May 15, 2013

GatsbyBookThe Garden Theatre was filled to overflowing for the Friday evening showing of Baz Luhrman’s big, jazzy, flamboyantly picturesque improvisation on The Great Gatsby (see review in this issue). People were seated on the steps of the aisle between the stadium seats. You got the feeling half the Princeton student body was there, along with a goodly number of teenagers from the area schools. Most nights at the Garden or Montgomery, particularly when the film is a literary classic as was recently the case with Anna Karenina, you see very few people under 30 or even 40. Or 50. Or, well, you get the idea.

According to the “Arts, Briefly” column in Monday’s New York Times, Gatsby took in $51.1 million over the weekend, second to Iron Man’s $72.5 — “an astounding result for a period drama” that received, at best, mixed reviews. Only 33 percent of ticket sales were for the 3-D version. Apparently the word of mouth about Gatsby’s flying shirts was less than enthusiastic. If you’re interested, those “beautiful shirts” can all be had at Brooks Brothers, along with the regatta blazers and boater hats, bow-ties, and shawl-collar sweaters. According to Adweek, the film’s 500-piece wardrobe was modeled on Brooks’ early 1920s catalogue. It’s also reminiscent of the faux sixties marketing boom created when Mad Men was the rage, with cool, elegant Don Draper at the center, a self-created mystery man who has more than a little in common with Fitzgerald’s “elegant roughneck,” Jay Gatsby.

Anyway, with a score as ecstatic and multi-dimensional as Luhrman’s, who needs 3-D? Depending on your stamina, the film’s pounding over-the-top blend of rap and Gershwin, Lana Del Ray and Bryan Ferry, can either kill you or cure you. My advice is to forget what’s being done to Fitzgerald’s original and go along with the sights and sounds, ride the music, get drunk on the spectacle, and don’t worry about little things like the absurdity of Nick Carraway in a sanitorium writing Fitzgerald’s book as a form of therapeutic rehab. If anyone is Fitzgerald. it’s the man with all the beautiful shirts.

The spectacular score alone is more than enough to put the 2013 Gatsby on a level above the previous versions — which isn’t saying much when you consider the quality of the competition.

Herbert Brenon’s 1926 silent Gatsby with Warner Baxter is presumed lost, probably just as well. If you look online, you can see the preview, which features the novel’s signature vision, the immense billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. All the films are faithful to it in their fashion but fall short of Fitzgerald’s “blue and gigantic” eyes with retinas “one yard high” looking out of “no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.”

The first sound version of Gatsby didn’t hit the screens until 1949, some 20 years after the talkies were born. For some unfathomable reason, Paramount gave the project to Elliott Nugent, a director of comedies who had just finished filming Mr. Belvedere Goes to College. The best thing about this version, which can be seen in full on YouTube, is Alan Ladd. The only Gatsby of the lot who can say “old sport” as if it came naturally, Ladd makes his first appearance in a moving car tommygunning a rival in case you doubt where he’s coming from, and if you think he’s going to be vanquished by Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s brute of a husband at the end, as are all the other Gatsbys including the real one, you don’t know Alan Ladd. When Tom threatens to break his neck, this Gatsby stands his ground (“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I’m pretty good with or without gloves”) and leaves the scene with Daisy even more devoted to him than she already was. But he gets all noble, Hollywood style, at the end as Paramount pays contemptible obeisance to the Code by making him apologize for his evil ways.

The Gatsbys from 1974 and 2000 (a television movie) are both uninspired ventures, Jack Clayton’s Robert Redford/Mia Farrow debacle having been famously compared to a dead body by Vincent Canby.

The Face of the Book

Now that we know the film had a strong opening weekend, what has been the financial fate of a novel about a man spending a fortune to win a girl whose voice is “full of money?” In 1925, given the popularity of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, sales and reviews were disappointing. In 2013, however, the Gatsby gold mine is working overtime. The paperback sells 500,000 copies a year, twice that many this year thanks to the film. Worldwide, the numbers approach 25 million in 42 languages, according to USA Today. In the rare book market, where literary stature makes all the difference, a copy of the first edition of The Great Gatsby sold at auction in 2009 for $182,000. Like all modern first editions, it attracts serious money only if it’s wrapped in its original dust jacket. The most you can get for a fine copy of an unjacketed Gatsby is a mere $8,000. With this novel, however, you have a double dose of value, for the Gatsby dust jacket is the Hope Diamond of cover art, the rarest and most celebrated in all literature.

When Fitzgerald had his first look at the cover image the summer before the novel’s April 1925 publication date, his excitement was such that he fired off an urgent command to his editor Max Perkins not to “give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.” He’s referring, of course, to the novel’s single most famous image, those giant billboard eyes that, “dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

Having seen the fascinating face that his work-in-progress would reveal to the world when published, Fitzgerald lets himself go and declares in the letter’s next sentence, “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.” It’s the sort of famous-last-words boast that even a writer less superstitious than Fitzgerald might want to take back. But the brilliant image has reinforced his enthusiasm for the brilliance of his conception. He knows he’s struck gold.

Scribners paid Francis Cugat $100 for the visionary cover art that captivated Fitzgerald. Not much is known about the artist except that he was the older brother of bandleader Xavier Cugat and that he worked in Hollywood as a technicolor consultant on number of films, including John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The eyes in Cugat’s image evoke Gatsby’s inspiration, his love and his doom, Daisy Fay Buchanan, “whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs … sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.” It isn’t just that Cugat has shone a light on one of the visions haunting the heart of the novel, he’s found a way to visualize Daisy as Gatsby imagines her — the “colossal vitality of his illusion” that “had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.”

Again, the character capable of Fitzgerald’s conception isn’t Nick Carraway, it’s the man with the beautiful shirts. And if you have any doubt about where Gatsby’s “creative passion” is actually coming from consider the needless urgency of Fitzgerald’s message about the cover art, as if his editor really might let some other Scribner novelist snap it up. Fitzgerald is claiming possession of the treasure, it’s his, all his; and he’s already put it to use.

Gatsby C’est Moi

In the media frenzy generated by Baz Luhrman’s film, you hear a lot about Gatsby but not so much about Fitzgerald. He’s the forgotten man, overshadowed by his own creation. Gatsby lives, while his creator, the poet laureate of Old Nassau, is a tragic phantom. Online, on network and cable television, even on political talk shows like Chris Mathews’s Hardball, the charismatic Gatsby is front and center along with the Great Baz and a lot of chatter about poor boys, rich girls, and the American dream. Meanwhile Fitzgerald seems to be hanging on to his creation’s coattails. It’s almost as if Gatsby wrote Gatsby, and actually, that’s what I’ve been talking about: Fitzgerald and Gatsby are one; in Fitzgerald’s variation on Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary c’est moi,” the dreamer becomes his dream. Fitzgerald says as much in a letter to a friend written a few months after the novel appeared: “you are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear … for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself.” Edith Wharton picks up on the connection when she says “how much I like Gatsby, or rather His Book” in a letter thanking Fitzgerald for sending her a copy.

A Radiant World

The first time Fitzgerald gives Maxwell Perkins a hint of what he’s up to with the book that became The Great Gatsby, he draws a line between it and his two previous novels and the “trashy imaginings” in his stories: this is “purely creative work … the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world.” For that reason, it will be “a consciously artistic achievement and must depend on that as the first books did not.” In a brief letter to a magazine editor in April 1924, he describes his work in progress as [italics added] “a new thinking out of the idea of illusion (an idea which I suppose will dominate my more serious stuff) …. The business of creating illusion is much more to my taste and talent.” Gatsby could have been thinking along the same lines when he began amassing the fortune that would enable him to imagine he could create an illusion fascinating enough to capture Daisy. In August of the same year, in a letter to a rich friend, Fitzgerald is using similar language as he contemplates the story’s inevitable confrontation with the death of the dream: “the whole burden of this novel” is “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”

It’s finally pointless to say, as has been said of Baz Luhrman’s attempt, that Gatsby is “unfilmable” when it’s been filmed five times and will go on being filmed indefinitely. It seems clear by now, however, that no filmmaker can truly, in the Jamesian sense, do Gatsby.

———

Francis Cugat’s cover painting, Celestial Eyes, is owned by the Princeton University Library. With all the attention that’s being lavished on this latest and most lavish Gatsby, now might be a good time to display the work that inspired one of the novel’s most significant images.

 

TIGERS ON PARADE: This Princeton reunion scene is among the works by artist Jay McPhillips in a new exhibition opening, Saturday, May 18 and running through June 14 at Jane on Spring Street. The artist will be on hand to greet visitors from noon to 4 p.m. For more, visit: www.jaymcphillips.com.

TIGERS ON PARADE: This Princeton reunion scene is among the works by artist Jay McPhillips in a new exhibition opening, Saturday, May 18 and running through June 14 at Jane on Spring Street. The artist will be on hand to greet visitors from noon to 4 p.m. For more, visit: www.jaymcphillips.com.

The James McPhillips Museum and Gift Shop Show opens at Jane on Spring Street this Saturday, May 18, with a Meet and Greet with the artist from noon to 4 p.m.

Jane is a consignment and fair trade shop owned by Jane Henderson Kenyon and her daughter Isabelle Kenyon. In addition to selling men’s and women’s clothing, jewelry, and home goods, the store has recycled and fair trade items.

It has also made room for original artwork by local artists.

Store manager Johnna Hooban, who has worked at Jane for two years, recalls the first time James (Jay) McPhillips stopped by. “He’s funny and personable and phenomenally talented,” recalls Ms. Hooban. “He was interested in the fact that the store consigns artwork and he brought along his oil paintings. We thought his work was out of this world.”

Since then, Mr. McPhillips has had oil paintings regularly on display at Jane alongside items such as T-shirts. His work has also been featured at Small World Cafe, in the NJ Skateshop, 72 Witherspoon Street, and at the Chapman Gallery, 46 E. State St., Doylestown, Pa.

The former Comedy Central TV staffer and advertising agency art director, whose diverse clients have included The Guggenheim Museum and Brooklyn Chewing Gum, has worked in the Princeton area for over a decade, five of those, from 2002 to 2007, as McCarter Theatre’s graphic designer.

His work has been exhibited on Times Square billboards, gallery paintings, clothing, bumper stickers, and numerous print and web publications. He has an ear for humor and an eye for visual puns. Witness his T-shirts sporting the face of musician Prince above the word Ton. His book of humorous stories, drawings, and notions, Staff Pick is available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

A native of Philadelphia, now residing in Doylestown, Mr. McPhillips was living in Lambertville when he first came to Princeton to work for McCarter. Before that, his two-hour daily train commute to Manhattan for his job at Comedy Central was compensated for by his love of the work there, creating ads for shows such as South Park and The Daily Show.

While working at McCarter and cutting across the Princeton University campus on his way into town, the artist began painting local scenes. “The architecture in Princeton is incredible,” says Mr. McPhillips who has also painted scenes of Bucks County and Doylestown.

Since leaving McCarter, the artist has been focusing full-time on painting and on producing his own greeting cards, T-shirts, bags and other items. He’s received several local commissions for his work and hopes that the exhibition at Jane will result in more exposure. The exhibition will feature some 15 oil paintings, influenced by the Pennsylvania Impressionists and the early 20th century Tonalists, ranging from the elegantly moody to the wildly humorous.

When Jane, which also sells vintage Princeton ephemera, was thinking about upcoming graduation and reunions, the idea of an exhibition was born. Mr. McPhillips’s scenes of Princeton were an obvious fit. The exhibition will include Princeton paintings, giclee prints and greeting cards, T-shirts, and bag designs as well as Art Mini’s (bagged, tagged hand-painted mini paintings of famous works throughout art history).

The James McPhillips Museum and Gift Shop Show at Jane, 7 Spring Street, opens Saturday, May 18 and continues through June 14 with a second Meet and Greet with the artist on Saturday June 1, noon to 4 p.m.

For more information, visit: www.jaymcphillips.com.

LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

Your favorite fairy tales — Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel — they start with wishes, and “I wish” is a repeated refrain in Into the Woods (1987), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark and psychological, whimsical and musical spin on the Brothers Grimm. In pursuit of their wishes, all of Sondheim’s characters venture deep into the woods: “Into the woods,/it’s time to go./I hate to leave,/I have to, though./into the woods—/it’s time, and so/I must begin my journey.”

As their specific quests — to escape, to visit Grandma, to sell a cow, to find a prince — continue and interweave with each other, the plot dashes ahead at a rapid pace. The familiar fairy tales remain, but the principal characters develop in interesting, complex, three-dimensional ways, moving far beyond the pre-intermission “happy ending.” A childless baker and his wife, seeking to remove a witch’s curse so they can have a baby, help to tie plot strands together as they join the fray in search of four objects that the witch demands: a red cape (from Red Ridinghood), a white cow (from Jack), yellow hair (from Rapunzel), and a golden slipper (from Cinderella).

Fiasco Theater’s “reimagined” rendition of this much-loved show, playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9, will not disappoint Into the Woods aficionados. Though a single piano, instead of full orchestra, provides most of the musical accompaniment, along with bassoon, cello, trumpet, and guitar picked up and played sporadically by the actors on stage; and just ten actors, with some inventive doubling and tripling of roles, play all the parts; this does not feel like a “stripped down” production.

On the contrary, the wildly imaginative staging, shifting of roles, costuming, sound effects, set and lighting and the contagious spirit of collaboration — a trademark of Fiasco Theater, which recently presented a highly acclaimed six-actor version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline off-Broadway — make this production a lavish feast of music, story-telling, and creativity, further enriched by the irresistible engagement of the audience’s imagination.

Given the frenetic nature of the original, with so many plot strands and such an array of wildly realistic and unrealistic, natural and supernatural characters and extravagant events, Fiasco Theater does a remarkable job of bringing clarity to the proceedings. If there at times seems to be a bit too much going on here — too much plot, too long an evening (almost three hours, with one intermission), too many disparate characters — with the consequent difficulty for the audience in really caring about or identifying with all these questing figures, then perhaps Sondheim and Lapine, rather than Fiasco and McCarter, must take the responsibility.

Based on The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological interpretations of fairy tales, Into the Woods is about the importance of stories, stories that are handed down from generation to generation. It is about what those stories mean and how they are told — stories about human experience: growing up, discovering who we are, learning how to accept and to overcome being alone. And it’s about parents and step-parents. “Mother cannot guide you./Now you’re on your own./Only me beside you./Still you’re not alone./No one is alone.”

Then in the second act (“Once upon a time … later …”), as the protagonists all must go back into the woods, the story is about darker concerns: moral decisions (facing the giants!), death, loss, adult passions, and broken marriages. But, perhaps even more importantly, and especially vibrantly realized in this production, Into the Woods is about the sheer delight of stories and the collaboration of storytellers and artists, along with listeners, participating together to bring life and meaning to these stories. To watch and to participate in this rollicking event with these likable, enormously talented performers is a pleasure.

The Fiasco ensemble, several of whose members emerged from the Brown University theater program, takes imaginative collaboration and ensemble playing to new levels. Accompanied by the uncompromisingly adept pianist/music director Matt Castle, an integral part of the proceedings as his piano wheels around the stage from scene to scene, this cast does everything with skill, precision, and abandon — from moving sets, to manipulating props, to transforming costumes and characters, to singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and acting with intensity.

Jessie Austrian, a founder and co-artistic director of Fiasco, plays the Baker’s Wife with memorable conviction and credibility, engaging the audience in her plight, first as childless wife, then as protective mother of a baby, then the straying wife in the second act. She delivers powerful duets and a reflective, moving second-act solo, “Moments in the Woods.”

