Culture Watch Culture Watch articles brought to you by History News Network. Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Maestro Is Out of Tune

Arturo Toscanini was one of the greatest symphonic conductors in the history of the world. He first raised his baton at the age of 19 and pretty much kept conducting until his death at the age of 82. The Italian genius led orchestras in numerous nations and even the famous NBC Symphony orchestra in New York. His orchestras played some of greatest classical music ever written and had some of the planet’s great musicians in them. Among the singers he worked with were superstars Ezio Pinza and Enrico Caruso. A little-known chapter to most Americans was his running battle with Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator, Adolf Hitler and their goons from the early 1930s to the end of World War II.

Now that intriguing story is finally being told in a new play, Maestro, that opened last night at the Duke Theater, 229 W. 42d Street, in New York. It stars John Noble, includes a small orchestra that plays composition by some of the great composers and has a vivid historical video news clip show that tracks the Mussolini takeover in Italy.

Maestro does not work, not at all. The legendary Maestro drops his baton in this drama, and that is sad because the story is so fascinating and inspiring. The play, though, is really out of tune.

In history, Toscanini was publicly critical of both German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, sided with the Jews all over Europe against the fascists and was condemned by the Italian government. The conductor eventually fled the country. Generally speaking, that story is told in the play, but most of the interesting aspects of his war with the fascists are left out by playwright Eve Wolf.

Toscanini refused to conduct in Italy because of his hatred for Mussolini and so he led orchestras in other countries nearby and his audiences there were enormous. That’s not covered sufficiently in the play.

The program notes tell the vivid story of how Toscanini helped Italian Jews escape transport to camps and how he even got them out of Italy and helped find them jobs in the U.S. That is not in the play.  

In 1931, six years into Mussolini’s reign, Toscanini was physically assaulted by fascists, but that story is not in the play. Musicians are quoted in the program notes recalling how Toscanini not only made them better musicians, but better people. That is not in the play.

He was one of the star conductors of Germany’s Bayreuth Music Festival, but he quit in 1931 as the Nazis marched towards power. In Italy, he refused to play the new fascist national anthem that Mussolini insisted upon, infuriating the Italian strongman. Again, not in the play.

Toscanini’s defiance of Mussolini never ended. As an example, he refused to ever show Mussolini’s photograph at concerts, as just about everyone else did. An angry Mussolini had Toscanini’s phone tapped and had him followed. Not in the play.

There are several problems with Maestro besides its thin history. First, it is a one man show and Noble has to carry the whole drama on his shoulders. The tale cries out for other characters, such as his wife, Carla, the NBC brass who created their symphony just for Toscanini in 1937, his many musicians, music lovers and, of course, Il Duce himself. This is great play waiting to happen. It does not happen at the Duke. 

For some bizarre reason, playwright Wolf slips in the five-piece orchestra to play numerous classical music pieces by Verdi, Wagner, Gershwin, Tedesco, and others. The music goes on and on and on. Actor Noble could have lunch between each piece. The musical interludes seem longer than Mussolini’s nearly 20-year reign in Italy. The orchestra has absolutely nothing to do with the story (the musicians in the orchestra, Mari Lee, Henry Wang, Matthew Cohen, Ari Evan, Maximilian Morel and Zhenni Li, are quite good, though).

The book is choppy. It starts with Toscanini yelling at “musicians” who are audience members and then he is off discussing the last years of his career, skipping over all the years, the decades, that made him so famous. 

Questions are never answered. Toscanini tells the audience that he and his wife had not slept with each other for over twenty years, that he did not see her from 1938 to 1945 and did not get a single letter from her for seven years. When he returns to Italy at the end of the war, he tells the audience he is stunned that she was not there to greet him. Huh? In the play, Toscanini sort of left out the fact that during his marriage he had affairs with half the women in Italy and one third of the women in America. And the wife did not want to see him?

We are told the Mussolini has taken his passport, which means he can’t leave the country, but then he pops up in New York City with the NBC Symphony. How did he do that? At one point in the story he shows up in Palestine to lead an orchestra made up of Jewish refugees. How did he get there? Did someone invite him? Did he get off the train at the wrong stop? What?

He returns to conduct at La Scala, in Milan, but says he won’t walk the streets of Milan. Why?

Noble does a decent job portraying Toscanini in this play directed by Donald T. Sanders, but, unfortunately, he has a very weak book to work with and is unable to tell much about the fabled conductor whom Mussolini hated so much. You might have learned much about history but did not.

This play is like a concert in which much of the music is missing. 

PRODUCTION: The play was produced by the Ensemble for the Romantic Century. Scenic and Costume Design: Vanessa James, Lighting Design: Beverly Emmons & Sabastian Adamo, Sound: Bill Toles, Projection Design: David Bengali. The play is directed by Donald T. Sanders. It runs through February 9.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
A Choir Sings Out Loud and Strong

The Charles R. Drew Prep School has been graduating gifted music majors for fifty years. It opened when the Vietnam was raging in Southeast Asia. Throughout all of those years, and all of its headmasters, it has maintained its prestige mainly because of its well-known choir, made up of some of the most skilled singers in America. Year after year, the boys would graduate after four years of superior singing and studies to enroll at America’s very best colleges.

Until now.

This year all hell breaks loose behind the ivy-covered walls of Drew. Gay boys in the choir fight with each other and the straight singers, too. Jealousies and hatreds rise to the surface. One talented singer, Pharus, insists that he is better than everybody else and struts across the stage all night. The problems are so great that a teacher is brought in to teach ‘creative thinking’ in an effort to restore calm to the choir and he fails at this job. What to do?

The play, that opened last week at The Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York, is the story of eight singers - seven African Americans and a white boy, David, who has a fascination with Biblical heritage - an overly strong fascination. They sing together, they argue together and they make amends together in this very impressive play with soaring music and singing written by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

The play is a roller coaster of emotions and says a lot about youth history and racial history and in many new ways. As an example, there is a marvelous discussion between the boys over what slave era African American songs meant to the slaves in the 1850s and what they mean to African Americans today. Did the lyrics cry out for an escape from bondage then and now or were they just lyrics and nothing more?

The highlight of the play is a searing argument over the ‘n’ word. The old, white creative thinking professor flies into a rage when one African American boy uses the word in yelling at another African American. The white professor tells them that they don’t know their history and the great struggle that has been going on for racial equality for hundreds of years.

The richness of the play, that also has some sharp humor, is not any one scene or one actor, though. It is the choreography by Camille A. Brown and the choir’s joyous singing of music by Jason Michael Webb.  It is one of the best choreographed plays I have ever seen and the choreography is really, really different. The conclusion of each song brings joyous roars from the audience.

Choir Boy could be a drama about any prep school, or any high school, in America. It is about teenage boys growing up between classes amid a myriad of racial and sexual tension. In the end, too, these teenagers who thought school and life was so easy, are confronted with the severe penalties they have to pay for their behavior.

Director Trip Cullman has done a wonderful job of telling a taut drama full of angst and hope and, at the same time, weaving in the song and dance numbers. The result is a very pleasing show. He gets fine work from his performers -- Chuck Cooper as the headmaster, John Clay III as Anthony, Nicholas Ashe aa Junior, Caleb Eberhardt as Davis, the only white singer, and J. Quinton Johnson as Bobby. The extraordinarily gifted Jeremy Pope plays Pharus. He is a wonder as both a singer and actor and a young man struggling with his homosexuality.

Veteran actor/director Austin Pendleton is sensational as the old white professor.  

The play has some minor problems. The plot is a bit choppy and you must pay careful attention to the story as it unfolds. There does not seem to be a strong reason to bring in the white teacher. There are pieces of the story that are left out. You never learn, as an example, whether this is a prep school that has a choir or a music school whose choir is an important part of the program. You are told that the white kid has to keep his grads up to stay in school but that the others, for some reason, do not. It is stressed that they are “legacies,” or students whose parents attended the school, and that are safe no matter what they do (that’s not really true. The sex in the play comes and goes and you are not sure of  peoples’ relationships and how they developed until late in the play.

Even so, Choir Boy is a powerful drama about the coming of age of a group of superbly talented and at the same time supremely distraught young men.

It is a song to remember.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Scenic and Costume Design: David Zinn, Lighting” Peter Kaczorowski, Fight Direction: Thomas Schall, Music Director: Jason Michael Webb, Sound: Fitz Patton. The play is choreographed by Camille A. Brown and directed by Trip Cullman. It runs through February 24.  

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
"Vice" – Looking Back on the Cheney – Bush Administration

On February 11, 2006, my late wife and I were driving home to New Jersey from Washington, D.C., on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was snowing outside and bitterly cold. Suddenly, a radio announcer interrupted the music channel to tell the world that “Vice President Dick Cheney has shot somebody.”

I roared with laughter. This man had turned over just about every apple cart he could find in his life and now the fool has gone off and shot someone.

I thought about that moment over the weekend when I saw Vice,the new biography film about Dick Cheney that has been earning numerous awards and award nominations since it opened a few weeks ago. Last week it opened nationally.

This article’s title notes the Cheney-Bush Administration and not, properly, the Bush – Cheney Administration because director/screenwriter Adam McKay makes you think that Cheney ran the country. Bush was apparently out playing baseball somewhere for eight years.

Despite all of its early accolades, Vice, produced by Plan B Entertainment,is not a very good movie. Well, it is if you just simply hate Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.

In the movie, Christian Bale (who is superb in the role and deserves an Oscar nomination), portrays Cheney as a four-star dunce. At first, he is a man going nowhere. Then his overly ambitious wife Lynne reads him the marriage riot act and tells him to make something of his life. He does. He gets himself a job as a Washington intern and then becomes an aide to Donald Rumsfeld (“Rummy”) and moves up the ladder, holding down the jobs of Chief of Staff to President Ford and Secretary of Defense for President George H.W. Bush. In between, he spent ten years representing his home state, Wyoming, in Congress. He was asked to be George W. Bush’s running mate in 2000 and turned him down (he didn’t want to give up his high paying private sector job as head of the controversial Halliburton Company). Bush pushed him, though, and he accepted. After that, Cheney becomes a battering ram for the Republicans. Cheney certainly was a powerful Vice President and gave George Bush plenty of advice, but it was Bush, and not Cheney, who made all of the key decisions, all of which are harpooned by the director in the film.

If you accept the director McKay’s view, Bush was really just an aide in Cheney’s White House. The director would have you believe that Cheney orchestrated every single move in the administration.

Bush and Cheney made some colossal mistakes and did dupe the public. McKay should get high marks for the way he portrayed the disgraceful way, as an example, in which Bush and Cheney forced General Colin Powell to deliver that famous U.N. speech loaded with misstatements of fact on Iraq and prodded him and everybody to believe that Sadam Hussein had warehouses full of nuclear weapons when he actually had none. Did they do everything wrong? They did get re-elected.

McKay gets a splendid performance by Bale. He is young and tough at the start of the film and old and tough at its conclusion. In the film Bale looks and acts exactlylike Cheney. Amy Adams is just as impressive as Lynne Cheney, the driving force in Cheney’s life. Sam Rockwell, as George W. Bush, seems to appear quickly between long scenes about Cheney. He is unimpressive. Steve Carrell is quite good as Donald Rumsfeld.

The history in the film is vague, choppy and unconvincing. According to the movie, the history of Bush’s tenure is one long carnival style conspiracy full of governmental villains around every corner and at the end of every phone call. Cheney, the Dark Prince, and his henchmen ran the country and ran it into the ground, according to the film. They stripped citizens of their rights, tortured everyone short of George Clooney and tapped the phones of all the Muppets. 

