Saturday, September 20, 2014

Punta Gorda's Got Murals

Punta Gorda is a community that takes pride in its history.  It's also a community that loves its art.  The two are brought together in the work of the Punta Gorda Historic Mural Society.  And I finally had the chance to go on a walking tour to learn the history behind a few of the murals that I pass on almost a daily basis.  There are 28 murals in total, so there's still a lot of walking to be done!

"Life and Times of George Brown" by Michael Vires
"The Life and Times of George Brown" is one of the most recent additions to the city's mural collection.  (There are actually two paintings on this subject, but they count as one mural for purposes of the Mural Society.) It's located on Marion Avenue on a wall in front of the Old Charlotte County Courthouse.

George Brown was an enterprising African-American who at one time owned more than half the land in Punta Gorda, including the land where the mural commemorating his life and work is located.  He is best known for running a shipyard and boat works company and was an early adopter of equal pay for all of his employees.  Mr. Brown's commitment to Punta Gorda was evident in many ways, including a willingness to pay his taxes early on several occasions in order to enable the city to make ends meet.

Videographer David Sussman made a cool time lapse video of artist Michael Vires creating these murals.  To watch the video (and learn a bit more about Mr. Brown), click here.

"Movie Memories" by Michael Vires
Mr. Vires also painted "Movie Memories," a series of three paintings capturing the locals' favorite form of entertainment from the 1920s until the early 1960s.  (If only we had a movie theater in Punta Gorda now!)  This painting captures several aspects of the culture -- the "adult only" balcony, a time when you might be able to afford to buy popcorn at the theater, and the messenger delivering reels of film from the "white" movie theater to the "black" movie theater.  Like most towns in the South, Punta Gorda's history includes segregation.  And so there were two theaters in town that served the different populations.  Both saw the same movies on the same night, with the white audience viewing a reel first while a messenger stood by to bike it over to the black theater.  This mural can be found on the "privacy wall" at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center.

"Postcards in Time" by Jack Reto
In 1917, former President Teddy Roosevelt came to Punta Gorda to do a little fishing. The world's largest manta ray--an 18 footer--was caught off Captiva in 1915 by a man named Jack Cole.  Always the eager sportsman, Roosevelt wanted to best the record.  Roosevelt contacted Cole, who agreed to an outing.  Roosevelt and Cole stayed on a houseboat in Charlotte Harbor near Punta Gorda with five crew members.  The first step was to teach Roosevelt how to throw a harpoon.  (He apparently became proficient quite quickly.)  Roosevelt did manage to spear--and pull in--a 16' 8" manta ray, but Cole's world record remained intact.  To read a story from the 1917 St. Petersburg Times about this adventure, click here.   This painting is one of seven that comprise the "Postcards in Time" mural by Jack Reto.  It is located on the Andrew's Building at 126 Nesbit.

Libby (in front with hat) and her followers
Our tour guide for the evening was Libby Schaefer, and I was surprised to learn that the walk wasn't sponsored by either the Mural Society or the Historical Society.  Libby is "just" a woman who loves to share her knowledge of Punta Gorda's history, especially as viewed through its murals.  So she periodically leads these walks (for no charge!)  The next walk will be at 9:30 a.m., on Saturday, October 11, at 9:30.  The meeting point is Hurricane Charley's.  I am not sure of the exact spot, but trust that if you wander around a bit, you will find Libby and a gaggle of people.  It's sure to be a fun way to kick off your week-end.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Costume Designer Julie Weiss Shares Her Magic

A couple of weeks ago Kathy Grey, my editor at Florida Weekly, called to see if I could attend a talk given by Academy Award-nominated Julie Weiss at Ringling College of Art + Design.  I had a furniture delivery scheduled for the day of the talk, but it wasn't really a hard choice.  Getting a glimpse into the world of costume design easily won out over waiting around for sweaty guys to deliver night stands for my second guest bedroom.

