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The Madonna of Sheafe Street

November 21, 2017

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View of Sheafe Street, Boston.

A memoir by Robert Israel

The rain that began on Sunday kept the skies over Boston leaden all through the week. Garrulous peddlers at the Haymarket hurled insults at anybody caught lingering underneath their tents and not buying soggy produce. On Blackstone and Hanover streets the accumulated despair from all corners of the city seemed to settle onto the stooped shoulders of intoxicated men who huddled under leaky tarps.

I caved in to the gloom made heavier by the weight of my empty pockets. I trudged down Salem Street, no job prospects in sight. By nightfall, in the shadows of the illuminated downtown office windows that glowed like grinning teeth, I lay in bed waiting for another never-gladdening new day.

**

Donella raised the venetian blinds, squinting as the first rays of sunlight in over a week danced on laundry strung between tenements. Leaning on a pillow, a kerchief around her head, she tossed breadcrumbs to pigeons that flocked beneath her windowsill.

Lilly, who lived in the apartment next to mine, told me that our neighbor Donella moved to her flat thirty years before, pregnant with her daughter, Maria. She spoke no English. Weeks before the baby was due Donella’s husband announced he was stepping out for a pack of smokes. He never returned. Lilly said that she and her brothers suspected Donella’s husband’s disappearance had something to do with unpaid gambling debts, but no one knew for sure.

Facie brute,” Lilly called the vanished man. “I don’t blame her, she’s a peasant, from the mountains. But him!” She hurled a mouthful of spit onto the sidewalk. “If he ever returns and I get my hands on him, he’ll be dead before the spit on that sidewalk has a chance to dry.”

Lilly dressed in black that matched her dyed hair. She never married. She smelled of lacquer and perfume. Her voice was raspy from years of smoking. Her brothers visited her daily, their footsteps trudging down the long linoleum corridor to her rooms.

Once a week a van from the church parked on Sheafe Street. Two nuns trundled up the stairs to fetch Donella and Maria from their flat that was furnished only with a toilet and a kitchen sink. The nuns brought them both to the public baths at the North End Union on Parmenter Street so they could be bathed and groomed.

“Sometimes, when it’s cold outside the old lady can’t make it down the stairs, Maria boils water for her on the hot plate and washes the old lady’s hair, like she’s making pasta,” Lilly said. “I used to go over there to help them, to bring them things, but not lately. If I go over there now, it’s too much for me, it breaks my heart.”

Women from the neighboring streets would appear every now and again holding plastic boxes of food and spuckadellas from the bakeries on Prince Street. They’d rap on the windowpane. They’d call Donella’s name aloud, twice, maybe three times. Donella would raise her venetian blinds, pull back her curtains, prop open the window and smile her toothless grin. She’d lean over, and accept their food and then she’d hold up her rosary to bless them.

**

Most summer weekends the neighborhood prepared for the street-side festivals held in honor of the Saints. Crowds streamed down Salem Street beneath colorful lights strung between tenements and draped onto light posts. Vendors sold cream-filled pastries, meatball sandwiches, clams on the half shell, curbside shot glasses of homemade grappa.

At the Feast of Madonna della Cava, men from the social club on Battery Street displayed a banner depicting Mother Mary as she had appeared in a mute boy’s dream from a 13th century Sicilian folktale. They paraded the banner through the streets on a stretcher covered with plastic flowers. The crowd cheered, “Viva Madonna della Cava!” Greenbacks, tossed from tenement windows, cascaded over the procession like confetti. Alter boys retrieved the fistfuls of cash from the gutters and pinned the bills on the Madonna whose eyes stared heavenward in blissful reverie. A priest, crucifix in hand, led the throng. The Roma Band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Smoke from the grilled sausages and the steam from manicotti bubbling in aluminum trays blanketed the air like fog.

I had no reason to celebrate. Another month passed and still no work. Lilly wormed it out of me that I was skimping on food and threatened to give me a sciafo unless I stocked up. The next day, and every day thereafter, she “cooked coffee,” as she put it, delivering a canister to my apartment sweetened with sugar and evaporated milk. She’d leave stuffed peppers on my doorstep covered with foil paper or calamari with the squid’s tentacles and darkened eye sockets positioned on the plate so it looked as if they had just swum to the surface from a sea of red sauce.

Lilly clipped coupons from the newspaper and slipped them under my door, but I found other bargains: day old spuckadellas from the bakery, half-price; free pizzas still warm if I asked for the owner by name and showed up before the close of business; overripe fruits and vegetables at the Haymarket that had been left in crates on the sidewalks every Friday and Saturday evenings.

**

One Friday morning I spied Maria lumbering down Salem Street past butcher shops where carcasses of lambs hung from meat hooks and the shiny slaughtered pigs, their pink hooves tucked beneath them, looked as if they had just finished some sort of morbid ballet.

I caught up with Maria at the Haymarket’s open stalls. She poked tomatoes and argued over prices with the men at the pushcarts. I approached her, offered to carry her bundles back to the North End. She acted as if she didn’t comprehend. So I did a pantomime: I hunched over, swayed back and forth on the balls of my feet, pretending to be a beast of burden. She nodded consent.

We hoofed it back to Donella’s and Maria’s apartment. The old lady was waiting by the window. She waved to me. I waved back. Donella gestured, insistent I approach the window. Pigeons scattered. With Maria now beside her, she opened the window. She tried to thank me, indecipherable words spilling forth from her toothless mouth. I looked up, puzzled. She held up a rosary. I lowered my head to receive her blessings.

**

On the following Monday morning, a temporary employment agency telephoned with an assignment, to report the next day for work at one of the downtown office buildings.

