June 4, 2014
HOW CAN NOT KILLING THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SENTINELS SAVE THE FUTURE?: In the past, the superhero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not shown) was assigned by the X-Men to murder Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinel robots, shown here in the process of creating the robots in the past. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, not shown) was sent back from the future to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission.

HOW CAN NOT KILLING THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SENTINELS SAVE THE FUTURE?: In the past, the superhero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not shown) was assigned by the X-Men to murder Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinel robots, shown here in the process of creating the robots in the past. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, not shown) was sent back from the future to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the 7th episode in the series, and is the third one directed by Bryan Singer, who also directed X-Men 1 and 2. This film is loosely based on the 1981 Marvel Comics (issues #141-142) of the same name, a convoluted tale in which a superhero is sent back in time to prevent an impending disaster that is threatening their present.

The story unfolds in a dystopian future where we find robots, called Sentinels, slaying mutants and subjugating humanity. X-Men founder, leader, and the brains behind the group — Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) — summons the surviving members to a meeting in a monastery in China to hatch a plan to preserve the planet.

With the help of “phasing” Shadowcat’s (Ellen Page) quantum tunneling ability, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) slips through a portal to a parallel universe in 1973. His mission there is to stop fellow mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering Trask (Peter Dinklage), the diabolical genius who invented the Sentinels.

Why would you want a vanquished villain to be reincarnated? Don’t ask. After all, that’s one of the easier leaps of faith this film’s plot expects you to make. If you need a plausible plot, then you might be too close-minded for this imaginative science fiction.

But I digress. Fortunately, you will be richly rewarded for taking flights of fancy — provided you suspend your disbelief. Don’t try to make sense, for instance, about how you go back in time, reverse a long-deceased person’s demise, and yet not simultaneously unravel myriad aspects of reality which have already transpired.

Instead, simply sit back and enjoy a sophisticated movie unfolding against a nostalgic backdrop littered with staples of the 70s, ranging from lava lamps to waterbeds. This adventure even brings out a number of characters we haven’t seen for awhile, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Cyclops (James Marsden), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore).

Don’t forget to sit through all of the credits for a teaser about the next X-Men: Apocalypse, coming in May of 2016.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for nudity, profanity, suggestive material, and intense violence. In English, French, and Vietnamese with subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

 

May 28, 2014

bk revThere’s a rapping at my study door, a soft persistent tapping, with a hint of claw in the sound. The door is gently banging back and forth in the frame as I sort through ideas for a May 28 column. When the rapping intensifies, it inspires thoughts of a famous Raven at a famous chamber door. Even in the age of Rap the word “rapping” belongs to Poe.

Waiting on the other side is Nora, our glossy 11-year-old tuxedo cat who can’t abide closed doors. I put my thoughts on hold and clear a space for us amid the jumble of books piled on the chaise by the window. Stepping lightly over the rocky paperback-hardback terrain until she has a clear view of the street below, Nora casts a watchful eye on the commotion of a garbage truck making the Thursday pick-up. No birds or squirrels being in sight, she turns her attention to a battered paperback anthology of French poetry I found at the Cranbury Book Worm the other day, gives it a whiskery nuzzling, and then puts one white paw on Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, as if to say, “This is mine.” Then she curls up by my side and, as my maternal grandmother would say, commences purring.

With my free hand, I open the Baudelaire, a severely creased Boni & Liveright Modern Library edition from 1919, and start reading aloud from a prose poem about twilight madness and a man who would be sociable and indulgent during the day and “pitiless” in the evening, having once thrown at a waiter’s head “an excellent chicken, in which he imagined he had discovered some insulting hieroglyph.”

While I’m not suggesting that our Nora has a soft spot for Baudelaire, I can tell you that her ears perked up when I read the last part, she who in her wild youth performed feats equal to the throwing of chickens at waiters, if not the throwing of waiters at chickens. Remember that Baudelaire himself was partial to a “strong and gentle” cat, “the pride of the house,” beloved of “ardent lovers and austere scholars” and worthy of comparison to “the mighty sphinxes” with “particles of gold spangling their mystic eyes.”

In fact, it was “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth,” a poem by Robert Desnos, that took me to the Cranbury Book Worm and the paperback anthology of French poetry I’m reaching for when the “pride of the house” decides she’s had enough, slips off the chaise, and heads for the door.

The Book Worm

In its heyday, when it occupied the most imposing house on Main Street, the Book Worm had well over 100,000 volumes in stock, not to mention stacks of old Life magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, posters, paintings, and upstairs, along with more rooms of books, a substantial assortment of antiques — and fresh vegetables. Here, surely, was the only bookstore in the world that sold cucumbers and tomatoes grown in the mulch made from a compost heap of decaying books. Sadly, the Worm has been downsized to a shadow of its former self and installed in a cramped store front a block away, but as the Stones will tell you, while you may not always get what you want, if you try, sometimes you get what you need. I got Robert Desnos (pronounced Dez-nose) and Henri Rousseau.

Gateway to Rimbaud

Given the condition — spine cocked, page ends yellowed — Wallace Fowlie’s bilingual 1955 Grove Press paperback,  Mid-Century French Poets, should not be priced at $6. The catch is that it’s inscribed “Wishes to Marion and Francis for a blessed Xmas, love Wallace 1955.” Francis is Francis Fergusson, the author of Idea of the Theater (Princeton 1949), who taught at Rutgers, lived in Kingston, died at Princeton Hospital in 1986, and sublet our house in Bloomington one summer; on the subject of inscriptions, the Fergusson kids wrote their names in pencil on the wall of the closet in my room, and so did Leslie Fiedler’s kids when the author of Love and Death in the American Novel sublet the house for a year.

As for Fowlie, he was nothing less than the gateway to Rimbaud for Jim Morrison and Patti Smith. His translation of the Works is on my desk even now. He also wrote a book about Rimbaud and Jim Morrison called The Rebel as Poet, and his friendship with Henry Miller resulted in the publication of their correspondence.

With inscriptions and associations like that, and a nice selection of Desnos inside, how could I not buy this book?

Rousseau’s Dream

My other purchase at the Book Worm was a Museum of Modern Art monograph from 1946 about Rousseau (1844-1910), who was born on May 21 and might have been the subject of last week’s column if he hadn’t been competing with Fats Waller.

