Archive for May, 2014

Philip Levine’s Voice of Muscle and Grit

May 30, 2014
Philip Levine reading his work.

Philip Levine reading his work.

By Robert Israel

At MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge a few years back, poet Philip Levine was midway through a reading when the room was plunged into sudden darkness. The power failure, although unexpected, had a dramatic effect. It ended up enhancing the poem’s gloomy chiaroscuro narrative of a night in the 1930s when Levine and his immigrant Russian Jewish family huddled together to share dire news of pogroms in Europe:

I remember the room in which he held/a kitchen match and with his thumbnail/commanded it to flame: a brown sofa/two easy chairs, one covered with flowers,/a black piano no one ever played… — “My Father With Cigarette 12 Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart”

Levine, former Poet Laureate of the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner (in 1995 for Simple Truth), and recipient of the 2013 Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement, turned 86 this year. He shows no signs of retiring from writing. Like his contemporaries poets Galway Kinnell (age 87) and W.S. Merwin (age 86), Levine’s voice is distinctly American. Yet what sets him apart from most of his contemporaries is his articulation of the anger, hopes, and despairs of ordinary people struggling to maintain dignity in a world that often suppresses and suffocates it.

At the core of Levine’s work one hears the rhythms and the pulses of working people, smells their sweat, feels their heartaches:

Can you image the air filled with smoke? It was. The city was vanishing before noon/or was it earlier than that? I can’t say because/ the light came from nowhere and went nowhere. – “Smoke”

A winter Tuesday, the city pouring fire/Ford Rouge sulfurs the sun, Cadillac, Lincoln,/Chevy gray./The fat stacks/of breweries hold their tongues. Rags, /papers, hands, the stems of birches/dirtied with words. – “Coming Home: Detroit, 1968”

Today the snow is drifting/on Belle Isle, and the ducks/are searching for some opening/to the filthy waters of their river./On Grand River Avenue, which is not/in Venice but in Detroit, Michigan,/the traffic has slowed to a standstill/and yet a sober man has hit a parked car/and swears to police he was not guilty.” – “Snow”

The muscle and grit of Levine’s poetry is particularly needed today. His voice is unsentimental and it is at the service of a proletarian vision that offers a valuable, if scathing, perspective on our current national malaise.

Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine’s father died when he was 5 years old, leaving his family in tough economic straits. He built transmissions for Cadillac, worked for Chevrolet Gear and Axel, and drove a truck for Railway Express before quitting the city at age 26. A first generation Jewish American, his moral sensibility is rooted in the past, yet his poetry he explores the ways that history can meaningfully shape our present and future. This is especially significant now, given that his hometown of Detroit, having declared bankruptcy, is sinking further into economic distress. The response of lawmakers in Lansing has been to proclaim that “Detroit dug its own hole,” and at one point suggesting that the city should liquidate objects of art housed in the Detroit Institute for the Arts to pay its bills.

“The Detroit museum has always been under siege,” Levine told me in an interview during his scholar-in-residence stint at Brown University a few years ago. “I remember one time they wanted to paint over the Diego Rivera mural because it depicts a cross-section of a fetus inside a woman’s womb. Supposedly, it’s pornographic. Thankfully, they never succeeded.”

On my way to interview Levine, I spied him lumbering down a side street en route to a guest residence in Providence where we agreed to meet. But before I introduced myself, he had me in his scopes. He bristled with street smarts, sizing me up as friend or foe. Although now a retired academic from Fresno, California, he never lost his Detroit edginess, or his outspokenness.

“Just listen to the dreck pro-lifers spout and how these bigots have blocked women from gaining access to clinics for safe abortions,” he told me. “It’s no different from the idiots who wanted to paint over the Diego Rivera mural in Detroit, or Father Charles Coughlin who used to rant on the radio when I was a kid in support for Hitler and puking virulent anti-Semitism. Hatred yesterday equals hatred today.”

When I commented his remarks might be construed by some as inflammatory, he stared at me icily and shrugged my question off saying, “What’s the use of having free speech unless you exercise it?”

Politics aside, few poets have so eloquently captured the frustrations of looking for work, keeping a job, especially a job mired in drudgery:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. – “What Work Is”

Levine said he actually experienced standing in that line, needing work, yet getting turned away. It is a memory that haunts him today.

To escape the burdens of work, even at a young age, Levine, like many American poets, found solace in nature, our vast land of prairies and mountains and streams. Sometimes he found peace in urban plots of soil surrounded by fences. Sometimes he wandered in foreign lands, particularly Spain, where he lived with his family during a sabbatical. Several of his poems describe walks in forests, or meanderings in a grove of trees not far from 8 Mile in Detroit, where, after dinner as a youngster, he’d stand in the silence to compose poems in his head.