As the witch (the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters), Jennifer Mudge rises to the challenge with her frightening, witchy tormenting of Rapunzel and the Baker and his wife in the first act, then her transformation into a beautiful princess, her loss of magical powers (“Witch’s Lament”) and her acquired wisdom, all delivered with dramatic and vocal power and appeal.

Emily Young does dynamic double duty as Rapunzel and as a feisty, aggressive Little Red Ridinghood, complete with wolf skin cloak in place of red cloak after her violent, triumphant encounter with the wolf. Claire Karpen’s Cinderella brings interesting added dimensions to the romanticized fairy tale role, as she interacts, in action and song, with not just her eccentrically nasty step sisters and step mother, but also with her deceased mother, a sympathetic Baker’s Wife, a less-than-ideal prince/husband and a host of other characters. Liz Hayes lends strong support with a suitably harsh edge as both Cinderella’s stepmother and Jack’s mother.

Among the male contingent Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen share the prize for versatility and ubiquity — also for extraordinary talent and theatrical prowess of all sorts. Mr. Brody is a deliciously savage, scheming, and lascivious wolf as he sings and wheedles his way with Red Ridinghood (“There’s no possible way/to describe what you feel/when you’re talking to your meal!”).

And how, you might ask, does Mr. Brody also play both wicked step-sister Lucinda and Cinderella’s prince? The answer is a delight to behold, as the two princes’ act one and act two duet (with Mr. Grotelueschen), “Agony” and its reprise, provide comical highlights of the show and timeless commentary on the arrested male psyche. Mr. Grotelueschen, burly and bearded, also offers, with only a bell for a costume and prop, a first-rate characterization of Jack’s cow and a memorable Florinda, wicked second stepsister to Cinderella.

As the Baker, Ben Steinfeld, also a founder of Fiasco and co-artistic director, creates a thoughtful, sympathetic character, as he struggles first with the demands of the witch, then with his wife, then with the perils of fatherhood and other dilemmas throughout the play.

Patrick Mulryan as Jack and the royal Steward contributes two contrasting and credible roles, a powerful voice and strong presence, and Paul L. Coffey as the Mysterious Man adds the appropriate air of mystery and musical expertise both vocally and instrumentally.

Mr. Steinfeld and Mr. Brody, listed as co-directors of the production, have pulled together the multiple disparate elements of this show with focus, dynamic pacing, and extraordinary coordination of acting, music, set, props, lighting, sound, and special effects.

Derek McLane’s imposing set, looking like the enlarged and exploded insides of a piano, provides a fascinating, provocative backdrop to the action. The long, vertical metallic brown rods loom over the set and threaten like the tall dark trees of a forest. The set is a masterpiece in its own right, with definite relevance to the events of the evening. Whether it actually furthers or distracts from Fiasco’s purpose of stripping down to essentials in order to emphasize the actors, the text, and the story is another question.

Choreography by Lisa Shriver, inventive costuming by Whitney Locher, dramatic lighting by Tim Cryan, and striking sound by Darron L. West all contribute essential elements to the stimulation of the audience’s imagination and the creation of this wonderful, magical, sometimes terrifying, sometimes whimsical world of Into the Woods.

To create a cow with just a bell, or a wolf with just a stuffed head and a little leather for paws, or a magical hen with a feather duster, or birds out of paper, or a tower from a wheeling ladder, or a truly terrifying giantess with just a shadow and the booming of a bass drum, not to mention a whole world of Grimm’s fairy tales on a small stage — that’s theater magic, and it can be found in abundance at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre during the next four weeks, in Fiasco Theatre’s exhilarating production of Into the Woods.

DAISY, DAISY, GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) has prevailed upon his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (not shown) to invite his married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to his house for a tryst between Jay and Daisy, who were once an item before Jay went overseas to fight in World War I.

DAISY, DAISY, GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) has prevailed upon his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (not shown) to invite his married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to his house for a tryst between Jay and Daisy, who were once an item before Jay went overseas to fight in World War I.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an era defining literary masterpiece that captured the decadence, debauchery, and self-destruction of privileged elites living in the lap of luxury at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Set in an eventful summer on Long Island, the tragic tale of love and betrayal unfolds from the point-of-view of social climber Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a nondescript bond salesman who hopes to be a celebrated writer someday.

At the point of departure, we find him renting a modest cottage that is in the shadow of a sprawling waterfront mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-made man who throws extravagant parties for his fellow members of high society. Despite having his pick of gold-digging flappers, the mysterious millionaire remains obsessed with Daisy (Carey Mulligan), an attractive woman he had dated when he was a soldier before going off to fight in World War I.

While he was overseas, Daisy met and married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), an abusive adulterer from an old money family whose mammoth estate is located on the other side of the bay from the Gatsby estate. Nick comes to play a critical role in the proceedings once Gatsby learns that Nick is a distant cousin of Daisy.

Soon, the lovelorn Gatsby prevails upon his next-door neighbor to serve as a go-between by inviting Daisy over for a secret rendezvous. Sparks fly afresh, and it’s not long before all the morally-corrupt central characters end up taking a ride aboard an emotional roller coaster.

Perhaps more pertinent than recounting further the familiar plotline of a novel we all remember from high school is addressing its reimagining as a visually-captivating, ethereal fantasy by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). The director shot the New York story in his native Australia, and filled the soundtrack with hip-hop tunes by the film’s executive producer, Jay-Z, and wife, Beyoncé.

Before you join the rush to indict the anachronistic inclusion of rap as blasphemous in a movie that is recreating the Jazz Age, consider the fact that historical costume dramas generally tend to tell us more about the period in which they were made than about the one in which they transpire. Why else would anyone see fit to mount a fifth version of Gatsby?

Reflecting the influences of both its producer and director, this riveting reinterpretation for the Hip-Hop Generation is probably best appreciated by fans of gangsta’ rap who were weaned on videos featuring materialistic misogynists enjoying champagne while surrounded by gyrating beauties. Bravo to Baz for effectively lending his lush and lurid touch to a classic that chronicles the downside of the American Dream.

Excellent (****) Rated PG-13 for sexuality, smoking, violent images, partying, and brief profanity. Running time: 143 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 8, 2013

dvdrevIt’s already old news now, as dated as its subject — the obituary notices announcing the death at 91 of Deanna Durbin, the “plucky child movie star” who saved Universal Studios from financial ruin; “the best-loved and most fondly remembered singing star of Hollywood’s golden age” who cut short her career at 28; “the perfect girl next door” who left the fans-next-door to live the rest of her long life in a suburb of Paris.

Was the Canadian-born Durbin truly the “superstar” claimed by the headline of the Associated Press obituary? Indeed she was, and then some. If anything, the Hollywood hype falls short because her impact on a world at war transcended stardom. Stay with the metaphor and you could say she outshone all the stars in Hollywood, whether her light was shining on the battlefield or the homefront, soldiers or civilians, regardless of nationality. The April 30 New York Times obit’s “wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who in a series of wildly popular films was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults” became the “can-do” embodiment of beauty and music and youth symbolically opposed to the problems of a disastrously unhappy world.

Wartime 

When the Japanese wanted to crush the morale of the American families imprisoned at the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila at the outset of World War II, they released the news that Deanna Durbin had died in childbirth, a sham presented so convincingly that it prompted a memorial service. Since the Japanese banned the use of radios, the prisoners continued to think the “can-do girl” was dead for almost three years, until a makeshift radio pulled in a broadcast from San Francisco and they heard her voice dedicating an evening of music “to the women of the Philippine Islands.”

On the other side of the world in Amsterdam, Anne Frank was taping two photos of Deanna Durbin on the wall of the secret annex, both from First Love (1939), a variation on the Cinderella story in which Durbin receives her first screen kiss from Robert Stack. Although there are no explicit mentions of the film in Anne’s diary, her frequent references to the developing relationship with Peter and their first kiss suggest that she must have given those images more than a few significant glances in the spring and summer of 1944. The photos remain on the wall, just as they were, at the Anne Frank House museum.

Another Durbin fan, British prime minister Winston Churchill, had no need of photographs; he made sure to see the films before they were released to the general public in the U.K., where she was even more beloved than she was in the U.S.A. Churchill’s special favorite was One Hundred Men and a Girl, in which Deanna helps bring together Leopold Stokowski with an orchestra of out-of-work musicians that includes her trombone-playing father (Adolphe Menjou). Churchill reportedly screened the film on celebratory wartime occasions while enjoying brandy and a cigar. The same movie was also “a great prewar favorite in Japan,” as were all of Durbin’s pictures, according to various sources, including Donald Richie, who says that Akira Kurosawa’s early film, One Wonderful Sunday “takes its concert finale straight from One Hundred Men and a Girl,” while paying homage to Durbin through the “jazzy optimism” of the fresh-faced heroine “pulling for her young man just as Deanna Durbin pulled for Stokowski — same polished cheeks, same tear-filled eyes.” Another example of her following among the Japanese: a Deanna Durbin film, His Butler’s Sister, was the first American movie that General MacArthur’s Occupation Committee permitted to be shown in Japan.

The fact that Durbin’s films were banned in Germany suggests that she was equally popular there; apparently the same was true in Italy, where in 1941 Mussolini published an open letter to “Dearest Deanna” in his official newspaper asking her to intercede with President Roosevelt “on behalf of American youth” to convince FDR not to become involved. The letter spoke of how “we always had a soft place in our heart for you” but that “today we fear that you, like the remainder of American youth, are controlled by the President and perhaps tomorrow will see fine American youth marching into battle in defence of Britain.”

Around the time Mussolini was calling on Deanna to intercede with Roosevelt (she sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the memorial concert for FDR), her “hair, makeup, and on-screen outfits set fashion trends worldwide and were emulated by millions,” according to the AP obituary. In the 1941 hit Nice Girl?, the “spangled white organdy dress, ruffled and modestly cut” worn by 20-year-old Deanna “became the rage at proms and country club dances across the United States.” The teen-age soldiers-to-be who went to those dances with the girls in white organdy might lust for pin-up cheesecake like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, but Deanna was the girl of their lovesick dreams and deepest hopes. A soldier from England told her that she epitomized “Sincerity, tenderness, music, and laughter … it is just a little piece of Heaven to be able to visit the garrison cinema, see you and feel the sweetness and peace which surrounds you.”

Durbin also had admirers in the arts. Cellist and composer Mstislav Rostropovich cites her as one of his most important musical influences in an interview from the mid-1980s: “She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity.” And when Indian director Satyajit Ray accepted a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992, he mentioned Deanna Durbin as the only cinema personality of the few he wrote to who had acknowledged his boyhood fan letter with a personal reply.

Headlong and Heartfelt

During the opening moments of her feature film debut, Three Smart Girls (1937), Deanna is coming right at you in mid-coloratura-flight while steering a boat on a Swiss lake, and you may find yourself wondering how much of this girlish virtuosity you can put up with. Graham Greene speaks of becoming “only too intimately acquainted with the hideous cavern of the human mouth” in his New Statesman review, which begins with a quote from Henry James, in mid-flight himself on the subject of divorce in What Maisie Knew (“To live with all the intensity and perplexity and felicity in its terribly mixed little world would thus be part of my interesting small mortal”). By the end of a film that was no chore to watch thanks to Henry Koster’s direction of a lively ensemble and lots of comic relief (oh rare Mischa Auer), you’ve been humbled by the sheer uninhibited power emanating from “the interesting small mortal” played with such seismic energy by Deanna Durbin. She’s a force of nature, nothing less, and no father (Charles Winninger) in the clutches of a gold-digging blond (Binnie Barnes) could resist her. Durbin’s headlong unstoppable emotional energy shows up Hollywood’s frequently cringe-inspiring attempts to believably duplicate “real feeling” between parents and children (or couples, for that matter), and when Deanna submits herself to the muse of song again, this time in a police station, her coloratura outburst seems as spontaneous as the joyous, loving laughter she shares with her father when they bond for the first time.

A Bizarre Noir

When I first read the news of Deanna Durbin’s death in the Times, one detail that caught my attention was the claim that she’d played a “prostitute in love with a killer” in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944). That bizarre noir, with its deceptively festive title, must be the most uncharacteristic, and, now that I’ve seen it, all-around best film she was ever in, along with It Started With Eve (1941) wherein Deanna and Robert Cummings hit, kick, pinch, and chase one another about and she and Charles Laughton enjoy an unforgettable night on the town. Until I found Universal’s 2-DVD Sweetheart Pack, all I knew of her work beyond One Hundred Men and a Girl was His Butler’s Sister, which I’d made a point of seeing only because it was made by a great director, Frank Borzage. Although it’s minor Borzage, the musical and romantic moments glow with the master’s touch and, as with just about every female star he directed, you’re seeing the 22-year-old actress at her most luminous.

Finding it hard to believe that Durbin had ever played a prostitute, I located Christmas Holiday on YouTube, and let it be known — Deanna does not play a prostitute. She’s only a singer going by the name of Jackie Lamont (her real name is Abigail Martin) in a high class New Orleans bordello called Maison Lafitte. True enough, she’s married to a convicted murderer, played with great verve and sleazy, sinister charm by Gene Kelly, whom she meets at a concert. Watching her intimate moments with Kelly — one where he awakens her late the night of the murder, another where she sings “Always” leaning close, her arms around his neck, as he accompanies her on the piano — it’s hard to fathom that a mere five years before she was an unbridled adolescent life force sweeping all before her. There’s much to admire in Christmas Holiday, including the uneasy noir mood, the cinematography, the New Orleans flavor, the extraordinary midnight mass scene during the subtly directed and acted night she chastely spends with a disoriented soldier probably not unlike the ones who adored her in real life. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way she manages to suggest both the wounded, worldly wise Jackie and the wholesome, loving, concert-going Abigail as she delivers a torch singer’s sultry, low-key rendition of “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” to the house band’s easy-swinging, Dixie flavored accompaniment while looking at once sweet and sexy in a daring if not quite risque black evening gown.

Some of the Durbin fans on YouTube busy assembling montages in tribute to her may choose to close out her career with the last Wagnerian moment of Christmas Holiday: a close-up of the bereft Abigail staring upward as the Liebestod plays and storm clouds part on a magnificently brilliant night sky. A still better ending to any tribute, including this one, would be the close-up of Deanna singing her heart out at the end of His Butler’s Sister. Her “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot is a long way from Pavarotti’s but it makes a passionate and radiant farewell.

 

The most useful source of information I found online was www.deannadurbindevotees.com.

LIGHTPAINTING: The cover of Eva Flatscher’s newly published book shows one of the colorful images for which she is known. Ms. Flatscher has been a Princeton resident for less than three years and finds the town conducive to artistic creativity. With Princeton as her base, she continues to work in New York City and in Europe. She is currently preparing an exhibition based on the artwork “LightPainting,” available online via Amazon.com. For more information, visit: www.evaflatscher.com/book.

LIGHTPAINTING: The cover of Eva Flatscher’s newly published book shows one of the colorful images for which she is known. Ms. Flatscher has been a Princeton resident for less than three years and finds the town conducive to artistic creativity. With Princeton as her base, she continues to work in New York City and in Europe. She is currently preparing an exhibition based on the artwork “LightPainting,” available online via Amazon.com. For more information, visit: www.evaflatscher.com/book.