The reproductions in the Rousseau book are all in black and white, like Nora, and when she shows up again, nuzzling the leg of my desk, it happens that I’m gazing at a full-page detail of two wild felines prowling the dense forest in Rousseau’s The Dream, painted the year he died. As the title suggests, these creatures are moving wide-eyed and bewildered through the dreaming mind of the naked damsel on the couch. In the poem he attached to the painting, the painter imagines her listening to a snakecharmer’s flute. He’s given her face a stern touch of attitude, thinking perhaps of Léonie, the fiftyish widow with whom he was hopelessly in love at the time. Léonie worked behind the counter in a Paris department store Rousseau faithfully visited only to be unceremoniously rebuffed by her. Day after day, he would return home to paint himself deeper into The Dream. Same old story, he does it all for Léonie, leaves her paintings in his will, and she can’t be bothered to go to his funeral.

The Cat

Robert Desnos wrote “The Cat Like Nothing Else on Earth” for artists and dreamers everywhere, including of course,  Le Douanier, the former toll collector eating his heart out over a department store sales clerk. Desnos’s phenomenal cat goes to a doctor who listens to his heart and tells him it “isn’t doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” Then he goes to see “his lady, who examines his brain,” and tells him, “Your brain’s not doing well/It’s like nothing else on earth.” As if that isn’t enough, she adds, “It’s unlike anything in the whole world.” The poem ends with a sigh: “And that’s why the cat like nothing else on earth/Is sad today and doesn’t feel so well.”

Of all the photographs of 20th century painters I’ve ever seen, none come as close to capturing the spirit of “The Cat Like Nothing Else” as the one of Rousseau taken in his studio on December 14, 1908. The aging painter sits facing the camera, his elbow on a table, his chin propped on his hand, looking as if he’s just shuffled home after another slap in the face from Léonie, the muse from hell. Home is one room with a large window. There’s a violin on the table, a broom in the corner, lots of pictures on the wall, and somewhere out of camera range, the artist’s paintings, his easel and the usual accoutrements of his true profession. When someone asks him isn’t it uncomfortable to sleep in a studio, he says, “When I wake up I can smile at my canvases.”

At least he’s got company. On the floor near the broom there’s a bowl of milk.

Desnos Cheats Death

When Robert Desnos died on June 8, 1945, at the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, it was from typhus. Some time before he fell ill, he and a group of other internees were being marched to the gas chamber, so the story goes, when Desnos suddenly began reading the palms of the condemned, predicting a long full life for everyone. His manner was so convincing, so dismissive of all earthly doubt, that the victims began to believe him, and the guards became confused, lost touch with their mission, and ordered the people back into the truck, which took them back to the barracks.

If this anecdote sounds far-fetched, there are indications throughout Wallace Fowlie’s biographical sketch that if anyone could have performed such a feat, it was Desnos, who grew up believing in the existence of the marvellous and the exotic. In the 1920s he hung out with the surrealists, the only one “who could speak surrealistically at will,” according to André Breton; he “read in himself as in an open book,” practiced automatic writing, and seemed to “live within poetry.” During the sleep seances the others engaged in, Desnos proved to be the only genuine medium. As soon as he was asleep, “his power of speech was released and flowed abundantly.” He had discovered a way of translating himself into poetry without the help of books, without the need of writing, “in a state of constant inspiration.”

During the occupation of Paris, Desnos joined the Resistance and helped direct the underground publications of Les editions de Minuit, until he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally Terezin.

———

There’s that tapping at the study door. It’s after 2 a.m. and the Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth is waiting to be let in.

I have a friend from days on the road to thank for introducing me to Desnos and “The Cat Like Nothing Else On Earth.” This morning he sent me a poem he just finished, “The Shade of Robert Desnos,” which can be read on rogeryates.blogspot.com, at the top of a monthly roster of poetry very much worth scrolling through. 

 

MARK ROTHKO: This untitled 1968 (100 x 63.5 cm) oil on paper laid down on canvas by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) comes from the collection of Princeton University alumnus Preston H. Haskell (Class of 1960) and will be featured in the exhibition, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” through Sunday, opening Saturday, May 24 at the Princeton University Art Museum. (Image courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

MARK ROTHKO: This untitled 1968 (100 x 63.5 cm) oil on paper laid down on canvas by the American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) comes from the collection of Princeton University alumnus Preston H. Haskell (Class of 1960) and will be featured in the exhibition, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” through Sunday, opening Saturday, May 24 at the Princeton University Art Museum.
(Image courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Princeton University alumnus Preston H. Haskell III (Class of 1960), will discuss the process of collecting modern and contemporary art in conversation with Pulitzer Prize–winning author and art critic Mark Stevens (Class of 1973) this Friday, May 30, at 3 p.m. in the University’s McCormick Hall, Room 101.

The event follows a book signing at 2:30 p.m. and precedes a reception in the galleries.

Mr. Haskell’s talk, “Collecting Abstraction,” highlights Princeton University Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting From the Collection of Preston H. Haskell,” which opened last Saturday.

The exhibition features 27 paintings by some of the most important artists of the 20th century and provides a window onto the evolution of process, mark-making, and abstraction in the second half of the 20th century.

Mr. Haskell is a long-standing Museum benefactor and former chair of its Advisory Council.

“Rothko to Richter,” features work by 23 pioneering American, European, and Canadian artists, including Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko and Frank Stella.

The work on display is drawn from the period between 1950 and 1990, an era whose commitment to artistic experimentation is rivaled only by the first decades of the 20th century, when abstraction was first introduced in Europe and America.

These 40 years were a time of extraordinary creative ferment, when the very nature of abstract painting was hotly contested. The world of abstract art saw some dramatic developments. Experimentation with various methods of applying paint to a surface was common, with results that sometimes emphasized and sometimes obliterated traces of the artist’s hand.

Part of the exhibition focuses on artists like Jack Goldstein and Robert Rauschenberg who examine abstraction and mark-making in a way that is self-conscious and with a considerable degree of irony. Such work examines notions of authenticity and expression.

Curated by Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the eponymous exhibition explores how changes in process and technique, specifically in mark-making, signal broader changes to abstract painting. It is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, published by the Museum. The catalogue has illustrations of all 27 paintings on view as well as contributions from Ms. Baum and essays on the artists.

The artists whose work Mr. Haskell collected represent movements as diverse as Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimalism, Op art and Postmodernism. They sought to redefine abstraction for new social and cultural milieus.

“Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting From the Collection of Preston H. Haskell” will be on view through October 5. The exhibition will then travel to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida, for an exhibition opening January 2015.

There will also be a lecture by Ms. Baum, titled “Mark, Maker, Method,” in the University’s McCosh 50, on Thursday, July 17, at 5:30 p.m.

Admission to the Princeton University Art Museum is free. Gallery hours are: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. In addition, the exhibition will be open on Sunday, June 1, and Monday, June 2, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 258-3788, or visit: www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.

