May 7, 2014
PRESSED: Bob Justin’s acrylic on canvas painting is one of 15 exploring his emotional responses to pain in a one-man show, “Out of Darkness” at Plainsboro Library through May 28. Eleven of the fifteen paintings on show are for sale with prices ranging from $75 to $225. For more about the artist, visit: www.bobjustin.com. A public reception will take place Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.(Image Courtesy of Plainsboro Library)

PRESSED: Bob Justin’s acrylic on canvas painting is one of 15 exploring his emotional responses to pain in a one-man show, “Out of Darkness” at Plainsboro Library through May 28. Eleven of the fifteen paintings on show are for sale with prices ranging from $75 to $225. For more about the artist, visit: www.bobjustin.com. A public reception will take place Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897. (Image Courtesy of Plainsboro Library)

Bob Justin is one of a kind, a man who didn’t expect to be an artist but just couldn’t help himself. The creative impulse has led this former Plainsboro resident to one-man shows at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, the Frank J. Miele Gallery in New York, and the Eisenhower Hall Theater in West Point, N.Y. His work has found its way to the Outsider Art Fair sponsored by the American Museum of Folk Art and into the Laumeir Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri.

Discovered over two decades ago as a “folk artist” whose compelling and life-affirming found object assemblages and “primitive” masks rarely fail to elicit a smile, Mr. Justin is now represented in the permanent collections of Plainsboro Township, Bloomfield College and the American Cyanamid Corporation in West Windsor.

Currently 15 paintings by the artist are on display in the Gallery at Plainsboro Library. The exhibition, titled “Out of Darkness,” presents acrylic paintings that are bold in execution and raw in expression. They represent the artist’s emotional journey through years of heart and lung ailments.

Unlike Mr. Justin’s whimsical primitive art, the paintings in the current exhibition come from a dark wellspring of pain.

“Bob has a special talent for creating pieces with personality,” commented the show’s curator Donna Senopoulos. “His intriguing and whimsical pieces have been shown periodically at the library and it is always a pleasure to exhibit his work. This time it was important to him to show paintings that are an emotional response to the pain he has had.”

Given the content of the paintings, Ms. Senopoulos thought carefully as to how they should be presented on the walls of the gallery space. “I decided that a simple straight line was the best way to handle this material. Such a uniform presentation is a departure for me, but I felt that it was needed for these graphically complicated images,” she said.

Describing the work on display, Mr. Justin said: “I find [these] pictures to be difficult to describe rationally, as they were done under the stress of emotions born of illness. Repeated episodes have always triggered renewed sessions of demons that are born of a dark side beyond silence. I leave the public to interpret, accept, or reject the work as they wish.”

Some have detected a West African influence in Mr. Justin’s work, most notably in his masks. It is also evident in these paintings rendered in dark elemental hues. Some are self portraits; some include hermaphrodite figures. A few, like the one shown here, include words and phrases.

A self-described “free spirited non-conformist,” Mr. Justin stands outside the mainstream. His road to art was prompted by illness. Born in 1941, he grew up in Keyport, Monmouth County, and worked in a variety of fields, though never for very long. He jokes that he’s had over 300 jobs, including stints as a real estate agent, Cadillac sales manager, and the head of his own executive search firm, among many others.

A heart attack forced him to retire in 1991, at which time he began selling his collection of tools and other items at the New Egypt Flea Market, where he now maintains a studio in an old Army barrack.

While handling vintage items, Mr. Justin rediscovered a childhood penchant for finding faces in everything. He began constructing what he affectionately called ‘critters” or “guys,” combinations of found objects inspired by tools, dolls, door knobs, discarded industrial and household objects that found new life in his hands.

His first artistic endeavor came about almost by accident when he adorned an old wooden chair with a broken pick axe. He called the assemblage, “Texas Longhorn” and placed it alongside his flea market table. His folk art career was born when someone came along and offered to buy it for $75.

Eventually, Dorothy Spencer, curator for the Arts America Program of the United States Information Agency (USIA), found her way to the self-taught artist. Her interest resulted in several of his pieces being shown internationally and locally. After he was discovered by a noted collector and board member of the American Museum of Folk Art, he had several one man shows.

Mr. Justin is the subject of a Cablevision documentary which can be viewed along with his portfolio at www.bobjustin.com.

A public reception for the artist will take place at the gallery on Sunday, May 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. “Out of Darkness” runs through May 28 in the gallery of the Plainsboro Library, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro. Hours are Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.

 

The clarinet does not often come out from its customary orchestral place behind the flutes and next to the bassoons. Mozart, as well as a few Romantic composers and Benny Goodman made the instrument a star in the “swing” world, but one does not often hear the range of musical styles from the clarinet heard from soloist Anthony McGill and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. NJSO conductor Jacques Lacombe programmed a concert on the theme of freedom and heroism, with clarinetist Mr. McGill representing the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a newly-commissioned work by American composer Richard Danielpour.

Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium was centered on aspects of heroism and continued a theme of the legacy of Dr. King which has been recurring throughout the season. The connection of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture to the freedom theme was immediately apparent; derived from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the overture reflected the hero Florestan’s emerging into the light for the first time after a long imprisonment. Mr. Lacombe began the overture with a stately walk by the strings, taking the music to its inevitable conclusion in triumph. Mr. Lacombe cleanly emphasized the sforzandi characteristic of Beethoven’s style, contrasting musical force with the delicate combination of flutist Bart Feller’s spool lines and light strings. Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe was able to focus on instrumental sections as necessary, moving quickly between sections and teasing with flute and oboe leading to the closing Presto.

Mr. Lacombe cited Richard Danielpour as one of his favorite American composers, and under his leadership, the NJSO has presented several of Mr. Danielpour’s works. The NJSO commission of Danielpour’s clarinet concerto From the Mountaintop was a three-way project, with the Kansas City Symphony and Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 taking part. Through this work, Danielpour depicted the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., especially centered on the “Mountaintop Speech” of April 1968.

In this programmatic concerto, the clarinet soloist was cast as a “minister in a Southern Baptist church” telling the life story of Dr. King. The soloist was expected to be a storyteller, and Mr. McGill clearly took the role very seriously. Beginning with a musical soliloquy, McGill evoked an atmosphere of mid-20th century jazz, with a seamless clarinet line amid Bernstein-esque rhythms. McGill demonstrated a solid feel for the music, which often pulsated among different instruments within the orchestra. His solo clarinet line was often in duet with percussion, including the unique color of the marimba and a cadenza duet with timpanist David Fein. With an ostinato from the harp and refined sound of English horn from Andrew Adelson, the music was often poignant and always in support of the soloist. McGill found a wide range of emotions from the clarinet, accompanied by varied orchestral colors, including a unified horn section and elegant cello solo commenting on the action from Jonathan Spitz.

Besides its well-known connection to Beethoven, the Symphony No. 1 in C minor of Johannes Brahms fit well into the theme of the concert with the sense of liberation conveyed in the Finale. Lacombe began the work with a commanding introduction to the first movement, marked by a steady timpani and an oboe solo from Robert Ingliss which built in intensity. The Allegro of the movement settled into a gentle flow, as the influence of Beethoven on Brahms became more evident.

Ingliss was featured again in the hymnlike and stately second movement, rising over the rest of the orchestral sound. This movement maintained a great deal of flow, led by the sensitivity of the winds. Clarinetist Karl Herman and concertmaster Eric Wyrick were also featured in the gentler inner movements. Mr. Lacombe brought out well the great string melody in the final movement, bringing the symphony to a triumphant Finale. A brisk performance of Brahms’ famous Hungarian Dance No. 5 as an encore reminded the audience at Richardson of what a spirited year it has been for the New Jersey Symphony as the orchestra’s Princeton season came to a close.

 

I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

If the idea behind a sequel to a summer blockbuster is to up the ante in terms of bombast and intensity, then The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly fits the bill. This movie is bigger, better, louder, longer, and features more villains, the next generation of special effects, more captivating action sequences, and a romance between Spidey’s alter ego Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

The picture opens with a flashback that fills in the back story about how Peter became an orphan. We learn that his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) died aboard a doomed private plane that was hijacked by an assassin (Bill Heck). However, Peter’s scientist father managed to email an explanatory message and critical computer file.

Fast-forward to Peter and Gwen’s high school graduation day. Gwen is anxiously searching the audience for her boyfriend as she is delivering her valedictory speech.

It turns out that Peter has been delayed in Manhattan where, as Spider-Man, he’s trying to retrieve a shipment of plutonium that was stolen from a Russian mobster named Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). During the course of the chase, he also saves the life of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an engineer at Oscorp, the company that supplies the city with electricity.

After securing the plutonium and turning the perpetrator over to the police, Peter rushes off to his commencement ceremony and arrives just in time to receive his diploma. However, he has no idea that he hasn’t seen the last of Aleksei and Max who are fated to return later in the adventure after a combat suit of armor and a freak accident enable them to morph into the villainous Rhino and Electro, respectively.

After the graduation ceremonies, Peter reluctantly ends his relationship with Gwen in deference to her father (Denis Leary), who doesn’t want his daughter dating a trouble-seeking vigilante. Next, Peter is summoned to the offices of his childhood pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who has just inherited Oscorp Industries. It turns out that Harry is suffering from the same hereditary disease that killed his recently-deceased father (Chris Cooper).

Harry futilely asks Peter’s help in locating Spider-Man, hoping that a blood transfusion from him might cure his affliction. However, Peter convinces him to settle for an injection of the venom of genetically-altered spiders, which then transforms him into the Green Goblin, another diabolical nemesis.

That makes three adversaries for the webslinging superhero to deal with before the movie ends. If you’re patient enough to sit through the closing credits after 2½ hours, you’ll see a teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, that will open later this month.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action and science-fiction violence. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

April 30, 2014

book dream palaceWhere was the place after all …. Was it ‘on’ Third Avenue, on Second, on fabulous unattempted First? Nothing would induce me to cut down the romance of it, in remembrance, to a mere address, least of all to an awful New York one.

—Henry James

James’s musings on the mundane nature of numbered streets close out his conflicted appreciation of “Remarkable, unspeakable New York!” in The American Scene (1907). Driving back and forth across Manhattan on two of those numbered streets — from Hudson Street to Avenue A on 12th and to an art gallery near the Chelsea Piers on 23rd — I’m picking up the pieces of a column as they flash into view along the way.

St. Vincent’s

The notion of focusing on my associations with a particular street comes to mind as soon as I decide to take 12th the whole way east to Academy Records, just off First Avenue. The cobblestone stretch between Hudson and Greenwich gives the crossing a time-frame, like a 19th-century soundline rumbling under the wheels until I make a sharp right across Greenwich and 7th Avenue South past the site of the grand old hospital that gave Edna St. Vincent Millay her middle name, the building where Dylan Thomas breathed his last, and where in May 1981 I said goodbye to my surrogate father, the painter whose mural The Story of the Word fills the great rotunda of the main branch of the N.Y. Public Library.

The Dumbwaiter

Shortly after crossing Fifth Avenue I pass the niche once occupied by a small hotel called the St. George, where the elevator in use was (I swear) an over-sized dumbwaiter and where the saddest man I ever knew lived out his days. I was 18, Nick must have been 50 the summer we worked together at a waterfront hiring hall in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. On the long subway rides back to Manhattan, in between daily jeremiads about the bullies in the office who tormented him, he told me the story of his childhood in Denmark, how he saw the king once, and was happy for the only time in his life. He had a strawberry-colored birthmark on his chin that his antagonists never stopped teasing him about; and so it was that this most harassed of men came home from hell five days a week to pull himself to his room in a dumbwaiter.

The Albert Hotel

Crossing University Place I’m looking a block south toward the ghost of the Albert Hotel, where Thomas Wolfe lived when he first came to the city and was teaching at N.Y.U. That’s why I stayed there when I came to New York after college. One day I asked the desk clerk if he knew who was practicing on the alto sax down the hall from my room.  “Some guy named Coleman.” he said. Ornette Coleman, it turned out. Once upon a time if you looked in the Albert’s direction from 12th you’d have seen tables set up for the outdoor cafe of the hotel’s French restauarant, which was frequented by people like Andy Warhol, Anaïs Nin, and Rocky Graziano. “The Mothers of Invention stayed there,” says my son, the reason I’m bound for a record store. “So did the Mamas and Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote ‘Do You Believe in Magic’ there.”

The Last Vestige

At Broadway, memories of a city where books once held sway haunt the sale tables lining 12th Street outside the Strand, the last vestige of the legendary Book Row that used to be around the corner on Fourth Avenue. When the Strand opened on Fourth in 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, there were 48 secondhand bookstores on Book Row. The first book I ever bought from one of those shops, at age 10, was a Hardy Boys mystery called A Figure in Hiding, along with a 1932 Baseball Yearbook. Today even tiny rental spaces for bookstores on the Upper West Side cost $40,000 a month, as one book dealer reports in a recent New York Times story about how the situation is “threatening the city’s sense of itself as the center of the literary universe.”

The First New Yorker

After dropping my son off at Academy Records, another dying breed in a city where not long ago you could visit a dozen secondhand vinyl outlets below 14th Street, I take a left on Avenue A and head over to James’s “fabulous unattempted First” and from there up to 23rd, for me the most storied of crosstown thoroughfares, including 34th and even 42nd, two “mere addresses” that turn up in the titles of classic Hollywood films. The first true New Yorker I ever met was the daughter of a renowned abstract expressionist who lived on East 23rd between First and Second. Until I met this 16-year-old girl at a party in Indiana one summer, New York was the domain of my elders, like the man who died at St. Vincent’s after living and working in the city since 1920. Here was someone a year younger than I was who could talk about poetry, art, literature, and jazz, and who clearly knew considerably more about those things than I did. It was a happy day when she sent me a letter in response to my carefully worded (ten drafts) overture of undying friendship (I had written pages upon pages of unsent poetry about what she meant to me); better yet, she enclosed a snapshot someone took of her smiling as she put the envelope into a 23rd Street mailbox. I still have the photo. When I compare it to the one online of a handsome gray-haired woman, an artist herself now, the smiling girl is clearly there. How special is she? She changed my life. She’s why I wanted to be a writer.

Kenmore Hall

A few blocks down the street between Third and Lexington (finally a street name, no number) is the Kenmore Hall Hotel, where I stayed because my father liked it and it was near Gramercy Park and O’Henry’s neighborhood, one of my favorite parts of the city. I didn’t know at the time that Nathaniel West, the author of Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, had once worked at the front desk and given free room and board to writer friends like Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, and Dashiell Hammett, who allegedly finished The Maltese Falcon at the Kenmore. The hotel came to an unhappy end in the 1990s when criminal activity involving prostitution and narcotics led to its seizure by the U.S. Marshal Service.