Over the past year, Kathy has coached me about the dos and don'ts of journalism.  One of her pet peeves is when reporters string together a bunch of quotes and call it a story.  It's not typically an issue I have to contend with.  It's often more difficult to get a usable quote than a surplus of gems.  But I found myself scribbling away frantically when I found myself sitting at a desk in a Ringling College auditorium listening to Ms. Weiss.

The article I filed is set out below.  But before you get there, here are a few of Ms. Weiss' pearls of wisdom that didn't make their way into the story.

"When the costume becomes clothing, you know it's the actor becoming the character."

"Imagination costs nothing. You cannot budget it."

"I love dirt."  (This one requires a bit of an explanation.  Designers use dirt and sand to age clothes and add color around sweat stains. How cool is that?)

"We are thieves of other people's memories."

"You don't want the costumes to arrive before the words."  


Julie Weiss

Costume Designer Julie Weiss Shares Her Craft with Ringling Students
By Nanette Crist, Florida Weekly Correspondent

Clothes make the man. Or so said humorist Mark Twain.  

Perhaps nowhere does this statement hold more true than on the big screen. Costumes play a crucial role in an actor’s transformation into his character. They also give the audience visual cues about a character’s personality and the world in which he lives. All without a word having been spoken. 

It is the job of a costume designer to make this magic happen. And Julie Weiss is one of the best. 

Design for Bruce Willis in "12 Monkeys"
From “American Beauty” to “Frida”

While you might not recognize Ms. Weiss’ name, if you’re a moviegoer, you’ve almost certainly seen her work. For the past 25 years, she’s created the costumes for movies as varied as “Steel Magnolias” to “Hitchcock” to “Blades of Glory.” She dressed Selma Hayek and Alfred Molina in “Frida” and Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in “Twelve Monkeys,” receiving Academy Award nominations for her efforts. And did we mention her work on the visually stunning “American Beauty”? The list goes on and on.  

Ms. Weiss recently spoke to an auditorium filled with Ringling College of Art + Design students and community film devotees. And while her talk was punctuated with numerous clips from films on which she worked, she did not take the opportunity to dazzle the audience with stories about the celebrities she’s dressed and the awards she’s won. Instead, she talked about what draws her to the projects she takes on and her philosophy about costume design. 
 
Costume design as storytelling

Perhaps a bit surprisingly for someone whose career revolves around the visual, it’s words that get Ms. Weiss’ creative juices flowing. She finds little more exciting than reading a script and thinking, “What are these words? I want to be a part of them.” 

Design for Selma Hayek in "Frida"
The reason for this enthusiasm is simple. To Ms. Weiss, the costumes are an integral part of telling the story. And when she is intrigued by a story, she is eager to help the audience go along for the ride. 

Take, for instance, the movie “Frida,” a biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The possibilities for costumes to aid in the development of Frida’s character thrilled Ms. Weiss. But before she put pencil to paper, there was work to be done. She researched the politics and culture of Mexico during the first half of the 20th century. She studied Ms. Kahlo’s paintings. She pored over pictures of Ms. Kahlo throughout her life. The vibrant costumes she created reflect Frida’s politics and defiant nature and acceptance of herself for who she was. They embody Frida’s character and helped actress Selma Hayek become Frida. 

Honoring the project

Ms. Weiss acknowledged that it’s only human nature for a costume designer to want her work to be truly seen, perhaps to even be the focal point. But, she said, “If this is your goal, put a brassiere on a tree.”  

Instead, she views costume design as a collaborative effort. “[My] responsibility is to bring the director’s vision to life,” she said. The director, she explained, sees the whole picture in a way that others do not. 

Ms. Weiss repeatedly used the word “honor” when speaking about her work. Her goal is to create designs that honor the director’s vision and the story rather than establish her own signature style. 

And then there’s “Blades of Glory”

Ms. Weiss’ choice of projects tends towards messy stories filled with ambiguity. These tales enable her to pay attention to characters who might otherwise go unnoticed and to provide them with a bit of dignity.  

