April 29, 2015
WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg.(Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg. (Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) is a computer programmer for Blue Book, the most popular internet search engine in the world. When he wins a staff lottery, he is summoned to the hilltop retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

After being brought there by corporate helicopter, he discovers that his billionaire boss has a hidden agenda. As it turns out, the place is really a high-tech facility that is conducting research in artificial intelligence.

In order to stay, Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in which he promises to keep secret what he’s about to witness. Nathan next explains that an android has been invented, and he wants to see if it will pass the Turing test — which means that the software will be examined for signs that reveal the android is not human.

He then introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful fembot that he wants Caleb to study for a week. Caleb is surprised by her level of sophistication, since her brain is complex enough to discern the meaning of idioms like “breaking the ice.” He’s even more impressed by her non-deterministic nature, as she appears to have been successfully programmed to have free will.

The plot thickens several days into the project when Ava senses Caleb has developed feelings for her. At that point, the attractive automaton quietly confides her fears about being expendable. She claims that Nathan wouldn’t have a second thought about wiping her memory banks clean once she’s no longer considered to be state-of-the-art. She points out that that’s what he’s done to each of her predecessors in his quest to build a better cyborg.

Where does Caleb’s loyalty lie? With the callous employer whom he suddenly sees as a heartless tinkerer? Or with the flesh-covered machine that exhibits a full range of emotions, including a seductive vulnerability? That is the dilemma confronting the anguished protagonist in Ex Machina, an intriguing science fiction adventure that is the directorial debut of Alex Garland. Best known as the scriptwriter of 28 Days Later, Garland proves he is a capable filmmaker here, with a thought provoking thriller that is guaranteed to keep you enthralled.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, violence, sexual references, and graphic nudity. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: A24.

April 22, 2015

record revDriving into Philadelphia Friday, we’ve got music on the stereo, as always. The day began with rain, it’s still overcast as we cross the Delaware on I-95, and the CD we’re listening to is powerfully upbeat and melodic with strong singing. The songs have titles like “Sky High,” “Lonely Lonely Love,” and “High and Dry,” with typical love-song lyrics and shameless rhymes like “fishes” and “this is.” It’s a British group, Jigsaw, from the 1970s, and my son, who rescued them from rock’n’roll oblivion, will tell you they “should have made it big.” Anyway, about five miles into Pennsylvania one of the songs backs into beauty, bringing tears to my eyes and changing the course of the day and the subject of this column.

Whether it’s Jigsaw or Gershwin, Bach or the Beatles, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, music can take you out of an ordinary moment (traffic intensifying as we near the outskirts of the city) and force you face to face with an event you thought you’d moved beyond. What’s come out of nowhere and caught me by the throat is the death of a neighbor we’d known for almost 30 years. I’ve had plenty of time to absorb the news, I thought I had, but all I’d done was walk around it. I hadn’t seen Marion face to face for months, and most of our contacts over the years had been the routine next-door-neighbor variety, as when one or the other is out of town, you take in the mail and the paper, water plants, turn on and off lights, feed the cats. It was different with my wife because she and Marion had had long, more than casual talks.

A Burial Ground

After I drop my son off at the Philadelphia Record Exchange (no relation to its renowned Princeton namesake), I find a parking spot on Frankford Avenue and prowl around the strange neighborhood thinking about the woman who lived next door. By now the sun is out and it’s feeling more like summer than spring. After passing through a small, pretty park where tulip trees are blooming, I come to the sprawling gloomy chaos of an urban cemetery of crooked gravestones where the winter is still bleakly and grimly in evidence. It’s a devastated spot, the bare trees looming pale and twisted, worthy of a place of creepy honor on the grounds of the House of Usher. That Poe comes to mind is to be expected since he once lived in the same general area, down on Sixth and Spring Garden.

As I was to learn at Saturday’s memorial service, even as I was peering through the iron bars of Palmer Cemetery (also known as the Kensington Burial Ground), Marion was being buried next to her husband Demos in a plot at Princeton Cemetery. They had been married at the Princeton University chapel in 1957. He died in 2002. The last time I’d seen Demos was to witness the signing of his will. The first and last time I gave Marion a real hug (as opposed to a hello/goodbye one) was in the hallway just outside the room where Demos was already clearly sinking into the terminal mindset, unaware of the slideshow of family scenes repeating themselves on a computer screen that no doubt included images of the three Bakoulis daughters at play with their friends on our street, Laurel Circle.

“Our House”

It seems that some form of music is always playing in my head, usually without being consciously tuned in, no devices, no headset, and half the time I don’t know what the song is until I find myself whistling or humming it. Back in the epicenter of winter, around the time Marion slipped and fell on the icy driveway as she was going to the mail box, the song that wouldn’t leave me alone was “Our House,” off the 1970 Crosby Stills Nash & Young album, Deja Vu. I never owned the LP, never thought much of the song except that close friends of ours in the U.K. seemed always to be playing it when we were over there. One reason it may have been on my mind this past February was that we’d been asking ourselves how much longer we could afford to live in our “very very very fine house,” with Princeton’s very very very over-the-top property taxes.

This is why our neighbors and our neighborhood were on my mind as CSNY’s “Our House” was following me around, with its rare-for-rock vision of domestic tranquility, “I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.” And there we all are “staring at the fire for hours and hours” listening to “love songs all night long” or in the cozy room with windows lit by sunshine, and here comes the irresistible chorus, “Our house is a very very very fine house with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ‘cause of you.” It’s sung by Graham Nash somewhere on the human side of ethereal. The back story is it was written when he was living with Joni Mitchell in a place they were sharing in Laurel Canyon, which could lessen its universal appeal, but come to think of it, we live on Laurel Circle, so there we are.

An Everyday Situation

What makes Marion’s death hard to accept let alone think about is the ordinary everyday situation of a neighbor doing what we all do six days a week when we go to the mailbox to get the mail. But Marion slipped on the ice, fell, hit her head, and no one saw it happen. And no one, it appears, could have saved her. After a seemingly successful six week rehabilitation at the Medical Center, she was home and I saw her walking with an aide up and down our street. Only a day or two later her eldest daughter called with the news.

The chorus of “Our House” won’t leave me alone. Asked about the song, Graham Nash said it came “out of an incredibly ordinary moment that many, many people have experienced.” An interesting contradiction in terms “incredibly ordinary” — the song became meaningful to “so many people,” as Nash knows, by making an ordinary moment extraordinary.

rec rev2“All Who Live in Love”

Marion’s life was remembered by the rector at All Saints as “a work of art,” which applies as well to a service that began with the singing of Alexa Cottrell, who could hardly be seen from where I was sitting, creating the effect of music coming from a virtually invisible source. Since the composer of the music was not identified in the program, the mystery seemed as much a part of the service as the Bach Prelude and Postlude and the eulogies from family members, among them Marion’s brother Stanley Bergen, who remembered his younger sister as a little girl living and playing on Princeton Avenue, near Aiken; he also recalled her fondness in later years for the music from Camelot, which she saw when it opened on Broadway starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton.

The Mystery Solved

The last hymn Saturday was sung to Beethoven, the Hymn to Joy, with words written by Princeton resident Henry VanDyke (1852-1933): “all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”

After contacting the All Saints Church, I learned that the music sung by Alexa Cottrell was Die Jesu or “Prayer to the Good Jesus for Everlasting Rest” from Fauré’s Requiem.

———

One of my first stories for Town Topics (“A Hard Day’s Night Gone Right: Laurel Circle Makes History,” May 5, 2004) was about a gas leak that gave Laurel Circle the distinction of being the first and only neighborhood in the history of Princeton Township to have been evacuated. Given the late hour and the fact that no one had time to get dressed, the scene in the main Meeting Room at Township Hall (as it was known in those days) turned into “a pajama party,” according to Sgt. Sean Reed. The only exiles from the meeting room were three dogs and their three male owners, who had to wait out the hours in a less comfortable area. It’s fitting that the only cat who made the trip came with Marion, whose extended feline family included Samantha and Tom, Albert, Fleetie, and daughter Julie’s 13-year-old tortoise shell Jade, who clung to a fireman while Julie’s 4-year-old daughter Leah was clinging to Julie. Jade eventually allowed herself to be disengaged from her protector and put into a carrier.

This neighborhood event happened between 1:30 and 4 a.m. on Communiversity eve 2004.

FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.

FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.

“I beg you, open your eyes … you have arrived at La Cage Aux Folles,” announces the master of ceremonies for the evening. In the opening number, “We Are What We Are,” of the 1983 hit Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the characters of the show present themselves and their world, a popular drag nightclub theater on the French Riviera.

The captivating Theatre Intime-Princeton University Players’ production currently at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, does indeed present a remarkable array of characters from the glittering world of drag performance. “What we are is an illusion,” they sing, “We love how it feels, putting on heels, causing confusion,” and, as the lyrics of the opening number declare, “You’ll find it tough guessing our gender.”

Directed by Princeton University junior Morgan Young with a talented cast of 14 undergraduate performers, this production is fun and appealing, to the eye and the ear. Though it was the first Broadway musical to focus on a gay romantic relationship, it was designed as a family-friendly, song-and-dance entertainment in 1983 when it debuted, ran for four years and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.

Thirty-two years later, though at times overly sentimental or stereotypical or old-fashioned in characterization, plot and theme, La Cage Aux Folles still resonates powerfully in its moving portrayal of a loving couple — and family — and in the ensemble’s dynamic presentation of these characters and their theatrical world of glitter, performance, and illusion.

Carey Camel as Albin, aka the temperamental star Zaza, and Evan Strasnick as Georges, manager and emcee of the nightclub, are first-rate, committed, and convincing both individually and through the ups and downs of their loving relationship. The seven lively, quirky, flamboyant “Cagelles” are also consistently fun and fascinating to watch in their dramatic performances onstage and backstage at La Cage nightclub.

Based on a popular 1973 French stage play by Jean Poiret and a 1978 movie, which was followed by two sequels in 1980 and 1985, “Les Cages Aux Folles” is set in the St. Tropez nightclub, backstage and onstage, and in the adjoining apartment of Georges, Albin and their 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Paddy Boroughs), who, conceived by Georges in a brief tryst long ago, hasn’t seen his actual mother in more than 20 years.

Early in the evening the point of conflict arises and the stakes rise rapidly as Jean-Michel prepares to marry — a female — and has invited not just his fiancée Anne (Lydia Watt) but also her ultra-conservative — Dad is the leader of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party — parents (Dan Caprera and Nadia Diamond) home to dinner to meet his family. The situation is ripe for humor and dramatic tension (shades of the Sycamore family in Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 You Can’t Take It With You trying to act normally as they entertain their daughter’s stuffy future in-laws), as Georges and Jean-Michel revamp their apartment, Georges straightens up his deportment and they struggle to figure out what to do with the flamboyant Albin, who is first uninvited, then transformed into a macho Uncle Al (“walk like John Wayne”), before he takes matters into his own hands with startling results.

In addition to the French films and the original Broadway musical version, this show has seen numerous other productions in the U.S. and around the world, including two popular Broadway revivals, 2004 and 2010, both of which won the Tony Award for Best Revival. Also, Mike Nichols directed a successful U.S. film adaptation, The Birdcage, in 1996, set in South Beach (Miami) and starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Mr. Camel’s Albin provides the heart of the show here, as he draws the audience into his life as an aging prima donna, and also a devoted partner to Georges and “mother’ to Jean-Michel. His numbers provide high spots of the evening, including “A Little More Mascara,” as he reflects at the make-up table on the illusions of theater and life before going on stage as Zaza, then in his show-stopping, act one solo finale “I Am What I Am,” as he publicly refuses to compromise his identity to accommodate the expectations of society, and also in a second-act Edith Piaf-style refrain that brings his whole audience — onstage and off — into the beautiful world of his song.

Mr. Strasnick is a worthy counterpart, presiding over “La Cage Aux Folles” nightclub and the larger Hamilton Murray stage. Caught in the middle between the demands of his life with Albin at La Cage and his son’s plans for the future, Georges is a sympathetic character, and Mr. Strasnick presents a credible, interesting figure. Though at times uneven vocally, he is particularly effective in leading the nightclub proceedings and in portraying the depth and emotion of his 20-year relationship with Albin.

Mr. Boroughs as Jean-Michel, contrasting sharply with the world of “La Cage Aux Folles,” presents a clean-cut, likeable young man in love but desperately apprehensive as he prepares to introduce his fiancée and her parents to his unusual family. Ms. Watt is suitably sweet and innocent as the fiancée, and Mr. Caprera and Ms. Diamond successfully portray the one-dimensional, cartoon-like characters of the straitlaced, shocked parents of the bride.

