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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Cat in the Hat: Wanting to Keep the Magic Alive

Do we need to understand everything? Why can’t children be allowed to wonder anymore?

I've an urge to write this in some sort of rhyme, but I haven’t the knack and I haven’t the time, I do want to say that the Cat in the Hat is an adorable show even if you don’t have a grandkid in tow. The kids were appropriately shocked and amazed, and the Cat was an acrobat who left us all dazed.

There’s a moment in The Cat in the Hat at the Arden Theater when the Cat (Doug Hara) stands precariously on a big yellow ball balancing, as in the book, a fish in a bowl on a rake and a book and a cup and a cake on his hat and a bowl full of milk and a kite in his tail and whatever else Dr. Seuss has listed in his popular children’s book.

It’s one thing to see a picture in a book, another to watch an actual person propel himself around the stage on what seemed to be a large exercise ball.  It was a truly remarkable feat, and we, myself along with all the children in the audience, held our collective breath waiting for something or everything to fall—while the young man next to me kept saying, “Oh, my,” and “My gosh”—until it all came crashing down—only not before our eyes. Just a lot of clattering and shuddering and shocked expressions.

And that was the fun of the piece. Part of going to the theater is the magic—not knowing quite how they’re doing what they do. It’s not the same as the movies, where we know that a bunch of experts worked with technology to create what are called “special effects.” The magic happens elsewhere in the movies. In the theater it all has to happen right in front of us leaving us wondering and amazed.

But what happens when that wonder is explained away? Does it diminish the effect and take away the magic when we know that it’s merely a trick?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mark Nadler: A Cabaret about Cabaret

What makes a Cabaret a Cabaret? Is it drinks and music, or is it spending time with a performer who invites you into his world? Mark Nadler tells us a story about his world and the dark past of cabaret in Weimar Germany. 

The word cabaret  conjures up for me a dark room with people crowded around uncomfortably small tables only half listening to a singer who tries to hold their attention while waiters serve and diners drink and dine. Some of my favorite singers are strongly associated with the smell of smoke and the clink of glasses in a dimly lit space with poor ventilation. The word also brings to mind the dark, daring world of the film Cabaret where a struggling young singer tries to survive in a Germany fast being taken over by the Nazis. 

What happens when the two experiences combine, the intimate setting around food and drink, and an audience watching a performance from the distance of a stage? That was the challenge facing Mark Nadler in his recent show I’m A Stranger Here Myself at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia—how to make the audience sitting in a large theater space feel that they are a part of the show as well as observers of it—and with no food or drink to distract or engage us.

What draws us into the cabaret or nightclub instead of a traditional show is precisely that intimacy. We want a nice dinner out with friends and don’t want to have to go to the theater afterwards, or we want to hear a particular singer, or the club is known for the kind of musicians who perform there, and we’ll go no matter what.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Kun Yang Lin / Dancers. Be / Longing: Light / Shadow


Photo by Bill Herbert
With so many dance troupes, both local and touring, appearing in the Philadelphia area, what sets Kun Yang Lin/Dancers apart is their emphasis on humanity and connection to the audience.  

Before there is the dance, there is the sound. Entering the theater, one is instantly enveloped by the sound of waves. There is no way to escape, it fills the room, chattering subsides, and we are lulled into silence.

A questionnaire on bright red paper challenges us to identify who we think we are. Not just our professions, but all the labels we and others have placed on us – cat lover, poet, Eagles fan, philosopher. We toss it off with a laugh, but it lingers. Who do I think I am? Who is this me that has come to watch the dance?

Arsenic and Old Lace: Farce Still Works

Jane Ridley, Laurent Giroux, Mary Martello and Dan Olmstead
Photo by 
J. Urdaneta Photography
Death isn't really funny, but when the good guys succeed and the bad ones get their just desserts, who minds a corpse or twelve in the basement, when we have so many worse skeletons in the closet.

Sometimes going to the theater can be just plain fun. That’s how I felt about the Walnut Street Theatre's production of Arsenic and Old Lace. A lot of familiar Philadelphia actors (Mary Martello and Jane Ridley as the Brewster sisters, Ben Dibble as Teddy Brewster, Damon Bonetti and Jennie Eisenhower as Mortimer Brewster and Elaine Harper, Peter Schmitz in two character roles)—I’ve only been here a little over a year and most were already familiar to me, along with a well-crafted script, resulted in a delightful farce—and I’m not one who uses adjectives like that lightly.

