Archive for October, 2015

Report from Toronto: A Visit to the Aga Khan Museum

October 16, 2015

By Robert Israel

In late 2014, the Aga Khan Museum – home to an extensive, private collection showcasing Islamic arts and Muslim culture — opened to the public on a 17-acre site in Toronto, Ontario. From its first day, the museum has been a source of radiance during dark times.

Its Brazilian granite exterior rises above an expansive, welcoming courtyard with pristinely landscaped gardens, reflecting pools, and flowering trees. Though within earshot of the Don Mills superhighway just beyond its perimeters, once you are inside the building the distractions of the outside world vanish. The museum encloses visitors in a relaxing atmosphere of civility, sensuality, and contemplation.

This is by design. The museum’s namesake and benefactor, his Highness The Aga Khan Shah Karim, the 49th Imam (part of a dynasty that dates back to the 1800s) acquired the Toronto site in 2007. Soon afterward, he hired Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki to undertake the museum’s design. Maki’s mandate was to make the building pay homage to the concept of light, “to direct and to diffuse light into the building in ingenious ways,” according to the museum’s website, which adds that the building should be “positioned 45 degrees to solar north to ensure that all exterior surfaces receive natural light over the course of the day.”

Yet the Aga Khan Museum should also be appreciated as a source of inspiration at a time when the civilization that produced its art has become horrifically vulnerable, even teetering on extinction. Escalating ground battles and airstrikes have reduced thousands of acres in the Middle East to a wasteland, as revealed by satellite images acquired by Amnesty International and published in the New York Times.

If this destruction is not tragic enough, just three months ago, in early March, via televised images from Mosul, Iraq, the world looked on in horror as black hooded members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, ransacked museums, toppled ancient statues, and demolished artwork across Syria and Iraq. These artifacts, housed in mosques and other holy structures erected by Muslims and Shiites, were deemed “unpure” by ISIS warriors.

“The destruction is on a scale the world hasn’t seen since World War II, and it’s accelerating,” Boston University archaeologist Michael D. Danti told the Boston Globe. “It’s certainly the gravest cultural emergency of our times.”

It is also a time when these highly publicized global incidents are inciting isolated outbreaks against Muslim men, women, and children who legally reside in Canada (an estimated one million Muslims live in Canada), according to Canada’s National Post.

This is how Shahad Salman, a lawyer and researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, talked about the issue of violence in a conversation with the National Post: “We’ve had incidents of Muslims being directly targeted in the streets [in Quebec]. That’s where it becomes really dangerous. This year, the Charlie Hebdo shooting and ISIS, and those youth leaving for Syria – I think certainly that’s made it even worse. There are so many people who directly relate terrorists to Muslims, especially on social media. What we need, on all levels of government is a clear statement on unity and to stand firm against Islamaphobia.”

With these Canadian and global incidents in mind, I asked Linda Milrod, head of collections and exhibitions at the Aga Khan Museum, about how the museum was responding to the state of emergency that exists in the Middle East and the climate of unease that seems to be spreading throughout Canada. Is the museum undertaking rescue missions to save the endangered artwork? Are there outreach programs to better educate the Canadian population? “There is no organized effort per se to rescue endangered artwork at this time,” Milrod responded. “But new works are being acquired and commissioned all the time. And the museum is actively involved in programming a full range of arts and outreach programs that draw from Muslim civilizations, past and present.”

In recent months, artists from India, Iran, Siberia, China, and Canada have been invited to perform at the museum. The shows include live theatre, films, musical presentations, and lectures.

As I gazed upon on the museum’s dazzling collection, which includes calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, tapestries, paintings, and luxury objects, I noted a common thread among many of the pieces. A number had been created during (and sometimes even depicted) periods of barbarism and widespread conflagration — from Hannibal and Genghis Khan to the British Raj and beyond — that have afflicted the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia. Indeed, over time many museums have acquired masterworks by taking advantage of political chaos; only in recent history, thanks to persistent reparation efforts, have several of these art works been returned to their rightful heirs or, in a few instances, to their homelands.

