November 13, 2013

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

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who

Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,

Held still the target higher, chary of praise

And prodigal of counsel — who but thou?

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

If any deed be done, if any fire

Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

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

“Damn Queer”

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

Books Without Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below Him

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

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

Last Words

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

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

And so everything ends with those two scarily resonant words.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

Listening in England

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

Theater of the Absurd

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

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

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

Tortoise Talk

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

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

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

Love and Hate

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

“God, I hate St. Louis!” he growled.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To register for the event, contact (609) 924-4646 or For more information, visit: For more on Mr. Godin, visit:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

—Peter O’Toole

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

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

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

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

“The Ruined Man”

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Know S.T.C.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 16, 2013

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

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

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

Setting It in Motion

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

The Social Masquerade

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

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

“Let’s Do ‘Falstaff’”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, including hours and admission, visit:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 9, 2013

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

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

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

“Baby Blue”

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

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

The Right Song

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

Breaking Blue

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

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


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

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

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

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

Celebrating Bryan Cranston

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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