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.”

Reflections on Auschwitz at 70

January 27, 2015

By Robert Israel

Flashback, to the first decade after the end of World War II: As a youngster growing up in a Jewish enclave in Providence, Rhode Island, many survivors of the Nazi death camps were my neighbors, immigrant Jews who attended the synagogue with my family, who shopped at the kosher markets, and who, in summertime, their sleeves rolled up, displayed the blue numbered tattoos of their imprisonment on their arms.

I knew the liberators of those death camps, too, soldiers who served in the U.S. Army like my father. The soldiers and the survivors had a special bond, they had both lived through and had witnessed carnage and cruelties. Yet, during these years, both groups focused instead on healing. They chose never to discuss or to share what they had seen and endured overseas in the killing fields and in the killing camps.

In our home, a tenement on the third floor of an industrial street, we never discussed the war, the survivors, or their plights. There was no community-wide Holocaust remembrance day. There were no silent vigils. There were no Holocaust memorials. The only remembrances that took place were in the synagogue itself, on the wall of memories that greeted all worshipers upon entering the sanctuary, where names of those that were lost were inscribed in bronze and, beside these plaques, small light bulbs that were illuminated when the appropriate time of their yortzeit, or the anniversary of their deaths, arrived.

**

Flash forward, thirty years later, to when I was working as a newspaper editor for a Jewish weekly: I was told that a young woman, from the press bureau of the Government of Austria, was waiting for me in the lobby. She did not have a previous appointment. Yet this was a common occurrence: I was frequently approached by aggressive representatives of Austria, Poland and Germany and implored by these representatives to travel to their countries, to see the death camps for myself, to meet the survivors, and to draw my own conclusions as to how these countries were restoring normalcy to their citizenry.
The Austrian representative grew tired of the wait, despite being told I was in the midst of a particularly frantic deadline scramble in the newsroom. She made her way over to my desk. Finding an empty chair, and amidst the clamor of telephones and reporters filing copy, she sat down and unfolded a sheaf of documents.

“First of all,” she declared, “I am here to personally apologize for what happened to Jews in Austria.”
She then revealed an itinerary, prepared for me without my previous knowledge or consent, of an upcoming trip she insisted I take to Austria, all expenses paid, to meet with government representatives and survivors. And then she exited.

**
I finally made one of several trips as a newspaper reporter to Europe, and I visited the death camps. At Dachau, which is in a modern suburb a short train ride from Munich, I toured the camp and adjacent barracks. They had all been scrubbed clean and re-painted battleship gray. But the new coats of paint and repaired rooftops of these buildings could not disguise the fact that they were haunted by the souls who had once suffered there, ordinary citizens who had been rounded up and sent down the same train tracks I had traveled to this, their final and horrific destination.

Standing in the courtyard with a translator and a guide from the government press office, I found it necessary to block out their rambling dialog about the history of the place, which I knew only too well from having met, as a youngster thirty years before, survivors who had been imprisoned there. I wandered away from them to a small stream that gurgled just past the iron gates. It was spring, and growing around the stream were flowers, tall grass, and, just beyond the camp, the first buds of apple blossoms. This was the only sign of normalcy I recorded.

Seventy years have passed since Auschwitz was liberated. The small gathering of Jewish survivors who returned there sobbed upon arrival. One elderly man recalled the horrors amidst his tears, declaring that he was a victor, he had made it out alive, he had borne witness and he was returning to declare what he had witnessed so that no one would ever forget.

I bore witness to the aftermath of that war. Unlike when I was a youngster, the stories are now shared, discussed and archived. The voices of those that are gone, who witnessed far more than I, are locked in my memory. I hear them again. I hear their voices anew admonishing me to share with others what they once shared with me.

Jews and France: after the massacres

January 20, 2015

By Robert Israel

The announcement on January 12 by Jean-Yves Le Drain, the defense minister of France, that 10,000 troops will be deployed to protect “vulnerable areas across the country” offers little comfort for France’s Jewish community, reeling from repeated terrorist attacks over several decades.

