August 27, 2014
BROOM AND LUDLOW: That’s the title of this 18 x 24 inch oil on canvas by Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe, who will have a one-man show of his paintings in the Silva Gallery of Art at the Pennington school from September 3 through October 3. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, September 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Pennington School is located at 112 W. Delaware Avenue in Pennington. For more information, call (609) 737-4133, or visit: www.pen nington.org/arts/silva-gallery-of-art.

BROOM AND LUDLOW: That’s the title of this 18 x 24 inch oil on canvas by Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe, who will have a one-man show of his paintings in the Silva Gallery of Art at the Pennington school from September 3 through October 3. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, September 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Pennington School is located at 112 W. Delaware Avenue in Pennington. For more information, call (609) 737-4133, or visit: www.pen
nington.org/arts/silva-gallery-of-art.

Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe will exhibit his work, in a solo exhibition entitled “Paintings,” at The Pennington School’s Silva Gallery of Art. The exhibition opens on September 3 and continues through October 3. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, September 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

An intense observer of life, Mr. McIndoe can capture and interpret an object, a scene, a person in a way that makes one pause with curiosity. In “Paintings,” Gallery Director Dolores Eaton has chosen to focus on Mr. McIndoe’s city scenes in an effort to highlight the enormous range found in the artist’s marks and use of color. The work ranges from painterly to almost completely abstract. Painted on-site in oils, the paintings capture what is happening in the moment. The artist has not reworked these paintings back in the studio.

Born in London, Mr. McIndoe lived his early childhood in Liberia and spent his schooling years in English boarding schools. Soon after his arrival in the United States in 1957 he enrolled at The Art Students League to study painting. In 1981 he became an instructor at The Arts Student League and continues to teach there today. He has conducted landscape workshops in Ireland, South Korea, Alaska, New York, and New Jersey.

Mr. McIndoe has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in New York and New Jersey, including the State Museum in Trenton. He is the recipient of two, New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowships in 1987 and 2000.

The Silva Gallery of Art is the gallery of The Pennington School, 112 W. Delaware Avenue, Pennington, NJ 08534. Gallery Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; or by appointment.

For more information, call (609) 737-4133, or visit: www.pennington.org/arts/silva-gallery-of-art.
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DIDN’T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO KNOCK?: The head of a CIA team of assassins David Mason (Luke Bracey) makes a dramatic entrance into a room as he chases down the person he has been assigned to kill.

DIDN’T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO KNOCK?: The head of a CIA team of assassins David Mason (Luke Bracey) makes a dramatic entrance into a room as he chases down the person he has been assigned to kill.

Director Roger Donaldson is probably most closely associated with No Way Out, one of the best espionage thrillers ever made. Here he revisits the genre with The November Man, although this picture pales in comparison to his 1987 classic movie.

Nonetheless, Roger has managed to craft a labyrinthine cat-and-mouse caper that keeps you on the edge of your seat despite an often incoherent plot, slapdash action sequences, and an inscrutable cast of characters whose motivations are difficult to discern. Overall, the adventure amounts to a dizzying head scratcher that takes you on a roller coaster ride, even if you might need a scorecard to keep the players straight.

Based on the Bill Granger best seller There Are No Spies, the movie stars Pierce Brosnan in the title role as Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA agent whose code name was “The November Man.” Although he had retired to Switzerland five years earlier, it didn’t take much to coax him to help extract Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), a Russian double agent, who is ready to come in out of the cold.

Peter and Natalia share a secret past which resulted in their daughter Lucy (Tara Jevrosimovic), a love child whom he misses terribly. However, the prospects of a father daughter reunion are reduced significantly when Natalia is shot in the head by a team of assassins led by David Mason (Luke Bracey), Peter’s former protégé in the CIA.

What’s up with that? Did the Agency really want Natalia dead? Or did David go rogue? These are the questions left unanswered as Peter accepts another dangerous assignment, namely, the exfiltration of Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) from Moscow.

It turns out that Alice is a pivotal witness for the prosecution who is scheduled to testify at a war crimes tribunal that is about all the atrocities committed in Chechnya by Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). However, Federov is Russia’s ruthless president-elect and he isn’t about to let some social worker interfere with his plans.

Peter quickly realizes that Alice has many angry adversaries, both Soviet, such as Federov’s henchwoman (Amila Terzimehic); and American, such as the CIA mole who is giving David his assignments. Not surprisingly, the pair leave a messy trail of bodies behind them as they pick up Lucy and make a daring escape to the West.

Very Good (**½ stars). Rated R for rape, profanity, sexuality, nudity, graphic violence, and brief drug use. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

August 20, 2014
Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

—Robin Williams as John Keating

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) a prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams crouches like a quarterback in a huddle with his students, only John Keating’s not calling plays, he’s quoting Walt Whitman after telling the boys, “We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And business, law, medicine, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he brings in “Uncle Walt,” whose portrait hangs above his desk: “‘… of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’” After repeating the last line with quiet passion, Mr. Keating looks around at the faces of his students and asks, “What will your verse be?”

Of all the parts Williams played, John Keating may be the most purely inspirational, and, in the aftermath of his death on August 11, one of the most poignant. In Dead Poets Society the plot turns on the suicide of a student whose “verse” had been his dream of becoming an actor. As the reaction to Williams’s death last week makes clear, he had already contributed more than his share of passion and poetry to “the powerful play” when he decided that he could give no more.

Over the Top

The death of Robin Williams at 63 was a media event of remarkable magnitude. According to several reports in the New York Times, the news led to a 370 percent spike in mobile traffic, and hit website readership harder than any breaking story anywhere last week. In the immediate aftermath, the number of tweets about Williams spiked to about 63,000 a minute, and Steve Carrel’s 10-word tweet “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP” had been “retweeted” 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.

With numbers like that, there’s no doubt that the online hits on Williams highlights reached or exceeded the same level, from live full-length performances in theaters or night clubs, to appearances on Johnny Carson, to excerpts from his film career. All this instant fragmented access is in keeping with the nature of things in a brave new world where services like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube favor the parts over the whole. I’ve adjusted to the Age of Moments, which comes with the territory when putting together a weekly column with all the resources of the Net at hand. If you don’t own or can’t find DVDs of favorites like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, you can still zero in on special moments.

Stand-Up

Watching Robin Williams’s stand-up routine can be exhausting. There’s a life-or-death desperation in the way he goes at it, as though laughter were oxygen and if he doesn’t breathe in enough of it, he’ll be in need of immediate medical attention. You can almost hear the adrenaline. Charlie Rose or Johnny Carson are lucky to get a word in with Williams firing off one-liners like a man possessed. When the venue is live, in theaters and clubs, all bets are off. The drunken Scotsman-inventing-golf routine bellowed with obscene in-your-face gusto in live performance gets toned down for Parkinson, England’s most popular talk show, where all is civil and conversational and guests are expected to go through the usual motions (say your piece, get some laughs, be charming, plug your latest). Unfortunately, you can’t mention “Parkinson” now without reference to the part the disease with that name may have played in Williams’s suicide. The fact that he’s already been posthumously linked to Parkinson’s indicates the scope of what he’d have been up against; in addition to the patronizing display of sympathetic head-shakings, knowing glances, and sad smiles, there would be wisecracks, sick jokes, and worse, notably in the blogsophere where the venom already being spewed on his daughter Zelda’s Facebook page was so vile that she had to shut it down.

The Poetry of Improvisation

Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) is the Robin Williams film I remember particularly enjoying, the one where his comic spirit could soar within the confines of a plot. It’s also a reminder of his USO visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he’d performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.

Williams talks frankly about keeping his improvisational genie at bay in a 1982 interview with Dallas talk show host Bobbie Wygant about his first film role as the title character in The World According to Garp. Asked if it’s true that director George Roy Hill discouraged him from improvising on the set, he admits as much, saying that it was good for him: “you settle into yourself and find things you wouldn’t have found when you’re going out.” One day Hill allowed him to let go, to make the point, “and then we had to get down to some serious work.”

Norman Lloyd, who plays the headmaster in Dead Poets Society, observed that Williams wasn’t his usual “manic” self during the filming: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Even so, the subtext of the lesson John Keating is so passionately teaching celebrates the spirit of improvisation that’s at the heart of Williams’s comic genius, which is put into instructive action in the scene when Todd Anderson, the painfully shy student played by Ethan Hawke, is forced to free-associate a poem in front of the class, with Keating circling him, coaxing him, making him close his eyes, giving him no room to escape from a plunge deep into his subconscious for something spontaneous and striking (it’s free verse in action). The sequence is launched by a rapidfire interrogation about the picture of Walt Whitman above his desk. “What does he look like?” “A madman.” “What kind of madman? Don’t think about it.” “A crazy madman.” “You can do better than that. Free up your mind.” “A sweaty-toothed madman.” “Good God, boy, there’s a poet in you, after all.” And on it goes, teacher and student moving in a kind of dance with elements of incantation and hide and seek, until finally the overwhelmed student is improvising on a madman mumbling about truth and “a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Keating persists, “what about the blanket?” until actor and poet come to life in Todd (and, you would think, in Ethan Hawke): “you push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it will just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.”

At this, the class that had been laughing at Todd’s discomfort cheers and applauds him. What you’ve witnessed isn’t just the frenzied creation of a free-form poem but an exercise in acting, with Weir as teacher behind the scenes, Williams as coach, and Hawke as student.

The Princeton Connection

Dead Poets Society was a memorable debut for Ethan Hawke, who graduated from the Hun School in 1988, the year before the film was released. And Hawke isn’t the only Princeton connection in Robin Williams’s life; one of his closest friends was PDS graduate (class of 1970) and fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. According to last week’s memorial statement from Reeve’s children, “He and Dad made each other laugh, and they stood by each other to the end. The world knew Robin as a comedic titan, but to our family, he was simply one of our Dad’s dearest friends. From the moment they were classmates at Juilliard, their friendship transformed into a brotherhood that was built on a mutual admiration for the theater, the arts and, most importantly, laughter. After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed.”

In Reeve’s memoir, Still Me, he recalls, “I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

At Heaven’s Gate

When James Lipton, host of the interview series, Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked the ritual question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates,” Robin Williams’s answer was, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and someone of your choosing …. Or just to know there was laughter. That would be a great thing.”

After Williams’s death, Lipton said, “Great comedians have to be great actors. And what does an actor do? He reaches deep inside his soul … and brings out something deeply mysterious, a total surprise …. One of the greatest gifts he gave us was to spare us his suffering and to give us his joy …. In the end the one person he would not spare was himself.”

 

SHOULD I CHOOSE LIFE OR DEATH?: Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, center) after a car accident that left her severely injured, miraculously steps out of her body on the gurney behind her, and learns that she has 24 hours to choose between living or dying.

SHOULD I CHOOSE LIFE OR DEATH?: Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, center) after a car accident that left her severely injured, miraculously steps out of her body on the gurney behind her, and learns that she has 24 hours to choose between living or dying.

Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a bright 17-year-old young woman full of the bloom of youth. Between playing the cello for pleasure and dating the boy of her dreams (Jamie Blackley), the happy high school senior considers herself truly blessed.

She is lucky enough to have the perfect parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) who support her decision to major in classical music, whether she gets into Juilliard or simply sticks around Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College. Mia is also very close to her only sibling, Teddy (Jakob Davies), who absolutely adores his big sister.

However, fate intervenes one snowy day during a family outing when a car coming in the opposite direction veers across the highway’s double lines. In the blink of an eye, their fortunes are irreversibly altered by an unavoidable head-on crash.

By the time the ambulances and paramedics come to the rescue, all four passengers are in grave condition, and there is a chance that none of them will survive the tragic accident. Mia, who has a collapsed lung, a broken leg, and internal bleeding, slips into a coma.

At that instant, her spirit miraculously separates from her body, and she is suddenly able to observe situations and eavesdrop on conversations as if she were an invisible ghost. While a team of doctors struggle to stabilize her vital signs in the hospital, she watches a nurse (Aisha Hinds) lean over and whisper into her ear that “Living or dying is all up to you.”

This suggests that Mia must choose between dying and ascending to heaven or returning to earth where she will face a host of challenges on her way to recovery. Suspended in this state, she’s afforded the unusual opportunity to reflect and reminisce during the next critical 24 hours before having to make her decision.

That is the surreal setup of If I Stay, a bittersweet flashback movie based on Gayle Forman’s young-adult novel of the same name. Although this sentimental tearjerker will undoubtedly resonate with teenagers, the film’s sophisticated thought-provoking exploration of such themes as family, friendship, love, and spirituality should appeal to audiences in general.

Directed by R.J. Cutler, the movie is about Mia’s contemplation of her future while considering her family’s grim prospects, nostalgia, and the bedside manner of visitors like her grandfather (Stacy Keach), boyfriend, and best friend (Liana Liberato). Although reminiscent of The Lovely Bones (disembodied teen narrator), The Notebook (love story with a syrupy finale), and Twilight (star-crossed romance set in the Pacific Northwest), If I Stay is a unique adventure with a tale all its own to share.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 13, 2014
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?

—Walton Goggins

You may think you’re delving into the past when you sort through old interviews and reviews online, but the “ever present present” is always there, as it was last night when the news of Robin Williams’s death kept popping up on the pages of otherwise ancient information. I didn’t have time to read the details until I saw David Itzkoff’s obituary in Tuesday’s New York Times. I was writing about a gifted actor named Walton Goggins (imagine the fun Robin Williams would have riffing on that moniker), and didn’t want to stray from the subject. Reading the quote from Williams reassessing himself as a performer — “how much more can you give? Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage?” — I realized there’s no disconnect when you’re talking about actors.

In an interview on collider.com about the conclusion of The Shield (2002-2008), the extraordinary FX series about rogue cops in the LAPD, Walton Goggins complimented the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan, for ending it “the way that he began it, from the heart and from a place of passion.” Speaking of the “many threads in this story,” Goggins refers to the complex relationship between his character, detective Shane Vendrell, and the strike team leader Vic Mackey, played by Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis. “It’s the disintegration of that friendship and what it has done to these two men that were inexorably tied to the original sin of this show …. To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?” What Goggins goes on to say about his character tells you a lot about how much of himself he gave to that role: “I’ll never get to play Shane Vendrell again. For me, it almost broke my heart when that happened because I love him very much, not from a friend standpoint. I just want to hug him. I just want to go up to him and just kind of hug him and whisper in his ear, ‘Buddy, you’re okay. You’ll be okay. If you can start from here and try to live your life differently, you’ll be okay.’”