The wonderfully creative — in dress, movement, dance, and characterization — Cagelles deliver memorable, relentlessly interesting and entertaining characters, including the alluring and athletic Jacqueline (Victoria Lee, who deftly doubles as an effusively distinguished restaurateur), the expressive, sarcastic Jacob (Dylan Blau-Edelstein, who also plays with panache the sassy butler/maid for Albin and George and is outrageously funny enough to almost steal the show in a couple of scenes), the amazing operatic-voiced Chantal (Julia Peiperl), Phaedra (Matt Blazejewski) with the acrobatic tongue, the dominatrix Hanna (Kat Giordano) in black leather, red boots, and a whip that she knows how to use, the curiously mustachioed but feminine Mercedes (Alex Vogelsang) and the colorfully cross-dressed Nicole (Brian McSwiggen). Cat Sharp provides a down-to-earth, believable contrast to the gaudy Cagelles as Francis, the nightclub stage manager (though her visible injuries, apparently due to her relationship with Hanna, upsettingly miss the mark for humor).

Choreography by Tess Marchant is simple but successful in rendering this diverse assortment of characters in their wild nightclub setting — with a rich variety of slithering, undulating movements and provocative poses and a kick line or two that might challenge Princeton Triangle Show’s all-male chorus.

The capable eight-piece orchestra positioned behind the set, under the direction of Sam Kaseta, provides strong, appropriate musical accompaniment to the action and singing on stage. David White’s set, depicting backstage and onstage at The Cage nightclub, as well as the apartment of Georges and Albin and several other scenes around town, is less than lavish, but effectively economical, in creating multiple locales without delay between scenes, and striking in its centerpiece curtain made up of dozens of gold mylar strips shimmering in the wind and light (designed by Marissa Applegate) to create the tone and ambience of this play and its world. Rebecca Schnell’s numerous, vivid costumes are on target in further complementing characterizations and tone in the production.

Despite the uniform youthfulness and relative inexperience of the undergraduate cast, some problems and unevenness in the book and score, and the ambitious scope of the entire undertaking, Ms. Young has directed with such fine intelligence and spirit, and her company performs with such admirable focus, energy, and commitment that the show transcends its limitations.

Ms. Young’s wise, perceptive comments in her program note get the last word here and provide compelling motivation to see La Cage Aux Folles in its last weekend at Hamilton Murray Theater: “I have always been drawn to drag as an art form. The eccentricity, excess and inherent performativity of drag is a form particularly suited to musical theatre, the singing, dancing, sparkling queen of the stage world. I find it is also a form particularly suited to self-expression. Drag, to me, is not a disguise, deception or escape, but a heightened representation of self. When something is more extravagant than it is natural or “real” — when someone’s inner monologue is musical, someone’s face is covered in make-up, someone’s hair was bought at Party City — it is not, as a consequence, less “truthful.” Drag performances can be moments of pure self-acceptance, a medium through which everyone can strut their assorted stuff and proclaim, “We are what we are!”

Just a week before the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli during World War I, a musical representative of Australia paid a visit to Princeton to present a concert of crisp playing, musical clarity, and joy. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, brought its unique performing style to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night (as part of Princeton University Concerts) in a program of Prokofiev, Mozart, and innovative English composer Jonny Greenwood.

The piano works of Sergei Prokofiev are not well-known to concert audiences and orchestral transcriptions of these works even less so. Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, a collection of 20 short piano pieces composed between 1915 and 1917, capture the composer’s concise harmonies and rhythmic treatments. Beginning in the mid-1940s, arrangers and conductors began to transcribe these short works for string ensembles. The Australian Chamber Orchestra presented 16 of the 20 pieces on last week’s program, including one orchestrated by Chamber Orchestra conductor and concertmaster Richard Tognetti.

The Prokofiev pieces were musical miniatures of precision, and the Chamber Orchestra played the transcriptions with a lean and well-unified string sound. With all players except the cellos playing from a standing position, the Australian Chamber Orchestra demonstrated that all members of the ensemble were soloists, yet could play solidly together with a fresh and vibrant sound. Throughout the Prokofiev selections, the string players showed unified bowings and an ability to change styles in unison.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra was joined by New York clarinetist Charles Neidich for a historically informed and elegant performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. So accurate was his performance historically that Mr. Neidich had an instrument built to replicate an 18th-century “bass clarinet.” Unlike the modern bass clarinet, the 18th-century version played in an extended treble register, and Mr. Neidich played with richness and transparency throughout all the ranges. The clarinet was still evolving as an instrument in the 1790s, and it was both entertaining and enlightening to see and hear as close to what the instrument might have been like as one can get in this century.

Mozart’s clarinet concerto dates from the last year of Mozart’s life, and in this work one could easily hear the lyricism of vocal duets from The Marriage of Figaro and the fiery coloratura of the Magic Flute’s “Queen of the Night” aria in the concerto’s three movements. As in Mozart’s most challenging vocal works, there were large intervallic skips and long melodic runs in the solo clarinet line, and Mr. Neidich handled all aspects of the concerto with ease. Playing with the orchestra at times and then breaking out for the solo lines, Mr. Neidich articulated cleanly and led the ensemble through both the drama and humor of the music. Teasing yet elegant cadenzas closed both the first and third movements, as Mr. Neidich drew out the poignant melodic lines and extended trills.

The Chamber Orchestra returned to Mozart later in the concert, but first turned their attention to an unusual work by a composer familiar with a number of genres. Jonny Greenwood made his career as lead guitarist and keyboard player of the band Radiohead, but maintained a parallel career as a composer of orchestral and film music. Greenwood scored the acclaimed films There will be Blood and The Master, and collaborated with Krzysztof Penderecki on the renowned Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Greenwood was commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra last year, and composed Water, a one-movement work for orchestra and the unusual twist of tanpura, an Indian string instrument. The overall musical effect of this piece was indeed that of water, with the violin sounding like raindrops. The tanpura, played by Vinod Prasanna, provided a drone to underpin the music, and added the exotic effect of running fingers around the edge of a glass filled with water. Even in string cacophony, the music of Water was accessible, in endless streams of color and sound.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra closed Thursday night’s program with a clean and quick performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. Playing with great direction in the melodic lines, the players brought out the “question and answer” aspects of Mozart’s spirited music, with the second movement played as a study in suspensions, resolutions, and graceful appoggiaturas. The Chamber Orchestra maintained a consistent Viennese lilt through all four movements, especially in the delicate Trio of the third movement. Throughout the symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra proved that it is a performing treasure from the Land Down Under, and one that may not be heard in Princeton that often.

TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

On April 9, 2013, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) drank too much at a high school classmate’s unsupervised keg party and passed out and soiled herself. In the past, such immature behavior would have been forgiven as youthful indiscretion and quietly swept under the rug the next morning.

However, in the unforgiving digital age the slightest faux pas can easily come back to haunt you forever. That’s precisely what happened to Laura, thanks to a mean-spirited guest who, instead of helping her, whipped out his cell phone and recorded an embarrassing video of her sprawled on the ground.

This invasion of privacy escalated to cyber bullying when the video was posted online followed by a thread of cruel comments. After several days of merciless teasing, Laura took her life with a gun.

Now, exactly one year later, we find Laura’s former best friend Blaire (Shelley Hennig) flirting with Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) on Skype. Their exchange comes to an abrupt end when they are joined in the chatroom by a trio of friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki).

Next, an anonymous intruder claiming to be Laura appears and starts divulging deep secrets about each of them. The spooked quintet assumes that the uninvited guest is their prankster pal, Val (Courtney Halverson), until she pops up on a separate screen. Then, when “Laura” starts knocking them off one-by-one, it becomes clear that they are dealing with a disembodied spirit bent on vengeance.

Directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended is a found footage horror film designed for millennials. This novel movie unfolds on a computer screen from its beginning to its terrifying end. Although some people over 30 are apt to find the film disconcerting, the younger generation — that is addicted to electronic stimuli — 24/7, may feel right at home.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, sexuality, teen drug and alcohol abuse, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 82 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 15, 2015

Book Rev LincolnWriting in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which occurred 150 years ago Tuesday, Walt Whitman refers to the fallen president as “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality.”

Henry James had just turned 22 on April 15, 1865. According to his biographer Leon Edel, he received the news as “the shrill cry … of an outraged and grieving America standing at the bier of the assassinated president.”

Three months later, in one of his first reviews for the newly founded journal, the Nation, James denounced Whitman’s book of war poems, Drum-Taps, as “an offense against art.” How dare Whitman presume to be the “national poet” only to “discharge the contents” of his “blotting book into the lap of the public?” Although James goes on at length, chiding “the great pretensions” of the stanzas beginning “Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries” and “From Paumanok starting, I fly like a bird,” he ends his review by citing, almost as if in spite of himself, the qualities most famously associated with a poet he would come to appreciate years later — “the vigor of your temperament, the manly independence of your nature, the tenderness of your heart.” As he concludes, James seems to be speaking as much to himself as to Whitman: “You must be possessed, and you must strive to possess your possession. If in your striving you break into divine eloquence, then you are a poet. If the idea which possesses you is the idea of your country’s greatness, then you are a national poet.”

In April 2015, few will dispute Whitman’s claim to be “a national poet,” but who thinks of the expatriate Henry James in those terms? How could that most regal of American writers, who, as Leon Edel puts it, “wielded his pen as if it were a scepter,” be possessed by the idea of the great, sprawling, vulgar country’s “greatness?” Yet when James returns to the U.S. for the first time in 20 years and writes The American Scene (1907), he “possesses his possession” every bit as passionately, expansively, and poetically as Whitman, doing so all the while in a supremely Jamesian manner.

James Asks Directions

In the vaudeville of American history, Lincoln struts his stuff, cracking jokes and quoting Shakespeare, while Whitman gathers the audience to his bosom and does everything but dive into the 19th-century equivalent of the mosh pit. James meanwhile is caricatured in the press during the ten-month visit to the States (1904-1905) recounted in The American Scene. As Edel points out, “Jokes became current in cultured circles about the lady who knew ‘several languages — French, New Thought, and Henry James.’” Then there was “the lady who boasted she could read Henry James ‘in the original.’” Like bloggers today, letter writers to the New York Times sniped about a convoluted style that would “drive a grammarian mad.”

James’s friend, novelist Edith Wharton, recalls his attempt to ask directions upon their arrival late at night in the town of Windsor in her 1904 Pope-Hartford motor-car. As Wharton tells it, James called over an elderly passer-by and proceeded, thus, “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station …. In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to — ”

At this point, seeing the confusion on the old man’s face, Wharton loses patience: “Oh, please, do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah —? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

“Ye’re in it.”

Henry James Book RevLiving in Style

James lived his style, whether the situation was formal or casual. Even when felled by a stroke a hundred years ago this December, he told a friend that his first thought was, “So it has come at last — the Distinguished Thing.” He died three months later.

Probably the most frequently cited critic of James’s late prose was his brother William, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, who in 1907 urged him to “sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action …. Say it out, for God’s sake and have done with it! For gleams and innuendoes and felicitous verbal insinuations you are unapproachable, but the core of literature is solid. Give it to us once again!” He contrasted his own manner (“to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made”) to his younger brother’s determination to “avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader … the illusion of a solid object, made wholly out of impalpable materials, air and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space.”

Bringing It Off

When William wrote to Henry expressing doubts about his plan to return to America in 1903, advising him of “the sort of physical loathing with which many features of our national life will inspire you,” he provoked a long letter that becomes a manifesto outlining the rationale for the Master’s visit to the land of his birth: “If I shouldn’t, in other words, bring off going to the U.S., it would simply mean giving up, for the remainder of my days, all chance of such experience as is represented by interesting ‘travel’.”

James took eloquent advantage of that experience in The American Scene, where the depth and richness of the prose he lavishes on the “loathed” subject can leave the word-drunk reader reeling. In more than a century of writing about New York City, there is nothing to equal what happens when James takes on the metropolis. As W.H. Auden makes clear in his introduction to the 1946 edition, The American Scene is best read “as a prose poem of the first order,” to be relished “sentence by sentence, for it is no more a guide book than the ‘Ode to a Nightengale’ is an ornithological essay.”

Walt Whitman Book RevMoral Personality

In the end, James and Whitman, each in his own way, lived lives worthy of the “the best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” that Whitman ascribed to Lincoln on April 16, 1865.

The same term surfaces in Edel’s reference to the “deep affection” James was to develop in later years “for the personality of Whitman,” whose poetry he knew “by heart and on occasion liked to declaim.”

As Whitman writes in his entry on the assassination, “the soldier drops, sinks like a wave — but the ranks of the ocean eternally press on,” so it happens that the 22-year-old reviewer who told Whitman in the Nation that to “sing aright our battles and our glories” it wasn’t enough “to have served in a hospital” finds himself at 70 on the fringes of the Great War visiting wounded Belgian and English soldiers in hospitals, while, according to Edel, likening himself to Walt Whitman during the Civil War. “Friends of the Master wondered how the soldiers reacted to his subtle, leisurely talk,” but what came through was “his kindness, his warmth.” All during 1914 and into 1915 “when illness slowed him up, James surrendered himself to the British soldier.”

