went without sleep because of them and forgot to eat or drink,” so that when he finally heard Gluck’s music at the Opéra, he vowed to become a musician.

During the magnificent finale of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly something like a sonic ecstasy possesses the grubby, devious, scavenging, shifty-eyed scoundrel played by Eli Wallach. In fact, “The Ecstasy of Gold” is the title given to Morricone’s scoring of Tuco’s fierce, frantic run through a vast cemetery searching for the tomb under which the long-sought treasure is buried.

When Leone’s direction, Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography, and Morricone’s music come together, you find yourself in a region where ecstasy and euphoria overwhelm reality and it’s possible to imagine that Berlioz himself would be stirred by soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless aria soaring over a delirium of trumpets playing at Dies Irae intensity as Tuco sprints, spins, whirls, through the immense landscape of crosses and headstones, his surroundings whirling, blurring, as if the cameras had been cut loose in the turbulence. When the symphonic juggernaut finally subsides, there’s Tuco, the unholy sinner, sobbing with excitement as he begins digging up the coffin he mistakenly thinks is filled with gold. After all the grandeur of the music, you’re down in the dirt with him, his story your story, you and the boy in Brooklyn who found “a sense of power” in movies and came home to crawl around on the bed “wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death.” You know what he means, you’ve been there. You feel like a kid at the grandest and most glorious of Saturday matinees, and the excitement has only just begun. Here come Morricone’s trumpets.

 

SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

“What you lack in grace, you certainly make up for in vulgarity,” the suave con-man Lawrence Jameson advises his young rival Freddy Benson, as the two compete for supremacy in the swindling of rich heiresses on the French Riviera in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, playing through July 26 at The Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell.

A Broadway hit of 2005 starring John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, based on a 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels re-emerges here with a cast of seasoned area professionals along with a contingent of young and talented Rider College performers — all under the able direction of Robert Thick.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, is funny and engaging. But, like its main characters, a couple of scurrilous international charlatans, the show, under a veneer of suaveness and style, does at times lack grace, and it does occasionally push the boundaries of good taste with an abundance of silly shtick and bawdy humor. Mr. Thick and company have taken on a big, challenging, difficult production.

So this week you’ll get two reviews, two perspectives.

The Good News

The protagonist explains his philosophy of the art of the con in his opening number. “Give Them What They Want,” he says, and last Saturday night’s sold-out audience appeared to be thoroughly entertained from pre-curtain desserts to final bows, responding with frequent loud laughter and applause. The show is at times hilarious, as Lawrence and Freddy take on multiple guises and disguises in pursuing their romantic and financial interests. There is much clever dialogue, with richly inventive, amusing, and outrageous song lyrics.

The cast of ten is well rehearsed, extremely versatile — with most taking on multiple roles — and skilled in acting, singing, and dancing. The older veterans blend well with the energetic, attractive younger performers. The motley array of characters is interesting and engaging, the plot takes a number of intriguing twists and turns, and the evening passes swiftly and pleasantly.

Mr. Thick knows his craft and directs with a swift pace and a deft touch. The simple, brightly colored set design serves to move the action by spinning a large staircase and wall through 18 scenes, as the action shifts to different interior and exterior locales throughout the elegant Riviera resort town.

The music, though hardly memorable, is mostly tuneful, with at least three or four strikingly clever and entertaining numbers. The pit band, under the direction of Philip Orr, with three keyboards, a bass and a percussionist, is thoroughly professional and consistently strong in support of the soloists and ensemble members.

There are abundant reasons why this show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards and ran for a year and a half, followed by a year-long national tour from 2005 to 2007. But,

The Less Positive Perspective

There are also problems, with both the show itself and the Off-Broadstreet production. The humor misfires at least as often as it hits the target — sometimes just through inanity, sometimes in a tiresome flatness, sometimes in its tastelessness. The lyrics are often more corny than clever, the musical score fails to offer a single number that resonates in the memory, and there is some unevenness in the power and quality of the voices here.

