Saturday, July 25, 2015

EdFringe, Here We Come!

With 52 shows booked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (and a few slots left to fill), there's a lot of theater in my future. Without doubt, there will be some losers. (The good news is that most shows are 60-75 minutes, so the pain of a bad show doesn't last for long.) There will be some winners as well, though, and a couple of shows that make a real impact are worth sitting through a lot of so-so theater.  Here are the descriptions of some of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing .
"Hair Peace"
Hair Peace - When Victoria competed in beauty pageants for a previous show a hairdresser advised she wear hair extensions. Freaked out by wearing a piece of somebody else's body she embarked on an extraordinary adventure to find whose hair this was. Victoria's boundless curiosity takes an audience on a serendipitous journey around a world in miniature. There's a baddie, a Russian fortune teller, an unbelievably expensive wedding, a Celebrity Big Brother contestant, forensic crime scene investigations and hair, lots of hair. The outcome is a true story about the search for three strangers from distant lands connected by DNA. How could Wendi and I resist? 

"Where Do Little Birds Go?"
Where Do Little Birds Go -  This one-woman play tells the story of Lucy Fuller, an 18-year-old girl abducted by the Kray twins in 1960s London. Based on a true story, we follow Lucy's journey from small-town teenager to London sex worker.   I know it's a bit dark, but the show won the People's Choice award at a curated theater festival in London earlier this year.  Plus--true confession time--while my tastes these days tend more towards literary fiction, I've read more than my share of serial killer books.

Butterfly - A striking adaptation of Madame Butterfly, exploring themes of love, loss and hope. Told without words, this haunting piece uses visually poetic narrative, handcrafted puppets and a beautiful score to tell the tale of Butterfly, a kitemaker.  While the idea of theater without words might sound a bit strange, I saw a wordless show at an international community theater festival at Venice Theatre last year that was mesmerizing.  If this is half as compelling, it will be a treat. 

"Little Thing, Big Thing"
Little Thing, Big Thing - An ex-con and nun are chased across Ireland for a roll of film... why the bleedin' fuss? Martha and Larry take a high octane jump into the world of international energy skullduggery, awakening passions they thought were dead.  This show caught our eye in part because one of the actors and the theater company have been the previous recipients of Fringe First awards from the Scotsman newspaper. 

The Sunset Five - Faced with losing their beloved watering hole, a pub quiz team stage a casino heist. Hailing from the rundown seaside town of Chipworth, this band of very ordinary misfits come together in an attempt to pull off something truly extraordinary. Think Hot Fuzz meets Ocean's Eleven.   I feel like we're cheating a bit with this one since it's not a new show.  UK Guardian theater critic Lyn Gardner (whose recommendations we rely on heavily) says the show is "full of vim and great music." 

"Jonny and the Baptists"
Jonny and the Baptists: The End is Nigh - Last year, Jonny accidentally told his four-year-old niece that climate change would end the world. To stop her crying, he and Paddy promised to fix it. They really tried very hard…  Last year's Every Brilliant Thing, a solo show starring Jonny Donohoe, was one of my favorites and holds a special place in my heart.  How could I miss Donohoe's return with this musical comedy? 

I'm not planning to blog while I'm away (when would there be time???), but you can follow the fun on Twitter if you're interested.  My exceedingly clever handle is @Nanettecrist17.  And I'll be sure to report back on how these shows held up to my expectations.  I'm hoping for at least a 50% hit ratio! 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The "Hunger Game" series aside, I'm not much for dystopian novels. Why thrust myself into such a world when the worries of day-to-day life are quite enough?  Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven" has been on my "to read" list, though, since I first heard about it at the 2014 BEA Editors' Buzz Panel. Once I started reading, the book grabbed me and didn't let me go until I had reached the last page. 