Yet sometimes these lustrous art objects were not stolen, but had been obtained, at considerable expense, during historic journeys made along the Silk Road and other trade routes. A current exhibit at the Aga Khan (through October 18) displays objects on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other collections titled, “A Thirst for Riches: Carpets from the East in Paintings from the West.” One gazes upon sumptuous paintings from mid-17th-century Holland that spotlight Eastern carpets in luxurious settings. The depiction of these embroidered rugs symbolized their owners’ wealth and status as well as their penchant for vanity. One painting shows opulence in overabundance; a mirror on a rear wall reflects the shadow of a servant holding a tray upon which rests items she will serve to her masters. The artist encourages us to gaze at the room and gawk with wonderment and envy at the lavish lifestyle, because these handsome folks have truly arrived, while we, alas, are mere slack-jawed interlopers.

A concurrent exhibit, “Visions of Mughal India,” depicts images of elephants, massive pachyderms parading through densely populated villages or, adorned in military regalia, engaging in battle. It brought back memories of my own elephant obsession. There was the time when, as a boy, I badgered my father about a preposterous notion — letting me adopt a baby elephant. He finally gave me a perfumed sandalwood elephant miniature purchased for a single rupee at a shouk in Delhi. Seeing the elephant tapestry brought me back to my youth; the images evoked the majestic qualities of the animal, suggesting why they are revered so deeply throughout South Asia. Howard Hodgkin’s abstractions are hung nearby, pictures painted with wide brushstrokes, displaying the brilliant colors one sees in India — ochre and sienna and ruby red.

There are dozens of similar objects that transport a visitor to another time and generate myriad sensations. There are objects that contain lines written in ancient Persian attributed to the poet Rumi from the 13th century; the lines are etched onto parchment, or brass. Nearby, one can view holy verse written on the delicate contours of a scallop shell. There is an ivory horn called the Oliphant, carved between the 11th or 12th century in Italy, that depicts a hunting scene: it is crowned with bands of English silver. There are original editions of the Qur’an that date from ancient times, when scribes used a single quill to express, in words, their devotion to their deity.

At closing time I made my way to the ground floor cafeteria adjacent to an outdoor courtyard that was drenched in light and mist. I drank a confection saturated in rose water. Here was a place where it seemed appropriate to forget the intractable conflicts of our troubled world, to reflect on how one’s spirit, grown weary from struggles personal and political, eagerly longs for an experience of peace. At the Aga Khan Museum — soothed by exceptional images, sounds, and words — tranquility becomes a permissible possibility.

TORONTO: Nov. 23, 2008 - Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims pictured during an interview in Toronto, Nov. 23, 2008. Handout photo. CNS-Aga-Khan

Aga Khan, speaking in Toronto, Ontario.


This feature story appeared originally in The Arts Fuse (Boston).


Review: “Meow Meow” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston

October 15, 2015

By Robert Israel

Meow Meow, née Melissa Madden Gray, is a lanky, long-legged performance artist from Australia. Surely you’ve noticed her astonished gaze and disheveled mane of dark, unruly tresses leering at you from subway posters and billboards all over town. And since she’s been quite adept at milking the publicity cow to extend her 15 minutes of fame, undoubtedly you’ve seen her batting her long false eyelashes and flashing her pearly whites in cameos in the gossip columns and on television.

Meow Meow’s branding skills are formidable. But her show at the Cutler Majestic, replete with onstage musicians, stagehands, a body double, and all that pizzazz, is a mess. She’s a heavy-duty, wink-wink cheeky performer with a marvelous singing voice. She struts her stuff like a freaky chorus girl on amphetamines. An ounce of her manic energy could fuel a fleet of Uber taxis. There are flashes of brilliance, but she fails to assert the necessary discipline to shape the show-biz chaos in ways that would sustain our attention. Her director, Leigh Silverman, tries to rein Meow Meow in, but fails. She is too feisty, too jittery. She wriggles like a glowworm. She cannot commit long enough to singing a song to bother to finish it; she continually shifts her attention to audience members that she plucks from the front rows for onstage mischief and mayhem.