Heading west on 23rd, I have Charlie Parker on the stereo playing “Now’s the Time,” and as always the city seems to know this music, and here we go, past Madison Square, past the Flatiron Building, except the real surprise is a jolt of Renaissance Revival beauty in the white palace that once housed the Stern Brothers Department Store and is now the only Home Depot where you enter under the head of a roaring lion.

Chelsea Dreaming

If you think of the Albert and Kenmore Hall as the overture, the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd near Eighth Avenue with its wrought-iron balconies, Gothic aura, and clientele of artists and writers is the full opera. According to Sherill Tippins’s Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin $30), Leonard Cohen wrote “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” after a one-night stand there with Janis Joplin. Another famous Chelsea tryst involved strange bedfellows Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac.

If no other work of art was composed there, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” would be enough to lend the place rock and roll immortality. The night I spent in room 118 in February 1996, I didn’t hear Dylan’s “heat pipes just cough,” I heard the radiator knocking and hissing, dogs barking in the hall, a whirling sound like a theramin coming and going, a swing door that kept opening and closing with a sound like a gunshot followed by a screech, then a whine, then a crash. When a series of heavy thuds sounded just outside the door I blocked it with the room’s only chair. The black and white TV got only one channel, which came in crazed with interference, and when I finally went to sleep I dreamed of eating toasted cheese sandwiches with Madonna, who once stayed at the Chelsea, though I doubt it was in room 118.

Anne Elliott’s Eruption

My reason for driving way west is to visit “Fire and Ice,” my friend and former Town Topics colleague Anne Elliott’s exhibit at Soho20/Chelsea. Friday was the show’s last full day, which is a shame because the art is spectacular and deserves more than this brief mention. “Over the years,” the artist says, “I have returned again and again to volcanoes and glaciers, nature’s most extreme instruments for shaping the Earth.” As she “continues to explore these subjects,” she hopes that “this time” she will “get it right, catch it whole.” And she does. Keep in mind that she doesn’t go to books to see glaciers, caves, and volcanoes; she goes in person, gets close, and comes home to construct elaborate immensities like the giclee print, Volcanic Field, the wall relief Mauna Loa, and above all, the vast, elaborate aluminum mesh formation Caldera, with its subtle nuances of color and light, a great work, at once sprawling and shapely that turns an ordinary wall into a cyclotron.

So it goes in this “remarkable, unspeakable” city, where you can find a perfect storm of art on the third floor of a building at the “awful New York address,” 547 West 27th.

 

TOWERING TALENT: Young members of DanceVision, which is based at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, are appearing on a program of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Graduation Ball,” (shown here) this weekend and next.

TOWERING TALENT: Young members of DanceVision, which is based at the Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, are appearing on a program of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Graduation Ball,” (shown here) this weekend and next.

Among the many performances at Communiversity last Sunday was an excerpt from the ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under a tent on Witherspoon Street just

outside the Princeton Public Library. The young dancers, from the DanceVision Performance Company, made a few concessions due to the asphalt that was serving as a stage floor, scrapping the traditional pointe shoes in favor of less precarious soft-soled footwear.

Injuries would have been especially unwelcome, since the company is set to appear this weekend at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, and the following Saturday in Neptune. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is artistic director Risa Kaplowitz’s take on the Shakespeare play. Also on the program is her version of the comedic ballet Graduation Ball.

The double bill is a repeat of one that debuted last spring. But those who were in the audience last year can expect to see some changes, according to Ms. Kaplowitz. “When you write something, you get to reread and edit it. When you are choreographing, you don’t get to see it until everybody else does,” she said last week. “Until you actually see it on stage, you don’t even know what you have yet. So the first year is always challenging. The second is relief, because you are able to tweak and edit and fix. It’s so much better this year.”

Joining the production as guest artists are Rickey Flagg II, from the professional training program of Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Charles Way, a member of the Lustig Dance Theatre Company. Ms. Kaplowitz is just as enthused about the dancers she has trained at the company’s Princeton Dance and Theatre studio in Forrestal Village, which she opened with former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) star Susan Jaffe in 2005. She is especially proud of 15-year-old Max Azaro, who recently won a full scholarship to ABT’s Jackie Kennedy Onassis School in New York City.

“I’m so happy for him,” she said “I’ve been teaching him since he was four-and-a-half. He’s so talented, and so are the other dancers. It’s really the cream of the crop of pre-professional dancers in this area.”

Set to Mendelssohn’s score, the one-act A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens the program. “I pieced it together so that it really follows the text,” Ms. Kaplowitz said. “A lot of middle school kids will be coming, and I think the way I’ve done it makes it understandable for them. It’s very, very funny. Thankfully, our guest artists know how to be funny without being silly — how to make it real and authentic. It’s hilarious.”

Graduation Ball, which has music by Johann Strauss II and was originally choreographed by David Lichine in 1940, “… is also very funny,” Ms. Kaplowitz said. “It’s a really fun dance, not your typical ballet.”

DanceVision members recently performed with Boheme Opera Company, and Ms. Kaplowitz has presented them in choreography she has created for programs with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. She recently spoke at a meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association, using visual aids to demonstrate her dancers’ abilities. “They were blown away,” she said. “Whenever we have professional dancers appearing with our [pre-professional] dancers, people always want to guess which ones are the professionals. And they always guess it wrong. It happens all the time.”

Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Graduation Ball are Saturday, May 3 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 4 at 2 p.m. at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing; and Saturday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at Neptune High School Performing Arts Center, 55 Neptune Boulevard, Neptune. Tickets are $20-$25 in Ewing; $15 in Neptune. Visit www.DancevisionNJ.org or call (609) 520-1020.

 

Princeton University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt introduced this year’s Stuart B. Mindlin concert as a journey. For this past weekend’s concerts, the University Orchestra girded its musical loins and performed Gustav Mahler’s abstract, complex, and ultimately romantic Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Joined by the American Boychoir and the women of the Princeton University Glee Club, the more than 180 musicians on stage and in two balconies embarked on a 90-minute voyage through what Mr. Pratt described as Mahler’s “extraordinary vision and imagination.”

For Friday night’s performance in Richardson Auditorium (the concert was repeated Saturday night), Mr. Pratt suggested the audience think of the six-movement work as a movie. Mahler certainly had a great deal of musical action in mind when he conceived this work in the mid-1880s. Mahler wrote that a symphony “must be like the world. It must embrace everything,” and in the case of his third symphony, “everything” included nature and its relationship to the world and human emotion.

Mahler’s symphonic works are marked by pointed and expressive use of brass, and the eight horns of the University orchestra did not disappoint in the opening fanfare. Answered by sharp bowings from the expanded string sections, the brass sections collectively maintained a sense of suspense well through the first movement, especially in the trumpets’ muted extended suspensions. Mr. Pratt and the orchestra players brought out the melodic quirkiness often found in Mahler’s works, aided by strong trumpet lines and sweet instrumental solos from oboist Katrina Maxcy and concertmistress Kate Dreyfuss. Mahler asks a tremendous amount from players of his music, and Mr. Pratt guided the instrumentalists well with careful and well-planned transitions among sections. He also emphasized the Romantic tunefulness in what seemed at times like musical chaos. Throughout the movement, there was always clarity among the players and the music always sounded fresh, with clean cellos and double basses, four well-unified piccolos and solos from hornist Kimberly Fried, English horn player Alexa McCall, and clarinetist Paul Chang.

The second through sixth sections are abstract character pieces, through which Mahler depicts his perception of nature. The second movement, subtitled “What the flowers in the meadow tell me,” was well led off by Ms. Maxcy, with violins which were lush but as clean as if playing lieder. Solos chased one another around a bit within the orchestral fabric, including violinist Ms. Dreyfuss, flutist Lilia Xie, and Ms. Maxcy, and transitions were always graceful. Bassoonist Luisa Slosar steadily held the rhythm of the third movement with trumpeter Nicolas Crowell providing the work’s signature posthorn solo from the balcony.

Mahler revolutionized symphonic writing by incorporating voices, and in the fourth and fifth movements of Symphony No. 3 a solo mezzo-soprano voice and two treble choirs joined the orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick a member of the voice faculty at Princeton, settled well into the text of Nietzsche’s poem after sitting quite a while before singing, and her voice effectively built in intensity as she sang of man’s suffering. In depicting “what the morning bells tell me,” the women of the University Glee Club and the 40-voice American Boychoir served effectively as angels. Although the text of “Bimm Bamm” might not lend itself to dramatic interpretation, the American Boychoir’s singing was laser-like, with impressive strength in the alto part. The women of the Glee Club, singing from across the balcony, lithely presented the “Poor Children’s Begging Song” from Das Knaben Wunderhorn with equal clarity from both soprano and alto sections.

As the Romantic lushness of the symphony flourished toward the close of the work, Ms. Maxcy effectively led the audience toward the end of the evening’s musical odyssey. Ms. Xie’s flute solos flowed seamlessly into those of other winds, and the University orchestra brought the symphony to a grand close as a testament to their collective achievement this year.

The orchestra’s presentation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was certainly a journey, but as Mr. Pratt mentioned in his introductory remarks, there were a number of journeys being embarked upon that night. Twenty-five seniors graduated from the orchestra this year (but with an apparently huge pool of players ready to step in next year), with a number of Glee Club singers also graduating from Princeton and the eighth grade of the American Boychoir preparing for their journey into high school. These students’ collective final performances at Richardson will no doubt stay with them as a reminder of the all-encompassing power of music and the written word.

 

BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE: Two orphaned cousins, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, left) and Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle to be raised on their estate in England. The cousins, who were close in age and were adopted when they were eight-years-old, soon became fast friends for life. As they were growing up, Belle’s African lineage brought her into contact with racism and slavery issues that were being debated in England at the time.

BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE: Two orphaned cousins, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, left) and Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle to be raised on their estate in England. The cousins, who were close in age and were adopted when they were eight-years-old, soon became fast friends for life. As they were growing up, Belle’s African lineage brought her into contact with racism and slavery issues that were being debated in England at the time.

Born in the West Indies in 1761, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the daughter of Mary Belle, an African slave, and John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a British ship captain. After Mary died, the widower brought his 8-year-old daughter to England to see whether his wealthy aunt and uncle would be willing to raise her.

Lady (Emily Watson) and Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) had just adopted another niece whose mother had passed away. Also, because Dido and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) were about the same age, the orphaned girls could keep each other company.

Captain Lindsay claimed that his daughter was entitled to live on the family estate because of her noble birthright. This prompted a skeptical Lady Mansfield to speculate about whether skin color ranked above or below a person’s bloodline in English society.

Ultimately, she agreed to raise Dido, and the two young cousins forged a close friendship that lasted for life. Proof of their close bond has been preserved for posterity in a striking portrait of the pair that was commissioned in 1779.

That famous painting apparently served as the inspiration for Belle, a mesmerizing biopic based on a script by Misan Sagay. Directed by Amma Assante, the riveting historical drama is another movie in the recent series of pictures — such as Django Unchained, The Retrieval, and Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave — that reexamine race from the black perspective.

The film focuses primarily on Dido and Elizabeth’s coming-of-age against the backdrop of a country that is becoming increasingly uneasy about its involvement in the slave trade. After being protected during their childhood, racism becomes an issue when the young women become involved with suitors whom they meet outside the safe confines of the family estate.

Meanwhile, tension also builds around a legal decision that was about to be made by their uncle Judge Mansfield, who was the Chief Justice of England’s Supreme Court. The case was about a trading company that was seeking compensation from its insurance company for the loss of over a hundred Africans who had been deliberately drowned.

The question Judge Mansfield was being asked to resolve was whether or not slaves should be considered to be human beings or merely cargo that could be thrown overboard for financial gain at the whim of the owner. The longer he agonized over the ruling, the more he felt pressured to issue a landmark opinion that was likely to be the death knell of an odious institution.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for smoking, mature themes, and ethnic insensitivity. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 

April 23, 2014

books ShakespeareI think Americans will be fascinated to learn of our deep and early connection to the Bard, how he inspired presidents and incited mobs, and how vivid the legacy of one Englishman’s imagination still sits within the consciousness of our country.

—Meryl Streep

Funny, I was looking through Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), hoping to find just the right epigraph for this birthday column, and there was Meryl Streep’s on the back of the dust jacket, along with quotes from less celebrated members of the profession mentioning how P.T. Barnum loved Shakespeare so much “he tried to buy the Bard’s playhouse and bring it to America” and how Shakespeare has been “a battleground” where we have “fought about race, anti-Semitism, and gender equality.”

Right, and let’s not forget card games, board games, and movies. Just now I looked through an ancient deck of Authors, the game I grew up playing, where a full book  of four Shakespeares was particularly coveted (wouldn’t you know, the only missing card in the deck is Hamlet), and I can’t tell you how many hours my wife and son and I spent playing the board game Shakespeare, rolling the dice and moving the chess-like pieces around in a race to get to the Globe. And the surest route there was to learn the language of the plays.

As for movies …

Hamlet in Tombstone

Garbed in black with the requisite medallion around his neck, Hamlet stands astride a tabletop stage in a Tombstone saloon declaiming the most famous soliloquy in all Shakespeare. The melancholy Dane is being played by a washed-up actor named Granville Thorndyke. As he comes to the line about “shuffling off this mortal coil,” he’s interrupted by a shout of “Enough” from a bearded critter at the foot of the stage who draws his gun and suggests it’s time to stop talking and start dancing. At this, the feared gunfighter Doc Holliday calls out “Leave him alone” and politely tells Mr. Thorndyke to go on. When the actor falters and forgets the lines, Doc Holliday, who has TB, helps him out and takes the speech thoughtfully, movingly, toward “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” until a coughing fit sends him lunging out the door.

Although the scene described took place on a Hollywood soundstage during the filming of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine with Alan Mowbray as the actor and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, real-life equivalents have been documented among the touring companies of players performing Shakespeare when the West was still wild. President Bill Clinton’s foreword to Shakespeare in America quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on the Bard’s popularity in the American wilderness, where “there is hardly a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found.”

“Hallowed to the World”

Today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. A century and a half ago on April 23, 1864, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once observed that beings on other planets probably call the Earth Shakespeare, hosted a Tercentennial Celebration at the Revere House in Boston. The poem Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the occasion, which is reprinted in Shakespeare in America, speaks of turning away from “War-wasted … strife” of the Civil War to “Live o’er in dreams the Poet’s faded life.”