“I found a voice inside me,” Levine told me. “And I took joy in the physical world around me,” as seen in a snippet of this poem:

The great heads of the sunflowers fall and rise/in the winds they make. The bird dares the noon light/to pick from bloom to bloom, and now I see/the tiny puffed-out breast is smeared with rose./A finch, I think, a finch for Lejan Fwint,/whose seeds beget more seeds through the long days/until the brutal air itself groans with his praise. “Praise”

When I asked him about his current poems and how it contrasts with his earlier works, Levine replied: “In the past, anger was a major engine in my poetry, but now it’s been replaced by irony, it’s less elegiac, and, there’s more love.”

I asked him to share an example of this love.

“I had a student who came from the most horrific background you could imagine, from a family of abuse at home,” Levine said. “And she is one of the loveliest people you’d ever want to meet, with a kernel of life within her that just won’t be extinguished. She is someone I will write about, someday.”

These troubling times – when Levine’s hometown of Detroit teeters on lawlessness and collapse, when our fractious Congress remains unable to buoy our economy or to create jobs, when acrimony not only rules the land but stalks the streets unrestrained, Levine’s voice emerges as especially poignant.

His work personifies what Herman Melville once called “fine hammered steel.” His poems explore the best and worst of who we have been, who we are, who we are struggling to become. These uniquely American poems are not without hope. They are not without love. They command us to listen.

Robert Israel can be reached at This piece first appeared in Arts Fuse (Boston).


Hershey Felder Returns to Boston in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano”

May 18, 2014

Actor/pianist Hershey Felder in "Abe Lincoln's Piano"

Actor/pianist Hershey Felder in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano”

By Robert Israel

Pianist, actor, director and consummate storyteller Hershey Felder, known to Boston audiences for his solo impersonations of Beethoven, Gershwin, Bernstein and Chopin, returns after a two-year hiatus to Arts Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theater on May 20 through 31 in a one-man show entitled Abe Lincoln’s Piano.

Felder originally called the play Lincoln – An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra. It has been performed, to positive notices, at various national venues. Two years ago the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Felder narrating, recorded the work.

Performing that version freed Felder from the dual task of playing piano and narrating, but he said in an interview for The Arts Fuse that “the very reason I wrote the play in the first place – namely how I discovered Lincoln’s piano at the Chicago History Museum and the subsequent incidents that happened to me after that discovery — was stripped from the production. So, I wanted to bring it back.”

In the past, specifically for his solo show about George Gershwin, Felder immersed himself in lengthy research about his musical subjects. He studied the Gershwin canon and played each of his compositions on piano. He read letters by the composer and his lyricist brother Ira, visited the late composer’s New York City digs, and read a heap of scholarly works, all in an effort to more effectively channel Gershwin’s spirit into his performances. Indeed, publicity photographs that accompanied the show placed Gershwin’s profile alongside Felder’s countenance – and the resemblance was striking. Everywhere Felder traveled, he said, he heard from theatergoers about how his Gershwin portrait left lasting impressions.

“The problem became that everyone I met for a long while after the show saw me as Gershwin and only that, and they spoke to me about how my portrayal of him changed their lives,” Felder said. “And while that’s very flattering, I didn’t want to be known for just that one work alone.”

His re-branding forays away from that and other solo musical portrayals led him to direct a production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, a one-woman show about Holocaust survivor Lisa Jura, performed by her daughter, concert pianist Mona Golabek. That work premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2012, before traveling to Arts Emerson’s stage in Boston later that year. Currently, he has written and is directing a one-man show (now playing in Chicago) starring actor Chris Lemmon about the life of his late father, film star Jack Lemmon.

“The Lincoln piece as I perform it now is essentially the same story I wrote a few years ago,” Felder said. “This time, however, it’s being told from a different viewpoint. Without giving the story away, it tells about the young doctor who ministered to the dying president after he was shot at Ford’s Theatre, about the life of Mrs. Lincoln and her predilection for mysticism. Musically, it is set it in the era in which it took place and features songs by Stephen Foster, as well as tunes from the American Civil War songbook.”

Felder explained that, while he still spends time researching his subjects, he is now becoming “more receptive to allowing the work, or pieces of the work, to come to me, and then to come through me, instead.” He went on to clarify, saying, “If we are open to things, information, inspirations, insights, they come to us. I’ve always been fascinated by stories, and storytelling. And people will stop me and tell me snippets of stories, and I listen. Why not? If we are receptive to others, we can use this information and we go on to make wonderful discoveries.”

