Monday, February 19, 2018

A Cultural Capitol in the Winter

This is “high season” in Palm Beach County for countless opportunities to enjoy theatre of all genres, dance, music and art exhibitions.  To try to take them all in would leave little time for anything else.  While I love the theatre in general, I share Stephen Sondheim’s general aversion to the opera, probably because, for me, it’s too much of a hybrid, theatre, music, sometimes dance and high drama all rolled into one, and while I appreciate a fine voice, my sensibilities draw me to the Great American Songbook. 

It’s not as if I’ve never been exposed to opera, although my parents never went to one or listened to them on their “Victrola.”  In college, when I minored in music, I was able to get a ticket once in a while to the nosebleed section of the Metropolitan Opera House where there were students’ desks, and I would endeavor to follow the score.  I was impressed by the pageantry, but the music left me rather indifferent.  So I grew away from opera which I’m sure is my loss.

Ann on the other hand loves the opera so we’ve gone our separate ways, she subscribing to the Palm Beach Opera season (after having enjoyed the Metropolitan Opera in NYC while we lived there or nearby) with a friend.  One of the features of the PB Opera is a “lunch-and-learn” a couple of weeks before each performance and recently one of her friends was unable to go and offered the ticket to me.  Normally I’d decline, but the program focused on Candide by Leonard Bernstein, one of my musical “heroes” who could write for all different musical genres. 

Remarkably, and luckily for us all, Nina Bernstein Simmons, the youngest daughter of the great Leonard Bernstein, was the main speaker, lovingly guiding the audience through the humor and genius of her father’s operetta.  Candide is to be performed at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach February 23-25.  Parts of the program are brief performances, accompanied by piano, by the Benenson Young Artists, all opera students ready to graduate to the main stage.  

Derrek Stark, tenor played Candide,and Chelsea Bonagura, soprano, played Cunegonde, 

Francesca Aguado, mezzo-soprano, played the Old Lady, 

 and Joshua Conyers, baritone, played Dr. Pangloss. 

Their voices soared, and in particular, the best known piece, Glitter and Be Gay, sung by Chelsea Bonagura.  None other than the great Barbara Cook who one normally associates with the Great American Songbook can be heard singing this on You Tube.

David Stern, the conductor for the Palm Beach Opera and the son of Isaac Stern joined Nina Bernstein to reminiscence about his father’s friendship with Bernstein.  It was moving to see their two adult children sharing those memories.

Before that, again I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a subscription ticket from another one of Ann’s friends, this time to the Miami City Ballet.  Ah, the ballet.  From The Chorus Line’s song, At the Ballet: “Everything was beautiful at the ballet, / Raise your arms and someone's always there. /Yes, everything was beautiful at the ballet, /At the ballet, /At the ballet!!!”  With a few exceptions, that’s as close as I’ve been to a ballet as well. 

But a couple of weeks ago I did a grand jeté to the Miami City Ballet centennial celebration of Jerome Robbins.  Like Bernstein, Robbins is a cross over artist, probably best known for his work on West Side Story, which he directed and choreographed, with Leonard Bernstein the composer and Stephen Sondheim the lyricist.  Here are all the musical artists I most admire.

And, the second part of the program was dedicated to the West Side Story Suite, including, a “Prologue,” “Something’s Coming,” “Dance at the Gym,” “Cool, America,” “Rumble,” concluding with the “Somewhere Ballet.”

Ironically, it was a company premiere in the first part of the program which stole the show, The Cage. When it first premiered in NYC in 1986 the New York Times remarked: “Once seen, ''The Cage'' tends not to be forgotten. Jerome Robbins's depiction of life in a covey of female insects is gruesome. These are females who consider males of the species their prey, and two males are killed with brutal dispatch during the ballet, with Stravinsky's String Concerto in D somberly accompanying the murders. “  Indeed, not to be forgotten.  It was spectacularly fascinating.

From opera and ballet early this month on to our annual attendance at The Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show.  Opening night is the “social event of the season” – complimentary hors d oeuvres and champagne while you stroll about and look at the most eclectic and expensive art and jewelry you’ve ever seen for sale.  A couple of years ago I remember seeing Wilber Ross there.  You need his kind of resources to buy the art exhibited.  So why do we go?  It’s a moving feast of people and art.  See and be seen.  Just plain fun and it appeals to my diverse interests, from rare books, to paintings, to sculpture, to pop art.  Ann likes to look over the jewelry as well, but we’re both astonished by the prices, having looked at some gold ear rings, my thinking, maybe $5k, turning out to be $15K.  Look but don’t touch!