Three decades later and 1500 miles to the west, Shakespeare’s 330th birthday was celebrated by a University of Nebraska senior writing in a local newspaper to the effect that April 23 had come and gone again, “just as it has done … since it was made hallowed to the world.” After wondering “how many people know or care,” Willa Cather, then not yet 21, narrowed the number down to a few Shakespearean scholars, “a great many professional people, and perhaps the stars that mete out human fate, and the angels, if there are any.”

Also included in Shakespeare in America, Cather’s review of a local production of Antony and Cleopatra takes reverence for the Bard to the limit: “If I were asked for the answer of the riddle of things, I would as lief say ‘Shakespeare’ as anything. For him alone it was worth while that a planet should be called out of Chaos and a race formed out of nothingness. He justified all history before him, sanctified all history after him.”

Another American writer who expressed his passion for Shakespeare in cosmic terms grew up in a small town in Ohio in the 1850s where “printers in oldtime offices” could be heard “spouting Shakespeare.” At the age of 16, William Dean Howells thought that “the creation of Shakespeare was as great as the creation of a planet.” Looking back four decades later, the novelist, editor, and man of letters seems to be chiding “the ardent youth … falling slavishly before a great author and accepting him at all points as infallible,” but in the end he’s drawn back to his early sense of “intimate companionship” with the poet who “in his great heart … had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.”

Pumping Up the Sentiment

Among the anecdotal gems in James Shapiro’s introduction to Shakespeare in America is one concerning Ulysses S. Grant, the eventual commander of the Union forces and future president, looking “very like a girl dressed up” in the role of Desdemona for a U.S. Army production of Othello in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846. We’ll never know how this extraordinary staging of the play was received, since a professional actress had to be called in when the soldier playing Othello complained of being unable to “pump up any sentiment” with Grant for his Desdemona.

Othello’s wife surfaces as the subject of an essay by another U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, who finds her “unnatural passion” for the Moor to be “a salutary admonition against all ill-assorted, clandestine, and unnatural marriages.”

The short piece by Edgar Allan Poe that follows hard upon the sixth president’s exhortation puts things back in perspective by pointing out “the radical error” of “attempting to expound Shakespeare’s characters … as if they had been actual existences upon earth.” Speaking of Hamlet, Poe brands as “the purest absurdity” the critical urge to reconcile the character’s “inconsistencies” as if he were a living man when in fact “the whims and vacillations … conflicting energies and indolences” are those of the poet.

Nights at the Players

William Winter’s essay, “The Art of Edwin Booth: Hamlet,” includes a letter from the actor in response to someone asking about the “mystery” of Hamlet’s madness, a question Booth says he runs into “nearly three-hundred and sixty-five times a year.”  His response is that Hamlet is not mad, which, he writes, “may be of little value, but ‘tis the result of many weary walks with him, for hours together.” 

There’s something of Poe’s resistance to “the radical error” in the idea of the actor and the character walking for hours together sorting out “the conflicting energies and indolences” of the poet.

And there’s something of Poe in the 14 days and nights I spent among Edwin Booth’s costumes, props, posters, playbills, and portraits, sometimes imagining I could hear him and his most famous character pacing about on the top floor of The Players Club, which he co-founded in 1888. Lodged there at the behest of my publisher, I was working in a room that was barely large enough for a bed, a desk, a typewriter, a ream of paper, and the godsend of the air-conditioner occupying the bottom half of a window looking out on Gramercy Park and the Metropolitan Tower. 

The Players seemed as much Shakespeare’s domain as it was Booth’s, though I was only 20 at the time, too young yet to have bonded with the Bard. Nor was I particularly thrilled to be surrounded by the personal effects of the brother of the man who had killed the most Shakespeare-centric American president, Abraham Lincoln. One of the items I passed every day was a display case containing the letter of apology Edwin Booth had written to the American people after the assassination. I also passed by mannequins dressed in the very costumes Booth had worn when playing Hamlet and Richard the Third. It was not that hard to imagine  the “melancholy Dane” haunting the place, or, worse yet, that murderous, child-slaying Richard, who was in my thoughts whenever I passed by a case showing off the bejeweled sword Booth had employed in that role. There were arrays of swords, daggers, crowns, and tiaras flanked by walls crowded with portraits (and the occasional death mask) of actors, writers, financiers, and men about town who had been denizens of the club over time. I could feel those painted eyes staring disapprovingly at me whenever I climbed the carpeted stairway to my room, and none more sternly than the piercing eyes of Edwin Booth himself in the immense John Singer Sargent portrait above the fireplace.

With one happy exception, I never met anyone else on the top floor, thus my uneasy awareness of someone pacing in the hall outside my door when I was sure no one was there. One evening near the end of my stay, I heard a knock that sounded as momentous to me as the porter’s knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Who could it be? Booth or Hamlet or both? Or maybe Richard? Or Booth’s assassin brother who cited Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to justify his act? When I got up the nerve to open the door, I found a jovial, older man on the other side holding out his hand and introducing himself as Edward Everett Horton. Though the name sounded faintly familiar, I had no idea that I was shaking hands with one of the most beloved character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “I hope I didn’t startle you,” Mr. Horton said, clearly aware that he had done just that. It may have been the old actor’s genial, welcoming manner, but after this encounter I felt more at home in the Players, no longer prone to imagine I could hear Edwin Booth and his most famous character making “weary walks … for hours together” outside my door.

Celebrating the 450th

As you might expect, Shakespeare’s homeland is going all out to celebrate his birthday. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s festivities will include a firework display from the rooftop of its theatre, which will follow Wednesday evening’s performance of Henry IV Part I. The display, which is being co-ordinated by leading pyrotechnic experts, will also include “an epic eight-metre-high fire drawing depicting Shakespeare’s face.”

And in New York? Why ask? The theatres of New York, on and off and off-off Broadway represent an on-going celebration of “one Englishman’s imagination.” Speaking of New York, the mob Meryl Streep refers to created a catastrophe in which 25 people died and hundreds were injured. The Astor Place Riots were set off by a dispute between the fans of the American actor Edwin Forrest and English tragedian William Charles Macready. The event is fully documented in Shakespeare in America.

 

ART FOR HEALING: At the new University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, art is playing no small part in patient recovery. Research shows that an environment that includes works of art such as Gordon Gund’s life-affirming sculpture, “Moment,” can help combat stress. Serene images by local artists are all around the building, in corridors and lobbies, waiting areas and patient rooms. And it’s not just patients who benefit, those who work there every day are also finding solace in the artwork.(Image Courtesy of UMCPP).

ART FOR HEALING: At the new University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro, art is playing no small part in patient recovery. Research shows that an environment that includes works of art such as Gordon Gund’s life-affirming sculpture, “Moment,” can help combat stress. Serene images by local artists are all around the building, in corridors and lobbies, waiting areas and patient rooms. And it’s not just patients who benefit, those who work there every day are also finding solace in the artwork. (Image Courtesy of UMCPP).

Art is playing no small part in the process of patient recovery at the new University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro (UMCPP) and local artists feature most prominently among the work on display throughout the building, in corridors and lobbies, waiting areas and patient rooms, and in the Art for Healing Gallery.

The new hospital is not such a surprising place for a collection of artwork as you might at first think. Artists and art lovers have long found solace and comfort in forms of art. Now scientific research is bolstering their intuition by demonstrating ways in which art contributes to healing.

According to Barry S. Rabner, president and CEO of Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS), the design of the new hospital buildings was guided by recent scientific research, which demonstrates the measurable effect that art has on patient recovery. Images of nature in particular, can alleviate anxiety and stress, reduce blood pressure, shorten hospital stays, and even limit the need for pain medication.

A tour of the four conjoined buildings that make up the medical campus (the main hospital, emergency and surgery center, Medical Arts Pavilion, and education building) on Monday revealed that indoor art as well as views onto external gardens with sculpture, not to mention vistas of Princeton set among a landscape of trees on the other side of Route 1, can be seen from multiple vantage points throughout. “Every elevator lobby has a piece of artwork,” said public affairs coordinator Andy Williams, as he described the numerous sculptures, oil paintings, watercolors, and fabric pieces on display, each accompanied by signage with details of the artist and often the donor who made the acquisition possible. Charles McVicker’s 2009 painting, The Sandy Road, for example, was a gift from the Community Connection of PHCS, formerly known as the Women’s Auxiliary.

Flukes, a bronze by the blind sculptor Gordon Gund, takes pride of place in the Meditation Garden, while his Moment, enhances the east entrance to the main hospital building. Ernestine Ruben’s 2008 giclee print with drawing, Waterrings (made possible by Barry Goldblatt) is in the Atkinson Pavilion. Naomi Chung’s 2011 oil on canvas, Mimosa Tree is on the fourth floor in the east elevator lobby and Carol Hanson’s stunning 2010 View of the Delaware from Bordentown distinguishes a lobby space on another floor. Elaine Vrabel’s 2010 pastel on paper, Far View of the Marsh is featured in the Matthews Center for Cancer Care, where you will also find a series by Lucy Graves McVicker.

Cafe visitors, will discover two enormous canvases by Eve Ingalls (also made possible by Barry Goldblatt). Her acrylic on paper, We’ll Leave a Light On dates to 1984, and her oil and acrylic on canvas, Is Someone There to 1995.

It seems that art of some form can be viewed from almost any point in the hospital. This is far from accidental. “When we designed the building, we had art in mind and the specific placement of sculpture and graphic art. We even designed places for them. Besides being beautiful, art can be an effective way of helping people find their way through a building. A huge pink flower is much more memorable than a direction to turn left or right. Art is also placed where people are likely to linger, in waiting areas, in lobbies. Ninety percent of our areas have natural light, which is also shown as having an effect on recovery.”

The “huge pink flower,” referenced by Mr. Rabner is muralist Illia Barger’s large canvas, Natasha, 2009, which provides a focal point at the end of a long corridor and has become a reference point for visitors.

Asked why there was a preponderance of landscapes and organic forms on display, Mr. Rabner explained that the choice was deliberate and was driven by the findings of “evidence-based design.” “A lot of research has shown that art has a measurable impact on the speed of patient recovery and reduce rates of infection,” said Mr. Rabner. “Exposure, particularly to landscapes, can reduce stress and a hospital is a stressful environment not only for patients and their families but also for those who work here every day.”

Still, those choosing artwork for UMCPP’s Art for Healing initiative could easily have gone with cookie cutter reproductions, Monet’s Waterlilies, say, or any number of readily recognizable works of art. Instead, they chose to focus on original works by New Jersey artists.

Made up of physicians and staff members, local art curators and experts from Princeton University and other area colleges, the selection committee included Mr. Rabner, Princeton architect J. Robert Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder), and design expert Rosalyn Cama, who chairs the Center for Health Design, which fosters a respect for natural scenes as well as natural light through its healthier hospitals initiative and its promotion of evidence-based design.

Born and bred in the Garden State, Mr. Rabner is very happy about the committee’s decision. “These are artists who know New Jersey and it is great to be able to showcase the beauty of our Garden State instead of other aspects.”

But none of this would have been possible, he said, without philanthropic support. “If the hospital had to choose between a work of art or a linear accelerator, we would choose the latter, obviously. But we are lucky in having great supporters.” The purchase of artwork is funded by donations to the PHCS Foundation.

The Art for Healing program and a permanent collection boasting some 350 paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other original works by local artists with deep connections to Princeton and New Jersey has artwork by artists familiar to Town Topics readers. Besides those named above, you will find work by Hetty Baiz, Jim Perry, Thomas George, Ernestine Ruben, Yolande Ardissone, Joan Becker, Pier Hein, Francois Guillemin, among others.

In addition to the art on permanent display, UMCPP’s Art for Healing gallery offers rotating exhibitions of work by an artist whose work is in the permanent collection. Each show is up for between three and four months. Currently, “Paper as Canvas: Variations on a Theme,” showcases large pieces by Anita Bernarde, for sale in the range of $575 to $1,250. Twenty percent of each sale benefits the hospital.

Incidentally, if you go to see the artwork, don’t miss the Visitors Chapel on the main floor. It is a serene spot for reflection, whatever your religion, although copies of The Bible and Koran are available as are prayer mats and kneelers.

International Trend

According to Mr. Rabner, the design of the new medical campus illustrates an international trend toward designing healthcare settings that promote healing. The Art for Healing program offers a series of regular talks by experts from the Princeton University Art Museum and is working to engage patients with the arts in the Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) Unit and, in future, in the Matthews Center for Cancer Care.

On Wednesday, April 23, at 7 p.m. Dr. T. Barton Thurber, associate director for collections and exhibitions will discuss “The Art of Observation: Museums and Medicine Today,” at the hospital, followed by an art tour. Anyone who would like to attend, should call Susanne Hall at (609) 252-8704.

And if you are wondering what happened to Seward Johnson’s lifelike sculpture of doctor and patient, complete with wheelchair, which formerly graced the entrance to the “old hospital” on Witherspoon Street. It can be found just outside an entrance leading to the Medical Arts Pavilion.

 

AAAUGH!!!, THAT’S THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miguel (Gabriel Iglesias, left) and Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) are looking at yet another demonic disturbance that Malcolm’s jealous dead wife Kisha (not shown) perpetrates in an attempt to break up Malcom’s marriage to Megan (not shown).

AAAUGH!!!, THAT’S THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miguel (Gabriel Iglesias, left) and Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) are looking at yet another demonic disturbance that Malcolm’s jealous dead wife Kisha (not shown) perpetrates in an attempt to break up Malcom’s marriage to Megan (not shown).

A Haunted House, an irreverent spoof of Paranormal Activity, co-starred Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins as Malcolm and Kisha, a couple whose home was invaded by demonic forces. Kisha became possessed by the devil and turned on her man, despite the best efforts of an exasperated exorcist (Cedric the Entertainer). All of the above are back for A Haunted House 2, a jaw-dropping sequel with even more gratuitous gore, sexuality, nudity, profanity, and use of the N-word than the original. Nevertheless, the movie may appeal to the same folks who made the first film such a runaway hit. At the point of departure, Kisha perishes in a car accident while Malcolm and his cousin Ray-Ray (Affion Crockett) survive. A year later, Malcolm has married Megan (Jaime Pressly) and they are moving into a new home, along with her kids, Becky (Ashley Rickards) and Wyatt (Steele Stebbins), and Malcolm’s dog, Shiloh. The shopworn cliché of a safe literally falling from the sky and flattening the pet is the first sign that something suspicious might be afoot on the premises. The mysterious goings-on escalate after an inconsolable Malcolm tries to join his dearly departed pet in the grave. It seems that Kisha’s ghost is jealous of Megan and is determined to break up the newlyweds’ relationship. The exorcist is called in and his spells provide the convenient cover for disgusting skits that fail to exorcise the demon. Eventually, the exorcist priest is summoned again and the finale sets the audience for yet another sequel.