The premise of the show is “an audience with Meow Meow,” meaning that theatergoers are co-conspirators to her hammy antics. But what’s missing from her Mulligan’s stew is a unifying sensibility that would bring the show’s flavors together, an order that would rest on her interpretive gifts as a musical performer. Meow Meow’s biography credits her with doing just that at many international venues; she’s garnered praise for interpreting the tunes of Brecht/Weill and others. But in this show, Meow Meow’s dependence on shticks—pratfalls, the slow unenticing removal of layers of undergarments that adhere to her limbs like spider’s webbing, and streams of unintelligible babble meant to underscore her flibbertigibbet persona–elbows her skills as a songstress aside. She milks the audience for applause so often it feels as if we are seated on stools in a dairy barn. This consistent craving for the audience’s adoration–which goes on over a dozen times–becomes annoying.

Two of her song selections, Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” illustrate the lost artistic opportunities. During the Brel rendition, she accosts four men from the audience to join her onstage to form a ménage à trois while she simultaneously attempts to put the song’s romantic lyrics across. Setting up the ruse of a human throne—petting an audience member’s bald dome as her choice supplicant, positioning another to form the seat and arms that she sits upon—takes up far too much time and energy. Eventually, the gag runs out of steam, a souffle that is esoufflé. The performance collapses in order to generate a few laughs.

The same thing happens to the Cohen song. Meow introduces the piece by identifying that it’s “from the Great American Songbook, written by a Canadian.” The musicians launch into it, slow and sexy. She croons with her on-target throaty/smoky voice. But then she hurries through the verses so she can quickly return to the antics, the frantic fray. Were we supposed to pay attention to the song? Or is it just a straight man for a punch line?

The most dazzling moment of the show comes when Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Meow Meow’s body double, joins her in a pas de deux onstage. It’s marvelously choreographed by Sonya Tayeh and one of the few times when Meow Meow, perpetually basking in the glow of self-adoration, is forced to focus on the talents of another performer. Alas, like the song selections truncated for the sake of questionable onstage antics, this moment ends abruptly. If only there had been an extended session of this clever mirror-image interaction—we would have been treated to another sample of Meow Meow’s impressive gifts.

Meow Meow walks (and tumbles off of) the tightrope between pandering for audience affection and commanding the stage by showcasing her considerable musical talents. Because she chooses antics over substance, there are too many flashes in her pan—in the end, the audience leaves with nothing but glitter in its eyes.


This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Interview: Matthew Teitelbaum, new Gund Director of the MFA Boston

October 7, 2015

Matthew Teitelbaum is the newly appointed Gund director at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

By Robert Israel

Before meeting Matthew Teitelbaum in person – he’s the newly appointed Ann and Graham Gund Director at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) — I met him in print, in an essay he wrote in a Toronto museum’s catalogue.

I was touring the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where Teitelbaum worked for 22 years (5 as chief curator and 17 as director and CEO). Without planning on it, I happened on Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross, an exhibit that showed graphic images of imprisoned Polish Jews who were later murdered by the Nazis. Fearing deportation and death, Ross buried his work. At war’s end, among only a handful of Jews that survived, he exhumed his prints and negatives when the Red Army liberated Poland in 1945. It was a devastating experience — visually and viscerally — to stand in the AGO gallery before harrowing portraits of a lost people.

“It is, in a deep and unsettling way, difficult to make sense of these images,” Teitelbaum wrote in the forward to the Ross catalogue. Yet later, in the AGO essay, Teitelbaum attempted just that by describing what it must have felt like to be trapped there: “…no roads lead elsewhere…no light shines through windows; walls, fences and closed doors separate but do not join,” he wrote.

Teitelbaum, 59, may be among the most reluctant employees the MFA has hired. He told the Toronto Star he was “not looking for a job in any way” when the MFA came calling. “I was completely focused on what I truly believed,” he said, adding he initially resisted the MFA’s overtures.

But the MFA was not to be shunned. As he warmed to the idea of leaving his native Toronto and the successful career he built there, Teitelbaum began to see the possibilities of relocating to Boston.