Crossing into the city the next morning, I passed the corner of Blackstone and Hanover streets where the homeless men in Haymarket Square were sleeping it off in the chill morning air. I raced up the steps to Government Center plaza. The city was drenched in brilliant sunlight. The Madonna was smiling.

 

**

The Madonna of Sheafe Street, a memoir by Robert Israel, will be be included in a collection of essays, Light Upon the Roads, to be published in 2018.

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Liam and the Woodpile

November 14, 2017

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By Robert Israel

Liam telephones. His voice is whisper-thin.

“I can’t get to the woodlot today,“ he says. “I’m in the hospital.”

I ask if he’s all right.

“Nothing to worry about,” he says, and the call ends.

Two weeks later he telephones again.

“Might it be convenient for you to stop by today?” he asks.

Liam is seventy-three, with six grown children. He emigrated from Ireland as a teenager. I visit his woodlot each autumn to load firewood into my Honda. He employs two workers from South America, they wear overalls and thick round-tipped work boots and they never wear gloves: their hands are caked with grease so no splinters puncture their flesh.

When I arrive at the woodlot at our agreed upon time, Liam is stacking firewood alongside his helpers. Liam’s son Declan is scuttling about the woodlot in a Bobcat.

Liam has wracked up several vehicles over the years, including his beloved green flatbed, the one that had his name stenciled on the driver’s side door. This past winter, when over six feet of snow fell between January and February, he swerved onto a patch of black ice and hit a light post.

“It was mighty icy on the roads,” he says, “and I felled that post clean at the trunk. When the coppers came by they threatened to write me up with a hefty fine, but after we talked awhile they agreed to go easy on me, factoring in the bad road conditions and all. But I had to go down to Town Hall to settle up.”

He didn’t wait to be summoned. He arranged to meet the town controller the next day.

“He wanted twenty-four hundred, but I told him I would only pay twelve hundred on account of the ice and bad roads and all, and I said the cops would stand by that amount, so the controller accepted my offer so long as I paid it on the spot, which I did, cash money, and I went on my way,” Liam says.

Liam has had two surgeries on his shoulders. He survived a nasty bout of gastrointestinal cancer awhile back. He walks with a limp and he’s as skinny as a sapling. He never complains except to express chagrin that even after two surgeries he can’t quite lift his arms up above his head. He shows me, raising his arm, and when it meets the halfway mark, it shudders. He quickly lowers it.

I’m convinced Liam is a leprechaun who holds sway over people, what with his pale blue eyes that glow when he speaks in that soft, lilting brogue of his.

Declan is just as accident-prone as his dad. The day I visited the woodpile he tipped the Bobcat over. Convinced he was injured, we all ran to him across the wood lot — Liam and I and the two hired hands – and it took the four of us pushing on the opposite side of the Bobcat’s frame to right it up again while Declan sat, hands folded on his lap, pinned sideways. I offered him a hand so he could steady himself. He shooed me away. He dusted himself, his father inspected him and the Bobcat and since there was no visible damage to either, he nodded to Declan who cranked the Bobcat’s ignition and resumed hauling tree trunks, stacking them beside the hydraulic log splitter.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I was sawing a tree and my head got wedged between a branch and the tree trunk and forced my eye to pop out of its socket?” Liam asks. “I managed to get my head free and oh, let me tell you, it ached mightily, but my eye popped right back into the socket. I see just as good as I did before.”

2017 Nobel Peace Prize: Toward an Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons

November 7, 2017

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Sumiteru Taniguchi (1929-2017)

By Robert Israel

The selection of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) as recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize – to be awarded in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10 – comes at an uneasy time. The global community has read of a possible breakdown in deterring atomic weapon development in Iran, seen nuclear weapons testings in North Korea, and heard President Trump’s bellicose threat to the North Koreans: “They will be met with fire and fury such as the world has never seen.” One needs only to consider the testimony of Sumiteru Taniguchi – who died of cancer at age 88 on August 30 while being considered by the Nobel committee as a recipient of this award – to understand our collective peril and dread.

On August 9, 1945, Taniguchi was a sixteen-year-old lad riding his bike to make postal delivery rounds, when a single atomic weapon, dropped by an American Boeing B-29 and nicknamed “Fat Man,” exploded over Nagasaki. He survived but was was so badly burned that he spent the next two years lying on his stomach while the wounds on his back were treated at the local hospital.

“When I woke up (after the blast),” Taniguchi said, “the skin of my left arm from the shoulder to the tip of my fingers was trailing like a rag. Bodies, burned black, voices calling for help from collapsed building, people with flesh falling off and their guts falling out. This place became a sea of fire. It was hell.”

I was a visiting reporter in Japan years ago when I met Taniguchi at the Nichidai Middle School in Nagasaki, in a rebuilt section of the city not far from Ground Zero. Students brought origami cranes made out of multicolored paper, the dual symbol of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and the international disarmament movement. Taniguchi, standing onstage amidst these paper cranes, described how he tried to gather letters sent swirling in a fiery, radioactive maelstrom.

The citation from the Nobel committee for ICAN reads: “For its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is meant to stir our collective consciousness in support of ICAN’s mission to abolish nuclear weapons and to acknowledge the hibakusha’s hopes that they remain the last witnesses of a nuclear holocaust.

**

Robert Israel, a Boston-based writer and editor, reported from Japan as a recipient of the Hibakusha Award. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

Review: “Kiss” by Guillermo Calderon

October 30, 2017

Kiss by Guillermo Calderón. Directed by David Dower. Staged by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box, 559 Washington St., Boston, MA, through November 19.