Felder, 45, was born and raised in Montreal to Jewish immigrants who relocated to Quebec after surviving the Holocaust. He presently makes his home in Paris, where he resides with his wife, Kim Campbell, who briefly served as Prime Minister of Canada, and who is 21 years his senior. When the couple resided in Cambridge (she was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University while he performed his one-man Gershwin show at the American Repertory Theater), the local press was agog about their union. The gossip, Felder asserts, has thankfully died down. “We’re just a boring couple like everyone else,” he says with a laugh.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. A previous version of this piece appeared in The Arts Fuse.

Tennessee Williams & the Mystique of the Chorus Girl

May 9, 2014
Tennessee Williams in a yearbook photo from the University of Missouri, circa 1929.

Tennessee Williams in a photo from the University of Missouri, circa 1929.

By Robert Israel

Before he changed his name to Tennessee, young Tom Williams drew upon impressions of the women close to him (his mother, sister and grandmother), as well as female actresses he saw in 1930s movies for the female characters in his plays.

These early creative explorations, and later dramatic manifestations, formed the core of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival’s season last year titled “50% Illusion: Tennessee Williams and Women.” The reference in the title is attributed to Williams’ character Blanche Dubois from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” who said, “After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion…”

“Researching Williams’ work,” said David Kaplan, Festival curator and impresario, “I noticed a recurring theme in his short plays: the character of the chorus girl.”

By focusing on Williams’ early influences – and obsessions – the Festival showcased how this theme influenced his later work. A world premiere, “The Chorus Girl Plays, “features three short plays — a work from 1935, “Cairo! Shanghai! Bombay!,” and two others, “At Liberty,” and “Curtains for the Gentleman,” written during this period.

“The girls in the chorus, whose figures and wits were a means to survive, became, it would seem, Williams’ template of a lady,” Kaplan said, noting that this theme emerged after his close reading of fifteen one-acts by Williams, collected posthumously by editor Thomas Keith and published in “Magic Tower and Other One Act Plays” (New Directions 2011).

This female archetype can be seen in the latter Williams’ characters – exemplified by Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Sissy Goforth in “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More” – (both were featured at the Festival). Yet elements of the chorus girls’ personas appear throughout the Williams canon: strong-minded women secure in their sexuality that command the stage with feisty and passionate, worldly-wise spirits.

The thread that binds “The Chorus Girl Plays” is a recreation of a bordello, not dissimilar to (according to Kaplan) the bars and bordellos Williams frequented in the East St. Louis neighborhood known for its seedy jazz joints and red light district. Williams, pictured above in a photograph taken circa 1929, was enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“I asked William Jay Smith [former U.S. poet laureate and longtime Williams friend], when he visited the Festival in 2010, if he knew if Williams had ever frequented these places. Smith told me, yes, Tom had gone there, and often,” Kaplan said.

These one-acts are directed by Robert Chevara, a Berlin- and London-based director who has worked on several of Williams’ plays on stages in the States and overseas, in collaboration with choreographer Paula Frasz, artistic director of Danszloop Chicago.

In a phone interview Frasz said her troupe “is composed of women of varied sizes, ages and experience. I love the diversity of their bodies. The show is labeled burlesque, and the actresses portray prostitutes, but it is not the burlesque audiences today might expect. They are not strippers. Only one dancer is dressed with pasties and tassels. The rest are dressed in period costumes – they show their garters, their slips, and stockings underneath — and they do peek-a-boo routines, including a fan dance, true to the era. But it is more teasing than stripping.”

There was, though, an unexpected factor Frasz realized once rehearsals began in Chicago last year.

“I hadn’t initially expected the dancers to also be actresses,” Frasz said. “That posed an initial challenge. Not all dancers are actresses. Sometimes when dancers open their mouths to deliver lines, they are less than successful. But they rose to the occasion. They are talented to do both dancing and acting.”

Both director Chevara and David Kaplan, who attended the rehearsals, insisted that the women wear period shoes, to authenticate their dance steps.

“In the 1930s, women wore these clunky heeled dance shoes, not the light and airy shoes dancers wear today. These shoes accentuated their earthy sexuality. They were very much like 1930s screen icon Mae West, communicating to audiences that they owned their sexuality,” Frasz said. “They stood up before the catcalls and hoots and the brassiness of the men who flocked to their shows as if to say, ’This is my body, I own it. You can enjoy it. But it’s mine. It belongs to me.’”