Seeing Lincoln Plain

Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the site of the assassination, is marking the 150th anniversary with a series of programs centered on around-the-clock events, April 14-15. On the street outside, throughout the day and night, living historians will provide first-person accounts about the end of the Civil War, the experience of being inside the theatre at the moment of the assassination, medical reports from the Petersen House, and the impact of Lincoln’s life and death. Starting the evening of April 14, the public will be able to visit the Ford’s Theatre campus throughout the night. The morning of April 15, Ford’s will mark Abraham Lincoln’s death at 7:22 a.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony; church bells will toll across the city, just as they did in 1865.

Also in the news recently is Yale’s acquisition of a major photographic collection featuring “a definitive assemblage of portraits of Abraham Lincoln.” Although Walt Whitman doubted there could be a satisfactory portrait, he tried his hand at a word-picture in summer of 1863: he is “dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man …. I see very plainly [his] dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression …. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”

THE GODDESS: That’s the title of this work by the late Jeanne Calo who will be remembered as a talented artist and generous spirit at an exhibition and sale of her work at the Princeton Senior Resource Center at 45 Stockton Street this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. Ms. Calo donated her artwork to the Center and the exhibition of her colorful and highly stylized works will be on view through Friday, April 24. For more information, call (609) 924-7108; or visit: www.princetonsenior.org.(Image Courtesy of PSRC)

THE GODDESS: That’s the title of this work by the late Jeanne Calo who will be remembered as a talented artist and generous spirit at an exhibition and sale of her work at the Princeton Senior Resource Center at 45 Stockton Street this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. Ms. Calo donated her artwork to the Center and the exhibition of her colorful and highly stylized works will be on view through Friday, April 24. For more information, call (609) 924-7108; or visit: www.princetonsenior.org. (Image Courtesy of PSRC)

The life and artistic creativity of the late local artist Jeanne Calo will be celebrated at the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC) with an opening reception for an exhibition and sale of her work this Sunday, April 19, from 3 to 6 p.m. The public is invited to view Ms. Calo’s vibrant paintings, the sale of which will benefit the Center.

Ms. Calo, who passed away at age 98 in the spring of 2014, was a longtime resident of Princeton; she donated her paintings to the Center.

Born in Tunis in 1916, Ms. Calo took up painting later in life following a career at The College of New Jersey where she taught French. She traveled widely in Tunisia, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, Morocco, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Thailand, acquiring objects from markets, festivals, dance, and music events. Such finds served as inspiration for Ms. Calo’s paintings, imbuing them with the essence of the countries and the cultures of the artist’s travels. She was also influenced by her love of Gauguin, Matisse, Derain, and Bonnard.

By many accounts, Ms. Calo was a remarkable woman with an indefatigable spirit. Her friends remember her as modest, unassuming and genuinely surprised when her paintings were appreciated and sought out by museums.

Long before she became an artist, Ms. Calo lived in Tunis as a young wife and mother. She moved to the United States with her cardiologist husband and children in 1958. After teaching for a while at a private school, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in order to obtain a PhD degree so that she might pursue a career as a professor of French.

It wasn’t until her retirement at the age of 70 that she took up painting for the first time. It would become her major interest and a source of joy and achievement. According to her friend Paola Blelloch, Ms. Calo attended art courses at Mercer County Community College every week until shortly before her death last year. She studied under the famed New Jersey realist painter and teacher Mel Leipzig and discovered a favorite medium in acrylics. She quickly developed her own style which, said Ms. Blelloch, well-represented her personality. As artist, Ms. Calo favored strong colors and often added touches of humor.

Ms. Calo’s paintings have been exhibited in many museums and galleries. “Various institutions asked to exhibit her paintings which she did willingly, always giving the proceedings to charity,” said Ms. Blelloch.

“But her greater gift to me and her other many friends was the way she made each of us feel special, her optimism was contagious and her advice invaluable as it was always wise,” recalled Ms. Blelloch in a written account of her friend of 35 years. “The quality that can better sum her up is her ‘generosity,’ not only with presents that she gave to everybody in abundance, but with what she gave of herself. All her friends benefited from that.”

The exhibition and sale of Ms. Calo’s highly stylized works will be on view and available for purchase at the Princeton Senior Resource Center at 45 Stockton Street through Friday, April 24. For more information, (609) 924-7108; or visit: www.princetonsenior.org.

 

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true.(Photo by Scott Garfield - © 2015 - Universal Pictures)

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true. (Photo by Scott Garfield – © 2015 – Universal Pictures)

The late Paul Walker (1973-2013) was best known for playing Brian O’Conner, a charismatic lead character of the Fast and Furious series. During a break in the filming of this seventh film, he perished in a fiery crash while being driven in a Porsche by his friend and financial advisor, Roger Rodas.

Director James Wan (The Conjuring) put the production on hold and consulted with Walker’s family before deciding to complete the project. After revising the script, he resumed shooting, using Paul’s younger brothers, Caleb and Cody, as body doubles.

As a result of the delays and complications from the changes in the movie, its budget ballooned to over a quarter-billion dollars. Nevertheless, the rewrite was worth the effort, since Furious 7 is easily the best movie in the series because it convincingly combines sentiment with its trademark swagger and spectacular action sequences.

The movie is still mainly a muscle car demolition derby featuring an array of sensational stunts that destroy 230 automobiles. But it’s also a touching tribute to Paul Walker.

At the point of departure, we’re reintroduced to Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a trained assassin who is hell-bent on avenging the death of his brother, the diabolical villain who was killed during the climax of the previous episode. Deckard’s already killed Han (Sung Kang), so gang leader Dom (Vin Diesel) encourages his wife (Michelle Rodriguez) and the rest of his ragtag crew of mercenaries to regroup in order to avoid the risk of getting picked off one-by-one, since there’s strength in numbers.

However, coaxing brother-in-law Brian out of retirement isn’t easy because he has settled down in suburbia and started a family with Mia (Jordana Brewster). However, the playboys Roman (Tyrese) and Tej (Ludacris) are game for another round of bombastic vehicular warfare, as they compete for the affections of the computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has just joined the gang.

The plot plunges the mercenaries headlong into a familiar concatenation of fisticuffs and gravity-defying car chases.

The movie is a captivating combination of camaraderie and action scenes tempered by enough nostalgia to tug at your heartstrings.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for pervasive violence and mayhem, suggestive content, and brief profanity. Running time: 137 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 9, 2015

record rev

The other day a high school friend wrote to say that in the course of selling off his record collection he’d found an old Stan Kenton LP of mine and wondered if I wanted it back. I’d have told him no thanks, except that Stan Kenton had autographed it to me, so of course I wanted it and here it is on the desk as I write, with the legendary band leader, mid-century modernism incarnate, gazing out at me from the cover. On another occasion, the same friend and I had our Count Basie Dance Session LPs signed by everyone in the band, including the Count and Henry Snodgrass, the old guy in charge of the equipment.

This siege of jazz nostalgia was inspired by the fact that 2015 is the centenary year for Billie Holiday, who was born April 7, 1915, and Frank Sinatra, born eight months later on December 12. Around the time I was in thrall to Kenton and Basie and singing along with Sinatra, Billie Holiday was somewhere else far far away, terra incognita, no man’s land. Scary. Creepy. After all, this was someone whose rendition of “Gloomy Sunday” had supposedly driven people to suicide, and then there was “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. I couldn’t listen to her. It wasn’t just that she sang songs with depressing subjects, it was the way she sang: dreary and dismal, our lady of misery. So I thought.

Sinatra was something else again. Like his character Maggio in From Here to Eternity, he came off as an in-your-face life-force, pugnacious, hip (so I thought), totally upbeat, and what a singer. I lived in albums like Nice and Easy, Swing Easy, and Songs for Young Lovers. I knew every smooth and sly and sliding Sinatra nuance from hours and hours of singing along with him, songs like  “A Foggy Day,” “The Girl Next Door,” and “How Little We Know,” with that joy-to-enunciate couplet, “How little we understand what touches off that tingle/That sudden explosion when two tingles intermingle.” Definitely a lot more fun than than a song that rhymes “sweet and fresh” with “burnin’ flesh.”

So it goes in the pilgrim’s progress of a lifetime of listening, where Sinatra falls by the wayside, marred by his smug Rat Pack image and those gaudy Nelson Riddle arrangements, while Billie Holiday looms among the absolutes, like Charlie Parker or Lester Young or Wardell Gray, all of whom were either unknown to me or unfathomable in the days when Kenton and Sinatra reigned supreme. It hurts to think that as an underage youth at Birdland I once saw a sad old man named Lester Young playing as if he might not live to see the end of the next solo (he was actually only 48 at the time), standing so close to my clueless teenage self that I could see the bloodshot whites of his eyes and sense only the faintest possibility that the music he was dying for might be something special.

How She Happened

A mid-April night of rain and mist on Christopher Street in the Village, the window open, fresh wet air blowing in, a blue transistor radio perched near the edge of the sill. Someone is singing. The song seems to come in with the wet breeze, it’s a ghostly voice, wayward, out of line, beyond borders, extraordinary. I’m hearing, finally really hearing, Billie Holiday. Misery had nothing to do with this siren song in the New York night leading the way to a brave new world of music.

Three years later I’m leaning on another window sill in a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street listening to Billie Holiday on my portable Columbia stereo, unaware that she’d once lived in the building across the street, number 26, her last home. The next stop after that was Metropolitan Hospital, where she died at 44 on July 17, 1959.

“This Heart of Mine”

I can’t remember the name of the Billie Holiday song I heard that first misty night but the ones that feel closest to the mood of the revelation are “Yesterdays” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” both recorded in 1944 for Commodore, a jazz label that evolved from a midtown record store. She might not have the copyright but she owns those words, those titles, not to mention that she was born 100 years ago yesterday, as Eleanora Fagan, to Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday. While the name “Billie” was reportedly inspired by the silent film star Billie Dove, the singer would tell more than one interviewer that because her father had wanted a boy he called her Bill (this was before he left her and her mother behind to become a jazz guitarist).

Listening to Holiday sing “Yesterdays,” there’s the sense at first that she’s whispering the words in your ear with her dying breath, but next thing you know she’s rhyming and romancing the choice phrase “sweet sequestered days,” she whose personal university offered a course in English taught by lyricists, most of them white males. In this song, her teacher is a Danish-American named Otto Harbach who came from Salt Lake City to New York looking for a graduate degree at Columbia until Tin Pan Alley gathered him in. One of Holiday’s loveliest moments is when she and Harbach and Jerome Kern join forces for the rushed ascent, as smoothly sinuous as a phrasing by Lester Young translated into “gay youth was mine, truth was mine/Joyous free in flame and life/Then sooth was mine.”

In “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the muted, musing accompaniment casts a subtle spell behind Billie, who turns each distinctly felt word of the lyric to her emotional advantage. Critics and publicists talk about singers selling a song, or putting one over, but this is a transformation performed by a born poet on the material of everyday life: ordinary words for old familiar places, small cafes, parks across the way, children’s carousels, wishing wells, sun and moon, and above all “this heart of mine,” wounded, devoutly bitter, and true to the end of life.

Lady in Satin

Of the early/middle/late periods of a career Gary Giddins has compared to “the three works-in-one” of Don Quixote (only Giddins could find a way to connect Billie to “the equally inscrutable Edgar A. Poe”), the more stately, measured, middle-period Commodore sides are in clear contrast to the jubilant, sassy, free-swinging Holiday of early Columbia recordings like “Me, Myself, and I,” which is distinguished by the extrasensory rapport between Lady Day and her soulmate Lester Young.

Bathed in Ray Ellis’s grandiose arrangements for her penultimate album, Lady in Satin, Holiday lingers over the challenge of every song as if she knows that a little more than a year later she will be lying for hours on a gurney in a hospital corridor, unidentified, unclaimed, and uncared for. Left off the original album but included as a bonus track on the remastered 1997 CD is a forgettable composition called “The End of a Love Affair.” Her struggle to learn, to like, or to at least endure the piece is at once fascinating and painful, the crisis coming when she sings, rasps, lives, and dies the mundane words a cappella. The process resembles an eccentric form of critical thinking: as if she were weighing and measuring the ridiculous material, dissecting the song as she sings it.

Quoted in the liner notes to the reissue, Ray Ellis says “After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”

Fine and Mellow

Google “Billie Holiday Fine and Mellow” and there she is, as close as you’ll ever get to her, radiant, singing, smiling, making beautiful music even when she’s simply listening, being herself, seated on a stool at the center of a circle of legendary musicians in New York City, CBS Studio 58 on 10th Avenue, where The Sound of Jazz was filmed, December 8 1957.

The first thing you hear is Billie saying “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy. There’s two kinds of blues, happy blues and there’s sad blues.” One of the few songs Billie wrote, “Fine and Mellow” is both.