Photo:

Ashley Dixon and Derek Brian Demkowicz in Arts Emerson’s “Kiss.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

By Robert Israel

Kiss is a one-act play-within-a-play. David Dower’s direction kicks off the script’s intricate mechanism with considerable energy – you can hear the mainspring humming as the cast of four twentysomething players (two women, two men) click the gizmo into gear and start it spinning. But vitality isn’t enough to make this play whirl right; the young cast displays potential, but there’s not enough fuel here to propel the playwright’s complicated engine of a script. Along the way, the gears get jammed — the performers are too busy chewing the scenery. By the final curtain, the production has ground to a halt.

The cast gathers on a set that doubles as a soundstage. The play-within-a-play turns out to be a production of a found-script by an exiled Syrian writer, a soap opera set in Damascus during its ongoing — now eight years in the running — civil war. Additional cast members serve as production assistants that flit about the wings like dark moths wielding video cameras, capturing images on video monitors that are posted to the left and right of the stage.

The soap opera story is droll; the cast delivers dialog one expects to hear spoken by television actors caught up in escapist romantic absurdities. Three of my favorite lines: “You are the perfect boyfriend”; “I love him as if he were a horse”; “My brain is cauliflower.” The lines are so preposterous, and performed with such brazen melodrama, that you can only snicker or chuckle as they enter and then tickle the disbelieving ear.

But that’s only the first layer of the story. We learn that the cast gets the intent of the script all wrong. That’s not what the playwright intended. This revelation comes to us via a large video screen that is brought on stage. The cast, now out of character, places a Skype call to the exiled playwright, whose televised image shows her to be speaking from somewhere in Lebanon. She wears sunglasses and a peroxide wig. Beside her is a translator. As each cast member takes turns asking questions, another layer of meaning is discovered. The previously heard preposterous lines have hidden meanings. Lines are in code, she explains to the exasperated cast, who are seated on a couch. Civilians are being gassed. Bodies are piling up. Bombs are going off everywhere. Don’t you read the newspapers?

Up until this juncture in the script, the cast members handle the mounting complications well enough – the hilarity of their initial misinterpretations following by their rude awakening is entertaining. It’s during the final stretch – when they are required to totally transform the melodrama and somehow present the true meaning of the exiled playwright’s words – that they miss the mark. Considerably.

Playwright Calderón, who usually writes his plays in Spanish, penned this script in English so it could be then be translated into German for a production overseas. It’s very much about life during wartime. The dramatist came of age in Chile during a time of revolution, and he demands that the material convey how political upheaval – human rights abuses, kidnappings, torture, and mayhem — severely upends normal human interactions. The humorous opening scene is supposed to give way to a deeply painful denouement; a confrontation with the reality that, during a time of radical conflict, love is impossible, even what seems to be a TV-ized parody of love. The fictional playwright, expounding via the Skype broadcast, expects this naïve cast to express this truth, this horrific dysfunction. And Calderón, the real life playwright, demands it too — and much more.

The bottom line is that we simply aren’t given a requisite sense of the play’s embrace of tragedy. There are moments when the staging and performances come together, but there are not enough of them to bring the evening to satisfactory completion. So, while it’s exciting to see Calderón’s work presented in Boston – we badly need work that tackles international politics with muscle and verve – this kind of serious work demands a more seasoned field of performers.

**

This review originally appeared in the October 30, 2017 issue of The Arts Fuse magazine.

Spellbinding Sweet Bird of Youth at 12th Annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival

September 25, 2017
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Tennessee Williams

By Robert Israel

Tropical storm Jose pelted Provincetown with a cold, driving rain. The seas that surround this Outer Cape hamlet were churning. A raging wind slapped the clapboards of the Salt Box homes and buffeted the hearty theatergoers who braved the elements to attend the multifarious offerings of  the 12th annual Tennessee Williams Theater Festival.

Inside the Wharf House — which sits at the very edge of a pier — on the night of September 21st, a different storm was raging.

Staged by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth was given a riveting, spellbinding production. Once the lights came up on a stark set surrounded by a gurgling moat, it was clear that tropical storm Jose had strong competition.

At the risk of repeating myself: this Cape Town, South African troupe needs to be experienced by larger Boston-area audiences at a larger venue. They are one of the finest troupes I have seen perform in over four decades of reviewing live stage performances.

They return each year, by invitation, to the Festival, and each year Abrahamse & Meyer Productions astonish with their passionate and compassionate treatment of Williams’s works (and the works of Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare). The performances by the seven-member cast for this production – who in some instances take on additional roles – were — collectively and individually — nothing short of brilliant.

The elements that go into making a production work include writing, acting, stagecraft, lighting, costumes, set design, sound, directing. When all these elements conspire to work together – when a production seamlessly unfolds and tells its story – audiences are treated to a transformative experience.

That’s what occurred during the performance of Sweet Bird of Youth.

Abrahamse & Meyer Productions – named for its two principals Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer who founded the company in 2006 – know how to create potent theatrical alchemy. They know how to use their multifarious talents to dig into scripts and to get under our skins. Their productions unnerve us. Their work is haunting. Eerie. We leave the theater moved and inspired — changed.

The story: Set in St. Cloud, a Mississippi Gulf Coast city, hometown hustler Chance Wayne (Marcel Meyer) has returned and as the play begins he is lounging in black silk pajamas, a semi-lifeless form of another body lying in bed beside him. He’s hungover. So is she. Soon, this semi-lifeless body stirs and we meet Princess Kosmonopolis (Fiona Ramsay), a woman considerably older than her handsome roué. They are both on a mission to recapture their spent youth, to regain social (and, although tarnished, artistic) footings. Abusing a combination of “pink pill” opiods, hashish, 100 proof vodka (and, for the Princess, some heady blasts from a tank of pure oxygen), the hapless couple moves about the hotel room as drifting, spectral beings, lost in a miasma of drug and alcohol abuse, lustfulness and melancholy. They cling to one another and speak to one another in a languishing prose/poetry that takes us into a hallucinatory world.