Even Ms. Weiss, though, sometimes longs to create costumes that go over the top. And so she found herself in 2006 working on the hilarious “Blades of Glory,” a film whose characters would never be described as dignified. The movie stars Will Ferrell and Jon Heder as rival figure skaters who team up to compete as the first male duo in a national figure skating championship.  

A character’s wardrobe is typically a combination of pieces specifically created for the project and items purchased or discovered at a costume shop. For “Blades of Glory,” Ms. Weiss found herself laboriously sewing on the stones in Mr. Ferrell’s and Mr. Heder’s sequin-laden, form-fitting costumes. She says she still has scars on her fingers as a remembrance of the film. She also has an Award for Excellence in a Contemporary Film from the Costume Designers Guild for her work. 

Costume design for opera "Carmen"
Screen versus stage

These days, Ms. Weiss’ name tends to be associated with major motion pictures. She enjoys mixing it up a bit, though, with work for television and the stage. In fact, Ms. Weiss’ mantle bears two Emmy Awards for the 1984 primetime movie “The Dollmaker” and the 1995 mini-series “A Woman of Independent Means (Part 1).” She also earned a Tony nomination for her work in the original production of “The Elephant Man” on Broadway. 

Ms. Weiss answered eager students’ questions about how creating costumes for a stage performance is different than designing for the screen. The most significant challenge, she said, stems from the fact that movies are shot out of sequence. When an actor is available to film, his costumes must be ready, regardless of whether his character appears in the first scene or the last. This makes it difficult to “design between the words,” as Ms. Weiss likes to do.    

Stage productions, on the other hand, progress in a more orderly fashion, with a set schedule for dress rehearsals for the entire cast. And yes, costumes for the stage are somewhat “bigger” than those for film as they are designed with audience members in the balcony in mind. 

It’s a wrap

After years in the trade, Ms. Weiss has come to recognize the moment when an actor and his costume have become one. That’s when you stop designing, she says, and “have a little funeral for all the things you wanted to add.” 

It’s this knowledge—together with her creativity and unerring eye--that makes Julie Weiss an artist in the world of costume design.  It’s also what ensures that we will continue to see her work on screen and stage for years to come. 

 

 


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Art and a Movie at the Ringling: Who the *$&% is Jackson Pollock?

Earlier this summer, the Ringling Museum had a really interesting exhibit on entitled "Intent to Deceive."  The show told the stories of five master art forgers, including how they ultimately were found out.  As a follow-on to the show, the Ringling is hosting a series of "conversations" followed by a movie whose purpose, according to curator of education Maureen Zaremba, is to "virtually take us behind the scenes of the museum."  The first of these evenings focused on art authentication.

Maureen Zaremba and Beth Mattison
Zaremba and Beth Mattison, this year's Selby Fellow for Education, kicked off the evening by giving an overview of the ways in which art can be authenticated.  The somewhat surprising fact is that there is no real system by which works of art are authenticated.  Instead, museums, galleries and collectors use a triad of methodologies to determine whether an artwork was created by the artist in question.

The first of these methods is looking at the work's provenance; i.e., establishing the line of ownership from the hands of the artist to the current owner.  (As they spoke about provenance, I found myself thinking about how the provenance of "antique" furniture was faked in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and wondering how often disreputable art dealers engage in similar practices.) One of the ongoing areas of research relates to the provenance of artwork that might have been stolen by the Nazis during WWII.  The Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal is one such project.  Its objective is to provide a researchable site covering all works in U.S. museums that changed ownership in Continental Europe during the Nazi era.  Needless to say, a huge task, and one that the Ringling has participated in.

The second means of authentication is connoisseurship, essentially an art expert putting his seal of approval on a work of art as genuine.  It reminds me of the Supreme Court's test for obscenity.  "I know it when I see it."  Of course, in this case, the connoisseur has usually spent a lifetime studying and writing about the artist in question.