In the same collider interview, Goggins, who was born in Atlanta in 1971, recalls walking into the local casting director’s office at the age of 14, with no acting experience, saying, “‘I have a lot of emotions. I’m a young kid, and I want to get these emotions out in a constructive way, so I think I need to become an actor, and I need you to help me do that.’ That was kind of my trajectory. I don’t think there was another option for me, really.”

A Great Ending

In view of Shane’s devastating fate, his actor buddy’s advice about living “your life differently” is wishful thinking on the grand scale. Certainly no one who ever stayed with The Shield to the finale will ever forget a show that closed out its seven-season run with what television critic Alan Sepinwall, writing online, called “the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I’ve ever seen.” In his book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012), Sepinwall suggests that from a Shield fan’s point of view what ultimately made the show great “was that it ended great.”

In the beginning, Shane was merely the lone witness to the “original sin” moment when Vic Mackey shot dead a fellow detective who had been planted on his deeply corrupt strike team in the fictional Farmington Division of the LAPD. The FX brass wanted Ryan to fire Goggins after the pilot was filmed, according to the chapter on The Shield in Sepinwall’s book. Ryan refused, and by the time Season 5 ended, “Goggins had more than justified his boss’s faith.” Up until then, the show needed infusions of star power from name actors like Glenn Close in Season 4 and Forest Whitaker in Season 5. Once Shane became “the center of the storm,” the series no longer needed “a Very Special Guest Star” because Goggins, as Sepinwall puts it, was playing “at Michael Chiklis’s level, and there was no conflict the show could create that would be bigger, or hit harder, than Vic vs. Shane, mentor against protégé, brother against brother.”

Sepinwall’s title for the chapter was “The Shield takes antiheroism to the limit,” and it’s a tribute to Chiklis’s relentless performance that you’re pulling for Mackey, the ultimate antihero, even as you’re thinking what an obnoxious brute he is. Whether he’s taking his cut, setting up monumental heists, bullying or beating on everyone in sight, he’s also doing his job. Every time the powers that be are about to come down on him, he pulls off a major bust. As a viewer, you give him credit for loving his kids, two of whom are autistic, but you never see him engaged as a father the way you do Tony Soprano with A.J. and Meadow and Walter White with his disabled son in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. 

Other Endings

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

People are still arguing about the ending of The Sopranos. Thanks to series creator David Chase’s decision to leave the final episode unresolved, with Tony Soprano sitting for all eternity over a plate of fried onion rings, many diehard fans of the show insist that what should have ended with a bang ended with worse than a whimper. A cop-out. An insult to closure. A cheating of fans who had invested almost a decade of their lives in the HBO blockbuster.

In The Revolution Was Televised, Chase tells Sepinwall that he never intended to play “head games” with the audience. “It just seemed right …. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

As Sepinwall points out, the ending “almost feels bigger than the show it dropped a curtain on.”

The first I ever heard of The Shield was on Sepinwall’s blog, “What’s Alan Watching” in September 2013, amid the analytical back and forth following the finale of Breaking Bad. While fans furiously weighed in on the subject of Walter White’s fate, the program they cited as the standard when it came to superior endings was The Shield.

As endings go, to use T.S. Eliot parameters, Breaking Bad went out with more  bangs than any comparable endgame situation this side of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. At the time Sepinwall interviewed Vince Gilligan for his book, Breaking Bad had not yet finished its run, so the ending was up for discussion. In reviewing the possibilities, Sepinwall presciently wonders about the machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car, which became, in fact, the primary component in the ingeniously, if improbably, fashioned machinery of the denouement (Walt was a mad genius, after all). At that time Vince Gilligan’s thoughts about a finale didn’t go much beyond a wish “to do justice to the characters,” to “satisfy the audience,” to make sure everyone feels “that this trip was worth taking,” and to end “in the best, most interesting, most breathtaking and ultimately satisfying way possible.”

No surprise, many of the Breaking Bad bloggers were dissatisfied. Some felt the denouement was too neat, with too many loose ends left unresolved. Compared to the ambiguous finales of The Sopranos and The Shield, however, Walter White’s self-devised demise lived up to Gilligan’s promise. Lifted by the rock and roll euphoria of Badfinger’s song, “Baby Blue,” Breaking Bad ends on a high.

Losing Everything

The Shield ends in a darker place, one that moved Slate’s Mark Peters to term it “a Shakespearean tragedy in which the antihero’s sins, spinning out from a fatal decision he makes in the pilot, slowly destroy everyone around him. The main character insists he’s doing it all for his family — but he’s lying, especially to himself. There’s a lot of collateral damage, but this murderer’s worst crime might be the corruption of his vulnerable younger partner.”

As for Vic Mackey, rather than going down in a blaze of machinegun glory or landing a life term or Death Row, he sells his soul for immunity, which means a three-year sentence confined to desk duty in a cubicle, duties befitting exactly the sort of paper pusher he has for so long been the fire-breathing man-of-action antithesis of, and what would be a routine act for an ordinary employee — the displaying of photographs of his wife and children — carries a lead weight of irony for one who has lost his family, friends, coworkers, everything but his life.

Unguilty Pleasures 

Let’s face it, the stuff we’ve been watching since the millennium is gruesome fare. People do terrible things to one another on Game of Thrones, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Luther, True Detective, and on and on, not to mention some recent horrors like Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers. While not all the abovementioned can be called works of art in a class with The Shield or The Sopranos, Deadwood or The Wire, they provide enough intensity and visual imagination to keep us from watching real-life atrocities like Congress, the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other Usual Suspects. We can read about all that in the New York Times, along with the untimely death of the actor who asked “How much more can you give?”

This seems as good a place as any to quote Henry James from The Middle Years: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

 

FACES OF THE NIGHT: This photograph by Wendy Paton will be part of an exhibition of 70 gelatin silver prints in the exhibition “Wendy Paton: Nuit Blanche” opening in the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown on Saturday, August 23. It is part of the artist’s “Visages de Nuit” series of 51 black and white candid night portraits, shot over a six-year period from 2006 to 2012. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org.(Image Courtesy of the Michener Art Museum).

FACES OF THE NIGHT: This photograph by Wendy Paton will be part of an exhibition of 70 gelatin silver prints in the exhibition “Wendy Paton: Nuit Blanche” opening in the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown on Saturday, August 23. It is part of the artist’s “Visages de Nuit” series of 51 black and white candid night portraits, shot over a six-year period from 2006 to 2012. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org. (Image Courtesy of the Michener Art Museum).

An installation of 70 gelatin silver prints by Wendy Paton are on view in “Wendy Paton: Nuit Blanche” at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown from Saturday, August 23 through December 7 in the Commonwealth and Pfundt Galleries.

An award winning fine art photographer, Wendy Paton was in the throes of a successful, ground breaking career training and driving Standardbred race horses in New York, when in 1981, her interest in photography emerged. She studied at the International Center of Photography in New York, learned the intricacies of night photography from Michael Kenna, and darkroom printing techniques from her mentor and collaborator, master printer Chuck Kelton.

The Michener exhibition consists of two bodies of work: “Nuit Blanche” comprises a premiere selection of Paton’s Visages de Nuit, complemented by a collection of her latest series, Reclaiming Dignity.

Visages de Nuit, is a collection of 51 black and white candid night portraits, shot over a six-year period from 2006 to 2012 in various international cities. The series of nocturnal images explores the mystery of the night and brings the viewer into her subject’s nighttime world. Ms. Paton’s dark and gritty images purposely convey her interpretation of the surreal quality of life at night, and what is hiding behind what we normally view as reality.

Reclaiming Dignity is a portfolio of the photographer’s vision of “abstract portraits,” faces and bodies of neglected cars, once coveted for their style, beauty, speed, and grace, left unattended and ignored for years, then given a chance to once again be admired and coveted; an opportunity to “reclaim their dignity.”

Both Visages de Nuit and Reclaiming Dignity share the common thread of a strong desire to visually document a contemporary vision of “portraits,” a creative portrayal of what the artist observes through her camera’s lens.

The execution of this work, size of prints, the choice to use black and white film, and the conscious style of printing in a traditional darkroom, were all vital in allowing Paton to produce this exhibition of gelatin silver photographs with the desired strong, emotional impact.

This exhibition is curated and organized by Lisa Tremper Hanover, Director and CEO of the Michener Art Museum and is supported by an anonymous friend of the Museum in honor of Padmini and Rajan as well as by Jay and Barbara Belding and Sandra and Conrad Leon. In-kind support is provided by Brilliant Graphics and Paris Framemakers.

Ms. Paton will speak about her work at the museum on September 16; she will conduct a weekend studio workshop, “Making Photograms/Darkroom & Cyanotype Technique,” from October 18 through October 19.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, Pa.

For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org.

 

SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison.(Photo by Jerry Dalia)

SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison. (Photo by Jerry Dalia)

“O Rare Ben Jonson!” reads the epitaph on the tomb, in London’s Westminster Abbey, of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poet and playwright. Though Jonson is considered, along with Shakespeare, to be one of the two towering figures of English Renaissance drama, his “rarity” is most clearly manifested today in the unlikelihood of anyone reading or producing his plays.

Undaunted, Bonnie Monte, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, has painstakingly and lovingly adapted and staged Mr. Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), a wild, irreverent satiric comedy, one of his two most famous plays (along with Volpone from 1605). Even in this streamlined, artfully directed, skillfully acted, impressively fine and funny production, the reasons why you may never have had an opportunity to see a Ben Jonson play are obvious.

While Shakespeare may have been, as Jonson himself described him, “not of an age but for all time,” Jonson lived in the moment and was decidedly a man of his time. The Alchemist, for example, takes place in Jonson’s present-day Blackfriars, a suburb of London, during the Plague. Firmly rooted in the corruptions of the real world, Mr. Jonson’s comedy is satiric, holding the mirror up to human beings and their actions, showing us our folly and foibles so that we can make amends.

Heroism? Idealism? Admirable characters? True romance? Not likely in Jonson’s world. Money takes priority over love here, and these characters, all driven by greed and ego-centrism, are not easy to warm up to, despite an enormous, boisterous energy, a vitality and even grandeur emanating from the sheer cunning, creativity, and enjoyment in their out-and-out knavery. And there may also be particular resonances, some lessons to be learned by contemporary audiences, engulfed in the relentless self-promotions, aggressive marketing, and offensive sales pitches of our materialistic world.

Ms. Monte’s adaptation of The Alchemist, including “at least 1000 changes to Jonson’s original text,” deletion of “various minor characters and locations,” “hundreds of cuts and word changes,” and many lines rewritten is helpful in clarifying or eliminating eccentric and incomprehensible syntax, topical allusions, obscure vocabulary and colloquialisms. Those changes, along with some superb performances and a fine sense of comic timing throughout, help to ensure that the humor comes across here. At three hours running time, however, with sustained close listening a requisite and some comprehension challenges remaining, even this new, more accessible Alchemist will not appeal to all tastes.

Jonson follows a classical dramatic structure to frame what looks like almost a celebration of anarchy in his plot. The Alchemist respects the three unities of time (one day), place (the Blackfriars’ house of Lovewit who has left town), and action (Lovewit’s servant and two friends take over the residence as a headquarters for operating their “alchemy” business, involving various fraudulent enterprises that thrive on the gullibility and greed of their victims).

The elaborate unit set, artfully designed by Jonathan Wentz, is rich in detail and scores top marks for functionality and aesthetics. Representing the interior of Lovewit’s house and offering twelve different entrances and exits on two levels, this setting, like a 17th century version of the interior for Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, puts us squarely in the realm of farcical comedy. The action to take place here is bound to be fast and frenetic.

Nikki Delhomme’s bold, wildly creative costumes, are just sufficiently extreme to enrich the characters’ over-the-top behaviors and personalities. The colorful, memorable wardrobe choices greatly add to the spirit and comedy of the world of The Alchemist. Lighting by Steven Rosen contributes to the relatively clear staging of the chaotic action of this play and also enhances the energetic, buoyant tone, and mood of the piece.

At the core of the action in The Alchemist are the three ‘dirty rotten scoundrels’ — Lovewit’s butler Face (Jon Barker), Subtle the “alchemist” (Bruce Cromer), and a prostitute, Dol Common (Aedin Moloney) — who take over the house while the owner Lovewit (John Ahlin) is away. Although the house is supposed to be kept closed to guard against spread of the Plague, the clever trio entertain a steady stream of eager customers.

First comes Dapper (Jon Sprik), a naïve young lawyer’s clerk seeking a “familiar,” a fairy queen summoned through Subtle’s magical powers, to assist Dapper’s gambling ventures. Then Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) appears, begging supernatural assistance for his tobacco business. Next to arrive is the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Brent Harris), voracious in his appetites for money, food, and women, and determined to enlist Subtle’s alchemy in acquiring the legendary philosopher’s stone, that turns all metals into gold. Accompanying Sir Epicure is Pertinax Surly (Kevin Isola), a voice of reason and skepticism, who quickly assesses the fraudulence of Face and his cohorts, but, of course, is ignored and scorned by all.

Two Anabaptist religious figures, an angry Ananias (James Michael Reilly) and his colleague Tribulation Wholesome (Raphael Nash Thompson), also prove ready victims in their greedy scheme to see their money turned into gold. Drugger returns and introduces a rich, alluring young widow, Dame Pliant (Kristen Kittel) and her brother Kastril (Seamus Mulcahy) into the mix.

As Face and Subtle battle over the affections of Dame Pliant, Dol, in the guise of a “royal lady” who has gone mad, romances Sir Epicure. Dapper is gagged and blindfolded and hustled off to the privy, where he spends most of the rest of the play. Drugger and Surly, who is now disguised as a Spanish nobleman, join the heated pursuit of the comely widow, and a huge explosion from the alchemy laboratory, offstage left, adds yet another layer to the madcap confusion.