“If Van Gogh were living today, he’d be painting digitally,” says Princeton resident Eva Flatscher. Instead of the traditional tools of paint, brush, and canvas, Ms. Flatscher uses light, a grip pen (the equivalent of a mouse in stick form), and a graphic tablet. “I paint live. It’s not prepared and its projected on stage against a white background with dancers.”

To paint live means that this artist’s work is very much of the moment. It’s a digital performance that, according to Wilfried Seipel, is nonetheless rooted in the Dutch masters of the 17th century. “Johannes Vermeer knew, that with the first stroke of the brush a painting is ready and readable for its entirety,” says Mr. Seipel in the introduction to Ms. Flatscher’s newly published book LightPainting (Long Pipe, LLC., New York, N.Y.).

Mr. Seipel is the executive director of the Museum of History of Art (KHM) in Vienna, a major cultural institution with a rich collection of Dutch Masters such as Bruegel and Rembrandt. His high praise is enormously gratifying to the artist and his is not the only voice expressing delight in Ms. Flatscher’s unique approach. Michael Birkmeyer, director of the School of Ballet at the Vienna State Opera, who worked with Ms. Flatscher in Austria, speaks of her as a “pioneer” who makes music visible. Her performances are an “avant garde combination of painting, dance, and music.” The Princeton resident has performed with jazz and classical musicians here in the United States and throughout Europe, to which she returns with some frequency.

Her live performances have taken place in the Jewish Museum in Vienna; the Festival Hall, St.Pölten, Austria; the Schauspielhaus, Bremen, Germany; and the Musikvereinssaal, Vienna.

Ms. Flatscher’s work “transforms traditional understanding of fine art and takes it to an entirely new level,” says Mr. Seipel. “At times, Eva Flatscher’s productions recall the Traumpfade, the ‘song lines’ or ‘dream lines’ of the Australian aborigines, who by dancing and singing seek to decipher the mystery of the cosmos, of ‘dreamtime,’ in a pictorial realization of the past.”

As a record of her work, Ms. Flatscher created 40 pieces, not on canvas, but on satin. These are the paintings in LightPainting, and that will be presented in a upcoming exhibition that is still in the beginning stages of preparation.

Created during live performances in venues spanning the globe, the paintings were meticulously finished in the artist’s Princeton studio.

Originally from Vienna, Ms. Flatscher and her husband, journalist Alfons A. Flatscher, moved to Princeton just under three years ago and have made their home on Birch Avenue close to the center of town. The artist, who describes herself as a city-lover, says the move was prompted by a desire for a comfortable town with good schools that would be a safe environment for the couple’s two children: David (17) and Alina (15), now a junior and freshman at Princeton High School.

“There is a high quality of life here in Princeton, especially for a painter,” says Ms. Flatscher who describes the move as having been surprisingly easy. She describes the people here as “warm and welcoming.”

LightPainting by Eva Flatscher is available online via Amazon.com. For more information, visit: www.evaflatscher.com/book.

Very few chamber ensembles thrive for more than forty years, and few music organizations have the luxury of saying good-bye through music to their loyal and steadfast fans. The Tokyo String Quartet, formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, is disbanding after forty-four years, some of the most significant of which have included Princeton. The Quartet’s farewell season is taking them back to a number of their favorite cities and concert halls, and this past Wednesday night was Princeton’s turn to say farewell. The four members of the Tokyo Quartet came to Richardson Auditorium to play three of their signature pieces as a nearly full house flocked to hear a concert capping the ensemble’s 40 year performing and recording history with the Princeton community.

Josef Haydn’s string quartets are chamber music gumdrops, and the Opus 103 Quartet in D minor, even in only two movements, is no exception. The two movements, which would likely have been the inner movements of a full quartet, were graceful and charming in their simplicity, and throughout both, the Tokyo musicians maintained their most intimate collective chamber personality. Violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith played in an elegant manner which made the audience immediately feel at home, as if they were eavesdropping on a living room soirée. First violinist Mr. Beaver played with strength and grace as cellist Mr. Greensmith kept the music flowing, especially in a crisp and sprightly Minuet section. The quartet as a whole demonstrated delicate endings to repeated sections, and presented a sweet yet teasing Trio in a second movement full of Haydn-esque humor.

The Quartet No. 6 of Bela Bartok was much more complex than the Haydn, but no less appealing. Begun in the early days of World War II and not premiered until two years later, this work was both introspective and poignant, especially its final movement capturing a feeling of looking out over the war’s devastation. The first movement began with a soulful and melancholy viola solo played by Mr. Isomura, a fitting recognition of the only continuous and original member of the ensemble. The movement was intense, with a Vivace section marked by furious pizzicato from Mr. Greensmith. Phrases came together well, and the second movement Marcia, containing some of the most demanding passages of the piece, was effective as a march of grief. Mr. Isomura’s expressive viola melody returned in the final movement to close the work with peaceful yet jarring effect.

The Mendelssohn Quartet in E minor which closed the program was also vintage Tokyo String Quartet — melodic and crisp in clarity. Mr. Beaver played a number of key lines as first violinist, with refreshing melodic lines also heard from the second violin. Clean figures were heard from all parts, and the first movement in particular was forceful but not overpowering. An especially sweet melody was heard from cellist Mr. Greensmith in the third movement Adagio, and a non-stop first violin part toward the end of the final movement brought the Mendelssohn work to a close and the Richardson crowd to its feet. The Tokyo Quartet obliged the appreciative audience with an encore taken from Mozart’s K. 499 String Quartet in D major, in a serene “Ländler” character which brought the Tokyo String Quartet’s musical relationship with Princeton to an elegant and glorious finale.

 

WHEN YOU HUG ME, JUST REMEMBER YOUR SUPERHERO STRENGTH: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, right) is apparently unafraid of being crushed to death by the Iron Man (Robert Downey,Jr.) as he holds his sweetheart in a fond embrace.

WHEN YOU HUG ME, JUST REMEMBER YOUR SUPERHERO STRENGTH: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, right) is apparently unafraid of being crushed to death by the Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) as he holds his sweetheart in a fond embrace.

This film is the seventh movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series that started with Iron Man 1 in 2008, and followed by The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. The question is whether the series is running out of steam or if it’s worth investing in yet another episode.

Great news! The movie more than lives up to its billing as the first blockbuster of this summer season. And, the plot remains true to the basic comic book formula in which a superhero is pitted against a diabolical villain bent on world domination.

However, Iron Man 3 adds something new to the usual mix of derring-do and visually-captivating special effects because Robert Downey, Jr. brings so much charm to the title character. He delivers a plethora of pithy comments, whether in his role as bon vivant billionaire Tony Stark, or his intrepid alter ego.

Also reprising their roles are Gwyneth Paltrow as Iron Man’s love interest Pepper Potts, Don Cheadle as his best friend Rhodey, and Jon Favreau (the director of episodes 1 and 2) as his chauffeur and chief of security Happy Hogan. Critical additions include Ty Simpkins as Harley, Iron Man’s new sidekick, and Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, the maniacal spokesman for an international terrorist organization.

The point of departure is Bern, Switzerland on New Year’s 2000 where we find Tony Stark declining an offer to go into business together being made by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a disabled scientist who covets an experimental drug being developed by Stark Industries botanist Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). The story immediately fast-forwards to the present, and a string of bombings that are suspected of being set by The Mandarin.

Foolishly, Tony dares the Mandarin to a fight, and soon Tony’s ocean front home is leveled by a barrage of rockets. Fortunately, a number of Iron Man outfits were left unscathed and, with the help of Harley and Rhodey (aka Iron Patriot), he proceeds to get to the bottom of who is really behind the bombings.

Far be it from this critic to spoil the surprising developments which ensue en route to the big showdown. Just brace yourself for an array of captivating stunt work interrupted intermittently by comical comments by our protagonist. Audience members who are patient enough to sit through the long (and I mean long) closing credits will be rewarded with a brief session of the Iron Man decompressing on the shrink’s couch with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and brief sensuality. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Studios.

May 1, 2013

book revIn the loose living of my early years

the impulses of my poetry were shaped,

the boundaries of my art were plotted.

—C.F. Cavafy, from “Understanding” (1915)

Monday was a two-sided anniversary for the Greek poet C.F. Cavafy, born 150 years ago on April 29, 1863, to Greek parents in Alexandria, where he died 70 years later on April 29, 1933. UNESCO is commemorating his 150th birthday with Cavafy festivals around the world this summer, and one of his foremost translators, Princeton Professor Emeritus Edmund Keeley, will be reading from his renderings of Cavafy and other Greek poets at the PEN World Voices Festival May 5 in New York and on May 7 at a dinner for the Princeton University Society of Fellows at Palmer House.

The lines above, from a poem translated by Keeley in his book, Cavafy’s Alexandria (Princeton University Press 1976, rev. 1996), are listed under the heading “The Sensual City” in a handy appendix of chronological tables of composition and publication (other categories are “The Metaphoric City,” Mythical Alexandria,” and “The World of Hellenism”). Daniel Mendelsohn’s introduction to his handsomely designed edition of the Collected Poems (Knopf 2009), with his translations and commentaries, is titled “The Poet-Historian.” In his opening paragraph, Mendelsohn contrasts Cavafy’s “flesh-and-blood existence” as a government bureaucrat and “private life” as a homosexual with the poetry, its “haunted memories of passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the Greek past.”

Cavafy’s Presence

Like numerous other readers, my own first encounter with Cavafy was as “the old poet of the city” in Justine, the volume that begins Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. At roughly the same time Cavafy’s presence in Durrell’s Alexandria was bringing a somewhat ghostly form of him to the attention of a new generation of readers, Rae Dalven’s edition of The Complete Poems appeared (Harcourt, Brace & World 1961) with an introduction by W.H. Auden, in which Auden notes Cavafy’s influence on his own work.

In the fall of 1977, Lawrence Durrell sent Henry Miller a “lucky charm” in the form of a postcard from Alexandria. The card’s occult power was, he said, due to its having been written “on the very desk” where Cavafy wrote two of his best known poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “The City.” The gist of the message is that “Alexandria is still full of luciferian charm and magic.”

Recalling a visit earlier in the same decade in Cavafy’s Alexandria, Keeley observes that it was difficult to move through the streets of the city “without feeling the presence of Cavafy’s ghost.” Durrell says that when he first arrived in Alexandria in 1941, eight years after Cavafy’s death, the poet “was so very present” and “extremely alive in a sense” that he had no difficulty in “transporting him into the city which really belonged to him.” In the same 1975 interview, Durrell admits, “I used him, you know, like you use a character in a novel.” As for his role in the Quartet, the old poet was “the expresser of the essence of the city.”

In fact, Cavafy does not merely haunt the city, its brothels and cafes, he illuminates and evokes it in passages throughout Justine. In one, Durrell’s alter ego Darley recalls visiting “the worm-eaten room” on the Rue Lepsius (the street Cavafy lived on most of his life) “where once the old poet of the city had recited ‘The Barbarians.’” On another occasion, Darley/Durrell describes hearing “with an emotion so deep it was almost horror” a gramophone recording of the old poet reading lines clearly based on an actual poem of Cavafy’s. But then this is the case all through the novel, where you have, in effect, Durrell improvising on existing translations. In another scene, Justine recites “those marvelous lines of the old Greek poet about a love-affair long since past.” For Darley/Durrell, “hearing her speak his lines, touching every syllable of the thoughtful ironic Greek with tenderness, I felt once more the strange equivocal power of the city … and knew her for a true child of Alexandria.”

Cavafy’s Charm

In my five-day tour of Cavafy and Alexandria, I’ve been struck by his use of the second person as a way to bring the reader into the charmed element of the poem. In Durrell’s admitted “transplanting” of an existing translation of “The City,” Cavafy directly approaches you (“You tell yourself”) and later no less directly, intimately addresses you (“Ah, don’t you see”). Durrell may be taking liberties, but being a poet himself, he knows what Cavafy’s doing, as well he should, given his stress on the word “charm” (as in lucky and luciferian) in the postcard he sent Miller. Whether you speak of it in terms of charming or seducing, or simply bringing the reader in, that’s what’s happening; however you describe  the effect — personal, magical/poetical or luciferian — you’ve been charmed.

Cavafy does it again in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the other piece of the “lucky charm” Durrell sent to Miller. From the first line, “What are we waiting for,” to the closing stanza’s “And now what shall become of us,” you’re in the poem; the question isn’t coming to you from some nameless persona in an unspecified past, it’s coming from Cavafy, as if he were sitting across the table from you in one of the cafes he frequents. The effect is also movingly evident in “The God Abandons Antony,” which Durrell pairs with “The City” on the last page of Justine. As Mendelsohn points out in his commentary, Cavafy is improvising on a passage from Plutarch’s Life of Antony, when his troops had deserted him and “all Alexandria knew that his cause was totally lost.” In Cavafy’s second-person, you the reader are Antony and the city has been set in motion like the dream of a ship departing without you “at darkest midnight.” As the poem ends, the city having become something to “be worthy of” if you can shed misleading dreams and “useless hopes,” Cavafy’s right there with you again in the cafe of his charm, telling you how to endure it, how to say “with courage … your last good-byes/To Alexandria as she is leaving.”

Cruised by Cavafy

So there you are at the cafe table feeling emotional after saying your last goodbyes in “The God Abandons Antony” (the poem also inspired a song by Leonard Cohen), when you realize that the old poet wants to take you home with him, he’s speaking English now, having gone to school in Liverpool from the ages 7 to 14 (his family was in the import-export business). Before you can explain your boringly hetero inclinations, he understands. As W.H. Auden observes, Cavafy is an “exceptionally honest” witness who “neither bowdlerizes nor glamorizes nor giggles,” one who “refuses to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.” Auden quotes as an example a poem from 1921 (“Their Beginning”) where Cavafy makes the connection between sex and poetry explicit. After the lovers fulfill “their deviate, sensual delight,” they rise and dress and go their separate ways (“furtively … somewhat uneasily”), “as if they suspect that something about them betrays/into what kind of bed they fell a little while back.” But for the “life of the poet” nothing’s lost; its all gain: “Tomorrow, the next day, the vigorous verses/will be composed that had their beginning here.”

Cavafy’s Ghost?

My well-marked Dell paperback of Justine was in my jacket pocket the night I went walking in Cavafy and Durrell’s Alexandria. I’d been rereading the novel on the boat from Beirut. I was 25. I never considered that I might be at risk, having ignored Durrell’s warning in Justine, that Alexandria “was not really a safe place for Christians.” The problem was that the locales in Justine I’d hoped to see could not be found because the streets had been renamed since Durrell’s time. There was no Rue Lepsius, no Cafe Al Aktar. Ah, but there was Lake Mareotis, and that was all I needed. One line I’d practically marked to extinction began “The first wet blank lamps had begun to stiffen the wet paper background of Alexandria,” which ended with “Mareotis crouched among her reeds, stiff as a crouching sphinx.” The lake also served as the setting for one of the most haunting scenes in Justine, where in the pre-dawn darkness of a duck hunt, the one-eyed Capodistria is killed, “a death that hangs in the still air like bad smell, like a bad joke.”

I had no map. Someone at the fleabag hotel where I was staying had given me sign-language directions, so off I went, throwing myself on the mercy of the “thousand dust-tormented streets” described on the first page of the novel. I soon found myself in the company of a self-appointed guide. I didn’t want company, but I hesitated to tell him so. He was promising me Lake Mareotis. Yes, this way, this way, he’d insist, taking me in precisely the opposite direction to the one I’d been shown. I took out my copy of Justine and pointed to the underlined sentence about the crouching sphinx, explaining to him, idiotically, why the fact that the lake could be found in a novel made it worth searching for: “A lake that is like a sphinx — you know the Sphinx? In Cairo? Near the pyramids?”