Fair (*).

Rated R for violence, graphic sexuality, frontal nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films. 

 

April 16, 2014

The reading of this play is like wandering in a grove by moonlight ….

—William Hazlitt (1817)

Hazlitt ends his short essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by suggesting that “Fancy cannot be embodied” on the stage “any more than a simile can be painted ….The boards of a theatre and the regions of fancy are not the same thing.”  In other words, the act of reading allows imagination full play while a staged performance turns “an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought” into “an unmanageable reality.” Hazlitt compares the stage “to a picture without perspective” where “everything there is in the foreground.”

Some 34 years into the 20th century, an Austrian theatrical director named Max Reinhardt brought Shakespeare’s “regions of fancy” to life on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank, California. While there’s no knowing what Hazlitt would have made of a cinematic spectacle that sweeps foreground and perspective into luminously fluid new configurations, he’d have most likely been both appalled and amazed. Perhaps once he’d adjusted to the boundless new medium, he would have calmed down enough to appreciate James Cagney’s ecstatic Bottom, a character he called “the most romantic of mechanics” and one “that has not had justice done him.” As for Mickey Rooney’s Puck, “a mad-cap sprite,” as the essay has it, “full of wantoness and mischief,” Hazlitt would see that fancy could indeed be embodied much as he’d described it, “borne along … like the light and glittering gossamer before the breeze.”

MBDMISU EC007Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

When I heard the news of Mickey Rooney’s death, my first thought was not of Andy Hardy or Boy’s Town or his M-G-M soulmate Judy Garland, but of his performance as Puck. By all rights, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, co-directed with William Dieterle, should be a Hollywood milestone, universally acknowledged, admired, and discussed, like The Wizard of Oz, which was made five years later at M-G-M and has as its source a book for children written by L. Frank Baum, and with music by Frank Loesser. Dream comes from Shakespeare, with music by Felix Mendelssohn, an unbeatable combination, you might think. In fact the stigma of those names scared off audiences and alienated reviewers who considered themselves protectors of Art, dismissing Warners’ Shakespearean adventure as overblown airy-fairy folderol. According to one of the most intelligent reviewers of the day, Otis Ferguson in the New Republic (16 October 1935), any film that runs “well over two hours,” costs “more than a million,” and was “press-agented for months ahead” is doomed to be discussed by “culture clubs” and critics who “will put on their Sunday adjectives,” and as for “American husbands,” as soon as they “get one load of the elves and pixies,” they’ll go back to the “sports page.”

Ferguson singles out Rooney’s Puck as being “too ill instructed and raucous to be given such prominence.” This is a 14-year-old half-naked youth in the grip of his demon, a creature David Thomson calls “truly inhuman, one of the cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.” Rooney does have some raucous moments in the roles that made him the most popular male star of the late thirties, but if you revisit any of his M-G-M films, you’ll see how thoroughly his lively genius has been contained and “instructed” within the regimen of that studio’s polished production values. At Warners, whatever the genre, the actors  are given more space, especially when navigating a work of word-drunk virtuosity, whether Shakespeare’s lines are chortled by Rooney or roared by Cagney. It’s fun to see two such in-your-face personalities mining the raw essence of their actor egos, giddy with glee, Cagney a fountain of laughter, Rooney’s “What fools these mortals be” guffaw bubbling up through him with each fantastical prank.

650,000 Candles

Because lighting on the sound stage was a challenge (it’s said that 600,000 yards of cellophane and 650,000 candles were used), cinematographer Hal Mohr sprayed the “67 tons of trees” in Shakespeare’s forest with aluminum paint and covered them with cobwebs and tiny metal particles to reflect the light. In spite of its failure at the box office, the films’s wondrous visuals created enough word-of-mouth excitement that A Midsummer Nights Dream became the first (and last) write-in winner of an Academy Award, for cinematography. It was also nominated for Best Picture.

Olivia’s DebutDVD Rev 2

Shakespeare aficionados who might wince at the cavorting of Cagney and Rooney should have no problem with Olivia deHavilland, now 97 and one of the few surviving members of the 1935 cast. Dream was her debut and though she’s best known for Melanie in Gone With the Wind and as Errol Flynn’s perennial love interest at Warners, she makes a definitive Hermia. Her plan had been to teach English (she had a scholarship to Mills College) when Max Reinhardt saw her playing Puck in a community theatre production of Dream and cast her as an understudy to Hermia in the version he was staging at the Hollywood Bowl. In true storybook fashion, the other actress dropped out, Olivia got the part, and played it through the entire engagement and a four-week tour, one reason she does full justice to her role.

Shakespeare in the Park

With Shakespeare’s 450th birthday looming a week from today, I’ve been reading in the new Library of America anthology, Shakespeare in America, which includes an excerpt from Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place that offsets Hazlitt’s claim that fancy can’t be embodied on the stage. Something wonderful happens when a weary, embattled single mother named Cora Lee takes her children to see a neighborhood production of A Midsummer Nights Dream directed and performed by African Americans. Based on Naylor’s childhood visit to a Shakespeare in the Park staging of the play, Cora’s experience has an affecting simplicity. At first she “couldn’t understand what the actors were saying,” never having heard “black people use such fine-sounding words” (“and they really seemed to know what they were talking about”). Then, as has happened through the centuries, the setting of the forest scenes (“huge papier-mache flora hung in varying shades of green splendor among sequin-dusted branches and rocks”) casts a spell (“the Lucite crowns worn on stage split the floodlights into a multitude of dancing, elogated diamonds”) that anyone with a sense of wonder would be responsive to: for Cora, it’s “simply beautiful,” even her restless son is “awed.”

Naylor’s account of the action through Cora’s eyes gets down to the basics: “The fairy man had done something to the eyes of these people and everyone seemed to be chasing everyone else. First, that girl in brown liked that man and Cora laughed naturally as he hit and kicked her to keep her from following him because he was after the girl in white who was in love with someone else again. But after the fairy man messed with their eyes, the whole thing turned upside down and no one knew what was going on — not even the people in the play.”

Cora is struck and saddened by the fairy queen’s resemblance to her daughter, who may never go on to college. Worse, Cora and her children are so shabbily dressed that she has to hold them back when the audience is invited onstage to join the cast, “not wanting their clothes to be seen under the bright lights.” As Puck (“the little fairy man”) delivers the closing lines, Cora applauds “until her hands tingled,” feeling “a strange sense of emptiness” now that it’s over.

On the way home, the kids try to “imitate some of the antics they had seen,” one wonders if Shakespeare’s black, and Cora remembers that “she had beaten him for writing rhymes on her bathroom walls.” At home the bedtime ritual goes more smoothly than usual, for “this had been a night of wonders.” In the last sentence, Naylor allows herself a Shakespearean flourish as Cora “turned and firmly folded her evening like gold and lavendar gauze deep within the creases of her dreams.”

And so Shakespeare, as Emerson expresses it, “delights in the world, in man, in woman, for the lovely light that sparkles from them,” and “Beauty, the spirit of joy and hilarity” is shed “over the universe.” 

 

If you’re a determined YouTube searcher, you can find scenes from the Max Reinhardt film online, if not the whole thing. You can also see the Beatles doing their version of the Pyramus and Thisbe play within the play. A long TCM interview with Mickey Rooney in which Puck is never mentioned can be found by Googling watch-mickey-rooney-career-spanning-interview with Robert Osborne. The quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is from his essay, “Shakespeare, Or the Poet,” included in The Library of America’s Shakespeare in America, which is edited by James Shapiro; the quotes by William Hazlitt are from the Everyman edition of Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays; David Thomson’s is from his Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994 edition).

Saved by the Record Exchange

I found the DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the ever-amazing stock of the Princeton Record Exchange, which can almost always be counted on to come up with CDs, DVDs, and LPs that can be found nowhere else. Record Store Day is coming to Prex this weekend. For details see the story on page 23. 

 

WOULD WOOD COULD SPEAK: The writing desk used by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as she worked on her poems in Italy is on display in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University Library. The desk and one other belonging to her husband Robert Browning are the gift of alumnus Peter N. Heydon, (Class of 1962) and will be on display at the Firestone Library through June 6.   (Photo by Don C. Skemer)

WOULD WOOD COULD SPEAK: The writing desk used by Elizabeth Barrett Browning as she worked on her poems in Italy is on display in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University Library. The desk and one other belonging to her husband Robert Browning are the gift of alumnus Peter N. Heydon, (Class of 1962) and will be on display at the Firestone Library through June 6. (Photo by Don C. Skemer)

Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love story is one of the most famous in 19th century literature. Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era, was widely popular in Britain and the United States. An invalid from her teenage years, she campaigned against slavery and helped bring about child labor reform.

Robert Browning (1812-1889), six years her junior, was regarded as a bit of a rake by her family. They kept their burgeoning love affair a secret and when they married, Elizabeth was disinherited by her father and shunned by her brothers.

Two desks, his and hers, are on display inside the Special Collections library at Firestone behind the glass window to the right of the entrance doors. Even in the dim light, the desks have a presence “by association” to their former owners. Both are remarkably small and weathered. Hers is more ornately carved, his is inlayed with tendrils of roses, but neither could be called ostentatious.

“The desks have what is known in the book world as iconic value precisely because there can be no substitutes for them, unlike a book of which there are many copies,” said Curator of Manuscripts Don C. Skemer of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. “Seeing her writing desk is a charming and moving experience. The Brownings had a very special relationship. She was often housebound and her disability has been much speculated upon and yet they ran off to Florence together and lived happy and productive lives until her death several decades before her husband.”

To live cheaply, the couple moved to Italy in 1846. Her slant-topped mahogany writing desk was sent from England shortly after they arrived and placed in the drawing room of their rented apartment on the second floor of the 15th-century Palazzo Guidi in Florence.

Writing Her Life

“Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote her ‘novel in verse,’ Aurora Leigh, on this desk and while it’s not as well known as her collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese, its part of the canon as an epic poem about a woman written by a women,” noted Mr. Skemer.

Aurora Leigh is the story of a female writer making her way and balancing work and love and is clearly drawn from her own life: “Of writing many books there is no end; / And I who have written much in prose and verse / For others’ uses, will write now for mine.”

While living in Italy, Elizabeth suffered four miscarriages and, in 1849, at the age of 43, gave birth to one son, Robert “Pen” Browning (1849–1912).

“After her death, her husband was unable to go back to their Casa Guidi apartment and returned to England,” said Mr. Skemer, “but he asked his Greek painter friend, George Mignaty, to record the scene for him as a remembrance of their happy and productive years in Florence.”

In Mignaty’s oil painting, begun the day after Elizabeth’s death on July 1, 1861, the desk sits prominently, front and center alongside her husband’s Northern Italian walnut table as well as silver-plated “traveling” tea kettle, also on display at Firestone.

The University received the items as a gift from alumnus Peter N. Heydon (Class of 1962). They were originally sold at auction in 1913 following the death of the Brownings’ son and heir.

“The University doesn’t own Mignaty’s painting, but Mr. Hayden has a copy that he is planning to donate,” said Mr. Skemer. The items currently on display are the first of several anticipated gifts to Princeton from Mr. Heydon’s extensive collection of Browning first editions, manuscript letters, and other Victorian memorabilia collected over four decades.

Mr. Heydon first became enchanted with the poetry of Robert Browning as a Princeton undergraduate. At the University of Michigan, he earned both MA (1963) and PhD (1970) and then taught English literature and creative writing. He is the founding president of The Browning Institute, Inc., based in New York and Florence, which acquired the Casa Guidi apartment in 1971. As the Institute’s president for 15 years, he oversaw the restoration of the apartment as a museum and study center, now owned and operated, like the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, by Eton College and the British National Trust.

Mr. Heydon has authored a number of pieces on Robert Browning and his circle; he was co-editor with Philip Kelly of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy, 1849–1861: With Recollections by Mrs. Ogilvy (New York: Quadrangle Press, 1973).

Other Browning holdings in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections include dozens of manuscripts and autograph letters, held in the Manuscripts Division..

 

SUBVERSIVE SCHEMERS: Figaro (Adam Green) and Suzanne (Maggie Lacey) plot together to foil the lustful Count and finally hold their wedding ceremony in McCarter Theatre’s production of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” second half of “The Figaro Plays” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and further information.(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

SUBVERSIVE SCHEMERS: Figaro (Adam Green) and Suzanne (Maggie Lacey) plot together to foil the lustful Count and finally hold their wedding ceremony in McCarter Theatre’s production of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” second half of “The Figaro Plays” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and further information. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Pierre Beaumarchais is best known, at least in this country, as the author of two plays that were adapted into two of the most famous operas in the repertory, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The plays themselves, rarely produced in the United States, have remained, until now anyway, mostly unfamiliar to American audiences. It is the mission of McCarter Theatre and translator/adaptor/director Stephen Wadsworth to change that situation with their delightfully rich, incisively staged productions of both of those plays, running through May 4 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. 

These are period pieces, and Mr. Wadsworth’s elaborate, painstaking staging, with an extraordinarily fine cast of 19 and a first-rate production team, effectively welcomes the audience into the world of 18th century Europe, while at the same time appealing powerfully to 21st century sensibilities, in his dynamic translation/adaptation of the original and in the company’s formidable abilities to communicate the meaning, emotion and humor of the originals.

In addition to bridging the 18th and 21st centuries here, Mr. Wadsworth, leading director of opera and plays throughout Europe and the United States (including, at McCarter, a trilogy of plays by Marivaux, Goldoni’s Mirandolina, Moliere’s Don Juan, Coward’s Private Lives and Design for Living and Francesca Faridany’s Fraulein Elise) and director of the acting program for singers at Juilliard School, delivers with spirit and skill Beaumarchais’s fine combination of hilarious farce, poignant romance, and scathing social-political satire.

The world of “The Figaro Plays,” as McCarter has named this two-play event, does offer a number of the qualities of opera. There is actual music and singing in both plays, as, realistically, part of the plots, and the dramatic elements here are heightened and intensified. These characters are both realistic and larger-than-life, as are the drama and the comedy. That heightened reality and intensity are vividly reflected in the broad acting styles and in the carefully researched, artfully composed designs of the set by Charles Corcoran, the amazing costumes by Camille Assaf, and the dramatic lighting by Joan Arhelger.

Frequent asides to the audience, occasionally expanding into dramatic monologues and soliloquies by major characters, further enhance the operatic effects and skillfully communicate the humor, emotion, and politics of these memorable individuals.