Nat Hentoff, who along with Whitney Balliett, helped produce the session and enlist the musicians, suggests that what made “Fine and Mellow” the climax of the show was what went on between Billie Holiday and Lester Young: “she had given him his nickname, Prez, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show… When it came to his solo, Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard. Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, the producer had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving.”

Billie’s appreciative reactions to each musician’s solo may be the best thing in the number. As she listens, the beauty of her face, seen in profile, is uncanny. Those close-up side views are as luminously here and now as they are otherworldly. It’s as Giddins says, “the greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.”

———

Out just in time for the centenary is John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking), which Richard Brody’s review on newyorker.com, terms a meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.

The Gary Giddins quotes are from Visions of Jazz and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES: Bible enthusiasts have a treat in store at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Center at 20 Library Place where illuminated images like this one of “Elisha and the Six Miracles” by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson (here in collaboration with Aidan Hart) are on display in an exhibition of prints from The Saint John’s Bible project. The exhibition runs through May 10 with several educational events open to the public as well. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. For more information, call (609) 497-7990, or visit: www.ptsem.edu.(Image Courtesy of Erdman Center)

ELISHA’S MIRACLES: Bible enthusiasts have a treat in store at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Center at 20 Library Place where illuminated images like this one of “Elisha and the Six Miracles” by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson (here in collaboration with Aidan Hart) are on display in an exhibition of prints from The Saint John’s Bible project. The exhibition runs through May 10 with several educational events open to the public as well. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. For more information, call (609) 497-7990, or visit: www.ptsem.edu. (Image Courtesy of Erdman Center)

The idea of a handwritten illuminated Bible conjures up the image of a heavy leather-bound tome reverently presented for display in a glass case in some hushed library. Most of the examples we see today were created by monks laboring for years.

Thanks to the efforts of one contemporary calligrapher who is scribe to Queen Elizabeth II’s Crown Office at the House of Lords in London, England, the form has been revived. Donald Jackson has been commissioned by a Benedictine monastery to create the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago, the most extensive scribal commission the world has seen since the Middle Ages.

Mr. Jackson suggested the project to the monks at a monastery in Wales and he can be found talking about the project and demonstrating his skill with hand-cut quill and ink that he makes himself on You Tube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=BK9oCX5lBLQ). A team of scribes, artists, and crafts-people in a Welsh scriptorium worked on The Saint John’s Bible for more than 13 years.

Prints on loan from The Saint John’s Bible are currently on display in the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Gallery. The exhibition runs through May 10.

The Erdman gallery exhibition, which is free and open to the public, is a rare chance to view a unique project intended to “ignite the spiritual imagination of Christian believers throughout the world and illuminate the Word of God using ancient traditions and today’s technology for a new millennium.” It features 25 approximately 22 by 30 inch giclée prints from the illuminated Bible that was commissioned in 1998 by the Benedictine monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Standout prints include Jacob’s Ladder by Donald Jackson in collaboration with Chris Tomlin; Faithful Friends by Diane von Arx with scribe Brian Simpson; Donald Jackson’s Village of the Dry Bones and The Life of Paul; and two works by Thomas Ingmire: Messianic Prediction and The Ten Commandments. For the latter, the artist’s brief was to combine five different passages from Exodus into one single illumination. Mr. Ingmire’s is a modern take on his subject. While the top half of the page depicts traditional images of burning bush, the first Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the twelve pillars of Israel with Biblical texts arranged across them in gold lettering, the bottom half of the page contains the Ten Commandments in letters that are stenciled rather than penned, or should we say “quilled.” The result emphasizes the authoritative nature of the “laws.”

Don’t miss Chris Tomlin’s Monarch Butterflies, alongside which helpful wall notes explain the symbolic significance of the butterfly in Christian art. You will also learn that that the margins of medieval Bibles were often decorated with plants and animals that had symbolic meaning and that all of the species of flora and fauna depicted in the margins of the Saint John’s Bible are either native to the Minnesota woods surrounding St. John’s University or to the Welsh countryside near Donald Jackson’s home. Mr. Tomlin, a specialist in botanical and nature illustration, went to Minnesota to research marginalia subjects.

Along with the show, the Seminary plans three special events that are also open to the public. On Wednesday, April 22, at 7 p.m. Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, will recount the story behind the project and discuss the art on display. His interactive presentation, “From Inspiration to Illumination: An Introduction to The Saint John’s Bible,” takes place in the Erdman Center. To attend, register at www.ptsem.edu/stjohnbible.

Working directly with the project’s artistic team, Mr. Ternes facilitates exhibitions for the original pages and reproductions, as well as curating and caring for the original folios of the Bible. He travels extensively offering presentations, exhibitions, and educational programs for the Bible project and library collections. “They’ve brought together a team of theologians and artists who thought through the entire project,” said Dayle Rounds, associate dean of continuing education at the Seminary. “It’s amazing to hear Tim [Ternes] walk you through each of the images on display.”

Following Mr. Ternes’s presentation, there will be a reception and a demonstration of techniques used in the creation of the Bible by calligrapher Diane Von Arx, whose own work is among those on display.

A native Minnesotan, Ms. Von Arx has been a graphic designer for more than 25 years. She specializes in creative lettering and calligraphy and conducts workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia. She has published three beginning calligraphy workbooks and her work has been included in numerous exhibitions and private collections.

One of only three U. S. calligraphers asked to participate in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, Ms. Von Arx will share her experiences as an artist working on this more than a decade-long project as well as her personal insights on the creative process and the challenges of going from word to image with sacred texts.

For those interested in delving deeper into the project and even trying their hand at grinding inks and using hand-cut quills, the Seminary is offering a 24 hour retreat, “Seeing the Word: A Retreat with The Saint John’s Bible” on April 22 and April 23.

Led by Mr. Ternes and Ms. von Arx, participants will examine the creative and artistic processes involved and “enter into a deeper understanding of the scriptural passages with the new, exciting way of experiencing God’s Word: visio divina.” The cost of the retreat is $145 and includes the program and three meals. For a complete schedule or to register, visit www.ptsem.edu/stjohnsbible.

The Erdman Art Gallery is located in the Erdman Center at 20 Library Place, Princeton. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m.

For more information, call (609) 497-7990, or visit: www.ptsem.edu.

April 2, 2015

book wallaceOne of my favorite moments in Mad Men, maybe my all time favorite, is when the craven Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) thinks he has the goods on Don Draper (Jon Hamm). He’s got proof that the genius who landed the Lucky Strike account for Sterling Cooper is a fraud, a man with a sleazy past and a stolen identity, so the two of them, the self-righteous loser and the handsome mystery man, march into the shoeless boss’s office where Pete smugly delivers the awful truth to little Bert Cooper. In a moment Robert Morse was born to play, Bert stares at Pete with the mother of all withering looks and says, “Whoooo cares?” Twice. And he doesn’t just say it, he leans forward and croons it, packing his total disregard of conventional small-minded morality into those two words.

My wife and I will go back to Mad Men next Sunday for the first time since we gave up after losing patience and moving on to the more compellingly plotted pleasures of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

You may wonder why a column planned for the first day of April begins with a recollection of that moment of sublime dismissal. Simply put, when I handed the first draft of this piece to my wife, with its opening paragraph celebrating National Poetry Month, she gave me the Bert Cooper look. Whooooo cares? “Most people,” says she, “think of April as Tax Month.”

Stevens Unbuttoned

Granted the pomposity of a national month, but it does offer a chance to at least acknowledge the Valentine’s Day death of the former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, and the news last week of the passing of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer, plus my belated discovery of Wallace Stevens’s “Adagia,” which I found by doing a search pairing poetry and austerity, the Orwellian buzz word that you will know even if all you ever read is Paul Krugman. A few clicks of the mouse and up pops “Money is a kind of poetry.” Intrigued by that message out of cyberspace from the austere author of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” I looked further and found a  proverbs-gone-wild one-man jam session he calls “Adagia.” This is Stevens as I’ve never seen him, unbuttoned, unplugged, unbowed, and unapologetic: we’re in his workshop, the rag and bone shop of his heart, his suit coat is off, his sleeves are rolled up, his tie is loose and flying in the wind though he’s sitting still, unburdening himself in the spirit of Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This is the same Wallace Stevens who came to Princeton in the summer of 1941 to deliver a lecture titled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” for a collection of essays edited by Allen Tate and eventually published by Princeton University Press as The Language of Poetry. In a letter written after the event, Stevens says the lecture was “worth doing (for me), although the visit to Princeton gave me a glimpse of a life which I am profoundly glad that I don’t share. The people I met were the nicest people in the world, but how they keep alive is more than I can imagine.”

“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” would work as well as “Adagia” for the elemental questions Stevens is asking, such as what’s poetry? What’s a poem or a poet? A sample of the answers: “Poetry is a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death,” a poem is “a meteor,” “a pheasant,” “a cafe,” “the disengaging of (a) reality,” “a health,” “the body,” “a cure of the mind,” “a renovation of experience,” “a pheasant disappearing into the brush,” “a search for the inexplicable,” “a revelation of the elements of appearance,” “the scholar’s art,” “a nature created by the poet.” My favorite at the moment is “The poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.” This is someone who when people would tell him they found his poetry hard to understand would say, “I understand it; that’s all that’s necessary.” Yet here he’s somewhere on the far side of austerity: “In poetry you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.”

There’s a hint of this Stevens in a letter to Allen Tate written the October following the Princeton visit. After a politeness (“I should not trouble you again”), he goes on, noting that “when a man is interested, as you are, in honesty at the center and also at the periphery (as both of us are, I should say) you might like to know of a remark that Gounod made concerning Charpentier. He said … ‘At last a true musician! He composes in C-natural and no one else but the Almighty could do that.’”

book heavenTomas Tranströmer

The reference to “a true musician” fits Tomas Tranströmer, who died March 26. Like all too many people who should know better, I had never read a word of him until I did some catching up online and found a copy of The Half-Finished Heaven (Graywolf $15), a selection made and translated by Robert Bly, which includes what may be the best poem about Schubert ever written, and by a poet pianist who loves the “stout young gentleman from Vienna known to his friends as ‘The Mushroom,’ who slept with his glasses on/and stood at his writing desk punctually of a morning./And then the wonderful centipedes of his manuscript were set in motion.”

In “Schubertiana” Tranströmer brings Schubert into Manhattan (“giant city … a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy”), where he knows “that right now Schubert is being played/in some room over there and that for someone the notes are/more real than anything else.” Listening to the great string quintet, the poet suddenly feels “that the plants have thoughts.” The fifth and final stanza concerns the Fantasia in f minor for two pianists: “We squeeze together at the piano and play with four hands …, two coachmen on the same coach; it looks a little ridiculous./The hands seem to be moving resonant weights to and fro, as if we were/tampering with the counterweights/in an effort to disturb the great scale arm’s terrible balance: joy and/suffering weighing exactly the same.” A reference to the “heroic” music launches a sequence that has a certain ring on April 1, 2015: “But those whose eyes enviously follow men of action, who secretly/despise themselves for not being murderers,/don’t recognize themselves here,/and the many who buy and sell people and believe that everyone can be/bought, don’t recognize themselves here.”

PRINCETON OBSERVED: Local artist Jay McPhillips’s paintings of familiar spots around town feature in an exhibition opening at Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, April 7. The show, which continues through May 9, is titled “Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton & Beyond,” and features original oil paintings. The artwork is for sale along with some of Mr. McPhillips’s Prince-Ton tote bags and mugs. For more on the artist, visit Prince-ton.com and JayMcPhillips.com.(Image Courtesy of the Artist)

PRINCETON OBSERVED: Local artist Jay McPhillips’s paintings of familiar spots around town feature in an exhibition opening at Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, April 7. The show, which continues through May 9, is titled “Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton & Beyond,” and features original oil paintings. The artwork is for sale along with some of Mr. McPhillips’s Prince-Ton tote bags and mugs. For more on the artist, visit Prince-ton.com and JayMcPhillips.com. (Image Courtesy of the Artist)

Paintings of familiar scenes around town by local artist Jay McPhillips will feature in a display of his paintings opening at Small World Coffee, 254 Nassau Street, on April 7. The exhibition will continue through May 9.

“Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton and Beyond,” will feature original oil paintings, including Princeton locations and some New Jersey shore scenes. Some unframed oils on panel will be available for under $350.

Mr. McPhillips will also offer a complimentary digital file of the paintings to any local businesses for a limited usage should they purchase a painting. Also, the show will feature some of Mr. McPhillips “gift shop items” including Prince-Ton tote bags, mugs.

The award-winning artist has been celebrated for over a decade in the Princeton, New York City, and Bucks County areas.

Highlights of his art and design career include work for Comedy Central TV, The Guggenheim Museum, Chiat Day TBWA Ad Agency, and Princeton’s Tony Award Winning McCarter Theatre.

