Archive for April, 2014

Review: “The Wholehearted” at ArtsEmerson

April 22, 2014
Actress Suli Holum in "The Wholehearted"

Actress Suli Holum in “The Wholehearted”

By Robert Israel

Fighter and narrator Dee Crosby (Suli Holum) bounds onto a raised platform stage. Audience members are seated around its four sides; Jumbotron screens project enlarged images of the athlete’s grimaces, droplets of sweat, smiles, and grunts. Johnny Cash’s voice croaks out “A Boy Named Sue,” the story of a man who fights his way through life because of his feminine name. We’re primed for a similar battle as Dee — who embodies both the masculine and feminine via her boyish haircut and taut physique — grapples with issues of identity. She performs her jabs, grunts, sidesteps, and lunges. The Wholehearted is poised to tell of Dee’s triumphs and miseries.

There is no bell to signal the start of a round. But the fight, which is really an encapsulation of all the fights she has endured as a career pugilist and in her personal life, has begun.

Dramas of fighters — male and female — are not new to the stage or screen (Rod Serling’s 1956 teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight and Clint Eastwood’s 2004 feature film Million Dollar Baby come to mind). Given all the competition, what makes this play compelling is how it examines the metaphor of fighting as both a pubic career and as an aspect of domestic violence. The play intertwines these two ideas and refuses to flinch. The character of Dee is not only battling for accolades and title trophies in the ring; she is sparring for her life at home, too, where she endures pummeling assaults by her (unseen) coach/husband Charlie Flaxon.

Actress Holum skillfully recreates this turbulently punishing world, struggling to survive in both worlds. Moments of tenderness are mixed in with the punches and scars, until the tenderness evaporates like the sweat from last night’s fight. All she is left at the end is blood and scars. A graceful fluidity develops between the scenes in the ring (on stage) and the fights that occur at home, wherein we learn of her battles, the broken nose she gives to Charlie.

Still, for all its effective theatrical moments, particularly when Holum transforms articles of clothing into illusionary characters, there are troubling aspects, too, from the first moment to the finish.

While the use of video equipment in this show is appropriate – every fighting event is televised today, so that the throngs seated in auditoriums can see every stream of blood that oozes from battered pugilists.

During the production, Holum is followed around by Steven Stevo Arnoczy holding a video camera; his skillful work brings us ringside. Less effective are the scenes when Holum’s character uses a handheld video camera to film herself, ostensibly so we can see and hear her as she narrates her story. Before she develops a relationship with the audience, she bounds onstage and shoves a camera to her face. The problem is that we end up watching the television images. We disengage, at times gawking at Jumbotrons rather than experiencing her live performance. I found myself yo-yoing between the two, thinking I might miss something. An occasional televised projection would make the point just as powerfully; repeated uses of the screen are dramatically self-defeating. As the script goes through additional incarnations (it has been in workshop since 2012, and the ArtsEmerson production is the world premiere), this dependence on screens needs to be modulated, considerably.

Staying true to the country-western motif first introduced by the Cash tune at the opening, Holum, microphone in hand, croons a couple of tunes. These vocal interludes are the most effective storytelling device in the production. We are immediately transported to a country-western barroom steeped in “the mud, the blood and the beer” found in the lyrics of the Cash song. Holum is a talented singer; the songs, deceptive in their simplicity, send a few chills down our collective spines.

But there are not enough of these chills or moments of terror, taut evocations of a fighter’s season in hell. All the pouncing, jabbing, fancy foot work, the taped knuckles flailing the punching bag, the interspersed televised interview segments with a faux ESPN reporter, dull the senses. If we are meant to be taken into this savage world, we need to be yanked by the collective scruffs of our necks — necks that are not made sore as they stare at up Jumbotron images. Not that I am against technology. In fact, the creative team of Stein/Holum should consider attaching a microphone to Holum for each and every scene. At the moment, her lines are often inaudible, muffled by the thuds from her dancing, prancing and grunting on the plywood stage.

The Wholehearted is a work in progress. It has the potential to be an even more effective work for the stage, but it first must get out of its own way so it can let the audience in.

Robert Israel can be reached at This review appeared in The Arts Fuse.


Report from British Columbia: A Visit to Vancouver

April 19, 2014
A view of Vancouver, British Columbia, from the waterfront

A view of Vancouver, British Columbia, from the waterfront

By Robert Israel

The sunset cast a butterscotch and tangerine glow over English Bay, in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the distance, the snowcapped mountains towered above the city, shadowy, jagged, mysterious.

In Vancouver it is possible to breakfast in one of the parks that hug the coastline, to bike along the seawall, to eat lunch while sunbathing on the beach, and then to ski in the nearby mountains – all in the same day. And, later that same evening, to dine at a fabulous restaurant, where abundant harvests from the sea and nearby farms are prepared by chefs who specialize in nutrition and imagination.

While Vancouver boasts mythical splendors, there is also trouble in paradise, and Vancouverites are aware of that, too. Amidst a frenzy of growth, there is an impatience to forge ahead. Yet, that impatience (and construction) is just the price a city pays for ambition, and if it all comes together, Vancouver will be even more spectacular than it is now.

So, join me as I explore one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, and sample a few of the city’s many cultural offerings, hotels and restaurants.


Follow Davie Street to just about where the street meets the harbor and you’re in the heart of Yaletown, a trendy newer neighborhood bustling with bars, nightclubs, restaurants and the Opus Hotel (Opus also has a sister property in Montreal).