Some of the paintings that caught our eyes, and this is just a mere sampling, was the most expensive one, (a half a million dollars):

Louis Marie De Schryver,” Marchand de fleurs, la Rue du Havre, Paris,” 1893

Then a more contemporary artist:

 Marc Chagall, “Le vase bleu aux duex corbeilles de fruits,” circa 1961 - 1964

And one of my favorites:

 Norman Rockwell, “Mars Candy Christmas Card,” 1960

Talk about strange, but captivating, an iconoclastic UV print on birch wood:

 Sarah Bahbah, “Sex and Takeout”

 Finally, one that for a mere $29,500 I would even consider buying, if I had that kind of $ for art.  This one appeals to me because of my love for the sea and the color.  The artist is considered a “hyperrealist:” 

 Marc Esteve, “Breaker”.

In the rare book department, see the signed first edition of The Theatre Guild Presents Porgy and Bess. New York: Gershwin Publishing Corporation, [1935].  Breathtaking, signed by Ira and George Gershwin as well as by Du Bose Heyward who wrote the libretto as well as some of the lyrics along with Ira Gershwin.  This is as close as I’ll get to such a piece of history.

But who needs art like that when, in our own home, we now possess three professionally prepared giclées, by one of our favorite artists, our neighbor and dear friend, Nina Motta.

Her gift to us of “Jessica at the Piano” now hangs above my piano and not a day goes by that I fail to see her and even sometimes greet her.  The full story is the subject of a separate blog entry.

Recently we acquired giclées of two of her other paintings that we have long admired.  These hang in our hallway so we see them many, many times a day as well.

The first is a prize winning painting, one of our favorites,

 "Making Plans"

Nina told us the story about this.  She was sitting at a café around the corner from the Vatican.  A young woman stepped through the doorway of a salon across the street from where Nina was sitting. “It was impossible to miss her, the dress, hair, posture, cell phone. I grabbed my camera and put on the telephoto lens because I knew immediately it was going to be my next painting, taking about 25 shots.”

The other is called "Portobelo, Panama" which she painted from a picture she took in the harbor of that town.

Nina’s art shares that hallway with unique pieces created by one of my dearest friends, who passed away nearly ten years ago now, Howard Goldstein.  My story about Howard and our friendship can be read here

Howard specialized in carving wildlife figures from balsa wood, and painting them to life-like perfection. I was touched when he gave us two of his works, the only ones he said he had ever parted with from his personal collection.

The first is a Koala bear

The other is a Manatee, just like the ones which occasionally go by our dock.

That same hallway has an original work of art which we acquired in Nantucket when we first visited the island by our own boat, an acrylic on board:

John Austin’s “ Forty Four Foot Boat”

Another painting acquired in Nantucket that same year is by a better known artist, Kerry Hallam.  He is a British impressionist who later specialized in nudes and sailboats and the French Rivera coast.  A prolific artist (some 12,000 paintings) but we love this one, unique in many respects as he didn’t do many of the Nantucket mainland.

“Unitarian Church, Nantucket” 1986

Finally, I’ll call this art.  We needed to replace our front door, which was a nice solid wood mahogany but as it opened in rather than out, was not hurricane code compliant.  Therefore, we needed to put up shutters across the front door every hurricane season which took its toll on me as well as the stucco around the door.

As we decided to shop for a replacement door, why not find one that is aesthetically beautiful as well as functional?  After spending hours at a store which specializes in such doors,  we found one made of hurricane impact glass which encapsulates all clear bevels and an antique polished black Caming design, perfect for the Mediterranean feeling of our home.  A Canadian artisan designed and manufactured the glass, a work of art in our opinion.

Now that it’s been installed, we wonder why we didn’t do that long ago.  It’s hard to do it justice in these photographs, particularly from the front.

So, it’s been an “artsy” few weeks for us.  All that is missing from this entry are my theatre write ups but they are easily found from the index. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Over and Over, Again and Again

The terrible shooting at a school in Parkland, FL makes one stop and wonder how our nation can standby and watch the 2nd amendment metastasize into a form of a rationalized killing field.  One feels so helpless with a bunch of politicians calling it “evil” and offering prayers to the victims and their families and then do absolutely nothing.  It should be THEIR children in those classrooms.  How would they feel then?    I’ve taken to twitter to express my knee-jerk response, but in this blog I’ve written nearly two dozen articles on the topicof gun control.  How in the world can we sanction military style weaponry as being a “right,” in spite of the 2nd amendment?  Even better than only banning them, we should require the registration of any weapon as we do automobiles.  Something has to be done now.

So here are my knee-jerk Tweets, good for blowing off steam, but useless to create change.  Below that is one of my most recent blog entries on the topic, written after the mass murdering at a rural Texas church late last year as it pretty much says it all.