This year Mr. McPhillips work was featured on George Takei’s Facebook page (over 150,000 likes), Reddit.com, Buzzfeed.com, and Mo Rocca’s TV show My Grandmother’s Ravioli.

He is currently working on a book of his Princeton paintings to be Princeton Studies, Paintings of Princeton. His paintings can be viewed at Prince-ton.com and JayMcPhillips.com.

For more information (including pre-show orders), visit: Prince-TON.com.

———

Get Hard Movie

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: James King (Will Ferrell) is at the top of his game and seems to be going even higher. Having just been made partner in his hedge fund company and about to marry his boss’s daughter, the future looks bright. However, he is brought down by a securities fraud conviction and is about to spend ten years in prison. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

 

Thanks to a successful career as a hedge fund manager, James King (Will Ferrell) is living in the lap of luxury in a sprawling Bel Air mansion. Furthermore, his good fortune seems about to skyrocket because he has been promoted to partner and is going to marry the boss’s (Craig T. Nelson) daughter, Alissa (Alison Brie).

In contrast, working man Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) lives on the other side of the tracks in South Central Los Angeles where he worries daily about the welfare of his wife (Edwina Findley) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). He’s eager to move his famiy out of the area but needs $30,000 to secure the mortgage on their dream house.

As a regular patron of a valet car washing service, James regularly interacts with Darnell. Nevertheless, he thinks that Darnell is a mugger one day when the black man approaches him in the office parking lot.

To add insult to injury, instead of apologizing for his mistake, James insensitively claims ”I would’ve reacted the same, if you were white.” Then, he rubs salt in Darnell’s wounds by suggesting that, “I got to where I am by hard work,” and smugly adds, “Success is a mindset.”

However, their roles are reversed when James is convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. A month before he has to report to prison, he asks Darnell to prepare him for life behind bars, based on the unfounded assumption that Darnell is an ex-convict.

Darnell agrees and charges James the $30,000 he needs as a down payment for his ticket out of the ghetto. However, the joke is on James, since the supposed “incarceration expert” he’s just hired has never even seen the inside of a jail.

Get Hard is a comedy co-starring Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell. The movie marks the directorial debut of Etan Cohen, whose successful mix of slapstick comedy and subtle social satire yields a cinematic experience that is silly but also thought-provoking.

So, one moment, we see goofy nudity from Ferrell who prances around in his birthday suit. Then we hear the musings of a spoiled rich kid boasting about how he built his company with his own two hands, before admitting that he had actually relied upon an 8 million dollar loan from his father as seed money.

If you are ready for politically incorrect fare that is racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, you probably will enjoy the inspired pairing of Ferrell and Hart who are at the top of their games.

Very Good (***). Rated R for nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, profanity, sexuality, and crude humor.

Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 25, 2015

book revI have a large tumor and if they don’t make haste and get rid of it, they will have to remove me and leave it.

—Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

The characteristic quip about the tumor is from a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote months before her death on August 3, 1964. I was hoping to find a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. I’d have gladly settled for the Ace paperback with a blonde in a black negligee on a cover promising “A brutal passionate novel of sin and redemption in a southern town.” One online bookseller is asking $5,000 for a copy of the rare first edition, which comes with “a custom clamshell slipcase” to “protect” it. If she were around today, the author would no doubt be amused, and appalled, to know that a novel that blindsided reviewers and scandalized her hometown washed up on the shores of bookland 2015 housed in a clamshell slipcase.

Intimations of Flannery O’Connor’s unsparing sense of humor can be seen in the photo of the 27-year-old author seated, demure and smiling, at a May 1952 autograph party for Wise Blood held in the library of her alma mater, the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville. The story behind the smile (“Cocktails were not served but I lived through it anyway”) is related in Brad Gooch’s excellent biography Flannery (Little Brown 2009), where the “quandary that had befallen so many of the dressed up visitors” is described by an eyewitness: “What to do? Everybody liked the child. Everybody was glad that she’d got something published, but one did wish that it had been something ladylike. What to say to her? What to do with your book once you bought it and she had signed it?” The observer also mentions noticing from time to time that day “the quick light of laughter in Flannery’s eyes.”

There she sits, only recently recovered from the first searing onslaught of lupus, the disease that would kill her at 39. In the little over a decade that she has left, the child who “got something published” will produce a body of work that places her among the greatest American writers. Her level, unbending gaze hints at where she’s headed. Her first novel is in her lap, and however proud she may be to have it close, she seems to be holding it down, both hands clenched in fists, as if the book’s crazy energies are about to explode and wholly destroy the already compromised decorum of the occasion. After all, this is a novel that puzzled, disturbed, shocked, and unhinged its readers, including critics who even while admiring it made misguided comparisons (“I’m no Georgia Kafka,” she insisted); some reviewers found it “terrifying,” and in one instance, “insane.” Years later when a Chicago newspaper claimed that O’Connor had created a Lolita years before Nabokov, she saw no reason to reject the association, having once told a friend, “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps …. I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.” She says as much in her brief preface to a later edition of Wise Blood, “a comic novel” that was written “with zest” and “should be read that way.”

No amount of “zest” in the reading could have eased the consternation Wise Blood created in Milledgeville. According to Gooch’s biography, reactions from family, schoolmates, and locals were picturesque in the extreme. Her writing instructor at the College for Women “threw the novel across the room” and later claimed “that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead.” Some folks apparently passed Wise Blood among themselves “in brown paper bags,” and one lady claimed to have “burned a copy in her backyard.” A high-minded cousin in Savannah “went to bed for a week” after her encounter with the book and wrote notes of apology to all the priests who had received a copy. Asked by the publisher for a quote, Evelyn Waugh replied, “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product,” adding, off the record, “Why are so many characters in recent American fiction sub-human?” Flannery’s mother resented “this Evalin Wow” for daring to suggest that her daughter might not be a lady.

In Iowa

In a long letter about what she has read “and been influenced by,” O’Connor admits that she didn’t really start reading and writing fiction until she entered the State University of Iowa writing program in 1945. At her first meeting with her teacher, Paul Engle, her Georgia accent was so thick that he was unable to understand a word she said. He soon found that “on the page her prose was imaginative, tough, alive: just like Flannery herself.” Engle pictures her in his class sitting “at the back of the room, silent … more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing-class with their loudness. The only communicating gesture she would make was an occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd. The dreary chair she sat in glowed.”

Religion Without Religion

“The short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me” is how Bruce Springsteen responded when asked in a recent New York Times interview to name one book that made him who he is today. After mentioning “the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters,” Springsteen echoed O’Connor’s visionary language to say that her work made him “feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

The stories “landed hard” on me at the American Library in New Delhi. Lightheaded after reading my way through Everything That Rises Must Converge and the title story in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I knew something like the “swirling” and the “reeling” and “the earth barely beneath us” as I walked into the blindingly bright Indian afternoon. O’Connor’s fiction and India had become one and the same; the spiritual intensity of her writing, like the life-and-death force of spirituality surrounding me in India, was so overwhelming and so vivid that it didn’t matter if I understood Catholicism or Original Sin any more than if I understood Hinduism or Buddhism. There’s a reference to this sense of secular religiosity in one of O’Connor’s letters, where she finds the Notebooks of Simone Weil an “example of the religious consciousness without a religion,” something “maybe sooner or later” she “will be able to write about.”

Rumbling Toward Heaven

The vision that followed me out of the American Library the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor occurs at the end of “Revelation,” a long story most of which takes place in a doctor’s waiting room where a smug, hugely fat woman named Mrs. Turpin, thankful to be who she is, with “a little of everything and a good disposition,” is physically and verbally attacked by a disturbed girl who called her “an old warthog” and told her to go to hell. At the end, standing in the “pig parlor” on her hog farm, the woman lifted her head to see “a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” She saw “whole companies of white trash” and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” and at the end of the procession “a tribe of people” like herself and her husband “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

As the story ends, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Referring to “the vision” in a letter written on May 15, 1964, three months before her death, O’Connor says she likes Mrs. Turpin: “You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hog pen.” The letter ends like the story. Having just had another blood transfusion (“I have declared a moratorium on making blood”), she recalls coming home from the hospital earlier that month “hearing the celestial chorus” singing “My Darling Clementine.”

In the Air

I didn’t get around to Wise Blood until years after my introduction to Flannery O’Connor. I read it straight through on a plane from Los Angeles to Newark, smiling most of the way, and now and then laughing out loud, for I was reading, true to the advice in her preface, “with zest.”  As she says in the preface, Wise Blood is a comic novel, “and, as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

The Springsteen quote is from “By the Book,” NY Times, Nov. 2, 2014. All quotes by Flannery O’Connor are from the indispensable Library of America volume of her collected novels, stories, essays, and letters.

MARKING LOCAL HISTORY: George Frisbie captured the Southbound Trolley at North Main and Delaware in this vintage print from the collection of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society’s George H. Frisbie Collection that will be on display in the exhibition, “Pennington Comes of Age” at the Pennington School’s Silva Gallery of Art from March 27 through April 25. There will be a special reception Wednesday, April 1, from 5 to 8 p.m. The exhibition is part of the 125th anniversary of the incorporation of Pennington Borough and features vintage images from 1890 to 1915. Silva Gallery hours are: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; or by appointment. For more information, call Gallery Director Dolores Eaton at (609) 737-4133.(Image Courtesy of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society)

MARKING LOCAL HISTORY: George Frisbie captured the Southbound Trolley at North Main and Delaware in this vintage print from the collection of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society’s George H. Frisbie Collection that will be on display in the exhibition, “Pennington Comes of Age” at the Pennington School’s Silva Gallery of Art from March 27 through April 25. There will be a special reception Wednesday, April 1, from 5 to 8 p.m. The exhibition is part of the 125th anniversary of the incorporation of Pennington Borough and features vintage images from 1890 to 1915. Silva Gallery hours are: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; or by appointment. For more information, call Gallery Director Dolores Eaton at (609) 737-4133. (Image Courtesy of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society)

An exhibition of historic photographs from the Hopewell Valley Historical Society’s George H. Frisbie Collection goes on show at The Pennington School’s Silva Gallery of Art Friday, March 27. “Pennington Comes of Age,” will run through April 25 and there will be a special reception on Wednesday, April 1, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Curated by Jack Koeppel, the Historical Society’s archivist, the exhibition is part of the 125th anniversary of the incorporation of Pennington Borough and features vintage images from the first twenty-five years of the Borough’s incorporation, 1890–1915.

During these years George Frisbie, who had grown up in a family-run business on South Main Street, captured the world around him through the view-finder of his big wooden camera. His images not only document people and places, but record many of the changes that took place over this span of time. Descendants of Mr. Frisbie still reside in Pennington Borough, and in 1986 Alice Frisbie and her daughter, Mary Thornton, donated eight hundred negatives to the Historical Society.

The images selected for the exhibition will be accompanied by narratives written by Society historians Larry Kidder, Jack Davis, and David Blackwell. Areas in the display will discuss changes in architecture, transportation, and technology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Images of the railroad, street railways, and horseless carriages will be accompanied by quotations and information gleaned from early newspapers and artifacts in the Society’s Archive of Hopewell Valley History.

Many of the photographs are being exhibited for the first time, including some showing important local Pennington residents such as Joseph Thompson, the flag crossing guard, and Charles Hendrickson, the town’s lamp-lighter.

Pennington Borough Council Member Catherine “Kit” Chandler and former Councilman Edwin Weed Tucker co-chair the Pennington 125th Anniversary Committee, which welcomes volunteers, sponsors, and patrons. For more information contact Borough Administrator Eileen Heinzel at (609) 737-0276 or eheinzel@penningtonboro.org.

The committee is working with other community organizations to plan events throughout the year.

For the latest information, visit: www.pennington125.org or visit Pennington 125 on Facebook.

Founded in 1838, The Pennington School is an independent coeducational school for students in grades 6 through 12, in both day and boarding programs.

“Pennington Comes of Age” will be on view at The Pennington School’s Silva Gallery of Art Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; or by appointment. All events and exhibitions at the Silva Gallery are free and open to the public. For more information, call Gallery Director Dolores Eaton at (609) 737-4133.

THE NON-CONFORMIST DIVERGENTS ARE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES: Tris (Shailene Woodley, left), her boyfriend Four (Theo James, center), and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are being hunted down by Jeanine (Kate Winslet, not shown) who is seizing control of the city, but has not succeeded in controlling the handful of Divergents who pose a threat to her dictatorship.(Photo by Andrew Cooper, © 2014, Lionsgate)

THE NON-CONFORMIST DIVERGENTS ARE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES: Tris (Shailene Woodley, left), her boyfriend Four (Theo James, center), and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are being hunted down by Jeanine (Kate Winslet, not shown) who is seizing control of the city, but has not succeeded in controlling the handful of Divergents who pose a threat to her dictatorship. (Photo by Andrew Cooper, © 2014, Lionsgate)

Insurgent is the second in the series of screen adaptations that are based on Veronica Roth’s blockbuster Divergent trilogy. This movie is a rarity for a cinematic sequel because it’s actually better than the first episode.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the series’ basic premise, the post-apocalyptic science fiction story is set amidst the crumbling ruins of a walled-in Chicago where what’s left of humanity has been divided into five factions based on their personality types: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent).