In the case of the Opus, it’s build it and they come, in droves. The Opus is a stylish hotel, and it blends contemporary design with the warm feeling of family and exquisite service. It was one of the first spots in the reclamation of a warehouse district that has now become a vibrant neighborhood. A new light rail station takes travelers from Vancouver Airport to the heart of the city (and steps from the Opus) in less than a half hour. And the hotel itself is home to Elixir and the Opus Bar, both sought-after night spots.

“The months of construction have been daunting,” Annabel Hawksworth of the Opus staff told me, “but it will soon come to an end, and the convenience of having the railway station down the street from the hotel will be worth it.”

On a tour of Vancouver property, she shows me rooms done up in a cozy palette of color – deep blues, oranges and mauves, to mention a few – all with warm features, lots of light, and fresh flowers. On Saturday night, the joint is jumping: the line for entrance to Elixir snakes around the corner. German, French, and Japanese can be heard amidst the din, as foreign visitors mingle with the locals. Service is remarkable here, and special features include chauffeured use of a sleek BMW that can be dispatched to take guests to any location within the city at no cost, and free use of the hotel’s bicycles. Just down the street, it is easy to board the Aquabus to Granville Island – where the city’s marketplace and artisans greet tourists and shoppers.


A twenty minute walk up Davie Street brings you to Burrard Street and the cosmopolitan Sutton Place Hotel, in the heart of Vancouver’s downtown.

“In the ten years I’ve lived in Vancouver,” Peter Bruyere of the Sutton Place staff told me, “the city has grown tremendously. Ten years ago this place was somewhat sleepy. Not anymore. The downtown area is thriving. New restaurants have taken root here. And the hotel, which includes a residence with complete hotel amenities, is the chosen destination for many of the film stars who stay here while filming television and movies.”

Sutton Place has an old world charm, long, well-lit corridors, spacious dining rooms and a bar, a swimming pool, a spa, shops and many other services, all under one roof. From the top floors, the view is commanding: the mountains can be seen among the many high rise apartment homes which all have terraces overlooking the teeming streets.

At Sutton Place Hotel, you are also within minutes of wonderful restaurants, just a short walk or drive away. I visited three of them.

Exit from the Sutton Place’s rear French doors, and you are on Haro Street, which, after eight blocks, leads to the tranquil and verdant outdoor patio and fine dining at L’Altro Buca restaurant.

Where to Dine

L’Atro Buca was once the original site of Delilah’s restaurant, and now features very tasty Italian dishes, such as tagliatelle Bolognese, spaghetti vongole, a scrumptious bistecca alla Florentina and braciole di maiale Calabrese, a grilled pork chop with garlic, fennel, chili, vinegar peppers and fried onions.

“The recession has ushered in a change in dining habits in Vancouver,” explained Shannon Heth of the L’Atro Buca staff. “Diners in Vancouver differ than those in Montreal, for example. Here, they tend to favor good food, good service, of course, but choose a more reasonable amount of time to spend at dinner, rather than the more European approach – which is more expensive meals served at a more leisurely pace.”

L’Atro Buca certainly fulfills this description, and more. Seated in the outdoor patio, the waiter brought the dishes with well-timed attentiveness, and suggested a scrumptious grappa as an after dinner drink that crowned the meal.

Another recommended restaurant a five minute walk from Sutton Place Hotel is Cin Cin Restaurant and Bar (pronounced chin chin) on busy Robson Street (which is also a busy shopping mecca). A wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of the open kitchen at the rear of the restaurant. The dining room is expansive and busy. Ricardo Ferreira, restaurant director, encourages me to try their tasting menu, prepared by executive chef Francois Gagnon. This turns out to be excellent advice. The food selected is all local fare. My favorite: steamed spot prawns (only available during the last weeks of May and into June, and caught fresh in the coastal waters off Vancouver), served in a garlic wine sauce that are totally scrumptious, washed down with a glass of Burrowing Owl pinot gris, vinted in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.

The third recommended restaurant in Vancouver is a short cab ride from the Sutton Place and has earned a reputation over many years as the destination for sushi. Tojo’s Restaurant is located on 1133 West Broadway. My guide at Tojo’s is Nathan Fong, a food columnist at the Vancouver Sun. Tojo serves us saki from his private reserve. His kitchen staff attends to our every wish. My favorites: organic local braised shitake mushrooms, which Tojo insists have curative powers. King crab is wrapped in nori and has a unique toasted flavor. Another favorite: sable fish served in parchment, with king mushroom, asparagus and burdock root. The selection goes on, the tastes to the palette are exciting, and one leaves the restaurant convinced one has been in the presence of a master.

Other Distractions

I attended Bard on the Beach and enjoyed a wonderful performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” At the Yale on Granville Street one night, a local blues band wailed away while a couple dozen people, including myself, danced the night away.

During the day, visit Granville Island for local produce and wares by B.C. artisans. Take a harbor cruise and soak in the city’s skyline. It’s a place of awe.

There is so much more to see and do, and those mountains in the distance – the magnetic pull of them – will await another visit.

If you visit the best place to feel the pulse of Vancouver, hop on a bike and take to the seawall. The residents take to the beaches and each beach along the way is crowded with diverse groups, all of them enjoying the splendid sunshine, the coast and the blue skies.

My hunch is that Vancouver can never return to its sleepy days. Those days are destined to live in the long ago and used to be. Vancouverites have a fever to succeed, expand and prosper. Now that the fever has been unleashed, it will always be raging.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).