Suddenly something happens that changes everything, when he says: “I know that place, the lake like a sphinx. It’s not safe for you.” Nothing is, it seems. I’ve given up ever finding Durrell’s lake, but whenever I see a street I want to start down, he says, “No, no, that’s a bad street. No good for you there.”

It occurs to me as I try to make sense of the memory of that long-ago night, that I’ve consumed too much Cavafy in too short a span of time. It’s his birthday, April 29, as I write. Three competing translations are piled on my desk. I can’t be sure where one leaves off and the other begins, or where Durrell’s old poet becomes the real Cavafy, or if I’m in the company of someone who decided not to cut my throat when I showed him that line about the lake. He’s taken me in, that’s all. Alexandria’s “luciferian charm” is all around us.

There’s no ending, no farewell, as he goes his way and I go mine, it’s like that poem, “Their Beginning,” only nothing happened. Nothing.

I’m looking at the copy of Justine I read at 20, not the paperback, but the hard cover, in which, not knowing any better, I wrote in ballpoint “Noon, April 19,” under the last line on the last page, Durrell’s translation with his italics,

And say farewell, farewell, to Alexandria leaving.”

 

The 1975 interview I mentioned is from Anthony Hirst’s essay in Lawrence Durell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lillios.

CAN THIS REALLY BE CLAY?: The black and white image shown here does little justice to the iridescent greens and blues of Hideaki Miyamura’s porcelain “Bottle with Starry Night Glaze.” Mr. Miyamura achieves a result that you would swear could only be achieved on glass. His work will be on display and for sale this weekend as part of Morven in May’s weekend celebration of art, craft, and garden at the Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street. For Friday night Preview Party tickets, call (609) 924-8144, ext. 113. For more information, visit: www.morven.org.

CAN THIS REALLY BE CLAY?: The black and white image shown here does little justice to the iridescent greens and blues of Hideaki Miyamura’s porcelain “Bottle with Starry Night Glaze.” Mr. Miyamura achieves a result that you would swear could only be achieved on glass. His work will be on display and for sale this weekend as part of Morven in May’s weekend celebration of art, craft, and garden at the Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street. For Friday night Preview Party tickets, call (609) 924-8144, ext. 113. For more information, visit: www.morven.org.

If April is Communiversity, May is Morven. Coming on the heels of last weekend’s town-wide festival, this weekend’s “Morven in May: A Celebration of Art, Craft, and Garden” promises a more leisurely pace but just as much interest for those inclined toward the arts, crafts, and gardens.

The event starts on Friday evening, with a special preview reception, and runs through Sunday, May 5.

The museum has selected 20 professional artists and artisans from throughout the northeast region of the U.S. to present their works in glass, ceramics, decorative and wearable fiber, mixed media, jewelry, furniture, and fine art.

Included among them is the Japanese-born ceramicist Hideaki Miyamura, now based in New Hampshire. His work is compelling and exquisite. To look is to want to touch.

Mr. Miyamura’s fine porcelain is much-collected and can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, Newark Museum of Art, Sackler Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, and Wheaton College, Newton, Mass. He is revered by serious private collectors.

Known for his experimentation with traditional Chinese glazing techniques and for recreating the Yohen Tenmoku glaze of the Sung Dynasty, the artist’s interest in glazes stems from ancient Chinese tea bowls with such ancient and rare glazes that no one has been able to reproduce. He set out to create new iridescent glazes that convey inner feelings of purity and peacefulness.

During a five year apprenticeship in Japan, he developed new glazes, mainly Tenmoku, those dark brown/black glazes with a varied iridescent quality, and “oil spotting.” His research involved over 10,000 test pieces. Ultimately, the hard work paid off. Mr. Miyamura discovered the iridescent glaze on a black background, his original contribution to the art of Yohen Tenmoku.

“Over the last few years”, says Mr. Miyamura on his web site, “I have experimented to discover new glazes which combine crystallization with iridescence. I have researched crystal glaze techniques in the United States, Europe, Japan, and China. In the long history of crystal glazes, I could find no iridescent crystal glaze.”

The artist’s search, which he describes as a “ten-year long passion” for an “iridescent crystal glaze which has never been made anywhere, at anytime in history,” yielded his newest glaze: the Yohen Crystal Glaze, inspired by the “stars glistening in a night sky.” According to Mr. Miyamura, it’s “the most complicated glaze formula and firing process that I have ever done.” A fitting culmination to a lifelong passion.

While glazes may be at the heart of Mr. Miyamura’s work, form is not forgotten. He creates his own interpretations of the classical. “I am very conscious of the ways in which a form interacts with the space around it,” he says. “I want my pieces to feel in balance with their environment, to feel as though they co-exist naturally with their surroundings. When I create my pieces, I hope to make people feel good when they look at my work. My goal is to try and evoke a feeling of inner peace and tranquility.” To see more of Mr. Miyamura’s work, visit: www.miyamurastudio.com.

Along with Mr. Miyamura’s stunning work, this year’s event includes: beaded sculpture by Tristyn Albright; wearable fiber arts by Tess Colburn and Gary Temple, and Pamela Bracci; baskets by Martha Dreswick; ceramics by Katherine Hackl and Phoebe Wiley; jewelry by Sheila Fernekes, Beth Judge, and Sue Sachs; furniture from John Landis and Brad Smith; glass artistry by Karen Caldwell and Nick Leonoff; fine art paintings by Meg Michael; turned wood by James Ruocco; decorative fiber arts by Erin Wilson; clothing designs by Tess Crowninshield; and floorcloths by Elie Wyeth. Their hand-crafted offerings will be displayed for sale in gallery-style booths, under a grand tent on the museum’s Great Lawn.

Heirloom Plant Sale

For many locals, the arts and crafts sale is the highlight of Morven in May. For others, it’s the museum’s heirloom plant sale, which has grown in the last few years to become a stellar source of unusual heirloom perennials and annuals.

For the general public, the sale is open Saturday May 4, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday May 5, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Friends of Morven get to preview the plant sale on Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. Not only do Friends get first pick, they receive a 10 percent discount, which might well make it worth your while to join the group. The individual $40 level gives you free access to the museum, discounts, and other benefits. For more information, including a list of all the plants available, visit www.morven.org.

Garden enthusiasts will find this sale a must for heirloom vegetables and classic herbs. You will also find perennials, biennials, peonies and tree peonies, shrubs and roses, climbers and cascading plants, as well as plants suitable for containers. The online listing is peppered with timely tips (like mulching with straw instead of that smelly black stuff).

On Saturday at 2 p.m., botanical artist Wendy Hollander, will speak about the edible plants that grow in fields, forests, even your own backyard. Ms. Hollander is the illustrator and co-author, with Dina Falconi, of Foraging and Feasting, a combination field guide and cookbook that will be published next month. She will draw upon her “food for free” enthusiasm for forgotten skills that once allowed many to recognize edible plants in the wild and bring them in the kitchen to create delicious and nutritious meals. Admission to her talk is free with art show admission.

Before you leave the garden, however, look out for Artful Trellises in the Garden, featuring freestanding trellises designed and built by local community groups, individuals, and businesses. These will be going up and planted with annual vines over the summer at Morven.

Sponsors for this year’s event, proceeds from which help fund the museum’s collections, exhibitions, historic gardens, and educational programs, include: Rago Arts and Auction Center; Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty; PNC Wealth Management; Saul Ewing, LLC; Munich RE; Masterminds Agency; Contemporary Graphics; and Jack Morton Exhibits.

“Morven in May: A Celebration of Art, Craft and Garden” at the Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street, starts Friday, May 3, and runs through Sunday, May 5. Preview Garden Party tickets are available by calling the museum at (609) 924-8144 extension 113.

Tickets for the Saturday and Sunday public sale are available at the door and are $10 per person ($8 for Friends of Morven). No ticket is necessary for the plant sale. For more information and to purchase tickets: visit: www.morven.org.

For Preview Garden Party tickets, call (609) 924-8144, ext. 113.

The two works performed in the Princeton University Orchestra’s concerts this past weekend paid particular tribute to the performance’s honoree — former orchestra percussionist Stuart B. Mindlin. The music of early 20th-century France was marked by coloristic orchestral effects, many of which were scored into the percussion section. The compositions of Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel presented Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) at Richardson Auditorium made full use of diverse orchestral palettes and showed some of the more unique percussion effects prevalent in music from a century ago.

These concerts were a collaborative effort between the University Orchestra and Glee Club, and began with the Glee Club showing the best sound heard from this ensemble in a while. Conductor Gabriel Crouch has amassed a good-sized chorus of more than eighty singers, yet the precision and clarity of sound produced in Poulenc’s Gloria made the ensemble sound like a concise chamber chorus. The Glee Club was accompanied by a substantial orchestra to bring out varied orchestra colors, punctuated by crisp brass, especially a trio of trumpets. Mr. Crouch kept the string lines sinewy and lean, allowing the vocal melodies to speak clearly above the orchestra. Throughout the six-movement work, one could hear dissonances clearly, with the tenors providing an especially full sound and the sopranos sounding like icing on an impressionistic cake. Inner voice parts were particularly well-blended, and a tricky a cappella passage in the second movement was meticulous.

Featured as soprano soloist in the Gloria was Clara Rottsolk, stepping in at the last minute. Ms. Rottsolk began her first solo passage with a strong and plaintive sound, and a vocal edge to match the accompanying lower strings. In a later movement, Ms. Rottsolk’s sound flowed effortlessly into the choral parts, backed by a steady pizzicato in the strings. The closing movement showed an especially warm orchestral sound, aided by two harps and topped by Ms. Rottsolk’s shimmering soprano, revealing Poulenc’s own version of a choral sunrise.

The true innovator of the orchestral sunrise was Maurice Ravel, whose works are renowned for building in driving intensity to brilliant heights. Ravel’s orchestration in his ballet score Daphnis et Chloé used the full range of orchestral instruments as well as a wordless chorus and a variety of percussive effects and musical devices popular in early 20th-century Europe. The stage at Richardson filled quickly with the very large University Orchestra assigned to play the ballet score, with the Glee Club split on either side of the balconies. Conductor Michael Pratt began the work subtly in the lower strings as the antiphonal chorus cleanly echoed the emerging sunrise in the lower instruments of the orchestra. Flutist Alison Beskin, principal hornist Max Jacobson and oboist Bo-Won Keum brightened the instrumental palette with elegant solo playing as the sound built in richness and sustained intensity.

The complete ballet score of Daphnis is divided into sections, with Mr. Pratt and the orchestra executing transitions smoothly and keeping the flow of the piece even. Among the percussive effects scored by Ravel was the use of a wind machine, adding an eerie color to the texture (and perking up audience interest), and a “Jeu des timbres” or glockenspiel, exploring the full scope of possible timbres. Precise winds startled the audience out of the impressionistic atmosphere, with the brass, especially trumpets, playing a key role in changing the orchestral colors. In the more familiar second suite, the sun rose through the strings, aided by languorous solos played by Ms. Beskin and alto flutist Marcelo Rochabrun. Throughout this section, the chorus built intensity and dynamic range well, with clear off-beat accents and choral sound flowing precisely across the stage between balconies. Especially impressive throughout the work was the ability of the chorus to be heard at all dynamics in the hall, especially when humming.

Although the second suite of Daphnis et Chloé is often performed by orchestras, the ballet score is rarely heard in its entirety. Both the University Orchestra and Glee Club demonstrated in these concerts that they were up to the challenge of these two impressionistic and inventive works, closing their seasons well with a well-deserved sense of achievement.

IN SPITE OF ALL THAT HAPPENED, WE’RE MARRIED AT LAST: Missy (Amanda Seyfried, right) contentedly rests her head on her new husband Alejandro’s (Ben Barnes) shoulder. The wedding finally occurred in spite of many embarrassing events that occurred prior to the ceremony.

IN SPITE OF ALL THAT HAPPENED, WE’RE MARRIED AT LAST: Missy (Amanda Seyfried, right) contentedly rests her head on her new husband Alejandro’s (Ben Barnes) shoulder. The wedding finally occurred in spite of many embarrassing events that occurred prior to the ceremony.

This picture is such a disaster that it’s hard to decide where to start in critiquing it. I could talk about how it is just the latest case of Hollywood remaking a French farce (Mon Frère se Marie) which somehow lost all of its charm when it was translated into English. Or I could point out how it’s a variation of Meet the Parents and even has Robert De Niro reprising his role as a macho father-in-law who is less inclined to reason with somebody than to threaten to bust his kneecap.

Or I could focus on how the production squanders the talents of a cast that includes four Oscar winners De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, and Diane Keaton, as well as that of seasoned comedians Topher Grace, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried, and Christine Ebersole. Or I might mention that the movie sat on the shelf for over a year before the studio decided to pump up the marketing and dump it on the public.

Then there’s the homophobia and racism, reflected in disparaging remarks about lesbians and Colombians. Equally objectionable is the picture’s use of sophomoric sight gags such as projectile vomiting. Perhaps most offensive of all is the film’s coarse, off-color humor.

All of the above amounts to a bitter disappointment, especially given the elite cast. Blame for this fiasco rests squarely on the shoulders of writer/director/producer Justin Zackham, who apparently was trying to replicate the lowbrow nature of his only other feature-length film, Going Greek, a raunchy film that was released in 2001.

As for the storyline, Mr. Zackham relies on “The Big Lie” cliché, a hackneyed plot device that has been popular in TV sitcoms since the beginning of television. The plot is about characters who go to increasingly great lengths to hide an embarrassing fact from someone until the ruse blows up in their faces and the truth comes out.

In the movie, Missy (Amanda Seyfried) and Alejandro (Ben Barnes) are on the verge of tying the knot in Connecticut, when they learn that his birth mother, Madonna (Patricia Rae), is unexpectedly flying in from Colombia to attend the wedding. Because she’s a devout Catholic, they don’t want her to know that the adoptive parents Don and Ellie (De Niro and Keaton) have been divorced for a decade.

So, instead of simply explaining the changed state of affairs to Madonna, everybody agrees to participate in an elaborate cover up to make it appear that Don and Ellie are still together, even though he’s currently in a committed relationship with Bebe (Sarandon). What a patently preposterous premise!

The escalating concatenation of calamities adds-up to an incoherent string of crude skits.

Poor (0 stars). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and brief nudity. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films

April 24, 2013
THE BIRTH OF ISRAEL: “Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God,” by the hands of iconographer Maureen McCormick is one of 20 images currently on display in the exhibition “Locating Prosopon: On the Path Towards the Divine Countenance” in the Erdman Gallery at the Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place. For more information, call (609) 462.0975, or visit: www.prosoponschool.org.(Courtesy of Maureen McCormick)

THE BIRTH OF ISRAEL: “Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God,” by the hands of iconographer Maureen McCormick is one of 20 images currently on display in the exhibition “Locating Prosopon: On the Path Towards the Divine Countenance” in the Erdman Gallery at the Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place. For more information, call (609) 462.0975, or visit: www.prosoponschool.org. (Courtesy of Maureen McCormick)

God really is in the details in an exhibition of icons currently on view at the Erdman Center Gallery in Princeton.

The icons are by master iconographers and advanced apprentices of the Prosopon School of Iconology, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The exhibition, “Locating Prosopon: On the Path Towards the Divine Countenance” features 20 sacred images including several by the school’s founder Vladislav Andrejev.