The unexpectedly early return home of Lovewit finally brings the chaos and increasingly feverish, creative machinations of the three con artists to a head, and a hilarious final scene ensues, where Face, back to his actual persona as Jeremy the housekeeper/ butler, must sort out the insanity and explain the bizarre situation to his bewildered master.

The ensemble of thirteen, all experienced Shakespeare Theatre professionals, take on this challenging work with energy, intelligence, and finely honed comedic style. The characters with their particular quirks and vanities come across clearly and memorably. The actors successfully communicate the difficult language here and, under Ms. Monte’s careful direction, the wild convolutions of this zany plot become mostly coherent.

In this summer of darkness for Princeton Summer Theater, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s highly entertaining production of Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist is well worth the hour-long trip north to Madison, especially for aficionados of Ben Jonson and classic English theater. Ms. Monte has composed a remarkable adaptation of a masterpiece and staged it brilliantly to win over contemporary audiences. This is a production to garner appreciation and enjoyment of the rarity of “rare Ben Jonson” and to offer hope that his plays will grace 21st century stages more often in the future.

 

THIS REALLY IS THE MOTHER OF ALL TORNADOS: The tornado predicted by meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies, not shown) touches down with three funnel clouds in Silverton and disrupts the local high school’s graduation ceremony.

THIS REALLY IS THE MOTHER OF ALL TORNADOS: The tornado predicted by meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies, not shown) touches down with three funnel clouds in Silverton and disrupts the local high school’s graduation ceremony.

The skies are serene over Silverton, Oklahoma, with no reminder of the fact that four people recently perished in a deadly tornado that touched down in a neighboring city. So, we find the townfolk blissfully unaware of the rough weather that is bearing down on their area and threatening to ruin the high school’s graduation ceremonies.

Vice Principal Gary Morris (Richard Armitage), who is in charge of the commencement, has told his sons, Trey (Nathan Kress), a sophomore, and Donnie (Max Deacon), a junior, to film the ceremony in order to preserve it in a buried time capsule. His younger son complies with the request, but the elder is distracted by an opportunity to assist an attractive classmate (Alycia Debnam Carey) salvage her own video project.

Meanwhile, a team of storm chasers is rushing towards Silverton under the direction of its meteorologist, Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies), since her data has predicted that the next funnel cloud is likely to form somewhere in that vicinity. However, she’s a single mother with a 5-year-old (Keala Wayne Winterhalt) back home, and as a consequence she’s less enthusiastic about taking risks with their safety than their leader, Pete Moore (Matt Walsh).

Moore is maniacal in his quest to capture what appears to be the mother of all cyclones on camera. So, he exhorts Allison and the rest of the crew to risk their lives in order to capture that elusive dream photo that will be taken from inside the eye of a storm.

However, they have a couple of vehicles that are specially outfitted for severe weather, including a glass turreted tank that can withstand winds up to 170 m.p.h. However, two local residents, Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (John Reep), are daredevils who have decided to try to capture films of the storm by riding around in a pickup truck with a hand-painted sign that reads “TWISTA HUNTERZ.”

Allison’s dire forecast proves uncannily accurate as ominous clouds form overhead. That’s when the action begins in Into the Storm, a disaster film reminiscent of such classics as Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974).

This movie benefits immeasurably from state-of-the-art computer generated images, and is worth seeing for the eye-popping special effects alone. The movie is a campy, cheesy, yet visually captivating roller coaster ride.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexual references, and scenes of intense peril and destruction. Running time: 89 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 6, 2014

BeatlesWhen the closing credits of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came on the screen at Princeton’s new community cinema Friday, people applauded. The Garden was full to overflowing, an extraordinary turn-out on a midsummer night, with the students away. The applause suggests that Princeton finally has a place where people go to share movies, not just to see them.

Fifty years ago this month, when the lights came on at Manhattan’s Trans-Lux East on 58th Street after a showing of A Hard Day’s Night, it wasn’t the clapping and cheering that told the story: it was the smiling. Wherever you looked there were happy faces. People were glowing, all ages sharing the euphoria, smiles here, there, and everywhere, a sense of unbounded excitement, such a surge of good feeling you thought it might be powerful enough to conjure up a personal appearance by Paul, John, George, and Ringo.

Not a Fan

At the time of that first viewing I was not a fan. It would be two years before I even owned a Beatles album. My heroes were Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. The Indiana couple I talked into seeing A Hard Day’s Night with me that first time weren’t into the music at all, even at the Top 40 Cousin Brucie level, but when we walked out of the theater, they were beaming like everybody else. By now I knew this was a film I didn’t want to see on my own; such joy had to be shared. I’d been living in the city just six months and my only other friend was a tall, super-talkative poet who had zero interest in popular music. She, too, had to be talked into going. So we went. As the picture ended, she said, “Let’s see it again, okay?” and we did. Next up was my best friend, who lived in New Haven, I paid a visit, stayed over, and he and his wife and I went to A Hard Day’s Night, and came out smiling in the afterglow, everyone giddy and loose, the same as the first time in New York. I was beginning to feel like a tour guide for the Fab Four.

Even people predisposed to hate the film loved it. Like that stodgy Elmer Fudd of film reviewers Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who begins his review by saying, “This is going to surprise you — it may knock you right out of your chair — but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy.” Who could believe it! The chronically buttoned-up Bosley who had scorned “the juvenile madness” afflicting “otherwise healthy young people” found the “good humor” and “rollicking, madcap fun” created by those incredible chaps “awfully hard to resist.” You had to think, “Something special is going on here,” something, you might even say, magical.

Liberation

Whatever you call it — serendipity might be preferable to magic — A Hard Day’s Night would not have been possible without an expatriate Philadelphian named Richard Lester, who had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), a surreal 11-minute short starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan that was admired by the Beatles, and key to their comfort level with Lester and their own ideas about the zany ambience of the film being created around them.

If anything, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film looks labored and limping compared to the pace and fervor and comic spirit of its rocking running jumping offspring. Take the romp in an open field scored to the full-tilt frenzy of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” where the film picks you up and runs off with you. Poet/critic Geoffrey O’Brien remembers walking into the theater “as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes” and coming out “as a member of a generation sharing a common repertoire with a sea of contemporaries, strangers, who suddenly seemed like family …. The world became, with very little effort, a more companionable place.” O’Brien’s response to the romp in the field was that “the effortlessness” of it “began to seem a fundamental value. That’s what they were there for: to have fun, and allow us to watch them having it …. The converted choose the leap into faith over rational argument. It was enough to believe they were taking over the world on our behalf.”

Charmed, I’m Sure

Imagine how it felt for first-time audiences when A Hard Day’s Night came rushing headlong at them on the wings of the iconic chord producer George Martin considered “the perfect launch,” the four lads pursued by howling teen and subteen furies, diving onto a train at Marylebone Station, driven by a breathtaking display of cinéma vérité virtuosity, genius editing, and dazzling interplay between a group of gifted non-actors from Liverpool and old pros like Paul’s grandfather, the “clean old man” played by Wilfrid Brambell, a leering embodiment of mischief straight out of an Alec Guinness Ealing-era comedy.

Everyone interviewed for the Criterion DVD, from the United Artists and EMI brass to the players of small parts, from Richard Lester to George Martin, is reduced to gushing wonderment at how splendidly the Beatles handled the challenges and demands of making a film on a tight schedule and how well they worked with professional actors. The qualities that charmed the world — the style, wit, sense of fun, sheer energy, not to mention the singing and playing — clearly also charmed the people on the set.

Speaking of charm, there’s the first song after the title number, the only one that grows naturally out of a situation unrelated to the television special the group is seen rehearsing for and performing. Composed and sung by John Lennon, “I Should Have Known Better” is delivered with such joyous force and feeling that your spirits, already high from that opening rush, are lifted even higher, and when John and Paul go up the scale to maximum euphoria singing “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?,” you’re up there with them. Every time I see the baggage car sequence I find more to admire, partly because of being at first so intoxicated by the music that I took the visuals for granted. Another of their great escapes, though not as acrobatic as the zany freak-out in the field, this one has the Beatles taking refuge from the madness on the train, much of it stirred up by Paul’s trouble-making grandfather, the old rogue having been “jailed” for the duration of the journey. Shot through wire mesh giving the impression of a cage, the scene begins as a game of cards until you hear the sound of John’s harmonica as cinematic sleight of hand turns the cards into guitars and the players into musicians, a music video decades before MTV, with close-ups of John, Paul, George, and Ringo interwoven with shots of their small, formidably cute schoolgirl audience. When John sings, “I never realized what a kiss could be,” you’re realizing what a song could be, everything’s meshing, life and music in motion, then back to earth you come, the cards once again in play, Ringo’s won, and so have we all.

“If I Fell” is another infectious song written and sung by Lennon and marked by movingly unexpected harmonic nuances.  “My first attempt at a ballad proper,” John has said. As usual in A Hard Day’s Night, plenty is happening in the background, no one stops to listen, people go about their business, everything coming together, music and life once again subtly, spontaneously interacting.

Smiling Through

Of all the songs from A Hard Day’s Night, the one that has the most personal resonance for me is “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” which John wrote for George to sing. What a gift. Maybe John felt generous, maybe he thought it too light (“I couldn’ta sung it,” he claims). What a gift for the world. In Istanbul, feeling lonely and strung-out on my way back from India, I heard the song playing over a loudspeaker at a park near Hagia Sophia. It was a lovely afternoon and as I walked among the people, families, couples, all ages, it was the first time I hadn’t been made to feel like an alien being, the object of hard stares on all sides. People were actually smiling at me, and I realized they associated me, the shabby westerner, with the music that was making them feel good. It was reflected glory, the Hard Day’s Night effect all over again.

Half a year earlier in Katmandu, sick and alone since Christmas Day, I pulled myself out of bed and staggered down the road to the nearest cafe. As I walked into the warm, bright room full of strangers, most of them from the west, hitchhikers like me, Germans, English, Dutch, Japanese, Americans, familiar music was playing. The Beatles, who else, and the song was “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.” After a week of fever and nothing to eat, I sat down at a table with some people who seemed to know me or maybe they knew me through the music. They could tell I’d been under the weather. This was the first day of the new year. Happy New Year someone said. Happy happy happy, said the music. People were smiling as the song filled the room. It took no effort to feel that the world had become “a more companionable place.”  The Beatles had taken it over “on our behalf.”

“Boyhood”

Whenever my son, who was bathed in Beatles from day one, moans and groans about the break-up and at how disappointing the solo output has been since 1970, I keep reminding him that between them John, Paul, George, and to a lesser extent, Ringo, made enough great music in their solo careers, that if you felt inclined, you could put together at least two or three great Beatles albums using the best songs. Over the years, I’ve made provisional selections, thinking one day I might take the time to put together a tape for my son. One of the many reasons I was applauding Boyhood at the Garden the other night was the scene where the father (Ethan Hawke) proudly presents the son (Ellar Coltrane) with “something that money couldn’t buy,” his own CD creation, The Black Album, a “secret Beatles record” he’d meticulously assembled from the solo work, complete with liner notes and playlist. The father’s overkill of presentation as his laid-back son fails to come up with a response worthy of the effort, was among the truest moments in an unforgettable film.

One of the first features to play at new Garden, by the way, was the re-released version of A Hard Day’s Night. This community theatre is the best thing to happen to Princeton in ages. You can find out about joining at www.thegardentheatre.com/membership.php.

The quotes from Geoffrey O’Brien and Ned Rorem are from articles in the New York Review of Books. I also quoted from William J. Dowlding’s ever-useful Beatlesongs (Fireside 1989). You can see the playlist for The Black Album at http://blogs.indiewire.com.

 

DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

It’s “a typical day in Dogpatch, USA,” which means that the menfolk are doing a lot of sleeping, fishing, swapping lies, making Kickapoo Joy Juice moonshine and collecting unemployment, while the women are doing all of the work and looking forward to the Sadie Hawkins Day race when they hope to catch and marry the men of their dreams. The beautiful young Daisy Mae declares her “one aim in life is to be a good wife, and marry Li’l Abner someday!” The “mystical” and pugilistical” Mammy Yokum is “sassiety’s queen,” who “heads the local machine.” Meanwhile her tall, handsome, good-hearted son Abner, a model of innocence in a corrupt, scheming world, spends most of his energy running away from Daisy and other marriage-seeking young women.

Currently playing at Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County College in an M&M Stage production, the 1956 musical Li’l Abner is based on characters created by Al Capp in his long running (1934-1977) comic strip. It features an array of larger-than-life stereotypes of the rural South, of male-female relationships and of heroes and villains in the world of the 1950s.

The original production, with lyrics and music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul and book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, ran for 693 performances on Broadway in 1956-57, followed by a nationwide tour and 1959 movie. The show has remained popular in schools, colleges, and community theaters, though there has never been a major professional revival. The show includes an assortment of amusing, appealing characters, some memorable musical numbers, and some mostly mild satire that often, in the style of Mark Twain via Al Capp, hits home, even six decades after its composition. Despite this worthy, spirited Kelsey production, however, Li’l Abner does suffer from a bit of creakiness and corniness in the plot, seems a bit dated in its 1950s subject matter and traditional musical comedy style, and, at two hours and 45 minutes, goes on about half an hour too long.

Under the skillful direction of Matt South, the capable M&M (Mike Almstedt and Mike Dilorio, producers) ensemble cast of 26 successfully brings the world of Dogpatch, USA to life. Strong voices and experienced actors in most of the leading roles, along with lively, sure-handed choreography by Laura Murey-Ghaffoor and the capable pit orchestra of 15 under the baton of Charlie DeMets ensure a smooth-running, engaging evening.

The “Typical Day” in Dogpatch, with Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft) and Daisy Mae (Amber Payne) at an enamored yet uncommitted stand-off, quickly spirals into pandemonium when Senator Phogbound (Chuck Denk) arrives to inform the town that the government plans to turn Dogpatch into a nuclear testing ground. Even worse, the evacuation of the townspeople is scheduled to take place before Sadie Hawkins Day, when the local young ladies were all counting on catching their desired mates. Marryin’ Sam (Del Howard), of course, was looking forward to the resulting boost in income.