Review: Sam Shepard’s “Day Out of Days”

April 19, 2014
Sam Shepard

Sam Shepard

By Robert Israel

Sam Shepard’s voice, hoarse and haunting, has its origins in the parched prairies and wide-open spaces of the American Middle West and Far West.

Although early in his writing career he lived in New York, where he worked as a waiter and rock-and-roll musician and cranked out plays by the dozens, his vision has turned toward the West. That is where he focuses his considerable talents now, in this disparate selection of prose pieces gathered together in Day Out of Days.

This book is unlike any other collection of stories you will encounter, and yet the stories seem hauntingly familiar, like the fleeting images in dreams.

Some of the pieces collected here are short shorts–only weighing in at a paragraph or two–while others ramble on for a few pages. Most of them achieve what American novelist Ford Maddox Ford described as good writing: words that are like “pebbles fetched from a fresh brook.”

One cannot identify Shepard as narrator in these pieces, although snippets of his life as a writer, as an observer of life, and as a wanderer, emerge–or in any case, we assume it’s him (we never know for certain). He exhibits a penchant for the macabre, in the fine American tradition mastered by Edgar Poe and perfected by the late Texas-born novelist and short story writer William Goyen.

Shepard pays homage to Samuel Beckett; he also tips his hat to Henry Miller. He croaks out a love song to Eric Dolphy (a jazz musician of considerable talent who died way too young). This collection is a glimpse into his mind, and let it be said that he is a writer of profound depth. This book demonstrates that there are no limits to his imagination, no matter how repugnant. This is not a cheerful book.

There are numerous pieces about beheadings, or headless bodies. There are pieces about violence, about boredom, about abandonment. There are pieces that seem to be ripped out of his drama sketchbook, wherein he is trying out dialogue for a play that never quite made it to a fully realized dramatic rendering.

There are pieces about places, but they are not really about those places at all; rather, they are about what the author felt when he was in those places, such as Mandan, North Dakota, for example, or Quanah, Texas.

The book cannot be read casually, and it cannot be read at one, two, or even three sittings, even if its selections are brief. It is a book to pick up and listen to, as Shepard’s dry, hoarse voice rasps out another surrealistic tale.

I first encountered Shepard while in college, when Trinity Rep’s Larry Arrick in Providence directed Shepard’s play Tooth of Crime in 1973. That production would herald a succession of uniquely disturbing productions Trinity would go on to stage, climaxing with Buried Child, which won Shepard the Pulitzer Prize.

Under Adrian Hall’s direction, Trinity Rep toured Buried Child in India and Syria, thanks to a grant from the government, and Trinity can be credited with helping to spread Shepard’s restless talent–like seeds of a milk pod burst open in a windstorm–to the far ends of our world. Shepard blew people’s minds then, and with the publication of this book, he continues in his own tradition of startling readers with the unexpected.

If there is a key to understanding Shepard and his prose, it can be found in the short piece titled “Chatter,” which gives as much insight as a reader is going to get when struggling to learn why Shepard writes the way he does, with such uncompromising intensity:

“I now have an almost constant swirling chatter going on inside my head from dawn to dusk,” Shepard writes. “I never could have foreseen this when I was five, playing with sticks in the dirt, but I guess it’s been slowly accumulating over all these sixty-some years; growing more intense, less easy to ignore. I wake up with it. I feed chickens with it. I drive tractors with it. I make coffee with it. I fry eggs with it. I ride horses with it. I go to bed with it. I sleep with it. It is my constant companion.”

Sam Shepard is now in his late sixties. In an interview recently, he was quoted as saying he is coming through a period of trying to wrestle with his demons, particularly those centered around alcohol, which got him into hot water in Illinois recently on a charge of DUI.

A gifted actor, director, playwright, and musician, Shepard has said he listens for the music in language to convey the rhythms of human life. Reading this book of short pieces brought me back to his work from the early 1970s.

I was a student learning how miraculous and unsettling language spoken in a darkened theater could be. Encountering Shepard and his strange musical rhythms at Trinity Rep changed my life–and the lives of many others–forever.

Sam Shepard, in the best pieces from this book, has that kind of effect: his work is transformative and harrowing.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this piece appeared in Edge magazine (Boston).

Report from Germany: A Visit to Bebelplatz

April 18, 2014
Bebelplatz, with St. Hedwigs Cathedral in the rear, Berlin, Germany.

Bebelplatz, with St. Hedwigs Cathedral in the rear, Berlin, Germany.

By Robert Israel

Today is an overcast afternoon, many decades after the hammer and sickle flag was hoisted precariously on the buildings in this once divided city by the conquering Soviet armies. There are no sounds of tanks or mortar fire in Berlin this afternoon, only the sing-song of a hurdy-gurdy man. Tourists toss coins to a monkey who crackles and deposits the coins into a tin cup; right on cue, he tips his little red cap as his trainer proclaims “Danke!” and the crowd applauds.

Looking at this street scene near St. Hedwig’s Cathedral reminds me of my own childhood in St. Michael’s parish, South Providence, Rhode Island, when so many families paraded their over-dressed freshly scrubbed children down the street closed to Sunday traffic. There was a trained monkey on a chain then, too, performing for the children. There were balloons, peddlers pushing wooden carts, the aroma of popcorn pop-pop-popping.

There are different memories attributed to this place in the center of Berlin.

It was here where the Kristtnacht bonfires were lit, November 9-10, 1938. Books were burned. Synagogues and Jewish stores were razed, plundered. There was cackling then, too, Walpurgisnacht howls of jackbooted thugs and the sickening sound flames make when they lick the sky.