 

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG: Jim (Adam Sandler, right) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) meet online and arrange to meet for dinner at a Hooter’s restaurant. That choice of venue appears to be fatal to the continued development of their relationship because Jim pays more attention to the waitresses and the big game on TV than he does to Lauren. Nonetheless, the pair and their children are thrown together after a series of improbable coincidences and love is given another chance to bloom between the pair.

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG: Jim (Adam Sandler, right) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) meet online and arrange to meet for dinner at a Hooter’s restaurant. That choice of venue appears to be fatal to the continued development of their relationship because Jim pays more attention to the waitresses and the big game on TV than he does to Lauren. Nonetheless, the pair and their children are thrown together after a series of improbable coincidences and love is given another chance to bloom between the pair.

Jim Friedman (Adam Sandler) is a widower who’s raising three daughters on his own. Since he is clueless about raising girls, he’s been slowly turning them into tomboys by giving them Prince Valiant haircuts and referring to them by masculine nicknames Larry (Bella Thorne), Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind), and ESPN (Emma Fuhrmann).

By contrast, Lauren Reynolds’ (Drew Barrymore) plight is just the opposite. The frazzled, very feminine divorcée is being driven crazy by her pubescent son Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and hyperactive Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein). Brendan is exploring his burgeoning sexuality while Tyler’s pyromania has his mother seriously considering starting him on Ritalin.

Neither Jim nor Lauren had been on a date in ages until they made each other’s acquaintance online. They agreed to meet for drinks, and the prospects looked promising, given how her sons’ need for a father figure conveniently dovetailed with his daughters’ for maternal guidance.

Unfortunately, rendezvousing at Hooters turned out to be a bad idea, because Jim paid more attention to the waitresses and the basketball game on TV than he did to Lauren. So the two went their separate way, never expecting to see each other ever again.

However, through an improbable series of coincidences, both of their families end-up booked on the same flight to South Africa for an all expenses-paid vacation where they’ll have to share a hotel suite at a luxury resort. Will Jim take advantage of this second chance to make a better impression on Lauren?

That is the quandary established at the outset of Blended, the third romantic romp about an Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore collaboration (The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates). Before the audience finds out the answer, the pair and their progeny indulge in the sort of comedy that has made Sandler famous.

The movie proceeds to throw anything up on the screen for a laugh (especially scene-stealer Terry Crews as the irrepressible local entertainer), regardless of whether or not the skit fits into the plot or furthers the storyline. As dumb as the jokes were (and they are often very dumb), I have to admit that I frequently found myself laughing in spite of myself.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, and crude humor. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

 

May 21, 2014

wallerAware that this issue will be appearing on Fats Waller’s 110th birthday, I’m listening to “Honeysuckle Rose,” the first track on If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a 3-disc CD set from RCA. The music is coming from the speakers of my Honda CRV as we pay our biennial visit to the Inspection Station near Dayton on Route 130. As the song plays, there’s no appreciable change in the performance of my 14-year-old alter ego, which seems to be off its game, almost as if it felt failure looming. But once Fats hits his stride-piano stride, we’re in business. The damage he’s doing with the left hand that Rudi Blesh compared to “heat thunder on a summer day” seems to rouse a bell-clear burst of cheering from the right hand, and when the big man’s gutsy, give-no-quarter vocal comes in, it’s a walking talking opera and we’re driving like a dream. At the DMV there’s only one car ahead of us, and ten minutes later we’re flying south on 130, me and my forest green millennial music machine with its good-till-2016 sticker shining like a medal on the windshield, yes, yes, we’re stridin’ high.

Playing the God-Box

In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins calls him “a state of mind …. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask” that “consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”

Further insights on Thomas “Fats” Waller as “the clown who wants to play Hamlet” are offered by New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson, a longtime resident of Basin Street in Princeton, down by the D&R Canal. After mentioning Waller’s “consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ” and the depth of the “hurt” he felt when audiences rejected this side of him, Wilson describes the moment in Paris in 1932 when Fats “climbed up into the organ loft of the Cathedral of Notre Dame with Marcel Dupré, the cathedral’s organist.” Fats is quoted saying, “First Mr. Dupréplayed the God-box and then I played the God-box.” There seems to be some debate about whether Waller played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue or his own “Honeysuckle Rose.” Both, I would think, though RCA Victor declined to release any of his Bach performances, including the two fugues he recorded at Victor’s Camden studio in 1927. He also once recorded on the organ in the same Abbey Studio where history was made three decades later by the Beatles, who regularly performed their version of Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” at Hamburg’s Star Club.

The Life of the Party

Standing an inch short of six feet, weighing 285 pounds, and turned out in the style nicely nailed in Gary Giddins’s sketch, Waller “lit the place up like Luna Park” when he walked into a room, according to his son and biographer, Maurice. As much as he loved Bach (said to be third on his list of the greatest men in history, behind Lincoln and FDR), he also loved being the quintessential Life of the Party. It would be twisting reality to spin his story as that of a misunderstood giant whose inner church organist wept whenever he sat down to play something serious only to hear the audience, even at Carnegie Hall, losing patience and soon shouting for the dispenser of joy to do his thing.

Fats Waller didn’t die half a year before his 40th birthday from the stress of stifling his serious side. The life force loved to party, and his prodigious capacity for food and drink and late hours is well-documented. According again to his son, people would drop into the Waller home in St. Albans Queens at all hours of the night to hang out with Fats and hear him play. He never turned them away. Who could? These were people like Legs Diamond, Joe Louis, Humphrey Bogart.

One of the best-known Fats Waller stories, included in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes from the archives of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers, has Fats playing at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman circa 1925 when he was ordered into a car at gun-point and driven to a saloon in East Cicero to play at a surprise birthday party for Al Capone. After experiencing certain initial concerns for his well-being, Fats settled down and so totally charmed the partygoers that Capone kept him there three days, “shoving hundred dollar bills into his pocket with each request” before returning him to Chicago “several thousand dollars richer.”

Playing for Movies

In a minute and a half clip from a September 23, 1943, interview with Hugh Conover on WABC in New York, Waller jokes about being dragged “kicking and screaming” into the world, and then shows his kneejerk sensitivity to language when asked when he made his first professional appearance. “I was approximately 14 years old — that’s a good word approximately. I like that.” According to Murray Schumach’s New York Times interview from July 1943, which can also be accessed at handfulofkeys.com, Fats says that after dropping out school (“I hated algebra”) he found work playing organ accompaniment for silent movies in a Harlem theatre called the Lincoln, where he got in trouble for the sort of waggish improvising that would become his trademark. Like the time the silent movie cowboy, William S. Hart was on the screen: “He’s just been plugged and looks like he’s a cold mackerel. Pretty sad stuff. Next thing I know I’m playing ‘St. Louis Blues.’”

