December 4, 2013

book revno one, not even the rain, has such small hands —e.e. cummings

This column began during one of those steady unthreatening rainfalls when you can imagine you hear the night thinking and you want to read something to complement the sound, something that does justice to the atmosphere. A year ago the same sound evoked dread and thoughts of flooded basements and power outages.

Looking ahead to the December 4 issue of Town Topics several days before I saw the news in Friday’s New York Times (“Salinger Stories Leaked Online”), I found a poet with rain in his name, Rainer Maria Rilke, who was born on 4 December 1875 in Prague, and died 29 December 1926 in Switzerland. I also found that the person who convinced him to change his first name from “René” to “Rainer” was his former lover and lifelong soulmate, the Russian-born author of The Erotic, psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937). In a letter from 1897, the year their affair began, Rilke calls her his “summer rain.” A year before his death, he refers to a “sheltering” letter from her that brought him “so much that ties in with earlier things.”

“Sheltering” seems the right word for a rainy night and the companionable presence of a poet who wants to “have someone to sit by and be with” and “softly sing” to in “To Say Before Going to Sleep,” which opens with “someone” and ends when “something in the dark begins to move.” In spite of the hint of menace, the line fits the rainy night mood where nothing has a name because everything is the rain.

The only poem of Rilke’s I could find with rain in the title is “Before Summer Rain” and though it was written years after Rilke called Salomé his “summer rain,” it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that he and she shared a special understanding of the title beyond the content of the poem. They were, after all, continually in touch up to the day he died. She was his devoted confidant, and his “stupendous letters” to her are, according to William H. Gass’s introduction to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Vintage International 1985), “the actual origin and early text” of that work. In fact, drafts of novel and drafts of letters were interrelated and “clearly come from notes, from prose trials and errors, so that when Rilke revises sections of them for inclusion in the novel, they are already in their third kind of existence.”

It’s only natural to wonder what this woman of the “summer rain” looked like. You have to think that any female attached to a name like Salomé has to be bewitching. The photographs online do not disappoint. This is a woman with beautifully intense, intelligent eyes, a sensual mouth, and a hint of sly humor in her expression even when she’s not smiling.

Enter Salinger

Appropriately enough, it was a leak that brought J.D. Salinger and his Esmé into this rainy night rumination on Rilke and his Salomé, with her exotic name and history, and her intimate connections to Nietzsche and Freud. I knew that Rilke was on Salinger’s list of the writers he most admired, and after a little searching I found the passage early in Franny and Zooey where Franny’s obnoxious boyfriend Lane is collared by another English major who wanted to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about.” The assignment creating the dilemma is the fourth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Lane’s reply was that “he thought he’d understood most of it.” Given the importance of letters in the work of both Salinger and Rilke (most famously his Letters to a Young Poet), it’s no coincidence that Lane had been reading a letter from Franny (quoted in full) when “this bastard Rilke” intruded seconds before Franny’s train pulls up to the platform of a station generally assumed to be modeled on Princeton’s embattled Dinky terminus.

The Necessity of Rain

A letter is also crucial to the denouement of Salinger’s “For EsméWith Love and Squalor,” a story in which the rain is absolutely essential. After looking at how rain is used in works by several different writers, including Chekhov (“Bad Weather”), Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Stephen Crane (George’s Mother, Maggie), I remembered that Esmé began with the narrator, Sgt. X, ducking out of “the slanting, dreary rain” of “a very rainy” Saturday in Devon into a church while children’s choir practice was underway. In the examples from Chekhov, Crane, and Hemingway rain is either metaphorical or impressionistic. In Esmé, it puts a glow on Salinger’s portrait of the title character when she and the narrator meet in the tearoom, where he notices “Her hair was soaking wet, and the rims of both ears were showing.” When she comes over to his table in her tartan dress, he finds it to be “a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day.” In the course of their conversation, there are references to her touching “the top of her soaking wet head with the flat of her hand” and again when she “raised her hand to her wet head again, picked at a few limp filaments of blond hair, trying to cover her exposed ear rims,” which is when the state of her hair actually enters the conversation (“I look a fright …. I have quite wavy hair when it’s dry”). Salinger sustains the self-conscious gesture of touching the wet hair right through to the end of the first part of the story. The last he sees of Esmé she’s “slowly, reflectively testing the ends of her hair for dryness.” The radiant image of the lovely child, daubed with rain, hovers in the background of the dark second half of the story where the war-damaged narrator finds healing solace in the letter from Esmé and the gift of her dead father’s watch.

The Rilke Connection

If you look online, you’ll find at least one site devoted to the Rilke-Salinger connection, plus links to papers such as “The Pattern of Withdrawal and Return in J.D. Salinger and R.M. Rilke,” ”A Source for Seymour’s Suicide: Rilke’s Voices and Salinger’s Nine Stories,” or “East Meets West: Zen and Rilke in Salinger’s Catcher,” in which the carousel scene from Catcher in the Rye is compared to Rilke’s poem “The Merry Go Round” (Das Karussell). Critics assume that the German poet Seymour wants his wife to read in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is Rilke, though he’s not mentioned by name.

From the Cutting Room Floor

Until the distraction of the Salinger leak, I had been exploring the rain theme to the point of referencing other media where rainy weather is a defining force. Of the innumerable films where this is true, one of the first that came to mind along with no-brainers like Singing in the Rain was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Try to imagine that film without the relentless rain that pursues poor Janet Leigh like the wrath of the fat god orchestrating her doom, which comes in the semblance of a downpour created by the shower in the Bates Motel.

Finally, I recommend an online search of quotes about rain, where you will discover pages of nuggets on the subject from, among others, Venus Williams who finds it “very calming,” Pablo Neruda, whose poetry “took its voice” from it, and W.H. Auden, who once said “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,” perhaps inspiring one of the most bizarre lyrics ever written, Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.”

 

Black Friday is principally known for early Christmas shopping, but music has its own post-Thanksgiving tradition in Princeton with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Black Friday” concert. Starting within just a few minutes of the packed house at the Palmer Square tree-lighting, Friday night’s NJSO performance at Richardson Auditorium was no concert of holiday fluff — Music Director Jacques Lacombe programmed an evening of demanding piano and orchestral music, including a world premiere.

The NJSO New Jersey Roots Project has become an integral part of the organization’s commitment to bringing the works of the state’s composers to the forefront. Lowell Liebermann found inspiration for Barcarolles for a Sinking City in the city of Venice, but the four-movement work began with a somewhat dark view of the “Floating City.” The barcarolle, a song of the Venetian gondoliers, rolls along in a motion depicting a boat on waves. The opening Funeral Gondola of Liebermann’s work maintained the smooth roll, but dark melodies from solo instruments and sectional violins made it clear that this was not a sunny ride through canals.

The second movement paid direct tribute to the most well-known barcarolle in music with Liebermann’s incorporation of Jacques Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann into a hymn-like orchestral fabric punctuated by unusual instrumental effects. Throughout the Quodlibet movement, refined instrumental solos came through the texture, including from trombonist Charles Baker, bass clarinetist Lino Gomez, and English horn player Andrew Adelson. The carillon effect of the third movement Ostinato/Carillon was created by the scoring of marimba and xylophone, contrasted by Alexandra Knoll’s eloquent oboe solo. Like Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (whose Concerto for Orchestra closed the concert program), Liebermann likes to explore all instruments of the orchestra, and Barcarolles for a Sinking City created a palette from a myriad of instrumental combinations and abrupt shifts in dynamics which were well-handled by the NJSO.

Mr. Lacombe turned his attention to virtuosity in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, featuring a dazzling pianist in Texas native Adam Golka. Although only in his mid-20s, Mr. Golka has amassed an impressive array of credits, both as a recitalist and concerto soloist. Ravel’s concerto is short by concerto standards, but full of technically demanding passages within an impressionistic palette. The key to this performance was precision, beginning with the percussive snap which opened the first movement. Mr. Golka excelled in both languid and technically quick passages, showing very fluid playing against the orchestra’s light and crisp sound.

Ravel patterned the middle movement Adagio after the music of Mozart, leaving great opportunity for Mr. Golka’s sensitive playing. The steadiness of his left hand never stopped, with graceful counter melodies provided by flutist Bart Feller and English horn player Mr. Adelson. The NJSO brought out the jazz influences in the work with klezmer-like winds and fierce percussion in the closing passages of the work.

Bartok’s five-movement Concerto for Orchestra showed the capabilities of almost all the players in the orchestra, with solid lower strings in the opening movement and wind scales going in many different directions. This piece required vigorous playing from the strings, complemented by sweet timbres from the English horn, bass clarinet, and a pair of harps. Winds were kept busy with solos, including from Ms. Knoll and clarinetist Karl Herman, and pairs of winds effectively brought out the Eastern flavor of the work. A rare movement of double bass exposure in the third movement was contrasted by clean piccolo playing from Kathleen Nester as Mr. Lacombe gently tapered phrase endings amid the full sound of the orchestra. Mr. Lacombe also worked hard to build dynamics slowly, effectively closing the concert with the orchestra in robust form.

 

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is stuck in a dead-end job at a rural Pennsylvania steel mill that is rumored to be closing soon. However, he’s not in a position to leave the area in search of greener pastures because he has to care for his terminally-ill widowed father (Bingo O’Malley) and a younger brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Rodney, a military veteran, hasn’t been able to make the adjustment back to civilian life after having served several tours of duty in Iraq. In fact, he hasn’t been the same since their mother died.

Because of a burgeoning gambling debt, Rodney has agreed to participate in street fights — that are fixed — that are being staged by the bookie (Willem Dafoe), to whom Rodney owes a lot of money. Trouble is Rodney becomes so blinded with rage after being punched, that he can’t be relied upon to throw the fight as promised.

Russell is so desperate to help his brother that he’s even willing to pay off Rodney’s I.O.U. in increments on his modest salary. But even that plan goes up in smoke after Russell is arrested for manslaughter when he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

By the time he’s paroled, Rodney has disappeared and is rumored to have been abducted out of state by a ruthless gang of drug dealers who are led by a sadistic Ramapo Indian (Woody Harrelson). The local police chief (Forest Whitaker) is sympathetic, but has no jurisdiction in New Jersey, which leaves Russell no choice but to take the law into his own hands with the help of his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).

Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Out of the Furnace is a gritty thriller that unfolds against the backdrop of a decaying American landscape. Thus, almost overshadowing the desperate search at the center of the story, is the background behind the film of an aging national infrastructure that is irreversibly past its prime.

While the violence occasionally goes over the top, the film nevertheless remains highly recommended, because the cast is as adept at delivering dialogue as it is in dispensing street justice.

The movie is a gruesome showdown between warring clans that is reminiscent of the backwoods feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, drug use, and graphic violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

November 27, 2013

New York City, how I love you, blink your eyes and I’ll be gone

just a little grain of sand.

—Lou Reed (1942-2013),

from “Nyc Man”

If anybody starts using me as scenery, I’ll return to New York.

—Grace Kelly (1929-1982)

dvd rev1Writing shortly after he’d moved to New York in August 1932, James Agee, who was born on November 27, 1909, describes listening at night to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a phonograph in his office on the 50th floor of the Chrysler Building: “An empty skyscraper is just about an ideal place for it … with all New York about 600 feet below you, and with that swell ode, taking in the whole earth, and with everyone on earth supposedly singing it …. With Joy speaking over them: O ye millions, I embrace you … and all mankind shall be as brothers beneath thy tender and wide wings.”

Typically, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family balances his swelling rhapsody with some topical reality, referring to “all this depression over the world” and of two feelings the city inspires, “one the feeling of that music — of a love and pity and joy” for people and the other for the “mob of them in this block I live in … a tincture of sickness and cruelty and selfishness in the faces of most of them.”

Coming to the City

Until I started relistening to Lou Reed’s music, I hadn’t intended to write about the singer songwriter and self-described “New York City man” who died at 71 on October 27. My plan, after a birthday nod to Agee, had been to focus on Grace Kelly, whose life is the subject of “Beyond the Icon,” the lavish exhibit that will be at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown through January of next year. Although I’m still absorbing Reed’s music, his identification with New York is reason enough to bring him on board. Some 40 years after Agee came to the city, Reed released his best-known solo album, Transformer, featuring  “Walk On the Wild Side,” an edgy ode to people drawn to Andy Warhol’s Manhattan domain, namely Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Little Joe Dallessandro, Sugar Plum Fairy Joe Campbell, and Jackie Curtis. Joining them in two other great Lou Reed songs are “Sweet Jane,” who knows “that women never really faint/and that villains always blink their eyes,” and seven-year-old Jenny in “Rock and Roll Music” who “one fine mornin’ puts on a New York station” and “starts dancin’ to that fine fine music. You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.”

New York was also 18-year-old Grace Kelly’s destination in 1947 when to the chagrin of her well-heeled Philadelphia family (her father saw acting “as a slim cut above streetwalker”) she decided to devote herself to a career in the theater. Living at the Barbizon Hotel for Women might not exactly be a walk on the wild side (men were denied access above the street level foyer), but there were lovers to come, and it’s fitting that her two most memorable performances are in movies with Manhattan settings, The Country Girl, for which she won an Oscar cast against type as the nagging adulterous muse to a drunken actor played by Bing Crosby, and Rear Window, which gave her the sexiest role of her brief career thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s talent for turning his erotic fantasies into cinematic art.

The Plot Thickens

As for Andy Warhol himself, he came to New York from Pittsburgh two years after Grace’s arrival; meanwhile Brooklyn born Lou Reed grew up on Long Island and definitively entered the life of the city in 1964 after graduating from Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz (“the first great person I ever met”). Reed showed his appreciation by dedicating the Velvet Underground song “European Son” to his mentor and later by composing a tribute called “My House” (“to find you in my house makes things perfect”). Another Brooklyn native, Schwartz had settled in Manhattan in the late 1930s and just as Reed would find himself as an artist in the Warhol/East Village scene, Schwartz flourished through his connection with the Partisan Review, where he befriended the wildly talented, driven, reckless human being laboring for Fortune and Time 50 floors up in the Chrysler Building. As it turned out, James Agee would make his name writing the column on film for The Nation that W.H. Auden dubbed “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism.” Had Agee’s hell-bent heavy-drinking lifestyle permitted it and had he stayed on as a film reviewer into the 1950s, we might have known his thoughts on Grace Kelly and Rear Window, which was released the year before he died and a mere two years before Grace became a princess, an event that Hitchcock helped make possible by casting her in the film (To Catch a Thief) that took her to Monaco.

