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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

—Peter O’Toole

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

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

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

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

“The Ruined Man”

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Know S.T.C.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Princeton University Orchestra started the year off with a musical bang this past weekend, with a concert program that belied the fact that the school year began less than two months ago. Conductor Michael Pratt led an orchestra chock full of players this year in a program of Paul Lansky, Mozart, and most impressively, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, one of the most complex works in the orchestral repertory.

Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium (the program was repeated Saturday night) showed the orchestra increasing in size from small to large as the concert progressed, with Paul Lansky’s Line and Shadow scored for a scaled-down instrumental ensemble. The somewhat impressionistic one-movement piece began with low flutes, and its palette of musical colors and effects, together with the accessibility of the work as a whole, seemed to complement Mr. Lansky’s background in electroacoustic music. Mr. Pratt kept the orchestra subdued, allowing the syncopated rhythms and offbeat winds to speak, and the orchestra only reached its full sound at the end of the piece.

Mr. Pratt carried the same musical care and chamber character to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, with more substantial string sections (but only a pair of oboes and horns) and featuring University senior Nicolas Apter-Vidler as soloist. Mr. Apter-Vidler has been studying music for a good ten years, including at Mannes College of Music, and his poised and confident performance demonstrated his solid musical training.

Mr. Pratt began the concerto gracefully, with a light touch from the oboes and horns which was vintage Mozart. Mr. Apter-Vidler began his solo with a delicate triad and light quick vibrato as he launched into the first movement Allegro. Mr. Apter-Vidler maintained a song-like quality in the principal themes, and was perfectly in time with the rest of the strings in rhythmic passages. With clean and sweet double-stops in the cadenzas to both the first and second movements, Mr. Apter-Vidler’s playing well complemented the saucy repeated phrases and effective deceptive cadences from the rest of the ensemble. A clever and tuneful Rondo containing both popular 18th-century gypsy elements and shades of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (composed a decade later) closed the concerto tastefully.

The most astounding piece on the University Orchestra program was Holst’s monumental The Planets, a seven movement complex orchestral suite which expanded the University Orchestra roster to almost every instrument imaginable. Mr. Pratt expanded the string sections to a total of at least 60, and wind and brass sections added the bass instrument in almost every category.

Each movement in this work describes a different planet, assigning character and purpose to the heavenly bodies. The orchestra began Mars with precise string bowings, accompanied by low horns. The driving rhythmic motive which held the movement together was strongly sustained throughout, and the orchestral sound was well unified and certainly the loudest of the evening. The rhythm was well controlled by timpanists Isaac Ilivicky and JJ Warshaw, and the war-like intensity was eased by a melodic euphonium solo by Riley Fitzgerald. Frequently throughout the suite, horn principal Kim Fried provided solos which were pure in tone, accompanied in the Venus movement by a quartet of flutes. Also effective throughout the seven movements were periodic violin solos, sweetly played by Kate Dreyfuss, as well as wind solos played by oboist Alexa McCall and clarinetist Ryan Budnick.

Holst scored this suite for a wide range of percussive and keyboard instruments which add ethereal musical effects. Jason Nong added a celestial character from the celeste, augmented by very high bell effects played by the very busy percussion players. The most well-known of the movements contains what became a very popular English hymn, and Mr. Pratt conducted the familiar melody broadly, bringing out the grandeur of Jupiter. Two harps played by Cara Souto and Connie Wang added a bit of sparkle to certain passages, as did an offstage women’s chorus conducted by Kamna Gupta.

The Lansky and Mozart pieces were certainly enough to challenge the University Orchestra so early in the season, but The Planets clearly required the concentration and focus of every player on the stage. The University Orchestra musicians were well up to the task, and the bar has now been set very high for the year to come.

 

LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: This picture of a happy American family, shown in 1841, features Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor top, right) together with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis, bottom left and Cameron Zeigler). Unfortunately their dream turns into a nightmare when Solomon is duped into going to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery for 12 years.

LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: This picture of a happy American family, shown in 1841, features Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor top, right) together with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis, bottom left and Cameron Zeigler). Unfortunately their dream turns into a nightmare when Solomon is duped into going to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery for 12 years.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a black man who was born a free man in upstate New York in 1808. A skilled carpenter and fiddler, he and his wife (Kelsey Scott) settled in Saratoga Springs where they were raising their children (Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler) when their American Dream turned into a nightmare in 1841.

One day, Solomon was approached by two white strangers (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) who offered him a high-paying job playing music with a circus in Washington, D.C. However, upon arriving in the capital, they sold him to a slave trader (Christopher Berry) who put Solomon in chains and shipped him to a cotton plantation in the Deep South.

What ensued was a 12 year ordeal in which Solomon was whipped whenever he attempted to explain that he was a free man. Despite being tortured by a sadistic master (Michael Fassbender) — who was determined to break his spirit — Solomon somehow managed to maintain his sanity and his dignity.

With the help of a kindly Canadian (Brad Pitt), who was passing through town, Solomon was eventually able to inform abolitionists up North of his dire predicament and was finally reunited with his family. Upon his emancipation in 1853, Solomon wrote and published a memoir chronicling the cruelties he suffered in captivity in explicit detail.

Entitled 12 Years a Slave, the book became a runaway best-seller that slipped into obscurity after the Civil War. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger), the screen version is a fairly faithful adaptation of the memoir.

In a banner year for African American films, this heartbreaking historical drama just might be the best of the bunch. The film has already been generating early Oscar buzz thanks to a People’s Choice Award from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Unapologetically graphic in its depiction of the institution of slavery’s evils, 12 Years a Slave does not contain any comic asides such as the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Therefore, brace yourself for a relentlessly gruesome movie with escalating violence.

The picture is a sobering narrative of the life of a slave that recounts an authentic case of human bondage.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, torture, sexuality, nudity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 133 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

 

October 16, 2013

DVD revBefore I plunge into a column on Giuseppi Verdi, whose 200th birthday was last Wednesday, I have to admit that it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to come to my senses about opera. A random search on YouTube just now brought me to the Guardian music blog’s birthday celebration in which aficionados were asked to send a clip of their favorite Verdi moment. At the top of the list was a black and white video of Maria Callas as Violetta in a 1958 Lisbon production of Verdi’s La Traviata said to be “precious beyond price” because it’s the only surviving film of Callas “in a role she made her own.” The opening image of people in period dress — a party scene where no one looks comfortable, everything posed, stagey, static — shows that what made it hard for me to get into opera at a time when I was able to appreciate other forms of classical music was that it seemed to take itself so seriously — so much that it made you want to see Groucho and Harpo and Chico set loose on the scene, as M-G-M did so devastatingly in A Night at the Opera.

Opera suggests life on the grand scale. The first opera I ever saw, at 19, was a production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, where the scale was so grand that it got in the way of the music. Rome overwhelmed it. And the surroundings! I mean, Orson Welles was sitting five rows in front of me. My parents bought me an LP of the highlights for my birthday, but all I wanted to hear after that first summer in Europe were songs like “Nel blu dipinto di blu.”

The way Dominic Modugno’s “Volare” swept Europe that summer, on the street, in the air, everywhere, was a throwback to what happened the day after a new opera by Verdi (1813-1901) was performed, when his songs could be heard sung and played on the street by singers, bands, and organ grinders. Verdi was composing the equivalent of hits a century before “Volare.” Of course one of the stereotypes of Italy is that people of all social classes are mad for opera. One of my most memorable hitchhiking experiences was a ride to Naples with a neatly dressed man (suit and tie, expensive-looking footwear) who turned out to be an insurance salesman, and before you could say “Giuseppi Verdi” he was singing “Libiamo, libiamo” from La Traviata and singing it, to my untrained ear, magnificently. Having just seen Placido Domingo sing it in Franco Zefferelli’s spectacular 1982 film of that opera, I have no doubt that was the song — how could I forget? We were on the Amalfi Drive, winding around cliff edge curves, the singing salesman steering with one hand while lofting an invisible goblet with the other.

Setting It in Motion

Zefferelli’s La Traviata presents sensations no opera house in the world could create. After the rich dark depths of the funereal opening, in which Violetta (Teresa Stratas), the “strayed woman” of the title, seems to come back from the dead, Zefferalli sets everything in motion. No one’s standing around looking pompous or posed or static, the party’s in a whirl, the very lamps and candelabras seem to sing and shine and glow like gold. The camera makes music of movement, sweeping you here and there but always smoothly, always true to and in synch with the melodic contours of the sequence. What Zefferelli does with the great party and masquerade scenes in La Traviata was so intoxicating (sheer ecstasy of imagery, no wasted spaces, nothing left to mundane chance, every detail at once subtle and vivid, as if the very molecules had been painted with light) that I didn’t fully appreciate Teresa Stratas’s charming, passionate, down to earth Violetta. Slightly built, with a very expressive Greek face, which becomes irresistible whenever Zefferelli brings the camera into kissing range, Stratas is like one of the great courtesans from Balzac’s Lost Illusions come to life. There’s no way not to love this woman when she’s singing full out and feeling every note. And when the doomed beauty lets go and scampers wildly about that incredible interior — a fantasy of elegance even Balzac would be hard put to describe — singing of ecstasy, madness, freedom, and euphoria, “love a heartbeat through the universe,” she has you believing it.