Though Mr. Thick has indeed staged the action resourcefully, the seams sometimes show in this frugal production, as performers spread themselves a bit thin in taking on many different roles; the scenery — literally and figuratively — at times creaks; and what should pass for the luxury and polish of the rich and famous on the Riviera sometimes looks a bit shabby here.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens with the debonair Jameson (Steve Lobis) in the process of working his art on Muriel Eubanks (Melissa Rittman), a bejeweled American heiress. Posing as a prince and aided by his friendly local gendarme, Andre Thibault (Michael Lawrence), Jameson has no difficulty in quickly acquiring the lady’s jewels and affections. “What Was a Woman to Do?” Muriel laments in chorus with a small support group of sympathetic women.

Jameson then decides to take on the coarse, brash, young Freddy (Travis Przybylski) as an apprentice con artist, and Jameson proceeds to demonstrate his craft on an Oklahoma oil heiress, Jolene (Milika Cheree Griffiths). In order to extract himself from an imminent marriage, he enlists the services of his protégé to play the role of the prince’s mentally defective brother.

Next to arrive on the scene is purported American soap heiress, Christine Colgate (Ally Hern), and the bet is on. Who can be the first to extort $50,000 from her? The battle of the two scoundrels quickly comes to a head in a dramatic Act One finale, as Freddy poses as a paralyzed wheelchair veteran in need of a $50,000 operation from a distinguished Viennese doctor. And who should suddenly appear at the Riviera resort, but Jameson in the guise of the illustrious Dr. Shuffhausen himself.

Both scoundrels are taxed to their limits in the ongoing deceptions, stings, and desperate battles for one-upmanship. No spoilers here, but more than a few twists and turns ensue, and the action-packed second act even features a comically romantic subplot, with Muriel and Andre, before it reaches its surprising finale.

As the aging virtuoso con man, Mr. Lobis is convincing, comical, poised, and consistently in character, with relentless resourcefulness and the requisite “supreme confidence.” His voice is sturdy and strong. His expressive reactions are fun to watch in his varied interactions.

He delivers his most memorable number, however, when caught in an uncharacteristic, serious, vulnerable moment in the second act, as he confesses, in a romantic ballad, that “Love Sneaks In.”

The rivalry between Lawrence and Freddy is especially entertaining, fast-moving and rich in bristling repartee:

“Freddy, what I am trying to say is know your limitations.”

“Which are?”

“You’re a moron.”

Mr. Przybylski’s Freddy, pink-cheeked and youthful in an over-the-top, rock-star mode with bouffant hair and aggressive demeanor, lives up to his billing of “Great Big Stuff,” as his hilarious signature number is titled. He threatens to steal the show with his energy and comical, larger-than-life persona (though his scene as the “prince’s” mentally defective, lascivious brother crosses the boundaries of good taste). He and Ms. Hern provide another highlight of the evening, accompanied by the vibrant, sure-footed chorus, in “Love is My Legs,” one of several amorous encounters during the evening.

Ms. Hern’s Christine is appropriately charming and focused, though not always strong enough vocally to embrace fully this powerful leading lady role. More successful, albeit in a supporting role, is Ms. Griffith’s Jolene, who plays to the hilt the bright-eyed, straight-from-the-prairie, husband-seeking Oklahoma oil heiress, complete with a chorus of country-and-western line dancers and a spoof on the musical “Oklahoma.”

Ms. Rittman’s Muriel and Mr. Lawrence’s Andre supply further strong support, some deft footwork, and a diverting, romantic second-act interlude.

Emily Elliott, Sarah Whiteford, Sean Magnacca, and Robert Risch, all first-rate Rider College-trained performers, make up the talented, attractive ensemble, taking on four, five, six, even seven different roles apiece throughout the evening. Julie Thick has choreographed the enjoyable dance numbers here, and, though occasionally spread thin — needing perhaps another member or two, this ensemble is vocally, dramatically and physically, kinesthetically up to the challenges of the demanding show.

Ultimately, Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s spirited, ambitious, at times scintillating production of this flawed musical romp provides a diverting evening. You might not find yourself humming the tunes, and you might not care too deeply about these two-dimensional scoundrels and their shenanigans. But, especially with Princeton Summer Theater dark this season, fans of musical comedy will find it worth the short trip to Hopewell to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and to celebrate Off-Broadstreet’s 30years (and 238 shows!) of popular, entertaining theater — and delicious desserts too.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” runs through July 26, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, and dessert served from an hour before curtain time. Call (609) 466-2766 for reservations and further information or visit www.off-broadstreet.com.