Our heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley) was deemed a threat to society after testing positive for several of the aforementioned qualities, since that makes her a Divergent, one of the handful of nonconformists whose minds the government cannot control. Consequently at the end of the original movie, the headstrong rebel ends up orphaned and roaming the streets with her fellow non-conforming outcasts.

Insurgent picks up where Divergent left off, but with more intensity and more visually captivating special effects. At the point of departure, we find Tris on the run with her boyfriend Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter Hayes (Miles Teller). The fugitives are being sought by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the maniacal Erudite leader who has seized control of the city by commandeering the Dauntless warrior class.

The despot has declared martial law until all threats to her power have been neutralized. Meanwhile, Tris and her compatriots continue to elude apprehension while simultaneously searching for a sacred talisman that was hidden by Tris’s late mother (Ashley Judd).

The ancient artifact is rumored to contain an important message from Chicago’s founding fathers. However, the box can only be accessed by a Divergent who succeeds in surviving an ordeal that tests for all five of the commonwealth’s designated virtues. Although it’s obvious that Tris is bright, fearless, and altruistic; she could perish while trying to prove herself a pacifist and truthful.

Fans of the source material will undoubtedly be surprised by this complicated challenge that wasn’t in the book. Nevertheless, the seamlessly interwoven plot device works in terms of ratcheting up the tension.

The film features a supporting cast that includes Oscar winners Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, and nominee Naomi Watts; along with effective performances from Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, and Miles Teller. However, Insurgent is a Shailene Woodley movie from beginning to end.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, pervasive violence, intense action, mature themes, and brief profanity. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Lions Gate Films.

March 18, 2015

book revAll in all the most useful volume I ever found at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, which begins with a $25 preview Friday, March 20, at 10 a.m., is “a compendiun of literary lore” called A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984), edited by Neal T. Jones. According to the title page, it includes “Notable Quotations, Scores of Birthdays, Myriad Marriages, Some Romances (& Quite a Few Deaths) — All Relating to the Literary Life — Profusely Illustrated with Photographs, Paintings, & Drawings.” It’s a source I keep within reach as I look ahead to each coming Wednesday. Even when I have a clear-cut subject in mind, I like to see what gems the little book has to offer for the date in question, and this week it’s March 18. For instance, this day in 1728 John Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift that because of his play The Beggar’s Opera he is “lookt upon at present as the most obnoxious person in England.” That remark seems appealingly in character for the author of Trivia or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poetical survival guide concerning pickpockets, wig thieves, overflowing gutters, falling masonry and emptied chamber pots, with advisory couplets like “Let firm, well hammer’d Soles protect thy Feet/Thro’ freezing Snows, and Rains, and soaking Sleet.”

On the same page, here’s The Reverend Laurence Sterne, who died at 54 on March 18, 1768, a reminder that I’m way overdue for a rereading of Tristram Shandy, which got me through the winter of my first year on my own in New York. I still have the deceptively damaged copy of Sterne’s masterpiece that turned up at Bryn Mawr a decade or so before the millennium. There it was, or I should say, there they were, two battered volumes from 1832, torn asunder, like siblings forced apart by the welfare fates, one at either end of a table that had been plundered by dealers and collectors who wanted nothing to do with such shabby specimens. If the crazed table-sweepers had had time for a closer look, they’d have seen that each volume was immaculate within, good as gold, complete with Cruikshank illustrations that are curiously out of tune with the text of a work that was centuries ahead of its time. Of the three copies of Tristram Shandy I own, the most precious, however, is the relatively recent one that kept me company on West 87th in Manhattan, a well-underlined and asterisked volume edited by James A. Work, chairman of the English Department at Indiana University when I was a student there.

But the The Book of Days has more to say about the Rev. Sterne, who, on the Sunday following his 1741 marriage to Elizabeth Lumley, “shocked his parishoners by discoursing upon the fifth chapter of Luke: ‘we have toiled all night and taken nothing.’”

Princeton’s Coleridge

It had to happen that the writer of this column, who has from his late teens claimed Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a literary fairy godfather, would end up living in the same town as Princeton University Press, publisher of the Bollingen Edition of the Works, a treasure of mind, spirit, and heart, most of it available for purchase in Collectors Corner at Bryn Mawr. This last vein of gold mined from the library of the late Peter Oppenheimer, who shared my interest in S.T.C., offers access to the critical, theological, and philosophical writings and intimate notebook musings and marginalia of one of the most fascinating performers to strut and fret his hour on the literary stage. The first time I opened Volume 1 of the Notebooks at random I came to this unintended haiku about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down and hurt himself. I caught him up angry and screaming, and ran out of doors with him. The moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; and his eyes and the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!”

What I felt as a father when chancing upon this passage was a more intimate version of the excitement I knew at a highly impressionable age when chancing upon “Kubla Khan.” What gave the fragment of verse its in-the-moment immediacy was the story behind it, the poet waking from a dream, writing down the lines, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. And is it mere “magical thinking” to suggest that something of this poetry of happenstance evokes the possibilities in force when a vast congregation of books from who-knows-where is assembled under the same roof?

Barbara Freedman

“My mother tied a ribbon in my hair the day she took me to the public library for my first card. I wore my best dress and I was nervous.”

In respect of the subject of bookish congregations, this column about the area’s largest and longest-running book event is dedicated to the memory of longtime Princeton resident Barbara Freedman (1928-2015), who was for three decades the driving force behind the relatively small but ever-flourishing Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.

The army of volunteers called upon to unload and arrange Bryn Mawr-Wellesley’s estimated 85,000 volumes came to mind when I was reading Barbara’s essay on volunteerism, wherein she rejects her mother’s advice (“If you’re going to do something, get paid for it!”) and finds that volunteers need not resemble the “earnest, hat-bedecked matrons” in Helen Hokinson’s New Yorker cartoons. As far as I know, BM-W’s volunteers are hatless, and include a fair number of men, as is true at the Friends of the Library sale.

It’s odd to think that after 25 years working together, always in the context of the library book sales, annual and ongoing, Barbara never spoke to me about her favorite authors. Clearly she was well read, having done some writing of her own, with op-ed and travel pieces in the New York Times, in addition to planning and working on several novels. When I asked her son Jonathan about his mother’s taste in reading, he mentioned a fondness for mysteries, especially those by Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar, whom Jonathan and his parents got to meet during a family bird-watching vacation in California (the author and his mystery writer wife Margaret Millar being active in birding and conservation circles). Thinking to use Macdonald to link Barbara with Bryn Mawr, however obliquely, I searched the mystery table, one of the few that had been set up when I visited Princeton Day School Saturday. Surprised to find nothing by the prolific creator of the Lew Archer series, I asked one of the BM-W organizers about it and was assured that the boxes and boxes of mysteries still to come contained a stash of Macdonalds.

Meanwhile I decided to look a little deeper into the man’s life and guess who I found there? It seems that in 1951 Kenneth Millar earned a PhD at the University of Michigan. The mystery writer’s dissertation was titled The Inward Eye: A Revaluation of Coleridge’s Psychological Criticism.

Quaint and Curious

The subject of last year’s Bryn Mawr column was the outrageous market value of certain volumes by Edgar Allan Poe and here he is again, in The Literary Year, which gives March 18 1842 as the birth date of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, author of L’Apres-Midi d’une Faun, and yes, translator of the poetry of the ever-present Poe.

I like to think that when Poe was writing “The Raven” he was within arm’s reach of a library or at least a few shelves brimming with “quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.” Keeping that term in mind, I’ve scanned a list just sent to me by BM-W’s Fran Reichl, and here are some Q and C items spotted at random that will be for sale in Collectors Corner this year, beginning with a bound run of Graham’s Magazine, where some of Poe’s most famous work first appeared; Salvador Dali’s Les diners de Gala; Andy Warhol’s Wild Raspberries cookbook; Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues; Tiffany Million’s Guide to Meeting Exotic Dancers; the Villas of Pliney from Antiquity to Posterity by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey; The Best Sex I Ever Had by Steven Finz; The Trials of Eve by Pnina Granirer; Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment by Philip Nord; Mrs. Tuthil’s I Will Be a Gentleman: A Book for Boys, and (we have to stop somewhere), The Springtide of Life by Algeron Swinburne, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

A Little East of Kansas

One last entry for March 18 in The Literary Year concerns the birth of novelist John Updike on that day in 1932, in Shillington, Pa. I don’t know what Barbara Freedman thought of Updike’s work, but she’d surely approve of the way he imagines his intended audience, as quoted in A Book of Days: “When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.”

Barbara Freedman’s library memory is from her NY Times article “Are Libraries Doomed to Dry Up and Blow Away?” A plaque in the Friends bookstore at the Princeton Public Library remembers Barbara as founder of the Friends Book Sale: “a True Champion and Friend of the Library.”

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The image shown is the frontispiece for The Book of Days, from a poster created by N.C. Wyeth for the Children’s Book Council in 1927.

IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES: The wit and whimsy of children’s book illustrator Matthew Cordell will be on display in an exhibition at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery later this month. The artist’s “Hello! Hello!,” from Disney Hyperion Books, 2012, shown here, is part of “Drawing and Drawing Again,” which opens March 30 and runs through April 23. There will be an artists’ reception on Monday, April 20 from noon to 12:30 p.m. For more on the artist: visit: www.matthewcordell.com. Part of the school’s “Imagine the Possibilities” guest artist series, the exhibition is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700, ext. 1772, or visit:www.pds.org.

IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES: The wit and whimsy of children’s book illustrator Matthew Cordell will be on display in an exhibition at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery later this month. The artist’s “Hello! Hello!,” from Disney Hyperion Books, 2012, shown here, is part of “Drawing and Drawing Again,” which opens March 30 and runs through April 23. There will be an artists’ reception on Monday, April 20 from noon to 12:30 p.m. For more on the artist: visit: www.matthewcordell.com. Part of the school’s “Imagine the Possibilities” guest artist series, the exhibition is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700, ext. 1772, or visit:www.pds.org.

The Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School is pleased to present “Drawing and Drawing Again” featuring the artwork of book illustrator Matthew Cordell from March 30 through April 23. There will be an artists’ reception on Monday, April 20 from noon to 12:30 p.m., which is free and open to the public.

Mr. Cordell has been drawing and making art for as long as he can remember. He has illustrated many books for children, including works of poetry, novels, and picture books. He has written and illustrated Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Wish, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book. Mr. Cordell lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author, Julie Halpern, and their two children. (For more information, visit: www.matthewcordell.com)

The exhibition is part of the “Imagine the Possibilities” guest artist series at Princeton Day School, which is made possible through the generosity of the John D. Wallace, Jr. ’78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund.

The series has brought in celebrated authors, poets, and illustrators to work directly with Princeton Day School students for the past 20 years. Imagine the Possibilities coordinator Bev Gallagher remarked, “What a delight it has been working with this program for the past 20 years. It truly is inspiring to welcome amazing artists to our campus and watch teachers, students, and parents enjoy the experience. We are certainly thrilled that Matt will be with us this year — our 20th anniversary year!”

“Drawing and drawing again” is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the school is in session, and by appointment on weekends. For more information about the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery, please call Jody Erdman, Art Gallery Director, at 609) 924-6700 x 1772 or visit www.pds.org.

 

MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29.(Photo by Margot Shulman)

MYSTERY ON THE MOORS: Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) and Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) investigate reports of a deadly gigantic hound on the Devonshire Moors, in McCarter Theatre’s world premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through March 29. (Photo by Margot Shulman)

You might think you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, but Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery will take you into surprising, hilarious realms of sheer theatricality, wild inventiveness, and over-the-top farce.

Running at McCarter‘s Matthews Theatre through March 29, Mr. Ludwig’s world premiere adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a bloodcurdling 1901 story of a family curse, a gigantic hound attacking its victims on the foggy Devonshire Moors, and the indomitable Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Doctor Watson navigating a slew of suspicious characters and situations to pursue the case, is as much about the magic of theater as it is about murder and mystery.

Baskerville is larger than life in its spirited embrace of the melodrama of the original story and also in its sheer delight in the rich array of theatrical contrivances necessary to create this world on a bare stage: the exuberant, versatile acting with just five actors playing more than 40 parts; wildly imaginative props and set; the astonishing abundance, cleverness and speed of costuming; and the sensational lighting, music, and sound effects.