The Social Masquerade

The experience of reading Frank Walker’s 1962 biography of Verdi has in common with Stratas and Zefferelli’s Traviata the shining central presence of a charming, intelligent, articulate woman, Giuseppina Strepponi, an acclaimed soprano in her time who came to Verdi with a shady reputation not unlike Violetta’s. The most interesting portions of Walker’s book are built around long letters from Strepponi, Verdi’s second wife, who called herself “your Nuisance” and “Peppina” and called him “my Pasticcio.” Their relationship began in 1847 and continued until her death in 1897. Her letters are full of fancy and feeling, warmth and wit (an entire chapter is titled “Giuseppiana at her Writing Desk”). In one, she expresses her less than positive feelings about Verdi’s hometown Bussetto (“And to think that that lofty soul of yours came spontaneously to lodge in the body of a Bussetano”) and prefers to imagine that “an exchange took place in your childhood and that you came into existence as the result of some sweet lapse of two unhappy and superior beings.” She goes on to a statement that seems to reflect the milieu of La Traviata: “We are still the whole world to each other and watch with high compassion all the human puppets rushing about, climbing up, slipping down, fighting, hiding, reappearing — all to try to put themselves at the head or among the first few places, of the social masquerade.”

In another letter, after referring to the esteemed Verdi who “goes to pay calls on ministers of state and ambassadors,” she writes that “many times I am quite surprised that you know anything about music! However divine that art and however worthy your genius of the art you profess, yet the talisman that fascinates me and that I adore in you is your character, your heart, your indulgence for the mistakes of others while you are so severe with yourself, your charity, full of modesty and mystery, your proud independence, and your boyish simplicity — qualities proper to that nature of yours, which has been able to preserve a primal virginity of ideas and sentiments in the midst of the human cloaca!”

“Let’s Do ‘Falstaff’”

Decades later when Verdi was approaching 80, the opera legend Adelina Patti observed that “he only looks sixty … jolly and gay as a lad.” Obviously Patti was picking up on the spirited overflow from the composition of Falstaff, which Verdi came to refer to as “The Big Belly” and began when he was 79. “What a joy!” he wrote to Boito, his liberettist. “To be able to say to the Audience: ‘We are here again! Come and see us!’ So be it. Let’s do Falstaff! Let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illness!” The zany pacing and rhythms of the score are reflected in the madcap style Verdi gives to his accounts of it: “The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in bad humor; at other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart.  I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this I will put him in a muzzle and a straitjacket.”

Falstaff was a triumph. The ovation at La Scala lasted a half hour. Boito said “All the Milanese are becoming citizens of Windsor [the opera was based primarily on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor].” When it was over, Verdi celebrated it in the same terms: “Everything ends! Alas, alas! too soon! The thought is too sad! It’s all Big Belly’s fault. What madness! Everyone … everything on earth is a joke!”

Verdi died at the age of 88 on January 27, 1891. At the funeral service in Milan, Toscanini conducted orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy. To date, it is said to have been the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy, with a crowd of 200,000.

Besides Frank Walker’s Verdi the Man (Knopf 1962), I consulted Mary Jane Philips-Martz’s Verdi: A Biography (Oxford 1995). Zefferelli’s films of  Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello are available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.

 

ATHENA TACHA RETROSPECTIVE: Grounds for Sculpture will showcase work by Athena Tacha in the mezzanine gallery of its Domestic Arts Building. The exhibition titled, “Sculpting With/In Nature (1975-2013),” includes the 11 x 20.5 x 18 inches mixed media “Wave (partial view against sky), 2004-05,” shown here.(Image Courtesy of the Artist)

ATHENA TACHA RETROSPECTIVE: Grounds for Sculpture will showcase work by Athena Tacha in the mezzanine gallery of its Domestic Arts Building. The exhibition titled, “Sculpting With/In Nature (1975-2013),” includes the 11 x 20.5 x 18 inches mixed media “Wave (partial view against sky), 2004-05,” shown here. (Image Courtesy of the Artist)

This weekend, Grounds For Sculpture (GFS) will open its Fall/Winter Exhibition Season with five new exhibitions by renowned artists as well as a selection of highly talented student sculptors and accomplished early career artists.

In the north gallery of the Museum Building, “Edwina Sandys: Provocative and Profound,” features work Sir Winston Churchill’s granddaughter created over four decades. Ms. Sandys’s subject matter addresses essential issues regarding society, human nature, and life as a woman, in ways that are both playful and thought-provoking.

Her style conveys the concept of balanced opposites (i.e., solid and void, dark and light) that has increasingly unified her work across materials and dimensions. Her exhibition at GFS includes large-scale, painted aluminum sculptures, one prominently sited in front of the museum, models of commissioned and proposed works, pedestal sculptures in bronze, marble, and stainless steel, and a selection of collages, prints, and paintings.

The south gallery of the Museum Building features “William Knight: Out of Context” which includes sculptures from his series incorporating black tire and rusted belt wire fragments that he finds along New Jersey highways. These thoughtfully worked compositions become either suspended forms composed of solid and empty space or gestures of open form affixed next to the wall and enhanced by the dramatic shadows they create.

The exhibition also includes Knight’s recent explorations into other found materials, both natural and man-made, some of which he combines with the tire pieces and some that travel in a new direction. His latest works are represented by four ingeniously quirky pedestal sculptures that combine the delicate glass and wire mechanisms from inside various light bulbs with bits of wire, hardware, plastics, mirrors, wood, and so on, and seem to have a purpose that is mysterious and a bit magical.

In the Museum’s Loft Gallery which features the work of accomplished early career artists in the GreenLight
series, Lauren Clay and Rachel Udell have been selected to present their work in two consecutive exhibitions during the Fall/Winter season. In her exhibition running through January 5, 2014, Ms. Clay shows new work comprised of variously scaled versions of modern sculptor David Smith’s sculptures, taking his late tendency to interconnect the experience of geometric solid and reflective surface further.

IMAGES OF PERU AND ECUADOR: Works of Peru and Ecuador by photographer Ed Greenblat, such as this schoolgirl with her pet alpaca, are currently on view at Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. The exhibition, which continues through November 10, also has a series of “Vintage Views of France” by Martin Schwartz, and images by Ken Kaplowitz from his “Searching for Tranquility” studies. Mr. Greenblat’s images include brightly colored and arresting subjects including a group of tortoises titled, “You Talking to Me?” Hours are Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, contact galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

IMAGES OF PERU AND ECUADOR: Works of Peru and Ecuador by photographer Ed Greenblat, such as this schoolgirl with her pet alpaca, are currently on view at Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. The exhibition, which continues through November 10, also has a series of “Vintage Views of France” by Martin Schwartz, and images by Ken Kaplowitz from his “Searching for Tranquility” studies. Mr. Greenblat’s images include brightly colored and arresting subjects including a group of tortoises titled, “You Talking to Me?” Hours are Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, contact galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

The main gallery of the Domestic Arts Building highlights the work selected for International Sculpture Center’s (ISC) 19th Annual Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Awards. The program was established by ISC in 1994 to recognize, support, and encourage highly talented young sculptors. This year, 414 student artworks were nominated by college and university professors. A distinguished panel of jurors selected 12 artworks that effectively integrate aesthetic proficiency with meaningful content.

The Domestic Arts Building’s mezzanine gallery features a “mini-retrospective” of work by internationally acclaimed artist Athena Tacha, entitled “Sculpting With/In Nature (1975-2013).” In the early 1970s, Tacha was one of the first artists to create sculptural environments bridging nature and humanity, turning her back on the commercial art world and choosing to work in the area of public art — large scale projects not just to be looked at, but to be experienced. Tacha has won over 50 competitions for permanent public art commissions, and her work has changed the face of urban public spaces in the United States.

For more information, including hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org

 

LUCKY FOX: Holly Roberts captures the pouncing gate of the fortunate as he happens upon a windfall nest of eggs. Work by the artist is showcased in a solo exhibition that opens at the Morpeth Contemporary art gallery in Hopewell this weekend. The opening reception is from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 19. For more information, contact (609) 333-9393 or info@morpethcontemporary.com.