The Last Ride

The circumstances of Fats Waller’s death at 39 are worthy of a place in the national narrative if you can imagine a collaboration between, say, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, and Ralph Ellison: the stricken hero passing his last hours on the Santa Fe Chief, eastbound from the Zanzibar Club in L.A., after being laid up for weeks with a virus. You know that if people partying around the grand piano in the Club Car knew Fats was aboard, he’d have been summoned to perform, so it’s possible he didn’t get to his berth until he’d sweated out a set surrounded by the revellers while the train braved a blizzard, the winter winds of the plains howling outside. As the Chief pounded into Kansas City’s Union Station on the morning of December 15, 1943, Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, found the big man in his berth, unconscious and unresponsive. The coroner’s statement reports that “Acute left influenzal bronchopneumonia” was “the immediate cause of death.” The place of death was given as Union Station.

To die in Kansas City’s Union Station? As Fats was known to say, “One never knows, do one?”

In his book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University Press of Mississippi 2002), Dr. Frederick J. Spencer describes bronchopneumonia as “a patchy infection of the bronchi and bronchioles — the air passages that carry air into and out of the lungs.” Sounds very like the “intake and output” mentioned by Gary Giddins, whose account of that snow-blown endgame train ride features a jazz-flavored double entendre Fats would have appreciated even more than the notion of dying in your berth. When Waller spoke of the bitter winter wind to Ed Kirkeby (“yeah, hawkins is sure blowin out there tonight”), he was using a term for a cold wind “common among black midwesterners” and presumably unrelated to the blowing of the great tenor man who was born just up the Missouri River in St. Joseph. As things happen (“one never knows”), Kirkeby’s account of Fats’s last words in his biography Ain’t Misbehavin’ “created the widely repeated legend that Fats went out contemplating Coleman Hawkins.”

Another jazz-flavored touch is that when the Chief carrying Fats arrived at Union Station it coincided with the arrival of a train carrying Louis Armstrong.

Fats Waller would have turned 40 on May 21, 1944.

Waller’s Rose

I haven’t got the time, patience, or genealogical resources to prove it, but it’s not unlikely that Fats Waller is descended from Edmund Waller, the 17th-century poet and Member of Parliament (1606-1687). There are interesting possibilities online at houseofnames.com. Like Jo Waller,  age 17, who arrived in Barbados in 1635. Or Nicholas Waller, 41, who landed in Philadelphia in 1738. An Alfred Waller showed up in New York in 1845. The reason Edmund Waller is worth a closing mention in a column that begins with “Honeysuckle Rose” is “Go, lovely Rose,” the four stanza lyric for which he’s best known and which ends with a reference to the “common fate of all things rare …. How small a part of time they share/That are so wondrous sweet and fair.”

The Princeton Public Library provided the CD set mentioned at the top, though of course you can see and hear Fats Waller on YouTube, where I found the documentary from which the quotes by Maurice Waller were taken.

 

LET YOUR IMAGINATION PLAY: Fine art photographer Martha Weintraub hopes that visitors to her show at Gallery 14, opening this Friday in Hopewell, will provide their own narratives to work that has the feel of children’s book illustrations. Ms. Weintraub is joined by fellow photographer David Wurtzel for an exhibition that runs May 23 through June 22. An opening reception will take place Friday, May 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. and there will be an opportunity to meet the photographers at the gallery Sunday, May 25, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

LET YOUR IMAGINATION PLAY: Fine art photographer Martha Weintraub hopes that visitors to her show at Gallery 14, opening this Friday in Hopewell, will provide their own narratives to work that has the feel of children’s book illustrations. Ms. Weintraub is joined by fellow photographer David Wurtzel for an exhibition that runs May 23 through June 22. An opening reception will take place Friday, May 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. and there will be an opportunity to meet the photographers at the gallery Sunday, May 25, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

Gallery 14 in Hopewell features photography by longtime gallery member Martha Weintraub in the Main Gallery and by David C. Wurtzel in the adjoining Jay Goodkind Gallery from May 23 through June 22. There will be an opening reception Friday, May 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. and an opportunity to meet the photographers at the gallery Sunday, May 25, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Ms. Weintraub, who currently serves as Gallery 14‘s president, is a writer and editor of children’s textbooks and has long been involved with the use of photographic images in the course of her professional career. When a friend gave her a single lens reflex film camera, she became serious about her own photography. Digital photography, she said, is her medium. And while she would never want to give up being behind the camera, she admits that time at the computer has become equally important to her photo-based artwork.

Ms. Weintraub spends hours at the computer in order to create images that fulfill a vision informed by her vast experience as a creator of children’s books. Visitors to the Gallery 14 show will see this influence manifest in an exhibition aptly titled “Story Hour.” Jumping off from the reference to the reading sessions that are held for youngsters aged between two and five in libraries across the country, Ms. Weintraub has images on display that have the look of book illustrations.

Some will evoke memories of well-known children’s stories and poems. Others will tempt viewers to search for a forgotten narrative or even supply one. According to the artist, however, they come entirely from her imagination. She hopes that viewers will let their own imaginations supply stories to go with her photographs.

Many of the picture book illustration-inspired images include Ms. Weintraub’s granddaughters Natalie, 6, and Miranda, 3, as models. Both girls are lovers of stories and adventures, and the fun that they must have had working/playing with their grandmother comes across here.

The photographer has studied with David Wurtzel, Ernestine Rubin, Maggie Taylor, Nancy Ori, Ricardo Barros, and Rick Wright. Her work has been shown at Phillips Mill Photography Exhibit, Grounds for Sculpture Photography Exhibit, Artsbridge at Prallsville Mills Exhibit, and the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery; an entry in COLOR Magazine’s Portfolio Contest 2011 was selected for a Spotlight Award and her image “City of Books” was Best in Show at Philips Mill in 2012.

Jay Goodkind Gallery

David C. Wurtzel has been active in photography since the late 1940s. He began in his father’s darkroom and maintains one of his own to this day. The photographs he has chosen to display here continue the storytelling theme and are gathered under the title “Other Stories.”

“To me, photography is an art of observation,” said Mr. Wurtzel. “It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place …. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

The digital images in “Other Stories” also invite viewers to supply a narrative, sometimes over several photographs. All were created in the camera using a variety of techniques such as double exposure, and exposures that were either very long or very short. Recorded in color, they were printed in black and white. One image, “Ghosts Rising,” is a joint effort with Martha Weintraub.

Gallery 14 is located at 14 Mercer Street in Hopewell. Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 333-8511, or visit: www.photogallery14.com.

