December 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election last week, viewers who had lived and died, thrilled and chilled, yawned and dreamed through all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return felt a transcendental connection to the happy outcome. If we were smiling it was not only because a principled man defeated a scoundrel, it was knowing that a miracle was in the stars even before the allegations against Moore saturated the news. Given the power of the narratives and counter narratives circulating on television and the internet, we knew the impossible was possible.  more

By Kam Williams

Saoirse Ronan is only 23 and has already been nominated for an Academy Award twice: for Brooklyn (2015) and Atonement (2005). Now, she’s certain to land another nomination for her memorable performance as the title character in Lady Bird.

It’s hard to say whether three times will prove to be the charm for her, since this has been a banner year for actresses, with powerful performances turned in by competitors like Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, and Meryl Streep. Win or lose, Ronan deserves all of her accolades for her performance in a very demanding role as a tormented teen constantly in crisis.  more

December 13, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

In the unlikely event that the New York Times Book Review or anyone else ever asks me what books are on my night stand, the tome that’s been there for years waiting for me to write about it is Carl Van Vechten’s The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat (Knopf 1920), which has been called “the best single treatise on the cat” and “a treasure house of literary gossip.” Like so many of my books, this one, the 1936 edition, has passed through the secondhand bookstores of Manhattan and therefore embodies three of my favorite things — cats, used bookstores, and New York City. more

“FEATHER & FLIGHT”: This photograph of a great horned owl mother and baby by Wayne
Domkowski is part of the “Feather & Flight: Juried Exhibit” at the D&R Greenway Land Trust Johnson Education Center in Princeton. The exhibit, which features more than 80 works of art celebrating birds, runs through February 9.

D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center galleries take flight with more than 80 works of art in “Feather & Flight: Juried Exhibit,” on view through February 9.

“Birds are more than beautiful; they are bellwethers of environmental health,” says Curator Diana Moore. “This exhibit celebrates birds, and also highlights conservation’s significant role in supporting crucial travel patterns for the 4,000 species that migrate. Because of New Jersey’s location along the Atlantic flyway, our natural resources are critical to avian survival.” more

The Arts Council of Princeton and McCarter Theatre Center have announced “Cows in Our Town,” a new community-wide public art project created to promote awareness of local artists and McCarter’s upcoming production of Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets. Through a series of art installations placed in local businesses “Cows in Our Town” will run December 20 — February 11 and aims to enhance the around-town experience for visitors and Princeton residents alike through the holiday season and into the new year.  more

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”: Performances are underway for “A Christmas Carol.” Directed by Adam Immerwahr, the play runs through December 31 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Scrooge (Greg Wood, center) joins the company in a celebratory dance. The cast combines professional actors with members of a community ensemble and young ensemble. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is playing at the Matthews Theatre. Adapted by David Thompson and directed by Adam Immerwahr, the show is a warm celebration, both of Christmas and theater. The uniformly talented cast combines professional actors, who are members of Actors’ Equity Association, with nonprofessional performers who comprise a community ensemble (for ages 14 and older) and a young ensemble. more

By Kam Williams

It is August 12, 1945. Japan is reeling and on the verge of surrendering in the wake of atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With Germany having surrendered to the Allies back in the spring, Europe is already in postwar mode, though not exactly at peace, as we are about to learn.

On this bright summer day Samuel Hermann (Ivan Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) disembark from a train that has just arrived in their rural Hungarian hometown. Oddly, their presence doesn’t inspire the locals to celebrate the fact that two of their Jewish neighbors, who were taken away by the Nazis, had miraculously survived the Holocaust and have now returned home.

Instead, the Orthodox Jewish pair are greeted with suspicion, because their property had long since been appropriated by residents in the small town. So, as Samuel and his son load their luggage onto a horse-drawn-carriage, the village notary (Peter Rudolf) directs the driver (Miklos B. Szekely) to go very slowly.  more

December 6, 2017

“GRANITE STREET”: This oil painting by Debbie Pisacreta is featured in “Memories,” an exhibit featuring the work of four artists at Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville running December 7 to 31. An opening reception will be held on Sunday, December 10, from 1 to 4 p.m.