 

Princeton Festival is many things during its month-long season, including opera, jazz, and instrumental genres. Last Saturday night was the Festival’s chance to be choral, with a presentation of one of the region’s most successful youth choirs. The Keystone State Boychoir, based in Philadelphia, maintains a musical education and performance program for 190 boys (its sister Pennsylvania Girlchoir is equally as active), and 47 of these boys came to Princeton’s Trinity Church to perform a sampling of their core repertoire. Conductor Steven Fisher and accompanist Joseph Fitzmartin (also an arranger for the choir) led the trebles, tenors, and basses through an engaging program which thoroughly entertained the audience at Trinity.

Keystone State Boychoir prides itself on diversity of repertoire, and the program Saturday night was billed as an “Americana Program.” Perhaps acknowledging the concert venue, the Boychoir opened with a verse from Percy Buck’s “Oh, Lord God” sung by a clear-voiced soloist, together with one of the international anthems of boychoirs — C. Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem.” The “Evening Prayer” from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, led by two soloists, showed a free and open tone in the upper registers of the singers. The Boychoir recently paid tribute to 90-year-old American composer Ned Rorem, and the excerpt from Rorem’s What is Pink? was sung at a sprightly tempo, with a tricky piano part effectively played by Mr. Fitzmartin.

Mr. Fisher divided the concert repertoire into music for trebles, then music for the changed voices, and the remainder of the first portion of the program included familiar works for treble chorus, sung with a well-blended full sound and good diction. Alan Naplan’s arrangement of “Al Shlosha” demonstrated some of the best tuning of the concert, and Mr. Fisher used the acoustics of Trinity Church well in Michael Scott’s arrangement of the American folktune “Dance, Boatman Dance.” The Keystone State Boychoir clearly emphasizes showmanship in performance, which could be seen in their rendition of “Food, Glorious Food” from the musical Oliver.

The “Graduate Choir,” comprised of the changed voices, showed both creative programming and singing through selections from Broadway to old pop music. The young men of this chorus displayed good animation in a clever arrangement of the Everly Brothers hit “Hello, Mary Lou,” with Mr. Fitzmartin maintaining good command over the jazz elements, as well as a unique vocal treatment of the Arabic change “Zikr.” Several soloists in particular proved themselves to be well-trained singers throughout the performance, including Nick van Meter and Colman Cumberland.

The impact of participating in a children’s choir goes way beyond the music, and the members of the Keystone State Boychoir showed that text can be equally as meaningful. A set of South African music sung by the entire choir and dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela, gave the singers a chance to point the way to a global future through music. The Boychoir’s rendition of “The Circle of Life” was quick and smooth, with Mr. Fitzmartin once again revealing himself to be an amazing pianist. More poignant was Mr. Fitzmartin’s arrangement of Dan Heymann’s “Weeping,” which the Boychoir had augmented with added rap written by choristers.

As the Keystone State Boychoir prepares for its upcoming tour to Australia, the energy of the singers was infectious and their commitment to choral performance confirmed.

The Boychoir’s performance Saturday night also fit well with the mission of the Princeton Festival to identify talent and create the musicians of tomorrow.

 

LET’S SEE IF WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PHONES: When all of their cell phones went crazy and “barfed” simultaneously, Tuck (Astro, right), Munch (Reese Hartwig, center), and Alex (Teo Halm) decide to find the cause of the disturbance. Their quest leads them to a remote site in the Nevada desert where they find Echo, an alien from another planet, who desperately wants to go back home.

LET’S SEE IF WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PHONES: When all of their cell phones went crazy and “barfed” simultaneously, Tuck (Astro, right), Munch (Reese Hartwig, center), and Alex (Teo Halm) decide to find the cause of the disturbance. Their quest leads them to a remote site in the Nevada desert where they find Echo, an alien from another planet, who desperately wants to go back home.

Most people know that E.T. is about several kids who befriend an alien that has been stranded on Earth and who is eager to return home before suspicious adults can do him any harm. That classic film won four Academy Awards in 1983, and was even voted the best science fiction movie of all time in a recent survey by the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

However, if you’re too young to remember Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming adventure — or if it’s been so long since you saw it that the story is a little fuzzy — have I got a movie for you. Much about Earth to Echo screams remake, starting with the picture’s vaguely familiar poster that features a human hand reaching out to touch an extra-terrestrial.