 

HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

Godzilla made its debut in 1954 when the mythical man eating monster, accidentally created by an atomic blast, emerged from the Pacific Ocean to carve a path of death and destruction across Japan, which the country’s overmatched military was unable to stop. A couple of years later, Raymond Burr narrated a documentary-style, English language remake which was a dubbed version of the original with his lines spliced in.

Despite relying for decades on stilted scripts and a guy in a rubber suit towering over a scale model of a toy-sized Tokyo, the B-movie series has remained popular enough to spawn at least 30 sequels. This remake of the series, however, abandons campy dialogue and cheesy trick photography in favor of an emotionally engaging plot as well as state-of-the-art special effects.

In the 2014 edition, Godzilla still looks like a fire-breathing mutant iguana, however, it behaves more like an anthropomorphic ally of humanity instead of its evil adversary. The villains, here, are nuclear waste ingesting MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that are not only threatening to level San Francisco but are poised to unleash a litter of their hostile offspring.

In case you’re wondering, there’s plenty of precedents for Godzilla’s squaring off against fellow behemoths. Consider such classic showdowns as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), to name a few.

This film’s finale is well worth the wait, even though it takes some time getting around to the spectacular battle royale. In fact, we don’t even see Godzilla during the film’s first hour, which is devoted to developing characters and filling in the back story.

The picture was directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters) who assembled a sophisticated cast for an action packed summer blockbuster. The cast includes Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), and nominees David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai).

The adventure is about the Brody family. The widowed patriarch Joe (Cranston) is trying to learn the truth behind the catastrophe at a Japanese nuclear power plant that claimed his wife’s (Binoche) life 15 years earlier. Their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosives disposal expert, leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) behind in San Francisco, in order to accompany his father to the Orient.

Of course, all hell eventually breaks loose back home when Godzilla selflessly rises to the occasion to defend San Francisco. Will the MUTOs meet their match? Will the separated Brodys manage to survive the apocalyptic mayhem for a tearful reunion?

The picture is surprisingly haunting and panoramic, and explores universal themes like loss and yearning, but has all the fixings for first-rate action entertainment.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and scenes of destruction. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

May 14, 2014

book revIf you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

—George Harrison, from “Any Road”

First off, I didn’t know that last week’s trip to the Shady Dog Record Shop would lead to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t legend of roadside Americana celebrated in The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate (Norton $39.95). It wasn’t until the day after the trip that I found a perfect match for this column in Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williams’s book, where the introduction, “Mister Lincoln’s Highway,” stresses the “curving and bent, even sometimes warped” nature of the subject by quoting from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Improvement makes straight roads: but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.”

Road Music

Though I’m not looking forward to a drive to Berwyn in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, there’s a certain warped, crooked appeal in a destination called the Shady Dog. As usual, my son has brought along some CDs to listen to on the way, and since this trip to a never-before-explored second-hand record store is the coda to a never-ending birthday present, I’m okay with whatever the vinyl warrior wants to hear as we head out of town on 206. Without any apparent intention of playfully linking it to the name of our objective, he suggests The Dog That Bit People, a 1971 album by a group from Birmingham (U.K.). At the moment the only copy of the actual Parlophone original on the market is going for the tidy sum of $2,000. Besides being a reminder of James Thurber’s popularity in England (witness John Lennon’s In His Own Write), The Dog is a nice, solid, melodic, progressive album with a country flavor, it’s indeed easy to drive to, and it’s not worth $2,000.

On the Turnpike

The first time my parents and I drove to New York from Indiana, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened the way east for us like a dream unimpeded by stoplights and cross roads and frustrations like the pre-bypass endlessness of getting through Columbus Ohio on U.S. 40. Whenever I flash on turnpike moments, it’s night and we’re entering one of those tunnels that to adolescent readers of Ray Bradbury always had a smooth surreal quality closer to sci-fi or the twilight zone than the publicist’s “Magic Carpet Through the Alleghenies.”

But that was then. Today’s 25-mile stretch of turnpike is strictly functional, the best thing about it the poetry of place names like King of Prussia and Valley Forge and Tredyffrin.

Roadside Surprises

The shades-wearing mutt on the Shady Dog sign is just the sort of roadside novelty that used to make traveling fun in the days before turnpikes, interstates, and strip malls. There are other glimmers of roadside America along U.S. 30, which doubles as Lancaster Avenue, but for me the star attraction is the Anthony Wayne, an Art Deco dream of a movie theatre named after the fiery Revolutionary War general who was was born nearby. At first it’s so unlikely an edifice, so eerily out of time, that you can’t quite trust your eyes. Rush-hour gridlock gives me time to take it in. Atop the marquee two sand-colored pillars stand on either side of an elaborately shaped proscenium arch with a scalloped top. Wonder of wonders, it’s not a RiteAid or a CVS, it’s still in use, with five screens. According to cinematreasures.org, when the Anthony Wayne opened its doors as a movie house in 1928, the first feature was a silent, In Old San Francisco. Built and operated by one Harry Fried, the theatre was known for a time as “Fried’s Folly” because “such a grand movie palace” was located “on the edge of the suburbs.” (A sketch of the planned facade design was signed by a young Philadelphia architect named Louis Kahn.) 

While another after-the-fact search online tells you all you need to know about Mad Anthony’s tempestuous military career, I’m more interested to learn that the general’s last name inspired Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne; that he turns up in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night as an ancestor of Dick Diver; and that in the opening chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, “old Spencer,” Holden’s history teacher at Pencey Prep, lives on Anthony Wayne Avenue. The great man’s greatest gift to American popular culture, however, involved the ultimate, the one and only iconic Wayne of all Waynes, who in 1930 was still known as Marion Morrison (imagine The Alamo or Red River starring Marion Morrison) when Raoul Walsh, his director on The Big Trail, pulled Anthony Wayne out of his hat, wisely dumping “Anthony” for “John,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Last Picture Shows

That Deco movie palace in Wayne sends my thoughts back again to the days before interstates and multiplexes when every little town had its own movie theater. On hot summer childhood drives through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and up and down in Kansas on the flattest and dullest of highways, the great treat for me was to check out the local cinema. Like all red-blooded American kids, I would beg the grown-ups to stop for a Coke and nag them with the eternal “how much longer till we get to so-and-so” mantra, but when it came to movie theaters, I had no shame. It wasn’t enough to simply drive by and look at the marquee and the name of the current attraction. I wanted to stop the car so I could feast my eyes on the posters and lobby cards. I found sustenance for another long hot stretch of road in titles like Johnny O’Clock and actors like Robert Mitchum, whose name in smalltown theater ads was sometimes misspelled as my father’s, Robert Mitchner in Where Danger Lives (there’s a clipping of that one somewhere in the family archives). Now and then you might get fortunate combinations like the Chisholm Trail Theatre in Newton, Kansas showing Fort Apache with, yes, John Wayne.