The only way to save the day is to find something necessary about the town. Could the secret lie in the Yokumberry tonic that Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) has spoon fed to Li’l Abner every day since he was a baby? Li’l Abner courageously heads to Washington D.C. with the secret formula, but General Bullmoose (Tom Bessellieu), a consummate businessman, plans to trap him into marrying Bullmoose’s secretary Appassionata Von Climax (Kristina Lunetta) and acquire Yokumberry tonic for his own purposes. Meanwhile Daisy Mae has agreed to marry Earthquake McGoon (Evan Bilinski) if he will help her to rescue Li’l Abner, and they, along with an animated contingent of Dogpatchers, descend upon General Bullmoose’s mansion and the government testing laboratory, where the eccentric Dr. Finsdale (Joe Zedeny) and his colleagues are working assiduously to use the Yokumberry formula to create a “brave new world” of superior human beings (“Oh Happy Day”). How will Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner ever get together? How will Dogpatch ever survive?

Mr. Kraft and Ms. Payne in the starring roles are a convincing, attractive romantic duo. In duets (“Namely You” and “Love in a Home”) and other individual and ensemble numbers, they present harmonious, beautiful singing, on-target character work and fine chemistry.

Ms. Kutalek’s Mammy Yokum is suitably feisty, energetic, even acrobatic, strong-willed and entertaining, while Mr. Howard, as Marryin Sam, slick and dapper in black hat and suit with blue vest, provides a vibrant character and a dynamic catalyst for several of the best numbers in the show. A polished dancer with a strong singing voice, Mr. Howard leads the ensemble in the hilarious and rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” in praise of the bumbling Confederate general whose statue graces the Dogpatch town square (“Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray./But who was known to all his men as good ol’ ‘Paper Mache?’”), and also in the sharply satirical, and timely — some things never change, at least not for the better — “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” and “The Matrimonial Stomp.”

Mr. Bessellieu’s General Bullmoose delivers a forcefully dramatic caricature of “the military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned against, and his two signature numbers, “What’s Good for General Bullmoose” (“is good for the USA”) and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil,” help to reveal and develop this charismatic villain.

Other colorfully striking characters populating the production include Mr. Parton’s laid-back Pappy Yokum (with interesting resemblance to Jerry Garcia), Mr. Bilinski’s powerfully threatening McGoon, Ms. Lunetta’s alluring Appassionata, and Mr. Zedeny’s zany Dr. Finsdale. The supporting ensemble, representing a range of experience and talent, displays fine vocal accomplishments, simple and appealing choreography, and amusing characterizations of the eccentric, zealous Dogpatchers and others to keep the evening moving with energy and focus.

Mr. Almstedt’s brightly-colored set design is functional and effective in helping to create the several different locales in Dogpatch and Washington, D.C., though more speedy set changes would be helpful in driving the plot forward and keeping audience focus. Robert Rutt’s lighting, Louisa Murey’s costumes and Nick Mastalesz’s sound all coordinate together smoothly to bring Al Capp’s wacky world to life on the Kelsey stage.

All in all, M&M’s Li’l Abner — though a bit corny, a lot dated, occasionally tiresome — nonetheless delivers an enjoyable evening of lively music, captivating characters, witty satire, and entertaining humor.

M&M’s production ofLi’l Abner” runs for one more weekend, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 10, in the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit www.kelseytheatre.net for tickets and information.

 

FATHER BLESS ME FOR I HAVE SINNED: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) was warned that he would be killed in one week’s time by an insane confessor who was in the confessional booth. Although Father Lavelle suspects that he knows who threatened him, he decides to continue his life as usual without going to the police.

FATHER BLESS ME FOR I HAVE SINNED: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) was warned that he would be killed in one week’s time by an insane confessor who was in the confessional booth. Although Father Lavelle suspects that he knows who threatened him, he decides to continue his life as usual without going to the police.

While listening to confessions in church one day, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) receives the shock of his life. A disturbed man recounts in lurid detail, how, as a child, he’d been raped by a priest every other day for five years. Then, the anonymous confessor announces that since the pedophile who ruined his life is already deceased, he’s decided to even the score by murdering Father James in exactly one week.

The demented parishioner doesn’t care that his intended victim is innocent and wasn’t even a priest when the transgressions occurred. In fact, Father James was married back then and entered the priesthood relatively recently after his wife’s untimely death.

However, there’s no reasoning with the lunatic who is making the death threat through the opaque screen. He abruptly exits the confessional booth without asking for absolution, thereby leaving Father James in a quandary about what to do next.

The concerned priest consults his immediate superior, Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage), who suggests the matter be reported to the police. However, despite having a hunch about the identity of the unhinged maniac, Father James resumes ministering to the needs of his tiny congregation as if nothing happened, apparently willing to be martyred for the sins of another.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of suspects in the deceptively serene village that is nestled along the Irish seacoast. There’s an unscrupulous banker (Dylan Moran) who is unsatisfied by wealth beyond his wildest dreams, a cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd) with a bipolar spouse (Orla O’Rourke) who’s cheating on him, and her sadistic African lover (Isaach De Bankolé) who admits to beating her.

Other bizarre characters include a physician (Aidan Gillen), who flagrantly violates the Hippocratic oath; a closet cannibal (Domnhall Gleeson), who claims that human flesh tastes a lot like pheasant; and a cop (Gary Lydon) who secretly consorts with a male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). Additionally, there is (Killian Scott), who is considering enlisting in the Army, and a suicidal American writer (M. Emmet Walsh).

Yet, if anyone’s really entitled to want to kill Father James, it would be his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). She felt like she lost both of her parents when he entered the seminary at a time she needed him the most.

Directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Calvary is a modern morality play which walks a fine line between a playful whodunit and a sobering parable. However, Brendan Gleeson serves as the glue that holds the production together. He delivers an excellent performance as an introspective soul on a spiritual path who is able to maintain his sanity while facing his mortality in an environment where so many in his flock have clearly lost their minds.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, drug use, and brief violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

July 30, 2014

DVD revAn actor is an interpreter of other men’s words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child, and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerise a group of innocents.

—Alec Guinness (1914-2000)

Sir Alec Guinness would have enjoyed our mouse. More than that, he’d have been studying it, absorbing its essential mouseness, the intensity of its beady-eyed hold over two fascinated humans and two frustrated felines. For the better part of 20 minutes, the mouse occupied a miniature proscenium formed by the frame at the top of the bedroom window, poking its head over the lacy fringe of the curtains as it stared down at the brother and sister tuxedo cats glaring up at it. Every now and then the little rogue would run teasingly back and forth along the top of its curtain-rod runway or skitter up and down the outer fringe of the curtain before leaping onto a nearby wall hanging, where it was finally trapped in a plastic container and delivered to the wild the following morning.

For Sir Alec, the anthropomorphic fun would have been secondary to a meditation on what it was to be “in and of” such an agile life-form. “I go to the zoo,” was his answer when asked about “building a character” during a 1977 television conversation with Michael Parkinson. While working out the part of the Prufrock-turned-criminal in The Lavender Hill Mob, he visited the small rodent house, fixing his attention on “a nervousy little character rather sort of fluffy” and thinking “maybe something on those lines.” Looking for ideas when playing crookbacked Richard the Third onstage in Canada, he came to a zoo “every two or three days” to commune with “The Unsociable Vulture.” You can see hints of the bird-of-prey in the capacious hovering presence of his Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), the role that launched his film career. There’s also an aspect of  the Unsociable Vulture haunting his Malvolio in an “unfortunate” television production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1969).

“I Hate Great Acting”

Well into his memoir, Blessings in Disguise (Knopf 1986), Guinness delivers the sort of statement you’d expect to see at the beginning of the book. Recalling the words of actor/writer Alan Bennett — “I hate Great Acting” — he writes, “I know what he meant: the self-importance, the authoritative stage position, the meaningless pregnant pause, the beautiful gesture which is quite out of character, the vocal pyrotechnics, the suppression of fellow actors …, the jealousy of areas where the light is brightest, and above all the whiff of ‘You have come to see me act, not to watch a play.’”

The quality setting Guinness apart from most of his stage and screen peers is articulated in Keats’s definition of the poetical character, which has “no self” but is “every thing and nothing,” delights as much in playing “an Iago as an Imogen,” has “no Identity” but “is continually in for — and filling some other Body.”

Guinness also kept faith with Hamlet’s instructions to the players, not to “out-Herod Herod,” nor to “tear a passion “to tatters,” but rather to “use all gently” to “acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness” and like Keats’s “chameleon poet” to enjoy “light and shade” and live “in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.”

A Very Literary Man

Shakespeare, Dickens, and Keats were divinities to Guinness, who was, as Gore Vidal observed first-hand during the filming of The Scapegoat, “a very literary man.” The actor visited the poet’s grave in Rome before, during, and after the Second War, and undoubtedly read Keats’s letter defining the “poetical character.” Guinness not only loved poetry and literature, he lived it as a writer and reader, which is why Blessings in Disguise is one of the best books ever written by an actor, not so much for what you learn about acting, which is a great deal, but for the characters brought to Dickensian life in every chapter.

Guinness’s working interest in literature was not confined to the United Kingdom. In 1945, back from a tour of duty as an officer in the Royal Navy, he took on the formidable challenge of adapting The Brothers Karamazov for the stage, and although he terms the result “loose” and “lopsided,” the play was staged at the Hammersmith Lyric and directed by a young Peter Brook, with Guinness himself as the volcanic Dmitri. The year before the war he had adapted Great Expectations, which ran for six weeks after “a splendid notice” from James Agate. The adaptation for which he received the most attention, however, was Joyce Cary’s novel, The Horse’s Mouth, which he mined for one of his most memorable film roles. As Piers Paul Read notes in the 2003 biography, Alec Guinness, “the precise punctual, modest, conventional, buttoned-up Alec Guinness” played “the anarchic, boastful, egotistical painter Gully Jimson.” It was quite a coup, to write your own role on your own terms and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay while winning Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and coming in second for Best Actor in the 1958 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

The B-Word  

When playing Fagin and Gully Jimson, Guinness speaks with uncharacteristic volume and vehemence; two such vivid characters almost demand to be performed. The risk in underplaying, in being too fine, too subtle, is the b-word. Discussing how to present Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai with director David Lean, Guinness flared up when Lean suggested that Nicholson would be “an awful bore” were they to meet him in a real-life situation (“You’re asking me to play a bore…No, I don’t want to play a bore”). The pernicious word surfaces again a decade later and suggests why Guinness remembered the television production of Twelfth Night as “unfortunate.” In Blessings in Disguise, he recounts watching a run-through of the film in the viewing box with Laurence Olivier, who zinged him thus: “Fascinating, old dear. I never realized before that Malvolio could be played as a bore.” Stung, Guinness heard the word “bore” running through the rest of his performance. According to Read’s biography, the production “left Alec on the verge of a breakdown,  physically, mentally, and spiritually. To recover, he spent 24 hours alone in a suite at a grand hotel in Brighton.”

Any actor who does justice to a character as complexly fashioned as Malvolio deserves a weekend of downtime in a grand hotel.  Harold Bloom sees the insufferable puritan as Twelfth Night’s “great creation” (along with Feste), pointing out that by the end “it has become Malvolio’s play.”

On YouTube there’s a sample of Stephen Fry’s Malvolio from the Globe production of Twelfth Night that migrated to Broadway last fall. The clip is from the denouement of the practical joke as Malvolio, gulled by a forged love note, struts before Olivia, the countess he serves, crooning and kissing his fingers at her while showing off his cross-gartered yellow stockings. Fry takes it over the top, milking the audience for laughs, no “bore” he. But Olivier was right, Malvolio is a bore, at least until he finds the forged letter. And so Guinness plays him, perusing and reading aloud the letter, which becomes in effect the script giving him, the actor/character, excellent material, his lines and cues, everything a plodding “bore” needs to appear light and amusing. In theatrical terms, this buoyant transformation allows him to take possession of the scene and eventually lay claim to the tragicomic soul of the play. Guinness is too subtle and wise an actor to milk the prank for laughs, though he enters like a peacock (remember his visits to the zoo), showing off his gaily embellished legs, at first plodding Big-Bird-like, but then stepping lightly, capering, almost Chaplinesque, coyly dandling a yellow-stockinged ankle. It’s his moment. And so his dark unfunny fate is to be “notoriously abused,” treated as a lunatic, and locked in a dark cell. Any actor playing Malvolio for laughs in the scene where he cluelessly struts his stuff is out of touch with the element of the play’s genius, its uniqueness, a work so deep that, as Bloom observes, “One cannot get to the end of it because some of the most apparently incidental lines reverberate infinitely.”

A Different Hole 

The Criterion DVD of The Horse’s Mouth features a talk with the director, Ronald Neame, who died in 2010 at the age of 99. In marveling at the intensity with which Guinness attacked the part of Gully Jimson and his determination to become the character (his wife complained, “He won’t even clean his nails”), Neame tries to find words for Guinness’s uniqueness. I was struck by the figure he used more than once to describe Guinesses’s chameleon-like ability to “change colors” from part to part: “He comes out of a different hole every time.” In fact, the oddly resonant metaphor was suggested by Guinness himself. As Neame admits in a 2003 L.A. Times interview: “We knew that whatever Alec said he could play, he could play. You’d send him books and he’d say, ‘I’m immensely sorry, Ronnie, but I’ve done this. I don’t want to come out of the same hole. I have to come out of a different hole.’ “

Sort of like, you know, a mouse.

 

BYGONE BARBERS: This shot of the interior of Jack Honore’s Barbershop, which opened on Nassau Street around 1913, is among the 90 bringing the town’s past to life in the show currently on view at the Historical Society of Princeton’s two locations.      (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Princeton)

BYGONE BARBERS: This shot of the interior of Jack Honore’s Barbershop, which opened on Nassau Street around 1913, is among the 90 bringing the town’s past to life in the show currently on view at the Historical Society of Princeton’s two locations. (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Princeton)

Most towns the size of Princeton have collections of historical photographs that offer clear clues to the past. But few can claim treasure troves as extensive as that of the Historical Society of Princeton. Thanks to the town’s bygone and long-active Rose Photography Studio, as well as others adept with a camera, everyday life in 19th and early 20th century Princeton is especially well documented.