As the two elderly Brewster sisters, Martello and Ridley were alternately batty and serious, competent and absurd. In my quest to find satisfying roles for mature performers—more on that at another time—it’s nice to see that material does exist for them in which they are not distraught, alcoholic, or verging on dementia—although some may question the sanity of these two ladies, it’s more their thought processes that are in question, not their ability to think.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

TED Comes to Philadelphia

I've always wanted to go to a TED Conference but didn't know it was possible. Then a little blurb in the local paper said TED was coming to Philadelphia (TEDxPhiladelphia 2014: The New Workshop of the World, March 28, 2014 at Temple Performing Arts Center). I was one of the first to sign up, and over a thousand more people quickly followed. And there we were, in Temple University’s Performing Arts Center, hunkered down with water and snacks for a day of talks about Philadelphia, its history and its possibilities.

For those who haven’t encountered one of TED’s short video talks (usually less than 18 minutes), TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a non-profit organization that organizes conferences around the world on topics that have to do with the technology, entertainment and design, as well as education, business, global issues and more. Local spin-offs, referred to as TEDx, cover topics of interest to local communities or centered around a particular issue.  

Monday, March 31, 2014

Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq: A Wounded Hero and the Fierceness of his Victims

The hero of Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, a new play developed in a two-year collaboration between award-winning playwright Paula Vogel and Wilma Artistic Director Blanka Ziska, is a difficult hero to like. He’s a womanizer who uses women to fulfill his own needs with little regard for theirs. We are, I think, supposed to care for him, but that’s a challenge despite the excellent performance by Keith Conallen in the title role.

The play is structured around the journey of Capt. Don Juan (Conallen), a Marine who comes home from war with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) to search for Cressida (Kate Czajkowski), his missing lover. He claims to have changed, but he’s in such pain, which he desperately self-medicates, that it’s hard to trust his promises of reform.

See rest of the article in Broad Street Review

Monday, March 3, 2014

New Stars Shine in Tribes Production

One of the delights of the recent production of Tribes, by Nina Raine, directed by Stuart Carden, which played recently at the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, was  the introduction of two young actors at the very start of their careers. 

The more seasoned performers did their parts well, but it was Tad Cooley, who just last year moved to the area from Texas to attend the NY Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, and Amanda Kearns, who graduated from University of the Arts in 2012, who made us care about their characters in a very authentic way. Cooley played Billy, a boy who has been deaf since birth but is just discovering sign language, and Kearns played Sylvia, a girl with deaf parents who is losing her hearing and figuring out how to cope with that.  .

Cooley, who, like his character, has just recently learned to sign, was raised in Vanderbilt, TX where “football was practically a religion.” With a partial hearing loss from an infection that is growing worse, early on he “learned to manage around it,” playing football and appearing in high school productions. The choice to drop football for theater was an easy one for him.  “I've always been a cheerful kid,” he says, “but I never felt so accomplished and happy with what I've done as when I’m on stage.”

See article on the show at: Broad Street Review

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fear of Flying Acrobats

A magnificently toned body soars overhead attached to red silk cloths that flare out like wings while the Philadelphia Orchestra plays a Tchaikovsky Waltz from Swan Lake. 

A man dangles suspended overhead holding on to a large circle only by his feet. A woman sparkling in white does contortions while standing on two stools. A juggler juggles, a woman changes costumes in seconds within a silken tube, two muscular men perform an impossible balancing act, a man does impossible things with only a rope.

I should be loving this, but I’m not. I’m fascinated. I can’t look, but I can’t look away. The audience applauds, cheering them on. And I’m closing my eyes because I can’t stand the tension. This is the Philadelphia Orchestra Cirque de la Symphonie program at the Kimmel Center. The Orchestra, conducted by associate conductor Cristian M«écelaru, plays short pieces to accompany the acts. M«écelaru, dressed in a red shirt and black vest, jokes with the performers, makes occasional comments, and touches his hair a lot.

I’m aware that I’ve just taken a pill to ease the pain in my back and leg and meanwhile there are all these people doing things that I could never even contemplate on a good day. Their feet touch their heads, they support each other by counterbalancing their weight, they do handstands on one arm, they fearlessly soar overhead, and they keep on smiling. It’s Cirque de Soleil without the lighting and special effects, so we’re very aware of the muscles it takes to perform these feats while making it seem effortless.