We wander into Williams’s miasma through his canny use of repeated words and phrases, nuance, and suggestion. Sexual congress is not described in all its prurient detail, for example – it is suggested. Venereal disease is not graphically described, it is hinted at how devastating it has ravaged character Heavenly’s body. These topics were taboo during Williams’s time, so he had to be clever; he had to entice audiences to understand these age-old issues without resorting to graphic details. Audiences understood, by inference, discerning the meaning by listening to the rolling waves of his characters’ speeches. Perhaps we were more of a literate society when this play was written, because now our language seems dominated by twittering Tweets.

Sweet Bird of Youth is about a story about love, about the price one pays to love in a world that is often loveless.

Take, for example, when Chance tells the Princess of how he views love:

“The biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that had or have pleasure in love and those that haven’t and hadn’t any pleasure in love, but just watched it with envy, sick envy. I don’t mean just ordinary pleasure or the kind that you can buy, I mean great pleasure…”

The love the Princess and Chance share is carnal, not the sort Chance described in his aforementioned speech. Yet he is willing to engage in this sort of sexual dalliance with her, to use her and to be used by her, in hopes he can later cash in his chips: to flaunt what he’s pilfered from her and hold it up before the disapproving eyes of his hometown folk who resent — and vocally threaten — his return. He has escaped this Town Without Pity and now he’s back to reclaim his great love, Heavenly. But her father will have none of it. And so, along with his dreams of stardom, his reveries will be dashed by final curtain.

Kudos to the cast for creating this hallucinatory world and for enticing us to enter and temporarily reside amidst its tormented citizenry. This production easily could have succumbed to a Hitchcockian horror show: it’s that creepy. But, instead, it stays focused on using literary devices within the script that bring us back to the central motifs: the ephemeral nature of youth, the fleeting nature of love.

When I left the Wharf House and walked toward the twinkling lights of Provincetown, I felt appreciative that this Festival has had the vision to showcase the talents of this gifted cast and crew once again.

**

Robert Israel, a member of the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE), is a contributing writer for The Arts Fuse, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Montreal Gazette and other publications.

Report from Toronto: A Heartwarming and Heartbreaking Exhibit

July 25, 2017

IN REVIEW | ART Syria: A Living History, an exhibit previously at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, October 15, 2016–February 16, 2017.

Freedom Graffiti by Tammam Azzam

Tammam Azzam, Freedom Graffiti,2013 (Gustav Klimt, The Kiss). © Tammam Azzam.

 

By Robert Israel

IN THE AGA KHAN MUSEUM’S third-floor gallery, the exhibit Syria: A Living History channels five thousand years of history through a representative display of forty-eight works of art.

Latticed windows illuminate the rooms with muted sunlight, as in a house of worship. Of the items on display—artifacts, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, brassware, and textiles—many date from the birth of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, while many more hail from present-day, war-torn Syria. Two themes come to mind as I view the exhibit: timelessness and urgency.

Objects of art representing the three faiths, once confluent, are grouped by the entrance. A small object, circa 550 or 600 ce, catches my eye. It depicts St. Paul, known then as a Jew, Saul of Tarsus. Nearby is another, smaller object, made from gypsum, of an Eye Idol, circa 3200 BCE (page 86). Etched onto the idol are two sets of eyes, drawn close together, as if by a child, and their stares hold on me as I move about the gallery. I am reminded of my visit to Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, years ago, when a vendor near the Stations of the Cross sold me a similar Evil Eye, this one made of pressed copper. After thousands of years, a talisman that wards off evil spirits still captivates.

The exhibit’s accentuation of timelessness transports me to a landscape of burnt sienna and heat, evidenced by a small dedicatory stele depicting worshippers—an undated fragment of orange-red rock found on the scorched earth during a nineteenth-century excavation of a ruined temple. It represents a time when pilgrims journeyed there for faith and fellowship.

In juxtaposition to the grouping of these artifacts are those that celebrate an era of peace and abundance. Syria was once such a place. A digitally recreated Samaritan house transports me to Damascus, when Syria’s capitol city was a bastion of wealth. During the Mamluk period (1250–1517 CE), scholars throughout the Islamic world gathered in Damascus. Jews thrived there, too, and their homes were similarly proportioned. Peering inside a recreated home, I marvel at intricately engraved brassware and resplendent silken and woolen robes. Just beyond is a finely crafted wooden backgammon or chess box that sparkles with inlays of mother-of-pearl.

The intention of these historic groupings is to communicate the conjoining of humankind, faith, and landscape. Collectively, they provide a reflective perspective and invite viewers to consider them in contrast with the more contemporary objects positioned just beyond.

It is this next group, located within eyeshot, where the exhibit shifts focus from timelessness to urgency. It includes contemporary sculptures, paintings, and collages produced by Syrian artists currently working under perilous conditions to express their creative spirits.

Eye Idol

Eye Idol, Syria. Gypsum, carved, circa 3200 BCE. Royal Ontario Museum, 959.91.50.

 

The work of contemporary Syrian artists, whose obdurate spirits defy the country’s current repressive government and the endless conflicts, is corroborated by the pulse of today’s headlines. Two days before my visit, I read a dispatch in The New York Times by correspondent Anne Barnard, who described a surrealistic “moonscape of war” as she gazed from her hotel window in embattled Aleppo.