Director Robert Chevara, in a telephone interview from Germany, emphasized that Williams created chorus girls based on women he admired in films.

“The women are not red hot mammas, they are not Sophie Tucker-types,” he said. “Rather, they are women who are supportive of one another but who are obsessed by the men in their lives. Williams loved the characters in the gangster movies of his day, the molls who would follow their men over the cliff, if needed. We see this developed later in ’Streetcar.’ Stella won’t go over the cliff for her sister Blanche. Instead, she chooses Stanley over her sister.”

As for casting dancers as actresses, Chevara said he is pleased with how these performers play the dual roles with confidence and professionalism.

“Dancers are like soldiers,” Chevara said. “They do what they’re told. They don’t debate back and forth the way actors are wont to do.”

While he is on tap to direct Williams’ 1969 play, “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” in the West End in London next year, he sees great promise in the playwright’s early works.

“There is a great deal of poetry early on,” Chevara said. “There is humor and color and within these early plays and one sees the microcosm of themes emerge, themes he revisited in plays he wrote throughout his creative life.”

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece was published in Edge Media Network (Boston).

Seeing in Triplicate: Meet the Casilio Sisters

May 7, 2014
Alicia, Sarah and Kelly Casilio are identical triplets.

Alicia, Sarah and Kelly Casillio are identical triplets.

By Robert Israel

The Casilio triplets — Alicia, Sara and Kelly — have been confounding and provoking viewers of their art shows and public displays for nearly a decade.

Flash back: I first met the identical triplets Alicia, Sara and Kelly Casilio some years back, when they were affable, lanky teenagers who seemed to speak their own language. When addressed, they replied as one. I could discern no difference in their looks, in the tone and substance of their speech, or in their gestures. There were no telltale birthmarks. They were one person, multiplied by three.

They took perverse delight – from barely restrained giggling to outright laughter – when, on subsequent meetings over the years, usually at the home of a relative of mine, they challenged me to correctly identify them by name. I failed. Flustered, I retorted that they reminded me of the Triplets of Belleville, those three identical sisters in the French surrealist animated film from 2003 who, among other grotesque behaviors, enjoyed licking and then devouring frogs (legs and all).

They’d heard that comparison before. They weren’t buying.

“Ewwww,” they grimaced in unison. “We’re nicer than that.”

Flash forward: The Casilio triplets are 30-plus now, and as mischievous as ever. They still take perverse delight in confounding others about their identities, and in so doing, forcing us to confront our own.

And while the Casilios don’t savor dining on frogs like that cartoon Belleville triplets, their creative work can be just as unsettling. They use the mediums of film/video, photography and live performances to make bold statements. Their guerrilla performances — appearing on Wall Street, for example, dressed as identical pin-striped panhandlers with wads of phony bailout cash bursting from briefcases, or in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., dressed soldiers, civilians, and Iraqi women to protest the Iraq war — have been witnessed by scores of onlookers and have garnered national headlines.

The Casilios are androgynous chameleons who transform themselves into men, or heavily cosmeticized women, or variations of both. They have dressed as nuns, as street punks, as male judges/lawyers, to name only a few. They are ever-evolving, which is why they call their new show a “work in progress.”

They defy typecasting. Their work closely resembles American artist Cindy Sherman, who often dons grotesque costumes, bends her gender according to whim, and then either photographs or films herself.

“We know Cindy Sherman’s work,” Sara said, “and she once said that she didn’t want to make art that people didn’t understand, and we agree with that. But we don’t follow other artists. We do our own thing, making public art that has grown from who we are.”

“Since we’ve been very young, we’ve been looked at in public in a certain way,” Alicia added, “and so we’ve grown used to that, and we use that in our art.”

The Casilios began their performances in Boston in 2001 when they dressed as identical business women, checking their watches in mechanized movements. They later moved on to perform at bars in Boston, where they donned wigs to play off the stereotypes of “radical blond chicks,” as Sara calls them, removing their wigs to show bar patrons that they were really brunettes. They took the streets of New York and performed at Ground Zero before the national elections, where they came close to being arrested by a New York City cop on duty. And they have performed their own version of an art installation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston.

Their collaborator throughout many of these performances is Cary Wolinsky, a photographer whose work was associated for years with National Geographic magazine. Wolinsky photographed the triplets for a show earlier this year at Gallery Kayafas in Boston and has worked with them on their show at Boston University’s Commonwealth Avenue gallery.