The deployment of troops, prompted by the massacre on January 7 of twelve people at the editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and subsequent killings of four hostages — all of them Jews – at a kosher supermarket in suburb Paris a day later, has exacerbated a sense of fear among the nation’s Jewish minority of 600,000. More Jews are expected to quit France for Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government immigration bureau, which last year recorded over 7,000 French arrivals to the Jewish state, more than double the 2013 figure of 3,289.
“French Jews have very close ties to Israel and there is a great sense of solidarity with Israelis,” said Arieh Azoulay, who I interviewed at the Jewish Agency office in Paris when the trend of increased numbers of Jews quitting France was first announced a few years ago. “The increased incidents of terrorism are a catalyst for many French Jews to consider repatriating.”

The Jewish Agency office is housed in a building in a residential neighborhood of Paris, but unless one makes an appointment in advance and is given explicit directions, there is no signage to indicate its location. So, too, is the office of sociologist, author and Jewish activist Shmuel Trigano. I arranged to interview him before my arrival in Paris, but at the appointed date and time, I became lost since it was hidden behind a fortified courtyard.

“Over the years, we have heard the French government call the repeated attacks against Jews a temporary state of emergency,” Trigano told me. “They’ve asked everyone to be on alert. What we are left with is a malaise that has become our way of life.”

Not everyone chooses to live with that sense of malaise, as evidenced by a recent visit to the Marais, where Jews have had a presence for over 800 years. It was here that a popular kosher restaurant, Jo Goldenberg’s, was attacked on August 9, 1982 when two men opened fire, killing six and wounding 22. It closed a couple years ago, and is now a clothing store. The adjacent shops – once kosher bakeries and markets – are now the sites of trendy boutiques. And last week, the Grand Synagogue, on nearby Rue de la Victoire, for the first time since the Nazi occupation of Paris 70 years ago, felt compelled to cancel Sabbath services.

Despite the grim realities, there are those in the Jewish community in France who are calling for French Jews to remain vigilant and join the millions who rallied in the streets of Paris this past week denouncing terrorism.

“Now more than at any other time in its postwar history, the fate of France is entwined with the fate of its Jews,” wrote Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Paris office, for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “If France loses them, sooner or later it will also be lost. Is this the wake-up call that will help the French people understand the nature of the threat to our country, and will they respond firmly and effectively? The very soul of France is at stake.”

Stage review: “Necessary Monsters” at SpeakEasy Stage, Boston

December 18, 2014

By Robert Israel

When actor/playwright John Kuntz and director David R. Gammons collaborated at SpeakEasy Stage in Boston earlier this year, the result was a winning production of Samuel D. Hunter’s deeply disturbing play The Whale, which focused on the angst of a gay man gorging himself to death over the loss of his lover. Their theatrical creativities meshed. So it seemed like a sure bet to unite them again, according to Paul Daigneault, SpeakEasy’s producing artistic director.

“I am …thrilled for the opportunity to work again with both David R. Gammons and John Kuntz, two artists with long and distinguished histories with the company,” Daigneault rhapsodizes in the program notes to SpeakEasy’s current production of Kuntz’s one-act play, Necessary Monsters.

But theatrical lightning has not struck a second time. Necessary Monsters is hampered by a heavy-handed approach at the service of an irritatingly scattershot vision. The script is so cluttered that the cast of eight struggles to keep the action from stalling. They scuttle across a playing space (to quote the script) “like so many tumbleweeds,” separated from the audience by a wire fence, lest we, or they, get too close.

Kuntz doubles as actor and playwright, a Herculean undertaking for any artist. Unfortunately, it proves to be too much. Gammons’s direction tries mightily to “push the envelope,” (again to quote Daigneault) and it is true — he takes some impressive theatrical risks. There are moments of brilliant payoff. When Kuntz’s dazzling writing meshes with the nervy direction there’s plenty to savor: spiky observations about popular culture, sex, technology, and drug abuse are spiced up with plenty of gallows humor. There is a wonderfully written monologue delivered by veteran actor Thomas Derrah as Greer, who rises from a prone position at the rear of the stage and, dressed in drag, delivers a twisted soliloquy.

But these snippets are part of a play that is sort of like an uncompleted Frankenstein monster: random parts have been stitched together without finally arriving at a whole body. The use of technology, designed by Adam Stone, further alienates the audience. Machinery is omnipresent onstage: laptops, television screens, cell phones, old push-button phones with long wires that purposefully ensnare the actors, a neon sign, and piped-in music. And if that’s not enough clutter, there are chairs, tables, scattered debris, plastic cups, candy wrappers, rags, and yellow crime scene tape. The production’s haphazard air suggests that we are at a rehearsal. At any moment I expected Gammons, the director, to emerge from the shadows to stop the action in order to give pointers to the actors, or for Kuntz himself (who plays two roles, Stephen and Theo), to step out of character(s) to instruct an actress on how to better prepare herself for the next scene while we wait for the play to start anew.