Born in 1938 in St. Petersburg, Mr. Andrejev studied illustration and fine art at a time when sacred art was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Iconography had flourished in Russia, reaching its apex during the post-Byzantine era. Mr. Andrejev’s interest in the centuries old tradition of icon and fresco painting led him to independent study with a monk who was an iconographer in his native land. He came to the United States in 1980.

In 1988, he founded the Prosopon School of Iconology. Icon is a Greek word meaning “image” and prosopon, also Greek, can be translated as “face,” but was adopted by early Christian theologians to denote the “Countenance of God.”

Mr. Andrejev’s sons, Dmitri Andrejev and Nikita Andrejev, also teach at the school which boasts an estimated 4,000 students since its inception.

Prosopon iconographers work in the traditional medium of egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed wood panels. The work is distinctive for sparkling, painterly highlights and luminous, textured surfaces achieved through careful layering of multiple transparent glazes of paint.

Exhibition curator and iconographer Maureen McCormick describes the technique as challenging. “It takes years just to become adept at using these materials,” she says. Egg tempera is an emulsion made from raw egg yolks and water mixed with white wine as a stabilizer (vinegar was used until it was discovered that wine works equally well and smells sweeter). Natural dyes like indigo and carmine, and pigments such as lapis lazuli, malachite, and azurite are used. “My favorite is one we don’t use any more,” comments Ms. McCormick of a pigment called Indian Yellow, the dried urine of oxen fed with mango leaves. Many are expensive. A tablespoon of the best lapis from Afghanistan, for example, can cost around $200. “It’s hard to make something ugly when working with such beautiful materials,” says Ms. McCormick who became intrigued by the medium when she attended a Prosopon workshop 17 years ago. At first, she intended it as a hobby, but soon volunteered as workshop coordinator. Some thirty students from across the U.S. and abroad are expected to sign up for the six-day, $700-workshop at Trinity Church, in Princeton, this July 7 to July 12.

Besides teaching at the school since 2005 and organizing exhibitions since 2007, Ms. McCormick is Iconographer in Residence at Trinity Church, where she produces commissioned icons and offers classes and lectures to parishioners and church and community groups in central New Jersey. Until recently, she was the chief registrar and manager of collections at Princeton University Art Museum.

The Exhibition

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a recent icon by Mr. Andrejev and never before exhibited. Also on display are depictions of the Archangel Barachiel, 2013, by the hands of Vladislav Andrejev and Dmitri Andreyev; and Christ Emmanuel, 2011, by the hand of Vladislav Andrejev.

Subjects include: Saints Maximos the Confessor, Gregory Palamas and Symeon the New Theologian; Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God; Archangel Raphael with Tobias; Angel Hesychia; as well as depictions of Christ and Christ as a child with his mother. Several icons of the same subject by different iconographer are grouped together for comparison.

Other iconographers with work in the exhibition include: Dmitri Berestova; Lynette Hull, Nikita Andrejev, Susan von Medicus; Dmitri Andreyev; Mary Kay LaPlante; Kristina Sadley; Tatiana Berestova.

You won’t find names of the artists writ large by these works of art. That’s not the tradition with sacred art. The preferred terminology is “by the hand of.” Ms. McCormick explains: “This is because we don’t feel that we are the author of these images but rather the means through which they are made incarnate.”

In orthodox Christianity, icons convey “the Gospel in light and color.” They are described as being “written” rather than “painted.” As letters of the alphabet combine to form meaning, so the colors, compositional elements, and conventions of depiction are thought to create “a symbolic language capable of compressing complex Biblical narratives and theological truths into images that can be comprehended in an instant,” explains the exhibition curator.

Most viewers will be able to recognize familiar saints, angels and, sometimes, stories. And if you are puzzled, there is usually a name written on the icon. For anyone who may feel uneasy about the “graven image’ aspect of icons, Ms. McCormick explains her own rule of thumb for distinguishing icons from idolatry. “The difference, as I see it, is that if it points you toward God, it is not an idol, but if it points toward yourself or something else, then it is an idol,” she says. “As human beings we relate to faces but how to represent the godhead is still a disputed issue.”

In 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III declared icons to be idolatrous on the basis of the Second Commandment, which prohibits the making of “graven images.” “People lived and died over this issue,” said Ms. McCormick. The Second Council of Nicea in 787, also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was convened specifically to address the problem.

With degrees in fine art and printmaking, Ms. McCormick thinks of herself as a creative artist. In response to those who would describe her as a “copyist,” she says: “Would you call Glenn Gould a copyist?”

Although icons are created according to a strict canon, unlike the art of the west, which places a high value on artistic originality and innovation, there are, says Ms. McCormick, opportunities for the artist to be creative within the canon and Prosopon School icons are as unique as they are similar. “As an artist working in sacred art, one is bound by many constraints, and yet in that there is infinite freedom,” she says.

Like a poet working within  the form of a sonnet, one has to observe rules of prosody. Poetry is a great analogy, she believes, because like a poem, an icon compresses. “An icon can teach you volumes like that! she says with a snap of the fingers. “It bypasses the rational mind.”

As in any atelier, the school has developed new conventions for depicting garments, in wool and silk, and even, as was a recent challenge to students, painting a garment made of light.

“The act of writing, an icon for me, is an act of gratitude. We live in the world surrounded by beauty and there is a transfiguring of these raw materials in offering them back to God. This is an act of devotion,” says Ms. McCormick, “something for me to do with my hands while I pray.”

“Locating Prosopon: On the Path Towards the Divine Countenance” continues through June 30 in the Erdman Gallery at the Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 Library Place. Admission is free and the event open to the public, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 to 9 p.m. For more information, call (609) 462-0975, or visit: www.prosoponschool.org.

 

davisI had just never heard music like that. I never heard melodies that wafted away and came back to earth a long way off.

—Colin Davis on first hearing Berlioz

I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.

—Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

It’s just not done. You don’t drive to New Hope with the Berlioz Requiem. It’s too much to ask of Moby, my sturdy 12-year-old Honda CRV, who has just been treated to a new timing belt. But this is a special occasion. Colin Davis, the conductor in charge of the sonic juggernaut rocking the car, died last week, April 14, at 85.

As we speed down down down one hill, gathering momentum for the steeper hill looming dead ahead ten minutes this side of Lambertville, I’m holding on for dear life with my left hand, conducting with my right. We’re into the last of the massive orchestral movements surging toward the Day of Wrath as we hit the upgrade, and here comes grief and glory from the four corners of the earth, four brass choirs playing the fatal fanfare, the Tuba Mirum that, as Davis liked to say, “blows your brains out.” Now Moby’s pushing past horsepower to whalepower like his great white namesake and we’re over the top as the chorus lays a wave of pure sound on the hilltop horizon, 400 voices above a score of thundering drums, it’s as if everyone who ever lived is singing “as all creation rises again.” Then we’re over the top into the sun and wind and the hushed, humbled calm of the Quid sum miser. On to New Hope!

Five Easy Pieces

The idea that “serious music” has to exist apart from the rough and tumble of real life is violated with a vengeance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Until serendipity brought the film my way in the aftermath of Sir Colin Davis’s death, I’d had doubts about doing a column on a British conductor who seemed too far from the American mainstream — too, well, serious. But not if he’s sharing the column with Bobby Eroica Dupea, the blue-collar black sheep of a family of classical musicians played by Jack Nicholson, who turned 76 on April 22.

If you can soar with Berlioz in a Honda, you can get down with Chopin in a pick-up truck. According to Edward Douglas’s biography of Nicholson, the whole film evolved from Rafelson’s vision of Jack “out in the middle of a highway, the wind blowing through his hair, sitting on a truck and playing the piano.” What makes the moment exhilarating is the way it blows through the cliches of class and cinema shaping our expectations. All we know of Bobby when he piles out of his car in the middle of a nightmare of gridlocked, horn-blaring road rage is that he’s a hard-working, hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-bowling handful with a short fuse. Now that he’s out there shouting at the honking drivers (“Ants!”) and barking back at a barking dog, we’re anticipating some vintage American violence, maybe a tire-iron duel to the death, a shoot out, or a kerosene-laced free-for-all that ends with at least one car going up in flames. Instead, Robert Eroica Dupea has spotted a familiar object in the back of an open truck, a piece of furniture he knows all too well; the canvas sheet loosely pulled over it can’t hide the story of his early life. Climbing abroad the truck, he flings the canvas off the piano, sits down, and liberates his demons, pounding out Chopin’s Fantasy in F-minor while back in the car his bellylaughing buddy claps and whoops and cheers him on. And he’s still playing when the traffic begins to move and still at it even as the truck heads off down a side road, he doesn’t care, he’s free, and for all purposes already on his way back to the other half of his life.

Sure enough, next thing you know he’s on the coast highway heading north to the family home on an island in the environs of Seattle. The apparent motive for the visit is to see his dying father, though it’s also clear that he’s fed up with his trailer camp oil-rigger life and feeling burdened by his Rayette, a sweet, sexy, gauche, super-needy, and apparently pregnant Tammy Wynette-wanna-be played to the hilt by Karen Black. On the drive north, there are some moments memorable enough to help secure Five Easy Pieces a place with the best films of its era (see the YouTube clips “Side Order of Toast” and “Palm Apodaca”). It’s also the only American film that German director Wim Wenders “felt close to” at the time of a 1976 interview. Wenders found it “a very European film in a way,” because of the family living in the big “English house” where “everybody is playing an instrument” — ”all that cultural background … it’s not American.”

After leaving Rayette at a nearby motel, Bobby revisits the music-haunted house he grew up in and proceeds to seduce his concert violinist brother’s elegant fiance, Catherine, herself a pianist (as is his sister Partita). The seduction begins when he plays, at her request, Chopin’s prelude No. 4. As a subdued Bobby plays, the camera tours the big room, which is steeped in family history, violins lying about, music manuscripts, framed photographs of family members in performance, Bobby as a youngster, and, of course, framed portraits of Chopin and Mendelssohn. In less than three minutes you understand where he’s coming from and why when he finishes and is complimented for playing with feeling, he insists that he felt “nothing.” The merging of music, imagery, and movement in this sequence is surely among the moments Wenders had in mind when he spoke of European films and English houses.

Smashing It All Up

There’s a definite rough and tumble side to Sir Colin Davis’s story, and a touch of Jack Nicholson’s volatility in a conductor known in his middle years for “schoolboy tantrums” and talking back to the audience. In fact, when the movie-star-handsome Davis was doing his first stint as conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra at around the same age as Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, he was, by his own admission, “a raw young man” battling with “a pretty ferocious bunch of pirates.” In a 2007 interview, he remembers “There were no women in the orchestra except for a harpist who smoked a pipe. And we had lots of battles.” By the time he took over from Georg Solti at the Royal Opera, he was in his mid-forties and had yet to mellow. When members of the audience, unhappy at losing Solti, booed him, he booed back and stuck his tongue out, and the Covent Garden seas remained stormy until he left in 1986.

Like Bobby Dupea, Davis had two families, three, if you count the one he was born into, a struggling bank clerk’s son with six siblings and no electricity housed above a shop in Weybridge, Surrey. In the online Daily Mail article I’ve been quoting from, which is accompanied by the best Colin Davis photos available (in one he’s shown hugging an immense pet iguana, in another he’s on fire conducting, rearing back, one fist clenched, roaring like a lion), he remembers, “We had a zinc bath in front of the coal fire with all these slippery kids jumping in and out. There wasn’t any light except for the fire. It was all rather humble.”

Of the conductor’s other two families, the first was predictably musical, given his marriage at 22 to April Cantelo, a soprano, with whom he had two children, Suzanne and Christopher; while his wife’s career was taking off, he was scuffling for work, reduced at times to babysitting, and in the mid-sixties, when personal and professional revolt were the order of the day, Davis made his move. Sounding like a British variation on Bobby Dupea, he put it this way, as quoted in Norman Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth: “I decided I didn’t like anything in my life. So I stood back and smashed it all up.”

Unlike Bobby, who abandons his pregnant partner and heads for Alaska, Davis picked up the pieces and put his life back together again. With his marriage dissolving and his career going nowhere, he righted himself by reading Hermann Hesse, Herman Broch, and Nikos Kazantzakis, and falling in love with his family’s former au pair, an Iranian diplomat’s daughter. He married Ashraf Naini (Shamsi) multiple times in order to satisfy both the Iranian and British authorities, once in Tehran, once in the Iranian Embassy in London as well as in a civil ceremony. The marriage produced five children, Kurosh, Kavas, Farhad, Sheida, and Yalda, and lasted 46 years, until Lady Davis, as she was known after Davis was knighted in 1980, died in June 2010. When he was asked how he could go on conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House only days after her death, he replied that his strength “comes from the music,” and said of Mozart, “he’s life itself.” In one of his last interviews, he admitted that “not a day passes” that he isn’t “thinking about his own death.” In a Times of London article on the occasion of his 80th birthday in September 2007, he said, “Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one’s own life. It comes out of nothing and disappears into nothing.”

Davis in Action

Go looking for the combative tantrum-thrower online and you’re more likely to find a sage whose gifts as a conductor include humanity and humility, a sense of humor, a poet’s grasp of language, and a willingness to be consumed in the fire of the score when, for example, the object is to set the Berlioz Requiem ablaze in all its tumultuous glory. On YouTube you can see him rehearsing for a millennium concert of that “stupendous” work, telling the violinists among his vast corps of student musicians to think of the tremolos in the Dies Irae as “the fire that’s going to consume you when you’ve been condemned.” These are more than words to Davis; he’s in there physically and emotionally as he demonstrates by clutching an invisible violin and sawing it in a mad frenzy, mouthing the savage sounds, as if he were single handedly conjuring the fire. It’s a frenzy even Jack Nicholson might envy.

I’d rather remember the conductor who said of his art, “The difference between something alive and something dead is that the living thing breathes,” and who could express not only the frenzy and the fire of Berlioz but the “melodies that wafted away and came back to earth,” like the Shepherd’s Chorus from L’Enfance du Christ, of which Davis says in a YouTube interview, “If you’re not moved, I’m sorry for you. You’ll have to move on.”

 

Music scholars have long recognized that music is more than the notes on the page; composers write within the context of their lives and what is happening around them. The Dryden Ensemble has never been a performance organization to limit itself to the music of one composer, and the ensemble’s concert at Miller Chapel in Princeton on Sunday afternoon presented a good survey of 17th and 18th-century French music. Perhaps taking a cue from the recent and highly successful Metropolitan Opera pastiche The Enchanted Island, Dryden ensemble oboist Jane McKinley designed a program which told a story through music and literature — primarily the letters of 17th-century French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné. The incorporation of these letters, as well as other period readings, provided the Dryden with the opportunity to create a drama in which literature provided commentary and atmosphere to the music.

Unlike other Dryden Ensemble performances, which mixed and matched the players for different pieces, the six performers on Sunday afternoon — violinists Vita Wallace and Andrea Andros, oboists Jane McKinley and Julie Brye, viol player Lisa Terry and harpsichordist Webb Wiggins, all played in almost every piece. There were several works which featured solo or duets of instruments, but Ms. Terry and Mr. Wiggins were on call throughout as continuo players. In the pieces in which all players participated, the ensemble was impressively precise in the space of Miller Chapel, with violins and oboes blending together well. In the opening “Entrée from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide,” the notes inégales were nicely played with 18th-century swing, and the Dryden Ensemble effectively provided “mood music” to the narration.