“I walked into the room and drew the curtains,” Barnard wrote, “and I saw beautiful Aleppo, and in the distance this huge plume of smoke. It was the battlefront where rebels outside the city were trying to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.”1

Barnard visited Aleppo just before it fell. Since her visit, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, built in 715 ce, has been reduced to rubble. The Al-Madina Souq, the largest covered market in the world, dating from the fourteenth century, has also been destroyed. And while it is true that Syria has endured countless battles, going back from before and during the time of conquerors like Alexander the Great to the Crusades, no battles before this current war have been as devastating.

Perhaps this is the reason a photographic collage—hung full-length and encompassing an entire wall of the exhibit—that shows a bombed-out Aleppo facade with an image of Gustav Klimt’s sparklingly gilded Kiss superimposed onto it, a creation of contemporary artist Tammam Azzam, arrests my attention. The effect is jolting because it is so unexpected, so assaultive to the eye and to the sensibilities. To see an image of a modern edifice with a sensually entwined couple barely concealing the dark granite craters is to witness obliteration, the banishment of love, and the end of civilization.

Even though Syria’s history may be a place of centuries-long religious and internecine conflicts, by choosing to title the exhibit a “living history,” the curators envisage Syria as a nation that rises from the ashes. In fact, they declare, in a note to the exhibit, history has shown us that no destruction is final, even if it “takes another generation” for Syrians to reclaim and rebuild their ravaged land.

“This is precisely why we named the exhibit ‘a living history,’ ” insists Syrian-born co-curator Nasser Rabbat, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We want to counter the pervasive images from the media and elsewhere that the entire country is a ‘moonscape,’ and to dispel the rumors of the obliteration of all cultural and religious artifacts in Syria
today. This is just not so. This is why the exhibit provides a long historical perspective. Syria has been destroyed dozens of times and has been rebuilt over and over again by the determination of the Syrian people. We want to remind viewers that Syria is a human civilization. What we are saying is that we are concerned about the Syrian people. To simply focus on artifacts alone, without placing them within the human context, is obscene.”2

With the human context in mind, consider an eyewitness account from Aleppo. Omair Shaaban, a former student at the University of Aleppo, wrote for The Washington Post:

The war here has been going on for more than four years. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and thousands more are dead, including many of my friends. . . .

If you aren’t killed by airstrikes or shells, your big worry will be food. . . . But now a lot of poor people don’t have enough money to buy food, because there aren’t jobs anymore, so every neighborhood has young volunteers whose responsibility is to get food and other supplies for their communities.3

By Shaaban’s account, Aleppo right now is a living hell.
THE AGA KHAN MUSEUM, WHICH opened to the public in 2014 on a seventeen-acre site on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario, serves as a home to an extensive, private collection showcasing Islamic and Muslim arts. 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 perimeter, once you are inside the building, the distractions of the outside world vanish. The museum encloses visitors in a relaxing atmosphere of calm, sensuality, and contemplation.

This is by design. The museum’s namesake and benefactor, His Highness the Aga Khan Shah Karim, the forty-ninth imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims (a dynasty that dates back to the 1800s), acquired the Toronto site in 2007. Soon after, 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.”

The museum’s embrace of light illuminates a time in our history when civilization in Syria teeters on extinction. Syria: A Living History illustrates this fragility in a region that has seen so many ground battles and airstrikes that thousands of acres of wasteland have been created.4

If this destruction were not tragic enough, the world looked on in horror when, in March 2016, televised images from Mosul, Iraq, showed black-hooded members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, as they ransacked museums, toppled ancient statues, and demolished artwork across Syria and Iraq.

Marina Gabriel, a research assistant at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) at Boston University, admits that not all the information ASOR collects from Syria is reliable. Yet ASOR remains steadfast in its mission to monitor the specific sites that have been damaged or destroyed and to document the looting of religious and cultural artifacts out of a commitment to provide accurate reports to the global community.

“We rely on satellite images,” Gabriel says, “and we rely on reports we gather from a network of contacts on the ground. These contacts send us smart phone images and cell phone videos documenting what’s happening. We post these on our website. We also have alliances with other groups in Syria and elsewhere who are engaged in similar efforts.”5

“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 me. “It’s certainly the gravest cultural emergency of our times.”6

Danti presently teams with a cadre of art historians and members of the U.S. State Department to document the wanton looting of artifacts and artwork in the Middle East by recording images of these pilfered items and posting them on the Internet in hopes of derailing efforts by black marketers hell-bent on hawking them to the highest bidders. But time is running out.

“For anyone who cares about humanity’s cultural heritage,” Danti said, “it’s heartbreaking.”

Amr Al-Azm, former head of the Centre for Archaeological Research at the University of Damascus, works closely with ASOR, providing them with updates on religious and cultural sites under siege in his native Syria. He is now an associate professor at Shawnee University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

“I left Syria when there was a dramatic increase in conflicts that turned a once civil society into a warzone,” Al-Azm says. “Since that time I have built up a network of connections within the country to document the increase of destruction there.”

Al-Azm, together with representatives of religious, educational, and cultural institutions, founded The Day After: Heritage Protection Initiative to “help to raise the profile in the global community to preserve the cultural heritage” of the war-torn nation. The Day After has received grants from the United Nations and the Smithsonian to carry out its work.

“It is clear the Islamic terrorists are profiting from the looting of religious and cultural sites,” Al-Azm says. “We are here to thwart them and to remind the world that they cannot succeed.”7

The Last Supper by Fateh al-Moudarres

Fateh al-Moudarres, The Last Supper, oil on canvas, 1964. The Atassi Foundation.

 

THERE IS MUCH THAT is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in this exhibit. Take, for example, a page on exhibit behind a Lucite case of a copy of the Qur’an dating back several thousands of years ago: its gilded pages shine as if they had been etched yesterday as they recount Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to the farthest mosque in Jerusalem. Positioned nearby is an equally vivid mosaic panel from the seventeenth century that includes images of the Prophet’s sandals to illustrate his wanderings.

