Friday, June 22, 2018

Miles White: A Kaleidoscope of Color

Miles White designed costumes for Broadway shows like Oklahoma and There's No Business Like Show Business, garnering five Tony Award nominations and two wins. Two Academy Awards grace his mantel. But here's a little-known fact that's been relegated to a footnote in his Wikipedia entry. White also designed costumes for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 12 years.  The Kaleidoscope of Color exhibit at the Ringling Museum celebrates the designer's work for the greatest show on earth.

For the first 20 or so years of the circus's existence, each act was responsible for its own wardrobe. The circus itself only provided the costumes for the parades.

Not surprisingly, there was no unity in the visuals. When John Ringling North took over management of Ringling Bros. in 1937, he decided to change this approach.

North hired industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to work on the update. His first big change was to the format. Historically, going to the circus was a three hour affair, with a menagerie tent, parade and 20+ acts followed by a concert and chariot racing. Bel Geddes envisioned a more coherent experience, with "specs" (spectacles) supplemented by production numbers.

Each year featured a different theme, with the nostalgia of "Mother Goose" being used in the team's inaugural year.  Bel Geddes turned to the talented Miles White to bring his vision to life.

White's creativity seemed to have no limits. He is quoted as having said, "If they can imagine it, we will figure out a way to do it."

Over the years, he developed ideas like making the elephants a part of the set. In this drawing, the elephant became the Alps which, of course, Hannibal would cross. In other years, the elephants became Christmas trees or train cars with life-size puppets hanging out the windows.

White was popular with the performers for combining form and function. He considered the ways they would have to move when designing their costumes.

The exhibit includes three costumes from the 1955 Rainbow Round the World Show -- one for a clown and two for the mermaids. I appreciated the fact the women's costumes were designed with their actual bodies in mind. The suit on the right provides a bit more coverage for what we can assume was a slightly more endowed showgirl.

While White's drawings were always impeccable, he kicked them up a notch in 1951. These costumes would be used for the upcoming year's circus and the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. White was well aware his work would have to be approved by both circus management and Mr. Cecil B. DeMille and his team.

White's drawings for the joint project are more precise and the descriptions more fulsome than those for prior years. He also added washes and color to the background.

The costumes for The Greatest Show on Earth were brought to life by Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins and White, who collectively received an Academy Award nomination for their work. The movie won Best Picture, beating out High Noon and Singin' in the Rain. It is considered by many to be the worst movie ever to win the top prize. Time magazine's review called it "a mammoth merger of two masters of malarkey for the masses -- P.T. Barnum and Cecil B. DeMille."

Each item in the small exhibit is fun, but I particularly took a fancy to the Pierrot and Pierrette Big Heads. Pierrot was a stock character of pantomime and comedia dell'arte and Pierette was, of course, his partner. I'm not sure what theme the characters were employed to interpret, but I would have loved to have seen the performers wearing these paper-mache creations. (In fact, I had to resist the urge to try them on myself.)

Kudos to the Ringling both for putting together this exhibit and for displaying it in the Museum proper rather than the Circus Museum. Its location will surely mean more people will have the chance to enjoy White's work.

"A Kaleidoscope of Color" runs through August 5.

The exhibit runs through August 5th.

Monday, June 11, 2018

2018 Book Expo -- Editor Buzz

As usual, Wendi and I started off our Book Expo adventure with the Editor Buzz session. Six editors from different imprints were on hand to talk about the books they are eager to get in the public's hands come fall. (One requirement for selection is for the book to come out between August and January.) Often the book is a debut, but that's not mandatory. Authors with a long--read "successful"--track record are not eligible for inclusion. With that info in hand, we were off.

First up was Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks. I have to admit I wasn't particularly eager to hear about this book. After all, I'm not a parent. But the backstory is interesting.