To convey the story, Paul Hecht, a veteran of McCarter Theatre as well as Broadway, read a narrative of the trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances to Louis XIV, augmented with other readings and letters describing the culture of the times. Providing literary commentary and embellishment was Roberta Maxwell, also a veteran of stage and film, reading the letters of the Marquise de Sévigné. The letters of the Marquise were both eloquent and humorous, commenting on the drama and subtle soap operas playing out in the royal court. Mr. Hecht especially seemed to enjoy the accompanying music, and both he and Ms. Maxwell were animated and communicative with the audience.

The Dryden Ensemble divided the program into two “acts,” each featuring the music of leading French composers of the Baroque period. Only one complete work was performed — François Couperin’s La Piémontoise, whose movements bracketed several readings. The excerpts of the works of Lully, Couperin, and Marin Marais were appealing in and of themselves, but as accompaniment to the descriptive readings, these pieces held audience attention well. Ms. Terry’s seven-string viol was the most unique instrument heard, with Ms. Terry playing clean lines into the viol’s upper register. Oboists Ms. McKinley and Ms. Brye provided courtly playing in Lully’s Menuet pour les Hautbois, and Ms. Wallace and Ms. Andros had numerous opportunities to play clean thirds and unison ornaments in several works featuring paired violins. Ms. Terry and Mr. Wiggins were relentless in providing solid continuo accompaniment to the other players.

In this century of electronic communication, hand-written letters are rare and expressive glimpses into another time and place, and paint pictures not often seen these days. The Dryden Ensemble’s imaginative “Versailles” concert provided a look into a thought-provoking time from a prior century which may have been turbulent, but produced some of the most elegant music ever written.

 

 
CRIME DOES NOT PAY: The three trainers at the Sun Gym in Miami Florida think they can get lots of easy money by kidnapping a wealthy businessman from Colombia (not shown) and hold for a large ransom. The leader of the conspiracy is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, center), accompanied by his henchmen Paul (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie). The film is based on a real life incident that occurred in the nineties.

CRIME DOES NOT PAY: The three trainers at the Sun Gym in Miami Florida think they can get lots of easy money by kidnapping a wealthy businessman from Colombia (not shown) and hold for a large ransom. The leader of the conspiracy is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, center), accompanied by his henchmen Paul (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie). The film is based on a real life incident that occurred in the nineties.

Michael Bay is a director who has been associated with mindless stunt filled action films such as Armageddon, Bad Boys, and the Transformers series. His latest offering, however, Pain & Gain is a change because it tones down the special effects and pyrotechnics in favor of a credible plot and character development.

Based on a true event that transpired in Florida in the nineties, the alternately comical and gruesome movie is about the felonious exploits of three bodybuilders who concocted a kidnap-for-ransom plot that went terribly awry. The mastermind of the scheme was Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-con who was employed as a personal trainer at the Sun Gym in Miami.

Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a regular customer there, was an arrogant businessman from Colombia with an oversized ego and a temper to match. His condescending attitude made it easy for Daniel to consider extorting cash from the wealthy businessman Kershaw.

Lugo enlists the assistance of two cronies, recently-paroled Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and steroid addicted Adrian (Anthony Mackie).

But the seat-of-the-pants plan has little chance of success, in spite of Lugo’s assurances that “I know what I’m doing” because “I’ve watched a lot of movies.”

One complication is Paul’s reservations about crime ever since he became “born again” and turned his life over to Jesus. Adrian also has health problems that are caused by his addiction to steroids.

Nevertheless, the three still proceed with the conspiracy and abduct Victor and take him to an abandoned warehouse where they torture him mercilessly in order to learn where his fortune is hidden.

Credit the convincing performances by the leads, especially Dwayne Johnson (cast against type here as a fairly sensitive soul), for actually inducing the audience to empathize and laugh at the wacky antics of three despicable miscreants. Also, Tony Shalhoub plays his role of a dislikable victim so well, that he makes it easy to root for his captors.

Very Good (***). Rated R for graphic nudity, bloody violence, crude sexuality, drug use, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures

 
April 17, 2013

DVD revShakespeare, he’s in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells ….

—Bob Dylan

You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames, that old river poet who never, ever ends …. —Kate Bush

Whatever, whoever he may be, Shakespeare is everywhere. Locally, he was just the subject of an early birthday celebration at the library. Universally, besides being caricatured in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and deified in Berlioz’s Memoirs (1865), he’s in Dylan’s alley “stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” whispering poetry in Kate Bush’s elegant ear in “Oh England My Lionheart,” and now and forever, or so I like to think, he’s moving “with sweet majesty” among us like King Henry among his troops the night before the battle of Agincourt in Laurence Olivier’s film, Henry V.

If I were asked this week’s Town Talk question about a favorite work by Shakespeare, I’d give the lazy, easy, obvious answer. But Hamlet was more than a favorite, it was the great insurmountable mist-shrouded summit of graduate school, and by the time I bowed out of the program, I felt like the pilgrim in the old joke about the quest for the meaning of life who finally finds the master’s cave and throws himself at the enlightened one’s feet only to be told “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son,” except instead of cherries the answer is Shakespeare. Just Shakespeare.

Berlioz knew. The great French composer’s avowed master was not a man of music but a man of words, of whom he wrote after the death of Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress he fell in love with watching her play Juliet and Ophelia: “Shakespeare! Shakespeare! I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other. Shakespeare! You were a man. You, if you still exist, must be a refuge for the wretched. It is you who are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven.”

Besides being the subject of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the actress inspired the love scene from his choral symphony Roméo et Juliette that Toscanini once said was “the most beautiful music in the world.”

In Love

When I was lost in graduate school Elsinore, prowling in and out of the nooks and crannies of Hamlet’s castle, I had a fantasy where, very very late at night, I would zone in on one small glowing window, creeping close enough to peer over Shakespeare’s shoulder as he writes, watching the words being shaped on foolscap in ink as fresh as the moment. My fantasy came to life in Shakespeare in Love, at the end where the young poet is shown scribing two words in Shakespearean script at the top of a fresh white page, “Twelfth Night,” the play he’s writing for and about Viola, as Berlioz wrote for and about Harriet Smithson. Viola’s his muse, the love of his life, who smites him, as Smithson did Berlioz, when she’s playing Juliet. Sure, it’s only a high-tech Hollywood facsimile of the moment of creation, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling to see on screen, the perfect ending for an unashamedly imperfect film, a brash, broad, wildly romantic, never uncolorful journey. After the words, “Scene One: A sea coast,” are formed, there’s a closeup of the playwright’s hand, thumbnail black with ink, scribing “Viola,” the image fading but still visible as his Viola appears striding along a distant shore, seemingly given life and motion by the movement of his pen.

A great many people, old and young, left Shakespeare in Love feeling good about life and Shakespeare and half in love with Gwyneth Paltrow. Although I had doubts about Joseph Fiennes in the title role, he played it with passion and panache, and who could complain about Geoffrey Rush’s vivid comic turn as Henslowe except maybe Henslowe? Paltrow’s lovely, spirited Viola won the Best Actress Oscar as much for sheer presence as for her performance; it’s her energy, charm, and beauty that gives the film its glow. And on top of that, this piece of commercial bardolatry scored at the box office and won seven Academy Awards, also including Best Picture. “Best” was a poor choice for Paltrow. It should have been “Most Radiant.”

However, having just seen Shakespeare in Love for the first time in 15 years, I find that the glow has faded somewhat, and the film now and then seems forced, sloppy, bogus, and too amused with itself (as in the nasty-kid-who-grew-up-to-be-John-Webster gag). But then I came to it the day after seeing a vastly superior work with a similar subject and setting. Resplendently remastered in the Criterion DVD, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V makes the newer film’s charm, color, warmth, and Shakespearean ambience look one-dimensional.

Higher Ground

When Olivier was advised to film Henry V in “battledress,” — this being wartime, with D-Day looming — he said, “No, it’s got to beautiful.” Given the prevailing conditions — the need to shoot it in Ireland where sufficient numbers of men (650) and horses (150) were available and the sky was free of Luftwaffe planes on their way to the bombing of London — Olivier was too busy to know that his film would develop into one of the most beautiful ever made. Henry V also provided the Shakespeare of film reviewers, James Agee, with one of the great assignments of his life when it opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1946, a year and a half after its inspirational 1944-45 run in wartime England.

In his April 8, 1946 TIME review, which included a cover profile of Olivier, Agee was not as circumspect as he would be months later in his two-part article in The Nation. Under the one-word heading, “Masterpiece,” the review begins, “The movies have produced one of their rare great works of art.” No one distrusted freely dispensed superlatives more than Agee, but he must have known he was making journalistic history. The purpose of the first part of his Nation review was “getting off his chest” all he “could possibly find to object to.” In the TIME review, Agee pulls out the stops: “At last” there has been “brought to the screen, with such sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday, a play by the greatest dramatic poet who ever lived,” “a magnificent screen production,” “one of the great experiences in the history of motion pictures … a perfect marriage of great dramatic poetry with the greatest contemporary medium for expressing it.”

It’s worth noting that Henry V arrived in America at a time when Shakespeare was considered box office poison after the financial debacles of elaborate major-studio productions like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. Between the complaints of censors worried about suspect references to God and exhibitors concerned with the film’s excessive length, the powers that be in the States seemed to be conspiring to tarnish Olivier’s triumph, but to no avail, thanks in great part to Agee’s send off in TIME, the most widely read magazine in America.

Agee is still the only writer I know of whose weekly film reportage endures as literature. Surely no one but he would make the effort to envision a future moment when “after many more seeings,” the setting and the casting, “which now seem as nearly perfect as I have ever seen in a film,” might seem “perhaps … a little predictable,” and where “Renée Asherson’s performance as the French princess, which now seems to me pure enchantment, will … look a little coarsely coy.” In fact, Agee is only cleverly covering all the bases, as the next sentence makes clear: “But if this time ever comes I fear also that I will have lost a certain warmth of spirit, and capacity for delight, which the film requires of those who will enjoy it, and which it asks for, and inspires, with a kind of uninsistent geniality and grace which is practically unknown in twentieth century art, though it was part of the essence of Shakespeare’s.”

In addition to indicating why Olivier’s Henry V will never cease to delight him while subtly prescribing the perceptual virtues that make an audience worthy of it, Agee is describing qualities in Shakespeare like those that Berlioz is responding to in his prayerful cry from the heart to the one who “alone of all the men who ever lived” could understand him.

Among the numerous instances in the plays and sonnets where Shakespeare’s humanity has been cited and celebrated, Henry V contains a passage in which the author not only seems to be speaking to us but visiting us, moving among us, a monarch of art in the guise of a king passing anonymously among his troops, a presence at once human and divine. On the night before the Battle of Agincourt, the film delivers a storybook image showing the lights of the French and English camps burning opposite one another like two encampments in a world of night as the chorus — read by Leslie Banks as if Shakespeare were truly speaking through him — sets the scene: “Now entertain conjecture of a time/When creeping murmur and the poring dark/Fills the wide vessel of the universe.”

The image held onscreen for the time it takes to speak those richly resonant words lives and breathes with its own mysterious beauty and suffuses the scene that follows, as the soldiers “by their watchful fires/Sit patiently and inly ruminate/The morning’s danger.” Borrowing a cloak to disguise himself, “the royal captain of this ruin’d band” walks from “watch to watch, from tent to tent … with cheerful semblance and sweet majesty,” so that “every wretch, pining and pale before,/Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.” As Olivier’s disguised king brings to life the words of the chorus, he embodies the virtues Agee finds in Shakespeare, “geniality and grace” and “sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty.” He also has the benefit of one of the most endearing lines in literature, spoken like a father to all the children of the world as the chorus continues, with reference to “A largess universal, like the sun,/His liberal eye doth give to every one,/Thawing cold fear,” as “mean and gentle all/Behold, as may unworthiness define,/A little touch of Harry in the night.”

And a little touch of Shakespeare, still and forever moving among us.

 

For the course “Documentary Film and the City,” Princeton University Urban Studies students have a ready-made laboratory less than 15 miles away: Trenton. The capital city is a gold mine for the kinds of issues they explore — rising crime, failed housing developments, abandoned buildings, and policy problems.

But the urban setting also offers a window into how these problems might be solved. The students have been working on “The Trenton Project,” a collaborative collection of mini-documentaries about housing in the city that will be shown next month as part of an ongoing film series at the School of Architecture’s Betts Auditorium. Interviewing developers, social workers, housing specialists, and residents, the students have seen the proverbial lights at the end of the tunnel.

“Out in the field, they have been really amazed by the dedication of the social workers they’ve been talking with,” says Purcell Carson, a documentary film editor who is teaching the course. “When you think of a welfare office, you don’t normally think of people being totally emotionally invested in their clients. But that’s what they’ve seen, and it’s been eye-opening for them. They’ve also seen that problems of the city are not just public policy, but have to be thought about by individuals as well. They’ve been really interested in the developers, small and large, who see opportunity where others see problems.”

The Urban Studies Film Series has been screening documentaries and other films, followed by talks with various scholars, writers, and filmmakers, since early March. Greetings from Asbury Park is scheduled for April 23, followed by a discussion with the director. On April 30, La Sierra, about Colombia’s bloody conflict, will be shown. Works in progress from The Trenton Project will be screened May 7. The final showing of the Trenton Project will be May 20 at Artworks, in Trenton. All programs are free and open to the public.

This is the first year that “Documentary Film and the City” has been offered to University students. They are working in conjunction with the University’s Community Based Learning Initiative (CBLI), which pairs students with local non-profits to do community-based research. As part of the course, they have learned about issues in Camden, the Mount Laurel decision on affordable housing, and other related subjects. They took part in a history of public housing tour last month.

“They are looking at questions such as ‘How do you come in with this knowledge of a living place, and tell the stories that are unfolding right before you?’” says Alison Isenberg, a professor of history who co-directs the program in Urban Studies. A recent screening of The Pruitt Igoe Myth about a public housing project in St. Louis attracted up to 50 people, who came not just from the University but from Trenton, New Brunswick, and beyond.

“One of the opportunities of a series like this is to take the scholarship embodied in this kind of documentary, and use it to help animate a discussion about a place like Trenton today,” Ms. Isenberg adds. “The turnout, to me, was indicative of exactly the interest in that crossover. What can we learn from both the historical and ongoing efforts at rebuilding? What can we take from this discussion in a living and breathing way, for the very same questions that swirl in the policy decisions that people are making every month? We hope to sustain the discussion of those issues through the next couple of weeks.”

For Ms. Carson, who is contracted to teach at Princeton for three years, the course has a double goal: to educate students about documentary film, and about east coast post-industrial cities and the problems they face today. This semester’s focus on housing is “a way of having each of the short films they make create a broader mosaic portrait together,” she says. “My goal at the beginning of the semester was to find situations and circumstances along the spectrum of housing, and put my students in those situations to make these very short, slice-of-life portraits.”

Working with CBLI, Ms. Carson has paired her students with subjects through the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare, among other agencies. Some of the students have focused their lens on the former Miller Homes high-rise housing project near the Trenton Transit Station, which will become the Rush Crossing community of townhouses. “They’ve been talking to the local housing authority, the developers, and the people who used to live in those homes and were kicked out when the city decided they were a problem that was unfixable,” she says.

Other students are making films about the thousands of abandoned properties in the city. Their research has paired them with a representative from the Isles organization, a developer, and other members of the community.

“These students are mostly sociologists and public policy people,” Ms. Carson says. “Documentary film is a really interesting way to make big problems legible and expose them through a different lens.”