By now it seems that once New York becomes the common denominator, all bets are off and the plot fantastically thickens. Though he lived outside Manhattan over the years (in Hollywood and up the Delaware River in Frenchtown), Agee was, like Reed and Schwartz, a New York City man right up to the day he died, stricken with a fatal attack of angina in a taxi in May 1955. What more Manhattan-centric place to make your quietus than in a Yellow Cab, commanded in this case by a driver who knew to rush his passenger to Roosevelt Hospital, the same facility to which an ambulance brought another New Yorker of note named John Lennon 25 years later on December 8, a day that coincides with the date of Delmore Schwartz’s birth — a hundred years ago this year.

Hitchcock’s New York

You might say that Hitchcock has “done” New York. There’s Cary Grant in Grand Central Station in North by Northwest (1959), Robert Cummings in the crown of the Statue of Liberty as the villain goes screaming to his death in Saboteur (1942), Grace Kelly as the victim in a New York apartment in a lesser film, Dial M for Murder (1954), Henry Fonda falsely accused in The Wrong Man (1956), Jimmy Stewart in a Manhattan apartment where a murder has been committed in Rope (1948), and most significantly in relation to the myth of Grace Kelly, Stewart is the central character in Hitchcock’s salute to the voyeur in all of us, Rear Window, where he’s in a wheel chair, his leg in a cast, observing with morbid fascination the play of life going on in the windows of the apartment building across the way. The scenario even provides a street address to help situate you, 125 West 9th, but this is strictly a Hollywood Manhattan made on a Paramount sound stage and the most New York thing about it is the voice and vigor of Brooklynite Thelma Ritter.

dvd rev2All Grace

Rear Window is adored by Hitchcockians and film buffs in general for exploring the act of seeing, the voyeur as audience; it’s also appreciated for its automat-style tableau of city life (each little window a movie screen featuring the newlyweds, the quarrelling couple, the lonely woman, the composer at the piano, the party, the lady with the dog, the losers and winners, and the act of murder deduced by Stewart’s prying photographer), but the film’s most memorable, most glamorously cinematic moment is all Grace. Nowhere else in her career does the legend so enchantingly shine forth.

Hitchcock takes pride in having deliberately subverted the decorous Princess Grace stereotype. “I didn’t discover Grace,” he has said, “but … I prevented her from being eternally cast as a cold woman.” In an interview with Oriana Fallaci, after nastily disposing of Kim Novak and Vera Miles, Hitchcock has nothing but kind words for Kelly: “She’s sensitive, disciplined, and very sexy. People think she’s cold. Rubbish! She’s a volcano covered with snow!”

That oft-quoted metaphor is unworthy of what happens when we first see Grace Kelly’s Lisa Carol Fremont in Rear Window. This is an appearance, not an entrance, and far more subtle, stylish, and erotic than a snow-covered volcano would suggest. The sequence begins with the camera panning across the vista of windows Stewart has been inspecting; you hear a woman singing scales and you can see people walking and traffic moving on a portion of Ninth Street through a space between the buildings opposite. The disabled photographer in the wheelchair is dozing when a shadow falls over him. The shadow is characteristic Hitchcock, a sly tease leading you to imagine for a second that some malign force is about to descend on the helpless man. After all, this is an exposed first-floor apartment on a steamy Greenwich Village summer evening. But instead of the fearsome source of the shadow bending over its victim, a beautiful face is coming toward us, right at us, filling the screen (still with a hint of the sinister, could be a green-eyed vampire in a nightmare Stewart’s having, red lips parted, lusting for the bared throat), there’s the shadow again flowing over him as his eyes open, he looks up, and sees the luminous face of his lover bending close to kiss him, she in a swooning motion; shown in profile, it’s the epitome of a kiss, promising everything but only promising, as she asks, her lips touching his, kissing each question, how’s his leg, how’s his stomach, and then, smiling sublimely, “And your love life?”

This is the woman in the print Andy Warhol made after Kelly’s death in 1982, less Princess Grace of Monaco than Lisa Carol Tremont, who has definite features in common with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Now imagine you’re 50 floors up in the empty Chrysler Building on James Agee’s birthday, it’s late at night, and instead of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy you’re listening to the long version of “Sweet Jane,” the one on Fully Loaded, the expanded version of the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded, where everyone “who ever had a heart…wouldn’t turn around and break it,” and anyone “who ever played a part…wouldn’t turn around and hate it,”— and the restored lines, all Grace, “Heavenly wine and roses/Seem to whisper to her when she smiles.”

Books consulted were Letters of James Agee To Father Flye and Donald Spoto’s High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly.

The Westminster Conservatory, which houses the Westminster Community Orchestra, has within its ranks a wealth of musical talent not often heard on area public stages. The Community Orchestra and conductor Ruth Ochs have a long relationship with Westminster Conservatory pianist Phyllis Alpert Lehrer (who performed with the orchestra last season) and this past weekend showcased another conservatory colleague in pianist Ena Bronstein Barton. Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Community Orchestra in Richardson Auditorium featured a Beethoven piano concerto played by Barton with both lyrical classicism and a bit of dramatic fire. 

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major had an auspicious start at its premiere in 1808, sandwiched among at least five other monumental works by Beethoven, but has since found its place in concerto repertory. A concerto from this period should be  marked by classical sparkle, and a pianist of Barton’s caliber would no doubt bring drama to the piece, and neither aspect of the performance disappointed the audience.

Barton opened the concerto with elegant but strong chords, cleanly answered by the strings. Both orchestra and soloist brought out the dynamic accents heard to the extreme in late Beethoven. Subtle instrumental solos by oboist Helen Ackley and flutist Judy Singleton complemented Barton as she launched into keyboard runs in the middle of the first movement. Barton used a bit more pedal than some might be used to in a piece from the early 19th century, but she maintained exceptional clarity, especially among parallel thirds as her hands flew over the keys.

Throughout the concerto, the Community Orchestra matched Barton’s level of virtuosity, as Ochs watched Barton carefully to keep ensemble and soloist exactly in time. Barton found intense fire in the cadenza to the first movement, with shades of drama amidst the long melodic scales and false cadences.

Ochs paired the Beethoven concerto with an expansive symphony by Antonin Dvorak, whose works contain complex ideas within small spaces and require great orchestral stamina to maintain musical intensity. In the opening movement of Dvorak’s 1884 Symphony no. 7 in D Major, Ochs brought out the rolling drama of the music with trumpets and trombones which were always clean. The first and fourth movements of this symphony had an overall dark character, but Dvorak can also be nimble and airy, and the oboes, clarinets, and flutes of the Community Orchestra aided in creating contrasting lighter sections.

The orchestra achieved its fullest sound of the afternoon toward the end of the first movement of the Dvorak, with a trio of clean horns paying homage to Wagner’s orchestration. Throughout the symphony, wind playing was precise, including solos from flutist Ms. Singleton, clarinetist Daniel Beerbohm, and oboist Ms. Ackley, and the winds particularly came to the forefront in the Trio of the third movement. Ochs whipped the orchestra into a frenzy for the close of the third movement Scherzo, with the rhythmic motives of the movement clear. This is a work which grew more settled within the players as the movements progressed, with the back row of brass, including trumpets, trombones, and tuba, always accurate. The fourth movement in particular contained a myriad of musical ideas, and the orchestra always managed to hang onto their focus to convey the complex instrumental palette.

The Dvorak symphony was an especially challenging work for the Westminster Community Orchestra, and Conductor Ochs was deservedly proud of the players following Sunday’s performance. The Beethoven concerto held the audience’s attention for Ms. Barton’s exceptional playing, and the Dvorak brought the Community Orchestra together to reach a demanding and difficult new performance height.

 

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

The Hunger Games book trilogy has so captured the collective imagination of children the world over that it has already eclipsed Harry Potter as the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic adventure is set in Panem, a dystopia in which the poverty stricken majority are brutally subjugated by the powerful, privileged few.

In the first film, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grudgingly participated in a winner-take-all death match against other teens, each representing his or her home district. Known as the Hunger Games, the annual competition is presented to the masses as entertainment designed to distract them from their miserable plight.

Wise beyond her years, underdog Katniss emerged triumphant at the end of the first episode by virtue of a combination of craftiness, compassion, and her skills as an archer. However, she did break a cardinal rule by sparing the life of her co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her friend and male counterpart from District 12.

At the second movie’s point of departure, we find the pair embarking on a government sponsored victory tour around the country. However, when their speeches stir up revolutionary fervor in the crowds, vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland) breaks a promise by drafting the pair to take part in the Quarter Quell, a tournament of champions comprised entirely of former Hunger Games winners.

So, it’s not long before they’re back in training for another life or death contest, this time against elite opponents with weapons and capabilities that range from fang-like teeth, uncanny intuition, chameleon-like camouflage, and the ability to harness electricity. Each of the entrants, known as tributes, is introduced by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the festivities’ unctuous master of ceremonies.

Once the pomp and circumstance of the opening ritual are out of the way, the gruesome main event begins. Alliances are forged, and bargains are made, followed by literal and figurative backstabbing in a desperate contest which ultimately forces a cruel betrayal of any loyalties.

In spite of all its frenetic action, this movie nevertheless suffers from a classic case of inbetween-itis, since it is a bridge to the third book’s conclusion.

Very Good (***). PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, frightening images, mature themes, and a suggestive situation. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

November 20, 2013

book revI used to have the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through. It’s a funny thing that as long as you have that feeling you seem to get through. I’ve lost that feeling lately but as a matter of fact I don’t feel bad about it. If anything happens to me I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. 

—John Kennedy, from a letter to Inga Arvad

Written from the South Pacific following the August 1, 1943 sinking of PT-109, the long letter from Navy Lt. John Kennedy to his lover is worth a close look for what it says about a man in his mid-20s who already appears to have an enlightened sense of history and an interesting sense of himself. It’s one of the most revealing documents in The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury $30), edited by Martin W. Sandler and billed as the first such collection ever.

If Kennedy was satisfied with the quality of his life in 1943, what he achieved in the limited quantity he had left is astonishing, especially given what he was dealing with physically, day by day. As Sandler points out in the book’s last section (“A Triumph of Will”), here was a man who received the last rites of the Catholic Church four times, whose image of “glowing health and energy” (“vigor” a presidential buzz word) was “a well-orchestrated lie.” After mentioning how Kennedy “relied heavily on drugs and pills,” Sandler refers to the spending of “many days in bed,” which can be read two ways, given JFK’s legendary sex life. In fact, if he had been healthy, he might have graduated from Princeton, having actually enrolled at Old Nassau in 1935 “where he immediately concentrated on what was to become a lifetime obsession — the conquest of beautiful women.” We’ll never know how this need played out in the unlikely setting of pre-coed Princeton, for he soon “fell ill” with Addison’s disease, the sickness that would “continue to plague him for the rest of his life.” As a result, he missed most of the school year and enrolled at Harvard in 1936.

While most of the letters in this collection were written by the candidate or senator or president and will be of primary interest to historians, the exchange with Inga Arvad offers a teasing glimpse of the protagonist of the novel Norman Mailer imagined but never wrote, an existential adventurer with style and wit and a political agenda. Mailer tested the idea in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the Esquire essay on the 1960 Democratic Convention projecting candidate Kennedy as “‘your first hipster’ … a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or 12 years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old.”

Jack and Inga

Inga Arvad (1913-1973) was a Danish journalist who met Jack Kennedy (1917-1963) through his sister Kathleen when both women were working for the Washington Times Herald. Winner of a beauty contest at 16, she competed for the Miss Europe title a year later, around the time she eloped with an Egyptian diplomat, divorced him and in 1936 married Hungarian-born Paul Fejos, director of the silent classic Lonesome (in later life she married movie cowboy Tim McCoy, settled down in Hollywood, and raised a family). She was still married to Fejos when the romance with Kennedy began in November 1940. The FBI took an interest in the affair after the U.S. entered the war and it was discovered that Inga had conducted several sympathetic interviews with Adolph Hitler. That, and a photo of Inga and Hitler at the Summer Olympics, was all it took for her to be cast as a German spy. Hotel rooms were bugged, with FBI agents listening in, compiling transcripts indicating that besides making a whole lot of love, Jack and Inga took the relationship seriously, Kennedy with thoughts of annulling both her marriages so he could wed her in the Catholic Church, Inga with thoughts of carrying his baby (“you are the kind the world ought to swarm with”).

In the only letter from Arvad in the collection, she sounds at once amorous, sisterly, and maternal when she describes “the young handsome Boston Bean” who “when you talk to him or see him you always have the impression that his big white teeth are ready to bite off a huge hunk of life.” Her advice to him has an almost Emersonian ring: “Go up the steps of fame. But — pause now and then to make sure that you are accompanied by happiness. Stop and ask yourself ‘Does it sing inside me today.’ If that is gone. Look around and don’t take another step till you are certain life is as you will and want it.”

Kennedy’s reference to “the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through” echoes the wording of an earlier letter to his parents describing the man in his PT-109 crew who “always seemed to have the feeling that something was going to happen to him …. When a fellow gets the feeling that he’s in for it, the only thing to do is let him get off the boat because strangely enough, they always seem to be the ones that do get it.” Kennedy refers to the same man’s fate more explicitly in his letter to Inga: “He told me one night he thought he was going to be killed …. He was in the forward gun turret when the destroyer hit us.”

A Ranch in Texas?

In view of the day in Dallas when the survivor who had lived with death finally failed to “get through,” the most curious reference in the letter is when he tells Inga “you said you figured that I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that. This thing is so stupid that while it has a sickening fascination for some of us, myself included, I want to leave it far behind when I go.”