“I got very excited by what it would mean to try something new, what it would mean to engage with a collection that is truly international, that has collections all over the world,” he said.

Teitelbaum is no stranger to Boston. He had served as a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) before he took his first job at AGO. He had lectured at Harvard University. Part of the attraction of coming to Boston, he explained, is the opportunity to strengthen relationships between the MFA and Boston’s academic community.

The MFA directorship comes with a hefty salary. The Star reported that Teitelbaum earned, yearly, $388,000 (Canadian dollars) at AGO. The Boston Globe reported that the MFA paid out, to now-retired director Malcolm Rogers, more than double that sum: over $900,000 a year (U.S. dollars), including a $60,000 housing allowance.

The MFA expects Teitelbaum to lead the charge in ambitious programming, acquisition, preservation, scholarship, and fundraising. And, after meeting him at a community breakfast in September and listening to his list of priorities — compiled after he had spent less than 100 days on the job — it is clear that the governing MFA board also expects him to shake the place up a bit, too.

“Museums are places where objects and ideas meet,” Teitelbaum said, sharing a number of Tweets he composed at #MatthewTeitelbaum. “While one can enjoy solitary moments in a museum, I believe it’s a place where people come together to share and to interact.”

Toward that end, in one of his first meetings with his staff, he offered a chilly description of what is often perceived about the MFA, namely that the 145-year-old museum is “open but not accessible.”

The building on Huntington Avenue in Boston’s Fenway district is “a city block long and that’s one of its attributes and one of its challenges,” he said. “It is seen as an intimidating place.”

Speaking plainly, yet avoiding listing specific initiatives he is still formulating, Teitelbaum told the breakfast audience that he is working with his staff to “create great partnerships,” with not only Bostonians, but with the international community as well.

“I just visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I viewed a Picasso exhibit,” he stated. “There’s something about putting on a great exhibition, and the MFA does that, too. But museums have to do more than just exhibit great art; they have to engage us in conversations differently. The way we communicate today is more fluid. We need more external voices.”

He was asked about the MFA working more closely with MIT’s media lab, for example, and if one of his agenda items is to offer more “free admission” days in order to draw more people into the MFA.

“We are open to ideas,” he replied, so long as “these ideas help us to build audiences, to create partnerships and to establish sustainability, so we are always engaging and connecting with these audiences not once but many times.”

Teitelbaum also shared what he said is another reason he came to the MFA: the museum’s painting by J.M.W. Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On.

“This painting shows both terror and beauty co-existing,” Teitelbaum observed. “And it reminds me of how life is, that we are always negotiating between fear and grace. It is one of the paintings in this museum I constantly make a pilgrimage to see, over and over again.”

Teitelbaum closed his remarks by saying he wants the MFA to be both “open and generous.” With a photographic image of the tranquil yet deserted museum at night projected on the screen behind him, he concluded: “Here’s a view of your MFA at night. I have to figure out how to keep the MFA not quiet at night.”

This story appeared originally in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Report from Amsterdam: Bruidstranen (Bride’s Tears)

October 6, 2015

By Robert Israel

A view of the Prinsengracht canal, Amsterdam, Holland.

(dedicated to Jeremy Chase-Israel)

The canals were swollen from the rain. I crossed the footbridge and heard runoff gushing from drainpipes, emptying into the canals below.

I sought refuge inside a grocery store. I dry wiped my eyeglasses and the first thing that came into focus was the smile of a milkmaid hawking Droste’s baking chocolate on the wall opposite the frozen food aisle. Beside it hung a historical plaque that explained that the Nazis had once commandeered the store as Gestapo headquarters. To offer further proof, two framed, black and white photos hung beside the plaque, one showing a swastika in the window, the other a S.S. sentry in mufti, standing by the entrance I had just walked through.

Nearby I had toured the Anne Frank “secret annex” on the Prinsengracht, the place where she and her family hid, until the Gestapo – no doubt the same thug shown at parade rest in the photo — arrested them, tipped off to their whereabouts by rat-bastard collaborationists. Anxiety overcame me. I quit the store hurriedly. Yet I could not lose the images of the Nazi scourge. The streets offered no relief. Fatigue, amplified by the sound of my own footsteps sloshing alongside the canals, prevented me from retreating to a dry, familiar place in my mind.