Yet, what I find most arresting is a painting by one of the contemporary Syrian artists, Fateh al-Moudarres, completed in 1964.8 It shows Jesus with black hair and dark skin, a man who is a native of the Middle East, raising his goblet to bless those joining him at the table (page 85). I see al-Moudarres as an artist who has absorbed his nation’s ancestry, who has embraced the myths and the miracles. The vibrancy of his colors gives the viewer a sense of the heat and light of a nation where creative fertility has existed for centuries. And it speaks of the reverence for faith that is at the core of the endangered Syrian culture.

Near the exit, space is reserved for visitors to express their written responses to the artwork by affixing slips of paper to a wall. The cards attest to the power of the images to move viewers.

“Syrian Lives Matter” is scrawled on one card. “We Are Syria!” is printed in block letters on another.

Leaving the Aga Khan Museum, I walk across its bright alabaster courtyard under a cloudless sky. In my mind’s eye, I revisit the images displayed behind Lucite and glass and reflect on how these contrasted with the heartrending images of destruction, captured by the contemporary artists who show us what is occurring in the country today.

The urgency of Omair Shaaban’s words come back to me as I make my way, unharmed and footloose, in a flourishing and welcoming Toronto.

“People here are suffering because we want freedom,” this young man from Aleppo wrote. “Before the war started, I joined a demonstration against [President] Assad’s regime—and I was arrested, beaten and detained in a tiny cell for five days for it. . . . I want to live in a free Aleppo. I want to stay here, where I was born, all my life. It’s my right.”

Notes:

  1. Anne Barnard, “My Journey into Aleppo: Watching Moonscape of War Turn into a Functioning City,” The New York Times, November 8, 2016.
  2. Interview with Nasser Rabbat, January 2017.
  3. Omair Shaaban, “We Live in Aleppo. Here’s How We Survive,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2016.
  4. See Hilary Howard, “Satellite Images from Syria,” The New York Times, March 2, 2012.
  5. Interview with Marina Gabriel, January 2017.
  6. Interview with Michael D. Danti, January 2017.
  7. Interview with Amr Al-Azm, January 2017. The Day After: Heritage Protection Initiative web address is hpi.tda-sy.org/en.
  8. Fateh al-Moudarres (1922–1999) was born in Aleppo, studied in Rome and Paris, and became an influential teacher at the University of Damascus. He was considered an important leader in Syria’s modern and surrealist art movements, culling forms from Assyrian antiquity, as well as from Christian and Muslim symbolism.

**

This article is reprinted from the Summer 2017 issue of Harvard University’s Divinity School Bulletin.

Stage Review: “Ripcord” at Huntington Theatre Company

June 5, 2017

Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Jessica Stone. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through July 2, 2017.

By Robert Israel

David Lindsay-Abaire’s two-act play, Ripcord, under Jessica Stone’s briskly paced and upbeat direction, is a well-timed (and welcome) end-of-season confection. Yes, the script is candied, but there’s just enough astringency blended in to make the sugar sufficiently tangy. And, happily, the Huntington Theatre Company performers infuse enough bittersweetness into the jokiness to keep the proceedings from sinking into the maudlin.

Of course, setting a two-hander in a nursing home has a long and opportunistic history. The set, ably designed by the talented Tobin Ost, looks downright archetypal in this regard; it reminded me of a production of Donald L. Coburn’s The Gin Game I saw decades ago. But the similarities end there. Yes, Ripcord scrounges around in the usual disheartening world of end-of-life bleakness, the disorientating hollowness that many face inside lime-green nursing centers that never adequately meet the needs of its residents. But Lindsay-Abaire has gone further and deeper in articulating the agony of the aged — his banter is terse and sharp.

The catch is that there’s a certain mechanical pitter-patter in the dialogue, and that tic becomes tiresome after twenty minutes – no, make that five minutes – once you pick up on its metronomic comic predictability. Here is the set-up: the first character asks a question that is answered glibly by the other. After the third exchange a joke pops up somewhere — at least you hear some audience members laugh — but you’re not joining in. It’s not that you missed anything all that amusing: it is that some theatergoers have been trained by the dramatist to find the conversation absurd after a bit. The giggles are generated by the playwright’s technique, not from revelations made by its characters.

Thankfully for the HTC production, the lead players are smart and skillful enough to cut against Lindsay-Abaire’s singsong, an obstacle compounded by his Odd Couple plot re-cycling. As Abby, the taciturn prune-faced scold, veteran actress Nancy E. Carroll makes terrific use of her trademark scowl. If you’ve seen her cameo appearance in the movie Spotlight you have encountered this monumental look of disdain, her way of looking at other people as if they are flies begging to be swatted. Her dramatic foil is Annie Golden’s Marilyn — ebullient, overly chirpy, dressed in bright colors in contrast to Abby’s greys and blacks. Marilyn is a flibbertigibbet, and she has the unfortunate luck to share the room with Abby. No matter: she’s a ray of bleeping sunshine, she is, and she’s determined to make the best of a contentious situation.

Thankfully, Ripcord is more than a re-roasting of Neil Simon’s moldy chestnut. At its core, Lindsay-Abaire is determined to tell a story about real people struggling through a time in their lives that holds no promise other than the inevitable — these are people sitting around in God’s Waiting Room. But thanks to Marilyn’s optimism – and a wager between the two women – the play moves along merrily under the eye of eternity, with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep us entertained.