In 2014, Brooks left her young son unattended in her car while she ran into a store to get a headset so he could watch a movie on a flight later that day. When she arrived home, she learned a bystander had filmed the child alone in the car--happily playing on his iPad--and called the police. (They tracked Brooks down through her mother, whose car she had been driving.) Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A two year court battle ensued, at the end of which Brooks was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and 20 hours of parenting education.

Brooks wrote an essay about the experience that ran in Salon magazine. (You can read it by clicking here.) The essay went viral and led to Small Animals. In the book, Brooks explores issues like who gets to decide what's appropriate in the realm of childrearing and the impact of parenting laws on the poor. The book will be out in August.

Ohio by Stephen Markley was next up. The presenter said the book "might be the first novel to grapple with the great recession [of 2008]" but that such a characterization would be reductive. He reported that one bookseller who'd read an advance copy called it a novel "that reads like a Springstein song." I was intrigued.

Ohio deals with issues of 9/11, unemployment, opioids, Obama and Rustville through the eyes of four high school classmates who converge on their hometown ten years after graduation. The story was inspired by Markley's own visit to his hometown when he was in his late 20s. 

Markley said in an interview he was "pretty lost in life, banging around the bars, and having strange conversations with a range of people [he'd] known in high school. It all ended in a truly explosive thunderstorm with an old friend being pulled out of the car we were in and arrested....It was something about all those conversations of loss and longing combined with the way events can hurtle forward with unpredictable momentum [that led to Ohio]." It's on my to-read list. The novel will be out in August. 

I'm not sure what to make of the next book -- She Would Be King by Wayetu Moore. The "magical realism" aspect of the novel puts me off (although I note that Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate fall squarely into this genre). 

In the book, Moore re-envisions the founding of Liberia, her home country. Moore's characters include Gbessa, a girl cursed at birth. Pursuant to the customs of the tribe, a village boy is tasked to kill her when she reaches the age of 13. But Gbessa survives and eventually settles with some African-Americans (freed slaves) who are taking over the country. The historical aspect of the book sounds fascinating, so I might give it a whirl. Its publication date is in September. 

Casey Gerald's There Will Be No Miracles Here "explodes the idea of what a memoir can do" according to the book's editor. Gerald certainly has had an interesting life -- and he's barely 30 years old.

The book starts in Dallas 1999 at an end-of-the-world gathering at the black evangelical church of Gerald's grandfather. Who will be carried off?  (Spoiler alert -- nobody, although Gerald's mother was prone to frequent absences.)

After a strange and challenging childhood, Gerald found himself at Yale on a football scholarship and then Harvard Business School. He has opened for President Obama and given a commencement address at his alma mater. But Gerald is perhaps best known for his TED Talk entitled "The Gospel of Truth."  (To listen to the talk, click here.) 

While Gerald's memoir is in some ways a classic rags to riches story, he has much more to say about the world in which we live. There Will Be No Miracles Here will hit bookstores in October.

I was a bit nonplussed at the intro to Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. "How many of you have maids?" the editor asked a SRO crowd. A spattering of hands went up, including mine. "And how many of you have worked as a maid?" she continued. Many more hands went up, including that of the editor herself. Welcome to the real world.

The memoir opens with an emotional wallop: "My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter." In the book, Land tells how a single mother managed to support herself and her daughter for five years on $9/hour. It's a book representing a "voiceless, faceless group." For readers of non-fiction, it's being billed as Evicted meets Nickeled and Dimed.

Land managed to extract herself from her poverty and went to college in her 30s. Maid began as an essay she wrote while there that was picked up by Vox. (To read the essay, click here.) The book comes out in January.

What sounded like the best book of the lot was left for last. (How else could they keep hundreds of readers engaged when there were tables of galleys to be grabbed?) The book: The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman.

Much, of course, has been written about Nabakov's Lolita. But Weinman seems to be the first who paid real attention to a throw-away line in which Humbert Humbert asks himself, "Had I done to [Lolita] what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner?"