The story begins with the onstage death of a Shakespearean actor during a production of "King Lear."  And while that's sad, the tragedy lurking in the wings is much worse.  A pandemic is sweeping the globe, and within weeks the vast majority of the world's population will be dead.  For those who survive, civilization reverts to a world without electricity or gasoline or phones or the internet.  One of the book's early chapters is "an incomplete list" of memories of a former world:  "No more diving into pools of cholorinated water lit green from below.  No more ballgames played out under floodlights...No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one's hand...No more flight.... no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position... No more social media...No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room..."

We join our characters in Year Twenty. (Time is now marked in post-collapse years.) Mandel describes what's happened in this way:  "There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels."

But there's one group that continues to wander -- the Traveling Symphony.  The musicians and actors crossed paths in Year Three and now journey from settlement to settlement, bringing Shakespeare and music to the world.  The reason for their travels is simple: "Because survival is insufficient." (And yes, this is a quote from Star Trek if there are any Trekkies out there. This is just one way Mandel tips her hat to the many forms art and culture can take.)  While the Traveling Symphony represents the importance of the arts in our lives, its travels are also a clever way to show us how different people live in the post-apocalyptic world. 

The book takes readers between the past and the present, with a focus on the Shakespearean actor who dies at the beginning of the story and the people in his orbit. I found myself equally engrossed in the stories of today's world where paparazzi stake out stage doors and the envisioned future where every stranger is a potential source of danger. 

There's much to talk about in "Station Eleven," which Emily St. John Mandel calls "a love story to the extraordinary world in which we live." (Click here to read an interview with the author.)  For readers in our area, Copperfish Books' book group will discuss this 2014 National Book Award Fiction Finalist on August 13th.   Regardless of whether you are a solo reader or part of a group, "Station Eleven" is a book worth seeking out. 


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Canvas for a Cause

Intimidation personified

To the best of my recollection, the last time I picked up a paintbrush to do anything other than slap some paint on a piece of furniture was when I was in elementary school.  And so it was with great trepidation that I signed up to paint at Canvas for a Cause, a collaborative fundraiser between the Visual Arts Center and AMIKids/Crossroads.  Seriously, is there anything more intimidating than a white canvas that you're expected to fill?

Bev with her painting

The wanna-be artists were set up in the VAC's galleries and led through the process by instructors Beverly Yankwitt and Kathleen Kelly.  Knowing that Bev is primarily an abstract painter, I pulled a few strings and got my group assigned to her room.  I figured the less representational my work had to be, the better.  (This is not meant to demean in any way the beauty and power of abstract art.  As Bev noted in her preamble to the evening, it is actually more important for abstract art to follow the principles of design.  There is, however, less drawing involved.)

With our "palettes" (okay, plastic plates) readied with red, white and blue paint, Bev told us to start from the top with the blue.  From there, it was a free for all.  It seemed I barely had any paint on my canvas before she said we should move on to the red.  What???!!!  It's possible I was spending too much time enjoying the yummy food (made by Event Elements), but I suspect that my desire to get it "right" was more to blame.  (Note: Check out how much work Jane Patton--in the row behind us--has done on her painting. Of course, she's a real artist, but still.)

Time flew, and I amazingly didn't even notice the spectators who were watching our flags unfurl on our canvases.  I particularly enjoyed tapping the paintbrush against my finger to get the white specks (stars?) on the painting. Of course, I had anticipated carefully placing each little speck of paint on the canvas with one of the smaller brushes.  Can you say "type A personality"??? 

Most people had finished up and moved on to socializing by the time Janice, Kathy and I were ready to declare our works done.  And while I certainly didn't miss my calling, I have overcome my fear of participating in a paint party. And who knows?  Maybe I'll even get myself to one of the monthly Corks 'n' Canvas nights at the Visual Arts Center.  Good, bad or indifferent, there is something magical about the creative process. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Familiar Names at 2015 EdFringe

I don't know why I expected the planning for Edinburgh Fringe Festival to be simpler this year.  Sure, Wendi and I know more about the lay of the land, so it's easier to figure out if we have the time to run between venues to catch the next show. (Last year there was one time we had to literally sprint a few blocks.)  But we're staying longer this year -- ten days of theater rather than six -- and the choices are mind-boggling.  Happily, there are a few familiar names in the 400+ page program to jumpstart our planning.

