Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hans Brinker and The Silver Skates: Lessons about life for young people

Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates shows how young people can cope with making hard choices and standing up to their peers and their parents. It is also a very egalitarian play in which boys and girls are treated as equals in their abilities to persevere and to succeed.
Lauren Hirte as Gretel, Ciji Prosser as Heidi, Steven A. Wright as
Carl, Matteo Scammell as Peter, and Brian Ratcliffe as Hans
.
Photo by Mark Garvin. 
I remember Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates from my childhood. The book held a special place in my library, not because I liked the story, but because the book itself had a special cover that differentiated it from most of the other books I owned. While I could tell you the story of almost all the other books I read from that time, I really didn’t remember more about Hans Brinker than that it had to do with a race along the canals in Holland.

The production of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates at the Arden Children’s Theatre brings the story to life in a enchanting way that makes me think I had never fully appreciated the original. The ice-blue scenery with windmill blades rotating in the background and a floor that serves as an ice rink (Scenic Designer David P Gordon) makes us feel the cold of the Dutch Canals in winter. The cast members, in period costumes (Rosemarie E. McKelvey), glide across the specially-treated stage on “skates” (shoes with felt and rubber soles) so effortlessly that we believe we are watching them skate on ice.  
Lauren Hirte as Gretel. 
Photo by Mark Garvin. 

Set in Holland, the story is about Hans Brinker (Brian Ratcliffe) and his sister Gretel (Lauren Hirte) who have grown up in poverty because their father Raff (Ed Swidey) fell off a scaffolding while trying to repair the dykes during a storm ten years earlier. Since that time he has been “a living man with the mind of a dead man,” who needs to be taken care of by his wife Dame Brinker (Rachel Camp). Now, there is a to be race on the canals with the prize of a pair of silver skates. Hans and Gretel would like to participate, but they only have wooden skates, carved by Hans, to wear on the ice. They don’t stand a chance against the rich kids who regard them as “rag pickers.”

However, Heidi van Gleck (Ciji Prosser) and her friend Peter von Holp (Matteo Scammell) are moved by their story and try to help them by giving them old skates in return for Hans’ carved necklaces. After some persuasion by Hans, grumpy Doctor Boekman (Steven A Wright) agrees to operate on their father as much for his ego as a matter of charity.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

NextMove: Complexions Contemporary Ballet: Classical Athleticism

Andrew Brader and Ashley Mayeux in Amazing Grace; 
Photo by Bill Hebert
Dance Affiliates presents NextMove opened their new season at their new home, The Prince Theater in Philadelphia, with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, the company founded by former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. 

It was an evening of diverse dance styles that both honored and challenged traditional forms. The music traveled from Bach and Vivaldi to Metallica, with stops along the way by Odetta, Prince, Jimmy Scott, and the traditional “Amazing Grace.” By the end of the evening the audience was thrilled and almost as exhausted as the dancers.

The evening begins with Ballad Unto... in which seven couples swirl across the stage in pairs and triplets. The Balanchine influence is apparent, classical line and movements, and yet it is so not Balanchine, a total awareness of the dancer’s body as anatomical sketch—all muscle and sinew and strength. The bare chested men preen, the ballerinas primp, as they come together and part. This is classical ballet and yet it isn’t. An awkward knee, a slight twist interrupts the smooth flow and makes us pay attention.

While the first act is classical, the second explores a variety of forms beginning with the modern athleticism of Gone (dancers: Kelly Marsh IV, Greg Blackmon, and Timothy Stickney) set to Odetta’s “He Had a Long Chain On.” The mood turns sultry in Cryin’ to Cry Out (dancers: Melissa Anduiza, Nehemiah Spencer, Jillian David, and YoungSil Kim) to Jimmy Scott’s vocals, followed by Choke (dancers: Doug Baum and Addison Ector) set to Vivaldi, then Terk Lewis Waters, who towers over the other dancers when he is with the company, here, dressed in red, undulates across the stage to a ballad by Prince. The act ends with an excerpt from Testament, a dance of passionate longing set to “Amazing Grace.”

Group image from Strum; Photo by: Bill Hebert
For the last act, Strum, the dancers, clad in metallic silver, move mechanistically across the stage as Timothy Stickney struts and stumbles around and through them to the seemingly endless music of the heavy metal band Metallica. Whenever there is a lull, a darkness with silence, the audience claps not realizing there is more to come. It’s a compelling performance that leaves the dancers almost as breathless as the dancers.

What makes this program additionally special was that it marks the inaugural season for Dance Affiliates in their new home. Founded in 1979 by Randy Swartz, Dance Affiliates started out at the Walnut Street Theater, then, in 1983 moved to the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and now after 32 years it has relocated again to Center City Philadelphia.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hooked!: It all depends on how you look at it

We tell stories so that we can justify our actions. Even two people who lived through the same event, can see it differently. When we hear all sides of the story, we can begin to piece together something approximating the truth.

Rachel Brodeur and Corinna Burns
Photo by Katie Reing.
Inis Nua Theatre Company, which presents “Contemporary theatre from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales,” has found a charming play about small town secrets and invites us into a pub to hear the participants tell their sides of the story. It’s filled with a hint of violence and lots of unfulfilled sexuality, and goes perfectly with a pint of whatever you’re drinking.