LUCKY FOX: Holly Roberts captures the pouncing gate of the fortunate as he happens upon a windfall nest of eggs. Work by the artist is showcased in a solo exhibition that opens at the Morpeth Contemporary art gallery in Hopewell this weekend. The opening reception is from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 19. For more information, contact (609) 333-9393 or info@morpethcontemporary.com.

An exhibition of painting and photography by Holly Roberts opens at the Morpeth Contemporary Gallery in Hopewell this Saturday, October 19 with a reception for the artist from 6 to 8 p.m.

Ms. Robert’s career is an evolution of methods and materials, which has determined, along with the changing curiosities of her mind and eye, an evolution of her narrative driven imagery as well. She studied and trained in printmaking, painting, and drawing, initially turning to photography as a source for reference material. Yet for the past three decades the photograph has had an essential presence in her work, even though she considers herself a painter foremost.

The artist’s early work focused on transforming the photograph with paint: applying oil paint over a gelatin silver print, at times completely obscuring the photograph, but most often pulling out bits and pieces of the photo to define the image. She eventually reversed the manner in which she constructed her images, starting with an abstract painting and then adding photographic elements so that the painted surface became the substrate for the photographic collage that was to follow.

“What I am trying for is a painting that can stand alone but that won’t dominate the photo collage that is to follow. Once I start forming the story (made from my photographs), I allow the photos that I’ve chosen to inform the image, starting with only a vague idea of what it is that I am trying to define. The collage works best when constructed of photographic pieces that make metaphorical or poetic connections to the subject matter, rather than literal representations.”

Ms. Roberts’ work comprises elements of portraiture, nature, and narrative, and are often about the psyche and soul. The visual language in which she speaks has been influenced by myriad sources in varied disciplines: primitive art, folk art, both abstract and figurative painting, as well as photography. With her unique combination of photography and paint Holly Roberts processes the world through her eyes and her hands. Her art is a personal response to experience and a critical response to society, imbued with intuition, wit, pathos, and humor.

A two-time recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts for Photography, Ms. Roberts has exhibited her work extensively since 1980, both nationally and internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It has been published in three monographs.

A catalog accompanies the exhibition, which continues through November 16 at the Morpeth Contemporary, 43 West Broad Street, Hopewell, New Jersey 08525. For more information, contact (609) 333-9393 or info@morpethcontemporary.com.

Along with fellow Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly, composer Béla Bartók was one of the early leaders in the emerging field of ethnomusicology in the 20th century. Both of these composers wrote standard works in addition to their research into indigenous music of their native region, including in Bartók’s case six string quartets. The Takács String Quartet, founded at Budapest’s Liszt Academy in 1975, presented back-to-back performances in Richardson Auditorium last week of all six Bartók quartets, treating those who chose to attend both nights insight into the unique harmonies and musical complexities of this composer.

Friday night’s concert at Richardson featured Quartets No. 2, 4, and 6 (No. 1, 3 and 5 were performed the night before) to a sold-out house which seemed to have no trouble assimilating the intricacies of Bartók’s music. String Quartet No. 2, composed a decade after Bartók’s first quartet, came to be as Europe was immersed in World War I. Bartók captured the melancholy of the times in this quartet through its slow movements — the piece seems to be missing the usual final movement which might end on an upbeat note. Although Bartók did not quote any regional folksongs specifically in this quartet, the minor third interval prevalent in Hungarian folk tunes was a structural cell and theme of the piece.

Of the four original members of the Takács Quartet, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér continue to play with the ensemble, joined by first violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther. In Quartet No. 2’s opening movement, each player in the Takács seemed to be playing in their own individual world, yet came to rest periodically in rare moments of tranquility. This quartet had several waves of musical activity, perhaps reflecting the chaotic state of the world at the time. Amidst the shifting musical sections were gems of solo playing, including Mr. Dusinberre’s sweet violin melody against strummed cello, rich low viola passages from Ms. Walther and an elegant cello melody in the third movement.

Contrasting the melancholy nature of Quartet No. 2 was Quartet No. 4, with four quick movements split to bracket a mournful Lento. This quartet contained intense entrances and driving rhythms which were well handled by the Takács players. The musicians were uniform in their handling of the technical demands of the Bartók work, executing forceful bow strokes, double and triple stops and the “con sordino” (with mutes) effects of the second movement.

Bartók composed Quartet No. 6 on the edge of World War II, just before Bartók came permanently to the United States. Each of the four movements was preceded by a Mesto or motto, the first of which was a mournful tune played by Ms. Walther. Despite its desolate start, Quartet No. 4 becomes quite light through the first movement with teasing melodic lines and a very sweet ending to the first movement. Mr. Fejér effectively provided the Mesto to the second movement and the saucy rhythms and jazzy nature of the movement were contrasted with a dramatic second violin line played by Mr. Schranz. The Mestos grew in intensity with each movement, until all instruments were playing together for the third and fourth movements. The Mesto to the third movement may have been rich in texture, but the tuning effects called for by Bartók for the second violin made one’s hair stand on end. The Takács players also found a wide variety of vibrato effects in the closing movement.

The Takács String Quartet is not a regular visitor to Richardson Auditorium, but the musicians clearly feel at home in the space. Cellist Fejér claims that the Quartet loves Richardson’s “classic, amphitheater-like shape, coming all the way from ancient Greece, which has been the ideal acoustical layout” for the ensemble’s concerts. The sold-out house at Richardson would no doubt agree that the Takács String Quartet is welcome back anytime.

 

JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND NO ONE WILL BE HURT: The band of four hopped up Somali pirates quickly overpower the Maersk Alabama’s crew and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks center) hostage, thereby completing their takeover of the massive cargo ship. Instead of commandeering the ship, they decide to demand a huge ransom from the ship’s owners in exchange for the safe return of Captain Phillips.

JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND NO ONE WILL BE HURT: The band of four hopped up Somali pirates quickly overpower the Maersk Alabama’s crew and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks center) hostage, thereby completing their takeover of the massive cargo ship. Instead of commandeering the ship, they decide to demand a huge ransom from the ship’s owners in exchange for the safe return of Captain Phillips.

On April 9, 2009, the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship headed for Mombasa, Kenya, was hijacked on the high seas in an area that had become very popular with Somali pirates who preyed on international commercial cargo ships. Despite the ship crew’s training in evasive maneuvers in the event of just such an attack, the vessel’s 20-man crew’s flare gun and fire hoses proved no match for the heavily armed quartet of pirates who were high on an herbal stimulant called chat.

After climbing aboard, the pirates abandoned the idea of commandeering the cumbersome 500+ foot-long craft that was carrying 17,000 metric tons of cargo, since what they were really after was a multimillion-dollar ransom. Instead, they took Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage on one of the Maersk’s own lifeboats in order to use him as a bargaining chip.

However, a standoff ensued in the middle of the ocean. Soon, the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer stationed near the Gulf of Aden, was dispatched to the scene and its Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vasquez) feigned negotiating with the thieves while simultaneously securing permission from President Obama to carry out a daring rescue plan.

Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93), Captain Phillips is certain to be compared to the somewhat similar film Zero Dark Thirty because they both recount a real-life mission mounted by a crack team of Navy SEALs. The difference, however, is that this picture essentially shows the depth of Captain Phillip’s anxiety over his fate, while Zero Dark Thirty devoted most of its attention to delineating the intricate details involved in the complicated manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

Curiously, this movie repeatedly makes the presumably politically correct point of reminding us that these madmen are not Muslim terrorists. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks does bring his A-game here when he’s cooped-up in close quarters with the support cast of terrorists (Barkhad Abdirahaman, Mahat M. Ali, Barkhad Abdi, and Faysal Ahmed) for most of the picture.

The film portrays the abductors as soulless, primitive natives right out of a typical Tarzan movie. True, the end of the picture is more effective when the bad guys are portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil with no redeeming qualities. Yet, this production would have benefited considerably from just a little development of the villains’ characters.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, sustained terror, bloody images, and drug abuse. In English and Somali with subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

 

October 9, 2013

DVD revYou never know. Somehow a column marking Giuseppi Verdi’s 200th birthday has gone astray and broken bad. What could possibly justify putting the man who gave us Rigoletto, Falstaff, and La Traviata on hold for another week? How about the concluding episode of Breaking Bad? So much for high art, right? Joe Green meet Walter White.