Two of my favorite performers from last year are back with what promise to be memorable shows.  The first is Valentijn Dhaenens, whose Small War was one of the most compelling and moving pieces of theater I've ever seen.  It's a show I would go back to see in a heart beat. (Click here to read about Small War, the story of an injured soldier and his nurse.  Both characters were played brilliantly by Dhaenens.) This year's show, Pardon/In Cuffs, takes on the subject of a criminal and his relationship to the justice system.  I expect it to be similarly intense and thought-provoking. 

Trygve Wakenshaw: Nautilus
Then there's Trygve Wakenshaw from last year's Kraken.  (Click here to read about this hilarious show, during which I was treated to a kiss and a naked man--not to be confused with a kiss BY a naked man.)  This year's show is called Trygve Wakenshaw: Nautilus, and that's about as descriptive as it gets. The program promises "one of the most fall about, wet yourself laughing hours at this year's fringe." I can't wait to see what Wakenshaw has in store for us!

Like last year, Wendi and I are using UK theater critic Lyn Gardner's thoughts about what to see as a guide. I was quite surprised to find a recommendation of I Am Not Myself These Days, an adaptation of Josh Kilmer-Purcell's book by the same name. Josh Kilmer's father and stepmother live in Punta Gorda and I met Josh and his husband Brent Ridge when they were town. If Josh's name sounds vaguely familiar to you, you are probably a reality TV show junkie.  Josh and Brent had a show for two seasons called "The Fabulous Beekman Boys" about their transition from life in NYC to life on a farm in Beekman, New York. The "boys" also won "Amazing Race" in 2012, so their lives are pretty interesting (not to mention very public).  The book/show is the story of an earlier, more difficult time in Josh's life when he worked as a drag queen while struggling with alcoholism and a dysfunctional relationship. 

Citizen Puppet
I'm also looking forward to seeing Blind Summit's Citizen Puppet.  The group performed last October at the Ringling International Arts Festival, and I fell in love with Moses, the puppet who starred in The Table.  (Click here to read about that show, which was an award-winner at an earlier Fringe Fest.)  The play tells the story of a giant who fell from the sky from the perspective of a cigarette smoking grandmother puppet.  I know it sounds out there, but I am in for any show by a group that made me double over in laughter during its play about Moses and a Passover seder.

Last year we saw 36 shows in six days.  Doing the math, that would translate into 60 shows during our ten day stay this August.  Four down, 56 to go.  We're in the process of booking about 40 more shows now.  I'll report back before we head over on some of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing.  I can't wait. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Reborning" at Urbanite Theatre

I admit to going into Urbanite Theatre's "Reborning" with a bit of trepidation.  The show is about an artist who makes hyper-realistic dolls and a customer anxious to recreate her past.  Hmmm.  Not a description that would typically make me think, "I must see this show."  And the ad for "Reborning" with its picture of a doll that I mistook for a real baby kind of freaked me out. But Dorrit and I had our tickets in hand, so we headed off to Sarasota to find out what this show was all about.

When we entered the tiny theater, I immediately noticed that the guy sitting in front of me was holding a baby.  Upon further study, I realized that it was not an infant at all, but a doll.  (I know, I should have been onto this by now!)  I had to find out what the story was.  Anthony Spinelli is a jeweler by day who sculpted the silicone "Rebecca" as a prototype. Completely apart from Urbanite's staging of "Reborning, Spinelli discovered that hyper-realistic dolls can go for big bucks (up to $15,000) and decided to have a go at it.  Four months later, Rebecca was "born."  He let me hold her, and the moment she was in my arms I began rocking her as if she were a real baby.  It was just a natural instinct after being given a 9 1/2 pound sculpture whose little hands had all the wrinkles of a real baby and whose eyes looked up at me engagingly. (For the record, Dorrit had the same reaction when she held her.)  The only "issue" with Rebecca is that her coloring is a bit off.  Spinelli agreed that he had been a bit too liberal with the white paint when working on his creation. The skin under Rebecca's skull cap, though, is the rosy color of a healthy infant, and he plans to go with a more natural tint for his next "baby." This chance encounter truly set the stage for a powerful evening of theater. 