Surprisingly, nowhere in the film does anybody call Cheney the “Darth Vader” of politics, the term his enemies used so frequently during his years in office. He isseen as the evil lord of the Universe. McKay constantly comes up with reasons why Cheney had so much power and they make no sense. I was startled by the explanation that he had great power because he had his Vice President’s office, two offices in the Senate, one in the House of Representatives and one in CIA headquarters. Hey, I know lawyers who have offices in numerous cites and are still bad lawyers. So what?

McKay takes every opportunity to make fun of Cheney, especially in scenes when he is sleeping or brushing his teeth. OK, the guy’s job approval rating was as low as 13%, but he could still brush his teeth.

On many accusations, though, McKay is right. How did Cheney manage to get away with all of these shenanigans? Wasn’t anybody watching? Weren’t the lights on? 

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Mary, Queen of Scots, Loses Her Head and the Audience, Too

Mary, the Queen of Scotland in the 16th Century, was executed in 1587. That was 431 years ago. It will take me 431 years to figure out what on earth the new movie on her, Mary, Queen of Scots, is all about.

We all know that Mary lost her head as punishment for a plot she supposedly participated in to assassinate her cousin, British monarch Elizabeth 1. The two cousins, one running the show in England one running a much smaller and less glamorous (oh, yes, less glamorous) in Scotland, did not like each other and vied with each other for power and prestige in the British Isles and in Europe.

There have been numerous movies and television series about Mary or about Elizabeth with her relationship with Mary one of the sub-plots. In just about all of them, Mary is portrayed rather badly. She is seen as stupid, malevolent, cold and jealous (take your pick).

In the new film, Mary Queen of Scots, that just opened, Mary gets a brand new look. She has gone from the beat up ’68 Chevy to the sleek new Lexus with all the bells and whistles.

Her “new” story is more about the two women fighting off incompetent men and stone walling ambassadors and potential rebel chiefs than it is about statesmanship.

It is a rich, deep saga about the British Isles at the time of Elizabeth, full of heroes and villains and lots of wine drinking. There are lots of horses, pounding across this meadow, and lots of water, too. There is water everywhere.

The problem with the movie is that your heads spins around on your shoulders trying to keep up with the story. Sitting in the audience trying to follow the two queens is like watching a tennis match (a bad one) in which the ball bounces over the net from Queen to Queen and back again.

What on earth is going on in this movie?

We meet Mary, played by Saoirse Ronan, as a kid and are told she was married to a French King for a few years, then he died, then she hopped off to Scotland to claim her crown there and did not marry a whole lot of guys, then picked a good one, cousin Henry Stuart. He turned out to be a bad one, though, and a drunk, and messed up the castle but good. Evil rebels then staged a Civil War, but the loyal Scots put it down. Mary’s half-brother comes in and out of the story, nearly tripping on his long and scraggly beard. Somebody blows up part of the castle and Mary’s hubby Henry gets killed. Under duress, Mary marries the assassin. There are a whole lot of ambassadors running who knows where. I never saw so many Ambassadors in my life.

Elizabeth’s advisors, romantics that they are, want a proper husband for Mary, so they suggest that the Queen ship off her lover, Robert Dudley to marry her (this suggestion does not go over well in the palace at all).

OK, that is the first thirty minutes of the plot. Whew! You are already exhausted trying to keep up with the story of the dueling royals.

The movie ends with poor Mary, who has screwed up everything, all on her own and begging her cousin Elizabeth’s forgiveness so she can get a new start in life, but that doesn’t work out too well.

Queen Elizabeth comes off worse than her cousin in this film, rather feebly directed by Josie Rourke. She is played by Margo Robbie. She is evil, vicious, nasty, jealous. petty and hates men. She hates women, too. She hates everybody. She hates her horse.

She is the other side of the planet from the real Queen Elizabeth as played by just about everybody as a tough, but admirable, monarch (Helen Mirren was my favorite Elizabeth). In this film, you want to chase after Elizabeth on her horse and push her off it (oh, Elizabeth wears awful, just awful, flame red wigs).

The entire move is about Mary and her civil wars and palace woes. At one point, when she is in a whole lot of trouble, she graciously tells her ladies-in waiting to flee to save their own necks. They tell her they will stay at her side. They should have fled, not into England, but into a good movie.

The reason she was executed – for treason against Elizabeth - does not come out until the end of the film, and by then you don’t care.

Her real execution was quite gruesome. The axe missed her neck and hit her skull and a second flow was needed but that did not work and they had to cut off the sinew that held her head on with the axe blade. Then the executioner held her head in the air by what he thought was her hair, but it was a wig and came off and her head plopped to the ground. Oh well, I’m glad they left all that out because the movie is dreadful enough as it is.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
The California Girl is Still Clueless

Dove Cameron, Zurin Villanueva, Gilbert L. Bailey II, Chris Hoch. Photo by Erik Carter


Cher is a cute 16-year-old blonde girl who is ridiculously wealthy. She lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, is the daughter of a high-powered lawyer. has gorgeous clothes, parties hearty all week long, shops ‘til she drops (at Gucci, of course) and has lots of friends. She gets people to hook up and is the tidiest little matchmaker you ever saw. She is clueless, though, in finding love herself. How do you do it?

Cher, a valley girl if there ever was one, was the star of the smash 1995 movie Clueless, one of the first great teen movies of the era, and is back again, this time as the star of the musical Clueless, that just opened in New York at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42d Street.

The musical Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling, who directed the movie, is a whole lot of fun. It is the ageless rites of passage story for people who go from 12 to 21 real, real fast. Cher’s rite-of-passage, like everyone’s. is a bit bumpy. She falls head over heels, or rather earphones over earphones for Christian, a gorgeous, teenaged guy who puts the wind in her sails. Except that, er, Christian is gay. He’s out. She stumbles and bumbles around, continually trying to get advice and support from her stepbrother Josh, who is visiting. In the end, she falls in love with Josh, who is as down to earth as her friends are in outer space most of the time.

The play’s heroine Cher is the same out-of-it, pretty ditzy teen from the 1995 movie. She is convinced she can match up everybody. The plot of the play is her failure at matching up herself with anybody. It works and works well whether in Beverly Hills, California or Lexington, Kentucky.

Director Kristen Hanggi does a fine job handling the large cast and creating a 90’s atmosphere. The choreography by Kelly Devine is simply superb, some of the best I have ever seen. The ensemble cast does a wonderful job with the music and dancing.

The highlight of the show are the car driving scenes. In one, a guy is giving his girlfriend lessons on how to drive (we all remember how that went) and in the other Cher is taking her first driving test. It is hilarious and yet another reminder that when you see a teenager pull out of the garage in the family car, get back inside and hide under the bed.

After the car tests fiasco, a friend yells at her that her problem in life is that “you’re a virgin who can’t drive.”

The play has some minor problems. One is that except for one or two songs, the tunes in the show all sound like each other. They are the melodies of actual ‘90s songs with lyrics adapted for the show. If you have heard one, you have heard them all on both AM and FM. Few of them are terribly interesting.

Another small problem is the set. It is pretty spartan. It is also too small. This is a big play, with lots of performers and musical numbers. They work well on the set, but it would look better in a bigger theater. What saves the set is the enormous projection screen on the back wall on which films of outdoor scenes are shown so you can, as an example, watch people driving down a palm tree lined street.

The history in the play, based a little on Jane Austen’s novel Emma, is good and it sort of reminds you of the TV series 90210. It is light on politics and heavy on social. What I adored was watching the show for things from the 90s that you just don’t see anymore, such as the guy walking by listening to one of those gigantic “boom box” radios. 

Director Hanggi gets several superb performances in the show. Dove Cameron plays the adorable Cher and she dominates the show from its first minute until its last. She is a fine singer and good dancer, but what makes her so lovable is her human vulnerability and charming stage persona. You see her do all of these stupid things and you have to love her for them. Other good performers in the show are Ephie Aardema as Cher’s friend Tai, David Thomas Brown as her down to earth heartthrob Josh, Chris Hoch as dad and the high school teacher, Will Connolly as the lost-in-space Travis and Justin Mortelliti as Christian.

The show’s theme is that while teens in the 1990s, and today, may seem stupid, they are lovable. Yes, they are (most of the time).

Catch Clueless. You will have a good time and be clueless no more.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the New Group. Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt, Costumes: Amy Clark, Lighting: Jason Lyons, Sound: Gareth Owen, Projection Design: Darrel Maloney. The show is directed by Kristin Hanggi. It runs through January 13.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
That New Movie About Queen Anne of England Is Inaccurate … But True  

The Favourite—the new film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos about the reign of Queen Anne of England (r. 1701-1714)—is a profound and successful work of political imagination that nevertheless depends on several serious historical inaccuracies. It is unusually truthful about the everyday workings of politics, at least as people tend to see the matter today and saw it also in Anne’s day. This is especially true of the film’s emphasis, underplayed in most historical accounts, on the use of sex in pursuit of self-interest as what determines political decisions, from the trivial to the most consequential such as those concerning war and peace. Anchoring its success are impeccable performances by the actors in the principal roles: Rachel Weisz (Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough); Emma Stone (Abigail Masham); and the stunningly human Olivia Colman (Queen Anne). 

But first, consider the historical errors. The most jarring and inconsequential of these are the silly anachronistic dances, which combine disco moves and voguing with Cossack squat kicks. In the same category is the depiction of Anne’s court as a den of Neronian decadence and grotesquerie: in one extended sequence, Members of Parliament throw oranges at a fleshy dodging jester wearing nothing but a giant red-haired wig. 

In its depiction of the comedy of cruelty among callous aristocrats, the scene echoes the criticism and toleration of the brutal sensualism of the ancient Romans in Fellini Satyricon(1969). This is not the only time that Lanthimos takes a page from another film or novel. But Anne’s court was not a palace of Neronian decadence; it was not even the cynical, libertine court of her uncle Charles II. Her reign was a time of fine design in furniture and in the poetic couplets of Alexander Pope, and of the sharp imitation of madness in the satiric writings of Jonathan Swift (whom Anne disliked and Sarah hated). 

In a more consequential inaccuracy, the powerful minister Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) steps aside from the orange-throwing party only in order to try to bully Abigail into confiding in him and betraying Sarah. He carries an obligatory knob-headed walking stick and wears an absurdly high light-grey wig, his face whitened by cosmetics that contain lead and his cheeks rouged by cinnabar that contains mercury, looking and talking like a perfect Restoration twerp.  Far from being a shallow fop, in the middle years of Anne’s reign, Harley had been Speaker of the House of Commons and had been finding the center of English politics for almost twenty years, whether from what we would call the Left or the Right, the side of the Whigs or of the Tories. Forty-five years old in 1706, he was four years older than the Queen, not twenty years younger. 

Harley was an antiquarian, a learned man, a friend of Swift and Pope, as well as a skillful political tactician and shaper of early public opinion; he employed both Defoe and Swift to help gain public acceptance for his policies. His collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, Tudor texts, and more recent pamphlets later known as the Harleian collection, formed the core of the British Museum, now the British Library, and is a cultural treasure of the first rank. Lanthimos has good grounds for diminishing the powerful upper-class men of England, regarding them as superficial and thoughtlessly abusive. But we should note that Harley’s character in the film, while it works as a satiric caricature, is inaccurate and misleading.

The most consequential unhistorical element in the film is Abigail’s supposed poisoning of her cousin Sarah, which leads to Sarah’s being dragged through a forest caught in her horse’s stirrups and inexplicably confined in a brothel for about a week after that (as though the fiery sharp-tongued Duchess were an early version of Richardson’s famously long-suffering and self-sacrificing Clarissa).  

Although there is no evidence for such an episode, one can see why the screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have recourse to the device. It shows that Abigail was as dangerous in her own way as Sarah; she must have had something steely in her character to so successfully supplant Anne’s brilliant, fierce, and vigilant friend since childhood.  