Though opera lovers may at times find themselves missing the beautiful arias of Rossini and Mozart, and at times even singing along in their heads with the opera music that parallels the action of the plays, Beaumarchais’s Barber and Figaro, as Mr. Wadsworth and company decisively demonstrate here, warrant attention and ample appreciation in their own right, as something less sentimental and more edgy: rich, hilarious, and subversive farce, poignant character drama with powerful social criticism and political assaults. As Louis XVI prophetically admonished, “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be pulled down first.”

The Barber of Seville presents a stock comedic plot, one frequently employed by the Italian commedia dell’arte of Beaumarchais’s day. It is the story of the Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe), assisted by Figaro (Adam Green), his former servant now the local barber, and his courtship of the beautiful Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), the ward of old Doctor Bartolo (Derek Smith), who wants to marry her himself. The action of the play involves the Count’s amorous endeavors, mostly driven by Figaro (an Arlecchino figure in the commedia dell’arte), to outwit the austere Bartolo (Pantalone in the Italian comedy). It’s a sure-fire comedic situation with timeless appeal, but Beaumarchais, and Wadsworth, take it a step or two further.

It’s the servant, and title character, who takes center stage here, as Figaro — self-reflective and questioning, constantly challenging those in superior social positions — devises numerous ingenious schemes to get the better of Bartolo, insinuate the Count into Bartolo’s house and Rosine’s heart, and derive some personal benefits along the way!

Before the wild finale is achieved, Figaro’s machinations require two different disguises for the Count, as a drunken soldier seeking lodging at Bartolo’s house then as a music teacher to instruct Rosine. Also required are the outmaneuvering of Bazile (Cameron Folmar), meddlesome, eccentric singing teacher and Bartolo ally; secret messages intercepted; surreptitious entrances and exits through bedroom windows; mistaken identities; and much rich dramatic irony and hilarity as the tension rises and the audience observes the surprised characters’ reactions to the wild proceedings.

The Marriage of Figaro (1778), written four years later than The Barber, though banned from production until 1784, takes place at the Count’s chateau, three years after the action of the earlier play. The Count, married to Rosine for three years at this point, is seeking other romantic adventures, including a liaison with Figaro’s fiancée Suzanne (Maggie Lacey).

Longer, with more characters, scenes, intrigues, and plot twists than The Barber, The Marriage of Figaro, in the play as in the opera, opens in the room in the chateau that the Count has selected for Figaro, his valet, and Suzanne, the countess’s maid. Figaro is taking measurements for their matrimonial bed and Suzanne is preparing to warn her future husband of the Count’s plans to revive the obsolete droit de seigneur that would allow the Count to sleep with Suzanne on the night of her wedding.

Figaro is furious and quickly makes plans to foil the Count’s intentions and keep Suzanne to himself. Complicating matters is the aging housekeeper Marceline (Jeanne Paulsen), who wants to marry Figaro herself and, for leverage, holds an old contract that demands marriage if funds are not paid back. Marceline, a significant figure as Bartolo’s housekeeper in The Barber, enlists her former employer to help her, and Bartolo, of course, is still resentful of Figaro’s trickery that helped to win Rosine for the Count three years earlier.

Numerous other entertaining distractions, mostly of romantic nature, arise as the Countess (Rosine) laments the falling off of her husband’s affections; the lovesick young page Cherubin (Magan Wiles, in a trouser role) expresses his boyish passion for Fanchette (Betsy Hogg), the gardener’s daughter, and for Rosine, thereby inciting the Count’s outraged jealousy; the Count actually experiences some self-reflection and growth as a character; Marceline’s endeavors meet with an astonishing obstacle; Bazile meddles some more to complicate matters; a wonderfully wild courtroom scene presided over by the incomparably hilarious judge Brid’oison (Frank Corrado), followed by an even wilder nighttime garden rendezvous scene ensues; and Figaro, throughout, struggles tirelessly to out-scheme the Count and direct the proceedings to his advantage.

From top to bottom, the ensemble, 10 for Barber and an additional nine for Marriage, could not be better. These are experienced, consummate professionals — all credible in their eccentricities, all well versed in the requisite classic style, all with carefully calibrated comic timing and the appropriate energy to bring across the comedy, the drama, and the satire to the audience.

Mr. Green stands out with his boldness and winning manner in his masterful manipulations of his fellow characters, of the plot, and of the audience. He fulfills Mr. Wadsworth’s description of the character of Figaro as “irrepressible, resourceful, practical, empathetic, and full of joy.”

The authoritative Mr. Bledsoe is on target throughout the two plays in his multiple moods and guises as the amorous Count. Ms. Campbell is a warm, appealing Rosine, later countess Almaviva, and Mr. Smith succeeds in delivering a three-dimensional characterization of Bartolo that transcends the stock Pantalone figure.

Mr. Folmar’s Bazile is consistently funny and fun to watch in both plays, and Ms. Lacey as Suzanne proves a charming, outspoken, intelligent, and formidable counterpart to her fiancé. Ms. Paulsen’s Marceline, with a role expanded in Mr. Wadsworth’s adaptation of Barber, serves as a humorous and also strikingly serious spokeswoman for the plight of women and one of at least three outspoken, articulate and highly accomplished female characters in “The Figaro Plays.”

“He offered me strategies for survival in adverse circumstances,” Mr. Wadsworth writes in his director’s notes about the character Figaro. With his subversive humor and his skill in undermining the pretensions and privileges of the aristocracy, Figaro also helped to promote social equality and precipitate the French Revolution — dazzling evidence of the power of theater!

These plays, with their period settings, their extensive verbiage which requires close attention to appreciate the humor and plot, and their length — two hours and twenty minutes for Barber, three hours and ten minutes for Marriage — may not suit all modern tastes, but The Figaro Plays are a remarkable achievement for Mr. Wadsworth and the McCarter Company and they provide two brilliant, funny, entertaining and memorable evenings at the theater.

McCarter Theatre’s productions of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” will be playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www. mccarter.org for show times for the two plays, tickets, and information.

 

 

For the past 15 years, the Brentano String Quartet, comprised of violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee, has been Ensemble-in-Residence at Princeton University. As part of this residency, the Brentano has assisted with classes and workshops, and has presented concerts to the public each year, many of them free. The last of these public performances took place last Friday night at Richardson Auditorium, as the quartet played a fond musical farewell to an extremely fruitful relationship with the Princeton University department of music. 

For this performance, the Brentano selected music of two composers who would at first seem unrelated. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the founders of the string quartet genre, certainly taking the form to new heights with elegant melodies and courtly dance styles. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich may have had access to the traditional classical music forms, but under the repression and censorship of early 20th-century Russia. The two Mozart chamber works presented by the Brentano Friday night to the full house at Richardson were replete with grace and late 18th-century sophistication, while the Shostakovich quartet was based on the same form, but infused with melancholy and idioms rooted in the Russian church tradition.

Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 came relatively late in his career (although “late” is relative for a person who only lived to be 35) and showed the composer’s full command of melodies which could pull at the heartstrings of any generation. Mozart composed this quartet (intended as part of a set of six) for the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, and one could easily hear elements of the 18th-century court in the piece’s delicate figures and tapered ends of phrases. Friedrich Wilhelm was an amateur cellist, and Brentano cellist Nina Lee was featured extensively in the four movements.

The Brentano Quartet played from the outset with style and precise conversation among the instruments. Trills were well-heard in the hall, and the sound often collectively dissipated away, such as in the return to the exposition in the first movement. This movement in particular was conversational, with Ms. Lee leading the four-way chat.

Ms. Lee also showed elegance of phrase in the more lyrical sections of the work.

For the other Mozart piece on the program, the Brentano String Quartet added a fifth instrumentalist. Violist Hsin-Yun Huang, a soloist with numerous credits and awards of her own, added a light touch and crisp playing to Mozart’s String Quintet No. 4 in G Minor. A product of one of Mozart’s more trying years, this four-movement work showed the dark color of the composer’s other works in the same key, enhanced by rich viola lines and interplay between the two violins. This quintet reflected the frustration of Mozart’s year in a relentless ostinato in the opening movement, but occasionally moments of joy came through. The five players brought out well the drama in the music, and in the third movement Adagio, one could easily hear the tenderness of Mozart’s operas. In the closing movement, Mr. Steinberg played a graceful and aria-like violin line, and all five players brought the work to a close with finesse.

The chamber work which contrasted with the elegance of Mozart’s style was Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, composed in 1965, 200 years after Mozart. Shostakovich dedicated this quartet to a member of the Moscow Conservatory Quartet which had premiered most of his string quartets and who had recently died, and the structure of the work showed how far the form had come in 200 years. Shostakovich incorporated into the piece musical forms popular throughout the 19th century, tying them together to both pay homage to a colleague and create an eloquent musical palette.

The seven movements flowed seamlessly as the players of the Brentano found both the plaintive melodies of the work and its occasional sense of peace and calm. Mr. Steinberg in particular exhibited a persistent musical figure in the second movement, both on single string and in double stops. Ms. Canin drew an especially rich tone from the second violin in the closing movement, sounding almost like a wind instrument at times.

The Brentano String Quartet may be ending their formal residency relationship with Princeton University, but the players are certainly not going far; they are scheduled to return in recital next February with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. As the Brentano takes up its new residence at Yale, Princeton will welcome the innovative So Percussion Quartet as the Edward T. Cone Ensemble-in-Residence. This group of young musicians will no doubt bring a new style of music to the University as music at Princeton moves further into the 21st century.

 

WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) served as a signals officer in the British Army during World War II. His unit was dispatched to the Pacific theater where it was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942.

The members of the unit soon became part of the 60,000+ prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burma Railway that stretched from Bangkok to Rangoon. The Allies came to call the 258-mile construction the Death Railway, because so many soldiers perished along the way, including 6,318 of Lomax’s fellow Britains who were pressed into slave labor by their barbaric captors.

Their grueling ordeal has been made into the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Academy Award winning classic that starred Sir Alec Guinness and that swept the Oscars in 1958. The fictional adventure  movie was about the daring exploits of some heroic saboteurs in the face of overwhelming odds.

In contrast, The Railway Man is an introspective movie. This poignant character study is based on Lomax’s moving memoir of the same name. And although he survived the war, he remained mentally scarred many long years after his physical wounds had healed.

Lomax had been subjected to unspeakable torture that ranged from brutal beatings to waterboarding, most of which was at the direction of one particularly sadistic interrogator, Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Eric had aroused the suspicion of the Japanese when he was caught with detailed drawings of sections of the railroad on which he was working.

Eric had always been fascinated by trains while growing up in Edinburgh and had sketched such maps throughout his childhood. Nonetheless the suspicious Nagase suspected Eric of making plans to sabotage the railroad and so the punishment escalated.

When the war ended, Lomax returned home a broken man who was unable to readjust to civilian life. Although he could commiserate with former platoon mates at the veterans club, nonetheless the memories of Burma continued to haunt him.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Better than Sex), The Railway Man is a heartrending, flashback film set both during World War II and in 1980 which is when Lomax’s wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), urged him to track down Nagase. She hoped that a meeting might help her traumatized husband exorcise his demons and hopefully recover from his severe psychological afflictions.

Eric’s ensuing search for his torturer inexorably leads to a confrontation with the tormentor, whose face he’d never been able to erase from his mind. However, the question is whether he’ll choose revenge or reconciliation.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

April 9, 2014

Book RevIn his introduction to Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), James Shapiro writes of the “steady stream of American tourists” visiting the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, among them “a pair of future presidents,” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. According to Abigail Adams, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it” while her husband cut “a relic” from a chair said to have belonged to the poet himself.

Although legions of tour busses may never be a fact of life the way they are in Shakespeare’s home town, Princeton is something of an American Stratford for people coming to pay their respects to Albert Einstein, who lived the last half of his life here, and Paul Robeson, who was born here on this day, April 9, in 1898, and spent the first nine years of his life in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Jackson having been at one time the street now known as Paul Robeson Place.

A Realm Unto Himself

The many facets of Paul Robeson’s genius — as a speaker, athlete, singer, actor, and world figure like his friend Einstein — led the PBS series, American Masters, to refer to him as “the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man.” Shakespeare, who wrote the signature role of Robeson’s acting life. is beyond terminology. There’s no end to him, or to it, if you believe that no single human being could have created what he created, a vast, complexly intelligible realm that will always be there to be discovered, explored, inhabited. “Reading Shakespeare continues to bless us, long past the first encounter,” says another former president, Bill Clinton, in his foreword to Shakespeare in America. Clinton entered the realm when an English teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas had him memorize a hundred lines from Macbeth (“I was not overjoyed”) from which he learned an early lesson about “the perils of blind ambition and the emptiness of power.”

Paul Robeson was introduced to Shakespeare in 1915 by an English teacher at nearby Somerville High School. According to Martin Duberman’s 1988 biography, the 17-year-old senior, one of 12 African American students, played the Moor in a burlesque version of Othello. His teacher “later recalled her hesitation in asking him to take on the parodic role of Othello as a hotel waiter, since the performance was designed to raise money for a class outing to Washington, D.C.,” which Paul could not have attended “because no hotel in the capital would accept a black guest.” Even so, he played the part and “proved a huge hit with the audience.”

Although he seems to have been popular with his white classmates, Robeson was aware of a more subtle version of prejudice in high school society that, as Duberman points out, “allowed him through practice and forewarning, to keep his temper under wraps.” A teacher who called him “the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince” still “can’t forget that he is a Negro.” It was Robeson’s understanding of the social reality, of always knowing his “place,” that sustained his popularity. The situation suggests a microcosm of his later career. Even when turning in superior performances, whether as speaker, athlete, singer, or actor, he had to “exhibit maximum affability and minimal arrogance.” Whenever whites were “surpassed” by him, his attitude could “never smack of triumph.” Duberman quotes Robeson repeating “a litany drummed into him by his father, ‘do nothing to give them cause to fear you.’”

Consider how it must have been for a man conditioned to downplay his power finding himself in a realm of language as rich as Othello, peering into the mirror Shakespeare held up to him as he assumes the character of a black general, a leader of men. Othello’s first great speech (Act 1, scene iii) is one that Robeson must have been thrilled to perform, the way it brings the actor and the character together as Othello discourses on his success as a performer disarming Desdemona with stories like those he dazzled her father with, moving her to tears “when I did speak of some distressful stroke/That my youth suffer’d,” recalling how she “gave me for my pains a world of sighs:/She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/’Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.” Describing how Desdemona “wish’d/That heaven had made her such a man,” and if the Moor could but teach a friend how to tell his tale, it “would woo her,” he shows that the “witchcraft” he used to seduce her was simply a matter of stepping forth as the hero of his own story: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d/And I loved her that she did pity them.”