Today in Bebelplatz people order sandwiches and beer, haggle for bargains from pushcarts, they listen to a calliope while helping their children off a carousel, and they toss pfennigs to a trained monkey who wears a little red cap. So, if everything is rosy here, why am I so jumpy when a sudden gust of wind snaps and unfurls the carousel’s tri-colored banners?

At the edge of Bebelplatz is a bronze plaque embedded into a brick wall. In untranslated German it tells of the “twisted Nazi mentality” that let loose the hellfires of the Holocaust. There is no other sign, no further evidence to remind anyone of the past. This is a place that has risen from the rubble and now stands gleaming, all glass and steel. The repetitive music from the calliope and the carousel’s endless spinning almost succeed in lulling me into a reverie of calm; I am dizzy, swaying in a hypnotic spell of wonderment, nostalgia.

But then when I hear the snap of the tri-colored flag, I remember that no carousel, no calliope can erase those memories, or disguise those scars.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece appeared in The Jewish Advocate (Boston).

Report from U.K.: London’s neighborhoods

April 18, 2014
Skyline of London

Skyline of London

By Robert Israel

Londoners are jittery. There is a heightened police presence on the streets. In many of the neighborhoods, police walk two abreast. British troops sport automatic weapons and bulletproof vests near the Houses of Parliament. Packages and backpacks are spot-checked at the tube station entrances. Shopping plazas like the Brunswick, between Kings Cross and Russell Square, employ their own security forces. Strangers are eyed warily, not once, but repeatedly. Security cameras are everywhere, snapping away.

Londoners are in high spirits. You can’t look nonchalant. You can’t fake an air of insouciance. Life is good. So, in spite of constant threats of violent disruption from known and unknown sources, Londoners are very cool characters indeed.

Take a walk through the park at Russell Square. On a recent warm afternoon, men and women were sunning themselves at lunchtime, and, just beyond, jets of water spurted skyward from a fountain. The wee tots from the neighborhood frolicked in their nappies, giggling and splashing, while the adults looked on, grinning.

Could it be because the pubs open early? Could it be the smoke that keeps drifting past – is it just tobacco, or something else entirely? A law enforced last year requires smokers to take their tobacco (and other substances) outside. Pub owners have provided makeshift shelves around their windows, just wide enough to rest pint glasses on. So those who drink and smoke at the same time take to the sidewalks in droves. By two o’clock in the afternoon at one pub in Bloomsbury, there were 40 or so men and women outside, oblivious to workaday world just beyond them. The scene repeats itself throughout the city. Near St. Paul’s Cathedral businessmen and women were out in droves puffing and drinking in the bright sunlight. And the big clock hadn’t yet struck 11 bells.

In London, the pound is up, the dollar is down (American tourists are welcomed, please be spending cash, thank you very much), the pungent smoke is billowing past, and the beer is flowing.

As tempting as it was to winnow away my time in London alongside these imbibers, I set myself forth instead on a mission to learn as much as I could about London’s neighborhoods as a way of getting to know the city better. But there are too many of them, and each has its own unique charm. I was limited to nine days and eight nights: two days and two nights in four different neighborhoods. So I chose neighborhoods, served by public transportation, each with access to museums, bookstores, theatres, and shopping. I also wanted to stay in hotels that reflected the character of the neighorhoods, hotels with charm/atmosphere, hotels with their own histories.


I began my vacation in Bloomsbury, staying at Montague on the Gardens (+44 02079587731), located directly next to Russell Square park and literally across the street from the British Museum. The hotel is a bastion of comfort and solitude, with a friendly and solicitous staff and newly refurbished rooms that nonetheless pay homage to the architecture of the 19th century: dark mahogany interiors, wainscoting, low ceilings, thick draperies, and rambling inter-connecting corridors. Being literally across the street from the British Museum (the entrance is actually around the corner on Great Russell Street) makes this a very desirable location.

Bloomsbury has four bookstores with walking distance of the Montague (three used bookshops and a gay/lesbian bookstore — “Gay is the Word” — on Marchmont Street). The University of London is nearby. The Brunswick shopping plaza, mentioned earlier, has all the fast food, Starbucks and tschotske shops one could want. There is a gym nearby (Fitness First) that welcomes visitors with a day rate, below street level, so there is no light and the air gets stuffy. No matter: the equipment works just fine, so you can stay toned for those long ambles down streets where writers like Charles Dickens (there is a museum in his name I did not visit) and Arthur Conan Doyle once lived.

Covent Garden

The main thoroughfares in London can be noisy, disorienting. Every kind of vehicle converges and careens down skinny lanes. The only way to cope is to retreat to the quiet streets before heading out into the fray again.

A twenty minute walk down from Russell Square down a main road toward Central London is Covent Garden, literally the heart of the theatre district and adjacent to more shopping than anyone can imagine or need. Shops upon shops unfold on twisty inter-connecting streets and lanes that lead to Leiscester Square and to even more theatres. Covent Garden has an amusing marketplace where street performers and jugglers ply their trades, but it is designed strictly for the tourists and their kids. I did discover a bookstore where they read Tarot cards and special order magic books, a rare find in an area where the flash overpowers substance.

Even though it is located on a main street, the Waldorf Hilton (44 02078367244) is an oasis of calm. Newly renovated, no street noises permeate the thick windows or walls, and each suite is cozy, modern, with a color scheme that subdues the weary traveler. It also features a swimming pool and gym in the basement.