It is in the relations among Sarah, Abigail, and Anne, that the inaccuracies cease to detract, but begin to add to the complexities. Take the distance between the ages of the three women. In the film, the Queen appears to be a physical wreck in her fifties who can barely walk, and Abigail a blooming and beautiful twenty-something. In fact, the historical Anne and Abigail were the same age, while Sarah was five years older than they. 

But it makes sense to portray Abigail, Sarah’s impoverished cousin, at first as a vulnerable young naif who follows Sarah’s example to become a skilled political player and the betrayer of her mentor. Her coming victory is signaled when, following Sarah’s instructions, she finally shoots a pigeon on the wing and the blood of the bird spatters across Sarah’s face. On this telling, the story of relations between Sarah and Abigail is an eighteenth-century precursor of All about Eve(1950). 

Sarah herself is portrayed in an unusually positive light. Historically, she was notoriously strong-willed and sharp-tongued. In other versions of her story such as the fine play Queen Anne(2015) by Kate Glover, she lost Anne’s friendship because the Queen finally reached a point where she could no longer tolerate Sarah’s impertinence in ordering her about (she once famously told the Queen to “Shut up” in public). 

Lanthimos’s film allows us to see Sarah as at least the equal and perhaps the superior in political intelligence of the official members of the ministry—Godolphin, Harley, and certainly her husband. More than any other character, the film assigns her conventionally masculine pursuits—shooting, riding, making decisions, persuading. She does not, of course, participate in the silly entertainments that occupy the effeminate courtiers, including Harley.  

Sarah is thus presented as a largely sympathetic character. Her acerbic wit, which at times approaches the sadistic, appears in retrospect to have been well-intentioned plain-speaking, at least in relation to Anne, by contrast with what proves to be Abigail’s insincere flattery of the Queen. Moreover, the poisoning leaves Sarah with an ugly scar across her cheek, which she covers by wearing a scarf as an eye-patch, arousing sympathy for the loss of her beauty. 

We come to feel that although Sarah domineers, manipulates, and even tries to blackmail the Queen, she has been largely honest with her, whereas Abigail’s soft-spoken soothing is only manipulating the Queen, and Abigail’s sexual ministrations to Anne come to seem merely mechanical and self-interested, whereas Sarah’s grow out of a long and complex relationship stretching back to childhood and early adolescence.

In the story of Anne, an historical addition proves to be not a liability or an excusable alteration but a major strength of the film. There is no record that Anne kept seventeen rabbits (or even one) in her living quarters. However as she explains in a crucial scene, she has a rabbit for each of her seventeen pregnancies (sixteen ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death; one child—a son—died aged 11). “Each time you lose one,” she concludes, “you lose a part of yourself.” Abigail seems deeply moved as she listens to Anne’s account; by contrast, Sarah has forthrightly declared her dislike of rabbits.      

Anne did not have the character of a queen: she was weak and irresolute, physically unattractive, gout-ridden, and obese. But Lanthimos enables viewers to discover that there is something admirable in Anne’s character also. Just as she is England’s only queen, so being a childless queen is her only life, not chosen but imposed on her. Her unfitness for her high position then becomes one of the constraints that operate against women of all ranks in this society. Although Anne can be juvenile, moody, and capricious, she comes to understand and even accept her position.

She sees through not only Sarah and her manipulations, but also her final favorite when she perceives how Abigail really regards the Queen’s rabbits. In the final scene, Anne treats Abigail the way that Abigail has treated one of her rabbits.  Anne realizes that a queen, like a king, can (as Francis Bacon said) have no friends, and we can understand that a further empty space has opened up in Anne with this realization.    

In most ways, the film works as a satire. There is no admirable, normative character, except perhaps Anne when she understands that she cannot escape her life—the losses and disabilities for which she is not responsible. The film satirically overturns the presumptions of the earlier time and the present, by presenting all three of the principal women as exceeding their male contemporaries—Sarah in her will, determination and wit, Abigail in her quiet scheming, and Anne in her lonely self-understanding at the end.

It is noteworthy that the film avoids homophobic satire of the Queen for having sexual relations with her female favorites. The tradition of English kings having male favorites goes back to Edward II, then forward through James I (Anne’s great-grandfather), Charles I (her grandfather), and William III (her brother-in-law). The film presents the monarch’s having same-sex relations with a favorite as nothing remarkable, the only difference being that in this case the monarch is a woman. 

Nevertheless, in its predominantly satiric vision, The Favourite resonates with the contemporary moment in expressing the view that all politics is built on base self-interest, and that it is all corrupt. This view fittingly echoes the perspective of the gossipy “secret histories” of the early eighteenth century—like The New Atalantis (1709) by Delarivier Manley, which tells how a handsome adolescent recognizable as John Churchill (later the Duke of Marlborough) earned his crucial early nest egg by providing sexual services to an older, discarded, but very wealthy mistress of Charles II. Under a thin veil of allegory, these popular narratives considered all public political behavior as surface phenomena to be explained by underlying personal, almost always sexual, connections. In the view of these narratives, sexual relations among those in the political class are always instrumental, like Abigail’s with the Queen and her husband in the film.   

But although all politics may be tainted, that does not mean that all courses of action are equally unwise or immoral. Although the film does not go on to make this point, Anne made the correct moral decision when she replaced Godolphin and Marlborough with Harley, who then negotiated an end to the fruitless, decade-long War of Spanish Succession. The film could have reached for a more complex historical vision by at least gesturing toward the satire of the sickening brutality of pointless wars in Gulliver’s Travels(1726), written in the decade following Anne’s death by Harley’s ally Swift. 

Sarah, Marlborough, and the Whigs would have been content to carry on an interminable war against France, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of more deaths and maimings, for they were doing quite nicely as war-profiteers, like many of today’s giant technology and security companies. Even in a world of ubiquitous political corruption, it is important to choose the less corrupt courses of action, the ones that cause less needless death and suffering. 

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Jealousy Fuels a Hot Winter’s Tale


Leontes is a young, handsome King of Sicily and is delighted to have his boyhood friend, Polixenes, visit him for nine months one winter. Leontes should be happy. He is very popular with his subjects, has a lovely wife, Hermione, and a son, Mamillius. What could go wrong?


Leontes is a very jealous man and he decides, for no good reason, that his wife is having an affair with his friend and is pregnant by him. She swears that is not true and that the baby is Leontes’. The Sicilian King then brings in the Oracle of Delphos, who is never wrong, to be the judge. He says Hermione is completely innocent and that absolutely nothing happened between her and Polixenes. People at court who know the pair all agree. That does not satisfy Leontes; nothing does. The King loses all control and howls that the two are lovers. Polixenes leaves Sicily and Leontes orders the baby killed. At the same time, his son dies. The stress of the son and baby is too much for Hermione and she collapses and dies.

Is there enough tragedy in there for you?

That’s the point if the first act of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, that is getting a spirited and admirable revival at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at Drew University, Madison, N.J.

In the second act the play, that opened Saturday, takes a dramatic turn and becomes a comedy (thank goodness). It now turns out that Leontes changed his mind and had a friend, Camillo, travel to Bohemia, a country with a lot less angst than Sicily, and take the baby with him.

Just about all of the second act takes place in Bohemia in the summer time. It is sixteen years later and the baby girl, Perdita, has grown up to be a beautiful and delightful young woman who is in love with the son of Bohemia’s King, Polixenes.

She was dumped off in a meadow in Bohemia by Camillo and found there by a mirthful shepherd. He and members of his family raised her and it isn’t until she turned sixteen and visitors from Sicily have arrived that all realizes who she really is. What happens now? Does Leontes still want to murder her? Will Polixenes break up the romance?

There is a very famous scene in this play in which a menacing bear rambles across the stage. All directors handle the bear in a different way. In this production, you don’t see the bear, but you hear him growl. Well – this bear’s growl makes the roar of the giant gorilla in Broadway’s King Kong sound like a quiet pussycat with a faint “meow.” Whoa! 

The Winter’s Tale, written near the end of the Bard’s life and published in 1623, is not a great play. The plot is a little simplistic and it is long, and I mean long. It is not the plot that makes this play a real triumph at the Shakespeare Theater, but the acting. It is wonderful. You can see that as soon as Leontes steps on to the stage and is joined by Hermione and her friend, Paulina. Everybody does a fine job. I particularly liked all of the shepherds and how they bounded about in the annual Bohemian sheep shearing festival. They gave a real lift to the play. Leontes is impressive as a man who is afflicted by jealousy like some people are afflicted by diseases. It ruins him and, deep down inside, I think he knows it. Hermione is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters. She is soft at times, hard-nosed at others. She is always virtuous and kind, a perfect man’s wife and monarch’s Queen.  Polixenes is the good friend everyman has who likes you for reasons that are unexplainable. Paulina loves her friend Hermione and just cannot believe the jealousy of the King and how that brings down her friend. Daughter Perdita, whom we meet at 16, is the kind of lovable golden haired teenager we all know from some time in our lives and liked. The other characters in the play, such as Camillo, are sturdy. For me, this around three hour play flew by like in was ten minutes long. 

Director Bonnie J. Monte has done a fine job of bringing this play, that can be stodgy, to life and takes us all to the sunny seacoast of Shakespeare’s Bohemia for a delightful evening in the theater. She gets fine performances from Jon Barker as Leontes, Erin Partin as Hermione, Patrick Toon as Camillo, Marion Adler as Paulina, and Ames Adams as the old shepherd, Ryan Woods as Florizel, Polixenes’ son, and John Keabler as Polixenes. The rest of the cast works well with them.

We are off to a cold winter. Two feet of snow fell on parts of Virginia over the weekend. Here in the metropolitan area we had seven inches of snow last week. When I woke up yesterday it was 28 degrees. There is nothing better to warm you up this cold winter than this production of The Winter’s Tale. bears and all.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Scenic Design:  Brittany Vasta, Costumes: Nikki Delhomme, Sound: Bonnie J. Monte, Lighting: Tony Galaska. The play is directed By Bonnie J. Monte. It runs through December 30.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Crusty Old Ebenezer Scrooge Rides Again

Greg Wood (center) with members of the 2018 cast and community ensembles of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Mark Garvin.


Oh, there are small signs that the Christmas season is upon us. They have lit the tree at Rockefeller Center. Recently chopped down Christmas trees are stacked up in long rows on city sidewalks for purchase all across the United States. The radios are all playing Christmas songs. And television has once again aired the heart-warming movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It is never really Christmas time, though, until Princeton’s McCarter Theater, that grand old gem of a regional playhouse in New Jersey, has staged its scrumptious version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That happened last weekend, so all is now officially right with the Christmas world.

McCarter has staged A Christmas Carol for over 40 years and in each of them thousands of people have thanked Santa first and Charles Dickens second. A Christmas Carol, adapted for the stage by David Thompson, is a play about redemption, generosity and the human spirit, a snow filled saga for all of the admirers of little Tiny Tim out there. It is a great big warm chestnut of a production that is guaranteed to make you weep deeply and laugh heartily about London life in 1843.

Every drama needs a hero and a villain. Here the hero is Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim’s hard-working dad. The villain is skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, who has to have the first nickel he ever made in his pocket. Scrooge, a crotchety old bearded businessman always chasing the buck, disdains Christmas and all who celebrate it, no matter if they are the dirt poor Cratchits or his wealthy London family, whose members respect him despite all of his faults.

It is Christmas Eve in merry olde England and old Scrooge is visited by three ghosts of the past, the present and the future. They all take him on the ride of his life over the rooftops and through the cobblestoned streets of London. The first ghost shows him his past, when he was a young man in love with his future bride, and watches her leave the household because he loves money more than her. He visits the Cratchits, a wonderful God fearing family whose little boy Tim, who hobbles about on his lone crutch, is slowly dying. The ghosts take Scrooge on a wild ride on a colossal staircase that swings this way and that across the stage through the holiday night.