Sherlockians and other murder mystery fans will enjoy the intrigues, the shrewd plotting and brilliant detective work, the colorful late 19th century world of London, the moors and the baronial manor of the Baskervilles, not to mention this “hero we can really believe in,” as Ludwig describes his protagonist, and the inevitable comparisons to Basil Rathbone (1939 movie), Jeremy Brett (1988 TV movie), and Benedict Cumberbatch (2012 BBC production).

But the greatest gifts to the audience here are the wild comedy, as Mr. Ludwig plays with plot, character and theatrical conventions, and the outstanding production values driven by the five brilliant actors and the dazzling technical feats involved in staging this action-packed melodrama.

The story is, of course, full of suspense and thrilling drama, but Baskerville delights in breaking through the fourth wall to show its audience its clever theatricality, as props and set pieces fly in through trap doors or from the wings or the rafters, venues change with the rising of a sunken platform, characters appear and disappear, then appear and disappear again, with the speed of a change of costume or maybe just hat and wig and accent. Over the top? Larger than life? Contrived? Artificial? That’s melodrama. That’s farce. Maybe that’s what theater — or at least this particular brand of theater — is all about. The performers and crews are obviously relishing the theatrical adventure, and it’s impossible not to enjoy it with them.

Director Amanda Dehnert keeps the complicated plot moving at a torrid pace and skillfully balances suspenseful drama with broad, deftly timed comedy. Mr. Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo) knows his craft, and McCarter’s first-rate actors and production team ensure that this material engages the audience and never becomes tedious.

Produced in association with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, where it opened in January, Baskerville is a classic whodunit. Of course, as Doctor Watson, both narrator and major player, draws the audience into the intrigue, the question is not only “who?” but also “why?” and “how?” and “when will he or she do it again?”

 Early in the first of two acts, a visit to Sherlock Holmes’ 221B Baker Street London residence by an eccentric Dr. Mortimer (Stanley Bahorek) draws the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes (Gregory Wooddell) and his no-nonsense assistant Doctor Watson (Lucas Hall) into the mystery of the Baskerville curse.

Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall create a dynamic duo indeed, contrasting and complementary in their teamwork as they collaborate to solve the case. Mr. Wooddell’s Holmes is a dashing, histrionic figure, fearless and charismatic, while Mr. Hall’s Watson, more conservative, cautious, and approachable, provides the audience with a character foil to Holmes and an entrée into this wild Sherlockian world. As Mr. Ludwig states in his program notes, “[Sherlock Holmes] is quixotic, dangerous, and inspiring. Watson meanwhile is steady, stalwart, and wonderfully earthbound. Together they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ariel and Caliban, fire and earth.” Mr. Wooddell and Mr. Hall are powerful and convincing in portraying these figures and their legendary, crime-solving teamwork.

Threatening to upstage this duo, however, are the three supporting players and the more than 40 characters that they play. Mr. Bahorek’s transformations, for example, are a delight to behold, from the business-like Mortimer to the ominous, misshapen Barrymore, gothic caretaker of the Baskerville estate, to the Castilian hotel clerk, then the shadowy figure of the Devonshire naturalist, butterfly-catcher Stapleton and others.

Michael Glenn as the Texan (one of Mr. Ludwig’s liberties with the original text) nephew and heir to the deceased Sir Charles Baskerville, injects a generous dose of humor — lots of Texas jokes for starters — and incongruity into the proceedings, as he and Watson probe the mysteries of the moors. Though Mr. Glenn, also playing the prickly, provocative rival Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, as well as a scullery maid and others, is no less busy than Mr. Bahorek, it is the amazing Jane Pfitsch who wins the chameleon prize for most characters, costumes, and wigs, not to mention the prize for most chaotic, fast-paced backstage costume changes. Her bewildering array of roles includes an eager London lad assisting Holmes and Watson, the frighteningly austere housekeeper Mrs. Barrymore, the lovely ingénue Miss Stapleton, mystery woman Laura Lyons, and, by her own count (I lost count early on!) as reported in an interview, 11 or 12 additional characters requiring seven wigs and three additional special hats with hair attached!

All of these transformations are great fun to watch, thanks to the extraordinarily proficient actors, who are able to present rapid-fire characterizations through voice, gesture, body language, and emotion and the brilliant, creative costume designs by Jess Goldstein, with the expert assistance of wig designer Leah J. Loukas and dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia.

Daniel Ostling’s set design, lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, and sound design by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli provide ample opportunities for theater magic in action. The mostly bare stage with lighting instruments clearly visible on scaffolding and lighting poles, footlights, and a cyclorama on the back wall, along with bone-chilling sound and music effects, in keeping with the larger-than-life murder mystery tone here, help to create the numerous rapidly changing locales.

“My hope,” Mr. Ludwig writes in his program notes, “is that Baskerville is about the theater as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. I want it to be seen not only as a tale of fellowship and courage, but also as an adventure in theater making itself.” This Arena Stage-McCarter production, with its infinitely creative design and production team and these high-energy, high-versatility, highly imaginative performers more than fulfill Mr. Ludwig’s hope. It’s an entertaining evening for Sherlockians, theater-lovers and audiences of all ages.

McCarter Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” will run through March 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Visit www. Mccarter.org or call (609) 258-2787 for tickets and information.

Princeton Symphony Orchestra called their late winter concert this past weekend “Soulful Reflections,” presenting lush meditative music with a bit of virtuosity attached. Conductor Rossen Milanov began Sunday afternoon’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a quirky yet rich orchestral work by a 21st-century American composer, followed by three works displaying the musical opulence of mid to late 19th-century Europe. Mr. Milanov and the Princeton Symphony chose to share the stage with a star American cello soloist Zuill Bailey.

Composer Sebastian Currier described his Microsymph as a “large-scale symphony squeezed into only ten minutes.” Within those ten minutes, Currier’s music crosses a number of different instrumental palettes, and conveys a wide range of musical effects from almost all the instruments possible in an orchestra. At times sounding like a lively accompaniment to an animated feature, Microsymph was comprised of five movements of different character. Most notable in the Princeton Symphony’s performance were a pair of melodic clarinets played by Anton Rist and Sherry Hartman-Apgar, three flutists doubling on piccolo, and a clean horn solo played by Douglas Lundeen.

Cellist Zuill Bailey has appeared with major orchestras throughout the United States, and his performance of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor mesmerized the Richardson audience from the opening dark yet warm solo melody. Mr. Bailey demonstrated a lovely tone from the start, playing on a 1693 Venetian instrument which could produce both the clarity of the 17th-century and the richness of 19th-century repertoire.

In the give-and-take of the first movement, Mr. Milanov allowed Mr. Bailey to create his own musical spaces while maintaining strong communication between conductor and soloist. This was a concerto performance in which the soloist was clearly in charge, and as the three movements of this work melded together, Mr. Bailey held the audience’s attention with tender melodic lines and very light fingers changing notes in the fast sections. Mr. Bailey was joined by principal cellist Alistair MacRae to create a very smooth duet, finding variety in repeated passages. Mr. Milanov wove the three movements of the concerto together seamlessly, transitioning well to the closing movement.

Mr. Bailey and the Princeton Symphony treated the audience to a second musical gem in Jules Massenet’s “Meditation” from his opera Thaïs. With a crystal clear harp accompaniment provided by Sarah Fuller, Mr. Bailey drew out the familiar melody. Mr. Milanov built dynamics well within the ensemble, while Mr. Bailey showed himself to be a player of strength.

Mr. Milanov may have selected Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor to fit into the afternoon theme of “Reflections,” but it could just have easily been to show off the Princeton Symphony’s new principal clarinetist, Anton Rist. Sibelius’s symphony opened with an extended clarinet soliloquy, which Mr. Rist played smoothly over a musically icy terrain of jagged violins. The music of Sibelius is nationalistic, capturing Finland’s terrain in spacious orchestration and instrumental moments resembling icicles and ice crystals, while richness of instrumentation links this late 19th-century work to the rest of Europe. Jaunty winds and pure flute thirds played by Jake Fridkis and Amy Wolfe marked the first movement, which ended like the aftermath of an avalanche.

The quartet of horns led by Douglas Lundeen were consistently well blended throughout the symphony, and Mr. Milanov well maintained a sustained pastoral character in a musical winter wonderland marked by wind solos and a very solid brass ensemble of trumpets, trombones, and tuba. Furious string pizzicato marked the third movement scherzo, as a seven-note motive was passed around the orchestra in perfect time. Sibelius scored more for solo bassoon in this work than one normally hears, and Brad Balliett and Seth Baer conveyed these parts well. In the closing finale, Mr. Milanov led the lush orchestration with long conducting strokes as the Princeton Symphony brought the work to an opulent close.

 

BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son.(Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son. (Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Hit man Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) and mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) have been friends for decades. So much so that the blood brothers from Brooklyn routinely recite their loyalty oath, “Wherever we’re going, we’re going together” as a reminder of their enduring alliance.

However, that unbreakable bond is shattered after Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is gunned down during a drug deal with a couple of Albanian heroine dealers that went bad. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), who is making an honest living as a chauffeur with a limousine company, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turns out that he had no idea what was up when he was hired to serve as the Albanians’ getaway driver.

Nevertheless, revenge minded Shawn decides that his best friend’s son has to pay with his life. So, he tells Jimmy that he’s sending his assassins after Mike to even the score.

Of course Jimmy warns his son — who then calls the cops — ignoring his father’s advice to avoid the local police since they’re likely in cahoots with the Maguire crime family. When that turns out to be true, father and son end up on the run from both the authorities and the assassins.

Run All Night, features Liam Neeson, who’s cast in a role that he’s become associated with after his phenomenal performance as an overprotective parent in Taken. This picture’s premise puts a slight twist on the familiar theme because Jimmy’s not an empathetic protagonist given his career as a feared enforcer known as “The Gravedigger.”

Still, Jimmy wants to be redeemed in the eyes of his estranged son who rejected the notion of following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Mike tried to be a boxer, and when that didn’t work out he took a legitimate job as a limousine driver.

Run All Night was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who previously worked with Liam Neeson on Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014). Three times is definitely the charm as this adventure is their best collaboration yet. The film also features an excellent supporting cast which includes Nick Nolte, 2015 Oscar-winner Common (for the Best Song “Glory”), and veteran character actors Vincent D’Onofrio and Bruce McGill.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, graphic violence, and drug use. In English and Albanian with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 11, 2015

Just for fun, I’m going to do a number on Downton Abbey. Devoted fans may see no reason for tampering with that fabulously popular tour de force of an ensemble period piece, but after five seasons, even some of the faithful must be getting restless.

For me the key to making things more interesting is to reinvigorate Lady Mary, played to chilly perfection up to this point by Michelle Dockery, who is clearly giving the show’s creator Julian Fellowes exactly what he wants. In spite of attempts to add nuances and dimensions to her character (the dead Turk in her bed, star-crossed romance with Matthew Crawley, widow and motherhood, taking responsibility for the estate, primal birth-control devices, exploratory sex with creepy suitors, etc), she remains essentially bound by what Fellowes says of her in an interview on the Huffington Post: “The thing about people like Mary is that they just want to be in charge. They want to be at the top table.” When the interviewer presses him (“She’s difficult, even in love. And a cold mother?”), all he can say is “She wants more control. I think that whole generation were fairly cold!” More revealing is his non-answer when asked if he loves his characters: “I think what we got right is that we don’t give either side any more weight than the other.” That’s in case you ever doubted that the ensemble takes precedence over the individuals.

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A Cult Favorite 

There’s a 32-year-old British actress (a year younger than Dockery) who could make Mary scarily exciting and sexy simply by stepping into her shoes. Her name is Ruth Wilson and she just received a Golden Globe for her role in Showtime’s The Affair; at the moment she’s finishing an Off-Broadway run with Jake Gyllenhaal in Nick Payne’s two-person play, Constellations. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC-TV production, and has won two Oliviers (for Stella in Streetcar Named Desire and as Anna in Anna Christie), but what made her, in the words of Mike Hale’s New York Times profile, “a cult favorite” was her role as “the murderous Alice Morgan” in the BBC series Luther. Hale offers a first-hand description of some of the physical force Wilson would bring to Mary, her “offhand intensity and overscale features — dramatically wide lips, piercing blue-gray eyes, architectural eyebrows.” But he doesn’t really do justice to her mouth, who could? There’s something seductively cunning and frankly feral in the beautiful deadly curl of her lower lip, as if she’s forever savoring some unimaginably sexy species of evil. She could do wonders for Mary given what she does for Alice, who enters Oxford at 13, earns a PhD in astrophysics at 18 for her study of dark matter distribution in disc galaxies, murders her parents, and then stalks the person investigating the crime, the troubled, ever-embattled black genius detective John Luther (Idris Elba of The Wire) on the way to becoming his ally, a demonic angel protector twice saving his life, and twice killing for him.