Who, Weinman wondered, were these people? It turns out young Sally was caught stealing a notebook by a man masquerading as an FBI agent. La Salle persuaded Sally to stay with him (presumably in return for her "freedom"), and the pair traveled for two years on the road as father and daughter. This happened in the late 1940s, around the time Nabakov was searching for inspiration for his next novel.

Nabakov never shared the background of Lolita and in fact took some pains to hide any parallels to the real-life drama. He tried to burn his work papers for the novel, but his wife salvaged them. These papers were an integral part of the "literary detective work" Weinman did for her book. The Real Lolita hits bookstores in September. A back-to-back reading of The Real Lolita and Lolita might be in order.

As I always say, so many books, so little time. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Grant Wood at the Whitney Museum of Art

I literally turned on my heels and walked out of the first room of the Grant Wood exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art, sure that I had somehow wandered into the wrong show. A corn cob chandelier hung from the ceiling, seriously fun sculptures made from bottle caps and other found items were behind glass and a wrought iron piece or two was on the walls. Wasn't Grant Wood the artist who painted "American Gothic"? Yes, but there's more to his story. Luckily, I was able to tag along with a docent who shared her knowledge of Wood's career.

Wood's earliest work was in the Arts and Craft style. He was a Midwestern artist making a living by creating art for homes and public buildings. The corncob chandelier -- along with several paintings -- were done by Wood for a corn-themed room in  the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids. It was the first time he incorporated place into his work, a device he returns to in his later career.

In the period leading up to "American Gothic," Wood worked in a looser style reminiscent of the Impressionist paintings he had seen in Paris. In "Arnold Comes of Age," Woods employed a combination of styles. Arnold, who was the artist's studio assistant, is painted in a realistic style with precise lines Wood felt were consistent with American sensibilities. The background, however, is atmospheric. The butterfly on Arnold's sleeve has transitioned from the protection of its cocoon to the outside world. The bathers in the near background represent frivolity and youth; the hayfields represent work and maturity. A flowing river creates a line of demarcation between these two phases of life. 

Shortly after completing this painting, Wood created his cultural masterpiece "American Gothic." It may come as a surprise to learn that the inspiration for this painting was the Carpenter Gothic style house in the background. The window--reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals in Europe--seemed to Wood a bit out of place on a farmhouse in Southwestern Iowa. He was inspired to envision the people who might live in this home. As with much of Wood's work, "American Gothic" lives on the cusp between satire and celebration.

Wood enlisted his sister and his dentist to pose for the painting. While many assume the pair are husband and wife, Wood intended them to be father and daughter. Their elongated faces and bodies mimic the shape of the window. And while it's hard to see in this picture, the pattern on the woman's apron matches the pattern in the window. The pair are serious and obviously hard-working; the father can't even let go of his pitchfork for the time it took to pose for the picture. 

Wood submitted the painting to the Art Institute of Chicago's annual exhibition, where it won third prize. In the words of our docent, the painting "went viral" -- as much as something could in 1930. 

East Coast viewers loved the painting, perhaps in part because they considered themselves so much more sophisticated than this pair. (As a side note, Wood wasn't embraced by the East Coast art world as his career progressed. He was vocal about his dislike of abstract art, which was all the rage in New York. Wood believed viewers couldn't connect with in the same way they could with realistic paintings. For their part, East Coast art lovers felt his Regionalist style of art was a bit provincial.)

Midwestern audiences, however, weren't quite sure what to make of "American Gothic." Was Wood making fun of them? The answer is probably not. Our docent noted the clothing style dated back to the late 19th century, one indication that Wood was memorializing an agrarian lifestyle rather than commenting on his neighbors.

One painting in which Wood was satirizing his subjects is his "Daughters of the Revolution, 1932." Our docent called this work a "revenge painting." In 1928, Wood completed a 24' x 20' stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids depicting Our Lady of Peace and Victory and soldiers from each of the wars fought up to that time. But the dedication for the window did not take place until 1955, long after Wood's death. The reason: The DAR objected to the window on grounds that the glass was not made in America.  