The ghost of Christmas present shows him his own family, whose members do not disown their miserly relative at all, as anyone might have.

Finally, there is the somber, ghost of Christmas future. Scrooge is shown his own funeral, with nobody there to mourn his passing, his tombstone that pops up from the stage with a whoosh and the tear filled house where lovable Tiny Tim used to live, before his infirmities took his life.

Irascible old Scrooge is then dumped in his bed, sending his bed covers flying, and awakes to a crisp Christmas morning with a gray hint of snow in the sky. Will he go back to being his loutish old self or start leaping and bounding through the streets of London, a new man with a mission to re-unite with his family, give money to the poor, send huge fat, delicious turkeys to those who struggle and help save  fragile, little Tiny Tim?

Oh, you know what he will do, don’t you?

The play is beautifully directed by Adam Immerwahr. He gets dazzling performances from John Norman Schneider as Bob Cratchit,  Steven Rattazzi as bodacious party thrower Mr. Fezziwig,  Sue Jin Song as Mrs. Dilber,  Zara Lohoue, Paul Deo Jr. and Adele Batchelder as the ghosts, Anne Nathan as Mrs. Fezziwig, and Alexander Perez as the adorable Tiny Tim. The star of the show, of course, is the enormously talented Greg Wood as Scrooge.

They all combine to let you see London in 1843 with its stone streets, gas lit alleys, carriages, horses, food stores, workhouses, prisons and even a den of thieves.

You sense the Christmas spirit of the play when you are met by snappily dressed greeters from 1843 London at the doors to the theater. Dozens of 1843 London city-dwellers race up and down the aisles and the two acts of the play start with Christmas carols, sung in part by the audience. There is Christmas everywhere and then, God bless the director, it snows at the end of the play.

And so a Merry Christmas to all!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the McCarter Theater Company, Sets: Daniel Ostling, Costumes: Linda Cho, Lighting Lap Chi Chu, Sound: Darron L. West, Choreography: Lorin Latarro, Special effects Design: Jeremy Chernick. The play is directed by Adam Immerwahr. It runs through December 29

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Holidays Start with the Magical "Holiday Inn"

Holiday Inn at Paper Mill - Photo by Jerry Dalia

The holidays begin on Thanksgiving weekend and extend through New Year’s day (in department stores they start Jan. 2 and extend through the next January 1) This year the holidays got off to a booming start with a magical production of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, a musical based on the 1942 Bing Crosby movie that opened last night at the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, N.J. 

I think just about everybody has seen the movie, that co-stars dancing king Fred Astaire, on television. It is schmaltzy, ridiculously simple and just plain wonderful. Two years ago, the movie was turned into this musical and debuted on Broadway. Now it is back again, with some small changes, at the Paper Mill, and just as charming.

The story is sheer Hollywood. In New York, singer Jim Hardy breaks up his trio act with dancer Ted Hanover and singer/dancer Lila Dixon, his girl, who is leaving Jim for Ted. They hop on a train and start a national tour and Jim, fed up, moves to Connecticut. He buys a warm, cozy old farm from the Mason family but can’t pay his bills. His housekeeper, the bouncy Louise, suggests he do a show at the farm. He decides on holiday shows. In the middle of all this planning, who rings his doorbell but the daughter of the Mason family, Linda, who is, naturally, gorgeous, lovable and single. Jim and Linda fall for each other and start planning the series of holiday shows.

Meanwhile, on the road, Ted and Lila have split up, Lila marries a Texas millionaire and Ted becomes an alcoholic. He makes it to Holiday Inn and stumbles into their first show, wrecking everything. Now, amorous Ted falls for Linda, who is interested in him because he appears ready to make her his partner and take her to Hollywood, where she can become a big star. She and Jim then start fighting.

In the middle of all this, Jim sits down at the piano and sings his new tune, something called “White Christmas,” with Linda. It is the highlight of the show. Hey, it might be the highlight of musical history.

Berlin wrote 12 songs for the movie, but others, his and other composers, have been added for this show. Among them are hits such as “Easter Parade,” “Heat Wave,” “You’re Easy to Dance With” and “Cheek to Cheek.” The choreography in the musical, by Denis Jones is really splendid, among the best choreographic jobs I have ever seen. The ensemble dance group, that joins the stars in most numbers, is first rate.

The primary reason this show, with book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, succeeds is the cast. It is extremely talented. Nicholas Rodriguez, as Jim Hardy, is a gifted singer and actor. Jeff Kready plays dancer Ted Hanover (the Astaire role in the film) and he is a dancing demon. Paige Faure is a delightful Lila Dixon. Hayley Podschun is Linda Mason and she is adorable and has a lovely voice. Others in the large cast include pixyish Ann Harada, who plays housekeeper Louise. She sprints through the show, a smile always on her face, keeping it all together with her mirthful personality.

The play, like the 2016 Broadway version, cuts out the disgusting blackface musical number (minstrels) that was sadly in the movie for so many years (it has been cut out of the television version of the film, thank goodness).

The director, Gordon Greenberg, does a fine job of managing a very big musical with dozens of performers. This is a sprawling play that could easily get out of hand, but under Greenberg’s tight direction it stays focused and succeeds.

You could learn more history in the show. There are some references to train travel, holiday traditions in the ‘40s, radios, and entertainment history in that period, but there could be more. You have a show set in 1942 and there is no reference to World War II? No GIs?

The show does have its problems. First, there are just too many songs (19 here and just 12 in the movie) and a number of them have little to do with the overall story. The director could have cut four or five of them. Second, the plot is a little disjointed. The play runs a good twenty or minutes or so before the “Holiday Inn” aspect of show at the farm sinks in for the audience. Third, this is a show set in 1947, but you would not know it. The musical needs more 1940s references.

These are minor criticisms for this thoroughly delightful Christmas time play. The show is a bag of warm chestnuts over an open fire for the audience. It is different from the movie in some ways, but the heart of its story is the same lovable tale. It is, like White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, A Bishop’s Wife and Elf, a story that warm your heart at the holiday season and reminds you how good it is to be alive, especially if it’s snowing and there are carolers wandering through your neighborhood and in the distance you think you can hear Santa’s sleigh whisking through the night.

PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Scenic Design: Anna Louizos, Costumes: Alejo Vietti, Lighting: Jeff Croiter, Sound: Matt Krous, musical director: Shawn Gough, choreography: Denis Jones. The show is directed by Gordon Greenberg. It runs through December 30.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
King Kong Is Back to Climb the Empire State Building

Look out everybody, the Big Guy is back.

King Kong, who made his debut in the classic 1933 film, is once again carrying off gorgeous Ann Darrow, killing prehistoric monsters and climbing New York’s Empire State building to face the planes, this time at the Broadway Theater at Broadway and W. 53rd Street, in New York. He is big. He is powerful. He is Kong, the mighty eighth wonder of the world.

As everybody knows from the 1933 movie, and its remakes, tough guy showman Carl Denham sails off to Skull Island in the South Pacific to find a legendary, over-sized gorilla, King Kong. The tribesmen on the island kidnap actress Ann Darrow, whom Denham was going to star in his gorilla film, and offer her to King Kong as a sacrifice. The big ape falls in love with Ann, though. She escapes, the gorilla is caught and Denham brings him back to New York as an entertainment extravaganza.

This new musical, that opened last week, follows that plot, sort of, but cuts a lot of corners and gives the story some new and poorly planned twists and turns. All of the songs in the show give it a new look, too, and the do not help much. There is a new, bigger emphasis on Kong and that overshadows a lot of the movie’s story.

The question everybody asks is what does the new, huge ape look like? Is he as frightening as the movie Kongs, and there have been many? The answer is yes, oh yes. This huge, two story high gorilla puppet, maneuvered by 14 people, rises up, roars, walks, turns around, pounds his chest ferociously and flails his arms, along with giving both loving and scared looks with his head (a motor runs the head). He is the ape’s ape, and as lovable as he is feared. The best scene in this show, in any play I’ve ever seen, is when Kong runs down 34th street with Ann Darrow riding on his back It is sensational, just terrific.

The play, written by Jack Thorne, gives you a good deal of 1930s history. The scenic design is super and filled with mammoth illustrations of Times Square and other New York City neighborhoods and the docks, in addition to the top of the Empire State building, in the 1930s. You learn a lot about travel, shipping, show business and people’ attitude in that era. There is a marvelous little scene of people on a bread line during the Great Depression, too.

There are a number of problems with the show, though, directed by Drew McOnie. First, there is too much Kong and too little story. The Big Guy parades all over the stage again and again and again and continually roars (you can hear him in Georgia). A lot of the timeless story about the huge gorilla and Skull Island gets lost. Example: in this musical there is no island village, no tribesmen and women and no colossal wooden wall to protect the villagers from Kong. Ann Darrow has no love interest in the story, as she did in the movie, and most of the ship’s crew has been cut from the script.

Second, Miss Darrow has been changed dramatically and not for the better. In the 1933, movie Ann was terrified by the big ape, but here she seemingly has become the head of PETA and pleads with everybody to let Kong go. She visits him when he is in chains and flirts with him! Come on. You flirt with a two-story high gorilla? The only thing you do when you see a two-story high gorilla is run.Third, the main characters have been hollowed out, even the blustery entrepreneur. Carl Denham. He and all the others are one-dimensional in this musical. Fourth, the music in the play, score by Marius de Vries, songs by Eddie Perfect, is easily forgettable, although Christiani Pitts, as Darrow, has a good voice and is a decent actress. She is no Fay Wray, though. The cast is solid, but needs a better story. Pitts plays Darrow, Eric William Morris plays Denham, Erick Lochtefeld plays Lumpy and Rory Donovan is Captain Englehorn.

King Kong is a technological wonder. He looks just like a gorilla, moves like one and, boy, does he have a mean streak. He is also cute and cuddly. The audience just loved him and so did I. I’d love to take him home as a pet. I don’t know where I’d keep him n the house, though. The den is a bit small for him and, hey, where do you buy food for a 2,000-pound gorilla? He’d monopolize the television, too, watching Animal Planet all day.

The musical is not much and needs help from somewhere, somehow. The enormous and delightful King Kong character, though, is, well, AAAAARRRRGGGHHH…

PRODUCTION: The show is produced by Carmen Pavlovic, Roy Furman, Gerry Ryan, others. Scenic and Projector Design: Peter England, Creature Designer: Sonny Tilders, Costumes: Roger Kirk, Lighting: Peter Mumford, Sound: Peter Hylenski, Imaging Content: Artists in Motion. The play is directed by Drew McOnie. It has an open-ended run

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Artists Tackle the Great Conspiracies of History

I have a friend who was a high school student when Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Since then, I think he has read every single JFK assassination book ever written and has a conspiracy involving Kennedy’s murder for every day of the month. He is not alone. America is the land of conspiracies, one deeper than the other.

It is not a surprise that so many historians, political scientists and journalists have written extensively about conspiracies over the years, but it is surprising to see that artists are boldly chasing the shadows in the night, too.

That’s the theme of “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” the new exhibit that just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, in New York. Thirty artists have contributed over 70 works, very large and very small, to the exhibit, a rambling study of conspiratorial political plots and sub-plots on several continents that covers an entire floor of the museum. The colorful pieces in the exhibit, from a whole wall painting of a small-town gas station with a secret door to a darkened interior to an artist’s rendering of Ronald Reagan's diplomatic orders to tapes of conspiracy phone calls from President Richard Nixon to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s, jolt you. A Met Museum official says the exhibit is “the archaeology of our troubled times” and it really is, and a highly entertaining archaeology, too.