Laden down with purchases I made during that afternoon, I made it back to the Waldorf worn out, just in time for tea. The staff could not have been more accommodating. I changed into my swimsuit and headed for the basement pool. The walls surrounding the pool glow with muted, pastel lights. Soon bustle of the busy streets faded from memory.


The Kensington neighborhood is twenty minutes away from the hustle of Covenant Garden, but it seems to be a world away when you alight from the number 11 bus after passing the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abby and the shabby faded splendor of Victoria Station.

I checked into a delightful hotel, the Draycott (U.S. toll free 1-800-747-4942), situated on a quiet garden square with a quiet park at the rear. The hotel’s tearoom hugs the park, and guests can take their beverages and sit underneath leafy trees and flowering scrubs, surrounded by brick townhouses and quietude. The rooms in the hotel each have their own names, not numbers, and are spacious, well-appointed with antiques, heated towel racks and other amenities.

It was only a ten-minute walk to the Natural History Museum, Science museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, and close to shopping at Harrods. I chose to visit the V and A, newly renovated and embracing the old and new eras with an ebullient spirit not found at many major museums anywhere. One could view antiquities from ancient Rome and Greece and then go into a wonderful exhibit on Lee Miller’s photography or Surrealist art. The gift shop has been newly refurbished and is anything but fusty. In fact, it may be one of the hippest museum shops in all of London.


The last leg of my trip was spent in Mayfair. I checked into Brown’s Hotel (44 020 74936020) on Albemarle Street, right off Piccadilly. I had everything I might want in this neighborhood: theatre, bookstores, fancy food emporiums (Fordum and Masons), shopping (Bond Street is a two minute walk away), art galleries, the sprawling acreage of Green Park, two Underground stations to choose from (Green Park and Piccadilly), and in my room, all the quiet comforts of home.

I went to tea the afternoon I arrived and was served tasty cucumber sandwiches, like those Oscar Wilde described in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Champagne was served in tall, never-emptying flutes (why drink tea sparkling wine is on the menu?) And I got to stay in a hotel where Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt once stayed (all at different times, naturally). What’s not to enjoy?

Nearby, I visited the Royal Academy of Art and Waterstones bookshop, which has a sixth floor cafe with a view of Westminster Abby. At night I wandered down to Piccadilly and saw a rousing production of “Grease,” with a cast that camped and vamped it up with great hilarity. But after awhile it was too much like Times Square, and I made it back to quiet Albemarle Street. The concierge recommended a small restaurant nearby, where I was served a scrumptious meal. All in all, a splendid day.

In London you can go from a wild excitement to total calm within a two-block walk. And if you choose the right places to stay, you can experience calm amidst the chaos. At Brown’s Hotel I let the hot water fill the bath and poured aromatherapy oils into the water. Afterwards, I wrapped myself in a terrycloth robe and sipped some cognac, savoring the richness of my contrasting experiences in London.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this report appeared in Edge magazine, (Boston).

Memoir for Holy Week: Sunrise at Kare Desche, Israel

April 17, 2014
A view of the Sea of Galilee, Israel

A view of the Sea of Galilee, Israel

By Robert Israel

The bell rang before dawn, summoning the monks to prayer at a hostel where I had been sleeping, in the open air courtyard, near the Sea of Galilee, known on Israeli maps as the Kinneret.

Unable to sleep, I wandered down a path to the water’s edge.

The path ends where an iron cross is embedded into a rock, across from where a stream of fresh water empties into the Kinneret from the opposite hillside. This cross marks the spot where Jesus Christ performed the miracle of the loaves and fish. But no one is really certain of this. The only clue the Bible tells us is that the place where that miracle supposedly happened was “grassy.” This place is certainly overgrown with marsh grass, and it situated between Capernaum and Tiberias, two places Jesus reportedly visited.

As I was contemplating the miracle — the five loaves of bread and two fishes that somehow served 5,000 people after being blessed by Jesus –a sudden and unexpected sensation that came over me. It took me by surprise. It moved me, the sensation of a spirit beyond me, of a force greater than me and all I have known. It came over me in a rush, but it wasn’t jarring. It did not alarm me. It was a feeling of calm, deeper than any I have ever known or have ever known since. I stood motionless in the stillness of early morning on the very spot where Jesus may have once stood. My mind was quieted.

The feeling came and vanished in minutes in this place that remains untouched by the passage of centuries and was broken only by the appearance of orphan Palestinian girls from an adjacent summer camp who strolled down the path and sat by the water’s edge. Two girls took out their tambourines and tin whistles. They began to play and several of the girls stood up and danced. They danced and laughed and waved to me. I could hear them singing, I could hear the tinkling of the tambourines when I turned and walked back to the monastery.


Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece appeared in The Rhode Island Herald.

Review: “Strong is Your Hold,” by Galway Kinnell

April 17, 2014
Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell

By Robert Israel

Galway Kinnell, like Mary Oliver, is a poet for whom poetic roots are important. Like Oliver, he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. While Mary Oliver’s work reminds readers of the poems of Emerson and Dickinson, Galway Kinnell’s reminds us of Walt Whitman. Indeed, the title of his book, Strong is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin, Boston), is taken from a Whitman poem: “Strong is your hold O mortal flesh/Strong is your hold O love.” Whitman showed Kinnell and other American poets the way forward: bold language, the open road ever beckoning, nature in all its resplendent loveliness.

Whitman often celebrated his rowdy prowess, and in Kinnell’s book there is a lot of testosterone. He is, after all, the poet who once wrote about hunting and then stalking a bear whose tracks of blood led him through the north woods, a poem that was collected in a book called Body Rags.