In the painting, Wood poses the priggish women against the backdrop of the dynamic "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. (Wood selected the "models" for his caricatures from a DAR book.)  They are drinking tea, a sly reference to the Boston Tea party. I can only assume they were not amused.

And then there's the somewhat unusual "Parson Weems' Fable" from 1939. Weems was responsible for the still-told tale of little George Washington unable to lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree. As classic as the story is, it was made up by Weems to show the honesty of our nation's first president. 

In Wood's painting, Weems pulls back the curtain on the drama he envisioned. Young George is showing his father the axe with which he cut down the tree.  (You know it's George because Wood conveniently put his adult head on the child-sized body.)  I particularly appreciate the cherry-like tassels on the curtain and the tree that itself looks like a large cherry. Wood adds some political commentary to the painting--inadvertently, art historians think--with what would have been slaves in the background happily harvesting a cherry tree.

If you haven't already seen the Grant Wood exhibit at the Whitney, you'll probably miss it, since it closes on June 10th. But if you happen to be in Iowa, there are some nice Grant Wood viewing opportunities.  Cedar Rapids is home to his studio, the stained glass window in the Veterans Memorial Building and a museum of art that owns some of Wood's paintings. And for an interactive stop, head to Eldon to see the house that inspired "American Gothic." You can even dress up as the pair and have your picture taken for your next holiday card. Can anyone say "road trip"?  


Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I was a student who always did my homework. (I know – this comes as absolutely NO surprise to anyone who knows me.) And so I got a copy of “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster to read in advance of seeing freeFallTheatre’s adaptation of the short story. It is shockingly prescient. 

Forster wrote "The Machine Stops" in 1909. Although the Wright Brothers had taken flight a few years earlier, it was a time when electricity was just becoming a part of people's lives. New homes were wired for power for wildly modern appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Radio broadcasts were still a thing of the future, but telephones were becoming commonplace. (Think party lines.) Yet Forster envisioned a world with technological capabilities much like those we have today, with frightening consequences.

The story begins in a room inhabited by a woman named Vashti. She is sitting in her chair listening to music when a bell rings. Her chair is mechanically rolled over to a console upon her command. She hits a button. 

“’Who is it?’ she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” 

(We soon realize she “knows” almost all of these people exclusively through on-screen interactions in which they share their ideas. Ring any bells? Forster wrote, "The clumsy system of public gatherings had long since been abandoned.")

It's her son Kuno calling. She reluctantly tells him she can “isolate” herself for five minutes to talk with him. Time being at a premium, he cuts to the chase: he wants her to come visit. But why, she asks, when she can see him perfectly well on the screen?  A physical visit will impinge upon her busy schedule. And she gets no "ideas" when traveling in an airship. 

But Kuno prevails upon Vashti despite her terror of having "direct experience," not to mention being above ground for the first time in many years. (Yes, society is now underground, with visits to the surface available only to those who have received an Egression permit--and a respirator--from the Central Committee.) 

When Vashti and Kuno meet, we realize they have diametrically opposed goals and views. Vashti is wholly with The Machine, which enables every aspect of their existence. While in your room, you need only ask for your bed or a bath or food, and it magically appears. If you have a problem, you report it to the Central Committee and the Mending Apparatus takes care of it. The Machine, like Oz, is all powerful, and human interaction via screen is wholly satisfying and efficient. 

Kuno, however, wants to experience life first-hand. In fact, the reason he wants to see Vashti is to tell her he has gone to the surface -- without permission. But the Central Committee discovered his treason, of course, and has threatened him with Homelessness, i.e., being forced to the surface of the Earth without a respirator where, presumably, he will die a painful death. Vashti is ashamed at having borne such a son. 