One of the pleasant surprises is the dramatist’s use of a play-within-the-play. The women venture into town to tour a Haunted House attraction. No, the nursing home they live in is not exactly like this spookyville mansion. But there are similarities — tragic-comic intimations of extinction, for one – that are underscored marvelously here, without ever becoming heavy handed.

The cast keeps the plot moving along, never letting predictability get the upperhand. I was particularly taken by Ugo Chukwu’s Scotty, who serves the bickering yin/yang pair, delivering their medication with amble heaps of homespun advice. He’s a warm and likeable fellow, a doormat at times, but he works his humanistic magic by smoothing (most of) the conversational rough edges out, wrapping the steel barbs hurled by Marilyn and Abby in velvet so that not too much blood is split.

If only Scotty could do something about the play’s overwrought campiness, scenes of jitterbugging that should be pared back: any antic that repeatedly milks the audience for nostalgic laughs should be light and lively — and used sparingly. Still, given the dour, sour, and maniacal farce that is American reality, Ripcord offers some refreshing respite. In a world that has left odd in the rear view mirror, a comedy about mismatched roomies facing mortality comes off as inspirational.

**

This review originally appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on June 1, 2017.

At the 2017 IRNE Awards

May 21, 2017

Photo:

By Robert Israel

The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) held their 21st annual celebration of all that is praiseworthy in Boston’s theater community on April 24 at the Brookline Holiday Inn. An annual rite of spring, the event is noisy and raucous. The capacity crowd, fueled by toxic libations at two well-stocked bars, is unruly. Boisterous enthusiasts greet each of the winners – you can read the list of winners posted here — with huzzahs and catcalls as they sashay up to the podium to receive their awards.

I am a voting member of IRNE. Each spring the IRNE award night caps a year of reporting and reviewing the Boston area’s many offerings of theatrical brilliance. As such, I am only one voice among several critics who judge the productions we’ve seen in a search of that elusive blend of derring-do, talent, and stagecraft that goes into making each theatrical production – from large, well-financed companies to smaller, ragtag troupes — vibrant and memorable. The annual awards night is our collective way of applauding how proud we are to be living in such a lively, ever-changing, and growing artistic community.

IRNE critics argue among themselves regarding what we think are the best, the brightest, and the most award worthy of these dozens and dozens of productions. Given the plethora of troupes and performers, there is no way any one critic can see them all. The list of nominees, it seems, grows longer each year. This year we had to return to to the negotiating table to break several tie votes among the categories. And while some who attended the award ceremony criticized us (vocally!) for not seeing all the shows on the docket, there is no human way any of us can. We grapple with the difficulty of this issue each year as we hunker down to make our final selections.

Highlights of the award ceremony included presenting the Solo Award to the outstanding actor Eugene Lee for How I Learned What I Learned, August Wilson’s autobiographical ramble staged by the Huntington Theatre Company, and Milk Like Sugar, also staged at the Huntington. Local playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s script paid homage to August Wilson, capturing the confused lives of a group of Gloucester, Massachusetts teens who had joined together in a “pregnancy pact.” And SpeakEasy Stage Company’s riveting production of Scottsboro Boys was the big winner: the production walked away with the most awards including best set design, costume lighting, projection, sound, choreography…you get the idea: the whole shebang.

There was a special shout-out to the late Derek Wolcott, Nobel laureate, poet, dramatist, and Boston University professor who died last year, and a pause to remember the late playwright Edward Albee.

The evening would not have been complete without some lobbying by the publicists in attendance who greeted me in the reception area among the tipsy revelers, asking when I might attend their upcoming shows. Boston’s theatrical offerings are a Mobius strip: there is never an end, only new openings on the horizon, and it’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once, and it’s what we do — year after year.

Review: “Bridges of Madison County”

May 21, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Musical direction by Matthew Stern. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through June 3.

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By Robert Israel

Bridges was first conceived as a novel (by Robert James Waller), next adapted into a  successful Hollywood film (starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), and finally morphed into a Broadway musical (where it won two Tony Awards). Throughout all its various incarnations, this sexual soaper for the middle-aged set drew audiences to its oh-so-lovelorn bosom by dramatizing the struggle adults face when forced to decide between staid domesticity and raging passion.

And the best moments (and there are a number of them) in the SpeakEasy Stage production aptly huzzah the transcendent power of love, the company’s ensemble of twelve players generating considerable theatrical power out of the need for a deep emotional connection. But there are episodes,  well intentioned as they may be, that fail to rise about the musical’s stilted dialog and the staging’s smattering of wooden performances.

Francesca (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian WWII bride, settles for married life on an Iowa farm with husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff). Life back in the urban crush of Naples wasn’t all that scintillating, but there was at least the possibility of amorous adventure. The wide-open flatlands of the American Midwest, with its spying neighbors and grain silos, is an emotional non-starter.

Along comes heartthrob Robert (Christiaan Smith), a weary National Geographic photographer who has been assigned the task of photographing all the covered bridges in the county where Francesca and her brood reside. The idea is that sparks fly when they meet; the pair generate a bonfire of desire. While her family is away at a state fair, they tumble abed. The trouble with the SpeakEasy Stage production is that the two lead actors can, only build up to a low simmer; their singing voices may be rapturous, but their onstage chemistry is severely lacking.

Adding buckets of cold water to the wet blanket is the book by veteran playwright Marsha Norman, whose lame dialog sometimes sounds as if it came out of the New England Primer. Yes, Robert is your standard issue repressed male. (Should we blame his dribble of monosyllables on overwork and/or the failure of his marriage?) But there is nothing here that gives us the feeling that underneath Robert’s unruffled surface writhes inflamed passione d’amore. When the adulterous couple finally do embrace — after agonizing scenes of petrified blather — their furtive groping comes off as forced. Later, as they lie together at center stage – in flagrante – and yank a blanket over their entwined torsos, they look like a pair of driftwood logs or lava rocks that cooled off eons ago.