 I just could not go about a “normal” day in my life without first expressing my outrage and disgust, at our politicians and our lack of moral leadership.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

I’m sick of watching what has become of our country.  Mass slaughtering reduced to biblical rhetoric of good vs. evil, with responses of tougher immigration laws if the murderer is anyone of middle eastern descent and “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families if the assault is committed by a Caucasian nut job.

Good vs. evil.  “May God be with you,” offered to the Texas town of the church shootings.  In a church of worship!  Where was God at that moment?  How can these incidents be reduced to the simplistic good vs. evil?

It plays into our psyche of “good guys” coming to the rescue, the rationalization that MORE guns are needed by the “good guys” to offset those carried by the “bad guys.”  Where is the Lone Ranger when you need him?  Even better, Superman!  The Texas Attorney General suggested that churches should consider armed worshipers.  This is a solution?

Let’s get serious about gun control once and for all.  If we had more restrictive gun ownership legislation after the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966, where would we be today?  It has to start sometime, and the moment has arrived to ban assault weapons.  Go a step further and require registration of weapons as we do motor vehicles.  Provide a government cash bounty for anyone turning in an assault weapon for a period of time, no questions asked.  Anyone in possession of such a weapon after the bounty period is breaking the law.

This does not nullify the 2nd amendment, but it brings it more into alignment with today’s weapon technology which the founding fathers could have never imagined.  If the NRA doesn’t like it, let them own muskets, the weapon of choice when the amendment was enacted.

Our gun violence and lax gun laws are the worst of developed countries. Many other countries just ban gun ownership and their lack of gun violence verses ours reflect that and cultural values as well.

And, please, the false equivalency argument of they’ll use trucks instead, so why shouldn’t we ban trucks is specious (as those who make the argument know).  Any politician who can say that with a straight face ought to be run out of office. But as the Texas massacre takes place on the heels of the horrid truck terrorist attack in Manhattan, NRA apologists are quick to make that facetious case.

Trump responded to the Texas massacre saying “I think that mental health is your problem here. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation.”  Yes, mental health problems need to be simultaneously addressed, but it IS a guns “situation” as well.  And why did he genuflect to the NRA, rescinding a regulation that makes it harder for people with mental illness histories to purchase guns?

Our “leaders” must offer more than condolences and prayers to the thousands and thousands of families who have been impacted by gun violence and those who will be victims in the future. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Gripping Production of An Inspector Calls at Maltz Jupiter Theatre

J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a cautionary moral tale encapsulated in a mystery, is successfully portrayed by accomplished actors under the fast-paced direction of J. Barry Lewis at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.  It is a period piece reminiscent of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, with the “downstairs” staff silently bearing witness to the conscienceless actions of their “superiors.”

Although written at the end of WW II, the play is set in 1912.  As Europe emerged from WW II, J. B. Priestley saw the irony of calling WW I “a war to end all wars”, and realized the dangers of relying on the privileged aristocracy to ameliorate the travails of the masses.  This play remains relevant for today’s audience. No doubt J. B. Priestley would have seen parallels to the present with a plutocracy now permeating our government.

The entire play takes place on one evening in 1912 at the home of the wealthy Birling family who are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, who is the son of one of Birling's competitors in the mill business.  The family patriarch, Arthur Birling (Rob Donohoe) is particularly pleased by the union as it will probably be good for future profits.  He is the quintessential capitalist, in his ineffable aristocratic way pontificating that "a man has to look after himself and his own."  

Rob Donohoe, Jeremy Webb, Charlotte Bydwell, Cliff Burgess, Angie Radosh
It is all very jovial but that initial scene takes place behind Dadaesque style suspended windows which convey a sense of unreality.  The “downstairs” help sit stoically listening while the festivities are underway.

Elizabeth Dimon, Jeffrey Burton, Sharon Taylor, Rob Donohoe, Cliff Burgess, Jeremy Webb, James Andreassi
Suddenly an Inspector Goole (James Andreassi) arrives to question the Birling family about the apparent suicide of a young girl, Eva Smith.  The abstract windows have been lifted from the scene and the proceedings are now realistic.  Goole is arrogant in his demeanor, relentless in his interrogation, insisting that he question each family member in a particular order (all part of the mystery).  Andreassi recently finished a successful run in The Little Foxes at Dramaworks where he was one of the greedy businessmen.  The two plays are jarringly similar in their meaning and are set almost in the same time period.  Andreassi’s performance is mesmerizing and compelling as he had an expectant audience waiting for him to turn on the next family member.

His first victim is Arthur Birling imperiously played by Rob Donohoe.  His character shifts from high handedness to reluctant admission that he did know the girl, having fired her two years before as she asked for a small raise.  He was also concerned about union activity.  So what’s the crime in that, he wonders?  No, in fact he had an obligation to fire her to keep his costs under control (and his profits high, of course).   Donohoe gives a shimmering depiction of a desperate man trying to hold on to his position in society (perhaps a Knighthood?) and keep himself and his family from defamation.