Looking for the Lincoln

As a college traveler for Norton, the publisher of The Lincoln Highway, I once drove from college town to college town across 11 states from Mississippi to North Dakota earning money for a trip to India. My last night on the American salesman road was spent sleeping in the company car in a Howard Johnson parking lot on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Though nine months of living in motels left me with a sadder but wiser sense of “The Great American Road Trip” spelled out on the cover of The Lincoln Highway, the images of roadside nostalgia depicted there and the red line of the route still rouse all the old feeling. The charming graphics also suggest a benign variation on the earthy art of R. Crumb, who contributed a childhood memory to the book. As a kid in the 1950s, he lived in Ames, Iowa, in “a big old house right on the Lincoln highway … at that time still just a two-lane thoroughfare that went straight through the heart of town. My brothers and I used to sit on the front step of our house and watch the trucks go by. We each had our favorite trucking line and would point and shout its name as it went barreling by.”

Music to my ears. I know what Crumb’s talking about. It all goes back to summers with my maternal grandparents who lived in a house facing on U.S. 69 in Overland Park, Kansas. Some things never change. These days we live close enough to 206 that we can see the cars and trucks going past from our back windows. My wife rolls her eyes when I tell her how much I love the sound of the big rigs that can make conversation on the deck a challenge.

Lincoln’s Among Us

Princeton has a place in the book, by the way. The same Lincoln Highway that begins on Times Square runs right through the heart of town disguised as our own Nassau/Stockton Street and Routes 27 and 206. How odd, that it took a big lavishly illustrated tome to remind me that we can claim not only Nassau Hall and the Battlefield, but the great national road. All these years driving between Princeton and New Brunswick on Route 27, all those nighttime bus rides back from the city, and I never once thought to myself, “Hey, I’m on the Lincoln Highway.” And we were on it again and didn’t know it Thursday driving south on 206 and again, oddly enough, on U.S. 30 in Berwyn and Wayne. Yes, the Anthony Lane and the Shady Dog are on the Lincoln Highway. You may rightly wonder how that can be when U.S. 30 begins its run in Atlantic City before cutting through Camden and Philadelphia to the Main Line suburbs. All I know is after a day that began with us heading south on Lincoln’s route, we landed on U.S. 30 heading west, in the right place at the right time in the national road’s strange slapdash relay race to the Golden Gate.

It works fine if you let it, the idea of a shape-shifting phantom highway named for a martyred president who loved Shakespeare making its mysterious way relentlessly westward, absorbing numbered identities with a Lincolnesque laugh at mandated designations.

If you want evidence of just how devious Lincoln’s road appears to the Philistines, google “Route of the Lincoln Highway” and consider Wiki’s boxed notice declaring “This article or section is written in the wrong direction. U.S. road articles are generally written in a south-to-north and west to east direction in order to follow the order of their mileposts. Please help by rewriting the article in the right direction.”

Do you believe it? East to West the wrong direction? And North to South? Time to listen to George Harrison’s joyous song “Any Road,” which opens his posthumous album Brainwashed telling us “we pay the price/with the spin of the wheel, with the roll of the dice.” We may not know where we came from, may not know who we are, may not “have even wondered” how we “got this far” but here comes the chorus, all join in, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

 

BACK ON STAGE: Charles Wiley, center, who was in the original cast of “Our Town,” visited the cast of the current revival of the play at George Street Playhouse on May 3. He is pictured with Aaron Ballard, left, who plays Emily Webb; and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays the Stage Manager.(Photo by Jackie Brady)

BACK ON STAGE: Charles Wiley, center, who was in the original cast of “Our Town,” visited the cast of the current revival of the play at George Street Playhouse on May 3. He is pictured with Aaron Ballard, left, who plays Emily Webb; and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays the Stage Manager. (Photo by Jackie Brady)

He was in the cast of two Pulitzer-Prize-winning plays, performed during the golden age of radio, and entertained the troops at USO shows during World War II. But Charles Wiley has never rested on his show business laurels.

This 87-year-old, who splits his time between New Jersey and California, also spent years as a journalist and photographer, covering 11 wars in 100 countries and getting arrested eight times in the process. There was a stint in the life insurance field, too. And he once ran for Congress.

But Mr. Wiley’s 13-year show business career figures prominently in his extraordinary memory, even though he was just a kid when he was cast as Wally Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town 76 years ago. The play about an average American town in the early 20th century is currently being revived at George Street Playhouse through May 25. Its world premiere was at McCarter Theatre, and it went on to Broadway before winning the author a Pulitzer.

On May 3, Mr. Wiley traveled from his Sayreville home with his 13-year-old grandson to attend a performance of the drama at George Street Playhouse. After meeting the cast, he was moved enough to send a note of appreciation, writing, “It was a trip that brought tears to my eyes — from sheer emotion, not sadness. I was reminded: ‘There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.’ That’s easy to forget when you’re caught up in modern day-to-day living.”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Wiley has been asked to appear at a revival of Our Town. When McCarter Theatre marked the 50th anniversary of the play, he was invited to attend and was introduced after the show. “It looks like I’ll be doing this every 25 years,” he joked during an phone interview from his home in California.

“Ninety-nine percent of my friends don’t know I used to be an actor,” he said. “But I worked steadily for 13 years, from the time I first walked on stage at age seven until I joined the Navy. I was the only actor in the world in the original cast of two Pulitzer-Prize winners. The other was The Old Maid, in 1934. Very few people remember that play, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis.”

It all started for Mr. Wiley in vaudeville, where as a youngster he was part of a standup comedy routine with his father. “Vaudeville was already dying by then,” he recalled. “This was a period when they would have four acts and a movie. By 1933, it was over.”

The father and son transitioned into radio, where they worked constantly. By the time Our Town came along, Mr. Wiley was a seasoned show business veteran of 11. His recollections are what one might expect of a child that age.

“My biggest memory at the Morosco Theater was being adopted by the guy who owned the Piccadilly ticket office, who by the way was one of the Damon Runyon characters based on real people,” he said. “He used to see me coming to work all the time with my baseball glove. One day he said, ‘Hey Butch, what are you doing with a baseball glove half a block from Times Square?’ After that he kind of adopted me, taking me to ball games, and introducing me to the players. It was a kid’s dream world.”

Mr. Wiley also remembers the pre-Broadway tryouts of Our Town at McCarter, where the notoriously difficult director Jed Harris worked the cast so late into the night during rehearsals that they ended up sleeping on the floor underneath the seats.