Mary (Corinna Burns) and Tom (Charlie DelMarcelle) are married, although they seem happier apart. Even their daughter, a never seen Jessie, has moved away. Meanwhile Lydia (Rachel Brodeur), whose husband has left her and taken their child with him, moves into the house next door, a house that once belonged to an old woman that Mary considered a witch, and the potential for misunderstandings and a hint of French farce ensue.

Tom and Lydia are plagued by secrets which Mary is determined to uncover, whether by spying on her neighbor from her kitchen counter, or badgering Tom until he just can’t take it anymore.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mothers and Sons: How long does anger last?

Michael Learned, Hugh Kennedy, Jacob Wilner, and James Lloyd Reynolds
Photo Credit: Mark Garvin
Homosexuality was not only forbidden it was dangerous. How long does it take for those wounds to heal?

Mothers and Sons. By Terrence McNally; Wendy C. Goldberg directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through March 8, 2015 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard), Philadelphia. 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

Drama shows us both our better and worse selves. Sometimes it shows us how heroic we might be, imagining ourselves as superheroes who can save the world. Sometime, as in several recent works, it shows us how dreadfully we have behaved in the not too distant past. Selma reminds us how we treated blacks in this country, The Imitation Game and Oscar remind us of how we have treated homosexuals.

Watching these semi-historical stories I am amazed at the progress we have made and yet how those same prejudices are still with us. We still have segregation; we still struggle with homosexuality, although now the discussion, in this country at least, focuses on gay marriage, while in other places, such as Russia, it’s still a crime to be gay; we still don’t have gender equality; in Europe anti-Semitism has re-emerged. And now we have someone new to hate, the Muslim population is something to be feared and demonized.

Monday, December 22, 2014

NMAJH and Martha Graham Cracker Explore Jewish Music Together

She pronounces it “Namaaajjh,” like a French perfume, but’s it’s really the National Museum of American Jewish History (initials NMAJH), and she is Martha Graham Cracker, local performance artist who, as artist in residence, created and performed a cabaret based on her encounters with the museum exhibits.

For a few nights this week, the fifth floor exhibit space of NMAJH was transformed into Martha’s cabaret. Scattered on table tops were items from her personal collection—rubber bands, a sausage, an oversized powder puff. Many are used or explained during the performance as Martha brings us into her skewed world in which she had encounters with famous Jewish composers through history, particularly Leonard Bernstein, with whom she had “a limited engagement.”

Starting last year the museum created an artist in residence program, OPEN for Interpretation, inviting local cutting-edge artists to, as Martha’s collaborator and Musical Director Andrew Nelson put it, “run amok in the museum.” The intention was to give visitors a new way of looking at the exhibits. After all, museum exhibits are static, it’s what the visitor brings to them that makes an impact. 

“Our goal was to invite creative thinkers into the museum to produce creative work,” says Emily August, Director of Public Programs. “The artists’ job is to find something that resonates with them in the Museum and bring it to life for our visitors in new and perhaps unexpected ways through their unique artistic lens. The content is inherently Jewish, although the artists may not be.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

The (Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence): Do We All Need a Watson in Our Lives?

Who do you think of when you think of Watson? Sherlock Holmes’ faithful companion and publicist, the computer (named for Thomas J. Watson, Sr., who ran IBM from 1914-1956) that beat Jeopardy’s biggest winners in 2011, or Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, the man who received the first ever phone call.
Whichever it is, they are all present, along with a modern robot and a charming young man both also named Watson, in Madeleine George’s play, The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, that just finished its run at the Azuka Theatre. In a time-bending script that requires each of the actors to play multiple roles across the last century or so, Watson, played in all his guises by Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, is the force that ties them all together.
When Edison, from a darkened doorway, repeatedly calls out “Watson, come here, I want to see you”—or was it, as that Watson insisted, “Watson, come here, I want you”?—is he, perhaps, expressing a need we all have to have someone, something, at our beck and call. Eliza (Corinna Burns), a modern entrepreneur, who has left her husband and her job and is starting her own company called Digital Fist, has created her own Watson, a charming barefoot robot who rarely looks at her but says just what she wants him to. Phrases like, “I just want to give you what you want.” And who wouldn't want to hear that?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein: Do We Create Our Own Monsters?

By You That Made Me, Frankenstein is a show about monsters. It asks the question whether those who create monsters aren’t monsters themselves. While the opera, performed and created by Philly Opera Collective and Brenna Geffers tells the story of how Mary Shelley (Kristy Joe Slough) came to write Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus within a circle of brilliant men and women who seem to have no moral compass, it is also relevant to the current discussion of how we have made monsters out of our current heroes - football players, rap singers, politicians - whose fame and power have turned them into monsters as well.

The opera is set in a rainy summer weekend in 1816 when Mary Shelley, her half-sister Claire Crystal Charles), the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Joseph Cianciulli)  - whom Mary eventually marries - and George Gordon, Lord Byron (Brendan Norton), as well as doctor John Polidori (William McGlone) are confined by the rain to a villa in Switzerland. During this weekend, Claire says, she watched “the first two poets of England become monsters.”

After reading a story in Fantasmagoriana, a collection of German tales that had been translated into French, Byron proposed a challenge. They would each write their own story. Apparently it was a successful challenge - out of it grew the monster Frankenstein as well as the precursor of Dracula, by the lesser known Shelley and Polidori, as well as poetry by the poets. So not only were the characters monstrous in their treatment of each other - sex and children were tokens in a game of power that called itself love - the two innocents among them took that behavior and turned it into monsters that the world could see.