Fine artists Alla Podolsky, Joseph Zogorski, Gail Bracegirdle, and Debbie Pisacreta invite the public to view images that capture each artist’s memory of a location, scene, or life moment in “Memories” the 4×4 Winter Group exhibit series at Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville running December 7 to 31. more

“AN ACT OF GOD”: Performances are underway for George Street Playhouse’s production of “An Act of God.” Directed by David Saint, the comedy runs through December 23. God (Kathleen Turner, center) takes a phone call — and a selfie — with archangels Michael (Stephen DeRosa, left) and Gabriel (Jim Walton, right). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Film and stage luminary Kathleen Turner is starring in An Act of God at the George Street Playhouse. David Javerbaum, the former executive producer of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and a writer whose theatrical credits include the musicals Cry-Baby and Suburb, adapted the show from his 2011 book The Last Testament: A Memoir by God. more

By Stuart Mitchner 

Imagine a literary theme park, a Disneyland for readers and their kids where you can ride a raft with Huck and Jim, or climb aboard the Pequod with Ishmael, or fish the Big Two-Hearted River with Hemingway. Since the former Soviet Union is ever more massively imminent as we approach the moment of truth about Russian involvement in last year’s election, let’s say you could also visit a Chekhov pavilion complete with cherry orchard or tour Tolstoy’s estate where little Natashas can enjoy horseback rides and make-believe balls, or better yet you could take your chances in a fun house of existential chills dedicated to the work of Dostoevsky. Given the American public’s undying fascination with the dark side, the Dostoevsky House would draw the biggest crowds.  more

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is considered the preeminent novelist of the Victorian Era because of his touching and timeless tales that described the plight of the poor in that time. He experienced poverty  at an early age when he had to drop out of school to work in a factory in order to support the family, after his bankrupt father (Jonathan Pryce) was sent to debtors’ prison.

Dickens’s challenging childhood may have served as the inspiration for such classics as The Adventures of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield.

However, his book which may have had the biggest effect on Western culture is A Christmas Carol, since it arguably altered how we now celebrate the holiday.

That is the premise of The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standiford’s historical narrative that describes the events in December of 1843 that led Dickens to write A Christmas Carol. The novella has now been adapted into a movie by Bharat Nalluri (MI-5) as a sentimental tale of redemption. more

November 29, 2017

Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) was raised in rural Tennessee in the 1950s and at an early age became interested in a religious life. That fixation was disconcerting to Nora, her single mother (Julianne Nicholson), who openly and forcefully declared her atheism.

Nora blamed the Catholic school Cathleen attended for encouraging her daughter’s obsessive interest in religion. By the time she was a teenager, Cathleen’s faith had grown so strong that she wanted to become a nun. And, over her mother’s objections, she entered a convent when she was 15.

She took the name Sister Cathleen and dropped her surname, however, there were still years of training ahead of her before she would be allowed to take her final vows. To achieve this, she had to prove herself worthy during her postulance, the probationary period that tested a novice’s commitment to silence, poverty, obedience, and chastity.

Cathleen’s class at the convent was comprised of several equally pious teenagers who also desired to live ascetic lives as “wives of Christ.” They were all being trained by the convent’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), whose job was to weed out those young women who were uncertain about whether or not they wanted to be nuns.

That is the point of departure of Novitiate, a drama written and directed by Margaret Betts (The Carrier). The compelling character portrait plumbs the depths of Cathleen’s soul as she struggles to decide whether or not she’s meant to enter the order.

The picture takes place in the mid-1960s, just after Pope John XXIII had issued a series of 16 historic proclamations including one that lowered the standing of nuns to that of lay believers.

Stripped of their status, 90,000 nuns renounced their vows and returned to private life. The movie explores how this change in status effected someone like Cathleen who was just embarking on the path to becoming a nun.

Novitiate explores the internal angst of a young teenage woman who is struggling to decide whether or not she’s meant to be a nun.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running time: 123 minutes. Production Studio: Maven Pictures/Novitiate Productions. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

By Stuart Mitchner

I was still in my teens when I read Dostoevsky for the first time. Going from Holden Caulfield in New York to a Russian student plotting an act of murder in St. Petersburg seemed like growing up. Crime and Punishment was electric, fascinating, a new world.