Mr. Wiley’s parents were personal friends of Thornton Wilder. “We used to visit him in Connecticut,” he said. “I was a kid, so I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But I think Our Town is one of the great plays. It reminds me of Seinfeld, because it’s about nothing. It’s just life.”

After the Broadway run of Our Town, Mr. Wiley was among those in the cast to join the road company. “In those days, usually the original cast would stay for the road company, except for the top stars. And you’d go all over the country,” he said.

His show business career was over by the time he returned from the Pacific after World War II. “I never looked back, never thought of going back,” he said. There was one major opportunity to get back on stage, when he was offered the part of Officer Krupke in a production of West Side Story. “I had too many other commitments,” he said. “But that was fine with me.”

 

Princeton Pro Musica took a musical journey back to the world of George Frideric Handel this past weekend with a concert which was historically accurate, both in instrumentation and presentation.

Presented Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, Pro Musica’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was not programmed on the most spring-like of Mother’s Day themes (unless Mom is interested in plagues, pestilence and frogs), but the clarity of the performance and the orchestral music performed along with the oratorio certainly evoked the sprightliness of the season.

Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau programmed the concert to recreate a performance of Handel’s time, in which the two halves of the oratorio would be separated by an orchestral work, usually one of Handel’s own concertos. Israel in Egypt was first performed in 1739, and its oratorio form was a natural outgrowth of Handel’s very successful career as a composer of opera. This oratorio draws its text principally from the Old Testament’s book Exodus, with the chorus principally carrying the action of hailstones, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn in the first part. Accompanied by a period instrument orchestra, the singers of Pro Musica began with a well-unified choral sound, especially showing how the men’s sections have developed under Dr. Brandau’s leadership. The eight-part opening chorus had a good choral foundation in the bass sections, with a tenor section which has also developed impressively over the past few years. The sectional soprano sound started off a bit fuzzy, but certainly cleaned up as the piece went on.

There were two small solos in the first part, as the chorus was joined by mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney and tenor James Kennerley. Mr. Kennerley showed himself throughout the performance to be especially expert at recitative, telling the story well and balancing Ms. Maroney’s elegant singing well in their second part duet. Ms. Maroney had a tough job with the register of the alto solos (these solos are often sung by a counter-tenor), but presented smooth melodic lines and especially nice ornamentation as well as adeptly-handled runs.

Handel’s oratorios tend to be on the long side, and different conductors cut different things, depending on their taste. Dr. Brandau reversed the performing focus in the second part, allowing a number of solo and duet movements to flow together without choral interruption. Soprano soloists Melanie Russell and Sarah Brailey were well-matched, with Ms. Brailey showing an especially rich sound which rang with bell-like quality in the upper register. Ms. Russell added the icing on the vocal cake with a lighter sound, and the two colors blended together particularly well in a duet for two sopranos of equal register.

In “The Lord is a man of war” Handel may have composed the only duet for two basses in oratorio repertory, and Mr. Brandau brought together two bass-baritones who often sang the same musical passages in succession but with different vocal textures (Handel often composed for forces on hand — there must have been some great basses in early 18th-century London). Accompanied by a lithe pair of oboes in Priscilla Jerreid and Geoffrey Burgess, Christopher Dylan Herbert climbed well into the higher register of the duet, while Jonathan Woody demonstrated the richer and more defiant sound — when he sang of Pharaoh’s chosen captains, also drowned, one was certainly convinced that they drowned.

The interpolated Concerto Grosso in G Major proved to be a good contrast against the dark nature of the oratorio. The five movements flowed together well, and the string orchestra, accompanied by harpsichordist Raphael Fusco, played with a consistently light and clean touch. Suspensions between the two violin sections blended well, and the solo trio of violinists Owen Dalby and Nanae Iwata, joined by cellist Katie Rietman, provided seamless contrasting textures.

For those curious about how Dr. Brandau has developed Pro Musica’s trademark choral sound, the “horse and his rider” choruses were worth the price of admission. Dr. Brandau took these two closing choruses like the wind, and the singers of Pro Musica did not miss a note in the choral coloratura, bringing the work to a typically Baroque glorious close. This oratorio may have been a handful for a choral singer, but the members of Pro Musica never let on that they were anything less than ready for more.

 

AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

Allyson Field (Sarah Drew) really can’t complain. After all, her life is the epitome of the American Dream: she has a handsome husband who adores her and is an excellent provider; a beautiful home in suburbia; and her own minivan for shopping and shuttling around their children, Beck (Zion Spargo), Bailey (Shiloh Nelson), and Brandon (Michael Leone).

However, she’s still overwhelmed by her domestic duties, especially when Sean’s (Sean Astin) work takes him out of town. Consider Mother’s Day, for example, which Ally spent cleaning up messes rather than being appreciated as a mother.

Not alone in feeling frazzled, Ally hatches a plan with her best friends, Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) to treat themselves to an evening of bowling and fine dining in a fancy restaurant, while their husbands take care of the children for a few hours. However, a comedy of errors soon ensues after Sean and the other spouses (Alex Kendrick and Robert Amaya) run into a problem.

When a baby is discovered to be missing, the three mothers are recruited to join the frantic search party. With the help of a biker with a heart of gold (Trace Adkins) and an impatient cabbie (David Hunt), the girls put their night out on hold as they join the search for the missing child.

Co-directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, Moms’ Night Out is a wholesome PG-rated comedy that’s fun for the whole family.

At the madcap movie’s happy resolution, sanity and safety are satisfactorily restored. The wives are no longer taken for granted, but instead are elevated to the lofty status envisioned by William Ross Wallace when he proclaimed that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mild action and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

May 7, 2014

DVD revI started out just as a regular person, growing up in the Northwest ….

—David Lynch

Once upon a time during the reign of George I, on April 9, 1990, to be exact, TIME announced the debut of a television program “like nothing you’ve seen in prime time — or on God’s earth. It may be the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV.”

Never mind the “may be.” The New York Times called Twin Peaks “event television given a memorably wicked spin. Nothing like it has ever been seen on network prime time.”

A review in the Los Angeles Times (“TV You’ve Never Seen Before”) began with two questions. “Can this be happening?” and “Can this be happening on television?”

Considering how much genius-level, groundbreaking programming has been produced at HBO and elsewhere since the turn of the new century, it’s a tribute to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 30-episode ABC series that Twin Peaks remains as “hauntingly original” and “memorably wicked” when revisited in 2014 as it did in 1990 when it lured a network television audience into the dark forever-ominously-rustling north woods where “the owls are not what they seem” and FBI agents with second sight thrive on cherry pie while keeping a line open to other worlds.