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination looming (this year, as it did in 1963, November 22 falls on a Friday), the mention of Texas requires at least a moment or two of reflection. Without access to the other letters, there’s no way to track down previous references to the possibility that Kennedy might have considered going to Texas to write a book about his wartime experience. According to Michael O’Brien’s biography of Kennedy, he discussed presidential ambitions with Inga as early as 1941 and was “torn between postwar dreams of moving to a ranch out west or pursuing an extraordinary political ambition.” Inga was “quite convinced that he had it in him to become president if he set his mind to it.” She saw “the ranch out West” as an alternative to “the highway to the White House,” and “out West” presumably could mean Texas. Considering the labyrinth of coincidence and conspiracy surrounding the assassination, perhaps someone will do some research on whether Kennedy ever imagined a life for himself on a ranch in Texas.

In his preface to the letters from May-October 1963, Sandler cites the various warnings Kennedy received about a visit to Dallas in the third week of November. A member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas said that the city “simply wasn’t safe for Kennedy and should be avoided.” When Senator William Fulbright repeated the warning and advised him not to go, “Kennedy responded by saying that if any president ever reached the point where he was afraid to visit any American city, he should immediately resign.”

More Than a Celebrity

A month ago in the October 22 New York Times Book Review, there was a piece on “Kennedy the Elusive President” discussing the “Kennedy fixation” that has inspired “an estimated 40,000 books.” One of the biographers, Robert Dallek, told the Times that “the mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” seeing him “more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”

Kennedy was more than a celebrity, he was a star, which is one reason why even as history books are negatively reassessing his administration, he still enjoys the highest approval rating among presidents of the 20th-21st centuries.

The 60s had begun with the frigid weather of the inauguration, a bareheaded old poet reciting, a bareheaded young president declaiming. After the shots in Dallas, it was if the decade had been cut down in its tracks with the man who had symbolically set it in motion. A few months later, on February 7, 1964, four young men from Liverpool arrived in America and for many of us, the 60s, for better or worse, stood up and got moving again.

 

NEW WORK BY JUDY BRODSKY: Works by acclaimed New Jersey printmakerJudith K. Brodsky, including “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male),” shown here, are currently on view at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) in an exhibition marking the Center’s 40th anniversary. “Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” at PCNJ, 440 River Road, Branchburg, runs through December 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

NEW WORK BY JUDY BRODSKY: Works by acclaimed New Jersey printmakerJudith K. Brodsky, including “How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced (Male),” shown here, are currently on view at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) in an exhibition marking the Center’s 40th anniversary. “Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” at PCNJ, 440 River Road, Branchburg, runs through December 31. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

An exhibition at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (PCNJ) offers a rare chance to see works by two influential New Jersey artists who have shaped the development of printmaking in the state.

“Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” opened earlier this month at PCNJ and will continue through December 31. Marking the Center’s 40th anniversary year, the show celebrates the commitment of both of these artists to printmaking. Ms. Brodsky and Mr. Chapin were the moving hands behind two of New Jersey’s most important printmaking institutions.

Mr. Chapin was one of five New Jersey artists who founded the Printmaking Center back in 1973, when it was known as the Printmaking Council of New Jersey. Ms. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita of the Department of Visual Arts at Rutgers, is the founder and former director of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, renamed the Brodsky Center in her honor. This is the long-time Princeton resident’s first exhibition of new work since 2010.

Of late, Ms. Brodsky has been so focused on curating shows by other artists that she has had little time to devote to her own artistic endeavors. In conjunction with Ferris Olin, with whom she co-founded and co-directs the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art and The Feminist Art Project, a national program to promote recognition of women artists, she curated “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society” last year. The exhibition and accompanying events and book focused on women artists, filmmakers, writers, and composers of the Middle East.

Recently, Ms. Brodsky completed work on a catalog and traveling exhibition of a decade of work by painter Basil Alkazzi, which will arrive at Rider University in February.

“I wasn’t in my studio very much until the PCNJ asked me to have an exhibition there in celebration of its 40th anniversary,” acknowledged Ms. Brodsky. “It was wonderful because it gave me a deadline that would help me shift gears from curatorial and other organizational activities to concentrating on my own work again.”

In September, the artist worked “night and day to finish 10 large pieces that make up the PCNJ exhibition.” Half of them are etchings and the other half consist of digital collages and drawings, part of a new project called “The Twenty Most Important Questions of the 21st Century.” “I was inspired by a list I saw in the science section of The New York Times at the turn of the millennium and that has been on my mind ever since,” she explained.

On view here are the first 10 of Ms. Brodsky’s 20-piece series inspired by the millennium questions. They are large by print standards, one is five feet in length, and bear thought-provoking titles such as What Came Before the Big Bang, How Does the Brain Work, Why Do We Sleep, Can Science Prove There’s a God, and Will We Go to Mars. How Many Body Parts Can Be Replaced, shown here is one half of a male/female a diptych.

Created using digital and traditional mark-making techniques, Ms. Brodsky’s visually provocative images strike a balance between content and formal qualities. They prompt the viewer to an intellectual as well as an emotional response. The artist has said that she has always thought of her work as “visual responses to, and documentation of, the defining elements of the era in which she has lived.” Always conscious of history she believes that people in the future will learn about our time through works of art.

For the exhibition, Ms. Brodsky shares space with fellow printmaker Peter Chapin. Originally from New Jersey, Mr. Chapin now lives in New Mexico. “Works by the two of us make a nice combination,” commented Ms. Brodsky, whose work is in the permanent collections of the New Jersey State Museum, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, the Library of Congress, the Zimmerli Art Museum, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and Berlin’s Stadtmuseum, among others.

Mr. Chapin’s drypoint prints, other works on paper, and acrylic paintings are in the collections of J. P. Morgan Chase, Prudential Insurance Company, and the estate of Elaine deKooning. He served as executive art director of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey and co-directed Skylight Conversations in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Roots and Rites: Works by Judith Brodsky and Peter Chapin” runs through December 31 at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, 440 River Road, Branchburg. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (908) 725-2110, or visit: www.printnj.org.

 

Each year at this time, Princeton takes on Yale in a football game that, for more than a century, has been bringing out the best in student competition. Over the same century, the Princeton and Yale Glee Clubs have presented a joint concert to kick off the weekend of collective school spirit and friendly rivalry. Glee clubs have a long tradition of fostering camaraderie but collegiate choral singing is not just for drinking and football songs anymore. This past Friday night’s “Centennial Football Concert” with the Princeton and Yale University Glee Clubs in Richardson Auditorium featured a challenging mixture of choral works, together with a commissioned premiere.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch and his Yale counterpart, Jeffrey Douma each programmed a range of music reflecting a variety of anniversaries as well as their own personal repertoire specialties. Following works by Brahms and Victoria, Dr. Douma led the Yale Glee Club in music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including his own arrangements. In the Brahms piece, which opened the program, Douma found a Viennese flow to the music, showing off a light and clear sound from the sopranos in the Glee Club. In a refreshing piece by Mark Sirett, the 16-voice Yale Glee Club Chamber Singers demonstrated the same exact tuning under the direction of Yale Masters student Kathleen Allan.

Douma paid tribute to British composer John Tavener, who died this month, with a performance of Song for Athene, probably Tavener’s most well-known piece. Although the low choral drone was hard to hear from these young voices, the lone melodic lines were well sustained and harmonic shifts from major to minor were well executed. The singers achieved particular intensity on the text “Life: a shadow and a dream.” Douma closed his half of the concert with two of his own imaginative compositions, as well as a medley of football songs by historic Yale Glee Club conductor Fenno Heath, sung to the backdrop of the obligatory friendly heckling from the Princeton Glee Club members in the balcony.

Princeton Glee Club conductor Gabriel Crouch focused his half of the concert on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, acknowledging a myriad of anniversaries. Most significant was the choice of Herbert Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, composed for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, and the Carol (Maiden in the Mor Lay) who would have turned 100 on the same date as Kennedy’s assassination. Interspersed throughout the Glee Club’s program were other unofficial anniversaries, including 400 years since the death of Carlo Gesualdo and 70 years since the death of Sergei Rachmaninoff, both composers of works in the concert. With his choice of the jazzy I’m a Train, Crouch may also have inadvertently paid tribute to the legendary “Princeton locomotive” cheer heard so often in Richardson Auditorium over the past decades.

In their opening selections from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, the Princeton Glee Club presented large blocks of sound, with an effective flow to the music. Crouch kept the members of the nearly 80-voice Glee Club close together, allowing the solid chords to ring through Richardson as they would have resounded through spacious Russian churches. Commendable in the second selection Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda was mezzo-soprano soloist Saunghee Ko, who displayed a rich sound well beyond her years and complete ease with the low register of the solo.

Crouch’s conducting “bread and butter” is the music of late 19th-century and early 20th-century England, and he showed his mettle with the Glee Club in the music of C.V. Stanford and Herbert Howells. The harmonies in Stanford’s Beati quorum via unfolded luxuriantly from the women’s voices, and the difficult harmonies in Howells’ Take Him, Earth were well-handled by the chorus. Crouch showed a lighter side of the Glee Club Chamber Chorus in a double-chorus selection by Bach, with a polished and clear sound from the singers. He also gave a student the chance to lead the Glee Club, and Princeton senior Kamna Gupta showed that minimal conducting gestures can produce tremendous results in a crisp presentation of Britten’s Carol.

The two University Glee Clubs joined forces for a premiere of a work by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi commissioned specifically for this occasion. The Famous Tay Whale, led by both conductors (each conducted their own respective chorus in tag-team conducting) was a jazzy and homophonic setting of humorous text appropriate for the concert. Pianists Paul Noh and Min Joo Yi well handled a keyboard accompaniment which was entertaining in itself.

As one can read elsewhere in this paper, Princeton beat Yale in the football game Saturday and is on its way to an Ivy title. Friday night’s performance by the two Glee Clubs showed that the students from these two Universities were well capable of handling complex and difficult choral music while asserting their places in their respective scholastic histories. Equally as important, this engaging concert also proved that healthy competition in a choral setting can do as much as sports to create fine young individuals in a college setting.

 

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) was informed that he had 30 days to live when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1986.

While pharmaceutical companies around the world were testing hundreds of chemical compounds in hopes of developing an antidote, the only one approved for distribution in America was AZT, a medication so toxic that it almost killed Ron. Rather than resign himself to a quick death, the tough Texan resolved to fight for his life.

First, he visited a clinic in Mexico that was promoting a cocktail of alternative therapies and purchased enough drugs to test the experimental regimen on himself. When the trial proved effective, he sneaked back across the border, posing as a priest, and smuggled a trunk full of pills out of the country.

Soon thereafter, the enterprising Woodroof founded the Dallas Buyers Club in order to skirt the law and distribute unapproved substances such as Interferon, Peptide T and Compound Q. A mere $400 per month would afford club members access to a variety of state-of-the-art AIDS remedies.

Because of his homophobia, the gruff good ol’ boy wisely went into business with a partner who had deep roots in the gay community. Flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV positive transsexual, played a pivotal role in attracting a clientele of fellow AIDS patients because Ron often used offensive slurs when referring to homosexuals. Together, the pair built the fledgling enterprise into an economic success that provided a service for patients who were frustrated by the FDA’s response to the epidemic.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Café de Flore), Dallas Buyers Club recounts Ron Woodroof’s desperate struggle to survive in the face of a governmental bureaucracy that appeared indifferent to people in his plight. The movie was inspired by “Buying Time,” an article by Bill Minutaglio which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on August 9, 1992.

Riddled with historical inaccuracies, the biopic frequently plays fast and loose with the facts in order to fashion an entertaining movie that fits the Hollywood success formula. In truth, the real-life Ron was apparently not as intolerant of homosexuality as depicted. Furthermore, he was initially given a two-year life expectancy by his doctor, in contrast to the picture’s one month fiction.

However, perhaps most important of all, some of the drugs he imported were banned for very good reasons. Nevertheless, the movie is a terrific tour de force that is likely, at last, to give Matthew McConaughey an Oscar nomination because he convincingly conveys the acute mental anguish of a person ravaged by AIDS.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, pervasive profanity, ethnic and homophobic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

November 13, 2013

book revBorn on this day, November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was writing The Weir of Hermiston when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894, in Samoa. He dedicated the unfinished novel to his wife Fanny:

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who

Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,

Held still the target higher, chary of praise

And prodigal of counsel — who but thou?

So now, in the end, if this the least be good,

If any deed be done, if any fire

Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

Although Stevenson considered his marriage “the best move I ever made in my life,” he described Fanny, in a letter to J.M. Barrie written the year before he died, as “a violent friend, a brimstone enemy.”

“Damn Queer”

Painted at Bournemouth in the summer of 1885, John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, which was on loan to the Princeton Art Museum some years ago, has to be one of the strangest images Sargent ever put on canvas. For one thing, Mrs. Stevenson is seated off to the side, at first glance barely distinguishable from the decor, so much so that she draws attention to herself by almost not being there. This frame from a home movie on pause may say more than the painter intended about the couple’s relationship, though Sargent seemed in amused agreement when Fanny observed, “I am but a cipher under the shadow.” Stevenson looks too thin to cast more than a sliver of shadow. He’s wandering away from his wife, not deliberately, but as if he were following the course of a stray thought. In his own account, he judged the painting “excellent” but “damn queer as a whole” and “too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end.” Draped in a colorful Indian fabric, with one bare foot just peeping through, Fanny resembles not so much a ghost as a spaced-out gypsy dancing girl cooling her heels. The portrait may be to blame for the rumor that Mrs. Stevenson showed up barefoot at London dinner parties.

Books Without Women

In an essay in the April 1888 Century Magazine, Henry James, who was a frequent guest when the Stevensons were living in Bournemouth, points out that Stevenson “achieves his best effects” in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “without the aid of the ladies …. It is usually supposed that a truly poignant impression cannot be made without them, but in the drama of Mr. Hyde’s fatal ascendancy they remain altogether in the wing.”