The speech about the wooing of Desdemona also gave Robeson the ammunition he needed to woo and win audiences at the play’s start, creating a bond that assured his power over them even through the climactic moment. It was there that Margaret Webster, the director of the triumphant 1943 New York production, felt that he fell short, unable to convincingly summon up the full measure of rage that would have shaken the theatre and filled Desdemona with mortal terror — Robeson being, remember, the man who grew up repeating the survivor’s mantra “Do nothing to make them fear you.”

Webster, who also played Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s confidante in the same production, had hoped that Robeson would be able to bring “his anger over racism onto the stage with him,” but “he could not recapture it.” In the turbulent final scenes he “never matched at all the frenzy and passion the role called for.” Robeson himself “acknowledged that he had trouble unearthing his rage on demand,” because “he had been brought up, as a survival tactic, to keep it carefully interred”

Triumph and Tragedy

Robeson has a chapter to himself in Shakespeare in America titled “Paul Robeson’s Othello,” which consists of an ecstatic, topically resonant, politically driven notice in the Leftist journal, The New Masses, by Samuel Sillen, “a prominent figure in the Communist literary movement of the 1930s and 1940s.” It’s clear that though he’s sounding the party line, Sillen is genuinely moved by Robeson’s “indescribably magnificent” performance; nevertheless, his rhetoric reveals where he’s coming from when he calls Robeson “the greatest people’s artist of America” and the performance “an epochal event in the history of our culture.”

Given what would befall Robeson in the decade ahead, the reference to the “people’s artist” is galling, as is the partisan drumbeat that ends the “review” (by now you definitely feel the need to put that word in quotes): “We treasure the event. We mark it as a birthdate. We carry on from here, lifted by Paul Robeson to a height from which new and vast horizons of a creative people’s culture endlessly unfold.”

Robeson followed that drumbeat to his fate, which Sillens inadvertently forecasts in his reference to Othello as “a play primarily of a vast human injustice” where “Othello’s injustice to Desdemona is only a part of the great injustice that has been done to him and in which he himself has unwittingly collaborated.”

Always a Challenge

Trying to follow the last 25 years of Robeson’s life (he died on January 23, 1976) is disheartening, what with all the well-meaning, self-confounding moves he made, the exploitations and the betrayals, the black-listers and witchhunters smearing his name in the consciousness of the American public and contributing to the state of mind that led to a breakdown and a suicide attempt. Duberman’s biography concludes by observing that when he died, the white press “after decades of harrassing Robeson now tipped its hat to a ‘great American’” while discounting “the racist component central to his persecution” and ignoring “the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend.” Meanwhile, the black American press provided editorials depicting a “Gulliver among the Lilliputians” and a life “that would always be a challenge and a reproach to white and black America.”

Home to Stratford

In 1959, when Robeson was 62 years old, he returned to Shakespeare’s roots in Stratford to play Othello in Tony Richardson’s gimmicky production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. His Desdemona, 26-year-old Mary Ure, was told to play Othello’s wife “as if she were acting in an Arnold Wesker kitchen-sink drama.” According to Duberman, Richardson filled the stage “with splashy special effects that called maximum attention to his own lively powers of invention” and that were clearly at odds with Robeson’s “gravity and reserve.”

In the end, Robeson carried the day, as the “critical majority succumbed to the authority of his stage presence.” Othello sold out its seven-month run immediately, and on opening night, the audience gave Princeton’s native son 15 curtain calls.

Last month Princeton celebrated Einstein’s birthday with a community event full of fun and fondness for an adopted local icon. This past Sunday Paul Robeson’s birthday was celebrated in the building named for him with a screening of Show Boat. Our Stratford honors two of the giants of the previous century, mythic figures both, but of the two, the largest, most tragic, and most truly Shakespearean is Paul Robeson. 

The Princeton Public Library has a large Robeson component in its collection, which includes Martin Duberman’s Paul Robeson (Knopf 1988) and Paul Robeson Jr.’s The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 (Wiley 2001). 

The painting of Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1943 production, still the longest running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, is by Betsy Graves Reynau (1888-1964).

 

THE COMMODORE COMES HOME: Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), or at least this pastel on paper representation of him by the New Jersey artist Micah Williams (1782-1837), has returned to Morven as part of an exhibition, through September 14, of work by the prolific portrait painter. The exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” will be unveiled at an opening reception this Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

THE COMMODORE COMES HOME: Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), or at least this pastel on paper representation of him by the New Jersey artist Micah Williams (1782-1837), has returned to Morven as part of an exhibition, through September 14, of work by the prolific portrait painter. The exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” will be unveiled at an opening reception this Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Morven Museum and Garden will launch it’s newest exhibition, “Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” with a public reception on Thursday, April 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The exhibition draws upon a somewhat larger show organized by the Monmouth County Historical Society with one exception, a recent Morven acquisition of a portrait of Commodore Robert Field Stockton, (1795-1866) completed by Micah Williams around 1821. Grandson of the original owner Richard Stockton, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the commodore was a third-generation resident of the historic home.

His portrait is one of 40 paintings, mostly in pastel (six are in oil), by the 18th century itinerant painter Micah Williams (1782-1837), a prolific artist with 272 existing works known. Monmouth County was his largest source of patronage, said Morven Curaror Beth Allan. “Happy customers would recommend him to other members of their family and to friends.”

The exhibition, which will be on display through September 14, offers an unmatched look at the state’s 19th century farmers, orchard growers, militia officers, politicians, silversmiths, potters, carpenters, and their families and elucidates much about the life of the New Jersey artist whose works are in many major museum collections and highly sought after by folk art collectors.

“The first time Micah Williams shows up in the historic record is in New Brunswick working as a silverplater alongside his brother-in-law,” said Ms. Allan, interviewed on Monday while she put the final touches to the exhibition. “Economic issues drove him into debtors prison for two months. He had 123 creditors and left prison with only the clothes on his back and $10 worth of tools.”

It seems that at this point, the artist embarked on a new career as a portrait painter working in pastels. One of the first in the exhibition is of his wife, Margaret Priestly Williams (1787-1863), with whom he had seven children, The depiction shows Margaret dressed simply in a black dress and white cap. According to information compiled by Bernadette M. Rogoff, the Monmouth County Historical Society Curator of Museum Collections, who has researched the artist and his patrons for some two decades, Margaret was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child when the Middlesex County sheriff and his men arrived at the doorstep to seize the family’s household possessions.

“Micah Williams: Portrait Artist,” is on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Association. Ms. Rogoff’s research shows that he married in 1806 and later set himself up as a portrait painter in Monmouth County. He spent several years in New York City, where sometime in 1828 or early 1829 he continued his efforts in oil painting. It is not known with whom he studied.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is in four galleries on the second floor. Don’t miss Commodore Stockton’s portrait, bought recently at auction. Ms. Allan wouldn’t say what had been paid for the piece, but whatever it was, it was worth it for the brooding “Heathcliff” quality of the man that the artist has captured. Stockton who would become a U.S. Senator, would have been 27 when he sat for the artist, and recently returned from service off the coast of Liberia as captain of the U.S.S. Alligator.

Compare it with Thomas Sully’s 1821 full-length oil on canvas on view in the first floor of the West Wing, the first and last room that visitors will pass through on the way to and from the galleries. There, too, you will find a daguerreotype of Stockton taken later in life.

“Williams lined his work with newspaper and it was amazing to find pages from the January 22 edition of the Trenton-based newspaper, The True American, on the back of this new acquisition,” said Ms. Allan.

All but one of the images on display are by Williams. The exception is a portrait of the artist, presumed to have been painted by his teacher. It shows the artist with his oil palette complete with daubs of paint and two thin paint brushes and may have been made when he was studying oil painting in New York City.

The small oval, only ten inches high, painted on a thin wood panel shows Williams to have been a slightly built man, with thinning sandy-colored hair above a narrow face. He is dressed simply in a plain white shirt without ruffle or bow under a somber black coat and waistcoat.

The likeness descended within the Williams family to his great granddaughter Anna I. Morgan, the last direct descendant to own the portrait, which was purchased by the Monmouth County Historical Association in 1980 after her death.

The exhibition demonstrates the progression in the artist’s skills and his rise in portraiture. Among his sitters was Clarkson Crolius (1773-1843) who was also painted by Albany portrait painter Ezra Ames, a work from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Eight years after he painted Daniel I. Schenck and his wife Eleanor Schenck (they were first cousins) he painted Daniel’s brother DeLafayette and his wife Eleanor (Nelly) Conover Schenck (a daguerreotype shows them in later years).

One nice touch is the inclusion of objects that are directly related to the images, such as the chair with a painted yellow rose border that is depicted in the portrait of Dinah Van Winkle Morgan the wife of Jonathan Morgan, stoneware potter of Morganville, Monmouth County (1823-1826). The chair is on loan from a descendant of the sitter.

Another feature is an interactive photo-booth which offers visitors a chance to have their own portrait made, courtesy of a museum staff photographer. Some period props are available.

Ms. Rogoff will share her unique perspective on the artist and his works in a brief powerpoint presentation followed by a gallery walk focusing on individual works on Thursday, April 24 at 10 a.m. Admission is $10, ($7 for Friends of Morven); reservations are required. Contact (609) 924-8144 ext.10, or msheridan@morven.org.

Morven Museum & Garden is a National Historic Landmark. Hours are Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call , or visit: www.morven.org. 609.924.8144.

 

The Richardson Chamber Players focused its final program of the season on “words in the English language that carry poetic promise,” and decided “England” was one of those words. The music selected for Sunday afternoon’s concert in Richardson Auditorium also emphasized spring, and fortunately the weather cooperated. Those who chose to come inside on Sunday afternoon heard pieces which not only evoked England and spring, but also demonstrated the Chamber Players’ mission of bringing lesser-known masterpieces of unusual combinations of instruments to the forefront. 

Few countries take their countryside more seriously than England, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle Along the Field used solo violin and voice to depict a pastoral atmosphere. Soprano Rochelle Ellis and violinist Anna Lim presented five of these songs with both expressiveness and simplicity.

Ms. Ellis made her first entrance in the opening “We’ll to the Woods no More” with a great deal of resonance and fullness of sound. The pentatonic scale from Ms. Lim’s violin line gave the song an Eastern feel, and the two performers gave this first song a tapered finish. Throughout the five songs, Ms. Ellis and Ms. Lim brought out the folk elements of the set, from a Scottish bagpipe-type drone from the violin and clarity in the poignant text from Ms. Ellis. Ms. Ellis showed solid composure singing extensive a cappella passages, holding her own well against a violin line which was often contrary.

Tenor David Kellett also chose to present a song cycle of a British composer, but with a much different musical palette. Benjamin Britten composed a large amount of vocal music for British tenor Peter Pears, who possessed a unique tenor voice. In 1976 Britten was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II to write a piece for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. The resulting A Birthday Hansel (“hansel” is a Scottish word for “gift”) combined the tenor voice with the intricacies and distinctive colors of the harp. Mr. Kellett was joined in selections from A Birthday Hansel by harpist Elaine Christy, harp instructor at Princeton University.

Like Vaughan Williams, Britten drew from Scottish influences for this song cycle, stretching the limits of both the tenor voice and the harp. As Ms. Christy explained to the audience, Britten composed extensively for the harp, but demanded unorthodox patterns, fingerings, and intervals. Ms. Christy showed no trouble at all with the Scottish bagpipe and drum impressions, flowing lines and repeated patterns extending into the highest register of the instrument. She achieved effects rarely heard from the harp, an instrument often buried in orchestral texture. Mr. Kellett, despite his protestations of the challenges of singing music composed for the unique voice of Peter Pears, sang with lyricism and clean diction.

Two instrumental works rounded out the program: a Folk Tale in G Minor for Cello and Piano by early 20th-century British composer Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Minor. Bax composed his Folk Tale on the heels of World War I, and the work clearly reflects the impact of the war on England. Cellist Susannah Chapman and pianist Jennifer Tao brought out Bax’s fascination with Ireland in the long melodic lines for the cello and precisely-timed keyboard accompaniment. One could easily imagine meandering in the countryside as different life events and weather pass by. Ms. Chapman in particular showed a very pure sound in the higher register of the cello while sustaining the extended melodic lines well.

Elgar’s Quintet also dates from 1918 and claims not to reflect World War I, but one can easily hear poignancy and nostalgia in the lush music. Violinists Anna Lim and Stephanie Liu, violist Shmuel Katz, cellist Ms. Chapman and pianist Ms. Tao blended together seamlessly to create a smooth musical ambiance, becoming particularly lush in the first movement. The five musicians built in ferocity toward the end of the first movement, tempered with sweet duets between first violin and cello, and second violin and violist. The second movement Adagio was rich and hymnlike, as one could hear a cathedral rising in the distance of the countryside. With a majestic close to the work, the musicians of the Richardson Chamber Players succeeded in capturing a reflective side of England. 

 

IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible is familiar with the story of Noah and the ark. That scriptural passage, found in Genesis, is about a righteous patriarch recruited by God to build an ark before the arrival of the flood that was a divine punishment for mankind’s wicked ways. 

Heeding the word of the Lord, he proceeded to construct a mammoth vessel and then herded two of each species of animal into the hold. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and the water covered the entire Earth’s surface, thereby drowning all creatures living on the surface except for Noah’s family and the animals on the ark.

Oscar nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has come up with a novel and intriguing reinterpretation of the Biblical story by portraying Noah as a complicated soul who is wrestling with inner demons during his quest to do the Lord’s bidding. The movie also has an ecological message and some computer-generated monsters that presumably were designed to hold the children’s interest. The film stars Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator) in the title role, and features a supporting cast which includes fellow Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), three-time nominee Nick Nolte (Warrior, Affliction, and The Prince of Tides), as well as Emma Watson and Ray Winstone.

The picture opens with a refresher course about the creation of Adam (Adam Griffith) and Eve (Ariane Rinehart) who begat three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth. The evil Cain slew his sibling Abel, and the children descending from Cain continued to do the devil’s work by exploiting the planet’s natural resources.

Noah, by contrast, as a son of Seth, learned how to live in harmony with nature. He and his wife (Connelly) raised their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ham (Logan Lerman) with the same eco-friendly philosophy.

Eventually, of course, Noah receives a message from God, and the plot thickens when the steady drizzle develops into a never ending downpour. Suddenly, his neighbors no longer see the ark as such a nutty idea, and it takes an army of animatronic angels to keep the desperate hordes from climbing aboard.