 

 

With the growth of performing opportunities at Westminster Choir College over the past years, one thing which has been missing is a proper hall in which to present non-choral performances. The college now has a solid operatic training program in place, in which vocal students can get roles under their belts before graduation. The Choir College has presented operas at the nearby high school and other venues, but this past weekend, the Westminster Opera Theater poured cast, stage, and a very appreciative audience into the campus’s Playhouse for a presentation of one of the more substantial operas in the repertory. With stage on two sides, a pianist on a third side and conductor at the back of the hall, this was operatic theater in the round, and considering the limitations of the space, the resulting production was nothing short of remarkable.

Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is a prime example of late 19th century French operettas, combining humor, caricatures, and great melodies into an opera which captivated Paris from the moment of its premiere. Offenbach constructed the three-act (with prologue and epilogue) with major characters who change identity in each act but are sung by the same performer, requiring tremendous vocal stamina from singers of any age, much less in the early twenties.

The bulk of the vocal work falls on the tenor role of Hoffmann (based on the German author and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann) and the Villains (four, sung by the same baritone) and an additional four-part tenor role of the Servants. Westminster Opera Theater double-cast almost all of the roles for performances Friday and Saturday nights (with an additional performance on Sunday cast with the covers to the principals), and Friday night’s cast proved that these singers were well up to the task of high-quality professional opera.

The role of Hoffmann was sung by tenor Rexford Tester, a first-year graduate student. Throughout the opera, Mr. Tester showed remarkable vocal endurance and range of emotion when he rhapsodized about his three loves, both imaginary and vehicles for demonic betrayal. Mr. Tester sang the “Kleinzach” scene with animation and sneering drama, and his love duets with the three separate beloveds were poignant and affecting. Hoffmann was a spent man by the end of the opera, but Mr. Tester never ran out of vocal energy.

The roles of the four Villains are much trickier to sustain through three acts. Although Hoffmann appears in virtually every scene, his character remains relatively consistent. The four Villains, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto, vary their scheming techniques or demonic inspirations to trip up Hoffman and the personalities of the characters differ considerably. Baritone Brian Mextorf, currently pursuing a Master of Music at Westminster, has several significant roles to his credit. Mr. Mextorf changed characters substantially for each role, with a voice that resonated well in the space of the Playhouse. As the dollmaker Coppelius, Mr. Mextorf was somewhat geeky; he was sufficiently oily as Dr. Miracle, “curer” of all ills; and he clearly had something going with the Devil as Dapertutto, stealer of souls and reflections.

Interestingly, Offenbach composed the characters of Hoffmann’s three love interests for three separate sopranos. The three roles require very different vocal abilities and present significantly varied personalities and each of the three sopranos on Friday night brought the appropriate vocal treatment to the roles. The character of Olympia, sung by graduate student Madeline Apple Healey, required solid coloratura singing, but unlike the great 18th century coloratura soprano roles, there was a great deal of physicality involved. Ms. Healey was vivacious in doll-like stature, with crystal clean runs and scales, and high E-flats that were right on pitch. Antonia, Hoffmann’s obsession in Act II, was frail and delicate, but Liesl McPherrin sang with a lovely upper register and good ensemble connection with the other singers. Courtesan Giulietta was a schemer, easily swayed by Dapertutto to capture Hoffmann’s reflection for her own gain, and Marissa Mae Chalker proved to be a saucy and seductive, yet decisive singer. Especially elegant was her Barcarolle duet with the character of Nicklausse, solidly performed by mezzo-soprano Laura Elizabeth Davis.

Supporting characters were no less substantial than the leads. Tenor Lucas Levy, clearly a popular singer on the Westminster campus, found humor and energy in his four characters of the “Servants.” As Nicklausse (and the Muse in the prologue and epilogue), Ms. Davis was often the glue which held the act together, always trying to be the voice of reason to Hoffmann. The twenty-member chorus sounded well-blended in the Playhouse and no doubt enjoyed the numerous costume and character changes. With so many characters in this opera, if one did not particularly care for a voice, it was just a matter of waiting a minute for a completely different voice to appear.

Stage Director David Paul made tremendous use of the limited space of the Playhouse, and although the chorus often had no choice but to make their entrances rather noisy, the production elements throughout the space incorporated the audience into the show. Musical Director William Hobbs packed a lot of music into the three-hour time period, assisted by the exceptional Soyoung Kim providing piano accompaniment. This opera was a major production for any college-level institution, but especially notable for Westminster Choir College, whose singers now have one more tool in their arsenals for future performance employment.

 

 
YOU’LL HAVE TO BE MORE THAN JUST A GREAT BASEBALL PLAYER: General manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, right) discusses some of the obstacles Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) would face in his historic role as the first African American to play in the major leagues.

YOU’LL HAVE TO BE MORE THAN JUST A GREAT BASEBALL PLAYER: General manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, right) discusses some of the obstacles Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) would face in his historic role as the first African American to play in the major leagues.

From its formation in the late 19th century until well into the 1940s, major league baseball operated in accordance with an unwritten rule that the sport was to remain strictly segregated. The tacit understanding among the owners stipulated that no blacks were to be signed by any clubs, thereby frustrating the aspirations of many African Americans who dreamed of playing professionally.

In the wake of World War II, however, this state of affairs rankled Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a man who fervently felt that to remain the national pastime, baseball needed to integrate. After all, thousands of African American soldiers were returning home to face discrimination based on their skin color despite having been willing to die for their country in the conflict overseas.

So, in 1945, Rickey decided to challenge the status quo by being the first general manager to put a black ballplayer on the field. However, he anticipated that the landmark moment might be met with considerable resistance, given the virulent racism still existing throughout much of the nation.

Therefore, he knew that the choice of the person to break the color barrier was critical, because he would have to be an individual blessed not only with extraordinary athletic talent but with the requisite strength of character, namely, an amalgam of integrity, restraint, and resolve that would assure the success of the ground breaking endeavor. The candidate he settled upon was Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman), a college educated veteran Army officer who was an All-Star second baseman in the fledgling Negro leagues.

The two forged an alliance after Robinson assured his boss that he wouldn’t respond in kind to any of the racial epithets or vile vitriol about to be hurled in his direction while on the road. As it turned out, even some of his own new teammates initially took issue with his joining the Dodgers in 1947, the year he was brought up to the big leagues.

That historic achievement is painstakingly recreated in 42, a poignant cinematic portrait of an American legend directed by Brian Helgeland. The film carefully chronicles the humiliations Robinson was forced to endure, such as “Colored Only” bathrooms, separate accommodations, the relentless heckling from the bigoted fans in the stands and his rivals in the opposing dugout.

Fortunately, Jackie managed to maintain his dignity and composure, thereby opening the door for the full integration of baseball for other African Americans waiting in the wings. The movie is an emotionally draining biopic featuring Oscar quality performances from Harrison Ford and Chad Boseman in what is easily Hollywood’s best offering of the year thus far.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for epithets, ethnic slurs, and mature themes. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 
April 10, 2013

book revIt’s the first day of March and I’m at the new hospital lying on a gurney, unsedated and edgy, nothing to do, no TV I can watch old movies on, as was possible at Robert Wood Johnson. Since I’m waiting to be wheeled in for minor surgery (a “procedure,” they call it), I think about the longest wait I’ve ever endured. Before I know it, I’ve disappeared into a prayer disguised as a daydream that begins with the sense of intense, even delirious anticipation I would feel if J.D. Salinger’s heirs finally announced the release of some of the Glass family stories so many of us know, believe, feel in our bones he was working on for four decades up in his Cornish N.H. bunker. My daydream prayer takes the form of a miles-long caravan of school busses heading toward the Salinger enclave. The drivers are all versions of the Chief of the Comanche Club, John Geduski, who drives the bus in “The Laughing Man,” one of my two favorite stories, along with “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,” from his 1953 collection, Nine Stories. The kids on board are singing old show tunes; we’re all kids in this Salinger fantasy; it’s like the greatest school trip that never happened. Everyone’s punchy because the feeling is that this demonstration may finally do the trick. We’re 20,000 versions of the amateur reader to whom Salinger dedicated the last work he allowed to appear between covers. That was 50 years ago.

Though we’re waving banners and signs, Free Seymour and What Happened After Hapworth? and The Time Is Now, we’re a pretty respectful group, with people from the stories and books on hand to make sure we behave ourselves, like the two nuns from The Catcher in the Rye, the bride’s uncle with the cigar from “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” the brother with the bleeding thumb and the sandwich from “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” Mr. and Mrs. Happy from Camp Hapworth, and even Ramona and her imaginary friend Jimmy Jimmereeno from “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” who came with Phoebe Caulfield and her pal Esmé in her tartan jumper and Esmé’s brother Charles in his brown Shetland shorts and navy blue jersey and maybe (this is a daydream) the dead father whose watch helped Staff Sgt X get through the war with his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

I’m closing my eyes tight enough now that I can clearly see the sprawling multitude the schoolbuses have released and the hopeful hush aglow above them, yes, it’s a radiant hush, a hush you can actually see, like a happy-kid cloud in a William Steig cartoon hovering over the house on the hill as the door opens and the widow and the son and, yes, the daughter (a good sign) step shyly into view, and they’re smiling (an even better sign) and waving. Matthew, he of the cool lima bean, steps forward. He’s holding a copy of The New Yorker, an issue as yet unpublished. He raises it with both hands above his head while his godfather, the recipient of the lima bean, smiles down on him, a benign William Shawn Sun. This is it! A great swooning sigh passes like a wave over the delirious crowd ….

Oops, the gurney’s moving, voices are asking me inane questions as I try to keep the bubble of the fantasy from breaking; the doctor appears, sticks the plastic mouthpiece in my mouth, as if I were a prize fighter, the sedative kicks in along with a blow smack between the eyes like De Daumier-Smith’s “Experience” when the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of his nose “at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second.” Then, as they say in the movies, “everything went black.”

Hope Embattled

Yes, three years after Salinger’s death in January 2010 we’re still waiting for the remainder of his life’s work. By now, it seems only fair that we be given at least some definitive statement one way or the other from his heirs. Surely this is something Salinger himself would want them to do. How could this man, praised in Eudora Welty’s review of Nine Stories, for his “loving heart,” approve the punishing of legions of faithful readers with three years of stony silence? Even if the answer that finally comes is the “Nevermore” we all dread, that would be less cruel than this limbo of not-knowing; worse yet, it would lead to exactly the sort of thing Salinger despised, only in this case, instead of noxious reviews, noxious bookchat speculation about the reasons why. What could be worse? Was it madness, all those years of work, Salinger’s version of The Shining, 45 years of writer’s block, all work and no play? Or was it that the work produced was an embarrassment, so far below the standard that it simply wasn’t fit to show? And what editorial authority on earth is qualified to presume to make that judgment? Perhaps the lesser of all these ugly evils is that Salinger decided that it was his fate to sacrifice the work of his long late period in order to live out the greatest Henry James story never written?

Double Anniversary

This is a double anniversary year for Salinger. April 1953 saw the publication of Nine Stories, the best known and best-selling book of stories by anyone this side of Ernest Hemingway — at least unless you count the last two books, each containing two long Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961) and the one published half a century ago this January, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which on this date in 1963 was sitting atop the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed throughout the month of April. Is there anything else in American literature comparable to this level of popularity for a so-called “serious” author?

The Glass Mystique

Somewhere in the early sixties, at a table in the Indiana University campus hangout the Gables, an extremely intense guy I hardly knew — I’ve long since forgotten his name if I ever knew it — is expounding at great length on the Glass family history. He’s so excited he’s sweating, his hands are trembling. He’s wearing glasses and the lenses are fogging up from the back draft of the wordstream. He’s giving me the complete genealogy, about Walker and Waker, Boo Boo, and the show biz parents, the apartment on West End Avenue, all of it mixed up with Holden’s family, and Salinger’s. Here’s this virtual stranger baring his soul on a subject that simply wouldn’t give him peace. When I can get a word in, I try out my own theory about Seymour Glass, which is that the man who puts a gun to his temple and pulls the trigger at the end of “Perfect Day for Banana Fish,” the piece that opens Nine Stories, doesn’t match up with the Seymour who becomes the abiding subject and central presence in the later Glass stories. He disagrees, insisting that Salinger had the whole Glass concept in his head from day one.

Having just finished rereading “Bananafish” in the copy of the first edition of Nine Stories I found at the recent Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, I still think, and I’m surely not alone in thinking, that the Seymour of the story first published in the January 31, 1948 New Yorker is not even a rough draft of the later Seymour but a finite creation, an actor enlisted to perform that one role, there and only there, and is at best a onetime fact of fictional life Salinger would develop into the much more ambitious, various, and delightful character essential to the infrastructure of “Franny” and “Zooey” and all the subsequent Glass stories, presumably including the ones we’re waiting for and dying to see before we die.

It still hurts to read Salinger’s final message to his readers, on the jacket copy he wrote for his last book, when he says he wants to get the two stories collected in “something of a hurry” if he means them “to avoid unduly or undesirably close contact with new material in the series.” [The italics are mine] “There is only my word for it, granted,” he continues, “but I have several new Glass stories coming along — waxing, dilating — each in its own way.” He closes out by admitting that “the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years.” Two years later the New Yorker brings out “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which offers joyful and satisfying evidence that Salinger means to keep his word (see “J.D. Salinger’s Letter from Camp Returned to Sender,” Town Topics, Sept. 13, 2006). On top of that, Buddy Glass’s preface to this installment in the series meant to shed some light on “the short, reticulate life and times” of Seymour Glass, “who died, committed suicide, opted to discontinue living, back in 1948,” actually refers to “a long short story about a particular party, a very consequential party,” that he’s been working on “for several months.”

Compare that elaborately worded citing of Seymour’s suicide to the stark reference to the “Ortiges calibre 7.65 automatic” with which he “fired a bullet through his right temple,” thereupon ending “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” with a shocker that left readers buzzing and helped launch  an extraordinary literary career.

Salinger and Vedanta

Waking up on the gurney feeling nicely woozy, my prayerful fantasy was long gone, as distant as the memory of morning on the day of long, very long, journey, like the one between Amritsar and Srinagar I recalled a month later, on Easter Sunday, reading my way through the journey of Nine Stories to the passage from “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” that first nailed me, smack between the eyes, in a houseboat called the Little Mona Lisa on Dal Lake in the Vale of Kashmir. The “Experience” with the sun described by the title character was many times more shocking and exciting and real to me than Seymour’s gunshot to the temple after half a year in India, where we’d seen sadhus at Kumbha Mela who could blind you with a look if you got close enough and where our everyday mantra was “Nothing is impossible.” On that note, let’s get those schoolbuses in motion. Time is running out.

News flash: Twenty-eight letters written by Salinger have been given to the Morgan Library & Museum by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, a gift commemorating the 150th birthday of Swami Vivekenanda. Salinger’s biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, who, like all of us on those schoolbuses, is waiting for rest of the story, will give a lecture “J.D. Salinger & Vedanta” at the Morgan on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.

WORLD WITHIN WORLDS: David Wiesner’s “Fish” from his award-winning children’s picture book, “Flotsam,” is among the images on view in Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery. The exhibition continues through April 24 and may be viewed Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when school is in session; and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700 or visit: www.pds.org.

WORLD WITHIN WORLDS: David Wiesner’s “Fish” from his award-winning children’s picture book, “Flotsam,” is among the images on view in Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery. The exhibition continues through April 24 and may be viewed Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when school is in session; and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700 or visit: www.pds.org.