But to Kuno, the risk was worth it. It confirmed his antipathy to the world created by the Machine. "We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now," he says. "It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch; it has blurred every human relation..."  

And so the conflict is established between those who worship The Machine and those who resist its power. 

I am reluctant to tell you more as this is a story you should read for yourself.  But there is additional passage particularly worth sharing that warns of the dangers of complacency.

As time progresses, the Machine begins to have some hiccups. Songs being play had random notes inserted; the beds no longer rose from the ground upon the push of a button. Reports were made to the Central Committee so these issues could be addressed.

"Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human issues in that latter day had become so subservient that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine...All were bitterly complained of at first, and then acquiesced in and forgotten. Things went from bad to worse unchallenged."

freeFall Theatre's adaptation of "The Machine Stops" was quite faithful, complete with extensive passages directly from Forster's pages. And while I can understand why freeFall felt compelled to bring this work to life for theater-goers, I preferred the written version of the story. Reading it allowed me time to sit back and contemplate a particularly chilling passage and its parallels to today's society. I encourage you to read "The Machine Stops" yourself. It's in the public domain, and at just 30 pages, takes only an hour or so of our own busy lives.

And now, it's time to get out into the world. I might even leave my phone at home.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Power of Women: The Female Persuasion and Vox

Much has been written about Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, with good reason. It’s a wonderful book, filled with passages that had me reaching for my post-it notes.

The novel is essentially a coming of age story of one Greer Kadetsky. When we first meet Greer, she’s a freshman at a mid-level college. While she’s incredibly bright and thoughtful, she’s “selectively and furiously shy” with all but her closest friends and her boyfriend Cory. Greer doesn’t understand this aspect of her personality.
“It makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions.  I am a piƱata of opinions,” she tells Cory. (One thing I hadn’t heard about Wolitzer’s book is how funny it is.)
Over the course of the novel, Greer comes into her own and finds her “outside voice.” What makes the novel so appealing is that her development is attributable in large part to being taken under the wing of Faith Frank, a feminist advocate/author/personality. Faith is a person to whom other people are drawn. The reason seems clear. She’s smart, passionate, caring and encouraging. She's both a dynamic speaker and a great listener. Who wouldn’t want to be in her orbit?
As Greer says of Faith, “She took me in and she taught me things, and more than that she gave me permission. I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.”
The Female Persuasion is a tribute to the power of female friendship and mentorship. And with the feminist undercurrent running throughout, it’s a reminder of the importance of speaking out.
Which brings us to Vox by Christina Dalcher. Reading these books back-to-back (quite coincidentally) made each of them even more powerful.
In Vox, Dalcher imagines a world in which females – even young girls – are restricted to speaking 140 words a day. They wear counters on their wrists to monitor their communication. The penalty for exceeding the limit is a powerful electric shock. Those who continue to violate the rules face even more draconian consequences. (In case you’re thinking the limitations could be circumvented through sign language or note writing, think again. Cameras have been installed in every home and in the outside world to ensure compliance with both the letter and the intent of the law.) 
We are never told how the U.S. government came to impose such a regime. But we do know the extreme religious right has gained the ear of the White House. And much is made of the rabble rousing of Jackie Juarez, a radical women's rights advocate whose books have titles like They Will Shut Us Up: What You Need to Know about the Patriarchy and Your Voice and Shut Up and Sit Down, Barefoot and Pregnant: What the Religious Right Wants You to Be. Her angry diatribes--regularly seen on TV before the restrictions were imposed--sound nearly unwatchable. She turns out to be prescient.
While you might expect Jackie to be front and center in the story, the book's protagonist is Dr. Jean McClellan. Jean's specialty is neuro-linguistics. She also happens to have been roommates with Jackie while in school. When the President’s brother has a brain injury that scrambles his ability to comprehend language, Jean and her team are called upon to resume their research to find a cure – pronto.  Jean and the other women on the team are relieved of their counters for the duration of the project.
The story has lots of twists and turns until it comes to what felt like a rushed ending. It’s derivative in some ways – The Handmaid’s Tale was never far out of my mind.  But if you are a reader of dystopian fiction, this is one book you won’t want to miss.
While the world of Vox seems far-fetched in the extreme, today's political landscape is pretty unbelievable as well. At several points in the story, Jean bemoans what's happened to the country.
“Not your fault,” a colleague says.
But Jean doesn’t agree. She thinks to herself, “My fault started two decades ago, the first time I didn’t vote, the umpteen times I told Jackie I was too busy to go on one of her marches or make posters or call my congressmen.”
The message isn’t subtle, but point taken. Mid-term elections are coming up. It’s an opportunity to make our own voices heard.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