Next, the Inspector turns his attention to the Birling’s eldest child Sheila (Charlotte Bydwell), who confesses that she recognized the photo of Eva as a person who waited on her at a dress shop where Sheila had felt slighted, complained to the shop owner resulting in Eva being fired (once again).  Sheila’s actions are culpable but not criminal..  Bydwell gives a brilliant performance, expressing remorse and guilt for her actions, righteous fury at her fiancé when she learns of his involvement and stunningly becomes the conscience that her family members lack. 

Her fiancé, Gerald (Jeremy Webb) is next on the docket.  Here matters escalate as we learn that Eva had changed her name and ultimately became Gerald’s mistress.  At this point the family is collapsing upon itself.  Webb plays the consummate aristocrat now humiliated in front of his fiancé and her family.  He is full of contrition while attempting to maintain his aristocratic demeanor.  An experienced actor, he makes us feel sympathy and loathing simultaneously.  

Enter the matriarch Sybil (Angie Radosh) who is the head of a women's charity.  She had recently rejected Eva Smith’s plea for charitable help although she knew Smith was pregnant.  Smith called herself Mrs. Birling, which infuriated Sybil even further.  Radosh is the classic condescending grand dame, scoffing at the Inspector, rejecting any fault of her own or her family members.  She is a consummate actress and when she speaks, the audience is captivated.  Her mood swings from arrogance to stricken conscience to haughty elation when she believes it all a hoax is a master class in acting.
Cliff Burgess, Angie  Radosh, Charlotte Bydwell

Finally, attention is paid to the young adult son of the Birlings, Eric (Cliff Burgess), who is also connected with the young woman, but it would be a spoiler to reveal more.  Eric is an alcoholic and by the time he is questioned, the moral culpability of all has been well established.  Burgess is a very versatile actor and portrays the troubled scion of a wealthy family with the physical skill and emotional clout of a spoiled unprincipled young man.

Interestingly, most of the characters briefly break the fourth wall to plead their case directly to the audience.  This brings the audience into the play as we all ultimately have a stake in our own conduct and the outcome of our actions.  We have just witnessed a multitude of societal misdeeds that unfold every day in thousands of ways.

Rob Donohoe, James  Andreassi, Elizabeth  Dimon
With the finishing of the questioning, the family implodes upon itself culminating in an explosion, as if a bomb has been dropped on the house. The mysterious Inspector departs with the admonishment “each of you helped to kill her.” 

Gerald, who went for a walk to cool off and to reconsider his broken engagement, returns to the shambles of the house, and finds everyone in utter abasement.  But he brings a theory which seems to exonerate the family, giving them, especially Arthur, false hope that it was all fabricated (although what they confessed to actually took place) by this unverified Inspector Goole, for what reasons, unknown.

The content of a phone call at the play's end is like a sledge hammer dropping.  And suddenly, bathed in stark bright light is Edna (the incomparable Elizabeth Dimon), the head of housekeeping in a silent but disapproving role, and behind, a handful of refugee, hungry and poor onlookers, the silent jury.  It is an absolutely riveting production, without intermission, that gathers momentum until the mystifying conclusion.

Priestly is an indirect literary descendant of Charles Dickens whose focus on social conditions and the bleak prospects for the masses were endemic to his work --  although, Dickens was not thought of as a socialist, more as a humanitarian.  His works were not political.  J.B. Priestly was a socialist, but An Inspector Calls is not a polemic.  It merely cries out that no man is an island.  We are a society and even our slightest actions have ramifications.  If we are to reject “the dreamers” we, as a society, bear responsibility.

As the play’s multiple Carbonell Award-winning director J. Barry Lewis commented “Such plays remain relevant because they portray everyday people – you and me – often at our worst. While as an audience we are voyeurs to the story, we may see ourselves in the choices and mistakes that each of the characters make. An Inspector Calls explores the capitalistic nature of society, the hypocrisy of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and examines the role of the individual and their responsibility to their fellow man.”

In fact the staging endeavors to make the audience feel somewhat complicit as well.  Kirk Bookman’s lighting design bathes the stage, and sometimes the audience, in an eerie bright light.  That combined with resident sound designer Marty Mets’ rumbling sound, piercing at times, heightens the tension and the culpability of all. Tracy Dorman's costumes are stunning, period perfect.

Victor Becker’s imaginative scenic design captures both the surrealism and the realism of the production.  It is one of Maltz Theatre’s most successful plays of the season.  No wonder when we entered the theatre for last night’s production a sign read “this performance sold out.”