An exhibit currently on view in the Historical Society’s two locations, at Bainbridge House at 158 Nassau Street and Updike Farm on Quaker Road, shows an exceptional range. Many of the images in “Princeton’s Portrait: Vintage Photographs from the Historical Society of Princeton” have never been previously exhibited. The show divides 90 shots  between the two locations.

During a break in the installation process last week, guest curator Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, who has developed past exhibitions at the Historical Society, reflected on its archives. “The breadth and diversity of the collection here is remarkable,” she said. “It’s especially strong for the late 1800s and early 1900s. I also appreciate it for its very rich collection reflecting the long-standing African-American community in Princeton. That, I think, is truly unusual.”

In a 1920 photo, Philip Diggs, Princeton Borough’s first African-American police officer, poses proudly in his uniform. Images run the gamut, showing many aspects of life in town and in rural settings. There is the interior of Hulit’s shoe store in the 1930s, a bit different from the way it looks today. A group of employees stand in front of 120 Nassau Street,  known then as Leggett’s City Market; another worker can be seen looking out of the window from within.

The show is divided into different categories, showing Princeton residents at home, at play, and at work. Dated 1911 is an exterior shot of the Central Hotel, which was later home to Lahiere’s restaurant and today houses the popular eatery Agricola. J. D. Lawrence’s ambulance, which doubled as a hearse, is shown in a 1923 photo. A group of salesmen inside Farr’s Hardware at Nassau and Mercer Street is dated 1900.

Among the photos depicting lighter moments is one from 1897 showing the Jared Wolfe family, clowning around with musical instruments on their porch at 19 Vandeventer Street. Another shot shows a potato sack race in Rocky Hill from 1908. In an image from around 1910, Princeton University students are dressed up for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A sign held by one student reads, “They furnish the beans, I spill the hot air.”

Princeton’s Rose Studio, which documented life in town and on the campus from the early 1870s to 1951, is the source for many, but not all, of the images in the show. “It was very hard to choose what to use,” said Daniel Schnur, the exhibition’s designer. “So we had our intern put them on a DVD that will run and show all the ones we couldn’t use.”

That intern, Princeton native and recent Princeton University graduate Isabel Kasdin, was struck by what she found when combing through the collection. “It was a true joy looking through every plate and print within our tens of thousands of photographs,” she wrote in an email. “I was struck with awe as I flipped over each new treasure. There were some wonderful surprises along the way, such as discovering an 1850s daguerrotype from the studio of Mathew Brady, one of the most famous early American photographers. I feel so  lucky to have access to so extensive a visual representation of the history of the town in which I grew up.”

Prints from the show are available for purchase, with proceeds going to help support the Historical Society. The organization will move all of its operations to Updike Farm in 2016. Bainbridge House is owned by Princeton University, which has yet to announce its plans for the building.

Admission to the show is $4. On Nassau Street, hours are Wednesday-Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The exhibit is on view at Updike Farm from 12-4 p.m. the first Saturday of every month. Visit www.princetonhistory.org for more information.

 

Princeton does not get to hear visiting orchestras very often, but thanks to William and Judith Scheide, there have been more recently. This year’s 7th Annual Midsummer Concert Series concluded last Wednesday night with a performance which continued the Scheide tradition of presenting great orchestras to the community. For this concert in Richardson Auditorium, the Scheide’s decided to focus on the rich depth of American orchestras, linking conductor Mark Laycock (a frequent conductor of Scheide musical events) and the Buffalo (NY) Philharmonic Orchestra in its first visit to Princeton and a world premiere. Mr. Laycock’s Flute Concerto for Jasmine Choi (Songbird’s Journey) showcased the young Korean flute virtuoso Jasmine Choi, clearly a rising star on the international music scene. In this Scheide-sponsored convergence of conductor, soloist and ensemble teamwork, Mr. Laycock, Ms. Choi and the Buffalo Philharmonic presented a mid-summer treat of well-played and well-appreciated music.

Mr. Laycock set up the premiere of his Concerto with a nimble and robust performance of Antonin Dvorak’s 1892 Carnival Overture. The Buffalo Philharmonic started off with a bang, with Mr. Laycock taking a quick tempo to the high-spirited work. The Philharmonic maintained a particularly stately approach to the second theme, with clarinetist John Fullam playing a resonant solo line and English hornist Anna Mattix providing a very sweet solo against concertmistress Amy Glidden. Mr. Laycock built the dynamics well to end the Overture with a grand flourish.

The keynote piece of the evening was Mr. Laycock’s own Flute Concerto, composed for Jasmine Choi, whose career Mr. Laycock has followed closely. Subtitled ‘Songbird’s Journey’ and completed in 2013, this three-movement work drew upon the full virtuostic abilities of the prodigious Ms. Choi. In composing the work, Mr. Laycock drew inspiration from Ms. Choi’s spirit, conceiving a piece that was ‘beautiful and happy, sincere, fun to play and hear.’ The first movement recalled pure late 18th-century counterpoint and musical style, with a soloist cadenza and almost operatic melodic lines. There were no sectional flutes in the ensemble; Mr. Laycock scored all the flute color and delicacy for the soloist. Ms. Choi played the joyful themes with clean runs, supporting the atmosphere of birds chasing one another. By moving the harp to a more prominent location within the violins, Mr. Laycock was able to add a tantalizing color and flavor to the music, and the movement ended as the bird flew away.

Mr. Laycock scored the second movement in a more somber and hymn-like manner, with walking strings as the songbird passed over, reflecting with the depicted monks on their daily prayerful walks. Throughout the work, Ms. Choi played with a great deal of physical energy and determination, fitting well into the majestic phrases.

Mr. Laycock subtitled the third movement ‘suave et enfumè’ (‘sweet and filled with smoke’), implying an impressionistic jazz character. This closing movement did show tinges of early 20th-century French impressionism, but was also colored with Benny Goodman-style swing. The winds, including solo flute, all seemed to go in their own directions, as if the songbird had landed in a downtown New York jazz club. Marked by a great deal of well-executed syncopation and unusual breath effects from Ms. Choi on the flute, this movement effectively closed a work which fit in well with the Buffalo Philharmonic’s mission of blending classical and cross-over music.

In the closing of Symphony No. 2 in D major of Johannes Brahms, the Buffalo Philharmonic preserved the light and sunny atmosphere begun with the Flute Concerto. Pastoral horns cleanly opened the Symphony, as Mr. Laycock moved the first theme along quickly in the violins. Mr. Laycock had the varied styles of the work well in hand, allowing the melodies to flower while eliciting a lean sound from the string sections. Conducting this work must have been a relief after the pressure of presenting his own world premiere, and Mr. Laycock clearly relished the moment as the swirling melodies played out. The brass sections of the Buffalo Philharmonic were impressively clean, and the quick wind passages of the third movement were well executed.

Summer has gone by quickly in this area, but the musical presentations sponsored by the Scheides made the month of July that much richer, and proving that despite the competition for people’s time in the summer months, there is always room for a good symphony in Princeton.

 

IT WENT THATAWAY:  Director James DeMonaco pointing something out to Frank Grillo, who plays Leo Barnes in “The Purge:Anarchy,” a sequel to “The Purge” (2013), which starred Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” and Princeton’s Ethan Hawke. “The Purge” grossed $89,328,627, and was turned into a “scare zone” for 2013’s annual Halloween Horror Nights

IT WENT THATAWAY: Director James DeMonaco pointing something out to Frank Grillo, who plays Leo Barnes in “The Purge:Anarchy,” a sequel to “The Purge” (2013), which starred Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” and Princeton’s Ethan Hawke. “The Purge” grossed $89,328,627, and was turned into a “scare zone” for 2013’s annual Halloween Horror Nights

Dateline: America, 2023. It’s now nine years since the country voted the New Founders of America into power. High on that elitist political party’s agenda was designating March 21st as the Purge, a day on which all law is suspended, meaning anything goes, rape, robbery, even murder.

Most citizens opt to stay inside for the duration of the annual ordeal, battening down the hatches with a Bible or a weapon in hand, since they can’t call upon the cops to come to their assistance in the event of an emergency. Yet, many turn vigilante to rid the streets of the dregs of humanity, others seize on the opportunity to even the score with someone they have a grievance against.

A couple of hours before the “fun” starts, we find Eva (Carmen Ejogo) rushing home from her job at a diner to be with her teen daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul). In the process, the attractive waitress ignores the crude passes of both a co-worker (Nicholas Gonzalez) and her apartment building’s custodian (Noel Gugliemi).

Elsewhere, Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford) are driving to his sister’s while debating about whether to inform her that their marriage is on the rocks. But the two soon land in desperate straits when their car conks out on the highway only minutes before the siren sounds signaling the beginning of the Purge.

That moment can’t come soon enough for revenge-minded Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) who’s itching to get even with the drunk driver (Brandon Keener) that not only killed his son, but got off scot-free on a legal technicality. However, soon after the Purge starts, the police sergeant reflexively comes to the assistance of Eva, Cali, Liz and Shane, all of whom are on the run from a bloodthirsty death squad.

So, he puts his plan on the backburner temporarily to protect the frightened foursome. That endeavor proves easier said than done in The Purge: Anarchy, a stereotypical horror sequel in that it ups the ante in terms of violence, body count, pyrotechnics and gratuitous gore.

Unfortunately, the film pales in comparison to the original, which was a thought-provoking thriller raising questions about poverty and privilege. This relatively-simplistic installment pays lip service to that intriguing theme in almost insulting fashion, envisioning instead a nihilistic U.S. which has merely degenerated into a decadent dystopia where blood-thirsty rich snobs relish slaying the poor purely for sport.

It is, thus, no surprise to witness the rise of an African-American guerilla leader (Michael K. Williams) who’s exhorting the masses to revolt by indicting the Purge as racist. An entertaining enough, if incoherent, splatterfest which unapologetically lifts familiar elements from such apocalyptic classics as The Hunger Games (2012), V for Vendetta (2006), The Warriors (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and Hard Target (1993).

A perhaps prophetic satire celebrating senseless slaughter as a natural national holiday in such a gun-loving country!

Good (**). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

July 23, 2014

book revA soft summer’s day in New York. When the rain falls, you can count the drops. I’m sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park reading Twelfth Night as a drop kisses the page, then one or two or three more, just enough to ripple the paper. My afternoon in the city began well with the discovery of a shady parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, free for the duration, no $3.50 an hour Muni Meter. My CRV is parked a few yards down the street from the house at 151 Avenue B where the jazz legend lived from 1950 to 1954.

The 1924 Oxford thin-paper edition of Shakespeare’s Works spread open on my lap is bound in soft leather like a Bible, with paper so delicate that it takes a touch as gentle as the rain to separate one page from the other. My reason for reading Twelfth Night; or What You Will (Harold Bloom thinks the secondary title more fitting) is that I’d been planning to write about the centenary of Alec Guinness, who played Sir Andrew Aguecheek at 23 and Malvolio at 55. Everything changed when I found that parking spot on Charlie Parker Place. It’s a “what-you-will” situation, by way of the “divinity that doth shape out ends.” Goodbye Sir Alec (for now), hello Shakespeare, hello Charlie Parker.

On this balmy Thursday afternoon everything makes Shakespearian sense, the diffidence of the rain, the interplay of sun and shadow, the sparrows’ chirping, the pigeons rumbling, a society of dogs romping in the dog playground, children squealing and screaming, a jazzy free-for-all of a comedy from 1601 spread open before me in bold black type on white India paper, and less than a stone’s toss to my left, the austere three-story brownstone rowhouse from 1849 where dwelt the man named on plaques from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation. The latter plaque notes the Gothic Revival style of the residence, “a style most often used for churches,” and refers to “the world-renowned alto saxophonist” and “co-founder of bebop.”

Jazz critic Barry Ulanov called him “the Jazz Mozart,” and Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz said he was “the jazz world’s Mozart” because he “gathered together” the styles that had come before and transformed them into “a brilliant new design,” everything “fresh and whole” and “precisely right.” When Gary Giddins cites Mozart at the conclusion of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (University of Minnesota Press $17.95), he’s thinking of more than the music: “As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.”

But Mozart isn’t enough. For the music, you need to bring in, among others, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Moondog, and the Rubiyat, which contains a stanza Parker was fond of quoting, the one that ends “the Bird is on the Wing.”

“That strain again!”

When it comes to quoting, however, there’s nothing to equal the supple book of riches in my lap. For instance the opening line of Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on!” And in the same speech, the most eloquent player of them all, he whose 450th birthday is being celebrated this year, plays on: “That strain again! it had a dying fall/it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound/That breathes upon a bank of violets” and over and among the flowers blooming in Tompkins Square.

The “dying fall” will make Bird sense to listeners who recall the dismissive moves the master performs in mid-flight, when as if to relieve himself of a cluster of “nipping and eager” notes, he simply drops them and soars on. He says it himself — “There’s too much in my head for this horn” — in Robert Reisner’s oral history, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (DaCapo 1991), where he tells Charlie Mingus “Would you die for me? I’d die for you.” It’s easy to hear a cadence resembling that one-two punch in the mid-flight moments that sometimes move audience members at certain crudely recorded club dates or concerts to shout, “Kill yourself!” Knowing his days were numbered, it was as if he had a special claim on death. More than once, as recounted by friends and acquaintances in Reisner’s book, he says his goodbyes days and months before 8:45 p.m. on March 12, 1955. Again, Shakespeare has a phrase for him — in Twelfth Night when Sebastian says “My stars shine darkly over me.”

Family

What sort of a family life did he lead with his white common law wife Chan in the ground floor of the brownstone at 151 Avenue B? His stepdaughter Kim, for whom he named one of his fastest, happiest compositions, remembers a black bedroom, a fireplace with a white death mask above it, and “family Sundays, family dinners.” In an online interview with Judy Rhodes, the eventual owner of the house, Kim remembers “Bird was a really wonderful father — very kind, very gentle with me.” When she was in first grade at a school “two or three blocks up the street” and had to make her own lunch and walk there by herself, she was “a nervous wreck” and would throw up every morning, prompting the school to send a note home demanding that she see a doctor. Her stepfather took her to an MD on 10th Street who said she was “terrified and needed to be reassured.” So “Bird walked me back to school and back to my classroom. I had no sense of colour or prejudice. When I walked into school holding my daddy’s hand I was at the top of the world — walking with this big Black man into the classroom full of little white snotty kids that I was terrified of. Being there with my daddy made it all ok.”