By the second act, the encounters warm up a bit, and the theme of making the right choices – should a married woman abandon her family and run off with the worldly photographer? – is pushed front and center. It drums up some fantasy/ethical interest: Should we live a lie? Or run off with a heartthrob, leaving behind the life we have established in our adopted land? There are no easy answers, sacrifices must be made, and the musical goes to great lengths to successfully articulate this dilemma, if falling into a moralistic lockstep. We make compromises with the mate we choose — security means making due with the rewards at hand.

M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction is agreeably hands-off; she never judges the infidelities of the lovers, letting us draw our own ethical conclusions. The musical direction by Matthew Stern – with the musicians tucked away unobtrusively at stage left – works splendidly. There are wonderful comic turns by SpeakEasy Stage veterans Will McGarrahan (Charlie) and Kerry A. Dowling (Marge), who show us that a married life that endures over the decades need not be seen as deadening, when there’s plain speaking, humor, and extra slices of cake. When it comes down to it, The Bridges of Madison County insists that there is more than one way to seize the day.

So, while the material’s supposed steamy romance is a damp squib, the talented SpeakEasy Stage ensemble offers enough harmonious pizazz to make up for the erotic fizzle.

Mavis Staples: Enduring Spirit

February 27, 2016

By Robert Israel

Flashback:

As a teenager without car or driver’s license who grew up in the late 1960s, I traveled to Newport, Rhode Island’s summer music festivals via ferryboat from Providence’s India Point. Newport was the nexus for folk singers and gospel groups. Unlike today where security barriers keep audiences at a distance from performers, Festival Field during this era was the opposite: audiences mingled with the artists at informal “hoots” and workshops or invited to clamber onstage to sing along. You’d see the likes of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Theo Bikel, and many others, singing together or alone, swapping songs, performing duets, all while rapt audience members sat clustered at their feet.

On Sunday mornings, gospel music groups – many of them had traveled by bus to Newport from the Deep South – performed on the lawn. They sang without microphones: they never seemed to need them. If they were weary from their road trips, they never showed it: their rhapsodic voices, as if drenched in butterscotch and sorghum syrup, rose up above the sun-splashed field and became pure light.

It was on a Sunday morning in 1967 — my blanket spread out alongside a wooden performance platform – that I heard, for the first time, the glorious harmonies of the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina. One of the groups that followed the Hummingbirds — with Mississippi roots (by way of Chicago) — was the Staple Singers.

The Staples family — “Pops” Staples and daughters Pervis, Mavis and Cleotha — had already gained notoriety singing at civil rights rallies with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “preaching” the gospel about the evils of segregation and rousing listeners through exhilarating song to unite in solidarity for the purpose of creating a more just, more inclusive society. They had a commanding presence. When they sang, it was a personal invitation to foreswear the toils of daily life and to claim a righteous place in the Kingdom on High.

Flash forward:

MavisStaplesLOAHN-470x470

Now 76 years old, Mavis Staples shows no signs of slowing down as she reaches out to new audiences. She alone carries on her family’s musical tradition, after the deaths of her father “Pops” and her sister, Cleotha. (Pervis Staples retired years before). In 2015 and throughout 2016, she’s booked for weekly shows at venues around the country. Late last year, I saw her perform in Boston at a Celebrity Series concert before a capacity crowd at Berklee Performance Center; her voice and stage presence continue to exude power, to plumb emotional and spiritual depths.

A couple of weeks ago, she joined fellow septuagenarian Joan Baez on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City for Joan’s 75th birthday, singing alongside Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Jackson Browne, and others.

Her touring schedule would exhaust younger performing artists. These upcoming appearances include performing in New Orleans at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in May and at Bonaroo in Tennessee in June.

A new HBO documentary about her life, Mavis!, will screen on February 29. A sneak preview is now available on her website.

An EP, entitled “Your Good Forture,” release by the Anti- label two months ago showed, that her songs have not lost their relevance. As fellow-performing artist Joan Osborne, who joined her onstage in Boston at the Berklee, put it, “Mavis transports you to the very foundation of your soul.”

For those not familiar with Mavis and the Staples Singers, a good place to start is with the Staples’ cameo appearance in the movie The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese’s film about rock group The Band’s last concert). Mavis stands out by being the most demonstrative and outspoken. In an interview some years back about the making of that film, she explained why she became so animated, appearing on the screen clapping her hands and intoning a deep emotional response to the song she was singing:

I have a tendency, which I think is good, to just sing from my heart. I want to feel it myself. Pops taught me that, to sing from my heart. I can’t just sing from the top of my head. I gotta get into the song. I see it like a movie, in my head… I don’t want to be gloatin’, you know, but anytime I watch it, it’s refreshing. It’s like the first time. You never get tired of it, you know. And I remember everything about it. I remember every moment that we had doing that. Pops said, ‘Mavis! Baby, you shouldn’t carry it out so long like that,’ when I go, ‘Heeeyyyy yeeeeaaah.’ And I said, ‘Nah, daddy, that’s the good part. That’s what I feel.’ He said, ‘O.K., do what you feel. That’s the best thing. Do what you feel.’

Mavis Staples is on a mission; she wants to serve as an antidote to despair and hatred, to set off “positive vibrations.” In these times of murderous strife and political demagoguery, each day generating new proclamations of vulgarity and racism, Mavis’ takes up the challenging task of providing healing. Like the songs she and her family sang long ago in Newport, they are about bringing flickers illumination into what seems to be a darkening world.

**

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