Involved in the artists’ conspiracies are Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, John F. Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Italian Prime Ministers, Middle-East officials and a host of police officers. Hey, remember Vincent Foster, Bill Clinton’s friend who killed himself? The artist conspirators? Oh, no – another plot.

Sheena Wagstaff, the museum’s chairman of contemporary art, said that “we present modern and historic art in unexpected, experimental and sometimes provocative ways in this exhibit. The curators drop a plumb line into the subterranean depths of conspiracy, illuminating the deep, arcane corners of suspicion that are so prevalent in these works.”

The artists pull no punches, charging the media, the CIA, FBI, federal agencies and city and state police with conspiracies, cover ups and murders.

The exhibit, whose curators are Doug Eklund and Ian Alteveer, assisted by Meredith Brown and Beth Saunders, has a conspiracy or cover up for everybody, ranging from the murder of Kennedy to the Abu Ghraib Prison cover up to the CIA’s LSD experiments. There is a conspiracy that linked the U.S. government to Henry Kissinger to the murder of Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist, in the 1970s (the curators cleverly line up four Time Magazine covers of Kissinger and then one of Allende next to them). There is a wall chart of New York real estate managers who are somehow connected to some sordid tenant rent plot. There is a video theater that presents a slide show of an always under construction mansion owned by Sarah Winchester, heir to the gun fortune, who believed the ghosts of those killed by her husband’s guns were after her. When she died there were 150 rooms and who knows how many ghosts in it. 

There is a poster of Ronald Reagan with the title AIDSGATE on it to show that he did not do enough to try to cure AIDS. A wild painting, in luminous color, shows someone with Hitler’s brain, stolen by conspirators.

I got a chuckle out of Jim Shaw’s 1978 work that showed pictures of his friends and then, next to them, Jim’s rendering of how they really looked under their skin – as invading Martians. He got the idea from supermarket tabloids that charged thousands of Martians were running around in human skin, one big outer space conspiracy.

Two very disturbing, and brilliant, works stopped me in my tracks as I walked through the exhibit. One was a huge dollhouse designed by Sarah Anne Johnson with lighted rooms inside. It depicted all the rooms in which her grandmother, Velma Orlikov was reportedly unknowingly given huge doses of LSD over a long period of time in the 1950s as part of a CIA research program.

The other was the “educational complex" model by Mike Kelley in which the McMartin pre-School, in Manhattan Beach, California, is supposed to be represented. Teachers in that school were believed to have been involved in a conspiracy to convince children to charge adults with sexual molestation. The conspiracy caused a big scandal as parents feared all pre-schools. You remember that one.

Some of the exhibits are, well, weird. In one, groups of artists from the California Institute of the Arts have set up a spooky graveyard in the desert full of tombstones, with a scary orange sky over it. In the middle of it is a television set showing a video of people dressed as mummies battering each other with bouquets of flowers. Huh? In another, an artist shows a copy of a science fiction magazine, “Amazing Stories” and tells the tale of how a magazine writer published in it swore that his army of inner-earth monsters really existed, all covered up, of course.

The media is always charged as being an accomplice to conspiracies. In one exhibit, a long line of newspaper and magazine front pages and covers with everything whited out except a photo of slain former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped and killed by the terrorist group The Red Brigade, is shown as a way in which the media helps the assassins. Many newspaper pages are covered over with art works. Time magazine is featured in several rooms. Journalists should not worry though, because another artist says that major government officials, such as Nelson Rockefeller, were secretly tainted by museum workers (who knew?).

The centerpiece of the conspiracy show is Lee Harvey Oswald. The Oswald exhibit is fascinating, but not just because of the two rows of large photos and drawings of Oswald, many of him in that famous photo where he holds the rifle that killed the President in his backyard. The intriguing thing about the exhibit is that the artist, Wayne Gonzalez, was actually born on the same New Orleans street as Oswald and knew Jim Garrison, the District Attorney who led that well publicized conspiratorial search for other killers of Kennedy. Gonzalez also displays his version of the photo of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. Yet another artist, Lutz Bacher, put together “The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview,” in which the artist pretends to be Oswald and offers quotes amid drawings of the assassin.

There are several exhibits on 1960s and ‘70s Black Panther Party, the target of the FBI and other government agencies. One is an artist’s depiction of six covers from that group's newspaper and another is a video of a press conference of Panther leader Fred Hampton, in which he rambles on about the police and the fascists who were out to get the Panthers.

Running at the main Met Museum on Fifth Avenue is Jane and Louise Wilson: Stasi City, which has four television channels that you can watch that show the headquarters of the Stasi, the old East German secret police organization.

Some of the conspiracies in this innovative and absorbing show are real stretches, but they are portrayed well by the artists and make you think about conspiracies in general. Some are right on target. I mean, who was the gunman on the grassy knoll. Right?

When I left the museum, I passed two security guards deep in a conversation about New York’s two NFL football teams, the Giants and Jets. Ho! They can’t fool me. The names of the teams were clearly code words in a massive international plot orchestrated by the CIA (United States), MI5 (Great Britain) and the Mossad (Israel) to hunt down the remaining units of the Irish Republican Army. In the security guards’ conversation about the NFL I also heard the word” Patriots” and that confirmed the politics of this conspiracy for me.

The Met Breuer is at Madison Avenue and E. 75thStreet. The exhibit runs through January 6, 2019. The museum is open Tuesday – Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
The First Asian Woman Immigrant Dazzles America

Afong Moy arrived in America in 1834, when she was fourteen, as an entertainment act hired by Nathaniel and Frederick Carnes, brothers who met her in her hometown of Guangzhou, in China, on a trade mission. They convinced her, and her family, that she would serve as an “ambassador” for the Chinese people. There were some Chinese men in the United States that year, but she was the very first Asian American woman. The Carnes really wanted her to be an entertainment attraction. They set her up in a hall on Park Avenue, New York, billed her as the “Chinese Lady,” provided her with a translator, Atung, and sold tickets for a quarter. For your quarter you could listen to her answer your questions about the Far East in Chinese, translated by the trusty Atung, who was never paid for his services, stare at her tiny feet, that she claimed were just four inches in length, kept small by a binding process, and, well, look at her. She was a major curiosity and the hall was packed with visitors.

Her story, at first charming and later pretty foreboding, is the focus of Lloyd Suh’s emotional and impressive play, “The Chinese Lady,” that opened Saturday at the Beckett Theater, Theater Row, W. 42d Street, New York.

Life was good for Afong for years. Her crowds grew, she earned good money and learned to speak English. People, all enchanted by her little feet, liked her. Following her highly successful New York stand, the show toured the country, stopping in many large cities for three or four weeks and was heavily publicized. She met President Andrew Jackson.

As the play unfolds, though, you see a different side of Afong as discrimination against Asians grows in America. She gets Americanized, too, and by the age of 29 she speaks perfect English, smokes and drinks. She does not marry and the show smothers her. Neither she or Atung (secretly in love with her) ever marry. She does not buy a home or settle down. The show is her life. Tired of it, she gets to California as fast as she can when the Gold Rush starts there in 1849. She does not find gold or a better occupation, either.

Legendary showman P.T. Barnum then signs her and she goes to work for him in his New York museum. The museum is jammed with oddballs and freaks and the crowds for the sophisticated and dignified Afong dwindle as the years go by.

Then the play shifts dramatically. Afong leaves the stage and then comes back two years later, five years later, ten years later, all to announce new atrocities against Chinese in China, such as the Opium Wars, the deaths of 150 Chinese workers in the construction of the of the Intercontinental Railroad across the U.S. Chinese are massacred and shot down in U.S. incidents. She mentions the 1871 Los Angeles massacre, in which 500 whites raided Chinatown and murdered 20 there. She also discusses the Rock Springs, Wyoming 1885 massacre, in which white miners attacked Chinese miners and killed 28 and burned down 78 Chinese homes. Afong goes over the details of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in which Chinese workers were a barred from entering the U.S. The Chinese came to America to find heaven and found hell instead. And so, Afong says as she got older, the Asian Americans drifted away from American society and culture and discovered their own in the various Chinatowns of America. That second part of the play is powerful. I never knew half the atrocities the Asians suffered here. The history in the play is considerable and very detailed, sometimes chilling. It is a disturbing history and one that Americans ignored. After all, they got their silver mines and they got their railroad, right?

The theater provides an academic article on Afong Moy by Professor John Haddad of Penn State, Harrisburg, in the play program, but he just covers her arrival. There is little available in books and magazines about her and playwright Suh pretty much makes up the second half of her story so that he can merge it with political and historical events.

The two actors in the play are really impressive. Shannon Tyo is superb as Afong. She carries herself with great dignity, no matter how much bad news she hears or what unfortunate turns her own life takes. She gets soft and she gets angry. She suffers fools badly and, in her audiences, there are plenty of fools. She exhibits both grace and toughness. Daniel Isaac is wonderful as her translator. He gets a few big scenes and a lot of small ones and does all of them well.

You have to admire the play’s director, Ralph B. Pena. It is hard to keep a two-character play interesting but he does, constantly rushing from year to year and scene to scene and keeping Atung and the Chinese Lady interactive through most of the play.

The play tells you a great deal about history and is a well told tale of a woman hardly anybody knows anything about.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company. Scenic Design and Costumes: Junghyun Georgia Lee, Sound: Fabian Obispo, Lighting: Oliver Wason. The play runs through November 18. 

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Freddie Mercury: The Movie

Freddie Mercury was one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived. The British singer with that marvelous voice strutted across stages in his outrageous costumes as the lead singer of the rock band Queen, dazzling the whole world. Their hits, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions” and “Another One Bites the Dust” will live forever.

Mercury and Queen are the subjects of a splendid, engaging new movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, that opened last weekend. It is a biography of Mercury, a man who never quite fit in anywhere except on the stage, picking up his story as a teenager, but it is also a tribute to Queen and their legendary music and concerts, that drew huge audiences and sensational critical review across the earth. 

The film begins with music and ends in a glorious musical finale with Freddie and the band singing their smash hit We Are the Champions at the 1985 Live Aid concert, broadcast worldwide, at Wembley stadium, London (somewhere in the world, any hour of the day, that song is played at a sporting event, whether Premier League soccer in the UK or Little League baseball in the United States).

In between that opening and closing film music lies Freddie’s turbulent life. One night in the early 1970s he stumbled into a conversation with the members of the unknown rock band Queen just after their lead singer left the group. They heard Freddie sing and took him on. He pushed the group, hard, and they finally cut a record and then, after people heard it, were taken on by one of the UK’s top music managers.

Enjoying a little bit of stability, Queen then recorded their classic six-minute operatic song,Bohemian Rhapsody, (yes, the one with the falsetto “Galileo, Galileo, Figaro”) which critics panned and most people said would never even be played on radio or television because it was too long. With Bohemian Rhapsody and other songs, the band had found their sound and went on to worldwide fame.

Queen was one of the most successful bands in music history. Among their biggest hits wereBohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions, Another One Bites the Dust, We Will Rock You, Crazy Little Thing Called Love andSomebody to Love.

They are the second biggest selling group in UK history with 25 million records (the Beatles have 27 million). Bohemian Rhapsody spent an amazing 17 weeks on the charts. In a global 2005 music poll, We Are the Champions was voted the favorite song of all time worldwide.

That is the overall story in Bohemian Rhapsody. The second story, far more powerful, is Freddie’s tale. He falls in love with a young woman and marries her. He is then attracted to men, lots of them. It breaks up the marriage. He can’t let his wife go, though, and has her move into a mansion next door to his mansion. One of his male lovers moves in with him and ruins his career by keeping him way from his friends and getting him to leave the band. In the end, Freddie gets AIDS and dies (he was just 45). It is a movie that is sadder still because just about everybody knows that Freddie died young and it is tough to watch on screen.