In Celebrating Bird, Gary Giddins quotes tenor man Al Cohn’s recollection of a visit to Avenue B (“They had a very nice place”): “It was a Ukrainian neighborhood and we went to three or four different bars. All the Ukrainians, working-class guys, knew him as Charlie. I don’t think they knew he was a musician, but it was obvious they liked him and were glad to see him. I saw a different side of him; he was like a middle-class guy with middle-class values.”

Interviewed in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz, Giddins points out the daily challenge Charlie Parker faced during this period. He had to live three lives: the working musician, the drug addict constantly scuffling to raise money for a fix, and the family man.

The Open Door

Robert Reisner begins Bird with an account of his first meeting with “a large, lumbering, lonely man, walking kind of aimlessly” on a rainy night in 1953. It was just after midnight, Reisner was coming home from a party when he recognized Parker and wondered what he was doing “in this poor Jewish neighborhood, walking by himself in the soaking rain.” Parker said his wife was having a baby and he was walking off his nervousness. Asked where he lived, he said “In the neighborhood, Avenue B,” and seeing that Reisner wondered why “a guy of his tremendous reputation lived in such an out-of-the-way poor section,” he explained, “I like the people around here. They don’t give you no hype.”

Later, after Reisner decided to stop teaching art history at the New School to become a jazz promoter, the venue he picked was The Open Door on 3rd Street south of Washington Square, a place “that had enough seating capacity to pay for a band solely on admissions.” He launched his first “Sunday jazz bash” on April 26, 1953. Three months later, Chan left 151 Avenue B with the tape recorder she’d been given for her 28th birthday the month before. According to the liner notes for the 2-CD set on Ember, Charlie Parker at the Open Door, the tapes Chan made were stored away until she sold them to Columbia Records where they remained for decades in the vaults until they were smuggled out and released in Italy on the Philology label.

My copy of the Open Door performance has been sitting on the shelf for years. One reason is the poor recording quality. It sounds as if Bird and the band, in particular Art Taylor, the drummer, are playing in two different rooms, and on some of the uptempo numbers the drums seem to be crashing randomly about in a void. One of the perks of studio albums that include retakes are those moments when you hear a glitch and everything stops as Bird shouts “Hold it!” But in this acoustical shipwreck of a setting he has to keep bravely blowing, which is what gives low-grade live recordings an existential subplot. It takes several numbers to adjust to the unreality, but with “The Song Is You” the man from Avenue B takes command, changing the “You” to “Me,” and when he gets to “Ornithology,” you hear what Giddins calls “the uncorrupted humanity of his music.”

Shakespeare’s Weaver

It isn’t really all that much of a stretch to speak of jazz in the same breath as Twelfth Night because, as in other Shakespearian romps, the effect is that of a group of players jamming, drunk on the elixir of language. Between Feste the Clown, Fabian, the hapless Sir Andrew, the perpetually soused Sir Toby, and the madcap diva Maria, you have the equivalent of an extended cutting session, or at least that’s how it seemed reading Shakespeare on a Tompkins Square park bench off Charlie Parker Place. For now, listen to Sir Toby Belch in Act 2, when after the clown sings “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” Sir T suggests rousing “the nightowl in a catch that will draw three souls out of one weaver.”

In case we need an explanatory note for Toby’s flight of fancy, the 1836 edition, the one Melville used, provides this: “Shakespeare represents weavers as much given to harmony in his time.”

And so it is at the Open Door on the night of July 26, 1953, as the weaver of souls, the stars shining darkly over him, plays on.

 

THE AWAKENING: Sited on the Meadow at Grounds for Sculpture, this 2014 cast aluminum work from J. Seward Johnson’s “Points of Departure” series is on display with 136 other works, large and small, in Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is on view through September 21. For extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org.(Photo by Jeff Tryon)

THE AWAKENING: Sited on the Meadow at Grounds for Sculpture, this 2014 cast aluminum work from J. Seward Johnson’s “Points of Departure” series is on display with 136 other works, large and small, in Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is on view through September 21. For extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org. (Photo by Jeff Tryon)

A retrospective of the work of sculptor J. Seward Johnson is currrently on view at Grounds for Sculpture (GFS), the sculpture park and arboretum founded by the philanthropic artist on the site of the old New Jersey Fairgrounds in Hamilton.

Known throughout the world for life-like bronze figures inspired by the everyday, Mr. Johnson is something of an institution in Princeton. Several of his pieces: the student with his books on Palmer Square, the gentleman reading a newspaper by Battle Monument, and the man taking a nap on one of Drumthwacket’s garden benches are familiar to all.

Similar works by Mr. Johnson can be see throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia; examples of the artist’s “Celebrating the Familiar” series depicting a trip to the grocery story, say, or arriving at a hospital, or a child enjoying an ice cream cone.

“My starting point was a wish to get people back out-of-doors in the early 70s when a crime wave had people avoiding public spaces,” said Johnson when interviewed for Princeton Magazine in 2012. “I wanted to put sculptures into parks to act like decoys and entice people back to parks.”

To date, “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective” is the largest exhibition mounted at the sculpture park, which is quite an achievement after its showcasing of the massive works of Steve Tobin in 2012. Not only are there 287 works by Mr. Johnson on display, some of his biggest pieces have been dismantled from elsewhere and brought here for the show.

The outsize exhibition is fitting for Mr. Johnson’s outsize personality. Some 150 pieces are installed indoors and outdoors at the 42-acre site and if you haven’t been there recently, make tracks; the show will only last through September 21.

Elements of surprise are characteristic of GFS. The park brings art and nature together. The winning combination drew some 160,000 visitors last year. “Each time you visit, you experience the park differently, the sequence is never the same and there’s a freshness that comes with that,” said Mr. Johnson in a recent interview.

As expected, the retrospective includes some of the 83-year-old artist’s most unforgettable works. His 26-foot-tall 34,000-pound steel-and-aluminum, Forever Marilyn, traveled all the way from Palm Springs back to New Jersey where it was constructed.

This iconic representation captures a moment from the 1955 Billy Wilder comedy The Seven Year Itch, in which Monroe luxuriates in an updraft from a subway air vent, her white skirt billowing around her legs. The sculpture was such a hit in Palm Springs that the town hopes to buy it from its owner, The Sculpture Foundation, and put it back on permanent display once the GFS show ends.

Mr. Johnson’s most famous work, Unconditional Surrender, is a must-see. It’s his 3-D version of the famous kiss between a sailor and a nurse in New York’s Times Square on V-J Day at the end of World War II and it is one of his most charismatic trompe l’oeil painted bronzes.

As anyone who has met the artist will tell you, Mr. Johnson loves to tell a story and relishes a battle. Unconditional Surrender, involved him in a battle of sorts when the owners of the copyright to LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image, refused him permission to use it. With typical bravado, Mr. Johnson based his work on another photograph of the same kissing couple taken on the same day at the same time by another photographer, one whose work happened to be in public domain.

When the sculpture was finished it took pride of place in Times Square where a kissing fest was held and written up by The New York Times. Not only did Mr. Johnson write to TIME to tell them about it, he asked them to contribute $50K to the project!

Also on a grand scale at 25 feet in height, the kissing couple has traveled the world from Times Square to San Diego, from Sarasota to Rome.

Besides these massive pieces and the artist’s Beyond the Frame life-size three-dimensional homages to Claude Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Addresse and Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, smaller pieces from the artist’s five-decade career are on display in three indoor galleries.

“At GFS we try to break down barriers,” says Johnson, who believes in separating sculpture from the landscape so that one “discovers” what is to be found. The avuncular octogenarian enjoys having fun with visitors. The sculpture park has numerous hidden spaces tucked away for quiet reflection: behind doors, through corridors of trees, around corners, over hills, or behind walls.

Were You Invited?, his three-dimensional life-size version of Renoir’s, The Boating Party, playfully allows visitors to get up close and personal with the work.

Such explorations cultivate what Mr. Johnson describes as “the visceral moment,” when viewers engage with art to transcend their own place in space and time. He deliberately provokes engagement between artwork, artist, setting, and viewer. “The real moment of art is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, “that’s a moment of consecration; if the artwork has changed a life, then it has done its job.”

GFS has grown since Mr. Johnson led the team that transformed the once derelict site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. What began as an offshoot of the artist’s foundry, The Johnson Atelier, and the need for a place to show the work that artists were doing there to prospective clients, is now a showcase for prominent and emerging artists. It became a non-profit organization in 1992.

Mindful of his legacy, the artist asked Derek Gilman for advice on avoiding some of the mistakes made by Albert Barnes. “There is a need for some flexible thinking here,” he said. “I don’t want what happened to Barnes to happen here. Barnes fell out with everyone. I like a good fight too, but there’s a difference, Barnes had no sense of humor!”

A sense of humor Johnson has. And fun is a huge part of the GFS philosophy. “Let MOMA tell people what good art is, we will find out what people enjoy,” said the artist.

For more information on “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective,” including extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org.

 

The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse summoned all the appropriate muses last Friday night for the opening of its current production of Christopher Durang’s highly acclaimed comedy, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. It’s a wonderful script, cleverly combining Durangian absurdity and hilarity with Chekhovian references (starting with the names of the three protagonists), a certain tone of poignant melancholy and a richness of characterization.

Also intriguing is the notion of the playwright himself playing the role of Vanya and the proximity of the theater just a few miles from the “lovely farmhouse in Bucks County” where the play is set, with numerous local references, along with Mr. Durang’s usual vast quota of humorous contemporary pop culture allusions throughout the evening. Production values here are consistently strong, and the Bucks County Playhouse (BCP), refurbished and reopened two years ago after a two-year hiatus, seems to be on a roll with high quality Equity productions (Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly premiered at BCP last season before debuting on Broadway four months ago). Marilu Henner and Deirdre Madigan lead a top-flight cast in Vanya and Sonia…, under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, who also directed the debut of Mothers and Sons.

A beautiful summer evening on the banks of the Delaware seemed to indicate all the planets and muses aligned, but the mother of the Greek muses, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, was a conspicuous no-show. Mr. Durang, at several points during the evening forgot lines, derailed in the middle of a long climactic monologue, and needed prompting from off-stage. His characterization of the middle-aged Vanya was appealing, mostly on-target and effective, and he has, in the past, successfully taken on major roles in his own works on stage, but here, the lapses undermined the power and credibility of the character and caused problems for both audience and other actors.

Tales of famous actors “going up” on their lines are legendary, but there is the inescapable irony of this happening to the playwright who created the lines, in a character who, like his creator, is a middle-aged Bucks County resident and who voices much of the playwright’s wit, humor, and attitude towards contemporary life. Spencer Tracy’s terse advice to actors — “Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” at least the first part, is not to be scoffed at, and let’s invoke the mighty Mnemosyne to bestow her gift of memory on future performances.

The three protagonists here are middle-aged siblings, given names from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (Mr. Durang), Sonia (Ms. Madigan), and Masha (Ms. Henner) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

The action of the play takes place in the sunroom, vividly and realistically presented in great detail in Lauren Helpern’s fine set, of the old family farmhouse where Vanya and Sonia have lived for their whole lives. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of a propitious blue heron.

Early in the first of two acts, Masha, a narcissistic, movie-star actress who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity, arrives with her much younger boyfriend Spike (Jimmy Mason), an aspiring actor who was “almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2,” and specializes in taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants.

Also appearing is a wildly dramatic cleaning lady Cassandra (Mahira Kakkar), who reveals an array of psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies, and excruciatingly painful voodoo techniques. Nina (Clea Alsip), a star-struck ingénue from next door also drops in, much to Masha’s dismay, on invitation from Spike.

Masha, who has been financially supporting her siblings, announces — shades of Chekhov, and, yes, they do have a cherry orchard — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Vanya and Sonia are devastated, but Masha, ever self-absorbed, moves forward with her plans to attend a local costume party as Walt Disney’s Snow White, with Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as attendant dwarves. She has, characteristically, brought all the requisite costumes with her.

As the action proceeds through the evening into the next day, Masha’s efforts to self-promote and hold onto Spike meet with some surprising obstacles, and Vanya and Sonia both experience potentially life-changing moments. As in Chekhov, in some ways it seems as if “nothing happens,” but indeed something meaningful does happen for all of the characters, and, in Mr. Durang’s play, those happenings keep the audience laughing throughout.

This vastly entertaining Bucks County Playhouse production in many ways compares favorably with the 2012 McCarter Theatre world premiere production that went on from Princeton to Lincoln Center then Broadway, where it enjoyed a long run and numerous awards including the Tony for Best Play.

Ms. Madigan’s Sonia is extravagantly funny and sympathetic, larger than life in her Chekhovian gloom and world-weariness (“I’m in mourning for my life”), delightfully energized in her anger and animosities, poignantly moving in her desire for love, attention, a life. She is especially memorable in donning tiara and sequins for the costume party to defy her sister and play the role of evil queen in the mode of Maggie Smith, then later in a tour-de-force extended phone conversation with her first-ever prospective suitor.

In the prima donna part, written for and performed by Sigouney Weaver in the McCarter production, Ms. Henner brings her own star-studded credentials — Broadway, movies and TV, most memorably perhaps in the long-running TV series Taxi. She embraces the aging, ego-centric starlet role with panache, and contributes a new, more appealing, more human dimension or two to the characterization.

Mr. Mason’s hilarious boy toy Spike provides an occasionally shocking, sexually-charged glimpse of the new generation and creates an entertaining incongruity in the Chekhovian setting and a source of sharp conflict for the older generation.

Ms. Kakkar in her flamboyant, attention-grabbing role and Ms. Alsip in a more understated, realistic part, both provide strong support and contribute significantly to the eventual outcome of events.

Ms. Kaller has directed with finesse, fine comic timing, and an intelligent balance between the serious and the hilarious. The ensemble interacts credibly and effectively, and we do care about these three engaging, aging siblings, as they struggle to work out their individual destinies.