There is a Big Theme running through all this morass of activity and that is that monsters live inside us all. Proof of this unoriginal notion is provided ad nauseam. A lonely female (blasted out of her mind on a hashish brownie) engages in a random telephone chat with a male stranger wearing a frightful mask; a husband and wife deal (badly) with the fact that they also happen to be psychiatrist and patient. There is a young man who has a fetishistic attachment to a toy monkey and has simulated coitus with a woman on the floor amidst all the squalor, their limbs indistinguishable as they lay there in a heap. There are episodes of stabbings, gun shots, and screeching. Gratuitous sexual congress abounds: two men engage in simulated fellatio; a woman, dressed provocatively, straddles a male actor’s crotch. None of these couplings arrive at a climax.

Attempting to dig underneath our protective psychic skins to get at the festering Id within, Kuntz would like his play to mesh laughter and fright, comedy and horror. But the line between the two is rubbed out so often (and easily) that it eventually disappears, leaving us confused rather than shaken. Necessary Monsters dishes out a blitzkrieg of words and images that overwhelm rather than provoke.

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse, Boston.

Stage Review: “Bad Jews” at SpeakEasy Stage

November 2, 2014

By Robert Israel

You are not likely to leave Bad Jews, an uneven, mish-mash of a one-act play, with much clarity regarding just who is a “bad Jew” or who is a “good Jew.” While playwright Joshua Harmon has a keen ear for dialog and is adept at creating a raucous mood of dissonance and discord, he avoids taking sides, thus his fireworks are not all that illuminating. Instead, he steers his play to the middle ground where his two lead characters – representing polar opposites, cultural versus religious Judaism – ultimately exhaust one another, and us, with assaults of unbridled cruelty. At final curtain, we’re spent and none the wiser.

Set in a cramped studio apartment in New York City’s Upper West Side, we meet Jonah (Alex Marz), sprawled on the floor playing a video game, stripped down to his skivvies, white shirt, and black tie. Enter his cousin, Daphna (Alison McCartan), disheveled and loquacious. The subsequent banter – she does most of the talking – sets the plot in motion. The two cousins are gathered together to pay final respects to their beloved grandfather, Poppy, a Holocaust survivor who served as the emotional glue holding their families together. They are twenty-something American Jews, ensconced in their studies at universities but, given the occasion, now invited to face the specter of mortality. Also expected to join the pair, camping out in the apartment like youngsters at a slumber party, are two others: Liam (Victor Shopov) Jonah’s intellectual brother, and his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon). Liam and Melody have missed the funeral, but arrive in time for the shiva, or period of mourning.

What follows resembles the goings-on in God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s play, where seemingly civilized adults start off polite and then go at it until they are left scarred and shattered. In Bad Jews, however, Judaism is the unruly beast in the jungle of civilization. Faith is represented via a golden trinket, a “chai” (Hebrew for “life”) left behind after Poppy’s death. Liam has claimed it and it is in his possession. Daphna wants it. Each has their reasons for valuing the token. The back story: Poppy hid the “chai” under his tongue while in captivity in the Nazi camp. He presented it to his bride, the cousins’ grandmother, instead of a ring, during his marriage ceremony. Liam wants to do the same thing with Melody. Daphna will have none of it.
Victor Shopov (Liam Haber) in

Victor Shopov (Liam Haber) in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

The cast, like the play itself, is uneven. As Jonah, Marz plays his character as if he had been left traumatized after being swallowed by the Biblical whale. Even when given the chance to speak, Marz is ineffectual. There is no familiar chemistry between Jonah and Daphna, little eye contact. In the only scene where Jonah shows affection for his brother Liam, you are left wondering if they are related at all. During most of his scenes, Marz sits off to stage left, as wooden as a bookcase. As Daphna, Alison McCartan tries but fails to convey a strong impression of an impassioned Jewish identity. She is supposed to be a “baal tesuvah” Jew – Hebrew for “born again” — who is moving to Israel after graduation from Vassar later that spring. Then she will hook up with an Israeli man she intends to marry. But we aren’t convinced. Like much in this play, it’s all a set up for polemics.