In his new collection, the strength of his voice comes through just as powerfully, particularly in pieces that recall his roots growing up in Rhode Island (a state where I, too, was raised). He once told an interviewer that this chapter of life included “a particularly lonely childhood, not in the sense of not having people around, but failing to make real connections and being shy to the point of mutinous.” He did not learn the rhythms of poetry as a youngster in Rhode Island, he said once, because the “accent of my hometown [Providence] is rather unpoetical. It’s a very charming and loveable accent, but not very musical.” Instead, Kinnell discovered music and rhythm in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman; from them, he said, he learned about “language that could sing.”

He has made steady progress in his literary evolution ever since. In this collection, he celebrates all that is divine in nature, like marveling at the sight of a bear just glimpsed in the copse of trees beyond his stone bench at his farm in Sheffield, Vermont, not far from the Quebec border. But there are also poems that describe Kinnell’s keen awareness of the perils of civilization and all its entrapments. In his long poem included in this collection, written after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11 (it was first published in The New Yorker), he takes us into the inferno with eloquence and horror.

Kinnell has written in the past about human conflicts, wars, turmoil and chaos. In his Book of Nightmares, he devoted an entire section of that long poem describing, in graphic detail, the horror of war and the stench of a burning corpse. Yet in this collection, which also includes a marvelous CD of the poet reading all of the poems, he emerges as having come through a lot of these wars and turmoil, and emerging, as Whitman urged, with a “strong hold” on life. By so doing, he expresses an optimism that we, as humans toiling between the garden and the inferno, will reap the gifts that come to us from devotion, and, if we are fortunate, to discover, in others, a loving return of our affections.

These rewards are found in several poems that describe his relationships with this children and his wife. A particularly endearing and humorous one is titled Everyone Was in Love. The poem describes a playful scene at his Vermont farmhouse when his children, very young and very naked, draped snakes over their bodies like wild creatures just escaped from a painting by Bosch. The perils of life may be all around these cherubic naked children, but they are also endowed with an innocence that brightens Kinnell’s world.

Kinnell has made his solitary journey through life and has come through with a warm, mature, never complacent voice, full of respect for his poetic teachers and grateful to have acquired love that so often eludes us.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine, Boston.

Profile: Marjon Van Grunsven

April 17, 2014
Marjon Van Grunsven, Artistic Director

Marjon Van Grunsven, Artistic Director

By Robert Israel

Marjon Van Grunsven’s world stretches from her native Holland to the States, Canada, Asia – wherever the touring production of Cirque de Soleil’s shows, for which she is artistic director, takes her. This summer Cirque’s trademark Grand Chapiteau will take up residence again on the Boston waterfront, beginning May 29th, 2014.

Intense, focused, engaging: Van Grunsven speaks in energetic bursts. At 39, she is highly self-aware of her unique gifts. She lives multiple lives: as a dancer, teacher, producer, choreographer, certified Pilates instructor, and founder of her own dance troupe. She’s lived and worked in the Netherlands, Germany, New York, France and South Korea. She runs on adrenalin and verve, works 10-12 hours each day, six days a week. She says she considers herself “blessed” to be associated with the Quebec-based Cirque de Soleil. Despite the long hours and the long stretches on the road coupled with formidable responsibilities – she artistically supervises a cast of 53 who have already performed over 500 shows since the dawn of 2010, an average of 10 shows a week – she maintains a fresh perspective. She has to.

“That’s my job,” she says. “I bring freshness to everything I do. I insist that a fresh approach be taken for each and every show.”

Van Grunsven joined Cirque de Soleil in 2007 as artistic director for their show Delirium, which closed in 2008.

“When one show closes, the creative team comes together to conceive a new show. Then they leave and let the artistic team take over,” she explained of Cirque’s process. “At that point the new show is a baby. It is untried, unproven. And the artistic team has to work with that baby and help that baby to grow.”

The last show that appeared in Boston, OVO, which translated as egg in Portuguese, the creative team’s concept envisaged an ecosystem teaming with insect life, where insects work, fight, and search for love, all while constantly buzzing and bumbling under the big top that is Cirque de Soleil’s venue. Accomplished acrobats take to the air in each Cirque show. The makeup, costumes and manic dances all conspire to create the illusion of the insect world.

“With OVO, I worked with a very young group of performers, and I had to help them realize they are artists,” Van Grunsven said.

And then she launched into a passionate description of her work:

“I teach them dance techniques,” she said. “I find DVDs for them to watch. I make lists. I put together schedules. I hold classes. I inspire them to become artists by learning to move their bodies to create magic with their movements each second they are on stage. There are no wasted moments. None. I insist that the cast seize each moment they are on stage, even if they only enter from the sidelines with only the tip of their toes that one moment is extremely important and must crystallize, in the minds of the 2,500 people attending the performance, that they are those creatures. Making magic on stage is hard work. I insist that the cast works harder, that they do not fake it, that they collaborate, and that they produce what the creative team envisioned.”

If her role sounds like the consummate task mistress drilling home lessons and rehearsing blocked scenes and demanding dance routines, Van Grunsven is quick to disabuse an interviewer of that notion. She insists she is always there as a beacon of support for the cast.

“To evolve into an artist and to work as a team, to achieve success individually and collectively – that is the goal of each cast member,” she said. “I often receive letters from audience members who come to the show and are moved by what they’ve seen us do. And many of these audience members have saved their money to afford a ticket, since the price of our shows is not cheap. And when they send letters, like the one I got recently from someone who had been quite ill and was approaching death and said that the show had inspired him to embrace life – when I get letters like this I share those letters with the cast. I also invite the audience to meet the cast, too, so that there is an intimacy between us.”