It begins to look as though the theme of this column is why not have Verdi, Shakespeare, Bryan Cranston, Badfinger, high art, pop art, rock and roll, Faustus and Mephistophles, Violetta and Walt singing and dancing and scheming in the same 1800-word opera house? Verdi grew up in a tavern, after all, and returned to his roots at 80 for the tavern scenes in Falstaff, where the title character embodies the highs and lows of art and expounds on the joys of getting divinely drunk: “A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

Now right on cue here comes Walter Pater reminding me that all art “aspires to a condition of music” and I’m thinking how well that describes the aspiring, ascending final moment of Vince Gilligan’s phenomenal series, which just ended its five-year run on AMC with an audience said to number 10.3 million. When Frank Capra came to Princeton to talk to some film students, his main message was that all the art in the world that ever mattered was popular. Ten million people in one night, not to mention all those who saw Breaking Bad on DVD or On Demand or who streamed it or dreamed it — that’s popular!

“Baby Blue”

Right now after a week of having Badfinger’s freshly resurrected hit from 1972 playing in my head, I keep hearing “Follie! Follie!” (“Madness! Madness!”) from the first act of Zeferelli’s lavish 1983 film version of La Traviata. Admitted, the music the other Walter had in mind was a long way from “Baby Blue,” the song that Breaking Bad aspired and ascended to the other Sunday. But how good it felt to recognize the opening chords, then the descending bass line, to know the song even before you could name it, a surge of melodic rock and roll excitement lifted over the top with a camera movement that was nothing less than operatic (lest we forget whose birthday this is). Suddenly you find yourself rising above the concluding image of a show defined by the richness of its imagery, looking down as if from a Paris Opera chandelier with the fallen phantom way below. That crane shot and the choice of “Baby Blue” was the defining stroke of genius in a show propelled by its own brilliance, like a Catherine wheel Vince Gilligan set spinning when Bush was still in the White House. For cinematography alone, the saga of a high school science teacher in Albuquerque who took his life to another level as the master chef of crystal blue meth is an outstanding work of art.

Now that I think of it, a fascinating opera could be composed around Walter White’s Mephistophelian journey, with arias and choruses featuring the downtrodden scientific genius, his family, his former D-student helper, his underworld associates and enemies, clowns and kingpins, and the fire that consumes them.

The Right Song

According to a story in Rolling Stone, Vince Gilligan’s music team didn’t agree with his choice of Badfinger’s rocker. Numerous songs with titles playing on blue meth were suggested, including no doubt Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Profiting from the stir created by Breaking Bad, Badfinger’s prototypical piece of Power Pop, the polar opposite of Dave Porter’s succinct, hypnotically sinister opening theme, is on the verge of entering the Billboard Top 100, with a nearly 3000 percent sales gain in the week following the September 29 showing; in the 11 hours immediately after the finale, according to Spotify, global streams of the song were up 9,000 percent. The hint of media mania also reflects a reprise of the Beatles magic that gave an early glow to their Welsh proteges. Not only was Badfinger the first group signed to the Apple label, it took its name from John Lennon, who used to riff on his “Bad Finger Boogie.”

Breaking Blue

The breaking bad downside is that Pete Ham, the song’s composer and lead singer, hanged himself in 1975, three years after “Baby Blue” was released. Tom Evans, whose bass line gave the song its signature, took his life in the same manner in 1983, three years after the murder of John Lennon. The crook who stole the group blind and helped sink it (he was actually named in Pete Ham’s suicide note) would have been at home in the cut-throat world of Gilligan’s Albuquerque where the show’s crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) provides all kinds of unlawful advice along with indispensable comic relief. A sign of Saul’s popularity is that Odenkirk is under contract to AMC for a spinoff series tentatively titled “Better Call Saul.”

Not all of Breaking Bad’s followers go along with the ending. The show that rocks its way off the stage has given us hell on earth, plumbed depths of evil, created paintings on film as savage as they are beautiful, shot through with outrages like the raspberry slushie, the pink teddy bear, and the severed-head-of-a-drug-dealer-aboard an exploding tortoise. At the same time, Badfinger’s jubilant, undaunted song underscores the recognition that Walt himself finally articulates in the closing episode, that he’s an unapologetic genius who sinned mightily going to the limit for his art, which in the end was not merely for money and family but for himself.

Responding

So how do we define or relate to or properly appreciate Breaking Bad? In Alan Sepinwall’s Hitfix blog, which is heading toward a thousand comments, most respondents make generally positive value judgments about the finale, debating plot elements, unresolved twists and turns, loose threads, speculating on the fates of supporting characters, fools and knaves, bodyguards and hitmen. The level of analytical involvement made me think of the brave new world of teaching the critic Richard Poirier was proposing around the time he wrote The Performing Self (1970). Poirier’s goal was to open the study of literature to elements of popular culture and compelling subjects like sports, video games, technology, advertising, making the most of everyday interests and enthusiasms undergraduates and graduate students could engage with, therein leading them to the spontaneous practice of a primitive, but potentially productive form of analysis that could then be brought to bear on what they were reading. Right now the last comment on the Hitfix blog, from “Jerseyrudy” ends with a reference to everybody’s favorite analogy for ambiguity, the Mona Lisa: “it is a strength of any work of art that it can be open to different interpretations.” The Mona Lisa was also Frank Capra’s favorite example of Great Popular Art.

But how to classify enterprises as indisputably great as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad? At the moment I can’t think of a film made in America since, say, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that even comes close to what David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan have somehow presided over, or as they put it, created. However many times you choose to see a motion picture in the course of your life, it’s not the same as living with characters and situations week to week, as did everyone who started watching Breaking Bad in January 2008.

Because viewers of the controversial closing episode of David Chase’s The Sopranos had been living with Tony Soprano for eight years, they felt they had a stake in his fate, and even now, for all I know, bloggers are still arguing about the unresolved ending — was that sudden cut to black a cop out or a masterstroke? Who can blame people after eight years of watching, eight years that included any number of near-death experiences for Tony? Thus the cumulative pressure on the last few minutes charges a superficially routine situation with extraordinary tension as Tony sits in a Bloomfield Avenue restaurant with his wife and son, waiting for his daughter to join them for dinner. As soon as Tony pushes the button for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “ on the table-top jukebox selector, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

The instant the song starts playing it generates excitement similar to what happens when “Baby Blue” comes in at the end of Breaking Bad. Unlike viewers of The Sopranos, people who have been following Walt’s tempestuous career have the benefit of a resolution.

Celebrating Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White is worthy of superlatives beyond the usual, words like “courageous” and “heroic” that reflect our commitment to the character. Cranston puts us on Walt’s side, whether he’s doing evil or permitting evil to be done. Even at the moment when he passes the show’s most clear-cut moral point of no return, standing by as a young girl chokes to death, he’s not doing evil, he’s protecting his money, the fruit of his newfound creation, and his working relationship with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) by letting nature take its deadly course. And it hurts. He suffers the moment like a cut to the quick of his humanity. Heroic actor, anti-heroic character, gifted creator, all are elements composing the chemistry of Breaking Bad.

 

OLD FRIENDS: David Olsen’s 2006 drawing demonstrates his usual attention to detail. The pen and ink drawing is part of a solo exhibition of his work at the gallery in the Plainsboro Library through October 23. A reception for the artist is this Sunday, October 13, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.(Image Courtesy of the Artist)

OLD FRIENDS: David Olsen’s 2006 drawing demonstrates his usual attention to detail. The pen and ink drawing is part of a solo exhibition of his work at the gallery in the Plainsboro Library through October 23. A reception for the artist is this Sunday, October 13, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, call (609) 275-2897. (Image Courtesy of the Artist)

The Gallery at Plainsboro Library is currently showcasing work by a special education and American history teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. David Olsen, who has been teaching for two decades, will be on hand to discuss his highly detailed pen and ink drawings and imaginative cartoons at a reception this Sunday, October 13, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Mr. Olsen is largely self-taught and has been drawing as far back as he can recall. He works primarily in graphite, colored pencil, pastels, and pen and ink. His work demonstrates a fascination with the lyrical elements of drama. He is drawn to faces that show life lived, old weather-beaten barns, and characters created from his own imagination.

Preferring to draw people and characters in action rather than in static pose, Mr. Olsen credits local artist and teacher Joe Gyurczak with helping him to understand the power of line and light. “I love exploring ways in which line can create depth,” he said. “Under Joe’s influence, my work is becoming looser. He’s a painter and I’ve watched him go to work and allow a painting to emerge. That’s something that I have been doing, experimenting with the free flow of line and form, working in an improvisational way, like jazz.”

It is a process that necessitates decision-making on the move, something that many artists might find daunting but that suits Mr. Olsen’s love of the graphic arts. Inspired by the likes of Gary Larsen and Robert Crumb, with whom he’s been compared, Mr. Olsen hopes one day to work on a graphic novel. Occasionally he will work from a photograph as when he saw the subject of the piece shown here, titled “Old Friends.”

“I saw this old guy at a festival. He was surrounded by musical instruments, an accordion, a harmonica, and he was the happiest person I ever saw. I took several shots of him and then went back to work on this image.”