Heralding the Golden Age

Last month during an interview with David Lynch at the International Music Summit in Los Angeles, the recording artist Moby suggested that Twin Peaks, the “first truly compelling idiosyncratic” TV show “heralded what we’ll call the weird, quasi golden age of television.” Moby made the statement in the course of asking the Twin Peaks mastermind if he’d ever been tempted to write or develop a new show.

Lynch preferred not to answer, dismissing the question as “awkward,” perhaps because he’s weary of denying rumors that he’s shooting new episodes when the only news of note is that a BluRay edition will soon be released. My quibble with Moby’s “golden age” reference concerns his use of the qualifier “quasi” in regard to an era that has witnessed giants of television art like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, among others, including the ongoing fourth season of Game of Thrones, which made the front page of Saturday’s New York Times (“Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role”).

To state the obvious, sexual violence has been endemic to the entertainment industry for generations and has been exploited not only in the media (i.e. the Times story) but in countless productions vastly inferior to Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks.

Loving Laura

In any case, sexual violence was not what addicted people to Twin Peaks. Rape and murder may have given the show its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” hook, but what made it a sensation was the way the question was augmented and amplified through the dynamics of visual style, unique characters, wildly imaginative writing, and, perhaps most impressively of all, the music of Angelo Badalamenti. From the first note, the mood created is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful. Right away you know that no matter what horrors are in store, the realm in which this film exists has a primal beauty, sad, mysterious, and infinitely suggestive. The mood is sustained as Badalamenti’s achingly poignant music follows the flow of feeling between a couple falling in love through their shared love of the murdered girl, as happens when James, the last of Laura’s boy friends and lovers, and Donna, her best friend and soulmate, confide in one another. The music is above all about loving Laura, so that you know that however sordid her secret life or the circumstances of her murder, she was adored, a darling of the community, its most beautiful child. The emotional chemistry of Twin Peaks is voiced by Donna the moment she and James are falling in love when she says “It’s like I’m having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once.”

More pervasive than the love theme is the subtle undercurrent of menace Badalamenti creates, an ebb and flow of dread that intensifies whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura’s home. Without that sinister undercurrent, the focus on an ordinary stairway with an ordinary ceiling fan slowly turning overhead might suggest something vaguely, uneasily off center; with the music it’s as if a demon’s hand were guiding the blades of the fan: something terrible happened here and is going to happen again, as it does at the end of the 14th episode when Laura’s lookalike cousin is brutally murdered in the adjoining room. The effect would be purely sensational except that the slaughter takes place as Badalamenti’s wrenchingly eloquent music fills the road house where James and Donna and other friends of Laura are watching Julee Cruise sing the song of love and death that sealed their relationship.

Who Killed Twin Peaks?

Somehow it made sense that a show “half in love with easeful death” should bring about its own demise. One problem had to do with the burden of the mystery; all the exotic possibilities put in play promised more than any denouement could conceivably deliver. The real killer, however, was ABC’s insistence that the iconic question be answered.

“The mystery was never supposed to be solved,” says David Lynch, still passionate on the subject 15 years later in the featurette accompanying the DVD. “That mystery was sacred. It held all the others. It was the tree and the others were the branches.”

Even without the network’s fatal interference, Twin Peaks would have had to survive Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the media blitz of the first Gulf War, which was underway as the show stumbled toward its conclusion.

The TP Effect

Just for fun, imagine something called, for lack of a better term, the Twin Peaks (TP) Effect, with the understanding that the single character who most thoroughly embodies it is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cheerful, upright, moral, supremely sane, and yet formidably quirky, he’s the unconventionally conventional presence wherein the magically real splendor of the show unfolds, from the basics of “damn fine coffee” to the Red Room and the dancing dwarf, extrasensory communication, and parallel universes.

The TP effect is alive and well in the Golden Age. It goes without saying that the Sopranos version of coffee and cherry pie is gabagool and Carmela’s ziti, and though Tony Soprano may seem miles to the dark side of Dale Cooper, what about the big guy going to pieces when a family of ducks abandons his swimming pool, and what about his dream at death’s door in which he envisions himself as a dorky traveling salesman?  And what else but the TP effect puts the Pine Barrens episode at or near the top of every fan’s list, the misadventures of Paulie and Christopher shivering, bitching, and hapless in the wilds of New Jersey? Welcome to Twin Peaks, Paulie Walnuts. And welcome to Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Imagine the season of TP you’d have if he were teaching science at Twin Peaks High. Then there’s the silver-tongued flamethrower from Justified, Boyd Crowder. Imagine this lethally charming character coming on to the waitresses at the double R diner. And think of the season you could build around a gay holdup-man like Omar from The Wire. Another variation of the TP Effect, found in the avuncular, elegantly spoken person of David Lynch’s star-gazing Major Briggs, anticipates the rhetoric of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and the Dickensian hotelier E.B. Farnum.

And what about the ad man with the secret past? If this TP effect caper seems a bit, well, capricious, there’s a recognition of it online in the extensive Twin Peaks site, where Don Draper from Mad Men is shown checking into the Great Northern and flirting with the TP siren, Audrey Horne. Remember, Jon Hamm’s Draper comes from La-La Land, where his best friend was the wife of the man whose identity he stole. Finally, consider the aura of Twin Peaks in the parallel universes of Game of Thrones and its wittiest character, Tyrion Lannister. Who needs the dancing dwarf of the Red Room when you can have Peter Dinklage hunkering down in a booth with Dale Cooper at the Double R and digging into a big piece of cherry pie?

This fantasia could go on for a dozen seasons, but this is David Lynch’s show and so should end in Bob’s Big Boy in L.A. where, according to his book, Catching the Big Fish, he “used to go … just about every day” to “have a milkshake and sit and think: There’s safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.”

For the David Lynch-Moby interview and all kinds of Twin Peaks material, visit http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/moby-david-lynch-interview.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 30, 2014

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

—Henry James

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

St. Vincent’s

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

The Dumbwaiter

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

The Albert Hotel

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

The Last Vestige

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

The First New Yorker

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

Kenmore Hall

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

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

Chelsea Dreaming

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

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

Anne Elliott’s Eruption

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Kam Williams

 

April 23, 2014

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

—Meryl Streep

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

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

As for movies …

Hamlet in Tombstone

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

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

“Hallowed to the World”

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

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

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

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

Pumping Up the Sentiment

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

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

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

Nights at the Players

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating the 450th

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Trend

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Fair (*).

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

 

April 16, 2014

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

—William Hazlitt (1817)

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

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

MBDMISU EC007Mickey Rooney (1920-2014)

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

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

650,000 Candles

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

Olivia’s DebutDVD Rev 2

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

Shakespeare in the Park

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Saved by the Record Exchange

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Her Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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