I was 20 when I read The Possessed, older but not much wiser. I was out of my depth, unprepared for the upgrade from a philosophical axe murderer named Raskolnikov to a charismatic child molestor named Stavrogin. It would have helped if I’d been able to read the chapter in which Stavrogin describes his crime, but it was considered too shocking to print in 1872 no matter how often Dostoevsky tried to tone it down.  more

“RUNTIME”: Part of a *graphic design exhibition* highlighting the work of current and former students in Princeton University’s Program in Visual Arts, this piece by Neeta Patel, Class of 2017, is an interface for Apple Watch that tracks the times when the user looks at the device and encourages behavior to look less frequently. Produced in VIS 415, Advanced Graphic Design. (Screenshot Courtesy the artist)

The Program in Visual Arts at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts presents *a graphic design exhibition* curated by award-winning faculty member, artist, and writer David Reinfurt, highlighting the work of 184 current and former students since the Lewis Center launched courses in graphic design in 2010. more

“BRIDGE AT SAYEN GARDENS”: This watercolor painting by Susan Troost is featured in the Gourgaud Gallery’s “Cranbury Art in the Park” plein air series. The art will be on display from December 3 through December 29, with an artist’s reception on Sunday, December 3 from 1-3 p.m.

All are invited to an artists’ reception on Sunday, December 3 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Gourgaud Gallery, Cranbury Town Hall (Old School Building), 23-A North Main Street, Cranbury, to celebrate the art created from the Art in the Park plein air series sponsored by the Cranbury Arts Council.

For more information, visit www.cranburyartscouncil.org.

COME TO THE CABARET: Soprano Karyn Levitt brings the music of 20th century Austrian composer Hanns Eisler to the forefront in “Will There Still Be Singing? A Hanns Eisler Cabaret,” at Princeton University this Friday.

By Anne Levin

It was her fondness for the music of Kurt Weill that introduced soprano and actress Karyn Levitt to the works of another composer of Weill’s era, Hanns Eisler. It wasn’t love at first hearing. But Levitt, who will perform a program of Eisler’s works at Princeton University on Friday, December 1, soon began to fall under the spell of his 12 tone, modernist style. more

November 22, 2017

Great writers and artists ought to take part in politics only so far as they protect themselves from politics.  — Anton Chekhov

By Stuart Mitchner

Almost exactly 80 years ago, November 21, 1937, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra gave the premiere performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. According to Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life, the audience was aware that the 31-year-old composer’s “fate was at stake.” Two of his most recent works, an opera and music for a ballet, had been attacked at Stalin’s behest in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Committee; in effect, he had been “cast down overnight from the summit among the brightest stars of young Soviet composers to the abyss as pernicious purveyor of cultural depravity.” Meanwhile friends and colleagues were “disappearing.” Members of his family had been arrested, exiled, sent to labor camps. One of his foremost supporters had been charged with treason and executed. In case he doubted how dangerously close he was to being labeled an enemy of the state, the Fourth Symphony, his most ambitious work to date, was forcibly withdrawn on the eve of its debut performance because instead of following the party line, it appeared to be an even more extreme expression of his “depraved, difficult, formalist Western” values.  more

The Arts Council of Princeton’s ceramics community of students, instructors, and local ceramic artists are creating more than 200 handmade bowls in anticipation of the second annual fundraiser, Soul-Filled Bowls, to be on display in the Arts Council of Princeton’s Taplin Gallery on Saturday, December 2 from 11-3 p.m. The public is invited to purchase handmade ceramic bowls for $20 each, and enjoy a complimentary bowl of soup generously donated by Blawenburg Cafe and bread provided by Italian People’s Bakery and LiLLiPies. One hundred percent of the funds will be donated to Mercer Street Friends and Meals on Wheels. more

A new sculpture by leading American artist Titus Kaphar (born 1976) has been installed in front of Princeton University’s Maclean House, which was originally constructed as the president’s home in the institution’s early decades. The eight-foot-high mixed-media work, entitled Impressions of Liberty, features layered portraits of Reverend Samuel Finley, president of what was then the College of New Jersey from 1761 to 1766, and an African American man, woman, and child, who represent the slaves who lived and worked at the president’s residence during Finley’s tenure. more

By Nancy Plum

The Richardson Chamber Players showcase several aspects of Princeton University’s music department; it is a premiere instrumental ensemble focusing on rarely-performed repertoire, and allows University performance faculty to perform alongside their students. Seven members of the Chamber Players presented a concert Sunday afternoon in Richardson Auditorium, exploring the music of Bohemia. Subtitled “Echoes of Vltava,” the concert of works by Bohemian composers referenced the River Vltava, which originates in the Bohemian Forest and flows through the western Czech Republic. It was a fitting title for a late fall afternoon performance in which six instrumentalists and one singer presented smoothly-flowing music of the highest technical demands. more

SPECTACULAR SOUND: The Lee Music Performance and Rehearsal Room at the new Lewis Center for the Arts is a revelation to Michael Pratt, conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra, and the students who are members.