The exhibition, which is not without whimsy, continues through October 23 in the Plainsboro Library at 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,  Friday through Sunday. For more information, call (609) 275-2897.

A STUDY IN TRANQUILITY: Fine art photographer Ken ­Kaplowitz present a series of photographs exploring the theme of tranquility as part of a three-person show of work at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. The show, which also features work by Martin Schwartz and Ed Greenblat, opens Friday, October 11, with a reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The artists will be on hand for a “Meet The Photographer” session on Sunday, October 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. The exhibition will run through November 10. For more information,call (609) 333-8511 or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

A STUDY IN TRANQUILITY: Fine art photographer Ken ­Kaplowitz present a series of photographs exploring the theme of tranquility as part of a three-person show of work at Gallery 14 in Hopewell. The show, which also features work by Martin Schwartz and Ed Greenblat, opens Friday, October 11, with a reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The artists will be on hand for a “Meet The Photographer” session on Sunday, October 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. The exhibition will run through November 10. For more information,call (609) 333-8511 or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

An exhibition of work by local photographers Martin Schwartz, Ed Greenblat, and Ken Kaplowitz opens at Gallery 14 this Friday, October 11, with a reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The artists will be on hand for a “Meet The Photographer” session on Sunday, October 13 from 1 to 3 p.m.

Each photographer presents themed work. For Mr. Schwartz, his subjects offer “Vintage Views of France” in which he tries to capture the essence of France while avoiding the cliches of travel photography. Several scenes are presented with a vintage look that is reminiscent of an old faded or hand tinted photograph. “Other photos were enhanced in a way I thought increased the impact of the image,” said Mr. Schwartz. Several of his works on view are not treated as vintage photographs but are examples of everyday life in France.

Mr. Greenblat focuses on images of Peru and Ecuador with brightly colored and arresting subjects such as a local woman dressed in black and dark blues and white in front of a market stall selling cheerfully embroidered children’s clothes in pink and blue; a young school girl in uniform hugging her pet alpaca; and a group of tortoises with the jaunty title, You Talking to Me?

First time Gallery 14 exhibitor Ken Kaplowitz has titled his selection of images, “Searching for Tranquility.” According to his artist’s statement, Mr. Kaplowitz is exploring the nature of tranquility and striving to understand whether it is actually achievable, capable of being sustained or whether it may be only a construct of the mind or heart.

“In my mind, photography is about relationships such as the one between a

photographer and his/her subject, between a photograph and its viewer or, especially, among the elements and characters of any composition,” comments Mr. Kaplowitz in an artist’s statement in which he asks whether tranquility is an illusion.

“Since last fall, I have been on a terrestrial treasure hunt collecting photographic images of trees, birds, clouds, and water in central New Jersey. I position the parts in

VINTAGE FRANCE: Work such as this “Village on a Rainy Day” is part of an exhibition of work by fine art photographer Martin Schwartz at Hopewell’s Gallery 14, opening Friday, October 11, with a reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511 or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

VINTAGE FRANCE: Work such as this “Village on a Rainy Day” is part of an exhibition of work by fine art photographer Martin Schwartz at Hopewell’s Gallery 14, opening Friday, October 11, with a reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511 or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

relationships constituting (I hope) tranquil landscapes that fall somewhere between truth and fantasy,” said the artist, a professor of art at The College of New Jersey where he has taught for the past 43 years. Mr. Kaplowitz has a BA in art education from Montclair University, an MA in communications from New York University and an MFA in studio art from Rutgers University. His work is in numerous museum collections and has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe.

The exhibition runs through November 10 at Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. For more information, contact galleryfourteen@yahoo.com, or (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com. Hours are Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m.

 

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra has taken the concept of collaboration to new heights this year with its opening “Classical Series” concert this past weekend. With a musical program inspired by identifying what is uniquely “American” in music and centered on a work based on the Jacob Lawrence “Migration Series” set of paintings, the Princeton Symphony created an entire weekend of “Migration Project” activities, including discussions with the composer, a family festival, and art projects, all of which were achieved in partnership with a number of Princeton cultural and educational organizations. Princeton Symphony’s opening weekend culminated in a performance by the ensemble, on Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, of two American musical favorites and a New Jersey premiere, all commemorating the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation. 

With some new faces on the roster, the Princeton Symphony opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with Aaron Copland’s suite from Appalachian Spring, a work considered representative of the American spirit. Although not directly related to a visual work of art, Copland’s Appalachian Spring could easily be connected with the broad Pennsylvania landscapes of Andrew Wyeth. Princeton Symphony Orchestra conductor Rossen Milanov opened the suite with a broad musical palette, capturing the image of the sun rising on an open field, aided by clarinetist Alexander Bedenko’s opening solo. Mr. Milanov kept the orchestral texture muted, allowing the solo lines, including oboist Nick Masterson and flutist Mary Schmidt, to speak freely. A quick transition to the second section was handled well by the ensemble as the strings and a pair of flutes were well-timed with one another. Mr. Bedenko and Mr. Masterson had a great deal of musical interplay throughout the suite, and Mr. Bedenko in particular showed himself to be an understated yet expressive player. Especially effective in the close of the piece were a bassoon and oboe duet (played by Seth Baer and Mr. Masterson, respectively) and the graceful presentation of the “Simple Gifts” theme by the viola section against pizzicato strings and offbeat winds.

Considered equally as American as Copland but on another musical spectrum was George Gershwin, whose 1935 Porgy and Bess has been revered for its inventiveness and has generated a number of symphonic arrangements. Symphonic Picture, compiled and orchestrated by noted arranger Richard Rodney Bennett, took eleven of the opera’s great tunes and set them for an orchestra augmented by unique instrumentation, including a trio of saxophones and a banjo. Mr. Milanov began Symphonic Picture with bell-like effects, complemented by an elegant English horn solo played by Nathan Mills. With a bit of swing throughout the work, the Princeton Symphony drew out the teasing atmosphere of “Bess, You is my Woman Now” and the elements of big band style from the winds and brass. This was a very full orchestra, but one could hear such details as the banjo solo on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” accompanied by flute and harp. This piece not only fit in well with the theme of the concert, but also was clearly fun for the musicians to play.

The defining piece of Sunday’s program was the New Jersey premiere of Migration Series, a five-movement work by award-winning American composer Derek Bermel, whose musical output crosses several genres. Mr. Bermel drew inspiration for this work from the Lawrence “Migration Series” set of 60 paintings (one of which was displayed in the Princeton University Art Museum for this performance). The Princeton Symphony was pared back to a small ensemble and was joined onstage by the Juilliard jazz orchestra, prepared by James Burton. The talented students of the jazz orchestra carried the bulk of the performing work in this piece, especially impressive were solos by trumpeter Joe Boga and trombonist Andy Clausen.

Mr. Milanov took a step back from conducting at times, allowing the jazz club atmosphere to prevail. The second movement of Migration Series, with its walking blues piano and gospel melodies, was especially accessible, but as might happen in a jazz club, there were times when there was an impression of musical chaos, which is not for everyone. The third movement seemed to be the most technically difficult, with the composer himself playing a mean clarinet accompanied by a combo of drums and bass. An amazing display of musical “banter” among three trombones marked a later section of the piece, as Mr. Bermel well captured the concept of “urban chatter” in musical form.

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra “Migration Series Project” was by no means limited to this past weekend; related events took place in September and will continue well into the fall at locations throughout the community. If each program of the symphony includes this in-depth a range of activities, there will surely be something for everyone as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra continues to make its mark on the region.

 

Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is ready to retire at the end of a distinguished career as a NASA astronaut. The veteran captain is in command of his final flight of the Space Shuttle Explorer and their primary mission is to replace solar panels on the Hubble Telescope.

MAROONED IN SPACE: While on a routine repair spacewalk to the Hubble telescope, the two astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) suddenly find themselves in a life threatening situation. The pair receive an emergency message from their control center warning them of the high speed approach of space debris from a damaged Russian satellite. By the time they reach their space shuttle, the pair find that the debris has destroyed the shuttle, killing all the crewmembers and leaving their space shuttle damaged beyond repair.

MAROONED IN SPACE: While on a routine repair spacewalk to the Hubble telescope, the two astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) suddenly find themselves in a life threatening situation. The pair receive an emergency message from their control center warning them of the high speed approach of space debris from a damaged Russian satellite. By the time they reach their space shuttle, the pair find that the debris has destroyed the shuttle, killing all the crewmembers and leaving their space shuttle damaged beyond repair.

Upon reaching their destination, the spacewalk proceeds so routinely that bachelor Kowalski is comfortable engaging in flirtatious chitchat with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her maiden voyage. Unexpectedly, mission control urgently orders them back to the shuttle because the debris field from a damaged Russian satellite is headed in their direction at a high speed.