What's in a Frame?

The Ringling Museum's Walk and Talk events never fail to amaze and delight me. I wasn't sure what
to expect from the session entitled "What's in a Frame?" But within minutes of Maureen Zaremba, Curator of Education, and Sarah Cartwright, Curator of Collections, introducing the subject, I realized I was going to come away with a wealth of newfound knowledge.

The Angel of the Annunciation and The Virgin 
of the Annunciation by Alvaro Pirez d'Evora (early 1420s)
Framing a painting before hanging it for display wasn't always the custom. The practice developed in response to the inclusion of borders in frescoes and manuscripts. Today, frame history is a separate field of study.

It's unusual for pre-19th century paintings to live in their original frames. According to Zaremba, 98% of Old Master paintings have "new" frames. Similarly, the vast majority of paintings in the Ringling's collection were purchased by John Ringling (or, later, the Museum) with the frames in which they are displayed. The economics simply don't allow for re-framing unless a frame has been damaged or is entirely inappropriate.

Not surprisingly, the frame on the triptych altarpiece above depicting the Angel of the Annunciation is not the original. But what is a bit surprising is that when the work was reframed, the center panel was cut down to fit the frame. While this sounds pretty outrageous, it's reflective of a period when artists were often considered mere craftsmen. Then there's also the fact that the frame--with its intricate carving and gilding--likely cost more than the paintings.

The frame is hinged, which allows it to close when the triptych is not on display. The back of the winged panels feature two grey grisaille paintings of The Virgin of the Annunciation. I suspect most visitors to the Ringling miss this component of the work.

Center image: Virgin and Child with Saints Peter, Paul, 
John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Two Angels 
by Giovanni del Biondo (c. 1385-90)
The Gothic architectural frames on Virgin and Child and the accompanying paintings are reminiscent of the cathedral in which these works might have been displayed. The inclusion of elements such as the spires and colonnades evoke the period during which the artwork was created. The frames also convert the paintings into a sacred space, pulling the subject further into the "heavenly realm."  The way the gilding would have captured the light in a dark, candlelit space would have only accentuated this impact.

Interestingly, these works were painted by three different artists. Altarpieces were often chopped up into discrete pieces of artwork in order to be more collectible. British art dealer Joseph Duveen created this triptych by combining these similarly themed works and framing them in a coherent style before selling it to John Ringling. (For a short read about Joseph Duveen's lasting legacy to the art world, click here.)

The Annunciation by Giovanni Fracesco Barbieri (1628-29)
Even in the Ringling's collection, there are frames that just aren't right for the painting. Zaremba and Cartwright showed us this work -- yet another annunciation -- as an example of a dealer going overboard with the frame. Talk about bling!

These paintings were created in the 1620s to hang over an arched doorway. They were not, however, intended to be framed in this manner. In fact, the canvases are different sizes and were originally hung at different heights, with the Virgin slightly higher than the angel. The work was reframed in the 1980s in this controversial manner. The sheer surface area of the brightly gilded arch overpowers the quiet paintings. This is one work the Ringling would love to reframe (again) if it had the funding. (Nobody in our group stepped forward with the $100,000+ donation required.)