Far be it from me to suggest that Julian Fellowes release Lady Mary’s inner sociopath; still, Downton is only an Agatha Christie heartbeat away from a plot possibility that has Mary discreetly terminating her hated sister, Lady Edith. Now think how it would be if Mary were inhabited by an actress who, like Richard the Third, “smiles and murders as she smiles.” Mary’s darker possibilities are implicit in her fatal tryst with the Turk, but add a deadly measure of fierce Alice to her character, and Mary could be slowly destroying Edith simply through the toxic power of her presence. On the other hand, a Mary as fearless as Alice, who has access to supernatural forces, would have found a way to protect her maid and confidant Anna from Lord Gillingham’s rapist valet. Trust me, the loathed Green would not have got out of Downton alive if there’d been something of Alice in Mary. Of course that would have foiled the true perpetrator of the needlessly prolonged violation, Julian Fellowes, who inflicted it to continue the profitable exploitation of his favorite victims Bates and Anna.

Though she declares herself an enemy of love (as Mary appears to be during the epic mating dance with Matthew), Wilson’s Alice has a life-or-death crush on Luther. While Mary is chilly, Alice is beyond hot; well, she’s infernal and appealingly so. Lovely, sinister, and charming. It takes a very special talent to deliver a combination like that. Alice’s dangerous  flirtation with Luther may be rekindled when Luther goes into production again later this year after a two-year hiatus. As Wilson tells Mike Hale, she was already an admirer of Elba, and so not about to miss the chance of playing the deadly Alice, though she “wasn’t sure, necessarily,” until she realized she “could have a lot of fun with this character …. It was written like Hannibal Lecter, and I thought: ‘This is amazing. What woman gets to play Hannibal Lecter?’ ”

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The Turk in Mary’s Bed

One thing that sets violently compelling shows like Luther, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Orphan Black, and numerous others apart from Downton Abbey is that they have the courage of their outrageous convictions. That said, it was with an act of shameless outrage in the third episode of the first season, a single sensational violation of probability and Downton decorum, that Julian Fellowes fired his series like a comet over the pop culture landscape. No one but no one expected the Turkish diplomat to get into Lady Mary’s bed, let alone die in it. In the years since, I’ve been mistakenly visualizing Pamuk as a heavier, older type, when of course he was a ravishing, princely young blade, exactly the sort likely to have inspired and rebuffed a pass from Thomas, the gay valet, which in turn gives Pamuk the leverage to blackmail Thomas into showing him to Mary’s room. Most readings of the scene that follows see Mary as the victim. She’d flirted with Pamuk, to be sure, and then put him off when he kissed her earlier that evening. While it’s true that the Turk forces himself on Mary, she lets go at the moment of truth, submits, stifles a scream, and next thing we know a seemingly healthy, thriving young man is lying dead beside her. Whatever the cause, the impression is that Pamuk’s passion for the ice princess killed him. Put Ruth Wilson in that scene and the roles would be implicitly reversed: Mary no longer the ambiguously passive victim but the smiling instigator of his doom.

Making Nice

Another way to deal with the Mary issue — no need to go the dark route — would be to find an actress the viewer could easily admire, love, and pull for, someone so strong and centered and charming that you would still be on her side at the end of Season Five. From what I’ve seen of the Danish political series, Borgen, the most likely candidate (setting aside the language barrier) would be Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays prime minister Birgitte Nyborg with great charm and integrity. Almost from the moment she appears, Nyborg makes you care about her. A wife and mother, she’s strong, smart, pretty, vulnerable, human; she has great warmth, can be playful, sexy, funny, and altogether lovable without straining. If Hillary Clinton had half her charm, she’d sweep through the primaries and the general election in 2016.

 

“Butter Side Down”

After speculating on who among the characters in Downton Abbey might actually be writing the story, my choice is Lord Grantham’s perennially embattled valet Bates. He’s the only person on the premises who seems capable of it. I like to imagine him doing a Frankenstein and turning on Fellowes, his sadistic creator. He has good reason to feel abused. It’s hard to think of two more ill-fated beings than Bates and Anna, and all Fellowes can say when asked about the sufferings he imposes on them is “I think in life there are people who are unlucky — the bread always falls with the butter side down.”

That Fellowes resorts to that dinner table phrase in defense of his plotting says something about what keeps Downton Abbey from true greatness. Imagine Charlotte Brontë descending to the Fellowes rationale to justify the plight of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Still, the faithful were most likely happy with the Christmas finale of Season Five wherein the series celebrates itself; if you love it, you’re right there caroling along with the richly diverse ensemble, upstairs and downstairs. Even if you’ve been feeling estranged after the loss of characters like Lady Sibyl and Matthew Crawley and Cora’s maid from hell O’Brien, you have to admire the way Julian Fellowes keeps the many human marionettes of his Vanity Fair in play.

MCCC RETROSPECTIVE: Work by the acclaimed local artist and MCCC educator Frank Rivera, such as his “Liar, Liar,” shown here, is part of a retrospective of his work at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College. There will be an opening reception tonight, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show will run through April 2. Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.(Image Courtesy of MCCC).

MCCC RETROSPECTIVE: Work by the acclaimed local artist and MCCC educator Frank Rivera, such as his “Liar, Liar,” shown here, is part of a retrospective of his work at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College. There will be an opening reception tonight, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The show will run through April 2. Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery. (Image Courtesy of MCCC).

There will be an opening public reception tonight, Wednesday, March 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the gallery in Mercer County Community College (MCCC) for an exhibition of work by the acclaimed artist and former MCCC professor Frank Rivera.

The Gallery is located on the second floor of the Communications Building on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road.

“Frank Rivera Retrospective: Selected Works 1945–2015” will continue through Thursday April 2.

Mr. Rivera taught art at MCCC from 1967 to 2003 and is now professor emeritus there. A resident of Hightstown, he has lived and worked in Mercer County for more than 40 years. His work has been exhibited prominently in the United States, including exhibits at the Whitney Museum, the Luise Ross Gallery, and the Abington Art Center, as well as numerous venues in Paris, where Rivera regularly spends time painting. He is a graduate of Yale Art School, with an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania.

According to MCCC Gallery Director Dylan Wolfe, the show will include work from all phases of the painter and educator’s creative career, which in earlier years featured large-scale abstractions, while in more recent times has focused on smaller narrative pieces inspired by storyboard graphics and computer art. The exhibition even includes a few pieces preserved from Rivera’s childhood.

“The work … has been arranged by theme and subject rather than by chronology. It is the persistence of these themes and subjects – not always linear – that has shaped my vision over the decades,” notes Mr. Rivera in the exhibition catalog,

The artist’s previous exhibitions have drawn glowing reviews. “There is an iconic quality to his pieces, recalling the carefully wrought panels and religious icons of medieval art,” wrote Cathy Vikso, of the Trenton Times. “Rivera says [his] paintings are autobiographical, but each [work] seems more like a distillation than a rapidly jotted down memory, and their complexity in such small dimensions is made the more interesting for their visual clarity, though their meanings are often elusive,” said Dan Bischoff of the Newark Star-Ledger. Dallas Piotrowski, former curator at the Chapin Gallery, has noted that “paintings of Rivera are for the mind.”

Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

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In recent years, a number of Princeton University graduates have turned up performing on the nation’s leading concert stages. These students’ success is a credit to the musical training they received at the University, but also to one particular showcase of their collegiate musical experience. The annual Princeton University Orchestra Concerto Competition is as serious as any professional competition, and when the winners are presented each year in concert, audiences can be sure they are hearing the musical stars of tomorrow.

This year’s Orchestra Concerto Competition was adjudicated by individuals accustomed to hearing the finest in musical performance —  Princeton’s Marna Seltzer, Dena Levine of Seton Hall University, Francine Storck of New Jersey Symphony, and David Hayes of Mannes College of Music. The University Orchestra presented this year’s three winners this past weekend in Richardson Auditorium in a program which interestingly progressed from earliest to latest in repertoire, but the soloists performed in order from oldest to youngest.

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen will graduate from Princeton this year, and will have no trouble walking from campus into a vocal performing career. Like recent graduate Anthony Roth Costanzo, currently on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Cohen has made a specialty of music of the castrato era, one of music history’s more insidious traditions, but one which produced some spectacular music. Castrati were the superstars of their time. Physical and musical anomalies — with the physique of a grown man combined with the range of a boy soprano — castrati and the composers who wrote for them created works with vocal tessituras and coloratura fireworks the likes of which 18th-century audiences had never heard.

For his portion of Friday night’s Concerto Competition Winner showcase (the concert was repeated on Saturday night), Mr. Cohen presented two of the tamer castrato operatic arias in terms of vocal virtuosity. Composer Nicola Porpora wrote some of the most extravagant operas of the 18h century, mostly for his brother, the renowned castrato Farinelli. His aria “Alto Giove” from the 1735 Polifemo stressed long vocal lines and dynamic intensity, both of which Mr. Cohen handled expertly. Accompanied by a small orchestra of strings and continuo, Mr. Cohen managed well phrases composed for a singer with a seemingly endless lung capacity, providing elegant ornamentation and flexibility in the closing cadenza. Conductor Michael Pratt kept the University Orchestra in a clean Baroque framework, tapering the sound when appropriate to accommodate the solo line.

Mr. Cohen’s second selection, “Scherzo Infida” from Handel’s Ariodante was in a similar style to the Porpora aria, and Mr. Cohen showed the same strengths with a more decisive vocal tone. Mr. Cohen was particularly attentive to the text, and despite the despairing nature of the words, took a gentle approach to the ornaments and cadenza. Although the Handel and Porpora operas were from the same 18th-century decade, the addition of a bassoon to the orchestra (gracefully played by Louisa Slosur) seemed to move the Handel aria historically ahead in orchestration.

Princeton University junior Edward Leung certainly has maintained a busy student career, studying at the Woodrow Wilson School and performing solo piano at a world-class level. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major is a work one expects to hear from a high-level professional orchestra, and its complexity and technical demands were a challenge well-met for both the University Orchestra and keyboard soloist.

Following the familiar horn introduction, Mr. Leung took immediate command of the piano. His well-timed chords fit right in place in the first movement, holding together the orchestral sound. Throughout the concerto, Mr. Leung never forgot he was part of an orchestra, but still managed to control a great deal of the musical suspense and dazzle the audience with riveting runs. The orchestra provided a solid accompaniment throughout, with Mr. Pratt taking a very Classical approach to the late 19th century concerto. Winds were particularly precise, with solos provided by flutist Marcelo Rochabrun and oboist Tiffany Huang.

The third soloist for the evening, sophomore violinist Emma Powell, was poised and calm as she tackled the demanding yet lyrical solos passages in Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Beginning the first movement with a crystalline sweet melody, Ms. Powell played excellent extended trills and was precise in both the lowest and highest registers of the instrument. Ms. Powell particularly took charge in the final Allegro, playing cleanly with timpani in the beginning and holding her own through the rollicking movement.

Mr. Pratt showed off the University Orchestra on its own to close the concert with a clean and bright playing of Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. A very precise ensemble of trumpets and trombones played from the balcony, with trumpet solo played by Junya Takahashi. Mr. Pratt built the tension in this early 20th-century work in an impressionistic fashion, bringing the work to a joyous closing in the final tribute to the “Pines of the Appian Way.”

ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream.(Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream. (Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

When we last saw Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) who, in spite of the objections of his meddling mother (Lillete Dubey), he had proposed to his girlfriend Sunaina (Tina Desai). The ambitious young entrepreneur had also managed to raise enough money to renovate the ramshackle hotel with the help of Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), one of the residents of the retirement community.

In this sequel, we find Sonny and Mrs. Donnelly en route to San Diego where they hope to persuade an executive (David Strathairn) of the Evergreen Corporation to invest in a second old folks home he hopes to open. After all, the first is now flourishing and almost filled to capacity.

Meanwhile, back in India, Sunaina is focused on their impending engagement ceremony, known as a Sagai. In the groom-to-be’s absence, she’s asked Kush (Shazad Latif), a friend of the family, to fill in as a dance partner so she can practice the elaborate dance routine that she will perform with Sonny at the ceremony. It is subtly hinted that Kush might pose a threat to the impending marriage because Sonny became so preoccupied with business matters the minute he returned to India.

That is only one of several storylines in a sequel which unfolds more like a daytime soap opera than a feature film. Scene after scene is a setup for another transparent love triangle.

For example, as she checks into the hotel, Lavinia Beach (Tamsin Grieg) becomes interested in another new guest, Guy (Richard Gere), but he is interested in Sonny’s widowed mother. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), a pretty British pensioner, can’t decide between the two wealthy Indian suitors she’s dating. And Doug (Bill Nighy) has grown fond of Evelyn (Judi Dench) even though he hasn’t yet divorced his wife (Penelope Wilton). And so forth.

The irrepressible Sonny serves as the master of ceremonies and ties all these loose strands together. Unfortunately, because he’s more of a clown in this film, the movie is a joke-to-joke farce that cannot be taken seriously.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG for mild epithets and suggestive material. In English and Hindi with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.