Still, this remake refreshes the original by incorporating current cultural changes such as texting shorthand and the use of social media. So, when the protagonists communicate with each other, they often rely on inscrutable slang that may befuddle folks who are unfamiliar with the slang employed by today’s average adolescent.

As the film opens, we find the narrator Tuck (Astro) lamenting the impending separation from his BFFs Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig) because their Nevada neighborhood will be razed in a week to make way for a turnpike. The plot thickens when all their cell phones inexplicably “barf” simultaneously, and they decide to try to find the source of the mysterious malfunction.

Equipped with a camcorder and state-of-the-art spyglasses, the youngsters ride their bikes into the desert in the middle of the night, accompanied by a rebel (Ella Wahlestedt) who is running away from home. Their GPS device sends them to a site in the desert where they find Echo, a cuddly visitor from another galaxy who, like E.T., is anxious to return home

The kids, of course, go into high gear to help Echo, keeping just a step ahead of the untrustworthy authorities. Their efforts lead to a satisfying resolution every bit as syrupy as Spielberg’s in E.T.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action, peril, and mild epithets. Running time: 92 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

June 25, 2014

book revMusical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.

—Horace Silver (1928-2014)

You never know. Things happen. Life happens, death happens, music happens. You set out to write a column about George Orwell and a dog steals the show. Then a thrush. Then a jazz musician. It’s like the old line, “a funny thing happened to me on the way to —” wherever. Or like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” the Rolling Stones song from 1967 that wouldn’t let me alone all last week. Now I know why. “No one’s sure just what it was/Or the meaning and the cause.”

Something Dreadful?

So there I am buried in books from the library by or about George Orwell (born on this date in 1903), skimming my way through the Orwellian universe with Mick Jagger singing in my head, when Horace Silver dies. Talk about parallel worlds colliding.

It’s like the moment in 1984 when Winston Smith hears someone singing a song composed “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department.” Peeking out the window, he sees “a monstrous woman” down in the court below singing, in “a powerful contralto,” “It was only an ‘opeless fancy,/It passed like an Ipril dye,/But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred/they have stolen my ‘eart awye!”

The funny thing is, she’s singing “the dreadful rubbish” so tunefully that Smith finds it “almost pleasant” to hear.

You never know what Orwell’s really up to when he uses words like “dreadful.” Like the “something dreadful” that happens in his essay from 1921, “A Hanging.”

In a May 22 New York Times column about the “pivotal books” in his life, David Brooks puts the essays of Orwell at the top and dubs him “a master of the welcoming first sentence.”

While it’s mostly true about Orwell and first sentences, “A Hanging” has an undeniably unwelcoming opening: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” The condemned prisoner is a Hindu, “a puny wisp of a man” whose mustache is “absurdly too big for his body,” reminding Orwell of a comedian from the movies. It’s a walk of 40 yards to the gallows and when at one point the prisoner has to step “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path,” Orwell, who was an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in his twenties, admits that until then he “had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” As if this were the essay’s intended message, Orwell expounds on “the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive …. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

But “a funny thing happens on the way” to the hanging, something actually not funny at all but “dreadful,” says Orwell, as a “large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah” comes seemingly out of nowhere “with a loud volley of barks,” leaping among and around the men, “wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.” And before anyone can stop it, the dog makes a dash for the prisoner, jumps up and tries to lick his face.

For a reader, this sudden surprising departure from decorum is, like the woman’s singing in 1984, the opposite of dreadful; it’s the sort of thing only a comic genius with a view of life as enlightened as Chaplin’s might have conceived. The business about “a party of men understanding the same world” is exposition; the romping dog is life as it happens.

Everyone stands “aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.” One of the men escorting the prisoner goes charging clumsily after the happy animal, but it dances and gambols just out of his reach, “taking everything as part of the game.” Another of the jailers throws some gravel, trying “to stone the dog away,” but it dodges the stones and comes eagerly back to them again, “its yaps” echoing “from the jail walls.”