An Amptek x-ray spectometer in use to examine a wall painting
The final means of authentication falls under the broad heading of scientific analysis.  These days, the use by a forger of materials that weren't available during the period the real artist was alive can lead to his downfall.  Other fakes have been detected using computer analysis to look at brushstrokes at a microscopic level to determine if they are consistent with those in other works by the same artist.  The technology available to assist in these inquiries is constantly growing and changing.  Zaremba shared that the Ringling previously used the x-ray machine at Sarasota Memorial Hospital to take a closer look at some of the works in its collection.  This tool is no longer available because x-rays, like so many things, have gone digital.  If you want to read a bit more about the use of an XRF spectrometer in analyzing art and architecture, click here.

Zaremba and Mattison then gave us a bit of background about the cast of characters we would encounter in "Who the *$&% is Jackson Pollock?"   The story revolves around Teri Horton, a California truck driver who purchased a larger than life painting from a thrift store for $5 to cheer up a friend.  When a high school art teacher suggested that the painting might be a Jackson Pollock, Teri's reaction led to the title for this documentary.

Teri Horton now knows who Jackson Pollock is.  
In the film, we meet Horton and some of her friends and family.  (Trust me when I say that Horton is quite colorful.) We also meet some of the people who have been involved in the authentication debate.  There's Thomas Hoving, a "professional connoisseur" who emphatically concludes the work is not a Pollock.  (The movie doesn't reveal that his area of expertise is not Pollock, or even modern art, but medieval art.)   There's Paul Biro, the "forensic" authenticator who uses science to reach his conclusion that the painting is a Pollock.  (Once again, the movie doesn't tell the backstory that Biro was implicated in a number of lawsuits relating to art fraud.) And we are introduced to the International Foundation for Art Research, a "nonprofit educational and research organization dedicated to integrity in the visual arts" that authenticates artwork but doesn't disclose the individuals who were involved in the authentication process.  (Purportedly, this is to protect against lawsuits, but it seems a bit odd to me that people are not willing to publicly stand behind their judgments.)  It's an entertaining movie that kept me interested until the very end.  And while I could have watched the movie in the comfort of my home, it was much more fun to share the experience with an auditorium filled with art lovers.

The final installment in the Ringling's series will give the audience a peek into the ways museums protect their collections from would-be thieves.  On Thursday, August 28, at 6:00, Ringling staff will talk about security at the Museum, with a screening of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo) to follow.  Admission is only $5.  Perhaps I'll see you there.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Go West, Young Women

Okay, I know that (i) the reference to going "west" doesn't traditionally mean west of Edinburgh and (ii) technically speaking, Wendi and I might not qualify as "young," but still this post title kept coming to mind.  And so I went with it for this quick travelogue of our three days on the road to Callendar, Oban and Dundoon before we started our EdFringe adventure.

Stirling Castle
The Castles -- Stirling Castle is one of largest and most important castles in Scotland, but I found its history a bit mind-numbing (and only in part because we went there directly from the airport).  The castle "changed hands" eight times in the period from 1296-1342.  William Wallace (popularized by Mel Gibson--in the days when we liked Mel Gibson--in the movie "Braveheart") is memorialized in the Castle as one of the leaders of the First War of Scottish Independence in 1297.  And Stirling Castle is where Mary, Queen of Scots ruled in the 16th century.  (She was six days old when she ascended to the throne.  Regents ruled until she was of maturity.)  Even this small amount of history is giving me a headache, so I guess it wasn't the jetlag.

Wendi at Inverary Castle
Inverary Castle was much more my style.  First of all, I always love a good turret.  Second, the castle is essentially the family home of the Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell, and was much more intimate.  Family pictures of the current (13th) Duke of Argyll, Torquil Ian, and his lovely wife (nee Cadbury of the chocolate Cadburys) and their three children are scattered throughout the rooms, and one wing of the castle is off-limits to visitors as they actually live there part of the time.  Perhaps a bit surprisingly, my favorite room in the castle housed the armory collection, which included all sorts of polearms artfully displayed.   If you're a fan of "Downtown Abbey," the castle might look familiar to you, as the setting of Duneagle Castle.  There were photos in the castle of a holiday episode filmed there.
Waterfall at Puck's Glen

Best walk -- Scotland is, of course, known for its walks, and our walk in Puck's Glen was incredibly beautiful.  I should have been counting the number of waterfalls that we saw.  It was actually quite magical, and the weather even held out for us.