Director Bryan Singer has done a superb job of keeping the Freddie Mercury personal story alive and strong within the overall story of the group and all of that majestic music. Singer gets a mesmerizing performance from Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He is outlandish and he is meek, braggadocios and humble. In love with everybody and in love with himself, perhaps too much. Malek makes Freddie a lovable but very complex and moody character. Singer does not go overboard on Freddie’s death, but showcases it as more of a tribute. Freddie was not originally British. He was of Parsi descent and born in Zanzibar. His conservative parents raised him in India. They moved to England when Freddie was a teenager. 

Singer also gets fine performances from Lucy Boynton as Freddie’s wife Mary, Allen Leech as male lover Paul and Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello as Queen’s other band members.

The movie does have its faults. Not enough attention is paid to Freddie’s fans, millions of them, and why they loved Queen so much. There also needs to be a way to place Queen among its competitors, such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elton John. Where did Queen fit into that music universe? The screenplay, by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan sags a bit in the middle of the story and needs to be tightened up.

The movie is a primer in music history of the ‘70s and ‘80s. You learn a great deal about how the music business worked then. I loved the story of the secret deal in which an American music company stole Freddie away from the band. You also learn a lot about how television deals with rock, and how rock music management works, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. The move showcases concert production. How do all those stage hands to their job and how does everybody in a large stadium hear the music so well?

In the theater where I saw the film, packed with people, the entire crowd remained until the end of the long list of credits because next to the credits was real footage of Freddie Mercury singing. He stopped and then everybody got up and left.

About ten years ago, I was on a cruise ship and having dinner with a British family. There was a sixtyish grandmother, fortyish single mom and her 15-year-old teenage son. I asked the son who his favorite all time performer was and he said without any hesitancy, “Freddie Mercury.” I asked his mom the same question and she said, “Oh, Freddie Mercury.” Then grandma, big smile on her face, chimed in, “yes, Freddie Mercury.”

Mercury and his gorgeous voice and stage pizzazz will forever.

Queen- they are the champions. 

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
The Few. The Proud. The Marines. The Murderers?

Something went terribly wrong on the night that rough, tough staff sergeant Donna Caine, a seasoned drill instructor, led her regiment of U.S. Marines on a march through a tidal swamp at Parris Island, South Carolina, to bring the discordant group a little discipline. Five of them, two men and three women, died. It was a tragedy covered by CNN and other networks, focused national attention on Caine and the Corps and damaged the defense Department’s program to further integrate women into the Corps.

The Marines court martialed Caine and her prospects looked grim. Then, suddenly, two crackerjack lawyers were brought in to defend Caine by the grandfather of one of the troops killed. What followed is an intense, winding, twisting fictional courtroom drama, The Trial of Donna Caine, by Walter Anderson, full of heroes and villains, with Caine’s future, and that of the Corps, on the line. The striking play, that opened Saturday at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, N.J., is up there with the military court room film A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. The Trial of Donna Caine is that good.

At the start of the play, smartly directed by David Saint, it appears that Sgt. Caine is guilty. She admitted that she took her men into the tidal basin to bring about unity and misread weather reports. She even had a few sips of a beer with a friend in the Marines prior to the night exercises. Everybody said she did it. So she did it, right?

Not necessarily so. Her lawyers and friends in the Marines dig for information, a really sassy judge tries to help her and the prosecutor and a former State Department official with big political ambitions, starts to make mistakes. Is there something or somebody lurking in the shadow of the Parris Island Marine Corps camp that could help her?

Sgt. Caine is a downright hard, cold nasty officer who does nothing to help her case. Her lawyers, Vincent Stone and his assistant, Emily Ginsberg, who has led a hard life herself, try to befriend Sgt. Caine with no success. Prosecutor Roy Gill hates her. And she admits that she did it.

The play twists and turns in delicious fashion and you never know if Sgt. Caine is guilty or not – until the final minute of the drama. Playwright Anderson has created wonderful, deep characters who continually vie for the attention of the Judge and the audience.

Everybody knows how tough Marine drill instructors are and Caine is one of the toughest. She is by the book all the way. She actually wants to plead guilty just to maintain the image of the Marine Corps.

She looks guilty, despite testimony on her behalf by Lt. Colonel Sandra Eden, a woman who quickly earns the trust and admiration of the audience. There is testimony from Sergeant Major Clayton Williams, a friend of her dad’s. All of her character witnesses have to bow their heads at the end of their time on the stand, though, and admit that she was drinking, she misread the tidal charts and she killed five marines.

But there is always another twist. Why was it that Lt. Colonel Eden knew some highly placed government officials, to whom she told everything about the deaths in late night phone calls? Why does prosecutor Gill mercilessly harass Caine?

The strength of the play is that you never know what is going to happen next and that you just can’t believe that Sgt. Caine screwed up on this deadly night march. What was she thinking? It makes no sense.

Anderson based his play on an actual training disaster. It happened at Parris Island in 1956 and was named the Ribbon Creek Incident. A drill instructor, male, in an effort to give his men more unity, made them take a similar night hike through the swamps. Six drowned. A number of marines, some pretty famous, testified that drill instructors routinely punished their men that way. The deaths caused an uproar in the country and changed training rules.

The play has a lot of history in it. The Ribbon Creek incident is not mentioned in the drama, but there is a lot of dialogue about Marine training and the history of women in the Marines and how they have, and have not, gotten along with the men in the Corps. You learn about post World War II marines and how their rules have changed over the years. At one point, the Sergeant Major is asked a flurry of questions about the readiness of women as Marines and he keeps answering yes. Women do everything the male marines do, and they can take combat jobs, too, although only about 100 of our 186,000 marines have done that.

You get a feel for all of that in the play. In the end, you ask whether her high powered lawyers (William Kunstler types) will get her acquitted. Will sassy Judge Easton turn back all the assaults on her by the prosecution? Will not anybody in the Marine Corps hierarchy take her side?

Director Saint does fine work in this play. He gets impressive performances from Peter Frechette as lawyer Stone, Julia Brothers as Colonel Eden, John Bolger as Gill, Michael Cullen as the Sergeant Major, Ryan George as Jacob Walker, Melissa Maxwell as the Judge and Kally Dulling as Private Colessio. Flor De Liz Perez is exceptional as Sgt. Caine and so is Margarita Levieva as lawyer Ginsberg.

The Trial of Donna Caine is a long, hard look at military justice, chicanery and duplicity. It is also a heart warming look at a good Marine who made a mistake and faces life in prison and yet, time and again, tells all that, in spirit, she was there when the American flag was raised at Iwo Jima.

Semper Fi, baby.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the George Street Playhouse. Set Design: James Youmans, Costumes: Brian C. Hemesath, Lighting: Jason Lyons, Sound: Scott Killian. The play is directed by David Saint. It runs through Nov. 11th.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Charley and His Wacky Cross-Dressing Aunt Startle Merry Old England

Photo: Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

The more things change…

It is 1892 in staid, prim, proper, stiff upper lip England and two Oxford undergraduates, Jack and Charley, want to marry their girlfriends, Amy and Kitty. They are nervous and want a chaperone and, lo and behold, who do they discover is arriving by train that very day but Charley’s aunt from Brazil (“where all the nuts are” she always says), Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez. Perfect. She does not arrive, though and, in a panic, they persuade a very reluctant buddy, Lord Fancourt Babberley (Babbs) to dress up as Donna Lucia so they can carry off their plan.

Babbs, as Donna Lucia, comes out in full, glorious drag and then all hell breaks loose.

Charley’s Aunt, which opened Saturday at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at Drew University, in Madison, N, J. is, for lack of a better word, a real hoot. It is hilarious, wacky, totally absurd and yet, at the core, a tender love story between a large group of people connected to each other in some way. It is a reminder, too, that in 1892 playwrights and actors cared as much about the human spirit, no matter what dress it was in, as they do today.

The trouble in the play, written by Brandon Thomas, is that the boys have to get themselves formally engaged and they want to use Donna Lucia as their vehicle to do so. Amy, especially, needs her because her uncle, the very rich and very strict Stephen Spettigue, whose beard and deep voice gives him a commanding presence wherever he goes, insists on written permission from Donna Lucia, the sudden drag queen chaperone. The romp starts here as Donna Lucia maneuvers to get it.

She has her problems, too, and they are named Stephen Spettigue and Colonel Francis Chesney, Jack’s dad, who is broke. He decides he’ll marry rich Donna Lucia and proceeds to chase her throughout the estate. Old Spettigue also falls in love with Donna Lucia and races after her, too. Donna, Francis and Stephen look like the participants in the Kentucky Derby as they pursue each other.

You can imagine the whirlwind of activity all of this causes as Babbs, a 19 year old guy, has to fend off his two male suitors and, at the same time, rein himself in as all these adorable young women are kissing him and rubbing is arms and hands as girlfriends who think he is good old auntie Donna.

It is a very funny and engaging show and you can see why it ran for four years when it opened in England and had another long run on Broadway in 1893.

In the end, all is well that ends well. The finale is sort of predictable, but everybody waits with bated breath for Babbs to whip off his dress, doff his wig and re-emerge as a guy. Or does he?

The play reminds me of the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot, in which Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress up as women and join an all-girl band. They were successful because they did not camp it up – they played the women straight. It was one of the funniest movies of all time. In Charley’s Aunt, Seamus Mulcahy, as Babbs, does the same thing. He is a guy in a dress, not a guy trying to be a girl. Oh, he adopts a girl’s high-pitched voice and gives little tender nods of his head here and there, but he moves like a guy and walks like a guy. He is uproariously funny when, chased by Chesney and Spettigue, he races around the mansion, feet flying and his hands holding up his dress as he keeps a step ahead of his two middle-aged male pursuers. It works and works well.

In addition to the gifted Mulcahy, director Joseph Discher gets really impressive performances from everybody in the cast. They are just about perfect and seem born to play their roles. John Ahlin is marvelous as old Spettigue, chasing Donna Lucia like a 16 year old schoolboy. David Andrew MacDonald is equally good as Colonel Chesney, who really does not care who he marries, as long as she had a lot of money and is shaken when he meets a woman from his past in act two. The two young men, Jack and Charley, are well portrayed by Aaron McDaniel and Isaac Hickox Young. Amy and Kitty are played well by Emily Kiser and Erica Knight. Sally Kingsford plays Ela, Babbs’ old flame, Peter Simon Hilton is the very laid-back butler, Brassett and Erika Rolfsrud plays the mystery woman. Discher does a fine job of acting as a puppeteer, moving his men and women (and, of course, men as women) about the stage.

Charley’s Aunt is what was known as a drawing room comedy. They were the staples of British theater in the 1880s and 1890s. In them, most of the action takes place in the large drawing room of a mansion. The problem with that genre is that it severely limited the action in the play. This production has that same problem, but the speed with which people tumble about overcomes that. The drawing room style faded in the 1920s, productions of plays like Charley’s Aunt waned, too.

You learn a lot about manners and the lifestyles of the British wealthy in Charley’s Aunt, but you learn little of the history of the 1890s era in England. That is a shame because it was an interesting time when everything in England was changing. The 1890s were the last years of the reign of Britain’s legendary Queen, Victoria. In 1890 there was a horrific underground explosion that killed 176 in Great Britain. It was the era of the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. There was a financial panic that shook England to its core in 1890. All of these events, and more, should have been referred to in the play in some way, but were not.

I don’t know why the Shakespeare Theatre decided to bring back Charley, and his aunt, but they should be applauded for doing so. The play is great fun.