Amsterdam, like so many European cities once overrun by jackboots, is moody even in bright sunlight. Forced gaiety scarcely conceals these scars. Public drunkenness, stoners exhaling hashish fumes, and prostitutes with lipstick smiles embracing customers in red-lit storefront windows for all to see amplifies this atmosphere of recklessness. On a sodden night, the city is a Walpurgisnacht carnival. Dark spirits are afoot.

Even before the rain fell, my visit had not augured well. The museums had long lines and tourists rubbernecked to catch glimpses of Vincent Van Gogh’s torturous self-portraits: his psychotic eyes followed me from gallery to gallery. My hotel was schlecht: upon checking in the night before, the ceiling light – a single chord with a bare light bulb and pull chain — crashed to the floor when I went to turn it on, followed by sparks and broken glass. The day manager, once informed, told me to leave my luggage with him until a new room could be made up. “Go to dinner, have a beer, and I’ll take care of everything,” he said. Returning an hour later, my luggage was missing, the manager had gone off duty, there was no note directing me to a new room, and, while the broken glass had been swept up, the lock on my door was jammed. That night, I lay awake fully dressed, fearing someone would come in to violate me. The next morning the day manager found my missing luggage but refused to refund my 65 Euros. With a maniacal insistence that surprised even me, I leaned over the counter, grabbed him by his lapels and threatened to thrash him, prompting him to quickly fork over the bank notes from his suit coat pocket. Dinner that night was impossible: the Dutch invite their dogs to sit tableside, and the place smelled like a kennel; I ate hurriedly lest a brindled mastiff, glaring at me from an adjacent table, his jowls drooling with spittle, might grab the medallion of undercooked beef from my fork. Wandering alone down the streets to the docks of the Leidseplein, where tourists depart for booze-fueled tours of the foul canals, I happened on a monument to Jews once herded from their homes and forced onto boats that took them straightaway to the furnaces of Hell.

I had made up my mind to quit the city altogether on the first flight bound for the States out of Schiphol airport, but first I had to get out of the rain.

Passing through a foyer constructed from oaken wine casks, I entered a public house. A barmaid welcomed me in English. She gestured for me to sit at a table near where a gas fireplace sputtered bluish flames. She asked what I might like to drink. I stammered: I need to dry off, I’m having an awful night.

She considered my response. She crossed the barroom, fetched a jug, and returned with a shot glass that had been tucked into her apron, placing it on the table before me.

“This drink is called Bruidstranen,” she explained. “It means Bride’s Tears. Please accept this on the house.”

With the jug resting in the crook of her arm, she leaned over and poured a portion of thick syrup. Gold and silver flakes suspended within it swirled lazily like tinted snowflakes, settling in a heap on the glass bottom.

“The bride serves this to her husband after they’ve had a quarrel,” she explained, “to remind him of their wedding night.”

I tasted it before swallowing, then knocked it back. It numbed my tongue and scorched my throat. I blinked away tears. It had the opposite affect of the concoction the boy says he imbibes in “Love Potion Number Nine,” a song from my youth. I didn’t fall in love “with everything in sight.” Instead, I became pleasantly anesthetized and in that benumbed state, my anguish subdued.

The barmaid approached my table again.

“The musicians at the table just there,” she pointed, “they sent me to ask, would it please you to join them? Is this agreeable?”

So I sat with two men and a woman at their table, they played guitar and mandolin with spoons for percussion, we sang folk songs in English and French, and the barmaid kept filling our glasses. The rain stopped.

At dawn I made my way back to the Leidesplein. The rain had washed the schmutz into the fetid canals. I checked into a room facing the public square at the Hotel Americain. The sheets were dry, the blankets warm. I threw my wet clothes into a heap in the corner. Locking the door behind me, I fell into a deep sleep.