However, the debris causes catastrophic damage to the shuttle before they get back to it — killing all their crew-mates and destroying the vehicle beyond repair. As a result, Kowalski and Stone find themselves marooned in space, unable to make radio contact with Houston, and with a limited amount of oxygen left in their tanks.

This is the intriguing situation established at the start of Gravity, a gripping science fiction thriller written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Pan’s Labyrinth). What ensues is a desperate race against time in which Kowalski does his best to keep the frightened rookie calm while trying to keep them both safe.

Kowalski’s improvised plan involves the pair using their thrusters to reach the International Space Station 100 kilometers away before the debris returns from completing its orbit around Earth. This is the first of many challenges they must face if the two of them are ever to feel solid ground under their feet again.

Rather than ruin the plot’s unpredictable developments, permit me to heap praise on the unparalleled performances of Oscar-winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Equal deserving of praise are the picture’s breathtaking 3D cinematography and the magical way in which weightlessness is convincingly created onscreen.

Buckle up for a riveting roller coaster ride through outer space.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense peril, disturbing images, and brief profanity. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

October 2, 2013

Salinger final cover.JPGJ.D. Salinger’s refusal to publish anything in the 45 years between the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker and his death at 91 in 2010 was disappointing, to  say the least. It was also frustrating, weird, unaccountable, and downright demoralizing if, like me, you’d been looking forward to the major work that could be intuited from “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella-length, flagrantly misunderstood tour de force, and the previous Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), not to mention “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the piece of literary dynamite from 1948 that launched the series. Still, there was something awe-inspiring, even heroic, in Salinger’s sustained resistance to publishing, whether perceived as evidence of his respect for the discipline of Vedanta, his determination to focus on his work, or as a symbolic rejection of the distractions and follies of the book world.

Selling Salinger

And now here comes David Shields and Shane Salerno’s heavy-handed blockbuster Salinger (Simon and Schuster $37.50), which is hyped on the front cover as “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film” that currently has a rating of 40 on Metacritic, only a point above “Generally Unfavorable.”

One problem Shields and Salerno (hereafter S&S) had to deal with was that they’d been beaten to the press by  a thoughtful, fully researched biography by Kenneth Slawenski highlighting one of their big selling points, Salinger’s wartime experience. So, the first thing S&S did was suck up the sour grapes and make a lame attempt to discredit Slawenski, the author of the first biography of Salinger since 1999, a book S&S undoubtedly used and then brazenly left out of their 35-page-long bibliography. That piece of bad form alone should make readers wary of the claims made and the information offered in S&S’s slipshod, almost 700-page-long hodgepodge of oral history, rumor, and negatively calibrated, shoot-from-the-hip criticism of Salinger’s life and work.

Presenting only the façade of a legitimate biography, S&S go all-out in the direction of a tabloid exposé, playing up the psychic damage of Salinger’s World War II ordeal, needlessly including five graphic photographs of concentration camp horrors. Besides making the most of Salinger’s consensual relationships with women who were often considerably younger than himself, they flog the absurd idea that The Catcher in the Rye was somehow complicit in the assassination of John Lennon, and they save a place of revelatory honor for the singular, unsubstantiated shocker of The Undescended Testicle.

And what’s the really big news S&S have going for them, news so many of us have been waiting for, news exciting enough to link the film and book to an event of worldwide literary significance? It’s the announcement by way of anonymous sources that J.D. Salinger actually produced a substantial amount of work during his years of silence, work scheduled to be published beginning in 2015. To burnish the revelation S&S boast that the new books will be “the masterworks for which he is forever known.” My italics are to emphasize the fact that earlier in their cranky opus S&S claim that Salinger was “destroyed” as an artist years before he could have written those masterworks. In the chapter ludicrously titled “Seymour’s Second Suicide,” S&S claim that the “one constant in Salinger’s life, from the early 1950s until his death in 2010, was Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which transformed him from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism, destroying his work.”

Those are my italics again. How else to express the absurdity of so presumptuous a contention about a writer whose lifelong constant, even on the battlefield, was his work? At the end of that same chapter, S&S say it again: “His commitment to Vedanta was, by far, the most serious and long-lasting commitment of his life. His religious devotion … wound up being his second suicide mission. War killed him the first time; Vedanta the second.”

My italics again. What can you say? Salinger must really be some kind of sainted being, to come back from the dead to write The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Nine Stories (1953), two classics of American fiction, only to be killed again by Vedanta, and come back from that death-in-middle-and-old age to write the Glass stories. But let’s be fair. Surely S&S don’t really mean what they’re saying; all that stuff about being “destroyed” and “killed” is some heavy figurative rhetoric to put a charge into their product. If you want to hold the reader’s attention, you have to resort to sweeping negative generalizations, never mind that you contradict yourselves in the process and expose the essentially bogus, hypocritical nature of your enterprise.

Misreading Holden Caulfield

But why stop there? Why not rewrite The Catcher in the Rye according to your war-damaged-writer thesis? Since Slawenski’s biography beat them to the news that Catcher was partly written on the battlefield, S&S upped the ante and said that to get all that post-traumatic repression out of his system Salinger created a hate-sick psychopath called Holden Caulfield, the subject of a narration rife with incitements to violence, an assassin’s handbook. The subtext of mayhem S&S are suggesting about a book beloved by millions for exactly the opposite qualities reminds me of Charles Manson’s reading of violence and insurrection into “Blackbird,” one of the most beautiful songs Paul McCartney ever composed.

Misreading “Hapworth”

In 1997 Salinger was about to permit the publication in book form of “Hapworth 16, 1924” when one of the publishing world’s most illustrious trolls couldn’t wait and attacked seven-year-old Seymour’s unthinkably long and literate letter from camp before it was even published. Salinger was testing the water and a piranha named Kakutani bit him on the toe.

S&S introduce this advance on the “masterworks” to come with a hail of brickbats — “impossible to believe and created to be unpalatable to the public and critics,” “a disaster,” “a total cessation of talent,” “almost as if the mental acuity of Salinger is diminishing right in front of you,” “an act of literary suicide.”

David Shields outdoes himself, recycling the terms of his travesty of Holden: “ ‘Hapworth’ just seemed dead on arrival …. He wants to maim or kill all his critics … ‘Hapworth’ careens wildly between murderous rage and a desire for peace.”

Even as I type those words, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could read “murderous rage” into a text intoxicated with love and wonder. No doubt Shields is thinking of young Seymour’s low opinion of certain camp counselors whose “heartless indifferences” to the “heartrending young campers” have him “secretly wishing” he “could improve matters quite substantially by bashing a few culprits over the head with an excellent shovel or stout club.” While it’s possible Salinger was sending a subliminal message to certain critics of his work, my guess (never having been a camper myself) is that this is pretty standard stuff according to the content of letters sent home by campers of any age and any era.

One of the most humorous aspects of “Hapworth” exposes an essential blind spot shared by Salinger’s critics and biographers, which is to read with a dead straight face a playful, at times mischievous writer who can be, and always has been, very funny. Here in a camp called Hapworth run by a young couple Salinger names Mr. and Mrs. Happy, young Seymour confesses to his parents that “this cute, ravishing girl, Mrs. Happy, unwittingly rouses all my unlimited sensuality” (“Considering my absurd age, the situation has its humorous side, to be sure”). It’s an amusing reversal for the writer whose predilection for young girls and women is made so much of in Salinger — now he’s rousing the ire of Michiko Kakutani because his seven-year-old letter writer speaks “like a lewd adult” and expresses “lustful feelings about the [22-year-old] camp matron.”

Seymour’s Quirky Poetry

By stressing Salinger’s spiritual dedication at the supposed expense of his work, S&S unwittingly signal the magnitude of his mission and the portion of it so far most powerfully accomplished in “Hapworth,” where Seymour tells his parents of his “karmic responsibility” but promises not to “harp on the subject, knowing and quite sympathizing with your disdain.” Ms. Kakutani’s “peevish,” “lewd,” “deeply distasteful,” “obnoxious child,” who lusts after Mrs. Happy, dares to “condescend” to his parents when in fact (and fiction) he’s writing to them from the other side of his life: “I for one do not look forward to being distracted by charming lusts of the body, quite day in and day out, for the few, blissful, remaining years allotted to me in this appearance.”

Perhaps someday someone will be able to do full justice to Salinger’s accomplishment in “Hapworth.” Various terms and tropes out of Vedanta have given him a rich resource from which to forge a style unlike anything in his previous work. Seymour’s quirky poetry should charm any reader able to come to the story without some preconceived notion of fictional reality. And his precocious spirituality (among the books he wants sent to him are Vivekenanda’s Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga) enables him to see others, including his own parents, with a kind of supernatural objectivity, as if they were all children. So, referring to Mrs. Happy, Seymour can say, “God bless this gorgeous kid’s heart!”