“At the B.U. show, we created an installation that occupies the inside of a former Cadillac dealership on Commonwealth Avenue,” Sara said. “The theme is a search for Eden and we use different varieties of apples to weave a thread throughout the seven different sections, or ’truths’ about Eden. For instance, we use a giant Fuji apple to illustrate a vacation theme, illustrating the fantasies Americans have when they want to go on holiday. We use a Golden Delicious apple to show an androgynous serpent to illustrate Adam, Even and the serpent, and we alter the exterior of the building, too.”

Shortly after the show closed in Boston, the Casilio triplets were off to do a show in New York at the Dodge Gallery. While they each have separate lives, they collaborate often, and their new work can be found online at

And that sums up the Casilio triplets: they are works in progress, like us all. They take advantage of their unique shared identities to confound and to awaken us to our own unpredictable natures, our own changing identities, those that we define by our jobs, our sex, and our dreams. They hold a mirror up to us and ask us to confront the truth that we are all constantly in flux, and living in an ever-changing world.

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

Profile: Jason Schuchman

May 6, 2014
Joel Colodner, Jason Schuchman and Anne Gottlieb in a scene from "My Name is Asher Lev," Lyric Stage of Boston

Joel Colodner, Jason Schuchman and Anne Gottlieb in a scene from “My Name is Asher Lev,” Lyric Stage of Boston

By Robert Israel

When Jason Schuchman was growing up in a suburb of New York City, he remembers playing ball on the street with his brother while two Hasidic Jewish boys, around his age, watched with great curiosity from the opposite side of the street. The boys were quickly corralled by their mother who told her sons that engaging in this sport was hazardous to their health. And then he heard the boys counter, “But those boys aren’t getting hurt, they are having fun, and they can catch the balls in those brown leather baskets they are wearing on their hands.”

Schuchman, 35, drew from this recollection of the other-worldliness of separatist Hasidic Jews, as well as other experiences, for his role as Asher Lev in the play, My Name is Asher Lev, one of the most memorable productions that appeared at the Lyric Stage of Boston two seasons ago.

The play – which runs 90 minutes, without intermission – premiered four years ago in Philadelphia. The playwright, Aaron Posner, adapted the story from the novel by the late Chaim Potok for the Arden Theatre, where he was then artistic director. The play has since gone on to numerous productions nationally, where it attracted favorable notices. It tells the story of a young Jew from a fervently religious family who is torn between pursuing his artistic ambitions as a painter while remaining true to his family’s unyielding devotion to Orthodox Judaism.

“This is actually the fourth time I’ve played a Hasidic Jew,” Schuchman tells me. He has played the role of an undercover cop disguised as an Orthodox Jew in Third Watch, a television police show; as a 19th century garment salesman in Infinite Apparel; and as an Orthodox man in the play, Modern Orthodox.

Asher Lev explores a family’s reaction to art, which is looked upon negatively from the standpoint of how one should remain devoted to God,” Schuchman says. “Chaim Potok, who grew up Orthodox, actually had an interest in painting, but that interest was discouraged by his observant family. Becoming a writer was looked upon as favorable, because Jews have a devotion to the written word, so that is the route that Potok, who also became an ordained rabbi, took. The play it explores the dualities of life, the emotional strains, the push and pull that we all face in our struggles to become individuals, to pursue our identities unfettered and in ways that may be at odds with whatever the norm is in our respective societies.”

As he prepared for the role of the artist Asher Lev — torn between his painting, his religion and his family — Schuchman re-read Potok’s novel, looked at clips of modern abstract art, and drew from his many experiences.

“I was raised as a Reform Jew,” Schuchman says, “but my family has roots in Orthodoxy, from when my great-grandparents lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, during the era when it was a Jewish enclave. So I decided to approach the role from the inside looking out. I also know many actors and artists, as well as friends of mine, who have had turbulent relationships with their families over their identities, so I decided to bring this into my work, too.”

Schuchman, unlike those friends and fellow thespians, has not had to face those struggles in his own personal life. He says he “stumbled” into acting, after graduating from Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

“I thought, initially after graduating, that I’d go into work in the law,” he says. “It was during a chat with my mother, believe it or not, and she was the one who suggested I try acting. So, after that chat, I started looking into it seriously.”

He landed a few roles with local troupes, including a stint at the Huntington Theater Company in Boston, and then decided to try his luck in New York.

“Nicky Martin, the former artistic director at the Huntington, liked my work and offered to be of help,” Schuchman says, “and I went off to do work in the city.”

He’s been working ever since on stage, and on television, where he’s been cast on shows like Law and Order, and in commercials (including a stint hawking Johnny Walker scotch whiskey).