Earlier versions of this piece were published in New Paper (Providence) and in The Jewish Advocate (Boston).

Review: ‘appropriate’ at SpeakEasy Stage

October 5, 2015

By Robert Israel

To quote the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, age 30, is “young, gifted and black,” and he’s written a wickedly good play about a dysfunctional white family returning to its Southern roots. He’s drawn raucous inspiration (or is that sampled?) from the works of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Yasmina Reza, Sam Shepard, and Edgar Allan Poe. But appropriate is not your standard example of ‘creative’ stealing or recycling: Jacobs-Jenkins’ nimble hands have picked these literary pockets with arch aplomb. The result: the SpeakEasy Stage production, which kicks off its 25th season, is a blockbuster.

The play is set in a sprawling, cluttered living room in a former plantation in southeast Arkansas. Three siblings – two men and a woman – gather with their respective families to sort through what’s been left behind by Ray, their late hoarder of a father. They are caught, in poet Galway Kinnell’s words, “…in the pre-trembling of a house that falls.” Everything around them is crumbling as they quibble and torture one another about who deserves what. Their contests, fueled by greed and personal animosity, ultimately give way to chaos and mayhem. They’ve spent so many years apart that they are left groping, blindly, to find the threads that once held their family together.

Toni, played with sharp-edged intensity by Melinda Lopez, is the eldest sibling. She’s been at this sorrowful wreck of a plantation home a week earlier to sort through the rubble. She’s had some successes; as her brother Bo (Bryan T. Donovan) sarcastically puts it, she’s moved junk from one room to another. Mostly she’s been mired down in the refuse. Divorced, she comes in tow with her troubled young son, Rhys (Eliott Purcell). Her other brother, Franz (Alex Pollock), who spent a long time in the home with Ray — supposedly to help turn the dilapidated manse into a bed and breakfast — has now returned from Oregon with his New Age-ish girlfriend River (Ashley Risteen). Franz is an older version of Rhys: his life has been a mess and he is in search of some sort of redemption.

The narrative revolves around the discovery of a photo album, left in plain sight in the bookshelf, which reveals a disturbingly racist chapter in the family’s history. We are told, often, that this particular plantation once harbored slaves. We know they are buried in the back yard in unmarked graves. Rain, via her “sensitive” nature, picks up “vibes” that something is deeply amiss — anguished spirits are aswirl. You don’t need any more info to get the Southern Gothic picture: this is a modern day House of Usher sitting on a Gone-With-the-Wind fault line. A tremor will break the house and its inhabitants into bits.

The production’s acting is first-rate. The cast members are well directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, who makes sure that each character is given his or her own tightly-wound spin — individual warts and wrinkles are exposed and then merged into the collective mishegas of the ensemble. There are ample moments of humor, usually at the expense of familial pain, sprinkled throughout the play. The comic skills of the younger members of the cast, youngster Brendan O’Brien as Aimsley and Katie Elinoff as Bo and Rachel’s (Tamara Hickey) teenage daughter Cassidy, are particularly welcome.

Much praise should be given to Cristina Todesco for the cluttered set, which gives way to a neatly packaged yard sale look in the second act. And the fight choreography by Angie Jepson is excruciatingly precise: one marvels at the precision and wonders why the cast hasn’t been bloodied (for real) during the tumult. Costumes by Tyler Kinney, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao, and sound by Arshan Gailus are never intrusive. The cast, set, and script are woven together seamlessly.

Thematically there is no new ground being explored here. No stunning revelations about the sins of twisted humanity (despite the playwright’s affixing Biblical titles to each act). We learn nothing fresh about the secrets families keep (that is what makes them families). We’ve seen plenty of shows about how pettiness and pain generate internecine violence, and often learned the debilitating results of American denial — of history, crime, injustice, etc. It’s all been explored – and exposed — before, with lesser or greater successes by the aforementioned playwrights Jacobs-Jenkins has freely but exultantly “borrowed” from.

What we do learn from appropriate is how a talented young playwright, taking on the role of an expert literary pilferer, can turn an act of mischievous homage into a work of exhilarating entertainment. And the talented SpeakEasy Stage cast and crew have come up with a memorable variation on the venerable American home wreck.