In his fictional life-span, Seymour will bow out at the age of 31, but when he tells his parents and readers, “There is monumental work to be done in this appearance, of partially undisclosed nature,” it’s tempting to picture Salinger busy in his New Hampshire bunker with 45 years remaining and “monumental work to be done.”

———

Admittedly, Shields and Salerno bring some valuable information to bear on Salinger, including anecdotal insights and excellent photographs from the author’s wartime buddy and lifelong friend, Paul Fitzgerald. To their credit, S&S also include responses from a few readers who “get” Hapworth, namely novelist Leslie Epstein and radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, who says that once you have a seven-year-old boy at summer camp “writing in an adult voice, asking for the most abstruse books to be sent to him … you can’t go back to the conventions of realistic fiction again. You’ve crossed a line …. In my opinion, if he’s written anything since, he’s moved ‘Hapworth’ forward. To me, that’s thrilling.”

 

"LADY IN THE LAKE": Allen Dean Cochran (1888-1971), an early member of the utopian Byrdcliffe Art Colony at Woodstock, N.Y., painted this 16 by 20 inch oil on canvas in 1914. He worked and studied with Birge Harrison, who taught at the Art Students League there and his work was exhibited at the National Academy of Art, Salmagundi Club, Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and elsewhere. This work is part of the Trenton Museum Society exhibition, "Artists of Woodstock: Collective Creativity" at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park, Trenton, through November 10. For more information, contact (609) 989-1191 or tms@ellarslie.org, or visit www.ellarslie.org.

“LADY IN THE LAKE”: Allen Dean Cochran (1888-1971), an early member of the utopian Byrdcliffe Art Colony at Woodstock, N.Y., painted this 16 by 20 inch oil on canvas in 1914. He worked and studied with Birge Harrison, who taught at the Art Students League there and his work was exhibited at the National Academy of Art, Salmagundi Club, Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and elsewhere. This work is part of the Trenton Museum Society exhibition, “Artists of Woodstock: Collective Creativity” at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park, Trenton, through November 10. For more information, contact (609) 989-1191 or tms@ellarslie.org, or visit www.ellarslie.org.

To Baby Boomers the name Woodstock conjures up images of Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin performing in a field at Yasgur’s farm in 1969. To fans of American Art, the name conjures up images of the peaceful town and art colony nestled in the Catskill Forest Preserve about 100 miles north of New York City.

The Trenton Museum Society (TMS) presents an exhibition titled, “Artists of Woodstock: Collective Creativity” at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park, Trenton, through November 10.

The paintings and drawings come from the collection of Woodstock artists belonging to longtime TMS patrons Ted Boyer, Jane Rohlf, and Bob and Alison Boyer Eriksen as well as work by contemporary artists from the Woodstock Artists Association Museum of Woodstock, N.Y.

The show includes paintings, lithographs, and drawings that demonstrate the breadth of talent in works spanning six decades from the establishment of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony at Woodstock through the 1960s. Well-known artists included are John F. Carlson, Frank Swift Chase, Doris Lee, and Eugene Speicher.

Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.; closed Mondays and municipal holidays. For more information, contact (609) 989-1191 or tms@ellarslie.org, or visit: www.ellarslie.org

LENIN MEETS MODERNISM: The tension between the prescribed style of Socialist Realism and Western modernism is a recurring theme in the sculpture of Russian nonconformist artist Leonid Sokov. This 1990 bronze sculpture juxtaposing Lenin and Alberto Giacometti’s existential “Walking Man,” is part of an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, now extended through December 31. For more information, call (848) 932.7237 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu

LENIN MEETS MODERNISM: The tension between the prescribed style of Socialist Realism and Western modernism is a recurring theme in the sculpture of Russian nonconformist artist Leonid Sokov. This 1990 bronze sculpture juxtaposing Lenin and Alberto Giacometti’s existential “Walking Man,” is part of an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, now extended through December 31. For more information, call (848) 932.7237 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu

The exhibition “Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects” is being extended through December 31 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of art created during the Cold War era by Russian artists willing to risk life and limb to defy Soviet repression.”

Mr. Sokov is one of the most distinctive of such artists and the Zimmerli’s show is the first museum exhibition in the United States to be devoted to his career. The exhibition includes 80 of his works, many on view for the first time, ranging from sculptures created in the early 1960s to work created in 2000, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Forty works drawn from the Zimmerli’s Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art are accompanied by an equal number of loans from private collectors in the United States and the artist himself.

Unlike many of his fellow dissidents who overtly adopted the strategies of the American and European vanguard, in the 1970s and 1980s Mr. Sokov preferred to assume the stance of the “simple man” in his art making. In so doing, he won widespread acclaim for roughly hewn and seemingly improvised sculptures and kinetic toy-like figures inspired by Russian folk art.

Today Mr. Sokov, 72, lives and works in the New York area. He is widely credited as one of the originators of the Sots Art movement — a Soviet version of Pop Art that emerged in the early 1970s.

“Over the years, Leonid Sokov has employed the forms of naïve art to create a layered and sophisticated body of work,” said Suzanne Delehanty, director of the Zimmerli. “We are proud to present this overview of his career at the Zimmerli, the only museum in the country where it is possible to consider his achievement within the larger context of Soviet nonconformist art. The museum’s Dodge Wing, featuring works by Bulatov, Kabakov, Komar, Melamid, and other leading artists of the Cold War movement, are just steps away from ‘Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects.’“

Julia Tulovsky, associate curator for Russian and Soviet nonconformist art at the Zimmerli, has organized “Leonid Sokov: Ironic Objects” at a time of increased interest in the artist’s work. In 2012, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) presented a major retrospective, to which the Zimmerli was a significant lender, and published a comprehensive accompanying catalogue, to which Tulovsky contributed an essay on Sokov’s art in relation to popular culture.

“Lenin, Stalin, Mickey Mouse, and Marilyn Monroe — Sokov spared no iconic figure as he portrayed the absurdities of 20th-century history, politics, and culture,” says Tulovsky. “Sokov is notable for how he embraced the broadest of cultural contexts, both high and low, and Soviet and American.”

The tension between the prescribed style of Socialist Realism and Western modernism is a recurring theme in Mr. Sokov’s sculpture, one to which he has often returned. This tension is the subject of the exhibition’s centerpiece, the installation “Shadows of Twentieth-Century Sculptures,” which Sokov created for the Russian Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Here 100 miniature replicas of iconic sculptures by such modern masters as Alexander Calder and Constantin Brancusi are placed on a well-lit stand in the center of a 625-square-foot space. As the stand rotates, the tiny sculptures project large moving shadows on the surrounding walls. This poetic tribute to the disproportionate power of art and ideas has never before been seen in the U.S., and only once in Europe after its debut in Venice.

Many of the other works featured in “Ironic Objects” illustrate the artist’s humor. These include “Project to Construct Glasses for Every Soviet Person” (1976), a play on the cliché, “the Soviet way of seeing.” Created at a time when the Soviet regime was touting progress, but most citizens were experiencing severe deprivations, Mr. Sokov’s rustic and crudely rendered glasses suggested the poor quality of Soviet industrial production that obscured the view into the “bright Soviet future.” His waggish and oversized eyeglasses would have evoked not just smiles, but outright laughter.

The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia. For more information, call (848) 932-7237 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu

FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

Imagine waking up every morning with no memory of your past, your identity, or your current life. Each day is a new start and a struggle to discover who you are in relation to family and the surrounding world. Theatre Intime’s current production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers takes its audiences on a wild journey in search of memory and truth along with its protagonist Claire, a middle-aged woman suffering from a rare form of psychogenic amnesia.

The world of this play is beyond bizarre. It’s a world of funhouse mirrors. That’s the “fuddy meers,” in the gibberish delivered by one of the characters whose speech is impaired because of a stroke. Claire’s dysfunctional family, with its array of physical and psychological deformities, goes far beyond the Sycamore family of You Can’t Take It with You or the Brewsters of Arsenic and Old Lace into the realm of wacky insanity and whimsical absurdity. Despite the larger-than-life, unsettlingly dark comic tone of the play, however, there is an underlying seriousness and dignity in Claire’s brave quest. The zany excesses of Christopher Durang — Betty’s Summer Vacation, in particular — and the work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company also come to mind, though Fuddy Meers is less sharp in its dialogue, humor, and social satire than the best of Mr. Durang and Mr. Ludlam.