By Anne Levin

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, the historic building on the Princeton University campus, has played host to prestigious orchestras, chamber groups, and numerous other cultural attractions throughout its 131-year history. Chief among them is the Princeton University Orchestra, conducted since 1977 by director Michael Pratt.

Traditionally, the orchestra has held rehearsals on the Richardson stage. But upcoming concerts December 7 and 8 will mark the first time that the 100-plus ensemble has rehearsed in the Lee Music Performance and Rehearsal Room, the acoustically flexible, state-of-the-art space in the University’s recently opened $330 million Lewis Center for the Arts. more

By Kam Williams

Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a high-functioning savant on the autism spectrum who has been practicing law in Los Angeles for 36 years. The brilliant attorney has spent most of his career under the radar, writing legal briefs for indigent criminal defendants in a rear office, while his partner, William Henry Jackson, was the face of the firm who cultivated clients and argued their cases in the courtroom.

This arrangement worked well for Roman who, besides his disorder, was also a political activist dedicated to a progressive agenda to assist downtrodden individuals unfairly caught in the net of the prison-industrial complex. Because of that commitment, he was willing to work for far less pay than colleagues of his caliber. Consequently, the highly-principled lawyer has scraped by on a modest salary by living in the same apartment for decades, and subsisting on a diet of peanut butter sandwiches.  more

November 15, 2017

By Kam Williams 

First published in 1936, Murder on the Orient Express is the most famous case solved by the famous detective Hercule Poirot. Created by Agatha Christie, the Belgian sleuth appeared in 33 of her novels, a play, and over 50 short stories.

This complex murder mystery was first made into a movie by Sidney Lumet in a faithful adaptation that co-starred Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Albert Finney, and Jacqueline Bisset. Bergman won her third Oscar for her sterling performance as Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish nurse.

This version of Murder on the Orient Express was directed by five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh who assembled a top-flight cast. The cast includes Academy Award winners Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, and Award nominees Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp.

In addition to directing the film, Branagh also stars as Poirot and sports the detective’s trademark mustache. The visually captivating movie is perhaps more memorable for its breathtaking panoramas than the deliberately paced mystery that takes some time to be unraveled.

The picture opens in Jerusalem, where Poirot is visiting the Wailing Wall and then boards a boat to Istanbul. Once there, his vacation is cut short by a telegram that informs him that he must return to London immediately.

With the help of a fellow Belgian, who happens to be a train company executive (Tom Bateman), he secures a berth aboard the lavish Orient Express for what is usually an unremarkable three-day trip. However, the train is stranded in a snowstorm overnight and the next morning an American art dealer (Johnny Depp), who expressed a fear of being killed, is found dead.

As Poirot investigates the murder, we gradually see that each of the 13 passengers on the train had a motive to kill the unsavory character. Although everybody is a suspect, who is the murderer? The legendary Hercule Poirot solves the classic Agatha Christie mystery by using his extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning.

Excellent (***½ stars). Rated PG-13 for violence, ethnic slurs, and mature themes. In English and French with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Production Studio: Kinberg Genre/The Mark Gordon Company. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

The Arts Council of Princeton presents a reading by Ntozake Shange tonight, Wednesday, November 15, at 7 p.m. Ms. Shange, a cousin of former Mayor Yina Moore, will read from “Wild Beauty,” her newest book, a collection of more than 60 original and selected poems in both English and Spanish.

By Stuart Mitchner

So, with the crash of artillery, in the dark, with hatred, and fear, and reckless daring, new Russia was being born.

John Reed (1887-1920)

Here he is again, George Kennan, our Hodge Road landlord in the 1980s. It can’t be helped. When the overriding subject of the hour is Russia, Kennan is always there. If he were alive today, he would be the guest of choice on cable and network news, whether the subject were Russian “meddling,” or the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, or even the admirable Fox series The Americans with its bizarre bromances — FBI agent Stan and his neighbor Philip, a Russian spy, and Stan and the KGB’s Oleg, who have bonded in spite of themselves over love of the same Russian woman.  more