Meanwhile, a visibly-anguished Noah agonizes over what’s about to transpire and consults his wise grandfather Methuselah (Hopkins) for advice, and prays to God for help.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, suggestive content, and disturbing images. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

April 2, 2014

julianI watched him work in the back house where his study was located, his silver hair framed by the window and I wished I had something interesting to tell him.

—Molly Moynahan

It’s been said that if you throw a stone in Princeton you’ll hit a writer. Molly Moynahan’s picture of her father at work would make a good cover image for a book on the subject: the writer daughter peering wistfully at her writer father in the lighted study window. 

Last Tuesday I was checking over the page proofs at Town Topics and there in the middle of the obituaries was a photo of Julian Moynahan. It was a proof to read, a fact of working life, but the room felt different, as if all the air had been sucked out of it. He was 88 and I hadn’t seen or spoken with him for years. In that moment at the window, his daughter wishes she had something interesting to tell him. I’m thinking about what he can tell me in a book I’ve been meaning to read for the better part of 20 years. The only issue was whether or not I still had my copy of his novel from 1963, Pairing Off. As soon as I got home, I hurried down to the unsorted no-man’s land of books in the basement, my former study, where, to my great relief, I found it, and a good thing, too, because the Princeton Public Library no longer has a single one of his four novels, nor his study of D.H. Lawrence, nor his Princeton University Press book on Anglo-Irish literary culture.

The last time I remember talking with Julian was in that “back house” mentioned by his daughter Molly. I’d been there to pick up several bags of donations to the Friends of the Princeton Library Book Sale. Since most were review copies from his days writing for the New York Times, the Observer and numerous other newspapers and journals, his scribbled notes could be found tucked between the covers and sometimes penciled in the margins. Now here I am scribbling notes and marking up the margins in my copy of Pairing Off.

Visions of Julian

Led by Richard Poirier, the English Department at Rutgers was an exciting place to be in the late 1960s. Arguably the best-looking man in the department, Julian was the one who made you think of terms like “dashing,” “breezy,” “witty,” and “roguish.” He was, in other words, refreshingly counter to the remote, buttoned-up academic, which is why I wasn’t the only grad student who felt comfortable calling him by his first name, a liberty we were less likely to have taken with his colleagues. Julian has always been Julian, never Mr. Moynahan, never Professor Moynahan, and, perish the thought, never Dr. Moynahan.

The first time I had a real conversation with him was at a cocktail party where he was, as they say, in his cups, three sheets to the Irish wind, feeling no pain, etc. etc., while serving up juicy slices of literary gossip. In time I would see a more subdued Julian the evening he hosted and fed the members of his D.H. Lawrence seminar at his home on the Princeton-Lawrenceville road near Squibb, the model for the corporate monolith in his third novel, Garden State. His wife Elizabeth and daughters Catherine, Bridget, and of course Molly, must have been visible on the fringes, but all I remember is Julian holding forth near the hearth and the blazing fire like an inn keeper conversant with all things Lawrentian. The daughters turned up again a few years later in the Rutgers suite at the New York Hilton, where he was calmly, even heroically, counseling semi-hysterical job seekers in the high energy environment of the Modern Language Association convention. The girls must have been in their teens, coming and going, red-cheeked and giddy with the afterglow of Christmas in the city. The interaction of father and daughters in that otherwise feverish, monomaniacal atmosphere was refreshing, a breath of fresh air in the MLA hothouse.

The Christmas snapshot of the daughters leads to the saddest image of Julian, the one I will never forget. A decade or more after that particular MLA, my wife and I ran into him while walking on the path along the lake between Kingston and Princeton. Usually we’d have stopped to talk, for it was unusual to see him simply out walking by himself; instead, after saying hello and exchanging knowing glances, we moved on. There was nothing to say. We had only just learned that his eldest daughter, Catherine, had been killed by a hit and run driver while crossing a street in Hoboken.

Dealing With It

I’m still in the dark about the origins of my copy of Pairing Off. The Rutgers University Library sticker inside the front cover states that it was “Presented by Julian Moynahan,” which would suggest that it came to me with the books Julian donated to our library. In effect, I’ve been reading an ex-library copy of a novel that begins in a Boston library, with a librarian protagonist, presented by the author to not one but two libraries. It’s also hard to ignore a certain gallows humor that the author himself might have appreciated, given the fact that he had to die before I finally got around to a book that had been languishing unread for decades in the basement. Most important of all under the circumstances is that death is what Pairing Off is essentially dealing with, at once sensibly, humanely, wittily, touchingly, and undepressingly. The dying of Milly Rogers, friend and lover of the rare books librarian Myles McCormick, is the heart and soul of a novel that ends, happily and improbably, in an Irish cemetery. Being by profession a nurse devoted to terminal patients, Milly herself is an authority on the subject and knows she’s dying more than a year before her clueless, self-involved lover figures it out.

One of the book’s charms is that for all the style, verve, intelligence, and metaphorical fancy the author employs on his behalf, Myles has a tendency to trip himself up, most painfully while courting Eithne Gallager, the other major female character, who also knows a thing or two about death, having lost her husband in a gruesome dockside accident.

At one point Pairing Off pictures a fate for Myles wherein he becomes a “kind father … to rosy-faced and elfin-limbed children, the doting husband of a clever, passionate, beautiful woman as yet unmet but not undreamed of, who would take him not for what he was, but for what he had in him to become” (he finds his dream in  the closing chapter). Almost in the same breath, Myles improvises a playfully morbid bit of business about “Milly and Myles Mumblecrust, barkeep and barmaid in the Last Chance Saloon …. Only she had slumped suddenly behind the stained and bulletmarked counter, and he could do nothing for her now but carry her on the last ride to Boot Hill.” Indeed, Myles does everything for Milly, holds a wake, attends to her dying wishes, and carries her ashes on the last ride from Boston across the Atlantic to the Irish cemetery.

The closest Pairing Off comes to taking sentimental advantage of the situation actually provides one of its finest moments, when Myles buries Milly, the dust of death’s truth in his hand, and is “swamped by a feeling of wild, desolating tenderness” for her, wishing “that he had held onto her, gotten in bed with her to warm her … as her life lapsed, been with her then like a husband, or at least a lover, or even a brother.” It’s at the moment of this admission that the author blindsides the guardians of probability with the help of a Greek fairy godfather who produces Myles’s dreamed-of woman as if to reward him for that seizure of “desolating tenderness.”

Although the denouement of the novel is prefaced by an italicized meditation on its title — “Pairing off is the fate of mankind” — the darker truth behind the phrase is suggested earlier in the narrative after Milly dies: “He wondered how he would die, whether he would die alone, and knew there was no other way of dying.”

Father and Daughter

In the passage about watching her father at work, Molly Moynahan also refers to his first novel, Sisters and Brothers (1960), “a stunning account of the experience of a young boy who spends a year in a terrible orphanage while his mother struggles to support the family after his alcoholic father has disappeared.” She finds the novel “painful to read, but even more painful” when she learns from her mother “that his book was close to an autobiography. He had never told us anything about all that, and whatever he did to be a full scholarship student to Harvard remained unspoken, as well.”

The idea of revelations untold or unspoken brings to mind the daughter’s wish that she had “something interesting” to tell her father. One way to tell him would be to write three novels. Perhaps that’s what makes her recall the time her third book had been published and she was to give “a hometown reading in Princeton” at which Julian would introduce her. She was nervous because “most of the crowd” had known her “forever.” Father and daughter were sitting in the car together, parked across the street from where she’d been born. When she admits she’s scared, he tells her not to worry, that it’s a good book: “You worked hard …. I’m very proud of you.”

The quotes from Molly Moynahan were found in an article on Neworldreview.com. She also writes for the Huffington Post and at Mollymoynahanblogspot.com.

 

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

Bursting into the audition room, she looks like every director’s worst nightmare: crude, ditzy, desperate, needy, self-pitying, late, and completely wrong for the classy role. She seems like a composite of all the auditioners that Thomas, the earnest, cerebral director, has been complaining about in his phone conversation with his fiancée in the opening minutes of Venus in Fur, David Ives’s 2010 tour de force of wit and eroticism currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus 

Thomas needs a female lead for “Venus in Fur,” his adaptation of the classic sadomasochistic 1870 novella by the Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name has given us the word “masochism” — but at this point Thomas is packing up to go home.

Thomas does not go home. The would-be actress, strangely and conveniently named Vanda, the name of the female character in the play, persuades Thomas, through force of will and multiple manipulations, to let her read the first three pages of the script with him.

The ensuing 90 minutes becomes a psycho-sexual battle, with the erotic tensions of the two characters in Thomas’ play blurring with the tensions between the director and this increasingly beguiling actress in the ongoing audition. He is auditioning her, but she turns out to have a surprisingly thorough knowledge and understanding of the script and its passionate characters, not to mention a huge bag full of necessary costumes and props — and, increasingly and mysteriously as the play progresses and the balance of power swings back and forth, she also seems to be auditioning and directing him — for what purposes, remains to be seen.

Mr. Ives, a New York playwright perhaps best known for his brilliant collection of one-acts comprising the off-Broadway hit All in the Timing (1993), is a master of wit, of word play and dramatic twists and turns, of comic timing, and of the intellectual acrobatics that blur the lines between theater and life. He’s at the top of his game in Venus in Fur (2010), a Broadway hit and Tony Award nominee for best play. The dialogue is sharp, realistic, and funny. The two characters are thoroughly engaging, as they struggle for dominance and power, and their relationship develops. The tension rises and the plot moves swiftly towards its climax.

Evelyn Giovine as Vanda is magnificent. The challenging role requires so many shifts, subtle and unsubtle — from the desperate, classless auditioner to the sophisticated woman who knows what she wants, from scrappy, foul-mouthed 21st century New Yorker into her sophisticated character role as Vanda von Dunayev and her constant maneuvers and manipulations, erotic and otherwise, as she contends with Thomas. Whether in leather skirt, black lingerie and dominatrix black boots, or elegant white 19th century gown, Ms. Giovine, a Princeton University sophomore, is captivating — in more than one sense of the word, funny and sometimes charmingly, sometimes frighteningly, believable, as she progresses from chatty, gum-chewing, wanna-be actress chick to no less than an evocation of the mighty love goddess Aphrodite (Venus) or even the vengeful god Dionysus with his Bacchae bent on cruel revenge against any mortal who denies his dark powers.

Ives’ dialogue includes much dispute between Thomas and Vanda about the quality of the play she is auditioning for and whether it is pornography or great literature. Venus in Fur, in the hands of a lesser playwright or a less talented female lead, could easily have misfired or descended to tasteless, pornographic titillation. This production, however, under the intelligent, capable direction of Princeton University junior Julia Hammer, seldom lets down the erotic tension, but remains tasteful and entertaining throughout.

Princeton graduate student Dan Ames as Thomas, though overshadowed at times by the powerful, charismatic Ms. Giovine, is a worthy counterpart and a credible young director, finding himself in a power struggle with this Venus figure and caught between the erotic urgings of Vanda and the insistent phone calls of his fiancée. The sexual chemistry between Thomas and Vanda is palpable and potentially powerful, but needs to build as the performers settle into these demanding roles in the second weekend on stage.

Matt Seely’s bare-bones, rehearsal-room set effectively creates the stark world of director and auditioner, with Marissa Applegate’s lighting to help shift the mood when necessary and to give Vanda, who operates the fuse box light switches, yet another means of control over the proceedings. Annika Bennett’s costumes – Vanda’s and Thomas’, though they never stop “acting,” actually change back and forth from 1870 setting to real life attire several times during the course of the evening — are spot on, and vital to the depiction of these characters and particularly of Vanda’s increasing dominance.

The production does need, and with luck will see in its second weekend on stage, some clarification — in the line delivery by Mr. Ames and in articulate projection of Ms. Giovine’s European accent in the role of Dunayev — and quickening of the pace, which occasionally drags, at times diminishing, rather than building the erotic tension.

Thomas auditions Vanda. Vanda auditions Thomas, as the characters in Thomas’ play intertwine with the characters of the director Thomas and the actress Vanda. Intrigues surrounding the identity and psychology of these characters deepen, as the stakes rise and the roles — director-actress, Kushemski-Dunyaev, master-slave, man-woman — reverse again and again.

Venus in Fur is hard to beat for a combination of powerful drama and captivating psychosexual fun and games. With David Ives, Evvy Giovine, and the fine Intime company as the games masters/mistresses, the evening is a memorable one.

 

Musical dream sequences often occur in opera, but symphonic works conveying dreams are less common. Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presented a concert of “Nights and Dreams” this past weekend, exploring three pieces which musically told stories of dreams and things that go bump in the night. The Princeton Symphony Orchestra Edward T. Cone Concert on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium showed the orchestra in more than fine form — tackling a very challenging and intriguing repertoire. 

Princeton composer Julian Grant was described in the concert program as specializing in opera and “experimental music theater.” Commissioned by Princeton Symphony Orchestra for a new work, Mr. Grant looked back to his own 1998 opera to create Dances in the Dark, a four section work depicting scenarios one might run into after dark. Incorporating a musical potpourri, including classical piano works, jazz and instrumental impressionism, this work resembled speeding in a time warp through New York City after midnight. While conveying musical tidbits and sounds of hypothetical random recitals, Mr. Milanov always found direction in the music, and the overall orchestral effect in this world premiere was very clean. Intriguing scenarios were created from a solo English horn (elegantly played by Nathan Mills) with sectional cellos, and a bit of jazz cacophony from the trumpets. Principal flutist Chelsea Knox was kept busy with quick passages, but Mr. Milanov seemed to always be aware of where the piece was going.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Opus 31 is a set of six poems preceded and followed by a solo horn. Britten drew poetry from four centuries for this setting, including both familiar and lesser-known writers. For this work the Princeton Symphony was joined by horn soloist Eric Ruske, professor of horn at Boston University; and tenor Dominic Armstrong, a soloist with a great deal of experience with the music of Britten. Mr. Ruske opened the work with a clear tone in the Fanfare and effectively matched the moods of the poetry throughout the piece, whether bugle calls, providing a distant effect, or calling forth from purgatory. Britten set the six poems with serenity, evoking the English countryside and the grand stature of castle architecture. Mr. Armstrong matched the quality of the poetry well, especially the relentlessness of the anonymous 15th-century Dirge.

All composers surely dream, but no one’s dreams were more beyond the edge of reality than those of 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz. His 1830 Symphonie Fantastique, (an “Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts”) was programmatic, like many symphonic works of that period, but Berlioz provided the story of a fantasy well contrasting with the 19th-century focus on romance and melodrama. Mr. Milanov began the complex orchestral work with clarity, painting a dreamy picture while allowing instrumental soloists to present the idée fixe of the heroine cleanly. Musical ideas took a long time to spin out in this work, but Mr. Milanov consistently maintained control over the dramatic tension. Melodies were kept chipper, especially from horn soloist Douglas Lundeen and oboist Nicholas Masterson.