The play opens with heavy metal music blasting and the smell of a burning joint in the air.  Kelly (played to perfection by Megan Rippey) leans over a doll with a pair of tweezers in her hand.  The disturbing image of a single eye on which she is meticulously placing a set of eyelashes is projected on the screen above her.  Kelly's work is interrupted by a buzzer.  Emily, a customer, has dropped by a day early to pick up her doll.  Kelly rushes around spraying room freshener and changing the music to Brahms' soothing lullaby to create a nursery vibe. 

Over the next 90 minutes, we learned both how Kelly came to create "reborn" babies and what drove Emily to seek her out. As with Urbanite's production of "Chicken Shop," I found myself engrossed in the story and almost breathless at times from its intensity.  The acting was superb (something I am rapidly coming to expect from Urbanite). The staging was terrific, too, and its use of the overhead screen gave the audience the chance to see the artistic process through Kelly's eyes.  Overall, a top notch production. 

"Reborning" is playing through July 5th, so there's still time for theater lovers to take in this show. 

Next up at Urbanite is "Isaac's Eye" by Lucas Hnath. Hnath blends history and fantasy in this tale envisioning what drove a young Isaac Newton to explore the relationship between light and optics by inserting a needle "between my eye and the bone, as near to the backside of my eye as I could."  It promises to be another compelling night of theater.  I can't wait. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series at MOMA, Part 2

Seeing all 60 panels of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series in one place makes for a great exhibit in and of itself. MOMA has taken the show to a different level, though, with the inclusion of multi-media components that enhance the viewer's experience and an exhibit website that is truly phenomenal.

After taking in Lawrence's series, I crossed the threshold to a small room featuring music from Harlem in the 1930's. Louis Amstrong's "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" was playing, and I realized how easy it is to listen to music without really hearing the lyrics or thinking about their meaning. Here's a sample from "Black and Blue":

I'm hurt inside, but that don't help my case
Cause I can't hide what is on my face
How will it end? Ain't got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

MOMA has thoughtfully provided a cushioned bench where you can sit and take in the musical selections. Other songs include Fats Waller performing "African Ripples," Bessie Smith with "Gimme a Pigfoot" and Joshua White with "Jim Crow Train." For the complete Great Migration playlist, click here.

For a tie-in with the literary arts, MOMA commissioned ten contemporary poets to write poems in response to Lawrence's Migration Series. (I love our local Art Poems collaboration between artists and poets, so I was all over this aspect of the show.)

Panel 10
Poet Rita Dove was inspired by Panel 10 of Lawrence's series, which is simply entitled, "They were very poor." 

SAY GRACE by Rita Dove

Got a spoon
Got a pan
Got a bucket for the scraps

Got a nail to hang our things on
A wish
An empty sack

Dear Lord bless our little bit
This table
Our beds

Dear Lord who made us
And the world
Now can we raise our heads

The website includes audio links to the poets reading their works, which adds yet another dimension.  To read more of the Migration Series Poetry Suite, click here.

Panel 3
The exhibit website also develops the historical and cultural context for each panel. (Click here to get to the site's home page.) Take, for instance, Panel 3, captioned "In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern Industry."  The website description of Panel 3 discusses the contrast between the ease of the birds' migration and that of the Negroes. It then goes on to talk about cultural references to African Americans as blackbirds and crows, Jim Crow laws, blackface performers, and racial stereotypes in Disney movies. Click here to read more about this panel (and to hear Lonnie Johnson and Raymond Boyd sing their 1927 song "Blackbird Blues.")