The bravura performance in Bad Jews is supplied by Victor Shopov as Liam. He commands the stage and makes the most of a memorably riveting meltdown. He is a furnace ready to explode: his face reddening from the lobes of his ears to the top of his head. Shopov is matched by Gillian Mariner Gordon, who supplies a few cool breezes while the lava spews out of the domestic/religious volcano.

What Bad Jews lacks is a sense of Judaism that is summed up in the word, “Yiddishkeit,” which translates as “Jewish way of life.” Jews have been debating for centuries – and the play references this squabbling – about which path to take toward righteousness. This is far from a new argument. But why it remains compelling is that men and women, young and old, who engage in this discourse feel something about their faith, and need to find new ways to articulate that emotional dedication amid changing times and cultures. Bad Jews pumps out lots and lots of hot air about the quandaries of modern Judaism, and some it is explosive. But most of it is vapid, an academic exercise rather than a cri de coeur.

**
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).

Galway Kinnell, 1927-2014: An Appreciation

November 1, 2014

By Robert Israel

Some years back I met Galway Kinnell as he strode across the field in Glover, Vermont, just down the road from his home in nearby Sheffield. He surveyed the crowd of revelers at Bread and Puppet Theatre’s Domestic Resurrection Circus with a broad smile. We chatted about our mutual roots growing up in Rhode Island, American poetry, and Walt Whitman in particular, all the while enjoying the bizarre goings-on in the field below us as young men and women — wearing paper mâché masks, burlap sacks and flowing ribbons — frolicked freely about a maypole.

Kinnell, who died October 28 at his home in Vermont at the age 87, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1983 and an American Book Award for his work. Born in Pawtucket, he decided early on to venture beyond the language of his region; he needed to turn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and others to find an inspiration for his poetic sensibility.

“The accent of my hometown is rather unpoetical,” Kinnell once wrote. “It’s a very charming and loveable accent, but not very musical. To discover [in Poe] that this language could sing like that – ‘It was many and many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea…’ thrilled me.”

But it was the work of Walt Whitman – who broke from the confines of rhyme to write free verse – that influenced him the most. In this admiration he stands with other contemporary American poets, including Philip Levine, Donald Hall, Gerald Stern, Gary Snyder, and W.S. Merwin (who was his classmate at Princeton). He used a line from Whitman to title his eleventh collection of his poems, 2006′s Strong Is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin). Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and other poems gave him the courage to draw from his experiences, to express his voice freely in long, flowing lines, and to describe what he saw and felt on a broad canvas.

“One thing that leads a person to poetry is an inner life of some activity and maybe even turbulence, the weight of meaning and feeling that has to get out,” Kinnell wrote. “There’s not a specific something that I’m aiming for, but there is something that’s almost unspeakable and poems are efforts to speak it bit by bit, like a burden that has to be laid down piece by piece, that can’t be just thrown off.”

ed3d2704ca8a2dc845ffdaf134b44968Kinnell’s masterwork, The Book of Nightmares, appeared in 1971. It is a dark, book-length poem broken into chapters that takes the reader through the circles of Hell. Written in the first person, Whitmanesque in its corralling of details, the piece’s lyricism is not only harsh, but full of tenderness as well, especially toward the poet’s children, Maud and Fergus, to whom the volume is dedicated. Here are some choice lines:

I would blow the flame out of your silver cup,
I would suck the rot from your fingernail,
I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light,
I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones,
I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body,
I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood,
I would let nothing of you go, ever,

until washerwomen
feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands,
and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades,
and rats walk away from the cultures of the plague,
and iron twists weapons toward the true north,
and grease refuses to slide in the machinery of progress,
and men feel as free on earth as fleas on the bodies of men,
and lovers no longer whisper to the presence beside them in the
dark, O corpse-to-be

– “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight”

Kinnell, who taught for many years at New York University, also wrote a long requiem for those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 which was published in The New Yorker (and collected in Strong Is Your Hold). (He was politically active throughout his life, protesting the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and a fervent environmentalist.) He served as the Poet Laureate of Vermont and penned a number of lyrics, which often took the form of pastoral ramblings, that celebrated his appreciation of the rural life.

Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Kinnell can be found in The Book of Nightmares. In “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” he admonishes his daughter Maud to avoid sentiment and to experience life fully, to

learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come – to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
the mouth
which tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.

The still undanced cadence of vanishing.

**

A previous version of this piece appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).