It’s no surprise that the author of The Portrait of a Lady and creator of numerous memorable female characters would be sensitive to their absence in Stevenson, as he noted at the outset of the same essay. After describing the “gallantry” of Stevenson’s style (“as if language were a pretty woman” and the author “something of a Don Juan”), James goes on to observe that “it is rather odd that a striking feature” of Stevenson’s gallant nature is “an absence of care for things feminine. His books are for the most part books without women, and it is not women who fall most in love with them.” James surmises that “It all comes back to his sympathy with the juvenile, and that feeling about life which leads him to regard women as so many superfluous girls in a boy’s game …. Why should a person marry, when he might be swinging a cutlass or looking for a buried treasure? Why should he go to the altar when he might be polishing his prose?”

In “real life” and real time (1880), Stevenson pursued Fanny all the way to California with the fervor of a cutlass-wielding, treasure-hunting action hero, risking everything, health, funds, work, parental disfavor, crossing an ocean and a continent to track her down and win her hand, though doing so meant taking responsibility for three children from her previous marriage.

Contrary to the situation pictured by Sargent, Fanny was an immensely formative force in Stevenson’s life. She was nearly as close to his work as he was, his first reader, his conscience, his antagonist. The writing he’s known and loved for, from Treasure Island on, was accomplished when she was by his side. How intimidating, then, to attempt to form a fictional woman when a very real and fearlessly judgmental one is peering over your shoulder. After reading the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fanny was not only underwhelmed, she questioned the essence of his approach to the tale so heatedly that it led to “an almighty row,” after which, to Fanny’s horror, he threw the entire manuscript on the fire, having decided that she was right. The novel the world knows (or thinks it knows, given the liberties taken by various film versions) was written to address Fanny’s reservations about the first draft and in particular her insistence that he undertake to develop the “moral allegory” implicit in the situation.

In a letter to Henry James quoted in Claire Harman’s suggestively titled biography, Myself & the Other Fellow (2005), Stevenson describes the back and forth between husband/author and wife/critic, she “who is not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine.” He goes on to recount a recent falling out: “she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear …. The beauty was we each thought the other quite unscathed at first. But we had dealt shrewd stabs.” No wonder Stevenson would call Fanny “the violent friend” and “brimstone enemy,” addressing her in letters as “Dear weird woman” and “my dear fellow.” In the same 1893 letter to J.M. Barrie he admitted, “She runs the show … handsome waxen face like Napoleon’s, insane black eyes, boy’s hands, tiny bare feet, a cigarette …. Hellish energy …. Is always either loathed or slavishly adored. The natives think her uncanny and the devils serve her. Dreams dreams, and sees visions.”

Maybe by now you’re thinking, as I am, “What a fantastic challenge such a character would be for any novelist.” Never mind James. Think Balzac or Dostoevsky or Proust.

From all accounts, Henry James knew Fanny better than did Stevenson’s other friends. He routinely added his “love” to her at the close of his letters, and the long letter he sent her after Stevenson’s death in December 1894 was warm and caring, yet he privately confessed to thinking her “a poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady,” characterizing her to Owen Wister as “a strange California wife … if you like the gulch & the canyon, you will like her.” James’s invalid sister Alice compared her to “an organ grinder’s appendage” (her way of not saying “monkey”), with so large an ego that it “produced the strangest feeling of being in the presence of an unclothed being” (her way of not saying “naked”). Obviously, such comments say as much about James and his sister as they do about Fanny, but words like “barbarous,” the monkey reference, and Stevenson’s own use of “weird,” “insane,” “uncanny,” “devils,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “hellish energy” indicate qualities Mrs. Stevenson shares with Mr. Hyde. It was she, after all, who heard her husband’s scream and came to wake him when he was being consumed by the nightmare that inspired the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.

Below Him

No less weird, uncanny, and barbarous is the P.S. that Stevenson appended to a letter praising Roderick Hudson, one of James’s lesser works. After prefacing the crude blow he’s about to strike as “a burst of the diabolic” (a Hyde-like note) he says, “I must break out with the news that I can’t bear The Portrait of a Lady …. I can’t stand your having written it; and I beg you will write no more of the like …. I can’t help it — it may be your favorite work, but in my eyes it’s BELOW YOU to write and me to read.”

This assault on a novel already being acknowledged as James’s masterpiece is wildly out of character. Perhaps Stevenson had had one drink too many. What was he thinking? What could have brought it on? More bewildered than hurt (“My dear Louis, I don’t think I follow you here — why does that work move you to such scorn?”), James knows better than to take it any further (“I feel as if it were almost gross to defend myself”). If nothing else, the outburst underscores the fundamental division James touched on when noting the “absence of care for things feminine” in Stevenson’s work, a point he comes back to decades later in his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait. Addressing the difficulty some novelists have with making a female character “the center of interest,” he observes that “even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted.”

Last Words

There’s no evidence that the female character at the heart of Stevenson’s last work, The Weir of Hermiston, was a considered response to James. If anything, making Christina Elliott “the center of interest” was a tribute to Fanny, as “the praise be thine” dedication implies. When the narrative breaks off in the ninth chapter, Christina is in emotional disarray, furious because the man she adores has come to her not to make love but “to trace out a line of conduct” for them “in a few cold, convincing sentences.” Her response is to subject him to “a savage cross-examination” that must have evoked smiles in readers familiar with the dynamic of Stevenson’s marriage, the “canary bird” meets King Lear.

The last passage Stevenson was ever to write, dictated to his stepdaughter the day he died, begins with a sentimental cliche with juvenile overtones (“He took the poor child in his arms”) — until “He felt her whole body shaken by the throes of distress, and had pity upon her beyond speech. Pity, and at the same time a bewildered fear of this explosive engine in his arms, whose works he did not understand, and yet had been tampering with. There arose from before him the curtains of boyhood, and he saw for the first time the ambiguous face of woman as she is. In vain he looked back over the interview; he saw not where he had offended. It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convulsion of brute nature ….”

And so everything ends with those two scarily resonant words.

It’s all there, as James would undoubtedly have recognized, from “the curtains of boyhood” to the “face of woman as she is.”

 

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

In the manner of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus and the great tragedies of Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) is a drama of retrospective analysis. Written and set in the wake of World War II, All My Sons, Miller’s earliest success, just two years before Death of a Salesman, depicts one tragic day in the life of the Keller family. When the play begins, most of the key events of the story have already taken place. The dramatic action on stage is an exploration and revelation of a past that shapes and weighs upon the tortured lives of the main characters.

All My Sons, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is the story of Joe Keller (Jordan Adelson) and his wife Kate (Uchechi Kalu). It takes place “in the outskirts of an American town” on a Sunday in August, 1946. Their son Larry, an air force pilot, has been Missing In Action for three years, but Kate cannot give up hope and let the family move on with its life. Joe, jailed three years earlier when his aircraft engine business issued damaged cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots, has recently been exonerated, released, and returned home, where he lives with his wife and 32-year-old son Chris (Peter Giovine), who is back from military combat service in Europe.

Recently arrived and staying at the Kellers’ house is Annie (Nadia Diamond), formerly engaged to Larry and currently anticipating a proposal from Chris, who has been corresponding with her by mail over the past two years. Annie, who grew up next door to the Kellers and whose father was a partner with Joe in the aircraft engine manufacturing business and who is still serving time in the penitentiary, serves as a catalyst figure in the drama, forcing the family to confront the truths of Larry’s death, of Joe’s guilt, and of the necessity of moving forward with their lives.

Miller’s characterizations are deep, complex, and interesting. The plot, focused on the single day when the crises of the past emerge to engulf the Keller family, is carefully articulated and intense. And the issues here — ethical dilemmas of capitalism, corporate greed and its human consequences, family strife, dealing with loss — are universal, perhaps even more timely today than they were 65 years ago.

Unfortunately, however, although Theatre Intime, with a cast of 10 undergraduates under the capable direction of sophomore Oge Ude, does present a worthy production of this difficult work, the plot occasionally creaks, some dialogue seems forced, and the characterizations do not always ring true.

All My Sons is similar to Death of a Salesman, Miller’s next and most famous play, in many ways: characters, dramatic structure, theme and tragic impact. The plotting of the earlier play, however, seems more contrived, some dialogue less realistic, the monologues less gripping, and the parent-son relationships less emotionally gripping than those in the later play.

The young Intime company will certainly settle into its rhythm and its characterizations more fully in its second weekend, but opening night last Thursday revealed some difficulties in the realistic portrayal of both generations of troubled characters.

Mr. Adelson as the central figure is a fascinating picture of denial, attempting to elude, to rationalize the ugly truth of his past. “That’s business. That’s a mistake, but it ain’t murder.” Experienced and comfortable on stage, and well-rehearsed, Mr. Adelson delivers this brusque character with clarity and force, though the character stretch across 40 years and an unfathomable depth and darkness of life experience, at times proves daunting and makes this protagonist less than fully credible.

Ms. Kalu, facing similar challenges, succeeds in creating a convincing and sympathetic wife and mother, grasping and communicating Kate’s struggles to accept her son’s death, her husband’s guilt, and the necessity of burying her false hope and moving forward with her life.

Mr. Giovine’s Chris is uneven in his performance, though mostly appealing and intriguing in his anguished relationships with his father and mother, his haunting memories and survivor’s guilt from the war, and in his budding romance with his brother’s former girlfriend. As Ann, Ms. Diamond provides a worthy match for Chris and a welcome freshness and air of truth from outside the tortured Keller family.

Charlie Baker lends helpful support as Ann’s brother George, a lawyer, arriving in the second act with vital, devastating information just received from his father in prison. Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn as a meddling, troublesome neighbor; Evan Coles as her beleaguered husband; Blake Edwards and Tess Marchant as another, contrastingly upbeat neighboring couple; and the spirited young Adam LeCompte as a boy in the neighborhood — all provide capable, significant support to the principals in the first act, with less stage time in act two, as the drama narrows its focus to the Keller family.

Matt Seely’s sturdy, functional unit set depicting the Keller backyard, with symbolic apple trees (“Larry’s tree” is struck down in a storm just before the play opens.) and a small trellised arbor upstage is realistic, except for an expressionist touch on a stage right wall covered with newspapers, presumably the fateful newspapers from three years earlier that broadcast the crime and punishment of Joe Keller and his partner.

Lighting by Hannah Yang and Rebekah Shoemake and appropriate 1940s costumes by Joane Joseph effectively complement the actors and plot. Ms. Uge’s direction unifies the production elements effectively, moves the action along smoothly, and mostly sustains the audience’s interest in this, at times, long-winded drama.

“The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity,” Arthur Miller wrote in his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man.” “From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society.”

That is the struggle of Joe Keller and also of Willie Loman and of all the tragic protagonists of a cluster of other great plays written by this giant of the 20th century American Theater. In All My Sons the ambitious Intime company brings to life this classic tragic pattern of inevitable, shocking climax, followed by catharsis and restoration of the moral order with accompanying lessons for society.

 

Between the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and next year’s 70th anniversary of D-Day (as well as a few World War I anniversaries) there are a myriad of opportunities to acknowledge the role of music in and around the military. War and anti-war songs and marches are straightforward in interpretation and role, but musical works inspired by times or literature of war are more subtle and pieces which link two completely different battle periods are especially intriguing. Princeton Pro Musica took advantage this past weekend of its opening concert’s close proximity to Veterans Day by presenting four works connected to U.S. involvement in war over the past two centuries. Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau found a common theme in works using the same poetry in some cases to showcase Pro Musica in precise choral form in both chamber and full force configuration.

Saturday night’s performance began with an acknowledgment by Dr. Brandau of veterans in the Richardson Auditorium audience, together with a musical tribute by Aaron Copland to all the “common men” involved in the war effort of World War II. One of ten fanfares commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1942 (and the only to survive with any longevity), Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man has often been a go-to piece to convey patriotism, and the eleven brass players of the orchestra accompanying Pro Musica for the evening filled the hall with clean playing and spirit. The sectional sound from the trumpets, an unofficial instrument of battle, was especially vibrant and ringing.

Both early 20th-century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and mid-20th century American composer Jeffrey Van musically set the poetry of Walt Whitman, in some cases the same poems. Vaughan Williams composed his choral/orchestral Dona Nobis Pacem from the depths of uncertainty between World Wars I and II, while Van’s 1990 A Procession Winding Around Me was inspired by the composer’s visit to the Civil War battlefield Gettysburg, and both pieces find commonality in the post-Civil War poetry of Whitman. Van’s four-movement work was scored for chorus and guitar (Van is a member of the guitar faculty at the University of Minnesota), and Dr. Brandau presented this piece with the 35-voice Pro Musica Chamber Chorus, accompanied by guitarist James Day.

Van’s setting of Whitman’s poems was primarily homophonic, with a clear-cut declamation of the text. The singers in the Pro Musica Chamber Chorus demonstrated clear diction, with a consistently well-blended sound (especially from the men) and with vowels reliably pure. The setting of the third poem, “Look Down Fair Moon,” was the hardest to tune (admirably achieved by the chorus), beginning with whistling as from afar and well accompanied by Mr. Day with guitar playing that was both accompanying and percussive. Van composed some particularly effective word painting passages in the fourth poem, “Reconciliation,” which ended the piece on a positive note.

The Dona Nobis Pacem of Vaughan Williams was textually more complex than Van’s work, combining verses from the Bible with Latin liturgical text and Whitman’s poetry. Vaughan Williams composed the six-movement free-flowing choral/orchestral work as a plea for peace, using chorus and orchestra with soprano and baritone soloists. Williams began the work with text from the last part of the Latin mass — starting right off in despair. Soprano JoEllen Miller consistently sang with pure and ethereal tone, contrasting with the chorus’s expression of past devastation and impending return to war. This composer wrote effectively for chorus, and the full forces of Pro Musica handled well the driving rhythms and demand for sustained sturdy sound.