Best weird Scottish food that I didn't try -- I'll admit it.  I did try a tiny bite of haggis (a "pudding" containing sheep's heart, liver and lungs), and it wasn't the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth.  (Interestingly, many places had vegetarian haggis.  I don't quite understand how that works.)  One night Wendi and I went to a local fish and chips place and a kid at a nearby table had a half-circle of indistinguishable fried food.  When we asked the waitress what it was, she told us it was pizza that had been breaded and deep fried.  As she said, "We Scots like to fry everything!"

Scottish Highland Cows
Best roadside stop -- It seemed like everywhere we stopped, we saw pictures of this wonderful animal that made us smile.  Really, how do they see?  I finally asked someone what it was and learned it is a Scottish Highland cow.  I knew our prospects of spotting one on our travels were slim, but Wendi told me to shout out if I did.  We were driving along when I suddenly spied one and cried out, "Cow, cow!"  We pulled a u-turn and drove right up into a farmer's driveway to get up close and personal with these brilliant beasts.

Best sign --  We've all seen deer crossing signs (how do they know that's where to go?), but this is the first time I've seen a sign warning to watch for elderly people.   I have so many questions about these signs that remain unanswered.  Why are these signs popular in the UK but nowhere else?  How do they determine where to place them?  What I did find out is that the image for the sign came from a children's competition held in 1981 and that there are people who now take offense at the signs because being old doesn't equate to being hunched over and walking with a cane.  (Political incorrectness comes in all shapes and sizes.)  All I know is that we found the sign hilarious and it caused us to pull over almost as quickly as we did for our Scottish Highland cows.  
Near Glencoe

Best view -- The Scottish Highlands were so different Florida that they were a real treat. The drive from Callendar to Glen Coe was particularly beautiful, and we found ourselves pulling off the road repeatedly onto vista points to enjoy the view.  If we'd had more time, it would have been great to spend some time hiking in this area.  But there was theater to be seen, so we soaked up the view and were on our way. 

And so concludes this edition of "how I spent my summer vacation."  I'm already plotting my return....


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

5 Star Show at EdFringe: SmallWar by Valentijn Dhaenens

While I didn't know what to expect from the shows at EdFringe, I knew what I was hoping for.  When I went to WorldFest at Venice Theatre earlier this summer, there were two styles of theater that really grabbed me:  multi-media shows (like Argentina's "Our Daily Bread") and theater concerts in which the lyrics of familiar songs are used in unexpected ways (like Danish Black Box Pangea's "POP! )  We got both, along with a heartbreaking story and superb acting, in Valentijn Dhaenens' "SmallWar."

The stage had a screen on it, behind which was a table with a phone and what turned out to be a hospital bed.  As the lights went down, a nurse (Dhaenens) wheeled the bed onto the stage.  It's a short bed--size appropriate for a small child--but all that is needed for this soldier who has lost his arms, legs and ability to speak (but not to think).  The soldier is a projected image of Dhaenens.

The nurse begins to sing the words from Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" in a haunting voice:

There was a boy,
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and seas...."

SmallWar (photo credit to Murdo Macleod for the Guardian)
Over the next hour, the nurse tends to her patient while telling stories--interspersed with song--about former patients she'd worked with.  At one point she tells us about the extent of Dhaenens' injuries.  She sings the words to "Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking."  While created for a different context, they work incredibly well for a nurse dealing with death and devastating injuries:

"Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That's the time you must keep on trying..."