Since you’ve been reading a lot of very nuanced prose up to this point, the yapping, romping, gamboling dog is the equivalent of music, like jazz, “the sound of surprise.” At the apex of life-and-death solemnity, the uncontainable, irrepressible behavior of an animal makes you smile when you should be frowning, lifts your spirits when there is no earthly reason for that to be happening.

What does the doomed man think of this playful intervention? He looks on “incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging.”

It takes several more minutes before someone manages to catch the dog. Then Orwell puts his handkerchief through its collar and they move on once more, “with the dog still straining and whimpering.” In describing the grim business at hand, Orwell makes no further mention of the fact that he’s the one restraining the dog. When the noose is fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he cries out to “his god,” chanting incessantly the one word, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” No command has been given the hangman. Everyone’s waiting for the “Ram! Ram! Ram!” to stop. It’s as if he’s being allowed “a fixed number — fifty, perhaps, or a hundred … each cry another second of life.”

Finally the command is given, the lever’s released, the prisoner plummets, “the rope twisting on itself,” and at this moment Orwell lets go of the dog! All this time he’s been restraining the animal, the one lyrical, spontaneous, poetical element in the narrative, its unacknowledged glory, until the fatal moment wherein the dog gallops immediately to the back of the gallows, stops short, barks, and then retreats to a corner of the yard, standing “among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.” The last we hear, the animal is “conscious of having misbehaved itself.” The word “misbehaved” is no more to be trusted than the word “dreadful” here or in 1984, where such spontaneous behavior can put you in Big Brother’s sights and land you in Room 101.

The Playerrecord rev

Having compared Orwell’s dog to music, I may be straining at the rhetorical leash to intrude on the Orwellian moment by extolling the virtues of Horace Silver. But thanks to that half-Airedale/Pariah, it makes a kind of sense. Who else, after all, could do justice in music to such happy cavorting in the face of death but the composer of “Nica’s Dream,” “Peace,” “Sister Sadie,” and “Blowing the Blues Away”? The internet makes the accomplishing of such unlikely associations swift and seamless, as happened the other night when I went from a reading of “A Hanging” to the online New York Times headline, “Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead,” to YouTube, which instantly puts you face to face with the man who has given so much serious joy to so many people.

A wave of the iMac wand and here he is very much alive, in person, smiling out at you, in his early thirties, as ready for a romp as an Airedale at a hanging, a vagrant forelock drifting over his forehead, his shoulders hunched; this man is something better than handsome or charming, he could be a gypsy in suit and tie or a surrealist poet moonlighting on piano in a Latin Quarter dive. As he hovers over the keyboard, dark hair tumbling in further disarray, long stiff fingers driving the hypnotic riff that begins “Señor Blues,” this most cheerful and welcoming of musicians takes on the sinister aura of a demented genius capable of “seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding” the same world where “with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

Happenings in 1984

Things happen when you “read around” in Orwell. D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life (Holt 2003) contains a full-page full-face photograph of Orwell’s first wife Eileen that stops you, holds you, and haunts you. Photographs of Orwell himself somehow never really quite happen or adhere; you have to search online to find a smile, which turns up, not surprisingly, whenever he’s shown holding his adopted son.

Look through 1984 and the words and phrases that are set apart from the text proper stand out, most obviously and famously, the slogans of Big Brother. Even more conspicuous, however, are the lyrics of that “dreadful” song (“It was only an ‘opeless fancy”) and the three words Winston Smith finds on a small piece of paper handed him by a young woman he hardly knows — “I love you.”

Life happens, death happens, love happens, and it’s love that seals Smith’s fate, that and the “torrent of song” poured forth by a thrush when he and his lover are standing in the shade of hazel bushes, their hiding place. The music goes “on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself,” a “flood of music” that flows “all over” him and gets “mixed up with the sunlight” filtering “through the leaves.” It’s a passage that might seem florid or cliched in any other novel, with phrases like “her body seemed to melt into his,” but this is 1984, where “pure love or pure lust” are impossible, where “their embrace” has been “a battle, the climax a victory … a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”

But not the singing of the thrush. That’s life as it happens.

 For a more in-depth appreciation of Horace Silver, see my July 16, 2008 column, “Charming Persuasion: A Stroll with Horace Silver,” http://www.towntopics.com/jul1608/book.html.

MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE: From left: a detail from Steve Tobin’s “Steelroot” sculpture, his cast and welded bronze “Syntax,” and his “Earth Bronze.” All are on view in the exhibition “Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin,” opening at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown this Saturday, June 28. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit michener artmuseum.org.(Photograph by Kenneth Ek)

MONUMENTAL SCULPTURE: From left: a detail from Steve Tobin’s “Steelroot” sculpture, his cast and welded bronze “Syntax,” and his “Earth Bronze.” All are on view in the exhibition “Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin,” opening at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown this Saturday, June 28. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit michener
artmuseum.org. (Photograph by Kenneth Ek)

For anyone who missed the incredible New Jersey showing of Steve Tobin’s work at Grounds for Sculpture (GFS) in 2012, the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown offers another chance to view art by this Bucks County native, including the massive Steelroots that dominated the GFS outdoor sculpture garden.

The Michener’s show opens this Saturday, June 28, and continues through October 26. It’s title, “Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin,” reflects the choice of monumental works in steel, bronze, and clay.

The exhibition features a broad range of the work Mr. Tobin has produced during the last decade including Exploded Earth Vessels, and Forest Floors from his Earth Bronzes series.

Curated by Museum Director and CEO, Lisa Tremper Hanover, the exhibition takes the Michener beyond its usual location and out into the community. In addition to works on view in the Paton/Smith/Della Penna-Fernberger Galleries, the Fred Beans Gallery, the Sculpture Garden and as part of the Outdoor Sculpture Program, the exhibition includes outdoor placements throughout Doylestown. Playing on the sheer size of Mr. Tobin’s works, Ms. Hanover has turned Doylestown into a museum by placing his Steelroots and Walking Roots in the town.

With the cooperation of George Ball, chairman and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee Company, she has also brought sculpture to the grounds and gardens of the nearby Fordhook Farm.

As part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, free passes to Fordham Farm will be available from the museum on the opening day of the exhibition with the cost of general admission.

Mr. Tobin is perhaps best known for his epic work, Trinity Root, permanently sited at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan. He cast the root system of the 80-year-old Sycamore tree that had stood across the street from the World Trade Center in the churchyard of the Trinity/St. Paul’s Chapel. First responders to Ground Zero had taken shelter there. Dedicated on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2005, the sculpture was “a massive undertaking of 20,000 man hours,” recalled Tobin in an interview for Princeton Magazine in 2012. “It incorporates the dirt and DNA of that place.”

Mr. Tobin’s work has been shown at numerous museums and outdoor venues across the country in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. His larger pieces reference Stonehenge and the monuments of Easter Island and the Great Pyramids.

Initially trained as a scientist, Mr. Tobin has described his work as closer to visual philosophy than art history. After graduating from Tulane University in 1979 with a Bachelor’s in mathematics, he studied glassmaking at the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly and others. In 1989, he became the first foreigner invited to build his own studio in Murano, Italy. By 1994, he was building his first foundry and casting in bronze.

Of the Michener show, Ms. Hanover said: “The soaring steel sculptures echo the stretched elegance of his early glass work; and the Earth Bronzes are filled with whimsy and capture the residue of a forest floor, complete with pine needles and insects. Visitors will be confronted with an array of exploded clay vessels that reveal majestic interiors of glass and dynamite-incised textures.”

Mr. Tobin has exhibited extensively throughout the world, including New York’s American Museum of Natural History; the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art campus complex in Los Angeles; and in museums, art fairs, and public sites in Italy, Russia, China, and Finland.

“I thank Lisa and the Michener for the opportunity of bringing it all back home,” said Tobin. “While my work has taken me far and wide, from the deserts of Ghana to the caves of Nutijarva in Finland, its genesis and inspiration originated in the treehouse of my youth, along Philadelphia’s Main Line.”

“The long arc of Steve Tobin’s success will be celebrated at the Michener with a dynamic installation that recalls his own roots in Bucks County and the Philadelphia region,” said Ms. Hanover. “We are proud to present Tobin’s work … to an audience eager to interact with articulate and engaging artists.”