The Civil War was a very different kind of war from World Wars I and II, yet Vaughan Williams brought Whitman’s poetry new meaning in the 20th century with sensitive orchestration and solo writing. Baritone Paul Max Tipton (who also sang an Edward Cone song setting poetry of 19th-century British poet Matthew Arnold) sang Vaughan Williams’ version of “Reconciliation” with compassion, aided by the full-bodied sound of the chorus and refined solo playing from oboist Carl Oswald. Soprano Miller returned periodically throughout the piece as the voice of the people, interpolating the text “dona nobis pacem” into Whitman’s verses. Throughout the Vaughan Williams work and the entire concert, the chorus, soloists, and orchestra together brought life to music paying tribute to the dead, and presented well these four pieces which are not heard often enough.

 

HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

When released in 1999, The Best Man was dismissed by some as merely an African American version of The Big Chill, and by others as the black male answer to Waiting to Exhale. But the romantic film about a sophisticated set of college graduates was entertaining enough to stand on its own, and even won three NAACP Image Awards, including Best Picture.

Set 15 years later, The Best Man Holiday is a sequel reuniting the principal cast for a mixture of reminiscing, rivalry, and sobering reality during an eventful Christmas season. Written and directed by Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother), the film features Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Melissa De Sousa, and Monica Calhoun reprising the roles they played in the first movie.

At the point of departure, we find the gang gathering at the sprawling mansion of Lance Sullivan (Chestnut), an NFL running back about to retire after a recording-breaking career with the New York Giants. The God-fearing family man is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Mia (Calhoun), and children.

Author Harper Stewart (Diggs), the best man at their wedding, had stirred-up considerable controversy in the original film by writing a thinly veiled account of his buddies’ sexual exploits. This time around, he gets in trouble when plans to publish a biography of the host Lance come to light.

Furthermore, despite the fact that his wife, Robin (Lathan), is 9-months pregnant, Harper feels pangs of passion when he sees his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, Jordan (Long). So, when her beau (Eddie Cibrian) excuses himself to spend Christmas with his parents, it’s just a matter of time before Harper’s flirting with Jordan leaves him in the dog house with Robin.

Meanwhile, Julian (Perrineau), who married the stripper (Hall) he fell for way back at Lance’s bachelor party, is currently worried that an old YouTube video of his scantily clad spouse might surface. Also, it is hard to ignore Julian’s flamboyant ex-girlfriend, Shelby (De Sousa), a drama-loving reality TV star.

All of the above is cleverly narrated by Quentin (Howard), a one man Greek chorus that supplies intermittent comic relief.

The storyline is thoroughly absorbing throughout the film and alternates between fond reflections and fresh crises.

At the end, all of the loose ends are satisfactorily resolved, allowing for a memorable, bittersweet sendoff, as well as a transparent setup for the next installment in the series.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, ethnic slurs, and brief nudity. Running Time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures

 

November 6, 2013

book revAccording to David Waldstein’s story, “Trying to Outrun the Cardinals’ Long Reach” (New York Times, October 29), “the penetrating strength” of 50,000 watt radio station KMOX is said to reach 44 states and “as far away as the Netherlands, East Africa, and Guam, spreading the gospel of St. Louis Cardinals baseball across the planet.”

After tuning his car radio to 1120 AM for the broadcast of Game Four of the 2013 World Series, Waldstein headed south to see if he could “outdrive the signal before the end of the game.” KMOX prevailed, “The Voice of St. Louis” clearly audible in Horn Lake, Mississippi as Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon gave his shocked account of the pick-off play ending the action in Boston’s favor, the turning point in the six-game battle that the Red Sox would eventually win. You can hear the call for yourself if you check out the story at nytimes.com, which includes a map of Waldstein’s 600-mile trip and additional audio samples of the quality of the reception in Marion, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I was pleased to read that Bill Clinton grew up listening to the Redbirds “on a transistor radio hidden beneath his pillow in Hope, Arkansas” at the same time I was tuning in broadcasts in Bloomington, Indiana. But my most strenuous and determined transistor radio seances occurred in Princeton during the “Running Redbirds” era of the mid-1980s when the only way to keep track of a night game was to invest serious quantities of body English in the little SONY, holding it high and low, sweeping it westward, going outdoors to aim it at the summer sky, as if maybe the KMOX signal was bouncing off Venus — I was doing everything but standing on my head to decipher the play by play of Jack Buck and his then-sidekick Shannon, who played for the Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Championship teams. Shannon has a big hearty voice with lots of grit in it and an expressive, salt-of-the-earth style that to me conjures up the Cardinal glory days of Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang.

After all my transistory gyrations came to nought, my only recourse was to get in the car and follow the signal, like a pilgrim pursuing the holy light, but as often as not just when a rally was brewing in the bottom of the ninth inning, a redneck voice from a West Virginia station would horn in, or else it would be the ravings of some hysterical Evangelical or simply a prolonged storm of static that would bury KMOX until the game ended with Jack Buck’s exalted mantra, “That’s a winner!”

Listening in England

When I bought a ticket for a mid-October flight to London last March I realized I was going to be out of the country during the heart of the post-season and so naturally wondered if I could watch baseball over there. Thus I found myself on Friday, October 18, at 1 a.m. searching through a dizzying assortment of channels on the TV at the flat I was renting. No luck. It looked as though I was going miss Game Six of the National League Championship Series with the Cardinals only a win away from capturing the pennant. I stared helplessly at the remote. Surely I could find the magic hidden in this wand. In a fit of mindless desperation I decided to go backwards, something I’ve never done on a television set in my life. With cable, there is a backwards, and in England the backward channels are audio only, so, feeling a glimmer of hope, I clicked back from BBC One, back, back until, wonder of wonders, I found the game and a minute later heard a familiar voice that seemed to ride a transatlantic beam from KMOX — Mike Shannon doing the play by play by way of BBC Five Live Sports. I expected to stay up all night, but fortune was smiling and the Cardinals soon staked the phenomenal rookie pitcher Michael Wacha to a 9-0 lead over the Dodgers. At 3:15 a.m. I figured it was safe to turn the TV off and go to sleep.

Theater of the Absurd

You can talk all you want to about the nostalgia value of cozying up to games huddled around the radio, but when it comes to being in the middle of the action, television can’t be beat, and Game 3 of the World Series, which happened the night I got back to the States, was something you had to see to believe. When the dust of the ninth inning cleared, Alan Craig of the Cardinals was lying near home plate surrounded by players and umpires and coaches as if he’d been hit by a car on his way from third to home with the winning run. Forgotten in the Obstruction Call chaos that followed were the Kirk-Gibson-like heroics of Craig’s clutch hit. After missing most of September and all of the NLDS and NLCS with an injured foot, he came limping off the bench to face the Red Sox’s lights-out closer, Koji Uehara, and drove the first pitch into left for a double. The bizarre turn of events that followed gave Craig the curious distinction of producing, in effect, the game-winning hit before the third out had been made and then scoring the game-winning run while seemingly being thrown out at home plate.

YouTube is replete with reruns of the play that turned Busch Stadium into a Theatre of the Absurd. Yadier Molina is on third, Craig on second when John Jay’s grounder is fielded by Dustin Pedroia, who easily nails Molina at home. Meanwhile Boston’s catcher Saltalamacchia sees the hobbled Craig galumphing toward third base like an albatross with broken wings, and excited by the prospect of a sure inning-ending double play he throws, but way wild, to the third baseman Middlebrook, who is sprawled on the base path reaching for the throw as Craig comes stumbling into third, where he would normally be able to touch base and head for home. But there are no bridges over Middlebrook and to make matters worse Middlebrook raises his legs as Craig attempts to crawl over him toward victory. Umpire John Joyce, who has a way of being in the middle of landmark events, makes the obstruction call, the Red Sox briefly freak out, and a must-see clip is stashed away for any future anthology of World Series highlights.

That was not a play you want to hear on the radio (or read about here), unless maybe it could be written up and recited by Franz Kafka.

Tortoise Talk

Most Cardinal fans knew that while all this chaos was swirling about, Alan Craig’s pet tortoise was watching from the dugout and making comments on his Torty Craig Facebook page. You can imagine how Torty felt watching his namesake slog it out on the bases, tumbling over Middlebrook, only to crawl with tortoise tenacity toward home: “The Red Sox tripped Master Allen. It was obstruction! I just hope Master Allen is OK! I’M SO PROUD OF MASTER ALLEN!!!!!!!!!!”

Actually, you don’t have to be a Cardinal fan to enjoy Torty’s blog. A favorite refrain is inspired by the stellar play-off hitting of Carlos Beltran, as in “The Beltran tolls for thee, dread Pirate Liriano!” Or, for the pitching of Michael Wacha: “It’s The Hunt for Red Wachtober!” After winning the NLDS, Torty prepares to join the celebration: “Master Allen handed me my tortoise poncho. Now let us charge once more into the champagne void!” When Torty’s injured master is inserted into the starting lineup for Game Four in spite of the beating he took the previous night, he celebrates by joining pitcher Adam Wainwright “in a synchronized dancing of the Sprain with Master Allen performing Lisa Turtle’s moves and Wainwright doing Screech’s [from the sitcom Saved by the Bell].” The entire team “burst into applause at the end of the routine,” and, as in a baseball movie, the Cardinals GM John Mozeliak entered in a panic lest Craig reinjure his injury. “We were careful,” said Wainwright. “We were dancing the Sprain.”

Perhaps they were having too much fun, for it was all downhill for the Cards after Game 3, and there is a conspicuous gap in Torty postings until he congratulates the Red Sox (“a worthy foe and deserving champions”).

Love and Hate

When my father drove us 250 miles to St. Louis for the first Cardinal game I ever saw, we stayed the night at the Mayfair Hotel. On the morning of the game, we were riding the elevator down to the lobby with a big sweaty man in a dark suit who was complaining about the heat and the city.

“God, I hate St. Louis!” he growled.

Someone hates St. Louis??? I was 12. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was like we were in the Emerald City and someone said they hated Oz. “I love St. Louis!” I squeaked, glaring up at him while my embarrassed father, who was clueless about baseball, explained, “He’s a Cardinal fan, you see.”

This book review without a book involved a fair bit of reading, even so, including the story in the Times, Torty Craig’s Facebook page, the chapter on Obstruction in So You Think You Know About Baseball (Norton $16.95), and parts of Lucas Mann’s excellent new book, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon $26.95).

 

FINE FEATHERED FRIENDS: Award winning wildlife sculptor Pat Godin will show what it takes to become a world champion in the art of decoy carving when he speaks at the Johnson Education Center this Friday, November 8, at the invitation of the D&R Greenway Land Trust off Rosedale Road. To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more on Mr. Godin, visit: www.godinart.com.

FINE FEATHERED FRIENDS: Award winning wildlife sculptor Pat Godin will show what it takes to become a world champion in the art of decoy carving when he speaks at the Johnson Education Center this Friday, November 8, at the invitation of the D&R Greenway Land Trust off Rosedale Road. To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more on Mr. Godin, visit: www.godinart.com.

Nature lovers and art enthusiasts alike will take their seats at the D&R Greenway this Friday, November 8, for a presentation by one of the world’s leading experts in the art of wildlife sculpture.

Canadian Pat Godin is a biologist and ornithologist whose decorative bird decoys have been named “Best in World” no less than 13 times. Following a public reception at 5:30 p.m,, he will speak from 6 to 7 p.m. about his life and the combination of art and science that is evident in his work.

In addition to his skills in carving and painting, Mr. Godin is a respected writer and lecturer known for sharing his technical discoveries. He has written, illustrated, designed, and published three instructional books for bird carvers and a reference guide to waterfowl as well.

Mr. Godin’s visit to Princeton coincides with the D&R Greenway’s current exhibition from its Jay Vawter collection of fine-art decoys: “Champions, the Best of the Best,” which is on view during business hours of business days through April 4.

Donated to the Land Trust by Princeton resident Mr. Vawter, the collection includes work by Mr. Godin as well as other masters such as Jimmy Vizier; Greg Pedersen; Jim Sprankle; Elmer Crowell; Bob Guge; Victor Paroyan, and Lemuel Ward, one of the legendary Ward brothers of Maryland whose decoy and decorative bird art is the focus of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art there.

“I first saw Pat’s work in 2000 at the Wildfowl Festival in Eastern Maryland, an important venue for decoys and art,” said Mr. Vawter. “I was looking at top-notch examples when I spotted a Cinnamon Teal drake, primarily a western bird with a red breast. I told him that I was interested and returned the next day to buy it. Later I asked him to make me a hen to complete the pair.”

The Cinnamon Teal pair are in the exhibit and are part of the Jay Vawter collection at the D&R Greenway, along with a Godin Merganser whose feathers look as if they would ruffle at the slightest breeze. Recently, Mr. Vawter commissioned a pair of Mandarin Ducks from the artist. These too hold pride of place in the exhibition and although Mr. Vawter is holding on to them for the time being, he said that they will ultimately be donated to the Land Trust.

The Vawter Collection focuses on decorative decoys as distinct from earlier hunting or craft decoys and are much more intricately carved. Nonetheless, for show purposes, they must meet the standards of a hunting decoy. “They have to be able to float in the water like a duck,” said Mr. Vawter. “The gunning decoys that you shoot birds over are rather plain in comparison to these, these are works of art, people reach out and want to touch them,” he said.

Asked what makes Mr. Godin’s work special, Mr. Vawter explained the difference between craft and art.

“Gunning decoys are working birds made with skill but not painted in great detail. This is craft. Decorative birds, such as I collect, are made to the same standards in that they must be able to float as well as any working decoy, but the skill involved in their painting is of a different order. The look is absolutely realistic. This is art,” he explained.

“When Pat made the Mandarin Ducks for me, he had never seen these ducks in real life, but he did an enormous amount of research and the result is stunning. One expects them to move at any moment.”

At the D&R Greenway, Mr. Godin will talk about the levels of competition and what differentiates carvings at each level. In other words, he plans to share his knowledge and experience of how competitions work and perhaps convey some of his enthusiasm for the wild life that his art celebrates. For although much of his work has been inspired by competition, Mr. Godin’s deepest concern has always been the cultivation of bird sculpture as an art form.

This is work that combines art and science, informed by Mr. Godin’s studies at the University of Guelph and with the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba, where he helped graduate students conduct studies on Redhead Ducks, Wigeons, Mallards, and the Western Grebe.