While there have been other portrayals of Hasidic Jews on stage – Anna Deavere Smith, in her one-woman show Fires in the Mirror, explored the tensions between the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, NY and the African-American community – this play, Schuchman believes, mines a deeper vein, that of the pursuit of one’s calling in the face of the dictates of one’s faith which may be at odds with that calling.

“I’ve been really curious about as to audience reaction in this show,” he says. “Sometimes they take the side of Asher’s father who is single-minded in his devotion to God. Sometimes they feel Asher’s conflict as an artist, and his struggle to be true to himself and his passion and his family. The play asks audiences to confront these hard questions and to ponder their reactions to both sides. These questions are not unique to the Hasidic Jewish experience alone. I believe they resonant with many groups, and many people.”

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

Review: Allen Ginsberg’s “Collected Poems”

May 5, 2014
Ginsberg's poetry displays linguistic inventiveness.

The best of Ginsberg’s poetry — much of it collected in this edition — displays linguistic inventiveness.

By Robert Israel

It was enough to bring a smile to a dead poet’s lips.

Almost 10 years after his death in 1997, and twenty years after Cambridge-based photographer Elsa Dorfman took a nude Polaroid photo of Allan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, the (now defunct) Boston Phoenix published a review of his posthumously published Collected Poems 1947-1997 (HarperCollins, NY) that included the nude photo prominently displayed on the page. The two men stand with ebullient smiles, arms around one another. The Dorfman photo is reminiscent of another depiction of a famous couple, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who also posed nude (front and back) for the album Two Virgins.

Nothing distasteful: Ginsberg and Orlovsky were two men with nothing, literally, to hide.

Yet the published image so offended the folks at Shaw’s, they would not allow the Phoenix to be distributed in their markets. When asked her reaction to the censorship by the Boston Globe, Elsa Dorfman deemed it ridiculous, adding that the poisons Shaw’s sells in its supermarkets are a lot more harmful than a photo of two long ago dead naked men.

At that point, the Phoenix and the Globe should have jointly issued one of Ginsberg’s best known poems, “A supermarket in California,” in a broadside for distribution for free at Shaw’s, and every other supermarket for that matter. A wonderful poem, it descries America’s capitalistic values, while, comically, offering up homage to Whitman with a healthy serving of humor: “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.”

Not everyone took to Allan Ginsberg during his lifetime. The publication of Collected Poems 1947-1997, which is almost as thick as a phone book, won’t change that estimation, although it should. Ginsberg is a major American poet, a poet of lyricism and depth, a disciple of the Walt Whitman school of rhapsody, and a linguistic pioneer.

Ginsberg was a Beat poet, but he was a poet who pursued a beat, and that was to embrace humanity in all its incarnations.

I first encountered Ginsberg in person when he came to the University of Rhode Island, where I was a graduate student in the late 1970s. Bearded, bespectacled, portly, he arrived with an entourage, sat on stage at Edwards auditorium, and, with a squeeze box in hand, began chanting his “Don’t smoke” mantra. That poem is included in this collection, too. In the refrain, he admonishes readers to find oral satisfaction sexually with one another, rather than to succumb to the evils of smoking. It was meant to be taken seriously, but it was also meant to be a goof, too.

I found it strange then, and re-reading the poem/song today I still find it perplexing, that Ginsberg would become such a purist and urge a ban on smoking when, in the 1960s, he was a champion for all the intoxicating pollutants one could ingest. In a City Lights Journal article about his trip to India in the early 1960s (not included in this collection), he was rhapsodic about smoking ganja with sadhus, or holy men, he encountered along the way in Calcutta.

If pressed on this contradictory stance, he might intone Walt Whitman, who once wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain the multitudes.” One of Ginsberg’s failings, repeated throughout his life, was his craving for celebrity. He captured more than his share of headlines for protests, including sitting along the railroad tracks protesting the shipment of plutonium in Colorado.

Indeed, as a disciple of Whitman, Ginsberg did contain the multitudes. For those who tuned in the PBS television special, No Direction Home, about Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorsese, you will remember the director including numerous interviews with Ginsberg from the 1960s and 1970s when he traveled with Dylan’s entourage around the world. Looking less like the huggable bear I witnessed in the 1970s, Ginsberg in that film was wearing a suit and a tie, pens in his pocket, reflecting, almost wistfully, on his travels in the limelight. Indeed, there are several poems in this collection, written in the twilight of his years that are sad in tone, depressive, leaving the reader with the feeling that he viewed his life as misspent.