As a boy growing up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, David Wiesner was known to his classmates as “the kid who could draw.” In high school, he made silent movies and drew wordless comic books. Then he went on to hone his talent at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he not only committed his future to art but furthered a passion for visual narrative.

Ultimately, Mr. Wiesner found his niche in picture books. The exhibition, “World Within Worlds,” currently on view in the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School, features rarely-seen drawings, preliminary sketches, and finished works from the artist’s personal collection as well as an animated video of his book Tuesday, with music by Paul McCartney.

“The idea is the process, or writing and drawing, and how the stories come together. I’m including pieces I drew during high school and earlier, to show how visual themes reoccur in my work,” he says.

A public reception for the artist will take place on Thursday, April 18 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the gallery.

As part of Princeton Day School’s annual “Imagine the Possibilities” program, Mr. Wiesner will spend time with PDS students on Thursday, April 18, and Friday, April 19, sharing his ideas and discussing his process. The “Imagine” series is made possible through the John D. Wallace, Jr. ’78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund, which has been bringing authors, illustrators, and poets to the school since 1996. The artist will spend time with students at all grade levels.

According to his website, Mr. Wiesner generally “spends several years creating each new book. Many versions are sketched and revised until the story line flows smoothly and each image works the way he wants it to.” To explore imagined creatures like flying pigs and standing lizards, he creates three-dimensional models so that he can become better acquainted with the objects of his fancy. This is the sort of attention to detail that lends authenticity to his drawings.

“By his redeployment of everyday items — a fish, a string bean, an amphibian — Wiesner suggests that fantastical things are happening all around us, that our dreams are closer than we think — whether those dreams belong to humans, clouds, or frogs,” said Andrew Leonard in the New York Times Book Review.

The author/illustrator is one of the best-loved and most highly acclaimed picture book creators in the world. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and have won numerous awards in the United States and abroad.

Three of his picture books have become classics and each is a Caldecott Medal winner: Tuesday in 1992, The Three Pigs in 2002, and Flotsam in 2007. He’s one of only two artists to win three medals in the award’s long history.

“We are overjoyed to be exhibiting David Wiesner’s personal works at the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery,”’ said Gallery Director Jody Erdman. “Sometimes spending several years on one book, with at least a half a dozen galleys and sketches, the detail, and beauty of his
illustrations is both intricate and remarkable,” said Ms. Erdman.

But it’s not Mr. Wiesner’s images alone that inspire the smiles. He brings a new wildness to the familiar. Take his telling of The Three Little Pigs. In Wiesner’s version of this oft-told tale, the big bad wolf blows the three pigs into a whole new imaginative landscape, where they wander — and fly — through other stories, encountering the likes of a dragon and a cat with a fiddle along the way. The story engages grownups as much as kids.

In Flotsam, Mr. Wiesner taps into grownup’s memories of days at the beach, rummaging among the treasures of say, the New Jersey Shore. But in Wiesner’s story, the kid on the beach, a bright, science-minded boy, finds a barnacle-encrusted underwater camera with secrets to share … and to keep.

“World Within Worlds,” runs through April 24 in the Anne Reid ’72 Art Gallery at Princeton Day School, 650 Great Road. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when school is in session; and by appointment on weekends. For more information, call (609) 924-6700 or visit: www.pds.org. For more information on the artist, visit: www.davidwiesner.com.

INTENSE JEALOUSY: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik, center), suddenly suspects his wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), and Leontes’ jealous rage sets off a series of tragic events that culminate in transformation and reconciliation, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” through April 21.

INTENSE JEALOUSY: Leontes, King of Sicilia (Mark Harelik, center), suddenly suspects his wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), and Leontes’ jealous rage sets off a series of tragic events that culminate in transformation and reconciliation, in McCarter Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” through April 21.

The first half feels like an abbreviated Othello — raging jealousy replete with tragic overtones and dire events. The world is stark, cold, male-dominated, and hostile. That’s the “winter” part. The second half moves to a pastoral setting, like the rural realm of As You Like It — springtime, celebration, flowers and butterflies, disguises and mistaken identities, love and joyous revelry, and a female presiding spirit. The last scene, with a hint of Shakespeare’s other great romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest, attempts to reconcile the two worlds with their disparate characters and themes.

The Winter’s Tale, directed by Rebecca Taichman (director of Twelfth Night and Sleeping Beauty Wakes at McCarter in 2009 and 2011 respectively,) is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, written in 1611, just before The Tempest. It is one of those late, difficult-to-categorize works, sometimes called tragicomedy, sometimes romance. If you’re looking for Othello or As You Like It, you might be disappointed here. A Winter’s Tale is neither great tragedy nor great comedy, but it presents memorable serious and comical material, psychological depth and enchanting fairy-tale improbabilities, sadness and joy in abundance, death, births, rebirths, and marriages.

The challenges of this magnificently complex, unwieldy play with its mixed tones, its tangled plot, and its rich Shakespearean verse, are significant, but Ms. Taichman and McCarter have assembled top-flight performers and a superb production team to tackle the task. The show is captivating from start to finish — dazzlingly inventive, visually and dramatically stunning.

Ms. Taichman has judiciously pared down the script, cutting many lines and reducing the number of characters from more than thirty to about twenty. Almost all of the actors in the nine-member ensemble play multiple roles. The results are illuminating, thought-provoking, and never unclear.

The Winter’s Tale begins in the court of King Leontes (Mark Harelik) in Sicilia. The spare setting and costuming are contemporary and formal. The action is partly stylized, partly realistic. Christine Jones’ ingenious set creates a certain theatricality for the telling of this “tale” in a lit-up double proscenium arch with a spiral of twenty pendant lights hanging chandelier-fashion. The furniture consists mainly of nine elegant dining room chairs, lined up downstage at the start, as the opening scene exposition is delivered, then moved upstage. Actors not involved in particular scenes watch, as if bearing witness, from their chairs on the upstage wall.

The Sicilia half of the play is the story of Leontes’ sudden suspicion of an adulterous relationship between his pregnant wife Hermione (Hannah Yelland) and his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Sean Arbuckle), who has been visiting for nine months. Leontes bursts into jealous rage. Polixenes, with the help of Leontes’ adviser and assistant , Camillo (Brent Carver), escapes back to Bohemia, but Hermione is thrown into prison, where she gives birth to a baby daughter, Perdita, whom Leontes orders taken into exile and abandoned.

Leontes remains adamant in his irrational misogyny and sexual jealousy, despite brave and impassioned pleas from Paulina (Nancy Robinette), Hermione’s wise and faithful lady-in-waiting. In a scene of high drama, Leontes puts Hermione on trial. Word from Apollo’s oracle informs Leontes of his extreme misapprehensions; news arrives of the death of Leontes’ and Hermione’s young son, and the queen faints away (apparently dead). At that point, Leontes undergoes a sudden conversion, repenting his errors and vowing to do penance in an attempt to atone for the “deaths” of his innocent wife, son, and daughter.

The second half of the play, set mostly in the countryside of Bohemia (before returning to Sicilia for final reconciliations), offers welcome relief — and ultimately rebirth, transformation, and redemption — after the dark gloom and cynicism of Leontes’ world. Sixteen years have passed and Perdita (Heather Wood), who has been found and adopted by a Bohemian shepherd (Ted van Griethuysen) and his son (Tom Story), becomes the central character of the last acts.

Perdita has fallen in love with none other than young Florizel (Todd Bartels), the disguised son of King Polixenes, who, also disguised, discovers the young lovers at a spring festival of flowers and sheep shearing and forbids the continuation of their romance. Florizel and Perdita flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes and Camillo.

Highly improbably — but this is the world of romance, and as its title suggests, the play grants Shakespeare the prerogative of the storyteller — the final scenes in Sicilia see the discovery of Perdita’s true identity and her reunion with her father. Leontes is then reconciled with Polixenes, and, through certain machinations of Paulina, Leontes is reunited with his wife, who was not really dead after all. In addition to the reunion of Leontes and Hermione, the marriages of Perdita and Florizel and of the elderly Camillo and Paulina bring the proceedings to a happy close.

Mr. Harelik’s Leontes is powerful and psychologically compelling, despite the implausible speed with which his jealous fury comes upon him. As the shape-shifting trickster Autolycus in Bohemia, Mr. Harelik displays an impressive versatility and infuses the second act scenes with a generous dose of high-spirited, roguish humor.

Ms. Yelland’s Hermione embodies regal and maternal dignity, strength, and beauty in abundance, making an unscripted but dazzlingly evocative appearance in mid-play to complement her spirited presence in the opening scenes and at the culmination of the evening.

Ms. Wood’s fresh-faced, fair and vibrant Perdita effectively delivers a youthful spirit of life and springtime in the second act. In an interesting directorial choice, she also ably fulfills the first-act role of Perdita’s brother, the young boy Mamillius, and of the transformative figure of Time, who explains the 16-year gap in the action and narrates the beginning of the second half of the play.

Mr. Carver’s Camillo and Ms. Robinette’s Paulina, both characters of solid good sense and reason, are crucial to the plot and theme of the play. Paulina is especially strong in speaking truth to power and in orchestrating the scheme that helps to bring about Leontes’ atonement and his reunion with Hermione. Ted van Griethuysen and Mr. Story provide some excellent antics and comic turns in the second half, and, along with Mr. Bartels, portray an array of convincing characters.

Original music for the play, composed by Nico Muhly, is highly effective in creating the multi-faceted, shifting world of The Winter’s Tale. As background music it sets the tone and reflects the psychological atmosphere in the first half of the play, then establishes the celebratory mood of the second half, as three musicians — accordion, fiddle, clarinet — come onstage for the sheep-shearing festivities, and finally helps to create the magical transformation of the last scene.

There are many stunning moments in the play, where Mr. Muhly’s music, Ms. Jones’ set, David Zinn’s creative costumes, and Christopher Akerlind’s frequently shifting, richly expressive lighting all work together successfully with characters and dialogue to communicate the essences of Shakespeare’s play.

“It is required you do awake your faith,” says Paulina in the beautifully staged, wonderfully astonishing final scene of the play, as she presents the “statue” of Hermione and presides as it comes to life. This sumptuous Winter’s Tale is an extraordinary tribute to the spirit of comedy and springtime and to the magic of the theatrical illusion with the power to redeem all and bring rebirth and reconciliation. The theater audience cannot help but join the onstage characters as they awake their faith, suspend disbelief and participate in the wonders of this magical tale.

As part of its residency at Princeton University, the Brentano String Quartet presents a public concert each semester. This semester’s performance paired light and airy music with the beautiful early spring day which the audience at Richardson Auditorium seemed only too happy to give up in favor of music on Sunday afternoon. The Brentano String Quartet, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee, performed standard chamber music of Haydn and Brahms, as well as an appealing piano quintet of a unique American composer.

Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major proved to be a sprightly and crisp way to open the program and warm up to the contemporary work which followed. The four-movement Haydn quartet was subtitled “The Joke,” and the members of the Brentano uniformly teased the audience with delayed cadences and playful dialogs among instrumentalists. In spite of the musical humor, the Brentano still provided the required precision and exacting communication, with even trills between the violins and clean interplay so that all players ended up in the same place at the same time. The Trio of the second movement maintained a sense of elegance within its hurdy-gurdy style, and an especially silky duet between cello and viola marked the third movement. The Brentano Quartet effectively closed the work with mischief and humor, teasing the audience into wondering whether or not the piece was really over.

The Brentano Quartet took the opportunity on Sunday afternoon to add to the ensemble’s discography by recording one of the pieces on the program in live performance. Tobias Picker’s Piano Quintet: Live Oaks was a piece with which the Brentano seemed very comfortable, and one which the quartet obviously felt fit in well with the Richardson acoustics. Joining the Brentano in the performance of this work was pianist Sara Rothenberg, who as director of Da Camera of Houston initially commissioned Live Oaks from Mr. Picker.

Ms. Rothenberg showed herself to be a clean and dynamic pianist, providing sharp and crisp octaves contrasting with languid jazz melodies. All of the pieces of this work needed to fit together precisely, and the timing between strings and piano was exact as Ms. Rothenberg exploited the full range of the keyboard. Shimmering upper violins contrasted to the lyrical and jazzlike piano lines, as the players built the intensity to such a point that one could easily imagine this music being a film score. Uniform directional crescendos provided variety in music which could have been pounding at its loudest, and the piece resorted frequently to a languid and relaxed style as the players brought the work to a close in glorious fashion.

Johannes Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 showed elements of grace of a different sort, with Viennese polish and joyfulness. In the opening movement the lower strings played certain passages with poignancy and hope, as concertmaster Mr. Steinberg provided a fervent melody. Ms. Lee took the lead with the cello in the second movement with driving melodic material, contrasted with a solidly supporting second violin and viola. The players approached the third movement portraying the icy Austrian winter, contrasted with a fiery gypsy closing Finale.

The Brentano String Quartet has been in residence at Princeton University since 1999, and seems well at home both on the concert stage and in the department of music. String players on campus and audience members from the community can consider themselves lucky that the Brentano is so accessible in performances and in workshops, often at no charge. This is a musical benefit in the community which no one should take for granted and certainly should enjoy.

IF THEY ONLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO: The singing group The Sapphires are shown here on a personnel carrier greeting some of the troops in the Vietnam war. The four Australian aborigines were a big hit amongst the soldiers. The quartet arrived in Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive and experienced first hand the horrors of war as the shows they put on got closer and closer to the front lines.

IF THEY ONLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO: The singing group The Sapphires are shown here on a personnel carrier greeting some of the troops in the Vietnam war. The four Australian aborigines were a big hit amongst the soldiers. The quartet arrived in Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive and experienced first hand the horrors of war as the shows they put on got closer and closer to the front lines.

As young children, the McCrae sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), were forming a promising singing group with their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). But the quartet barely got off the ground before Kay was seized by the authorities and taken from her family while she was recuperating in a hospital.

Unfortunately, the girls were growing up in Australia at a time when the law allowed fair-skinned aborigines, like Kay, to be taken from their mothers and placed with Caucasian families so they could be raised in accordance with the “White Ways.” Consequently, half-caste Kay had virtually no contact with her indigenous culture or any of her relatives over the next decade.

By 1968, however, Gail, Julie, and Cynthia were old enough to track their cousin down, and when they found her, they persuaded her to run away with them. Soon after, the four youths entered a local amateur competition as a country music act.

Although they were not the favorites of the audience that day, they did impress Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who recognized their potential, and convinced them to change their repertoire to popular Motown tunes. In short order, he became the quartet’s piano player, conductor, choreographer, and manager, and whipped his diamond in a rough into Australia’s version of The Supremes and was able to arrange for them to perform for the troops over in Vietnam.

Based on the stage play of the same name, The Sapphires recounts the group’s harrowing, real-life experiences when they arrived in Southeast Asia during the bloody Tet offensive. The movie marks the impressive debut of aborigine Wayne Blair, a gifted actor-turned-director who does a remarkable job of subtly recreating the political climate of the turbulent 60s.

For instance, Blair effectively employs the iconic clip of Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the army (“No Viet Cong ever called me a [N-word].”) to convey the growing opposition to the war. Nevertheless, blinded by a combination of naivete and the pay, our four heroines find themselves in the middle of a war zone with little preparation for the unspeakable horrors they are about to witness.

With no choice but to make the best of a bad situation, they proceed to put on a number of very well-received shows as the tour takes them closer and closer to the frontlines. However, amidst the insanity of war, they somehow find time for reverie, reflection, and even a little romance.

A well-deserved tribute to four Australian women who risked their lives to entertain the boys.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, sexuality, smoking, and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.