Her work for Cirque du Soleil is all-encompassing, with multiple dates and lots of touring.

“We performed OVO in Boston, Washington, Atlanta,” she said, “and then, when the run is completeled, I take a break and travel to Germany to teach.”

And after that?

“I intend to stay with Cirque de Soleil,” she said without hesitation. “It is my home. And, if I am fortunate, I hope to be chosen to be on the creative team next time and get to work with my creative juices in a different way, to put together a new work of art.”

To touch people’s lives, to create a spectacle with highly trained Cirque de Soleil artists that is intricately composed of multiple parts that dazzle and inspire: this is Marjon Van Grunsven’s mission and one she will continue to pursue with boundless enthusiasm.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this profile appeared in Edge Magazine, Boston.

Report from Halifax: Nova Scotia’s Quiet Charm

April 17, 2014
A view oif Peggy's Cove lighthouse, Nova Scotia

A view of Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, Nova Scotia

By Robert Israel

Nova Scotia’s “shaped by the sea” motto tells only part of the story. This Canadian province is indeed surrounded by the sea that has formed its rugged coastline, inlets, islands and estuaries. But Nova Scotia is also shaped by the sky, the land, and its spirited people that conspire to make it an accessible, friendly and exhilarating summer destination with much to discover and savor.

It all begins in Halifax. This capital harbor city is busily in the throes of sprucing up its historic waterfront and downtown without losing its funky flavor. Halifax’s streets begin at the docks and lead upwards to a grassy knoll known as the Citadel. On clear days or nights, you can walk from the piers up steep streets to the Citadel and see the entire city unfold before you. There are tankers, sailboats, smokestacks and warehouses, glimpsed amidst high-rise office towers and numerous church steeples, the old blending with the new.

No trip to Nova Scotia would be complete without touring the province’s rugged coastline as well as the lush verdant farmland, accessible via short drives from Halifax.

A twenty-minute drive from the city center brings you to St. Margaret’s Bay, home of Peggy’s Cove ( The area was once home of the native Canadian Mi’kmaq First Nation, and contains numerous islands and inlets rumored to have later been used by rum runners and pirates.

I learned about the area’s colorful history when I rented a kayak for a half-day tour, run by the friendly staff at Sea Sun Kayak ( My guide, Erin, patiently instructed me how to navigate the waters as we headed toward an island purportedly the site of buried treasure, and the rumored sightings of a ghost! The fog was as thick as clam chowder that morning, but the waters were calm, allowing for an easy passage over to the notorious island. I disembarked and viewed an osprey nest just past the shore – but no ghost.

Later, returning to the docks, Holly O’Leary, the general manager, had prepared a scrumptious lunch of fresh Nova Scotia mussels steamed in white wine, onions, and garlic. The sun finally burned through the fog. Before me, the island appeared in its entire rugged splendor. Sea Sun Kayak has various packages available for visitors who want to experience the seacoast as I did, including an affordable overnight “island escape adventure” that includes dinner. Perhaps, while seated before a campfire and under the cloak of darkness, the ghost might make an appearance.

Canadian laws prohibit the numerous Nova Scotia vineyards from exporting the wines they produce in the Gasperau Valley (about an hour’s drive from Halifax) to the States; this is a law that one day must be changed. In the meantime, you’ll have to taste these wines for yourself.

I stopped at Gasperau Vineyard (, located a few minutes’ drive from the tiny hamlet of Wolfville. I sampled vintages while seated outside on their veranda which afforded a view of the rolling landscape where the apple trees were just giving way to pink and white blossoms. Festivals – where you can savor the wine and local fare — are ongoing throughout the year, and include the Fall Wine Festival ( and the Winter Ice Wine Festival (

I stayed at the Cambridge Suites Hotel in Halifax (, on Brunswick Street, across from the Citadel and within easy walking distance of several outstanding restaurants. The rooms are spacious and include kitchenettes and a view of the busy harbor. By simply walking out the front door, I could access the Citadel, or head downtown, where the pubs, museums, restaurants and shops are located.

I dined at Chives (, located a five-minute stroll from the hotel, where the fare included locally harvested meats, fish and produce. Originally a bank, Chives stores its wines in the former vault, which also includes a private dining area for romantic special occasions.

Another short jaunt from my hotel is the Five Fisherman Restaurant and Grill (, which features local seafood (a fabulous mussel and salad bar), and has on staff a sommelier, Avery, who will cheerfully pair whatever you order with Nova Scotia wines. Avery chose a Chardonnay from the Gasperau vineyard and, for dessert, a tasty ice wine from L’Acadie Vineyards, also located in the Wolfville area.

For a restaurant that also has a distinctly French accent, I dined at Fid Resto (, again located a two-minute walk from my hotel. I met Monica Bachue, originally from France who spent many years in Montreal, who, with her husband, serves tasty local fare. I ordered the locally caught halibut and a mushroom tart that was buttery, warm and scrumptious. The wines served the night I visited were again chosen from the Wolfville area.

The official anthem of Nova Scotia tells of heartache at leaving. It is titled, “Farewell to Nova Scotia.” I heard it sung many years ago by the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia. The chorus goes like this: “I grieve to leave my native land, I grieve to leave my comrades all, and my parents whom I love so dear, and the bonnie, bonnie lass/lad that I do adore.”