Tamara Hickey, Eliott Purcell, Melinda Lopez, and Bryan T. Donovan (floor) in the SpeakEasy Stage production of “appropriate.” Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.


This review previously appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Review: ‘Gloucester Blue’ at Gloucester Stage Company

October 5, 2015

By Robert Israel

Lewis D. Wheeler (left) and Robert Walsh in ‘Gloucester Blue’ at Gloucester Stage Company. Photo by Gary Ng.

A professional playwright’s palette has many colors. This is especially true if you’re the prolific Israel Horovitz, now a septuagenarian, who has dabbed his scripts over the decades with many, if not most, of the colors of the rainbow, not only on stage, but in numerous mainstream films as well.

His latest, Gloucester Blue, is a lively, darkly hued two-act play whose glow is generated by the spirited, tragicomic performances of a cast that obviously delights in performing it.

The title refers to a particular blend of paint, a color that Horovitz has relied on in his other plays, specifically those written about his adopted town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. This tint took on particular glory in GSC’s September 2009 production of Horovitz’s Sins of the Mother. If you attended that staging, this new play might make you think you’re experiencing déjà vu. There are new characters in Gloucester Blue, but they are cast from the same mold as those in the previous play. And, to add to this air of familiarity, three of the four cast members – Robert Walsh, Francisco Solorzano, and Esme Allen – appeared in the previous production.

Gloucester Blue follows a similar narrative structure. Horovitz introduces two working class stiffs, Latham (Walsh) and Stumpy (Solorzano), who quickly engage in banter that focuses on their Gloucester roots: who do you know, what school did you attend, and so forth. After all, Gloucester, Massachusetts is that kind of place, or at least it used to be. In the 21st century, yuppies have gobbled up properties and turned the real estate into exclusive showplaces. In this fast-and-furious context, Latham and Stumpy are a dying breed. Like the “lumpers” (men who make a day’s wages by hauling and processing large quantities of fish) who populate Sins of the Mother, these two men struggle from pay check to pay check by painting houses. When I grew up, they were called “ham and eggers” — day laborers.

They have nothing in common with the WASPs who live in chunks of such tony North Shore locales as Beverly Farms, Hamilton, and Magnolia. These rich young types are represented by the other two members of the cast, Lexi (Esme Allen) and Bummy (Lewis D. Wheeler). Fed from silver spoons, these characters hail from the nearby North Shore horsey-town of Hamilton.

The plot focuses on those that have (Lexi and Bummy) and those that do not (Latham and Stumpy). For those of us living in Massachusetts, the mere mention of local hang-outs is a treat. We know these neighborhoods, we’ve visited them, and we understand the local context. This dependence on familiarity poses a problem when staging a play like this beyond the Commonwealth. The script has been presented in workshop form in Seattle and in Florida, but those audiences probably did not grasp the contrast between the moneyed inhabitants of today and lingering memories of working-class Gloucester. The rough world of the proles has been pushed aside for the sake of a smoother, more gentrified and privileged veneer. The play relies heavily on these contrasts between then and now and succeeds because of them, if you get the drift.

As Latham, Robert Walsh (who also serves as interim artistic director at GSC), wears his salt-of-the-Cod character like a pair of old slippers. He’s acted in three of the playwright’s scripts and directed four since 1991. Walsh makes Latham a convincing conniver. In his hands, the character is adept at manipulating snippets of memorized conversation he’s heard from Stumpy in order to get his own way, and when that doesn’t work Walsh’s Latham has a grin that resembles the Cheshire Cat’s, with a charm that could lure anyone down the Rabbit Hole. He is well matched by Solorzano’s Stumpy. And a hearty round of kudos goes to the alluring and sexually provocative Esme Allen as Lexi and the talented understatement of Lewis D. Wheeler as her preoccupied and lackluster husband.