A capable, energetic Theatre Intime undergraduate ensemble of seven, under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Tyler Lawrence, displays spirit and versatility in tackling this acclaimed 1999 off-Broadway hit. The 11 scenes are fast-paced and entertaining, with abundant laughter, and a sympathetic, engaging central figure.

Fuddy Meers, presenting an adventure-filled day in the life of Claire (Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn), begins as she wakes up in the morning, a blank slate, all memory erased. Her ever-cheerful husband (David Cruikshank) greets her with a cup of coffee and a book containing everything he thinks she needs to know about herself, her surroundings, and her life.

Suddenly a mysterious, scary, limping man (Pat Rounds) in black ski mask emerges from under the bed. He claims to be Claire’s brother and insists on taking her away to protect her from her husband. Claire and the audience are equally confused. The limping man and Claire drive to the house of Claire’s mother Gertie (Julie Garrett), who speaks only in gibberish as a result of a recent stroke, though she thinks and acts with complete clarity.

Next to join the gathering at Gertie’s house is Millet (Steven Tran), a sociopathic criminal who wants to be a zookeeper. He is inseparable from his outspoken, foul-mouthed hand puppet. Soon afterwards the odd assemblage is completed when the pursuing husband Richard and their pot-smoking 17-year-old son Kenny (Matt Barouch) arrive, along with a peculiar, claustrophobic woman police officer, whom they kidnapped after she attempted to stop them en route.

Violence (by knife, pistol, shovel, hot bacon grease, sewing needle, hack saw), humor, and extremes of eccentricity abound, as Claire struggles to overcome her memory lapses and the deceptions and dysfunctions of the characters who surround her in her quest to discover the truth about her past and actual relationship to these people who attempt to control her life.

Ms. Ellis-Einhorn provides a solid focal point for the proceedings. A bit more energy and intensity in this character would help her, the only “normal” character, to capture the audience’s full attention amidst the competing crazies.

Mr. Rounds as the primary antagonist is first-rate and forceful in his volatile, psychopathic demeanor. Funny and frightening at the same time, disfigured in face and behavior, this character drives the plot and consistently commands the audience’s interest.

Mr. Cruikshank’s cheery, Mr. Self-Help-Manual husband is appropriately cloying and amusing in his character incongruities, while Mr. Barouch’s son-from-hell Kenny is on-target in characterization, humorous in his outrageous rudeness and ultimately valuable in his truth-telling.

Ms. Garrett’s high-powered grandmother skillfully handles the demands of extensive dialogue in gibberish and succeeds in communicating with dynamic force and even clarity with her daughter Claire, with the other characters in the play, and with the audience. Mr. Tran and Ms. Coke provide strong support in their sometimes disturbing, often surprising, and consistently amusing, madcap roles.

Mr. Lawrence has directed with understanding, focus, and appropriately swift pacing, though the opening night set changes could have benefited from greater speed and efficiency.

Seen through Claire’s eyes, Fuddy Meers, according to the playwright, is “a world of incomplete pictures and distorted realities.” Set design here by Wesley Cornwall with lighting by Marissa Applegate, original music by Sam Kaseta, sound design by Charlotte Sall, and costumes by Julie Aromi fulfills this goal with minimal unadorned representations of the locales of the play. The set is functional, though a bit more stylization, surrealism, other-worldliness might help to further embrace the mood of this play.

In his notes in the script Mr. Lindsay-Abaire calls this play ”a world of mirrors and memories … a world where mad fun and genuine danger are wrapped around each other.” This youthful Theatre Intime company brings Fuddy Meers to life with energy and talent and offers an evening of memorable madness and entertainment.

 

The Princeton University department of music launched its 2013-14 season last Friday night with an old friend. The Brentano String Quartet, Performers-in-Residence at the University, set an elegant and precise tone for the year with a link of late Classical and early Romantic music with the Princeton premiere of a work by a well-established local composer. The very attentive audience in Richardson Auditorium paid careful attention to the Brentano’s musical details in the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and department of music chair Steven Mackey.

Ludwig van Beethoven redefined the string quartet form, but his 1800 String Quartet in D Major (the third of Opus 18) was pretty tame by Beethoven standards, refreshing in its sweet motives, but with just enough of a twist to keep the audience on its toes. The members of the Brentano String Quartet — violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee — gelled immediately from the first movement Allegro, timing accents and sforzandi together and gracefully presenting the melodies. The chorale-like beginning of the second movement was leanly played by the lower strings, contrasting with Mr. Steinberg’s teasing first violin. The quartet uniformly increased intensity and dynamics throughout the movement with a deliberate and clean ending. Following a smoothly-flowing triple meter Allegro, the Brentano Quartet closed the work joyously with moments of elegance, rather than the usual decisive chords and cadences.

Steven Mackey’s One Red Rose was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Yellow Barn Music Festival, and the Nasher Center of Dallas, Texas in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Brentano Quartet will play the three-part work on November 22 of this year, the actual anniversary date, in Dallas, combining the piece with spoken remembrances of that dark day in 1963 (members of the Richardson Auditorium were invited to contribute to the taped recollections). Mackey has incorporated many sounds of that weekend into the piece — repeated strokes from the cello recall the drums of the funeral caisson, sirens can be heard in the violin lines, and the music often breaks its mood abruptly, much the same way the original news rolled jarringly through the country and the world.

In the same way as the day of 11/22/63, One Red Rose required great intensity and concentration. Dr. Mackey divided the first part into Five Short Studies, each of which was slightly different in character. Beginning with a mournful second violin, sounding as if from afar, One Red Rose opened with a series of repeated patterns accompanied by drumbeat and drone from cellist Lee. With a bell-like second section and more melodic third section, Five Short Studies well captured the juxtaposition of control and chaos so prevalent both that day and for much of the remaining decade. The Brentano Quartet played relentlessly, with sudden emphasis when appropriate and often falling back on a more reflective texture.

Especially in the third section Anthem and Aria, universal mourning can be heard in the cello, accompanied by rich and melodic playing from the two violins and viola. One Red Rose closed with rich lushness from the Brentano’s four players.

The Brentano Quartet returned to a classical giant for the closing work on the program. Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1 began with all the freshness of the composer’s Italian Symphony and a rhythmic drive characteristic of the early 19th century. The Brentano’s overall sound in this light and airy piece was well contained and calm, keeping the rhythmic patterns moving and the dynamics under control. The violins kept the music flowing like a river in the second movement Menuetto, with especially smooth eighth notes from Mr. Steinberg in the Trio. Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Canin provided a gentle and songlike duet over pizzicato lower strings in the third movement Andante, ending the movement especially delicately.

The Brentano String Quartet has a long history with Princeton University, and in this concert last week, Richardson Auditorium seemed like home to the players. The new concert season has begun with the bar set high, and the Brentano’s performance has put everyone in the mood for great music for the fall.

 

MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Bitter rivals, formula 1 race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), line up at the start of a race on the way to their final showdown race that will take place in Fuji, Japan where one of them will be crowned the Champion Formula 1 Race Car Driver of 1976.

MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Bitter rivals, formula 1 race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), line up at the start of a race on the way to their final showdown race that will take place in Fuji, Japan where one of them will be crowned the Champion Formula 1 Race Car Driver of 1976.

In the 70s two racecar drivers, who were as different from each other as Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash, became adversaries on the Formula 1 race car circuit. England’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a brash daredevil who was willing to put his life at risk every time he drove around the track. By contrast, Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) was a technician who applied a scientific strategy to his racing contests.

Off the track, the pair were also polar opposites. Hunt was a flamboyant playboy who liked the limelight, while Lauda preferred to spend his free time in peace and quiet with his wife Marla Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). The bitter rivalry between the two came to a head during the 1976 season, when both were in contention for the coveted title of world champion formula 1 race driver.

The cutthroat quest for the title is the subject of Rush, a drama directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). Based on a screenplay by two-time Oscar-nominee Peter Morgan (The Queen and Frost/Nixon), the picture’s engaging plot repeatedly juxtaposes the personas of the leads, painting the handsome Hunt as a lovable bon vivant on a crusade to wrest the crown from the defending champ Lauda, who is portrayed as a nerd who is too methodical to root for.

The movie masterfully depicts the cat-and-mouse mental stress as well as the pair’s race car driving skills, with the tension mounting at contests that are staged in cities in Brazil, Spain, Monaco, and Germany that lead up to a white-knuckle championship race in Fuji, Japan.

Along the way, Hunt’s chain-smoking, substance abuse, and womanizing is revealed, as he makes a mockery of Lauda’s Spartan regimen. The emotional build-up subtly suggests that getting the checkered flag in Fuji will serve as a confirmation of the victor’s approach to life.

A compelling, high-octane thriller.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexuality, smoking, disturbing images, and brief drug use. In English, German, Italian, and French with subtitles. Running Time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.