Panel 45

If you want to really delve into the subject of the Great Migration, the "Perspectives" tab of the website contains video interviews with artists, historians, curators and filmmakers about the themes developed in Lawrence's work. I listened to an interview with Chef Marcus Samuelsson who, among other things, owns the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. Samuelsson talked about migrants bringing food with them on their journey north because they were prohibited from eating in the dining cars and the ways the migrants' eating habits had to change when they moved to an urban environment. (I was interested in his comment that Southern traditions are making a resurgence today with the farm-to-table movement.)  He also relayed the tradition of "rent parties." If someone was having difficulty paying his rent, he might invite people over for some food and entertainment. In exchange, the guests would pitch in money for that month's rent.  Food was then, as it is now, a cornerstone of community. 

While it's well worth making a trip to MOMA to see this exhibit, the Museum has made it possible for everyone to contemplate Lawrence's Migration Series and its context in American history. And for people like me who have seen the show, the website provides an opportunity to deepen the experience. Kudos to the Museum for taking advantage of today's technology in this way.  

"One Way Ticket" runs through September 7th. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence Migration Series at MOMA, Part 1

I was introduced to Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series a couple of years ago when the Tampa Museum of Art hosted an exhibit of works from The Phillips Collection. I distinctly remember turning a corner and discovering five folk art style paintings depicting the migration of African-Americans to the North that began during WWI.  I was struck by the power of the story despite (or perhaps because of) the simplicity of the works.

The artist--Jacob Lawrence--created a series of 60 paintings that portrays both the reasons for and the consequences of the multi-decade migration. Shortly after their creation, the panels were purchased by MOMA and The Phillips Collection and divided, with the even-numbered panels going to MOMA and the odd-numbered to The Phillips. I've since had the chance to see all of The Phillips Collection's paintings, and it was a treat.  So when I learned that MOMA had the entire series on display during my recent trip to New York, I hightailed it to the exhibit. I was not disappointed.

Harriet Tubman by Jacob Lawrence
Along the way, I learned some interesting tidbits about Jacob Lawrence:
--Lawrence, who was only 23 when he painted the Migration Series, had already completed extensive series of paintings about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Touissant L'Ouverture. 
--Lawrence received a $1500 fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation to create the series.
--Lawrence's parents were among the 6 million people who participated in the migration.  He was born in Atlantic City and had never been to the South before he painted the series. He researched the topic at the Schomberg Collection in Harlem. 
--Lawrence was the first African-American artist to be represented by a New York gallery.  His Migration Series was displayed at the Downtown Gallery upon its completion.
--In 1993, Lawrence rewrote the captions for the paintings in connection with a national tour of the series. MOMA has a bank of computers where you can view a more detailed description of each painting, the 1941 caption and the 1993 caption.

Panel 1

Viewing all of the works in progression is a powerful and thought-provoking experience.  The fact that the works have narrative captions rather than brief titles makes the exhibit read like a book. Panel 1 explains, "During World War I, there was a great migration north by southern African Americans." Panel 60 simply says, "And the migrants kept coming." The story unfolds in the intervening paintings.

Panel 4

Having never seen the even-numbered panels, I found myself particularly drawn to them. Panel 4 is captioned, "The Negro was the largest source of labor to be found after all others had been exhausted." The more detailed description of the work commented on the contrast between the man displayed in this panel and the depictions on WPA posters and murals of burly workers happily heaving their tools. (As a side note, Lawrence was a WPA artist himself for 18 months.  He was required to turn in two paintings every six weeks in exchange for $95.44 in pay.)

Panel 38

Panel 38 is a simple picture of a railroad track and is labeled, "They also worked in large numbers on the railroad."  The railroad was a crucial part of the migration, both as a means of transportation and as an industry that provided work for the migrants. And, of course, there's an underlying reference to the Underground Railroad on which many African-Americans traveled in an earlier time. 

Panel 50

Although life was generally better in the North, there were still issues. Panel 50 depicts the race riots that occurred when African-American workers took jobs from white workers, sometimes in the role of strike breakers. African-American homes were also bombed in protest. Cramped living conditions resulted in many migrants contracting tuberculosis. 

And yet the migrants kept coming.

To see a complete set of the Migration Series (with commentary and both sets of captions), click here.

Next up:  Multi-media components of the exhibit