Born in 1953, Mr. Godin lives in Paris, Ontario. A childhood fascination with the natural world inspired him to carve his first bird in 1967. At first, he carved solely for his own pleasure but before long, he began entering his work in competitive exhibitions of decorative duck decoys and other wooden bird sculptures.

His work quickly became competitive at the “World Class” level and he is now recognized across the globe not only for accuracy in form and color but also for imbuing his birds with the spirit of their live counterparts.

In 1976, Mr. Godin’s world championship streak began with a pair of Common Goldeneyes. He went on to win titles in 1980, 1984, 2008, and 2009 in “Decorative Decoy Pairs” and in 1982 and 1995 in “Decorative Lifesize Wildfowl Sculpture.”

Examples of Mr. Godin’s work with titles such as “Prairie Courtship,” “Spruce Grouse on the North River,” and “Prairie Dance — Greater Prairie Chicken,” part of a series of miniatures showing birds involved in breeding displays, go beyond simple representation to feature birds in action in their habitat. Mr. Godin’s close attention to wildfowl in their environment led to his unprecedented achievement in 2001 when he entered a pair of Black Ducks with a drake Mallard Black Duck hybrid into a 2001 competition. Although such hybrids are common in nature, this was the first time that they had been portrayed in the competitive arena. Needless to say, Mr. Godin took first place yet again.

His most recent win, in 2011, his 12th World Championship, was for a miniature scale Prairie Chicken entitled “Battle on the Lek.” Besides the D&R Greenway, his pieces are in numerous private collections and in the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Maryland. He has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and has been inducted into the Waterfowl Festival Hall of Fame, Easton Maryland.

The D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center is located at One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road, Princeton.

To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org. For more on Mr. Godin, visit: www.godinart.com.

 

A crisp and sunny fall afternoon on Sunday contradicted the unifying theme among the works presented by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Led by Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Princeton Symphony performed three pieces focused on “notions of death and the eternal,” two by Romantic composer Richard Strauss and one by contemporary American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Despite the dark themes and intense musical tone, the Princeton Symphony played with sensitivity and continuous focus through some very challenging music.

Aaron Jay Kernis composed the three-movement Colored Field in 1994 as a concerto for English horn and orchestra. Rooted in the tragedy of World War II as interpreted by the composer himself through visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Colored Field uses the solo instrument as a voice of anguish. Following the work’s premiere, Mr. Kernis rescored the piece for solo cello and orchestra, and this was the version the Princeton Symphony brought to Richardson Auditorium Sunday afternoon. Joining the Symphony was soloist Susan Babini, principal cellist of The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and soloist in this piece’s East Coast premiere with Mr. Milanov’s other ensemble, Symphony in C. As solo cello has often represented a voice of pathos to composers, Ms. Babini had no trouble conveying the despairing vocal character of Mr. Kernis’ work.

Ms. Babini began Colored Field with a somewhat light but definitely intense tone, conveying simplicity while maintaining a musical dialog with oboist Rita Mitsel. The Princeton Symphony cleanly played the many repeated patterns in the first movement, as the solo cello line blended well into the orchestral fabric, but just a step or two apart from the ensemble in character.

Despite the complexities of the Kernis piece, the audience persevered in catching every nuance and musical gesture. Mr. Milanov kept conducting patterns strict, so that there was no question for the players as to where Colored Fields was going. The sound was rather harrowing at times in effect, and elegant wind solos (including from clarinetist Alexander Bedenko and bass clarinetist Sherry Hartman Apgar) were so well submerged in the texture that one had to look hard to see where the player was. Through it all, Ms. Babini maintained firm control over the intricate music, meeting both the virtuosic demands and the call for sweet melodic lines.

Mr. Milanov paired the Kernis piece with two programmatic works of the pioneering 19th-century composer Richard Strauss. Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is one of Strauss’ most well-known symphonic poems, a form which Strauss brought to a zenith with lush orchestrations and unique combinations of instruments. Although based on a somewhat depressing story line (a man’s final days), Death and Transfiguration ends in uplifting fashion.

The symphonic poem began peacefully, with stylish wind solos, especially by Ms. Mitsel, accompanied by harpist Andre Tarantiles. An identical melodic fragment passed among players, from oboe to flutist Chelsea Knox, English horn player Nathan Mills, and concertmistress Basia Danilow. Notwithstanding the lavish orchestration, the work never sounded thick, with melodies clearly heard. This being Strauss, there was a heavy emphasis on brass in the texture, and the brass sections of the Princeton Symphony played cleanly, never allowing the music to become bombastic.

Mr. Milanov kept an even flow to the music, bringing out the heroic character which is inherent in many Strauss symphonic poems. The Princeton Symphony extended this flow into frenzy in the closing work on Sunday’s program — “Salome’s Dance” from Strauss’ opera Salome. This high-spirited operatic excerpt began with a brisk Middle Eastern musical effect, with a snake-charmer melody from Ms. Mitsel, who carried the bulk of the melodic work of the piece. Rich unison upper strings contrasted with steady celli and harp, and Strauss’ unusual percussion effects added to the seductive character. Mr. Milanov whipped the Princeton Symphony into an appropriate frenzy, but the music always gracefully returned to the Middle Eastern melodies from the winds.

These three works may have been rooted in concepts of death, but Sunday afternoon’s program by the Princeton Symphony was subtitled “Eternal Light,” recognizing the optimism beneath each piece. This was a very challenging program for the players, who more than rose to the occasion, but may well have felt they had been through the “Dance of the Seven Veils” themselves by the end.

 

WATCH OUT LAS VEGAS, WE’RE HERE: The four friends from childhood: Archie, Billy, Paddy, and Sam (from left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline) reunite in Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party for Billy. Over the years the four close friends have kept in touch and so when Billy, who has never married finally finds a bride, his friends decide to take him to Vegas for one last fling.

WATCH OUT LAS VEGAS, WE’RE HERE: The four friends from childhood: Archie, Billy, Paddy, and Sam (from left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline) reunite in Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party for Billy. Over the years the four close friends have kept in touch and so when Billy, who has never married finally finds a bride, his friends decide to take him to Vegas for one last fling.

Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) were inseparable when they were growing up in Flatbush back in the 50s. They managed to remain close over the years despite the demands of their families and careers. That’s why, when Billy, who never married, finally decides to tie the knot, his friends decide to throw him a bachelor party in Las Vegas and also rekindle a little of the macho magic of their youth.

However, even before arriving in Sin City, the senior citizens are forced to face up to the fact that they’re no longer as young as they feel. For example, Archie is recovering from a mild stroke and has to sneak out of the house by telling his son (Michael Ealy) that he’s attending a church retreat. Sam packs Viagra pills and condoms for the trip, and recently-widowed Paddy has been depressed ever since his childhood sweetheart (Olivia Stuck) passed away.

Even Billy seems to be having second thoughts about marrying a woman half his age (Bre Blair), especially after his head is turned by the hotel’s sultry lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen). So, the pals’ greatly anticipated reunion turns out to be less of a last hurrah and more of a nostalgic trip down memory lane as they end up spending more of their time reminiscing and teasing each other than pursuing women.

Directed by Dan Turtletaub (National Treasure 1, 2 and 3), Last Vegas is a laugh-a-minute comedy, with most of the humor coming at the expense of the self-effacing quartet as they grudgingly make concessions to old age. They remain good sports, whether being the butt of jokes about hair transplants, hair color, medications, looking old, or mistakenly flirting with transvestites.

Not surprisingly, the principal cast members (with four Academy Award-winners Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline) have no trouble generating a convincing sense of camaraderie on screen. What is a pleasantly surprising addition is how another Oscar-winner, Mary Steenburgen, uses her support role to upstage her male co-stars by exhibiting an endearing vulnerability in her memorable performance.

Excellent (***½). PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: CBS Films.

 

October 30, 2013
ART IMITATES ART: This painting by Robert Beck is one of seven he did during the renovation of the Bucks County Playhouse in 2012. The artworks are part of the current exhibit at the Michener Art Museum detailing the history of the theater.

ART IMITATES ART: This painting by Robert Beck is one of seven he did during the renovation of the Bucks County Playhouse in 2012. The artworks are part of the current exhibit at the Michener Art Museum detailing the history of the theater.

The Grace Kelly exhibit that opened in Doylestown, Pa. this week isn’t the only attraction drawing crowds to the Michener Art Museum. In a cozier space connected to the lavish Kelly show, “Local Mill Makes Good: Celebrating 75 years of American Theater at the Bucks County Playhouse” is taking visitors back through the rich history of this iconic New Hope, Pa. institution, which thrived for decades, faltered in recent years, and has since been restored and reborn.

Among the diverse collection of materials on display are artworks by Al Hirschfeld, Robert Beck, Ben Solowey, Edward Redfield, and Charles Child (brother of Julia Child’s husband Paul); a blown-up photo of the audience from the 1965 opening of The Hostage, which starred Julie Harris; set models from The Lion in Winter, which starred George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, numerous photos and posters, and a plaque from 1956 listing plays that had been performed at the theater to date. David Leopold, curator of the show, said the plaque was found in a dumpster.

“The hardest part of doing this show was that not many people kept any of the history of this place,” he said during a tour of the exhibit as it was being hung last week. “A lot of things were thrown out. But with some sleuthing, we were able to locate this wonderful stuff that came from private and public collections.”

Mr. Leopold, who has organized exhibitions for the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a walking encyclopedia of the Playhouse. He has divided the show into five different sections, taking visitors from the theater’s founding in 1939 to its recent re-establishment as a leading artistic center.

Housed in an old grist mill on the Delaware River, the Playhouse has been the scene of debuts and appearances by such stage and screen stars as Helen Hayes, Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, John Lithgow, Walter Matthau, Tyne Daly, Audra McDonald and Angela Lansbury, who was honored by the theater this past Monday. Another veteran was Ms. Kelly, whose appearance in the 1949 play The Torch Bearers, written by her uncle George Kelly, gets a spot on the exhibit wall.

It is a popular misconception, Mr. Leopold said, that the Playhouse was founded by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Oscar Hammerstein III and other theatrical luminaries who had homes in Bucks County. The real credit goes to a man named Henry Chapin and orchestrator Don Walker, who joined forces to start a summer theater at the old mill, which had ceased operating in 1938.

“Walker ran into Chapin and his group at a party,” Mr. Leopold said. “They started talking and realized they had a similar interest in starting a summer theater that would be a kind of social gathering place for the community as well as an economic engine. They started the theater in the fall of 1939. Raising the initial $10,000 was easy, but then they had trouble. The only person they got to invest was [playwright] Moss Hart, who gave them $100. I’m sure he gave them the money just to get them out of his house.”

The first production was Springtime for Henry (fans of the 1968 Mel Brooks film The Producers will recognize that title as the inspiration for Springtime for Hitler), starring Edward Everett Horton. While the night before the opening a sodder lamp on the roof almost started a fire, the show opened on schedule and the Playhouse was on its way. A famous drawing by Mr. Hirschfeld that appeared on the front page of the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section, documenting the event, is part of the display.

While summer theaters were popular at the time, the Bucks County Playhouse was unlike others. “It was the kinds of things they did there that made it unique,” Mr. Leopold said. “It was a laboratory for new theater and young actors, not just for established plays like Springtime for Henry, which Edward Everett Horton had done for years. Neil Simon premiered plays there. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn first appeared together for the first time in The Fourposter on that stage before it went to Broadway.”

According to Jed Bernstein, the Playhouse’s current producing director and the man considered mostly responsible for its recent revitalization with the Bridge Street Foundation, the exhibit captures that premise. “It pays homage to the founding of the Playhouse, but it brings it all the way up to our time,” he said. “We’re returning to first principles — doing exactly what the founders did back in the 1930s and 40s. Their strategy turns out to be incredibly doable. All iconic great institutions retain their relevance. That’s what’s so thrilling.”

By the 1990’s, the Playhouse was presenting community theater rather than Actors’ Equity productions. Its reputation had suffered. In 2010, the state of the economy and flood damage caused by two major storms had forced the theater to close. But a public/private partnership headed by Mr. Bernstein led to an extensive renovation, and the theater reopened in July of 2012. Since then, it has been earning positive reviews, both from critics and the community.

This year, the Playhouse will have performances on its stage approximately 210 days. “In only a season and a half, we’re already up to 75 percent capacity,” said Mr. Bernstein, who will depart in January to become the president of Lincoln Center. His successor will be announced in the next few weeks, he said.

The Michener exhibit will include actual pre-renovation seats from the old Playhouse, as well as footage from productions staged in 1949. Some film clips of Ms. Lansbury, Tyne Daly, actor Eli Wallach and others reminiscing about their days at the theater are also part of the display. A whole section is devoted to playwright Neil Simon, whose Barefoot in the Park debuted on the stage.

The show is focused on the history of the Playhouse, but acknowledges the present and the future. “It’s not just about the past, when stars performed here because they were doing good quality theater to a discerning audience,” Mr. Leopold said. “It also celebrates the Playhouse today, because that same thing is happening.”

“A lot of things envisioned back in the 1940s are coming true again,” added Mr. Bernstein. “It’s a place for stars, for plays, and for young people to get their start. There is live music again. We work with Actors’ Equity. For theaters like this in relatively small communities that are historic in some ways, I think this is a model that will be copied. It apportions the risk in the right place.”

“Local Mill Makes Good” continues at the Michener Museum through March 2. Several special events and lectures are planned. Visit www.michenerartmuseum.org for details.

 

book revIn Bristol it all happened. I fell apart and found my own little pieces and put them together again …. It is the most beautiful city in Great Britain.

—Peter O’Toole

On Redland Hill in the city Peter O’Toole fell in love with while cutting his teeth as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, there is a room with a view I keep returning to, as I did again last week. O’Toole also said that Bristol was such a fixation with him (“the city haunted me”) that he would make spur-of-the-moment drives there from London in the dead of night. I know the feeling. My wife and I bonded with Bristol when we lived there for a couple of years in the 1970s, and we’ve been haunted by it ever since.