This production does need the blessing of the goddess of memory and the advice of Spencer Tracy during the next three weeks of its run, and audience members who saw the McCarter-Lincoln Center-Broadway production will certainly miss the brilliant David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role of Vanya. But the script is a masterpiece of comic writing, one of the best from the pen of one of the finest American playwrights of the past fifty years, and Ms. Kaller and company have provided an evening rich in laughter and dramatic interest — well worth the trip to Bucks County.

 

For eleven years, a musical treasure has been taking place in Princeton in the summer. The Golandsky Institute has been presenting a symposium and International Piano Festival each summer, training artists in a specific technique known as the Taubman Approach, which develops virtuosity while preventing the injuries affecting highly-accomplished players. As part of the symposium, the Institute has presented public concerts to show off the faculty and talented students.

With the generosity of William and Judith Scheide, the Golandsky Institute took a journey through the history of the piano concerto in a performance last week at Richardson Auditorium. Last Thursday night’s “Scheide Concerto Evening,” offered two of the Institute’s long-time faculty members and two other talented participants in the Institute in four concerti spanning 200 years. Prominently featured were works by two of the biggest names in 18th-century keyboard music — Johann Sebastian Bach, who transcribed virtuosic works for other instruments to the keyboard; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who took the keyboard concerto form to new heights with an instrument that was still evolving.

Father Seán Duggan, a performance expert on the music of Bach, paid tribute to the hosts of the evening Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major a work originally for harpsichord and which was based on Bach cantatas first recorded by William Scheide with the Bach Aria Group. Concerti in Bach’s time were beginning to take the shape known today, with keyboard concerti characterized by virtuoso requirements usually seen from string instruments. Performing this concerto on a modern piano created a more powerful interpretation than Bach would have imagined, but Father Duggan’s playing was every bit as clean and precise as Bach would have expected. With graceful mordents and trills, Father Duggan well handled the virtuosity required of the work, especially in the extremely quick third movement. Conductor Mark Laycock kept the accompanying orchestra appropriately in the background, building tension between the strings and keyboard and elegantly bringing the music down to nothing to close the second movement Siciliano.

The other Golandsky faculty member featured in this concerto evening was Ilya Itin, a pianist with facility in all centuries of music. By Mozart’s time, the concerto placed certain expectations on the performer in terms of structure, and in Mozart’s case, melody. Mr. Itin’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major used similar orchestration to the Bach Concerto, but the lower strings in particular served a very different role, and all orchestral parts were responsible for line and drama. Mr. Itin perfectly matched the orchestral colors of the opening introduction and showed that he was capable of both a delicate touch and a forceful style within a graceful framework. The dialog between pianist and ensemble was exact, and Mozart’s humor was well brought out in the third movement interplay among the players.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed for a piano that was capable of conveying a full range of emotions and musical styles. An experiment by Shostakovich in neo-Baroque orchestration, Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra added the color of a brass instrument to the light instrumental character, with Mr. Itin again playing solo piano. The first movement seemed to incorporate a Russian folk tale, with a walking bass line and a musical atmosphere that was not as dense as other Shostakovich works. The violins of the New Jersey Symphony provided mournful tunes in the second movement, but with lean playing to accompany the Mr. Itin’s pounding left hand in the keyboard part.

The combined third and fourth movements were the most dramatic of the concerto, with the most virtuosic requirements of the soloist, and more technically demanding playing required of all the musicians. Shostakovich’s humor could be heard in the col legno playing from the strings, while Mr. Laycock kept the musical action moving right along. Shostakovich seemed to throw everything but the kitchen sink into these two combined movements, and the players of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, as well as Mr. Itin, had it all well in hand.

The two Golandsky faculty members were joined by two younger members of the Institute in the closing work of the concert: Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos in A Minor. Originally scored for four harpsichords, this work was a transcription of a work by Antonio Vivaldi in its day, and in Thursday’s concerto showed all four players to be of equal artistry. Nathan Grabow and Sakura Myers both clearly have futures as concert pianists, and as the melodic material traveled among the keyboards, all players knew their roles as either featured soloists or harmonic background. Ms. Myers in particular showed a great deal of style at the keyboard as the concert closed with typically Vivaldi harmonic drive and intensity.

 

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

As an actor, Zach Braff is most closely associated with the character J.D. from Scrubs, the Emmy-winning sitcom which ran for nine years on network television. As a director, he’s best known for Garden State, the quirky, semi-autobiographical feature film where he played a struggling actor who returned to his hometown in Jersey for his mother’s funeral.

Wish I Was Here is more akin to the latter, and is a delightful family drama/comedy which Zach directed and stars in. He also co-wrote it with his brother, Adam, and the movie derives much of its mirth from Jewish culture in a manner evocative of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009).

The point of departure is suburban Los Angeles, where we find 35-year-old Aidan Bloom (Braff) in the midst of a midlife crisis. The struggling actor is on anti-depressants and is in denial about his dwindling career prospects, conveniently forgetting that his last role was ages ago in a dandruff commercial.

What makes the situation difficult is that he fritters away his time auditioning, oblivious to his wife’s (Kate Hudson) resentment. She hates being stuck in a stultifying government job where she’s sexually harassed on a daily basis by the co-worker (Michael Weston) who shares her cubicle.

However, she can’t quit her job because their children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), won’t have food on the table or a roof over their heads. As it is, they’ve already been forced to sacrifice some luxuries such as the built-in pool that sits empty in their backyard.

A change is forced when Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) suddenly announces that his cancer has returned and he can no longer afford to subsidize his grandchildren’s expensive private education. Not wanting to subject them to the substandard local public schools, Aidan grudgingly agrees to abandon his dream of Hollywood stardom in order to homeschool his children.

This turn of events provides him with an opportunity to not only have quality time with his offspring, but also to orchestrate an overdue reconciliation between his brother (Josh Gad) and their rapidly-declining father. Soon, adolescent Grace develops the confidence to blossom from a repressed wallflower into a show-off who is unafraid to wear a metallic purple wig, and 6-year-old Tucker finds fulfillment toasting marshmallows in the desert with his father.

By the film’s end, expect to be moved to tears by this poignant picture’s bittersweet resolution and its message about the importance of family.

Excellent (****). Rated R. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

July 16, 2014

book revJohn Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered. He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century — and lifts the hearts of the rest of us. 

—Studs Terkel

John Howard Griffin (1920-1980) is known best for the book that inspired people in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, to hang him in effigy from a traffic light on Main Street. The book is Black Like Me (1961), an account of his six weeks in the Deep South passing as a Negro.

A decade before Black Like Me, Griffin’s first novel, The Devil Rides Outside (Smith’s, Inc. 1952), had created another sort of stir. Hailed by the Saturday Review (“This first novel has in it the power of life itself”) and the New York Herald-Tribune (“this big symphonic novel sets up a theme worth writing about and attacks it with passion, knowledge, and the authority of experience”), the Book of the Month Club selection sold well (400,000 copies in hardcover and paper), and later in the decade the critic Maxwell Geismar declared The Devil Rides Outside one of the best novels of the 1950s. Meanwhile, Griffin’s “long, strong, and tormented story of the war between the flesh and the spirit” was condemned by the Legion of Decency and became the subject of a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Felix Frankfurter: “The state [Michigan] insists that, by thus quarantining the general reading public against books not too rugged for grown men and women in order to shield juvenile innocence, it is exercising its power to promote the general welfare. Surely this is to burn the house to roast the pig.”

Blindness and Beethoven

The Devil Rides Outside is absolutely unique among American novels of its time, or any time, for that matter. How could it not be? It was written by a blind musicologist from Texas whose formative years were spent in France. Since he felt more comfortable speaking French, Griffin told the story into a wire-recorder each night, translating the French into English the following day and typing it. The blind author needed a week to learn how to get around on a typewriter and seven weeks to complete the first draft of what would be a 596-page novel. In Griffin’s autobiography, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision, he says he began The Devil Rides Outside with Beethoven’s Quartet, Opus 131 in mind, “a work that I knew intimately. The characters enter as Beethoven’s themes enter and are developed in the same way …. When the thematics of the novel did not match the music, I changed the novel.”

A year before the book’s publication in 1952, Griffin converted to Catholicism, having written himself “into the church” by reliving in fiction his time in the monastery at Solesmes, France, and the Benedictine Abbey there, “the motherhouse of the Gregorian Chant,” where he had a cell and was allowed to work on various original manuscripts. At the same time,  his sight was “rapidly diminishing,” and when he became totally blind and could no longer work on the music, he experienced “an unexpected awakening to the realities of the spirit” that eventually led to a friendship with philosopher and longtime Princeton resident Jacques Maritain.

The problem with writing about Griffin is that his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction personal history diverts attention from his literary labors. This man’s whole life is like a novel written to enlighten readers about the nature of faith and vision in a world blinded and violated by prejudice. Born into a genteel Texas family that detested the vulgarity of racism but treated segregation as an absolute, Griffin went to France at age 15 as a scholarship student at the Lycée Descartes, then to the University of Poitiers in Tours to study music and psychiatry, becoming assistant to the director of an asylum where he experimented with the therapeutic effects of music, the Gregorian Chant in particular. With the Nazi occupation of France imminent, and having by then been shamed by his French friends into accepting that blacks were allowed to eat in the same restaurant with whites, he saw the lethal evils of another form of racism first-hand. Staying on to oversee the asylum when the director was conscripted, he joined the underground resistance, using the asylum ambulances to transport children of Jews out of Tours to the country and then to the port of Saint Nazaire. Discovered by the Gestapo while attempting to help an Austrian family, he escaped to the U.K., returned to Texas at the age of 21, joined the Army Air Force, was shipped to Guadalcanal, and then to the Solomon Islands on a special mission that involved living with the natives. Wounded by a bomb that caused the concussion that ultimately destroyed his sight, he married, had three children, wrote The Devil Rides Outside and Nuni (about his time in the Solomons), and in 1957, after a decade of blindness, he suddenly regained his sight and saw his wife and children for the first time. Two years later he dyed his skin and lived the nightmare of prejudice described in Black Like Me.

That’s only a shamefully superficial tour of Griffin’s “once in a century” life.

An Incredible Work

What is it like, then, this massive, passionately written novel? Right away you’re caught up in a first-person present-tense narrative that’s sustained throughout except for an 11-page past-tense flashback. The present-tense creates a sense of acceleration and sometimes seemingly involuntary forward movement. Griffin says he used it to “feel the immediacy of the experience in contrast to the eternal rhythms” of the monastery. He chose not to name his protagonist, intending his anonymity to match that of “those unknown masters who had composed the chants centuries ago.”

Knowing that Griffin, like the American music student who narrates the story, has studied Gregorian Chant, you become aware of the way the prose evokes a chanted rhythm that can seem alternately incantatory and prayerful; the effect is of intense, charged passages of prose encompassing long interludes of dialogue. In the notes I made even before I learned that he’d dictated the narrative in French, my way of describing Griffin’s often awkward, fragmented, unstable style was to compare it to reading something in a sound and occasionally eccentric English translation.

You can get an idea of what the reading experience is like in the following passage:

It grows late. Nothing satisfies. I open a volume of Rilke, but I can’t read. I stand at my window, nose pressed against the pane, breath fogging the glass, and stare down the street. Strange brassy tonality of the full moon, now breaking through the clouds onto clustered housetops: more abstract, more frozen than abstraction. We strive for warmth in color to forget these scenes, these moments, these liturgies of dissonance, these cold angles lost in heavy shadows, just as we try to live warmly to escape death.

It’s a passage in which you hear more than you see, with the “brassy tonality” of the moon on the other side of fogged glass, a moon that isn’t shining so much as blaring, an abstraction imagined by a man speaking into darkness, unable to make out the equally abstracted housetops. Rather than seeing color, he seems to want to wrap himself in its warmth. This is heavily, almost oppressively internalized writing, driven by a visceral “power of life,” that breaks through the divisions of the senses and not always gracefully.

“A frightful and horrible creature”

While the novel’s first third is essentially concerned with the American’s relationships inside the monastery, its most eventful scenes occur outside the walls in the town where he rents a room in a villa overseen by Madame Renée, a middleaged widow who sees to his needs, arranges for a maid, cooks delicious meals for him, and slowly, subtly begins to impose herself, body and soul, on his life. What begins as an innocuous relationship develops into a battle that by the end has become a matter of spiritual life and death.

The reviewers’ comparisons of Griffin to Balzac are inspired by the creation of Madame Renée, the embodiment of French subterfuge and perversity so vividly documented by the author of the Human Comedy. In his New York Times review, Orville Prescott refers to Griffin’s “gruesomely expert study of a hysterical woman consumed by vanity, hypocrisy, and old-fashioned meanness … a frightful and horrible creature, but never a monster. She is pitifully human, too.” He goes on to observe that she is “a character such as Balzac would have enjoyed writing about.” Of course Balzac, the master, not only wrote about such characters, he invented them and the France they inhabited, much as Dickens invented England.

In and Out of Print

The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown on this day, July 16, in 1951, was put into best-seller orbit by the Book of the Month Club. A year later, the BOMC did the same for The Devil Rides Outside. Salinger’s book has been read by millions and will be in print, it seems, forever. Unless you troll the net for a used copy, Griffin’s novel, which has long been out of print, is available only as an e-book. According to amazon, it can apparently be downloaded on Kindle for $7.95.

Anyone interested in knowing more about John Howard Griffin and his work should visit www.wingspress.com, which published the Kindle version of The Devil Rides Outside, along with other fiction, non-fiction, and photography by Griffin, not to mention a book I found especially helpful, Robert Bonazzi’s Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me.

Black Like Me promises to be in print indefinitely, however. A 50th anniversary edition issued in 2011 is available at the Princeton Public Library. In February of that year, 50 years after his hometown had hung him in effigy and driven him and his family into exile in Mexico, the former first lady Laura Bush came to Mansfield to unveil a plaque honoring Griffin at a ceremony sponsored by the Friends of the Mansfield Public Library.

Note: The image of the battered cover of The Devil Rides Outside shown here belongs to the copy I’d been meaning to read ever since I found it many years ago for 25 cents in a Hutchinson Kansas rental-library book store that was going out of business. My excuse for finally reading this amazing novel was due to an online error that gives Griffin’s birth date as July 16 when in fact it is June 16. Serendipity works in strange and wonderful ways.