Portrait of Lt. Philip Honywood
by Gainsborough (1765)
Our survey also included Gainsborough's Portrait of Lt. General Philip Honywood. (While the paintings themselves weren't the topic of the session, it was noted this is believed to be Gainsborough's largest painting -- it measures 10.7' x 9.8' -- and his only equestrian painting on which the rider is mounted.)  The frame is elaborately carved and gilded.  It shows significant wear, with the wood showing through in many places.

Cartwright shared that, despite the damage, this is one frame she wouldn't want to replace even if the economics made it feasible. It just suits the painting too well.  She noted that damage to a frame can affect the decision to lend a painting to another institution. The inevitable jostling involved in the process makes it too risky. On occasion, travel frames are created for painting -- at the expense of the borrowing institution.

Close up showing frame damage

A shout out is due to the Ringling's Education Department for continually bringing such interesting programming to its patrons.  If you're in the area, there's a Walk and Talk on May 24 featuring new works on loan in the Museum's Center for Asian Art. I'm particularly looking forward to hearing about the Japanese Art Deco works.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ragtime at Asolo Rep, Part II

Next up at Asolo Rep is the musical Ragtime based on E.L. Doctorow's book of the same name. The Broadway production 20 years ago had a cast of more than 50 actors and a full orchestra. Director Peter Rothstein had the vision--and the chutzpah--to scale the show down to a manageable size for regional theaters. At a recent panel discussion featuring Rothstein, choreographer Kelli Foster Warder, Asolo Rep Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards and playwright Terrence McNally, Rothstein talked about his approach. (Check out Part I of this blog for McNally's recollections of how the original production of Ragtime came to the stage by clicking here.)

Rothstein characterizes his re-imagining of the musical as the equivalent of a "chamber setting." The musical has been pared down to three interconnected stories of a Jewish immigrant coming to America, an African-American musician living in Harlem and an affluent white woman from New Rochelle. The tale is set in the early 20th century. Responsibility for bringing these stories to life falls to 13 adult actors, four child actors and nine musicians.

"Responsibility" is the key word here. In this version of the show, the chorus has been eliminated. Instead, the actors seamlessly move from performing a lead role to being a member of the supporting cast.

Kelli Foster Wardell, Peter Rothstein and Terrence McNally
"Everyone is responsible for each other's narrative," Rothstein commented. "It's a level of democracy befitting of the story."

Upon hearing this, McNally commented he was "getting goosebumps." He later said he felt this version of the show was going to "teach me what is in my own work."

The choreography is an integral part of the story rather than a "dance break." And so Warder and Rothstein have worked hand in hand since the show's initial production at Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis. (Rothstein and Warder also brought the musical to 5th Avenue in Seattle.)

McNally shared this collaborative approach was also adopted in the original production, with director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciele Daniele working in tandem. He noted that rehearsals for musicals are often conducted in two rooms -- one for the actors/singers and another for the dancers. At Asolo Rep, as on Broadway, those rehearsals have been combined.

As to the timeliness of the show, Rothstein said he has often been asked whether the show has been updated.

"Sadly," he said, "there is no need." He noted--spoiler alert--that the character of Sarah is killed by the police at the end of Act I. When rehearsals began at Theatre Latte Da, Philandro Castile had been shot by a Minneapolis police officer just two weeks earlier. One can only imagine the impact that event had on both the performers and the audience.

Rothstein returned to the idea of responsibility, broadening it to the obligations of the citizenry at large. "We are all responsible for each other and our stories," he said. "Our responsibility as artists is to remind people of this."

Ragtime will run from May 1 - May 27 at Asolo Rep. Click here to see a sneak preview of the show and hear from Rothstein and some of the actors.  I cannot wait.

Miles White: A Kaleidoscope of Color

Miles White designed costumes for Broadway shows like Oklahoma and There's No Business Like Show Business, garnering five Tony Awa...