Halifax and Nova Scotia tug on the emotions. The people one meets there are open-hearted, cheerful and welcoming. As foretold in the song, it is a destination to which one reluctantly bids farewell.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge magazine (Boston).

A Way Back to Romance: The Poetic Works of Cavafy

April 10, 2014

C. P. Cavafy

C. P. Cavafy

By Robert Israel

Constantine P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems, both translated and edited, with introductions and commentary, by Daniel Mendelsohn (Alfred A. Knopf, New York), bring new light–and hopefully many new readers–to the sublime and entrancing works of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Who was Cavafy? What makes his work so compelling? Even with the publication of these two books, with their extensive notes about his life and writings, and a host of appreciative works by other artists and writers (more on that later), he remains enigmatic.

Born in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents. He remained in Alexandria for most of his life, sharing his writing only among a small circle of friends. He died on his 70th birthday in 1933, having published only a couple hundred poems. He left behind a scant 30 unfinished poems; the publication of Mendelsohn’s book of his “Unfinished Poems” makes these writings (they had not met his exacting standards) available for the first time in English.

Cavafy wrote about ancient history.He wrote about Greek mythology. He wrote philosophical poems. He described haunted, ancient landscapes. And – often with a sense of wry detachment – he wrote about his attraction to other men. He has much to teach us today because he expresses, in taut, emotionally charged language, the eroticism, fleeting fulfillment, and melancholy of love.

But first an incomplete cataloging on All Things Cavafy that attests to his global celebrity:

• His apartment in Egypt is now a museum, and is visited by thousands of fans each year.

• Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has changed the name of Cavafy’s beloved Alexandria to the name of a woman, Alexandra, in the song “Alexandra Leaving”; Cohen incorporates Cavafy’s lines verbatim into his song.

• Greek director Ioannis Smoragdis has transformed Cavafy’s life’s story into a steamy feature film; an actor, who portrays Cavafy, has torrid love scenes with men in seedy brothels.

• Sir Sean Connery has narrated a video travelogue (it’s available on YouTube) and recites Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca” with such a heavy Scottish brogue you’d think Cavafy hailed from Glasgow.

• Artist David Hockney has issued a sheaf of graphic homoerotic drawings based on fourteen of Cavafy’s poems; online art dealers sell signed copies for thousands of dollars.

• Photographer Duane Michals brings color and humor to Cavafy’s memory through the medium of posed black and white portraiture featuring movie actor Joel Gray (the Emcee in “Cabaret”) in “The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy,” recently published by Twin Palms Publishers in San Francisco. In one of Michals’ photos, the impish Gray is “cheating” at a game of cards, while a handsome youth with tousled hair sits beside him, stripped down to his skivvies.

In acknowledgement of Cavafy’s increased popularity, Mendelsohn credits the poet’s “sensual” poems about gay love as at least partially responsible for his fame. He notes that Cavafy’s “desire and longing for men only makes him seem the more contemporary, the more at home in our own times.”

Indeed, the poem, “Days of 1908,” which is set on the seashore in Alexandria, could be written today:

“Your vision preserved him/as he was when he undressed, when he flung off/the unworthy clothes, and the mended underwear./And he’d be left completely nude; flawlessly beautiful;/a thing of wonder./His hair uncombed, springing back;/his limbs a little colored by the sun/from his nakedness in the morning at the baths,/and at the seashore.”

Cavafy’s style reads like prose, Mendelsohn notes, and falls upon the ear with matter-of-factness. Yet the poems are perfectly constructed with a rich, erotic tension, and contain music and rhythms few writers have captured so effectively, as in this short poem, “Come Back”:

“Come back often and take hold of me, /beloved feeling come back and take hold of me, /when the memory of the body reawakens,/an old longing once more passes through the blood;/when the lips and skin remember,/and the hands feel like they’re touching once again./Come back often and take hold me at night,/when the lips and skin remember.”

What is particularly enticing about Cavafy’s works is his insistence on memory as the vehicle of these sensually-charged portraits. Within memory is truth. It is truer than a photograph, a locket of hair, or an undergarment worn by a loved one still perfumed with that person’s scent, items he references which serve as catalysts for his remembrances. In poem after poem Cavafy has trained his senses to capture, and to seal in the vault of memory, all that is potent, all that is tender, all that is fleeting.

He practiced discretion in his personal life: Mendelssohn notes that not much is known about his love affairs, except for a proclivity to frequent brothels. Yet reading his poems, we learn so much about his anonymous lovers; we see the men he met in barrooms; we are there as he glimpses them seated at cafés; we are voyeurs peering from behind the curtains in rooming houses.

Cavafy takes us to Alexandria, his Mediterranean hometown where he found an abundant harvest in all things sensual. In numerous poems we feel the heat rising from the streets; we see the blue of the sea, the blinding whiteness of the beach sand. Cavafy ingested the aromas of the sea, the pleasures of the flesh.

His poems are never coarse, never vulgar, yet often describe wanton acts. They are born anew as if his words, like skin, had pores. The reader adopts these poems as his own, reminisces about his own losses or triumphs in love, or his reveries about loves just beyond his reach. And therein lays the universal appeal and magic of Cavafy’s artistry: we have all felt these stirrings, these raptures, these heartaches.

Today, in our era of graphic internet personal ads and pornographic web sites, the language of romance is lost. Cavafy offers a way back. It’s no wonder that artists, photographers, writers and readers find in him a kindred spirit. He urges us to seize and to savor the moment. His poems unlock the secrets sealed within our memories, within our hearts.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this review appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).