Included in this collection is Howl (which has been published in a separate volume, in facsimile), his best known poem, which indeed personified Whitman’s call to “unlock the doors,” by creating original and inspiring works of art. Ginsberg was at the zenith of his talent when he was writing this poem in the 1950s, and its publication, which met with censorship and later triumph, remains one of the most astonishing the American publishing history today.

Ginsberg, who was born in 1926, lived long enough to ride out many national and global trends, contributing his poetic voice to countless causes. That he wrote as many poems and songs and chants and poetic manifestos as he did is astonishing. Furthermore, he carried the banner for many groups, pioneering the concept of equal rights for all. This collection chronicles his triumphs and failures and cements his rightful place in the canon of American literature.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this review appeared in Edge Media Network, Boston.

Mona Golabek: Sharing a Personal History of the Holocaust Onstage

May 5, 2014
Mona Golabek

Mona Golabek

By Robert Israel

Telling stories of the Holocaust on stage is a daunting and mind-numbing task. The sheer immensity of how six million Jews were slaughtered cannot be easily grasped. Stage plays in recent years, in order to successfully tell that story, have focused on a single individual – or families – swept away by the murderous Nazis. In Boston, the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston staged Captors starring the incomparable actor Michael Christopher as Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi architects of the concentration camps, and we witnessed – and learned in harrowing detail — how he ordered the systematic demise of millions.

Yet while the stories must be told, in the same way that the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem is compelled to “travel from land to land” to tell his tale, the challenge is to tell them well, to impart on the memory indelible images. Not every play or film is able to do this effectively.

The gifted concert pianist and author Mona Golabek who appeared at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center in Boston recently adds to the canon of these successful productions with her haunting show which she is touring nationally. Directed by Hershey Felder, a Canadian-born musician, actor and director who is himself the son of survivors, it tells the story of one woman and one Jewish family caught in the death grip of the Nazi machine. Titled The Pianist of Willesden Lane it is a worthy addition to the catalog of Holocaust dramas.

Through words and music played on an onstage concert grand piano, Ms. Golabek shares details about her mother, Lisa Jura, a Jewess living in Austria before the Anschluss, who dared to dream of becoming a concert pianist. Through vivid descriptions, aided by the onstage use of projected photographic images on screens behind her, we are taken on a musical and historical kaleidoscopic journey. We soon learn that her dreams are about to be drowned out by the Nazi jackboots who have marched into Vienna and how their arrival changes the course of personal and collective histories.

Music played on the piano is sentimental, dreamy, and rhapsodic, even when rendered into snippets. One cannot attend a production of Ms. Golabek’s show without thinking of Adrien Brody’s portrayal of pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilmnan in Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist, which incorporated Chopin’s nocturnes in a similar manner.

But in this play, these brief musical selections – which include pieces by Beethoven, Grieg, Bach and others – also enhance the complexities of the musical compositions, and, by turns, the narrative. It is a purposeful device which Ms. Golabek explains is used to expose “the layers of beautiful sound.” Music, we come to discover, is like life itself: a whirlwind of sound, or just a whisper – that reflects our souls.

It should be noted that Mona Golabek is a woman of slight build, with thin arms and a warm, animated face that lends itself easily into taking on the personas of not only her mother, but also by those her mother encounters: a teacher, a Nazi soldier, or a Jewish boy who fancies her,(who has similarly managed to escape Austria via the kinder transport, a life-saving mission that rescued thousands of Jewish children from the Nazi occupied territories). While the production demands a certain physical prowess one might attribute to a person of greater stature, Ms. Golabek’s physical fragilities grace the stage with such wistfulness they underscore her character’s vulnerability.

The play takes us to England, to descriptions of the Blitz that destroyed countless British neighborhoods and homes, including a hostel where Lisa is living. While the narrative borders on the mundane – details of all the children living together, their names and attributes – Ms. Golabek keeps us interested through animated gestures, the snippets of music interspersed throughout, and keeps us riveted by the anticipation of details of more dramatic moments to come. These include her mother’s debut at Royal Albert Hall in London, and the arrival of V.E. Day.

There has already come a time when memories like those shared in this play are handed down to grandchildren of survivors who, in search of their roots, go on to tell their children and their great-grandchildren. Each of these stories is important, but especially when the stories are intertwined with dramatic devices that help us feel only to keenly the human elements.

To experience this story with Mona Golabek, the daughter of a survivor, we come to learn that her mother Lisa Jura was one of the lucky ones who managed to get on the train to freedom. Her survival helped to defeat the Nazi edict to exterminate an entire people. She and others like her spawned a new generation, and now that generation is carrying this legacy forward.