“Out of This World: Works by Steve Tobin” is supported by Visit Bucks County and an anonymous friend of the Michener. Along with the show, there will be a lecture about the artist’s work on July 22; tours of his Quakertown studio on August 21 and September 5; and contemporary dance performances on August 27 and September 21.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, Pa. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. from 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit www.michenerartmuseum.org.

 

BIRD WHISPERER: The endangered mangrove hummingbird is one of the subjects of Jared Flesher’s documentary “Field Biologist,” being screened Saturday at Princeton Public Library as a special event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Mr. Flesher followed Hopewell Township resident Tyler Christensen in his travels through Costa Rica, where he found rare species.

BIRD WHISPERER: The endangered mangrove hummingbird is one of the subjects of Jared Flesher’s documentary “Field Biologist,” being screened Saturday at Princeton Public Library as a special event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Mr. Flesher followed Hopewell Township resident Tyler Christensen in his travels through Costa Rica, where he found rare species.

While shooting the documentary Sourlands a few years ago, filmmaker Jared Flesher was having trouble getting some needed shots of birds in the forest. A friend suggested someone he thought would be able to help.

“He said, ‘You have to meet Tyler Christensen, he’s the best,” recalled Mr. Flesher, who has screened Sourlands and The Farmer and the Horse at previous Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF) showings. “I got in touch with him and we went into the woods together. Sure enough, he found birds that would otherwise have been really hard to see. We got some great shots.”

A friendship developed between the two men, and inevitably, another film. Field Biologist, Mr. Flesher’s account of Mr. Christensen’s bird-researching venture to Costa Rica, will have its New Jersey premiere this Saturday night at the Princeton Public Library. At the screening, a special event of the PEFF, the two men will be on hand to answer questions after the 7 p.m. showing in the library’s Community Room.

Mr. Flesher, who is 31 and lives in East Amwell Township, followed Mr. Christensen, 22, a resident of Hopewell Township, through travels to the cloud forests of Monteverde and the mangrove swamps of the Nicoya Peninsula. In the film, Mr. Christensen comes up with a plan to try and help save the highly endangered mangrove hummingbird.

Talking about his colleague last week, Mr. Flesher was clearly enthusiastic. “This is a guy who loves the natural world,” he said. “When you go out into the woods with him, he’s an incredible communicator. He finds birds, bugs, frogs, and snakes, and he can tell a really interesting story about everything he finds.”

The fact that Mr. Christensen failed biology in high school is an irony not lost on Mr. Flesher. “Tyler wasn’t a great student. He didn’t really know how he was going to put his passion for nature into a career,” he said. “But he got really interested in studying birds. He just kind of traveled a bit, and did some rock-climbing. He was working at a couple of places in New Jersey doing bird-banding. He eventually decided to pick up, one winter, and head down to Costa Rica, and he started doing his own research on migratory birds. No background, no degree — just amazing passion.”

Field Biologist has dual themes. “There’s the age-old question of ‘What should I do with my life,’ and finding your way,” Mr. Flesher said. “And then there is the bigger story, which is that scientists say we stand to lose 50 percent of the species on earth in this century due to habitat destruction, climate change, and over-harvesting. There is definitely a bio-diversity crisis. My goal is to bring up some of these issues and tell the story through Tyler’s eyes, focusing not just on the problem but on why we should bother to save what we have left. It’s ultimately a positive story about the natural world.”

Mr. Flesher trailed Mr. Christensen in Costa Rica two winters ago. “We spent eight weeks there,” Mr. Flesher said. “The plan was ‘wherever he goes, I go.’ So I just followed him. We were chasing incredible birds, snakes, and butterflies. It was really special, which I hope comes through in the film.”

Susan Conlon, Princeton Public Library’s Youth Services Team Leader and the librarian in charge of the PEFF, said the showing of Field Biologist this weekend is part of an effort to broaden the popular annual event, which takes place in January. “We want to expand the reach of the PEFF and continue to screen even more films year-round,” she said in an email. “It is also exciting to have the opportunity to present new films like Field Biologist, and for the film to have its New Jersey premiere with us, with Jared and the film’s subject, Tyler Christensen, here for a question and answer session.”

Admission to the screening is free. Visit www.princetonlibrary.org or call (609) 924-9529 for more information.