Periodically, the phone would ring and a projected image of Dhaenens would rise from the bed and answer it.  (Each image seemed to represent a different soldier.)  We learn about these soldiers' lives and the sacrifices they made by leaving home to go to war.  There are children born who they'll never see and parents lost.  There's a Dear John letter (accompanied by "Are You Lonesome Tonight?")  By the end of the show, the stage is filled with four standing soldiers, the bed-ridden patient and the nurse.
It was a hard play to watch, yet it was also beautiful and creative and incredibly moving.  It was a theatrical experience I will never forget, and the perfect ending to our EdFringe experience.  My rating:  5 stars (unforgettable, creative, I loved it)


Monday, August 11, 2014

Taking Chances at EdFringe

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was established more than 60 years ago as an alternative for performers who were not accepted into the Edinburgh International Festival (a festival that continues to co-exist today with EdFringe).  While some of the established venues (like the Traverse and Paines Plough at Summerhall) curate their shows, the festival is open to anyone who can secure a venue.  Hence, the "fringeness" of many of the performances.  While I felt that some of the more experimental theater we saw fell flat, a few shows struck a chord.

Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland --It wasn't until the third day of our EdFringe experience that we went to a show that gave me an emotional wallop.  Schizophrenia deals with a mother's and son's respective psychotic breaks.   I expected it to be an intense show, and it was.

My view of the stage during first half of performance
The theater was broken into two sides, with a wall with a center door across the middle of the stage.  The audience was asked to divide into two groups and told that we would switch sides midway through the show, with the action being replayed.

It wasn't long before a man wearing hospital scrubs and dress shoes wandered into our room.  He had a totally vacant look on his face, and I could feel his anxiety.  Who was he?  A doctor?  A patient posing as a doctor?   Before long another man joined him, and their dialogue revealed that that the second man was a patient.  I continued to be unclear, though, about the identity of the first man.  Although he was asking psychiatrist-like questions, I began to wonder if he was a visual manifestation of another identity of the patient.  (Having now spent some time online, I realize that schizophrenia is actually different from dissociative identity disorder.  Schizophrenics often suffer from delusions and hallucinations--frequently auditory in nature--while patients suffering from dissociative identity disorder have multiple personalities.  This knowledge would have altered my perceptions of the show somewhat, but not its impact.)

While the story unfolded, we could hear bits and pieces of what was happening on the other side of the wall. Sometimes an actor from one side made a cameo appearance in the other side of the story.  Two of the actors shared a strong resemblance (both had shaved heads and similar features and were the same height).  It was disconcerting, and powerful.  I thought about how the staging--with multiple voices and the split between the audience and the actors--reflected the multiple personalities/delusions of schizophrenics.

As promised, midway through the show, we switched sides.  The show began from the top, but now we were seeing the mother's side of the story.  I could hear the son's story unfolding once again on the other side of the wall.  Both seemed different than they had in the first half.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there's no happy ending in this show.  In fact, there was no resolution at all. Wendi and I were both a bit unclear as to what had transpired.  Nonetheless, I was taken with the ability of the show to drop me into the world of a psychiatric patient.   And the ensemble cast was top notch.

My rating:  4 1/2 stars (I found it engrossing and creative and highly recommend it, but too confusing to warrant a full 5 stars)

Michael Puzzo
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit -- After seeing Theatre on a Long Thin Wire, my expectations for this show had been lowered significantly.  Similar to Long Thin Wire, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is billed as having "No rehearsals.  No director.  No boundaries."  Happily, that is where the similarities between the shows end.

In each performance, a different actor reads the script cold.  Our reader was Michael Puzzo, a New York playwright who has a show in the Festival.  He was brought onto the stage by the producer and handed a sealed manilla envelope.  He opened it, removed the script, sat down in the chair, and began to read (stage directions and all).  He was terrific.

I don't want to divulge much about this show because I hope you will have the chance to see it some time.  (It has been performed around the world in 15 languages, so you might actually get the opportunity.)  I will say, though, that there's audience participation that lends a quality of lightheartedness and fun to a show that is ultimately very political.  We learn that the author, Nassim Soleimanpour, is an Iranian who cannot obtain a passport because he refuses to do the compulsory two years of military service.  Soleimanpour says, through the lips of our reader, that it "tastes like freedom to be able to travel to other worlds through [his] words" and that "it helps [him] feel we are connected."