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

RIP: Nicholas Martin

May 1, 2014
Nicolas Martin

Nicolas Martin died on April 30, 2014 in New York after a long illness.

By Robert Israel

Nicholas Martin, longtime artistic director at the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston and the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass., where he directed over 18 productions, died April 30 in New York after a long illness. He was 75 years old.

I interviewed Nicky, as he was known, for a piece that appeared in Edge Media Network. As a tribute to Nicky, here is the piece reprinted in its entirety:

Last month, J. David Wimberly, chairman of the board of the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, announced that artistic director Nicholas Martin had agreed to leave at the end of two-year extension of his contract in 2008. The agreement also includes a two-year term, beginning in the summer of 2008, for Martin to assume the title of Artist Emeritus and to provide the Huntington with “artistic guidance and support.”

During these past six seasons, Nicholas Martin has brought the Huntington to new heights. He can be credited with increasing the theatre’s prominence and visibility in the community. Under his tutelage, the Huntington has added two new theatres in the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End (a historic feat, as these are the only new legitimate stages to be built in Boston in 75 years).

Additionally, he established the Breaking Ground festival – an annual event of new-play readings – and commissioned the Huntington Playwriting Fellows, now entering its third year. And he has steadfastly put together winning seasons, and, most notably, he put the Huntington on the map as one of the few national theatres that the late August Wilson turned to when he chose to mount new productions of his works.

To meet Nicholas Martin is to encounter a man uniquely aware of his life-force. I have chatted with him many times before curtain and he’s impressed me as someone with a quick wit, an engaging smile and penetrating eyes that don’t miss much. This led me to recall the title of one of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, The Imp of the Perverse as a possible moniker for him. He seems to me to be like a mischievous child who is trapped inside the body a grown man.
Our conversation – which Nicholas Martin insisted be seen as a look forward rather than a look backward – began with my asking his reaction to my impression of him.

Nicholas Martin: Well, what you’ve noticed about me is true. I’ve had a life that has been troubled and abruptly punctuated by tragedy. The only thing that has gotten me through a lot of what I’ve faced is humor.

Robert Israel: What specifically has been tragic about your life?

Martin: Well, there has been a lot of loss, the mortality of close ones that died of AIDS. And without going into it, really, let’s just say I’ve frankly lived through a lot of violent death. And I’ve come through these things. Humor has helped me get through these things.

RI: What can you tell us about next season?

Martin: It is still in the formative stages, and I can’t really spill the beans but we are close to deciding on a season. I’ll soon announce that we will be working with two local playwrights at the Wimberly.

RI: You’ve just finished up the run of Butley starring Nathan Lane, which opened here in Boston and then enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, despite some negative notices by the critics there.

Martin: The negative notices in the press, which were disappointing, seemed to dwell on the fact that these critics couldn’t get past the tremendous success he’s enjoyed from so many of his film roles, such as The Bird Cage and The Producers. This is unfortunate and distressing. It’s as if these critics can’t get past their own envy about his successes nor see that he is tremendously talented in everything he does. Working with Nathan is a dream for a director.

RI: You sound annoyed by the press reaction to Butley.

Martin: Yes, because several of the critics compared Nathan’s performance to Alan Bates [the British actor who starred in the original production], and most of them weren’t alive to have seen Bates perform. It’s very distressing, really, because working with Nathan is one of the greatest collaborations I’ve ever had. But theatre critics today are lacking in that they don’t love the theatre, and they don’t have a sense of history about the theatre. To compare a performer’s work with someone that they haven’t seen and who, by the way, is no longer alive, is illustrative of this.

RI: Do you have any plans about working with Nathan Lane again?

Martin: Yes, we’ve talked about doing a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” with him in the role of Falstaff, not necessarily here in Boston, but that may be years off.

RI: Meanwhile, this season of the Huntington is far from being finished.

Martin: Exactly. Not only am I excited about the current production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I’m thrilled to be presenting Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which opens in May. It will star Victor Garber, and it’s one of those serendipitous things that sometimes happen – he was available, we’re friends, and he telephoned to say he was available, so we postponed doing Streamer” to present him in the Coward play instead. It’s not every day that you get someone like Victor, an actor of his significance, to do this. But before that I’m also directing Persephone by Noah Haidle, in March. So, you see, now is not the time to be looking backward and summing up all my years here. There’s just too much to look forward to.

Robert Israel can be reached at This interview appeared in a previous version at Edge Media Network (Boston).