Mr. Masterson and English horn player Mr. Mills played a poignant duet in the third movement Scene in the Country, as Berlioz’s story develops continually more anguish. Throughout this movement, Mr. Milanov never rushed the tempo, creating a musical study in intensity at the close as a high flute blended well with the upper strings. The eccentricity of the story culminated in the final movement, as Berlioz sees himself at his own funeral, musically depicted by quirky clarinets, oboes and bassoons. This was likely the most familiar movement to the audience, with the medieval Dies Irae theme punctuated by bells coming from the balcony. Raw sounding col legno (playing with the wooden part of the bow) from the strings added to the creepiness of Berlioz’s thinking, but precision from the orchestra closed the symphony in 19th-century clarity.

 

LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

Wes Anderson’s films are one of a kind, as easy to identify as, say a Thelonious Monk piano solo or a Frank Sinatra vocal. You can spot one of his works by just watching a snippet of the film. 

Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has his signature vibrant visuals and is true to his tongue-in-cheek narrative style. The movie is right up there with his best films, which include Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Darjeeling Limited, which was this critic’s pick as the no. 1 film of 2007.

Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast to play the picture’s protagonist, and he is ably assisted by a cast comprised of many alumni of Anderson’s films: including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Waris Ahluwalia, and Scott Rudin.

The droll drama is set in 1932 in the fictional eastern European nation of Zubrowka which is where we find the unctuous concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) plying his trade at the hotel. We soon find that he lavishes his attention and affections on vulnerable ladies, provided they’re rich, blonde, elderly, and needy. Narrating his escapades is Gustave’s protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori), a lowly, loyal, “Lobby Boy,” who is learning the tricks of the trade.

Just past the point of departure, we learn that one of the hotel’s guests, Madame D. (Swinton), has died mysteriously. A swarm of relatives, close and distant, show up for the reading of the wealthy widow’s will by her attorney (Brody), each hoping for a sizable chunk of the estate.

However, it turns out that she left the only valuable painting in her entire art collection, titled “Boy with Apple,” to the gigolo Gustave. Consequently, when an autopsy reveals that she was poisoned with strychnine, Gustave is arrested and charged with murder.

It’s not long before he hatches an elaborate jailbreak with the help of Zero, and soon the chase is on, with the heirs, authorities, a hired assassin (Dafoe), and even Nazis in hot pursuit, as Gustave desperately attempts to clear his besmirched name so he can hold onto the priceless portrait.

A sublime whodunit designed for sophisticated cinephiles.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

March 26, 2014

books robert frost181Every time I pull into a parking lot, regardless of the season, I notice people just sitting in their cars, probably texting, or surfing the net, or talking on cell phones, or listening to music, or just being alone for a quiet moment. This is on the way to admitting that I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon parked outside a strip mall near Woodbridge reading the poetry of Robert Frost, whose 120th birthday is today. 

I was reading out loud. Aware that passers-by might think it odd, I tried to read invisibly, barely moving my lips, like someone practicing to be a ventriloquist. Maybe that’s what made me feel closer to the poetry than I ever have before, except Frost was the ventriloquist and I was the dummy. And who else but a dummy would sit for hours outside a place called Vintage Vinyl reading poetry while his vinyl-addict son wanders through the vastness of the largest secondhand record and CD outlet this side of the Princeton Record Exchange.

But it’s fine, being Frost’s dummy, staying under the radar, so that the words and thoughts you’re voicing become intimate, clandestine excursions to the far side of the everyday. Aware of the traffic sounds a stone’s throw behind me on Route One, I’m reciting an early poem called “The Demiurge’s Laugh” and getting carried away with lines like “I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail” and “It was just as the light was beginning to fail/That I suddenly heard — all I needed to hear.” And what laughter, sleepy but mocking, “As of one who utterly couldn’t care.” If only YouTube had a clip of Jim Cox reading Frost. Born in Independence, Virginia, where he died in 2012, Cox was the most exciting teacher I ever had. Intoning the lines in his compelling Virginia accent, he could make words like “fail” or “utterly” sound fated and final, a broadcast direct from the den of the demiurge. Simply to hear Cox recite the title would be worth the small fortune my son was spending in Vintage Vinyl.

A squad car just pulled into the lot. Oh-oh, is there a misdemeanor for reading aloud in a parked car? Will I be busted for possession of an uncontrolled literary substance?

When the Demon laughs, the lines start making coincidental sense: “I felt as a fool to have been so caught.” So while the cops cruise by, I pretend to be musing innocently on some sort of inspirational guidebook to inner peace. In the poem, the speaker pretends it was only “something in the leaves” he’s seeking before he gives up and cools his heels: “Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”

Taking the Plunge

I came to the “Demiurge” after a plunge at random into Robert Faggen’s edition of Frost’s Notebooks (Harvard 2006) in which, according to a recent article in the New York Times, Frost scholars found “thousands of transcription errors that turned the poet into a dyslexic and deranged speller.”

Since the same could be said of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake or e.e. cummings, or George W. Bush, why not take a holiday from the prescribed formality of stanzas and iambics and flow free with Frost on a stream of consciousness, for instance, “Progress is escape civilization is sublimation emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from God.” Based on what I’ve been reading by and about Frost over the past few days, this delirious  entry makes refreshing, fascinating sense. Better yet, it was Faggen’s footnote to thrice “terrified flight” that send me to “The Demiurge’s Laugh” in the first place.

All About Performance

Frost was 86 in April 1961 when Richard Poirier interviewed him for The Paris Review. Six years after the appearance of Poirier’s landmark study of literature and popular culture, The Performing Self (1971), he published Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (Oxford 1977), which he introduces with a seminal statement made by Frost during the interview: “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about these things?”

Frost had already used similar terms when speaking of the poet “as a man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer …. Every poem is like that, some sort of achievement in performance.” In the later exchange, Frost rephrases the thought: “Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score … in all the realms — theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.” When asked how he approaches “a new poem” that might be sent to him, Frost rings the same bell while echoing another much-stressed word (“what a feat it is,” “what a feat it was”): “This thing of performance and prowess and feats of association — that’s where it all lies …. That is in the realm of performance, that’s the deadly test with me.”

Poirier continues to press the theme, using it to frame his last question, regarding Dylan Thomas, who “put all the rhymes down first and then backed into them. That’s clearly not what you mean by performance, is it?”

After vehemently dismissing the idea of backing into rhymes (“that’s very dreadful”), Frost says “It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way …. You see somebody coming down the street that you’re accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other …. It’s him coming toward you that gives you the animus, you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus.”

At this end-point in the interview, readers who think of Frost as a great stone face on the Mt. Rushmore of American verse may be wondering who they’ve been reading about over the years. In fact, Frost’s reference to those “who want to know about inspiration” is likely meant for the commentators who have popularized the poet of homey odes to plowing fields, chopping wood, and mending walls.

The Dark Side

The stress on abuse, animus, strength, prowess, feats of association, and the notion of performance as “the deadly test” would seem relevant to the dark side of Frost discussed in the aforementioned New York Times article about Volume One of the new Harvard edition of the Letters (“The Road Back: Frost’s Letters Could Soften a Battered Image”). The “cruel, jealous egomaniac” portrayed by Frost’s “handpicked” biographer Lawrance Thompson is an additional violation of the image of the beloved white-haired elderly American poet Poirier has been undermining, as when he refers to the dinner celebrating Frost’s 85th birthday, where, with the poet seated next to him, Lionel Trilling spoke of Frost’s “representation of the terrible actualities of life” in “a terrifying universe.” After admitting being taken by surprise (“I thought at first he was attacking me”), Frost puts his animus in gear: “He made the mistake himself. He was admitting he made it himself, wasn’t he? He was telling what trouble he’d had to get at me.” The poet then slyly wonders why Trilling “hadn’t seen it sooner: that there’s plenty to be dark about, you know. It’s full of darkness.”

Getting to Know Him

So here I sit faced with shelves teeming with the letters, notebooks, and marginalia of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all too aware that I parted company with a single volume of Frost’s letters years ago. The only Frost I own at the moment is Poirier’s Work of Knowing and an edition of the Complete Poems with a woodcut on the cover showing a man plowing a field behind a team of horses, an image that binds Frost to the dull, workaday stereotype. What makes my situation all the more improbable is the fact that Dick Poirier, who died in 2009, was my best teacher in graduate school, and that Jim Cox, who has written brilliantly on Frost as well as editing a collection of critical essays about him, was my best undergraduate teacher.

Even with Cox and Poirier, however, you sense more admiration for the work than affection for the poet. Not that people who try to “get at” Frost or “get to know him” turn against him the way his biographer did. But imagine associating “animus” with Keats or demonizing Coleridge. And imagine even Frost’s most devoted follower saying of him what Elizabeth Bishop said of Coleridge after sitting up all night reading the letters “of that adorable man”: “His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches.”

So instead of rushing out to buy the first volume of the new edition of Frost’s correspondence, I go down the street to the library, only to discover that they, too, no longer have the earlier edition of the letters, the one edited by Lawrance Thompson. But they do have the Notebooks that led me to the “terrified” quote and they have Mark Richardson’s edition of The Collected Prose (Harvard 2007), where I found, searching at random, “Some Definitions by Robert Frost (1923).” After admitting that he sometimes has “doubts of words altogether,” the then-49-year-old poet says that words “are worse than nothing unless they do something: unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal.” This may not be a particularly appealing admission, but it’s perfectly consistent with a poet who has made so much of prowess and performance and feats of association.

But now consider the warmer, more human turn Frost takes in the last of the four short paragraphs: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness.” It might not be “adorable,” but it’s hard not to like and hard not to smile to see that the poem Frost equated to a show-down in poker has become “a reaching-out toward expression: an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

And where the words found me was in that strip mall parking lot.

 

LOTUS: The lotus in all its stages is captured by artist Dallas Piotrowski, whose acrylic painting will be on view in “The Curators’ Exhibit” opening at the Gallery at Chapin School on April 1. Including Ms. Piotrowski’s work, the show will feature work by five artists who are also gallery curators. The exhibition will run from April 1 through April 30, with a reception for the artists on Wednesday, April 2, from 5 to 7 p.m., in the Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, on view during school hours by appointment by calling (609) 924-7206.

LOTUS: The lotus in all its stages is captured by artist Dallas Piotrowski, whose acrylic painting will be on view in “The Curators’ Exhibit” opening at the Gallery at Chapin School on April 1. Including Ms. Piotrowski’s work, the show will feature work by five artists who are also gallery curators. The exhibition will run from April 1 through April 30, with a reception for the artists on Wednesday, April 2, from 5 to 7 p.m., in the Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, on view during school hours by appointment by calling (609) 924-7206.

Dallas Piotrowski has been walking the paths of Grounds For Sculpture for years, finding inspiration in the grounds of the park itself. Most recently, the lotus plants there made such a profound impression that she is currently working on a series of paintings that will show the plant species in its many varied stages of development. “I generally work in themed series and I was captivated by the transformations of the lotus,” said the artist, who is curator of the Gallery at the Chapin School on Princeton Pike.

“I became fascinated by this mysterious and ancient plant as I watched it evolve into many different forms over the course of the seasons,” said Ms. Piotrowski. “The flowers are particularly spectacular with their huge pink blooms. The pods are the most interesting. I look for abstraction and the rhythm of the repeated pattern in nature and create my painting from its design.”

Ms. Piotrowski is curating an unusual exhibition opening at the Gallery on Tuesday, April 1. “The Curators’ Exhibit” will feature work by five artists who are, like Ms. Piotrowski, also gallery curators from local private schools. It gives curators a chance to shine a light on their own artwork while allowing members of the community to meet the people who are so often behind the scenes.

The exhibition will run from April 1 through April 30, with a reception for the artists on Wednesday, April 2, from 5 to 7 p.m.

The artist’s initial interest in the plant’s biology led to further explorations of the history and symbolism. “The flowers are called ‘enlightenment’ and also ‘the Buddha’ and they have been revered and honored in the cultures of Asia for five thousand years,” she said. “I’m looking forward to catching the buds this spring and to seeing again how they sink back into the water at night and rise again in the morning, fresh and pristine. It amazes me that they never get dirty.”

So far, she has completed three paintings which will be on view in “The Curators’ Exhibit.” She expects the series to comprise six paintings. Currently she is at work on a painting of the blossom that she began last November. As for the Chapin exhibition, it has been a challenge to hang work by such different artists, especially when there is just 10 feet of wall space available for each. “Many curators have a strong background in the history of art, but all of the curators shown here are also artists in their own right,” said Ms. Piotrowski,

Joining Ms. Piotrowski are Dolores Evangelista Eaton of the Silva Gallery of Art at the Pennington School; Jody Erdman of the The Anne Reid Art Gallery at Princeton Day School; Jamie Greenfield of the Marguerite and James Hutchins Gallery at the Lawrenceville School; and Phyllis Wright of Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart.

Ms. Eaton, who paints and works in clay, feels issues of identity and voice continue to dominate art making. “In these recent works I am exploring the idea that we are all in a constant state of emerging,” she said. “Over and over again we adjust our relationship to the world by realizing new ways of being, and new ways of knowing ourselves. Sometimes this is a struggle; sometimes it is as natural and quick as a snake shedding its skin; and sometimes we are given experiences that in a way force us, and we do not resist, to use new lenses through which we see the world and ourselves.”

Ms. Erdman uses photography as a means to explore parts of the world around her that she loves. “It’s a means of self expression, to better understand my reality and to embrace the parts of the world which are important to me,” she said. “I like to explore the world as fragments and as abstract form. I like to focus on things which are timeless; to stop in a meditative space which is timeless.”

Known for her drawings of figures, Ms. Greenfield is also a painter of nature whose work draws upon inner sources of personal history in combination with close observation of light and form. “In much of my work, objects, like thoughts, are held in tenuous relation to one another, seemingly unrelated yet anchored in a structured pictorial space,” she said. “Some affinities are provided to the viewer while others remain ambiguous and, as in dreams, may be the result of memory, longing or prescience.”

Ms. Wright is a photographer and painter with a deep interest in the mysteries surrounding ancient cultures, archeology, and the language of symbols. “My art-making helps me make sense of the world around me,” said the artist, who travels a great deal learning about indigenous cultures and attempting through color, texture, and form to convey through her art the mystery and wonder of the world.

The exhibit in the The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, can be viewed during school hours by appointment by calling (609) 924-7206.