What ultimately makes this script different from Sins of the Mother is some added comedic strokes, powerful but broad. Gloucester Blue would easily make an amusing graphic comic — the dialogue seems to call out for cartoon balloons, If Horovitz is breaking new ground – and I’m not totally convinced he is – it is in this move into farce. This humor tickles our fancy because the playwright is enjoying expressing the more carefree parts of his imagination.

By all means, take in Gloucester Blue. The play is vibrant, even if its color is too monochromatic. Another coat of something a bit less predictable would have been beneficial.


This review previously appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Review: “Suddenly Last Summer” at Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival

October 3, 2015

Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Augustin J. Correro. Presented by the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, High School Auditorium, Provincetown, MA, September 24-27, 2015.

By Robert Israel

“A play may be violent, full of motion: yet it has that special kind of repose which allows contemplation and produces the climate in which tragic importance is a possible thing,” wrote Tennessee Williams in 1951. These words became the motivating force, seven years later, for the playwright’s one-act play, Suddenly Last Summer.

A stirring production of Suddenly Last Summer, directed by Augustin J. Correro, was brought to Provincetown by way of Mississippi. It introduced us to characters struggling to find the importance Williams referred to, discovered out of the tragedies of their lives, despite living in a malevolent world where all species – human and animal – prey on one another.

This decidedly cannibalistic view was formed after Williams, according to biographical sources, quit psychotherapy with psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Kubie who had urged him to stop writing, abandon his homosexually promiscuous ways, and become heterosexual. He dismissed the doctor’s recommendations. He went on to write many more plays and pursued, until his death in 1983, an openly gay lifestyle.

In the play we meet Mrs. Venable (Brenda Currin), a matriarch of a Southern family, who wields a silver cane, thrashing anyone who gets too close, or dares to interrupt her ritualistic 5 o’clock imbibing of a frozen daiquiri. She is holding forth in a home with a primordial garden with unwieldy plants that underscore the cannibalistic theme. With complete candor, she tells psychiatrist/surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Drew Stark) that she has called upon him to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine Holly (Beth Bartley). He sees through her motives, since there is no medical reason to perform this radical surgery. Yet Mrs. Venable is shameless: she simply cannot abide by what her niece has witnessed, namely the ghastly murder of her only son, the late poet Sebastian, by a cannibalistic horde of crazed youngsters on a beach while Catherine and Sebastian were vacationing in Mexico. She wants her niece’s memory wiped clean. She has the cash and will gladly pay it out in order to make it happen.

In several versions I have seen of this play, including the 1959 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, actresses playing the role of Catherine Holly emphasized her fragility, revealing her as a woman more prone to be violated and, consequently, more easily sacrificed. But in this production, actress Beth Bartley showed us another aspect of Catherine’s character, her bruises, certainly, but also her steel resolve to tell the truth. It was a hauntingly powerful performance, matched in its intensity by Brenda Currin’s Mrs. Venable.

There were many other inspired flourishes to the production, and kudos go out to Mary Wildsmith for her marvelous lighting design that enhanced the poetry of Williams’s script. This was particularly noticeable in one scene when Catherine describes how her restless and voracious cousin Sebastian implored her to see the Northern Lights in his quest to find lighter skinned prey, after gorging himself on “the dark ones” in the southern climes they had visited. Wildsmith let the wall behind Catherine glow with the green and red lights of the Aurora Borealis, and, just for a moment, we were all transported to another place.

Endnote: This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. I was a witness to their derring-do from the onset, invited to review the shows from their first season a decade ago. I have returned every season thereafter, reviewing plays and writing feature pieces about the writers and performers they bring in each year. I have seen these performers present works in courtyards, barrooms, art galleries, on the wharves and in gay dance clubs. While I may have had initial doubts about the Festival’s longevity, the staff and the hordes of volunteers that return each year never shared my doubts. Success, it seems, is the only word in their vocabulary.

A lengthy exegesis could be written about their history and accomplishments over this past decade, but that’s not my intention here. They have etched out a place of permanence. We are the beneficiaries. We have a festival that flourishes in a town that once nurtured the talents of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. We should applaud and support their efforts going forward.

Brenda Currin as Violet Venable in “Suddenly Last Summer.”