 

DANCING SUNFLOWERS: Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo’s painting of this title will be among her works on display, along with photography by members of PEAC Health at Fitness, during the month of August at 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristine fineart.com. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

DANCING SUNFLOWERS: Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo’s painting of this title will be among her works on display, along with photography by members of PEAC Health at Fitness, during the month of August at 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristine
fineart.com. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

As part of its “Art on Display” program, PEAC Health & Fitness will showcase a combined artwork display of photography from PEAC members and paintings from local artist Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo during the month of August.

PEAC’s member photography exhibition will give PEAC members a chance to share their photography skills with others. “It’s a fun way to see the creativity and talents of our members,” said PEAC President, Michael Briehler.

In addition, Christine Ochab-DiCostanzo of Ringoes, will exhibit her paintings. Ms. Ochab-DiCostanzo has been interested in art since she was young, studied at the DuCret School of Art in Plainfield, N.J., and continually takes classes and workshops to develop her skills. She finds inspiration wherever she looks and believes that “art captures the love and feeling you put into it.”

She is a member of Artsbridge artist community. In April 2014, one of her pieces won the “People’s Choice Award” at the 28th Annual Byers Buck’s Fever Art Exhibition. She has also received Honorable Mention for the past two years at the Hunterdon County Library Art Show. This will be her first exhibit at PEAC Health & Fitness.

“Art on Display,” will run at PEAC Health and Fitness, 1440 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, from August 1 through 31, during regular business hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information about the artist, visit www.artsbychristinefineart.com.
For more information about the PEAC Art on Display program, contact Christine Tentilucci, PEAC Health and Fitness, at (609) 883-2000, ctentilucci@peachealthfitness.com, or visit www.peachealthfitness.com.

 

 

What is enjoyable about the Princeton University Summer Concerts Series is that people tend to come as they are on a warm summer evening — anything goes with attire and the audience has an upbeat summery attitude. Apparently the Summer Concerts committee has also taken an “anything goes” attitude toward the ensembles presented, particularly stretching the imagination of the audience in last week’s performance of the Donald Sinta Quartet. Comprised of four highly-accomplished saxophone players, the Sinta Quartet took the instrument out of its more familiar jazz setting and showed that the saxophone can be just as virtuoso a classical instrument as the violin or flute. Last Wednesday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium took a “Then and Now” approach to the repertoire presented, alternating classical works (some arranged for saxophone quartet) and newly-commissioned pieces.

The combination of four saxophones is well known in jazz, and an element of casualness carried over as Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss sauntered onto the Richardson stage with their instruments. Freed by a lack of music stands, the members of the Sinta Quartet stood tightly together and communicated well throughout the concert, especially when passing musical fragments around among the players. The opening Quartettsatz in C minor of Franz Schubert was originally composed for string quartet, and Mr. Graser carried the long melodic lines well with the soprano saxophone. This instrument could reach quite high in register, and seemed to have two distinct colors — one for the upper register and one for the lower and richer range. The sound from the four players together was most remarkable when they played softly, capturing the Viennese flavor and subtlety of Schubert’s music.

The Sinta Quartet turned again to the string repertoire with a transcription of Barber’s timeless Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Graser described the saxophone quartet as made up like a choir (with soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone instruments) with the sound of an organ. The quartet began the Adagio almost imperceptibly, as the melodic line flowed from Mr. Graser’s soprano sax. The dynamic builds in the music were all the more dramatic because there was air behind them, and the quartet could uniformly break the lines with breath. One could hear a pin drop in the house during the rests, and tenor saxophonist Joe Girard combined with Mr. Graser for a smooth melodic duet.

The “Now” portion of the concert came from several very contemporary composers, including one commissioned by the quartet through a composition competition. Natalie Moller’s Phantoms began as if from afar, with a sound so well unified the instruments easily resembled horns. A haunting melody was played by alto saxophonist Zach Stern and one could hear more of the baritone sax from Danny Hawthorne-Foss than in previous pieces. A tenor cadenza played by Mr. Girard was definitely borrowed from jazz as Ms. Moller’s piece became sharper and more cutting toward its close.

David Maslanka’s 2006 Recitation Book draws on music from old sources for each movement, in the case of movement V, the 16th-century chorale tune “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt,” set multiple times by J.S. Bach. Mr. Maslanka’s “Fanfare/Variations on the Chorale ‘Durch Adams Fall’” recalled the majestic style of Giovanni Gabrieli, with superimposed jazz precision. Bach could never have imagined the sound of a saxophone ensemble re-interpreting his music or the musical idioms which followed the 18th century as this set of variations combined more 250 years of music history. The Sinta Quartet easily handled Baroque ornamentation, passing motives among all four instruments.

The Sinta Quartet has included film music in its repertory, with transcriptions of two selections from The Piano, scored by British composer Michael Nyman. “Here to There” and “The Promise” were played with chipper and bright attention to detail and smooth melodies. Speed Metal Organum Blues, which closed the concert, was a mix of several musical styles within the span of a minute, and one could hear the medieval organum influence, while the “blues” was led by soprano and baritone saxophones. This quick survey of musical history showed all the best aspects of the instruments and the polished manner with which the Sinta players work together.

No doubt many in the audience had not heard a saxophone quartet before, and certainly not in classical repertoire. The Princeton University Summer Concert series, known for the excellent string quartets in its series, stretched its range with this foray into saxophone ensembles, and the audience clearly enjoyed the ride.

The Princeton University Summer Concerts series concludes on Monday, July 21 with the Harlem Quartet, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be picked up at 6 p.m. the night of the performance.

 

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

What would the United States look like today if the Minutemen had lost the Revolutionary War and England had prevailed? That query is in the beginning of America: Imagine the World without Her, a right-wing documentary written, directed, and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza, a political pundit who immigrated here as a teenager in the 70s, proudly wears his patriotism on his sleeve, announcing at the outset, “I love America! I chose this country!” before launching into an attack on controversial left-leaning leaders and public intellectuals like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Eric Dyson, Bill Ayers, Howard Zinn, Saul Alinsky, and Hillary Clinton.

But he levels his most caustic remarks at Barack Obama whom he indicts as a liar by showing a number of film clips that show Obama saying “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor” and “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.” D’Souza goes on to explain that the president’s behavior is part of a socialist conspiracy that is bent on destroying the capitalist system.

The movie is an attempt to prove that the United States is a great nation with no reason to be ashamed of its past, as suggested by detractors like Reverend Wright who is heard again in his most notorious sound bite, “No! No! No! Not God bless America… God damn America!” D’Souza brushes aside shameful chapters in our history like slavery and the slaughter of the Indians by arguing that there were just as many black slave owners as white ones, and that Native Americans had fought with each other for millennia prior to the arrival of European settlers.

His goal is to inspire the masses to rise up and save the country before it’s too late. I suspect that the movie will serve as red meat to conservatives already inclined to dismiss Obama and other progressives as communists in liberals’ clothing. Unfortunately, it won’t do much to encourage civil discourse or bridge the intractable stalemate between Democratic and Republicans sitting on opposite sides of the aisle in Congress. Fair (*½). Rated PG-13 for violent images. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

July 9, 2014

Record revArt is the most beautiful deception of all!

—Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Simplicity and truth are the sole principles of the beautiful in art.

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Debussy’s line about art and deception jumped out at me while I was searching for a quote to liven up a column on Gluck’s tercentenary. It’s one of those I-dare-you-to-dispute-this statements that gets your attention, starts you thinking, and then follows you around until you begin to distrust it. As for Gluck, Debussy has little good to say about him, far from it. The composer of Orfeo ed Euridice is “a court musician” whose music is tainted by the “pomposity of moving in such high circles.”

After bringing together art, beauty, and deception in the same brief essay for Musica (October 1902), Debussy bemoans the idea of incorporating “the everyday events of life in art,” which he hopes “will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.” Yet when taking Gluck to task in a snarky February 1903 Open Letter to “Monsieur le Chevalier C.W. Gluck,” Debussy chastises him for being so far removed from the everyday events of life that “the common people participate only at a great distance,” as if Gluck’s music were a “wall behind which they know something is going on.” Debussy won’t even give the man credit for conducting the first performance of Iphigénie en Aulide in his nightcap; that spontaneous assertion of independence was only “for the sake of pleasing” his “king and queen.”

On Beethoven’s Wall

But what of Christoph Willibald Gluck? What did other composers think of his music? Beethoven kept Gluck’s portrait on the wall of his room along with Handel, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, because “they can promote my capacity for endurance.” Mozart’s admiration is expressed throughout his letters. In Schubert’s diary, he contrasts the “pure, holy nature” of Gluck to Beethoven’s “eccentricities.” According to Johann Mayrhofer’s recollections (1829), Schubert was 15 when Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride left him “moved to the depths and to tears.” After that he embarked on “the keenest study of all of Gluck’s scores,” which “quite enraptured” him for years. As for Berlioz, Gluck inspired him to give up medicine for music. In his Memoirs, Berlioz writes, “The Jove of our Olympus was Gluck. The most passionate music-lover of today can have no conception how fiercely we worshipped him.”

Gluck’s Travels

Gluck was born on July 2, 1714, in what is now called Bavaria, his father a forester who became head forester in the service of Prince Philip of Bohemia and who expected his son to, as Gluck puts it, “follow in his footsteps.” But at that time music was “all the rage” and “inflamed with a passion for this art,” Gluck “soon made astounding progress and was able to play several instruments.” His “whole being became obsessed with music” and he left all thoughts of a forester’s life behind.

After studying at the University of Prague, Gluck turns up in Milan in 1737 composing operas for the Milanese Carnivals, before venturing to London in 1745, where the future mover “in high circles” decides to raises some money, according to a handbill he had printed, “By performing a Concert upon Twenty-six Drinking Glasses, tuned with Spring water … being a new Instrument of his own invention, upon which he performs whatever may be done on a Violin or Harpsichord; and therefore hopes to satisfy the Curious, as well as the Lovers of Musick. To begin at Half an hour after Six. Tickets Half a guinea each.”

From London he goes to Dresden, Prague, and finally Vienna to the Hapsburg Court where he becomes Princess Maria Antonia’s music teacher, though she’s not much good at the harpsichord. According to Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette, she was “a dilettante,” but she “had a liking for this seemingly fierce man, broad in the beam and jovial” and when she went to Paris, Gluck went with her. He’d written Iphigénie en Tauride, which he wanted to present in the French capital. When court musicians called it “unpresentable,” Marie “insisted it have a fair trial.” But “the unruly and choleric Bavarian, animated with the characteristic obstinacy of the great artist,” in Zweig’s words, “did not make it easy for her to advance his cause. At the rehearsals he berated the ladies of the cast so savagely that these spoiled darlings complained bitterly to their titled lovers. He dragooned the instrumentalists, who were not used to the demand for such exactitude; and, in general, played the tyrant in the opera house. His mighty voice could be heard resounding from behind the closed doors as, time after time, he threatened to make an end of the whole business and return to Vienna. Nothing, in fact, but the dread of the Dauphiness prevented an open scandal.”

Marie was steadfast in supporting “her bon Gluck,” made his cause her own, and seeing that the opera seemed to be getting a lackluster reception at court, she “loudly applauded every aria” so that the courtiers and their ladies had to chime in. Though Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride would be remembered as a “famous event in the history of music,” it was Marie’s triumph, the first time she had “imposed her will upon the capital and the court.”

The Wig

As for the nightcap Debussy dismissed so cavalierly, Gluck kept one handy because he was prone to throw his wig at the ground whenever the singers and musicians were not performing to his expectations. His wife Maria had to go to rehearsals and performances to restrain her husband “within the limits demanded by French manners, and moderate the hostility that the orchestra and above all the women singers show him.” No wonder. According to the account included in Michael Rose’s recent book, The Birth of an Opera (Norton $35), “Gluck’s impatience with pretension was notorious.” When the “eminent soprano” Sophie Arnould complained that the music was all declamation and that she wanted to sing great arias, Gluck said “To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.” Rose provides an account that has Gluck running “like a man possessed from one end of the orchestra to the other; sometimes it was the violins who were getting it wrong, sometimes the basses, or the horns, or the violas. He would stop them short and sing them the passage.”

In time Gluck’s eccentricities became famous, the gossip going viral in the 18th-century Parisian version of the social media network. Accompanied as ever by Mme Gluck, he would be “bathed in sweat” and “had to be revived with hot towels and a change of clothing,” and when the rehearsal was over, “one could see great noblemen, even princes, eager to present him with his overcoat and his wig, for he was accustomed to throw all these off and put on a night-cap before beginning rehearsals, just as if he were about to retire for the night at home.”

Time to Listen

Earlier in the essay celebrating deception, Debussy looks back to Bach (“the essence of all music”) and the age when “music was subject to laws of beauty inscribed in the movement of Nature herself.” Listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Gluck’s arias from Orfeo, not to mention the overture to Alceste, and you’re hearing the essence of music and some of the most beautifully un-deceptive works ever composed. When a melody is close to the movement of nature, the effect is, for me, much as it was the first time I heard Orfeo’s aria lamenting the loss of Euridice. I had no idea what the words meant. I was in another room when it was playing and suddenly it was as if the music were coming from an open window on a street in another country, the prelude to a romantic adventure, a hauntingly beautiful song sung by a stranger. The effect was the same the first time I heard, really heard, Clair de Lune. The identity of the pianist was of no importance because in that moment, thanks to the “beautiful deception of art,” the music coming through an open window in some twilight dream of Paris was being played, thought out, composed by Debussy himself.

—Stuart Mitchner

Three hundred years after his birth, the glories of Gluck can be accessed on YouTube and Spotify. I found him the old-fashioned way in the form of the only secondhand record I ever purchased at the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, a very used, musty-smelling Bach Guild boxed set of Orfeo ed Euridice featuring Maureen Forrester as Orfeo and Teresa Stich-Randall as Euridice, with the Akademie Choir and Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras. There is an online version of the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from the 1982 production staged at The Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with Dame Janet Baker in her final operatic appearance singing as she holds Euridice (Elisabeth Baker) in her arms. The quotes from Debussy come from Debussy On Music (Knopf 1977).

As usual, I have the Princeton Public Library to thank for the numerous Gluck recordings I listened to and for Michael Rose’s excellent book.