As the tone of the play shifted, so did the demeanor of the audience.  The laughter that dominated the beginning of the show fell away, and you could have heard a pin drop as the play turned both personal and overtly political.  (The respectfulness of this audience was representative of audiences throughout the Festival.)

It was a thought-provoking performance whose use of a allegory (with audience participation) balanced out the intensity of the message.  My rating:  5 stars (wonderful, unusual, I loved it)


Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Night of Laughter at EdFringe

This year's EdFringe offers more than 3,000 shows (almost 50,000 performances).  To say that it was difficult to decide which shows to see--even with the guidance of Guardian arts critic Lyn Gardner--is an understatement.  So it came as no surprise when we saw a show that either Wendi or I (and sometimes both of us) thought was a stinker.  And many of the shows I awarded 4 or 5 stars to in our finely honed rating system were well done but dealt with serious subjects or required considerable analysis to try to figure out what had actually happened.  And so it was a treat to see back-to-back laugh out loud shows one evening.

Lotto's "Nativity" (1523)
Hannah Gadsby: The Exhibitionist -- Gadsby is an Australian comedian who was billed as "bringing her love of art into the prime time with a look at portraits, propaganda and show offs."   How could I resist?  

We learned at the outset that Gadbsy had studied art history and curatorship in Australia (which she recognized was chuckle-worthy in and of itself).  She then offered us a series of "unnecessary observations" about a variety of paintings and photographs with an accompanying slide show.  

Take, for instance, Lorenzo Lotto's "Nativity."  Your eye is drawn to Mary and Joseph looking adoringly at the baby Jesus.  What you might not notice is the crucifix in the background of the painting.  "Isn't that a bit insensitive?" Gadsby asked. 

Goya's "Portrait of the Duchess
of Alba" (1797)
She later shared Goya's famous "Portrait of the Duchess of Alba."  Not to put words in the sitter's mouth, but it does seem--at least to Gadsby--that the Duchess is inordinately excited about her new shoes.  

Gadsby segued into a showcase of family portraits with hilarious commentary.  (The inspiration for the show was her mother's gift of a shopping bag filled with her pictures of Gadsby.  While she is happy to have them, she did wonder what motivated her mother to decide that she didn't need those memories any more.)  My favorite was a picture that she claimed to be the only one of her as a baby, a shot that cut her off mid-face.  Her thoughts?  We'll never know if she was a cute baby, but she was definitely long.

My score:  4 stars (I loved it and highly recommend it)

Matt Tedford as Maggie
Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho:  Wendi and I generally avoided shows about UK political issues/personalities (like the upcoming Scottish independence vote).  It's hard enough to understand what's going on in our own political system, much less someone else's.  But people were abuzz about how much fun Maggie Queen of Soho was, so we decided to give it a whirl.  After all, how often do you get the chance to see a drag queen impersonating a former prime minister?

This high energy show had us in stitches from start to finish.  A sell-out crowd piled into the Assembly Garden theater to the inevitable sound of the Village People's "YMCA."  Everyone was dancing in their seats when Maggie took the stage, accompanied by her two shorty-short wearing male sidekicks.

The show was part musical revue, part comedy revolving around the issue of Section 28, a British law that prohibited the promotion of homosexuality--or homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship"--in schools.  (The law was repealed in 2000.)   The use of songs in the show was brilliant.  Perhaps my favorite bits were at the beginning when Thatcher mentioned the topics that would not be discussed that evening.  Single parenthood (to the tune of Ace of Base's "All That She Wants [is another baby]") would be left for another day.  So would the war in the Falklands ("Don't Cry for Me, Argentina").

Bananarama's lyrics in its ever-popular (???) song "Venus" -- "She's got it, Yeah, baby, she's got it"  -- were reflective of the sentiment of the house.  Matt Tedman does, indeed, have it in his portrayal of Maggie Queen of Soho.

My score:  3 1/2 stars (really enjoyed it and recommend it)