The next time you walk down a street and see a buoyant middle-aged woman coming the other way and say to yourself, “what a lovely lady,” think again!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Scenic Design: Brian Prather, Costumes: Natalie Loveland, Lighting: Matthew E. Adelson, Sound: Steven Beckel. The play is directed by Joseph Discher. It runs through November 18.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster is 200 Years Old this Autumn

Forget the Presidents’ birthdays. This autumn is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic monster novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, the horror story that has scared the wits out of people all over the world as a book, play and film (55 of them)). To honor Shelley, and the big stitched together, flat-headed monster with the bolts in his neck, numerous organizations are staging one of the plays, showing one or more of the films and holding discussion groups that will focus on the Frankenstein book and what it has meant to literature, culture and film.

There are global celebrations all over the world. The Keats – Shelley Association of America is sponsoring “Frankenreads,” in which students discuss the Shelley novel. It has nearly 600 chapters in the U.S. San Jose State University, in Santa Clara, California, has an all year long festival that includes classes, lectures and even an examination of how students can use the monster to learn more about Silicon Valley technology. Stevens Institute, in New Jersey, an engineering college, is studying the Shelley book to explore how the 1818 work talks about the problems of the modern world. Stanford University’s yearlong celebration includes a performances of the play, a film festival, lecture series and an international Health Humanities Conference that explores the moral, scientific, ethical and spiritual dimensions of the monster. The University of Wisconsin at Madison will host a symposium on the book and films next week. Arizona State University has a yearlong series of lectures, classes and films plus a webpage with links to various other Frankenstein festivals. A new, musical version of the play Frankenstein is now playing at St. Luke’s Theater, in New York. Earlier this month, the museum of Modern Art in New York screened Hammer House: A Frankenstein Septet, which included seven films about the creature. Netflix is currently airing a new series, The Frankenstein Chronicles.

The biggest bash of all, Alive! Frankenstein at 200, is being hosted by the prestigious Morgan Library on Madison Avenue, in New York. In a sprawling and engaging exhibit co-sponsored by the New York Public Library, the Morgan has a huge, two gallery show on the Frankenstein legacy, numerous lectures on Shelley and her monster, a gift shop full of monster books, and a Frankenstein film festival. You love monsters? The Morgan Library is the place for you.

Things at the Morgan Library that you never knew about the Frankenstein legacy:

●  the wig worn by Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein is modeled after the hairstyle of ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertari, whose tomb was unearthed in 1912.

●  Little Maria, the girl the monster meets when he frees himself from the Frankenstein mansion in the first movie, was NOT just tossed into the lake by him once, but three times. After the second heave the kid’s pushy stage mother insisted that she be tossed way out into the lake on a third try for a better shot. The director was so appalled at the mother’s insistence and the dreadful toss into the water that he cut the third scene and used the second.

●  As Boris Karloff, who played the monster, lay on the lab table awaiting his coming to life in the initial movie, he was afraid all the elaborate parts of the special effects in the set’s ceiling would fall down on top of him

●  Andy Warhol, yes Andy Warhol, was a big Frankenstein fan and produced a movie about him, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, in 1974.

●  Robert DeNiro starred in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1994.

●  one of the most enthusiastic monster fans was none other than crusty old J.P. Morgan himself, who rushed out and bought a first edition of the Shelley book, annotated by the author.

There are misnomers about the monster. “One of the great errors in perception of the creature is his neck. Those are not bolts (I made that mistake myself in the first paragraph of this story), but electrodes. “Nobody seems to understand that,” said Elizabeth Denlinger, one of the co-curators of the exhibit, at Sunday’s film screening. The other curator is John Bidwell. Denlinger also added that the movie make-up people decided to add excess wax to the creature’s eyes to make him look more formidable.

The Morgan exhibit in New York is marvelous, as enriching as a museum exhibit can get. It has everything, from full length films to short videos to original manuscripts to screenplays to colorful posters. They even added a 19th century science workshop to the exhibit to emphasize the science in the novel and movies. The scenes from Frankenstein movies can see on large screen television monitors. You can listen to the dialogue with headsets. The most interesting parts of the exhibit are the walls filled with lush movie posters, going back to the first sound movie in 1931 directed by James Whale and starring Karloff (the very first Frankenstein film was a 1910 silent). The walls are covered with poster from other films, such as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. There is a French Frankenstein poster, too, plus Classic Comics books of several Frankenstein tales

The posters and numerous prints also illustrate themes of sex and violence. Poster after poster shows a scantily clad young woman being leered at lustily by the monster. The novel, and films, show numerous assaults on women by him. It is a theme that is just as strong today, sadly, as it was 200 years ago in literature and in the early days of film.

The museum also takes a long look at the science of the “enlightenment” age in which Shelley lived. She used a lot of science in her novel and so did filmmakers later. The monster was brought to life in the 1931 movie, set in 1818. A section of the exhibit points out that throughout America and in Europe a good thirty years earlier there were numerous experiments to do exactly that, so Shelley’s electric creation had been practiced already, although unsuccessfully.

It is noted in the exhibit, too, that many people saw the creature not as an ogre, but as a misunderstood victim of technology, medicine and a crazy doctor. “Over the years, thousands of children wrote expressing compassion for the great, weird creature who was so abused by its sadistic keeper that it could only respond to violence with violence. Those children saw beyond the make-up and really understood,” said actor Boris Karloff, who played the monster in several films.

There have been fifty-five movies about the monster in which he starred or played a minor role. These include Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Monster of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein and I was a Teenage Frankenstein. There was even a Frankenstein ’70 and for those who missed it, Frankenstein 80. You want quirky Frankenstein? How about Frankenstein General Hospital and Frankenhooker (yes, about them).

As for the novel itself…

Mary Shelley, the daughter of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and her husband, poet Percy Shelley, were on a vacation with a friend, Lord Byron, in Geneva, Switzerland when the idea of Frankenstein came about. The three, bored, held a contest to see who could write the best horror story. Mary’s Frankenstein won. The two men encouraged her to write it as a book and it was an immediate hit, followed by a succession of plays and movies later. In 1818, it tapped into European fascination with ghosts, haunted old mansions, creepy Gothic literature and mysterious strangers. Shelly wrote it under duress because just prior to the vacation, her husband’s father, in anger, cut him off from any money. Tragedy befell Mary again just a few years later. Her children William and Clara, and then her step sister’s daughter Allegra died. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in a boating accident. 

The Morgan also has a Frankenstein film festival. Movies are shown in its huge, comfortable ground floor auditorium. Future films include The Bride of Frankenstein and Gods and Monsters (Sunday, November 4). There is also a lecture series.

So, if you want a truly historical scare, visit the Morgan or any of the many University events that are all part of a wild birthday bash for the monster with the mostest.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Little Wanda June and the 1960s Tough Guy

Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, was one of Americas most gifted writers, a marvelously innovative playwright and novelist who gave us the brilliant 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five and other books and short stories that were wildly original, tragic humor at its very best. One of his stellar works was the 1970s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June. A revival of it opened last weekend at the Duke Theater on W. 42d Street, New York. It is daffy, absurd, eclectic, bawdy and just wonderful.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is the story of a blustery, egomaniacal national hero, Harold Ryan. In the 1950s, Ryan killed over 200 men in wars and then shot thousands of wild animals on safaris in the Amazon rain forest and Africa. He was the macho man’s macho man, a tough guy with a rifle in his hand, a combination of John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway.

He’s been missing for eight years and declared legally dead. His third wife, Penelope, who still lives in their New York apartment, cannot decide which of two low-key, milquetoast, very non-violent suitors to marry. His son Paul, no he-man like his Dad at all, adores his father and wishes that he could somehow come back to life from deepest Africa. His son and wife think about him all the time since he has mounted heads of big game animals he killed on the walls of the living room and installed doorbells that are the sounds of wild animals and scare the daylights out of everybody. In fact, the play starts – wonderfully so – with the doorbells roaring as the lights slowly flood the stage. You are in the jungle – the Manhattan jungle.

Well, Ryan does come back. He returns from the jungle, where he has lived with none other than Looseleaf Harper, the U.S. Air Force pilot who dropped the Atomic bomb on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The pair exalt each other endlessly but, if the truth be told, they are really sick of each other after living in trees and fighting off malaria together for eight long years.

They suddenly parade into Penelope’s apartment with bravado. Ryan is dumbfounded that his wife is a dating a vacuum cleaner salesman, Herb Shuttle, and Dr. Norbert Woodly, a hippie doctor who plays the violin and walks around with a tiny medical bag while Ryan stomps about with his enormous rifle, scope and all.

The jungle has both worn down and worn out Ryan, the man’s man. He uses crude language, shocks all with the “N” word, throws people out of his apartment for no reason, is rude to his wife and son and does nothing but talk about himself. The jungle has turned him into a semi-Gorilla. He makes Gorilla sounds, hunches over like one and walks like one. He did not conquer the jungle; the jungle conquered him.

The play is set in the 1960s and guns in the U.S. are nowhere near the big issue they are today so this nearly 50-year-old play seems cut right out of the yesterday’s headlines (ironically, there is a lot of the #MeToo movement in the tough, gritty character of Penelope, who refuses Ryan’s sexual advances).

America is different in the ‘60s than the ‘50s but Ryan, in the jungle for so long, does not know it. He and the bumbling Nagasaki pilot do not know what to make of anything. Where are all the post-World War II macho men? The chest thumpers? The tobacco spitters? The cavemen? Ryan is lost.

The humor in the play is delightfully wacky in true Vonnegut style. It begins right at the start of the story when someone says that “this is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing and those who don’t.”

The most surreal part of the entire play is the sudden appearance of bouncy, peppy little blonde girl Wanda June, 9 or 10 years old, who was just run over and killed by an ice cream truck and tells everybody what heaven is like (a nice place, to be sure). She pops in and out of the play and is the delicious icing on the cake for this show, especially when she explains that everybody who is anybody is in heaven, even Adolf Hitler and some of his Nazi thugs. Oh, the Nazis love to play shuffleboard in the clouds.

There is a lot of history in the play. As an example, the Nagasaki pilot does a monologue in which he apologizes for killing all those Japanese people in August of 1945. There are a lot of references to crime in New York City n the late 1960s, when the play was written, and the great fear people had of just walking through a city park at night. There is dialogue about disease and fevers in the jungle and the law on when someone is legally dead. There is an interesting chat about people who kill animals on safaris in the ‘60s, when big game hunters were looked upon far differently than today.

The acting in the play, roughly based on Ulysses’ homecoming from the Trojan war, is superb. Jason O’Connell is titanic as, well, titanic Harold Ryan. He stomps and jumps, yells and recoils. He marches up into the audience and down out of it. Others in this marvelous cast are Craig Wesley Divino as Looseleaf Harper, Finn Faulconer as son Paul Ryan, Matt Harrington as Dr, Woodly, Kareem M. Lucas as Herb Shuttle, Kate Maccluggage as Penelope and Brie Zimmer and Charlotte Wise, who alternate as Wanda June.

Director Jeffrey Wise has done a fine job letting both the drama and the comedy play out on stage; he does not let one overwhelm the other. So, a congratulations to him for this superb play and a congratulations to playwright Vonnegut, too, who is surely up in heaven playing shuffleboard.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Wheelhouse Theater Company. Sets: Brittany Vasta, Costumes: Christopher Metzger, Lighting: Drew Florida, Sound: Mark Van Hare. The play is directed by Jeffrey Wise. It runs through November 29.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Collette: The Movie

Who was Colette, the legendary French writer, anyway? Was she the farm girl turned city Princess? High Society doyen? Brilliant writer? Heterosexual? Homosexual? Bold journalist? Empowered woman of 1905? Happily married? Tragically married? 

Colette, born in 1873, was all of them, plus a few more. She was attractive and, portrayed in the new movie Colette, that just opened, by the lovely Keira Knightly, saucy and sexy as well. The film is the highly entertaining tale of a woman who has burst the chains her husband has tied her up in and shouts out to the world “look out, here I come.” It is also a film about stodgy Paris high society at the turn of the century, the rich, the influential and all those women in 1905 Paris toting her books around wishing they were her.