The View in question deserves a capital letter. Simply reverse the title of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and you’ve got an idea of the priorities. The room is serviceable but the View is where you live. Great vistas abound in Bristol, most famously the dizzy-making spectacle of the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the rocky depths of the Avon Gorge, but this is something vast and brilliant and ever-changing that you can walk your mind around in, meditate on, memorize, and revel in from sunrise to sunset to midnight and beyond.

In the near distance, beyond the trees of the back garden, you behold a pleasing jumble of tile-roofs and chimney pots, housetops, and housefronts, rising to the middle distance and the Gothic tower of Bristol University, beyond it to the west the telecommunication masts that I saw as ships in the harbor, even though the docks were way down below. No matter, because one of the great appeals of Bristol is its history of playing fast and loose with reality. In addition to the schoolboy-genius-as-Medieval poet Thomas Chatterton, who pulled off the most accomplished of literary hoaxes, not to mention the laughing gas parties hosted by Sir Humphrey Davy where Robert Southey (“Davy has invented a new pleasure for which language has no name”) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame”) larked about, you have the part Bristol played as the apparition witnessed from the Brooks Range in Alaska by a party of climbers. Thousands of pictures of the phantom metropolis called The Silent City were sold by a crafty old prospector named Willoughby at the San Francisco International Exposition of 1894. It was eventually discovered that the incorrigible Willoughby had manufactured this lucrative vision from a photographic plate containing a view of Bristol taken from Brandon Hill.

My view sweeps Bristol from east to west, rising in terraced stages to the green hills of Somerset some ten miles distant. At night I can see the lights of cars driving along those hills, and one day last week when I asked my friend Roger what we would find were we to drive out there — “into the depths of the view” — he said Bath and Wells and some 20 or 25 miles farther on, the town of Nether Stowey, where Coleridge lived in 1897-1898 with his wife of two years and their infant son and wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Long ago we’d hiked around the Lake Country searching out the sites S.T.C. had described in his notebooks, and since the next day was Monday, October 21, Coleridge’s 241st birthday, we knew where we were going — over those hills to Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey and the Devon coast and the rocky beach of Watchet, where he and Wordsworth are said to have walked while brainstorming The Lyrical Ballads, one of the gateways to the Romantic Movement.

“The Ruined Man”

Of all the countries tourists have flocked to over the centuries the one most distinctly synonymous with great literature is surely England, home of Dickens and Shakespeare, “men who need no introduction.” When, however, Roger asked the young woman who works at his neighborhood market if she knew who Coleridge was, she admitted never having heard of him, or of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Next time Roger saw her she admitted to having “looked ’im up online,” interested to see he’d lived here in Bristol as a young man “way back in the ancient times.” Married at St. Mary Redcliffe, bad marriage. Oh, and he was an opium addict. Made a mess of his life. A glorious mess. Thomas Carlyle once patronized him as “a man of great and useless genius” and T.S. Eliot presumed to call one of the great minds of the 19th century “a ruined man,” before wisely adding that “Sometimes, however, to be a ‘ruined man’ is itself a vocation.”

Probably there should be a pub somewhere in Coleridge country called The Ruined Man. In Nether Stowey, there is, no surprise, a pub called The Ancient Mariner. After arriving at the Coleridge cottage and garden on a misty murky morning that would have chilled, warmed, or at least enlarged the Mariner’s embattled heart, we found that the place had been thoroughly arranged, decorated, and curated by the National Trust. Roger wasted no time making himself at home by the red glow of the hearth in the front room whilst expounding on his theory that the site of the Mariner’s “own countree,” the harbor where his weird adventure began and ended (“Below the kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top”) was not and could never have been Lynmouth or Minehead or even Watchet, ten miles away, but had to be Uphill, on the Bristol Channel. The fiftyish National Trust guide nodded politely though it was clearly in his best interests that the Mariner’s port be Watchet.

When we remarked on the fact that today was Coleridge’s birthday the man overseeing Coleridge’s cottage was taken aback. “Is it really?” he said, understandably wary of information divulged by a couple of former hitchhikers with more than a weather-beaten touch of Ancient Mariner about them. (Later, we heard him enthusing to his staff, “It actually is his birthday! Perhaps we should do something!”)

Wouldn’t you think the people at Coleridge’s house would have drawn a circle around October 21 on the calendar? The whole place was brilliantly, thoughtfully set up, even to the point of putting a cradle by the hearth in that front room. Those with knowledge of S.T.C.’s poetry will recognize the image from “Frost at Midnight,” which was written in that place (whose “inmates … all at rest,/Have left me to that solitude, which suits/Abstruser musings”) and where “my cradled infant slumbers peacefully.” The mood of the moment — a man alone at night, transfixed by the way the “thin blue flame” lies “on the low-burnt fire” — is the essence of the person I’ve visited so often over the years in his letters and diaries and marginalia (published magnificently by Princeton University Press), outside the formal constructs he customarily ignored. And our hosts had actually replicated the thin blue flame. I mean, the place was brimming with Coleridgiana, his writing desk, his quill pen, a lock of his hair, a number of painted portraits, manuscripts, the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads, wherein the “Rime” first appeared, and think of it, if two amateur readers, a grey-bearded Yank and a busking Brit, hadn’t walked in the door, the significance of the day would have been lost to the folks in charge of Coleridge’s cottage.

From Nether Stowey we drove to Watchet. Though the harbor there is clearly not the model for the one described in the “Rime,” the esplanade features a suitably grim, twisted statue of the Ancient Mariner by Scottish sculptor Alan B. Herriot. Earlier, we’d walked on the stony shore along the bleak, brackish Severn estuary where Coleridge and Wordsworth talked out the Lyrical Ballads.

Getting to Know S.T.C.

When I discovered Coleridge in my mid-teens, the note that prefaced “Kubla Khan,” one of the only poems I ever voluntarily memorized, said that after consuming the opium brandy otherwise known as laudanum, the poet had nodded off dreaming of Xanadu and a “stately pleasure dome … where Alph the sacred river ran, down through caverns measureless to man.” Upon waking, he’d begun writing the poem, only to be interrupted by the now infamous Person from Porlock.

Me, right now I’m dreaming of the View and the Silent City. No opium required. I prefer to dismiss the hoax theory. Just travel online to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena: “One of the attractions of Alaska is that its local sky is peculiarly receptive to images of the city of Bristol in England.”

What a thought. A receptive sky. A sky as haunted by Bristol as I am.

In New Lands (1923) Charles Fort quotes a report in the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 27-158: “That every year between June 21 and July 10, a ‘phantom city’ appears in the sky, over a glacier in Alaska; that features of it had been recognized as buildings in the city of Bristol, England.”

Painting of Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge, is by Claude Buckle. The Peter O’Toole quotes are from Conversations, a book of interviews by Roy Newquist (Rand McNally 1967) 

 

TAMAR’S PAINTING: Daniela Bittman’s acrylic and colored pencil on canvas painting is a staggering 10 by 12 feet. Inspired by a still life by another artist, it hangs alongside several other mural size pieces in the Rider University Art Gallery, where Ms. Bittman will discuss her work Thursday, October 31, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit: www.rider.edu.

TAMAR’S PAINTING: Daniela Bittman’s acrylic and colored pencil on canvas painting is a staggering 10 by 12 feet. Inspired by a still life by another artist, it hangs alongside several other mural size pieces in the Rider University Art Gallery, where Ms. Bittman will discuss her work Thursday, October 31, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit: www.rider.edu. (Photo by Jon Naar)

At an opening reception last Thursday, the art gallery at Rider University was filled with art enthusiasts marveling at the large-scale canvases by Princeton artist Daniela Bittman.

“I’ve been running this gallery for years and this is the first time I’ve observed people stopping to stare through the windows,” said longtime Gallery Director Harry I. Naar. “Daniela’s images are striking, and not just because of their immense size, but because of their subject matter and composition. People are also amazed to find that they are colored pencil over acrylic wash, this is unique to Daniela.”

Ms. Bittman, who lives in Princeton and works from a studio in her home, hasn’t shown her work for almost a decade. For many, her work is something of a revelation. The Rider show features six mural size canvases 10 by 12 feet in dimension, two large canvases of eight by eight feet, and several groupings of pencil on paper works. In addition there is an eight by four feet acrylic on canvas wall hanging that was a special commission to recreate a large scale version of an 18th century Japanese print of The Geisha Itsutomi that Ms. Bittman described as a joy to do since she has been an enormous fan of the Japanese masters since discovering their work in her teens.

Aside from this commission, Ms. Bittman’s work is figurative and fantastic. Her juxtapositions tickle and tease the imagination. Think Gerald Scarfe and the elder Bruegel with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch. Her scenes are peopled with ambiguous figures bordering on the absurd. And there is an enormous amount of fun here, as is evident from titles such as: Dogs and Hardware, Pigs in Clover, and The Side Effects of Coffee. 

One cannot pass lightly over this work. It captures the attention, draws your eyes to marvel at Tonka trucks, cabbages, clarinets and cat’s cradles. Here is beauty and humor, roses and bathing suits, grotesquerie, a man with a crab on his head, copulating dogs, pregnant nudes, plump sleeping babies, faces from the Renaissance.

Ms. Bittman’s pictures, which could be of any time or place, seem teeming with the myriad methods and madnesses of life. Viewers will find themselves recalling art from other periods and puzzling over their own responses.

When asked about influences, the artist cited myriad sources including authors Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Belgian-born French novelist and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar. As is clear from her work, she is also drawn to pre-Renaissance and Renaissance masters. “More to the German, Dutch, Flemish and Spanish painters than the Italian,” she said. “But I believe that I am influenced by everything I see, be it art or life, whether I like it or think I don’t. Especially if I don’t.”

In an interview with Mr. Naar, included in a brief catalog that accompanies the show, Ms. Bittman describes her artistic beginnings: “I started to draw not long after I started to walk; and I mean draw; I would fill whole notebooks, or any paper at hand, with obsessive attempts at drawing hands, legs, feet, and faces, in all kinds of positions, foreshortened, etc.; no color. . . . My mother kept some of them, and they were very funny.”

Born to Jewish parents in Bucharest, Romania, in 1952, Ms. Bittman went to an art high school where she was trained not just to looked at things, but to see them. In 1970, she moved with her family to Israel, where she attended the Bezalel Art Academy in Tel-Aviv before going on to study classics at Tel Aviv University. She has been in the United States since 1984.

When she exhibited two large canvases at Ellarslie in Trenton, as part of a group show, Mr. Naar was captivated by her work and determined to find out more.

Ms. Bittman claims no knowledge of where her ideas come from. About one thing she is clear, however: contrary to what many viewers conclude, they do not come from dreams. “I am always amazed, and greatly amused, by what people seem to see in my work: all kinds of hidden symbolism, or stories that show great imagination (on their part), but which I definitely didn’t put in there,” she said.

The artist acknowledges a penchant for the absurd and is conscious of the humor in her paintings as well as the influence of music.

Describing Tamar’s Painting, she explained that the work was inspired by a small still life painted by her son’s girlfriend, Tamar. Ms. Bittman looked at the still life of three bottles with red onion and fennel in the foreground and “saw” the work that she wanted to produce. Tamar’s still life is replicated in Ms. Bittman’s work which takes off from it in the way a jazz musician might riff on a theme.

You might well say that this artist “orchestrates” a painting. Tamar’s Painting, for example, is like a fugue in which its subject is restated in different pitches and in various keys. In Ms. Bittman’s composition, the bottles, onion and fennel surface in the colors and shapes of the three standing figures. Look, there they are again on the tray in the lap of the seated figure.

The major works, the massive 10 by 12 feet canvases, take about a year to complete. Those in the show are not for sale save for one titled, Life Complications, priced at $10,000. Several small sketches are $250, others pencil and paper works are between $230 and $950.

“Her work is the most surreal and unique I’ve ever seen and to think that it is done using color pencils on canvas is beyond belief. Everything she does tests your imagination,” commented Albert Stark of Princeton, who bought two pencil drawings.

The artist will discuss her work at the Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, Thursday, October 31, at 7 p.m.

“Daniela Bittman: The Colony Within,” will be on view through December 1. Hours are: Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit: www.rider.edu.

 

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) subtitled its concert series this past weekend “Lacombe & Gluzman.” This moniker referred to the conductor of the concert and the soloist in its featured work, but the descriptive title was so much more. NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe and Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman have had a long performance history together, and this combination of conductor and soloist took a rarely-heard musical gem to new heights. Although this concert series was not presented in the NJSO’s home base of Newark’s NJPAC, audiences in the other four venues (including Richardson Auditorium Friday night) were treated to an extraordinary three-way partnership among conductor, violinist, and orchestral ensemble.

The piece which Mr. Gluzman brought to life was Leonard Bernstein’s programmatic Serenade for Violin and Orchestra. Composed between 1953 and 1954, this five-movement work inspired by Plato’s philosophical text Symposium reminded the audience at Richardson of Bernstein’s legacy as one of the great melodists in music history. Bernstein orchestrated this piece uniquely for strings, harp, a wide range of percussion, and a solo violin, whose line was at times contrary to the ensemble and other times a precise and integrated part of the orchestral fabric.

Mr. Gluzman began the opening movement solo line with both confidence and inquisitiveness into the melodic depth of the Serenade and its emotional impact. Melodies were expressively passed back and forth across the stage as the NJSO demonstrated rich sectional playing from violas and celli. Mr. Gluzman’s energy was limitless, matching the jazz elements in the music and showing that this soloist lives the music he performs. In several of the movements, the solo line never stopped (often with virtuosic demands) and Mr. Gluzman seemed to make a particular effort to play in solidarity with the first violin section, executing perfect timing with pizzicato strings and punctuating harp. Intensity throughout the work was built by the extended percussion section, complementing well Bernstein’s poignant musical dialog among soloist, strings, and percussion.