When we meet Colette in the film she is the very young girlfriend of Willy, a good looking, fast talking, 40ish, exuberant Parisian “writer” with a slick Van Dyke beard who has gargantuan tastes in life and women. They marry and he carries her off to Paris --- to write his books along with others. She is very, very good at it, but her name never appears on any of them. Willy is the “author” of them all. She is one of a stable of writers that do Willy’s work for him. After a while, she bristles at the job, especially when he locks her in a room and orders her to write more books under his name. Colette implores her husband to put her name on her books. He refuses. She rebels.

Throughout the movie, Colette grows and Willy really does not. She becomes well dressed, highly fashionable, hangs out with Paris’ upper crust, is the belle of every ball she goes to and is the Queen of the night. This is all due to Willy, but about three quarters of the way through the film she blossoms on her own and then there is no holding her back.

She is a sexual tornado, too. Early on, her husband chastises her for flirting with a male friend and she looks him right in the eye and tells him that she was not; she was flirting with the friend’s wife. The two women soon tumble into bed together. Then there is another woman, and then another. She eventually finds herself in a long-term relationship with a man who is really a woman and makes it work.

The movie is gorgeous, almost as gorgeous as Ms. Knightly. The cinematography is rich in color, whether farm houses or theaters or Paris night clubs. The story is both a small tale and a big one. There is mercurial dancing on table tops by a gregarious Willy. We see the slow evolution from dainty Colette in demure dresses to a brazen and bombastic Colette parading around Paris in men’s suits.

Knightly is a delight, an absolute wonder, as the quixotic Colette. You have to cheer for her as she tries to get her name on her own books and, at the same time, fear that either Willy or the world is going to flatten her. Dominic West is quite good as the garrulous, nonstop talker Willy. He knows he is deceiving and cheating Colette right from the start and just dismisses the idea, telling her that it is a man’s world and men, and he, can do whatever they want to women. It is cold and stark and true. It causes you to shudder a bit.

The pair are joined by a talented ensemble of actors, all led by skilled director Wash Westmoreland.

The director, who also wrote the movies, and screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, wisely keep the story tight and end it when Colette becomes a music hall performer. To tell her whole story would overwhelm the viewer. As an example, she had a long career as a music hall performer and wrote a novel about it, The Vagabond, that was a best-seller. She was 67 when the Nazis overran France in 1940 and spent the war protecting her second husband, who was Jewish.

In a scroll at the end of the film, you find out about all the novels and short stories she wrote and the literature awards that she won. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Most of her works were about women trying to gain some justice in a man’s world.

Colette, who died at 81, also wrote the novella Gigi. upon which the famous stage musical and movie were made. The film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1958.

If you go to Paris today, you’ll find Collette’s spirit in the streets or clubs somewhere, dancing with a man or woman, singing, preaching, writing best sellers and living life to the full in all the colors of the rainbow.

In the movie Gigi, Maurice Chevalier sang that great song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." Thank heaven for Colette, too.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Remembering the Dreadful 1967 Detroit Race Riots

Myxolydia Tyler and Johnny Ramey

I remember the Detroit race riots in the summer of 1967 clearly. Newark, N.J., near where I live, was torn apart by racial disturbances that summer, too, as were 150 other American cities. Dominique Morisseau’s play Detroit ’67 is the story of a family caught in the middle of the Detroit riots trying to hold itself together as neighborhoods burn, tanks roll down the streets and young people are gunned down by the police, National Guard and U.S. Army. In the five days of rioting in Detroit that July, 43 people were killed and over 1,189 were injured. There were 7,200 arrests and 2,000 buildings were destroyed. 2.509 stores were looted or burned. 388 families were made homeless. Dollar losses amounted to about $80 million. It was one of the worst riots in American history.

It is the perfect backdrop for a riveting play that not only tells a story but sends a loud message, but the message arrives very late on stage at the McCarter Theater, Princeton, N.J., where the play opened last weekend. The first half of the play by Morisseau, a Detroit native, is just dreadful. It is slow moving, full of inane dialogue and centers on the discovery of Caroline, a white woman, beaten up pretty badly, on a neighborhood street prior to the riot. You spend the rest of the play trying to figure out how she wound up in Detroit at all. Why not Allentown, Pennsylvania, that was pretty safe that summer? Worcester, Massachusetts?

Oh, the play is nearly three hours long, and the time goes by s-l-o-w-l-y…

But then, in act two, the play finds its focus, picks up steam and just scalds the audience with its intense, white heat story. If you can last that long, Detroit ‘67 is the play for you.

The story in the play is a simple one. Chellie is a reasonably conservative young black woman pretty happy with her life in Detroit. Her brother Lank is not. He and his buddy Sylvester want to start a new business, a bar, to make their fortune. Chelli scoffs at them.

That’s when Lank arrives with Caroline, the beat up white woman whose background is top secret. She wanders about the stage, walking in circles mostly, as act one stumbles to its end, thankfully.

There is an African American guy (Lank) and white liberal girl, Caroline, subplot, the Chelle is too happy subplot and the Sylester loves Chellie subplot. They all go nowhere in act one.

The action unfolds in act two, when the riot starts. At first, thing move slowly. Chellie’s friend Bunny, a delightful young woman full of enthusiasm, keeps Chellie up to date on the riot. Lank then says he has to go to this new bar they bought to protect it. From here to the finish, Detroit ’67 is pretty powerful.

It is a play whose sound effects help to carry it. The whole story takes place in the house owned by Chellie and Lank, but the riot unfolds around it. You hear the riot in the wondrous sounds effects (sound director Karin Graybash). You hear the chaos, gunfire, explosions and the fearsome rumble of the tanks.

Everything that could be good in a drama happens in act two and everything bad that could take place occurs in act one. The play is full of Motown music, but I cannot figure out why. The Temptations could not stop a tank.

Director Jade King Carroll deserves some of the blame for act one. She should have seen how slowly it moved and cut a good fifteen minutes, maybe 20, from it to speed things up. Her work in act two is much better. The director gets fine performances from all of the actors. Myxolydia Tyler is a burst of energy as Chelli and Nyahale Allie is equally good as friend Bunny. Ginna LaVine is OK as Caroline, but needs some more pep. The men in the show, Johnny Ramey as Lank and Will Cobbs as Sylvester are superb.

The play’s ending is tragic, as you would expect.

Somewhere, either as finale dialogue on stage or a note in the play program, the sad aftermath of the Detroit riot should have been told. Most of the people in Detroit did not prevail as it is suggested in the drama. Today, Detroit is the poorest large city in America ($28,000 average income vs. San Francisco’s average $83,000). It has a 36% poverty rate, highest in the nation. Since 1950, Detroit’s population has dropped by nearly 60% due to the flight of white residents. Unemployment today is about 8.4%, or more than twice the national average. Detroit has one of the highest crime rates in America; its murder rate is more than ten times that of New York. The city has 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the auto industry as plants moved out of the city over the years. Revenue has been tentative. As an example, more than half of Detroit’s property owners did not pay taxes on 2012, dramatically hurting the city’s economic flow. The city recently declared bankruptcy (since ended). Detroit is a mess and that should have been noted. 

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the McCarter Theate, in conjunction with the Hartford Stage. Sets: Riccardo Hernandez, Costumes: Dede M. Ayite. Lighting: Nicole Pearce, Sound: Karin Graybash. The play is directed by Jade King Carroll. It runs through October 28

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0
Midnight for New York’s 1960s Gay Community?

In the 1960s, gay bars in New York City were illegal. They stayed open because of bold owners, large crowds of patrons and police who, bribed, tipped off owners before a raid. It was a rough, problematic, turbulent world for the bars and their gay patrons.

That’s when young singer Trevor Copeland arrived in New York and stumbled into a relationship with pianist and composer Arthur. They became romantic partners and started a musical collaboration. Arthur wrote songs for Trevor and he sang them for audiences. This effort got them jobs as performers at the Never Get, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. They soon developed a two man show, “Midnight at the Never Get” that became popular.

Midnight at the Never Get, a smartly written, enchanting and rich musical with deeply drawn and highly likable characters, that opened last night at the York Theater at St. Peter’s Church at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York, with book, music and lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick is their story. It is a tale told on several levels and each blends into the other. The first story is the love affair between the two men, white hot at first. The second is the story of their club act and the bar. The third is the story of the police crackdown on illegal gay bars in the 1960s, culminating in the infamous Stonewall raid of June 28, 1969, that led to riots, the start of the gay rights movement and a new day for the gay community.

Midnight at the Never Get has a lot of drama in it, especially for anyone who was around in the 1960s and was an eyewitness to the police war on the gay community. The music by Sonnenblick is marvelous and you could pick any famous singer (Sinatra came to my mind) who could have performed the melodious and well-written tunes in the show.

The play, smartly directed by Max Friedman is well-written and at first deceiving. As first, it is what appears to be a dull two man show about guys who met at a bar. It gets deeper and deeper as the story rolls on, though, and very complicated in the end.

Will the two lovers prevail, despite all the hurdles put in their way or, as in many cases, will the musical success of one cause a break up?

There is a lot of history in the play, stories you sort of remember but need to be reminded about. As an example, in the play Arthur wrote a number of songs about a man professing his love for another man. When he had a chance to record them, though, the record company insisted that they be changed to a man loving a woman. Record companies in the 1960s also insisted that lyrics connected to gay life be cut out or, more likely, rewritten slightly to turn the gay love stories into heterosexual romances.

The story of police harassment of gays in bars in the 1960s is told well. The NYPD was obliged to raid gay clubs because they were illegal. Bar owners, tipped off, changed the coloring of lights or clicked lights on and off to warn their gay patrons of a raid. They also stepped men from dancing with each other or displaying any signs of affection.

Historically, most of the gay bars in New York in the 1960s were owned or run by the Mafia. The mob saw the gay clubs as a gold mine because no one complained of conditions there, pretty dismal at times, because it was an oasis from a cruel world. A number of top gangsters ran the clubs and made a nice profit. Until Stonewall, the gangsters knew how to deal with the police, too, and that benefitted gay patrons.

The combination of the police raids on gay bars, organized crime and the fractured relationship between Trevor and Arthur at the end of the play works nicely. You worry not only for the relationship of the two men, but their safety and, in the end, their future.

Director Max Friedman does a superb job of keeping the play running along as an admirable musical and at the same time, a pretty fierce and worrisome drama. He gets marvelous performances from his two stars. Sam Bolen is not only a gifted actor, but a superb singer who not only has a terrific voice but is able to carry off the songs and make them part of the story. His equally gifted partner Arthur (played beautifully by Jeremy Cohen) is the tough guy in the duo, the one who always has to look out for their future. The pair also work together well and you keep hoping that things will work out well for their characters, while at the same time fearing that they will not.

There is a quiet magic to the musical and, as the play rolls on, the audience feels a lot of sympathy for the two male leads, fearful that they will break up and, at the same time, get hurt. There is a touching scene in which Trevor, jailed earlier for his sexual choices, has to calm down a very worried Arthur when the men are held at a police station overnight. Arthur is not as worried for justice for gays as he is having his career ruined by the incarceration.

Time does not run out at midnight, but goes on beautifully, just as the play does.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the York Theater Company, in conjunction with Visceral Entertainment, Mark Cortale Productions, Nathaniel Granor and others. Sets: Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, Costumes: Vanessa Leuck, Lighting: Jamie Roderick, Sound: Kevin Heard. Musical Director: Adam Podd, Choreography: Andrew Palermo,. The play is directed by Max Friedman. It runs through November 4.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:42:19 +0000 0