Mr. Lacombe preceded this work with the light and airy Hector Berlioz Overture to Beatrice and Benedict, and followed it with the substantial Symphony No. 4 in F minor by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Berlioz work sustained a bit of French quirkiness, with very crisp and clean orchestral playing from the ensemble as a whole. Instrumental solos, especially from flutist Bart Feller and oboist Melanie Feld provided elegance against rich string playing and clear-cut trios of trumpets and trombones. Mr. Lacombe effectively ended sections gracefully and whipped the orchestra into a grand finish to the Overture.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 was a myriad of musical personalities as the composer was consumed with fatalism, yet conveyed final hope at the conclusion of the four abundant movements. The opening Fate motive was cleanly presented by the brass in a crisp Classical style, as Mr. Lacombe kept the mood driven and forceful. The concurrent melodic line from bassoonist Robert Wagner and clarinetist Karl Herman sounded as one instrument, with very light strings toward the end of the first movement. Throughout the symphony, the players maintained control over accelerandos at the ends of movements, while at the same time allowing instrumental solos to be heard.

Oboist Ms. Feld demonstrated a pastoral and continuous line in the poignant second movement, echoed by the cello section and answered at times by flutist Mr. Feller. Like Bernstein, Tchaikovsky was a great melodist, most evident in the second movement Andantino, and these tunes were made all the more touching by the juxtaposition of a languorous melody against incisive wind flourishes and instrumental echoes.

The third movement was uniquely scored for extended pizzicato strings, an unusual effect which is not easy to pull off as a large orchestra. The collective result of ensemble pizzicato against the intervening wind passages, combined with the dynamic ranges found by the players in the closing movements, accentuated the pathos and tenderness of the symphony, and brought the concert to an eloquent close.

 

THIS DEAL WILL MAKE US BOTH RICH: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, left) toasts the anticipated success of the drug deal he just made with Reiner (Javier Bardem) to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. that will be extremely profitable for both of them.(Photo  by Kerry Brown, TM and © 2013 20th Century Fox Films)

THIS DEAL WILL MAKE US BOTH RICH: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, left) toasts the anticipated success of the drug deal he just made with Reiner (Javier Bardem) to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. that will be extremely profitable for both of them. (Photo by Kerry Brown, TM and © 2013 20th Century Fox Films)

It’s easy to see why this crime thriller got the green light in Hollywood. First of all, it was written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy whose No Country for Old Men won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Second, Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Thelma & Louise) was brought aboard, as well as a cast topped by Academy Award-winners Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, nominees Brad Pitt and Rosie Perez, and versatile character actors Michael Fassbender and Goran Visnjic.

Furthermore, since the story is set in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, it made sense to sign Latino actors Cameron Diaz, Edgar Ramirez, John Leguizamo, and Ruben Blades. Nevertheless, The Counselor turned out to be one of those curious head scratchers that somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The film is crippled by a pair of fatal flaws — a glacial pace and a verbose script laced with awkward dialogue. While the audience waits for something, anything to transpire, it is fed stilted lines like, “You are a man of impeccable taste” and “I intend to love you ’til the day I die.”

Worse, these corny line are delivered with so little conviction that you never know whether you’re supposed to laugh or take them seriously. The actors comes off as tongue-in-cheek impersonations of characters in a typical Damon Runyon yarn.

The picture’s plot is about a nameless lawyer, referred to only as “The Counselor” (Fassbender), whose greed is getting the better of him. At the point of departure, we find him head-over-heels in love with Laura (Cruz), an exotic beauty he plans to propose to with an expensive diamond ring he can’t afford.

For reasons that never quite make sense, this man of few words gets mixed up in the dangerous Mexican drug trade. He’s offered a start in the business by Reiner (Bardem), a flamboyant dealer with a flashy girlfriend (Diaz).

Ignoring repeated warnings from a low-key middleman (Pitt), that entering the narcotics underworld is like stepping in quicksand, the Counselor decides that the payoff is worth a one-time risk. The plan is to deliver a sewage truck filled with over 20,000 ounces of coke across the border to Chicago.

The pivotal question is — will he be able to avoid becoming a statistic in a bloody turf war where ruthless gangs don’t give a second thought about beheading a rival? The movie is a borefest featuring blasé individuals overindulging in gratuitous violence and coarse, casual sensuality.

Fair (*½). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, graphic violence, and grisly images. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

 

October 23, 2013
LOOK AND LISTEN: Karen McLean’s photographs of trees are currently on view in her solo exhibition, “Conversations Between Nature and Myself,” at the D&R Greenway along with an exhibition of work by members of the Princeton Artists Alliance, “The Fallen and Unfallen: Trees in Peril.” For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

LOOK AND LISTEN: Karen McLean’s photographs of trees are currently on view in her solo exhibition, “Conversations Between Nature and Myself,” at the D&R Greenway along with an exhibition of work by members of the Princeton Artists Alliance, “The Fallen and Unfallen: Trees in Peril.” For more information, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

Two exhibitions currently on view in the Marie L. Matthews Galleries at the D&R Greenway Land Trust focus on the beauty of trees and the dangers to them from storm and weather, from natural decay, and from humans and the changing world environment.

“The Fallen and Unfallen: Trees in Peril,” will be celebrated at an artists reception Friday, November 1, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Here is art that celebrates trees as they feature in the world and in art and legend. Included are drawings, paintings, and sculpture by members of the Princeton Artists Alliance. Works on the exhibition theme range from the majesty of trees to those damaged and/or lost during last year’s Superstorm Sandy. As one might expect, there is much that celebrates endurance and resilience.

The exhibition is on display in the upstairs gallery of the former barn that now serves as the D&R Greenway’s headquarters. The wooden beams provide a perfect backdrop to a distinctive sculptural piece by James Perry and paintings by Hetty Baiz. Other exhibitors from the Princeton Artists Alliance with works on display include Joanne Augustine, Joy Barth, Anita Benarde, Zenna Broomer, Jennifer Cadoff, Rajie Cook, Clem Fiori, Thomas Francisco, Carol Hanson, Shellie Jacobson, Margaret Kennard Johnson, Nancy Kern, Charles McVicker, Lucy Graves McVicker, Harry I. Naar, Richard Sanders, Madelaine Shellaby, Marie Sturken, and Barbara Watts.

The tree theme continues downstairs in the Evelyne V. Johnson Room where works by local photographer and fine artist Karen McLean are on show. The artwork in her appropriately named exhibition, Conversations Between Nature and Myself,” includes images that make one think of ancient Rome and Byzantium. Ms. McLean spends much time in Italy and her images of olive trees are a marvel. She begins with a photograph, and by embellishments that involve gold and the manipulation of multiple images, forms the borders. She brings a new perspective to her gnarled subjects that renders them full of character. One expects them to impart words of wisdom from some ancient soul.

Ms. McLean will share her secrets and her techniques in a painting workshop, titled “The Gilded Tree” on Thursday, November 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. She will lead participants through the process by which she enhances her own original photographs so that they learn to practice the technique on images of their own. Admission to the workshop is $40. If you want to participate you should contact rsvp@drgreenway.org for further instructions.

Conversations Between Nature and Myself presents work that glows. Viewers are drawn to move up close for an intimate look at Ms. McLean’s highly individual approach to her subjects and her methods, which involve a combination of photography, pastel, and gilding. According to a press release, the artist uses “acrylic gilding.” The effect she achieves imparts an ancient icon-like quality to her art, which the release describes as a “cross-pollination” of forms.

Both of these exhibits represent “contemporary interpretations” of trees as well as the threats to their continued beauty, says D&R Greenway Curator Diana Moore. Both can be viewed at the Johnson Education Center during weekday business hours. All of the artwork on display is for sale with a percentage supporting D&R Greenway’s preservation and stewardship.

“The Fallen and Unfallen: Trees in Peril” runs through December 14 at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place, off Rosedale Road. The exhibition and the reception are free and open to the public. To register for the reception, contact rsvp@drgreenway.org. For more information, and to check that the galleries are open, visit: www.drgreenway.org.

 

SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

Transformations are a recurrent theme in Mary Zimmerman’s distinguished career as playwright and director. As a writer, she brilliantly adapts stories, myths, and fables for the stage: her Odyssey at McCarter in 2000; Metamorphosis, based on Ovid’s tales, a Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2002; The Secret in the Wings (2005), from an array of European fairy tales and Argonautika (2008), the story of Jason and the Argonauts, both also at McCarter. But even more striking than her clever literary transformations is her wildly creative visual magic in bringing these stories to life on the stage. 

The White Snake, based on a classic Chinese fable and currently playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a lavish, aesthetically stunning production, embodies that theme of transformation in every facet of its plot and production. Snakes, of course, among other rich symbolic associations, are known for their shape shifting and skin shedding. And certainly a defining characteristic of the theater art itself is its capacity for transformation, as it uses the tools of light, sound, film, props, set, costumes and make-up to transform actors into characters and creatures, and bare stages into multiple worlds.

From the outset, Ms. Zimmerman and her White Snake protagonist are bent on taking the art of transformation to new levels. Originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, The White Snake is the story, whose origins are more than a thousand years old, of a snake who studies the Tao, learns how to fly through the air and travel through the clouds, then how to change her shape into that of a beautiful young maiden. She then wishes to leave her mountain cave and visit the world below, where she meets and falls in love with a mortal man.

The story itself has changed shape many times over the years in numerous tellings and retellings — in oral recounting, in novels, plays, stories, opera, and film. In earlier versions the white snake woman is often depicted as villainous. In one version she and her serpent accomplice slaughter a would-be lover and devour his heart and liver. In most versions a religious figure becomes the antagonist representative of the status quo, exposing the disguised snake woman and imprisoning her under a stone pagoda.

In Ms. Zimmerman’s adaptation, and in most more recent versions of the tale, the White Snake, transformed into Madame White, is a sympathetic figure and the fable becomes a love story. White Snake marries a man named Xu Xian and they must battle the intolerance of a fierce Buddhist monk who is determined to expose Madame White and destroy this relationship between an immortal demon and a mortal man.

As she plots her visit, in the guise of a beautiful lady, to the world of mortals, White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) teams up with Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), a fiery, outspoken sidekick who provides moral and physical support throughout the proceedings.

Madame White and Greenie meet a young man, Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), in the park. Madame White uses her supernatural powers to bring on a rain storm so that she and Xu Xian will share an umbrella. Soon afterwards they share their hearts. With Greenie as go-between and procurer of money, Madame White and Xu Xian are soon married and working together in their pharmacy shop.

Their lives are peaceful and happy for a while, and, with Madame White’s supernatural healing powers, the pharmacy thrives, until a visit from Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), the suspicious monk who has heard about a demon white snake missing from her cave in the mountains and about the astonishingly successful pharmacist, casts doubt in the mind of Xu Xian.

The rest of the story follows Fa Hai’s determined efforts to expose White Snake and break up her forbidden relationship with her husband, as Xu Xian and White Snake struggle to overcome his doubts and her deceptions to achieve a true, lasting, loving relationship.

In staging this tale of transformations and the transforming power of love, Ms. Zimmerman, her actors and her production team present a dazzlingly beautiful tour de force of imaginative performance and stagecraft. Dramatic tension here is a notch below that of Ms. Zimmerman’s earlier masterpieces. This story melds abundant narration with intriguing magic, vibrant characterizations, romantic intrigue, bits of humor and intense conflict, but it lacks the richness of the multiple adventures of Odysseus on his journey home and of Jason and his ill-fated quest. Nor can this fable, captivating though it is, match the variety and allure of Metamorphosis’s amazing, titillating Greek myths or the peculiarly dark and fascinating fairy tales of The Secret in the Wings.

The sheer beauty and ingeniousness of the staging, however, does carry the performance, and if the plot is not always riveting nor the resolution fully satisfying, the audience cannot help but enjoy the visual and auditory feast provided here.

Production elements, under the direction of Ms. Zimmerman, are so closely melded with each other and with the performances of the superb acting ensemble that it’s difficult to single out the artists’ individual contributions, but Ms. Zimmerman’s team of actors, musicians, and designers is thoroughly first-rate.

Starting with the snakes themselves — sometimes manipulated by actors in puppet fashion with two sticks, sometimes represented by a row of actors carrying parasols, sometimes appearing in the form of the two maidens themselves with long tails emerging from their clothes — the visual manifestations of the concrete and abstract elements of the story are striking.

Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set relies on billowing silky fabric and the audience’s imagination to create mountains, clouds, rivers; long strips of blue fabric descending from above to denote rain; a parasol carried by an actor for the moon; a single medicine cabinet with its numerous drawers and large jars on a shelf rising from the floor of the stage to represent the apothecary shop, opening up to become Madame White’s bed chamber; colorful, picturesque model boats pulled across the stage to create the dragon festival; multiple light, sound, film, and design elements to create an epic battle with White Snake and Green Snake calling on all their water spirits to flood the monastery and the mountain and engulf Fai Hai and all his cloud spirits; and a striking display of colorfully costumed actors carrying bright lanterns to celebrate the festival of lanterns.

And even more memorable and clever are the visual and musical/sound manifestations of abstract qualities — like doubt, depicted here by the indispensable Emily Sophia Knapp with her extra-long fingernail attachments attacking poor Xu Xian and drumming relentlessly on his head; or love, when Madame White and Xu Xian’s hands first touch while passing the umbrella and the moment resonates with sound, lighting effects and the excited trembling of the romantic pair; or soon afterwards when red rose petals fall from above, a huge red wedding ribbon descends and the bride and groom entwine themselves in the shimmering sash.

Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful traditional Chinese costumes, T.J. Gerckens richly varied, expressive and dramatic lighting design, Andre Pluess’ remarkable original music and sound design with Tessa Brinckman on flute, Ronnie Malley on strings/percussion and Michal Palzewicz on cello in the orchestra pit, Shawn Sagady’s intriguing projections — all contribute invaluably, vitally to the creation of this exotic world and the telling of this strange tale.

As part of the narration of this story, characters at times read from a 1936 book titled Secrets of the Chinese Drama. In traditional Chinese drama there is no scenery, so costumes, music, props and movement take on particular symbolic meaning. According to the book’s preface, “There is so much of imagination and so little reality. So many of the actions are symbolic and so few of the properties are real!” Among the many wonders displayed on the Matthews stage in this beautiful production of The White Snake, there is little wonder that the infinitely inventive Mary Zimmerman would find a fulfilling vehicle for her rich gifts and powers of transformation in this Chinese tale of transforming snakes and transformative love.