Friday, April 15, 2016

Arthur Anderson (1922-2016)

Though I couldn’t call the late Arthur Anderson a friend, we certainly knew and liked one-another.  I had been meeting him on-and-off since the early 1980s, when I was on the board that organized a yearly seminar on vintage radio, The Friends of Old Time Radio convention (FOTR). 

FOTR, run from its inception till its end just a few years ago (in 2009) by Jay Hickerson, was unlike other conventions.  The three-day event would have multiple recreations of vintage radio shows starring the very people who starred in them during the 30s, 40s and 50s, and the event was small enough to create a feeling of family among regular attendees.  I was in college when I went to my first FOTR convention, and well into my 40s for my last.  If that doesn’t say something about Hickerson, vintage radio fans, and the event, then nothing does.

The most important names in radio drama attended FOTR at one time or another, and several were regulars every year.  Anderson was in that latter category, and I actually had the pleasure of appearing with him in several radio recreations.  (One of the great joys of FOTR was that fans and attendees were often part of the recreations; better still, there was a dinner event two nights of the three, and often you were seated next to the likes of Jackson Beck or Burgess Meredith.  How cool was that?)

Anderson was a fixture on Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater (1938 – where you can hear Anderson in Treasure Island and Life With Father), and a regular on the classic children’s program, Let’s Pretend (1928-1954).  His story – in a highly fictionalized form – is told in the film Me and Orson Welles (2009), where the handsome Zac Efron played young Anderson.  (Anderson was actually much younger than Efron in the film, which allowed filmmakers to incorporate romance into the story.)

Anderson can be seen in the Woody Allen film  Zelig (1983), and in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and on television in Car 54 Where Are You, as well as the more sober Law and Order.  And he worked till the end, doing voices for commercials (his is the voice of the Lucky Charms leprechaun from 1963 till 1992), cartoons and the like, and being the best spokesman vintage radio could ever have.  As Anderson said: I never got the girl, not in 19 seasons. I was never starred, I was never featured. But I always worked.

Anderson was unfailingly friendly and one of that rare vanishing breed: the jobbing New York actor.  He and his late wife, Alice, were always a pleasure to see and both always had terrific stories to tell.  He was really the last of the great voices from the classic era of radio drama, and we won’t see his like again.  He will be missed.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2006)

It’s not often that we review nonfiction unrelated to the arts here at The Jade Sphinx, but we have just finished a fascinating book by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, called My Stroke of Insight.  In it, she chronicles the onset, affects and long term recovery of a devastating stroke she suffered at age 37, and it is an alternately harrowing and fascinating tale indeed.

Bolte was a respected brain researcher, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a member of the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry.  Her younger brother suffered from schizophrenia, and Bolte was interested not just in mental illness, but the physiological reasons for it – in short, she was deeply invested in the mechanical and chemical workings of our brains.

So when she suffered an asteriovenous malformation (AVM), a rare form of hemorrhagic stroke, it was from the privileged space of being an expert on the inside looking out.  However, that privilege was not something she could communicate to her peers – shortly after her stroke, Bolte could not speak, read, and process her impressions.  Her brain was a prisoner within her own body, and it would take eight long years before she would recover completely.

My Stroke of Insight is harrowing in its depiction of the onset of stroke and its affects on cognitive function and simple quality of life.  Perhaps nothing could be more terrifying than lying helpless and conscious while various loved ones and professionals calmly decided her fate.

It is fascinating because the damage done to Taylor’s mind was mostly on the left hemisphere, the portion of the brain that reasons, deduces, makes connections and is rational.  This freed her right hemisphere without reservations; it unleashed the portion of her mind that was intuitive, creative, free and receptive to the world without filters of reason.  In the absence of the normal functioning of her left orientation, the perception of her physical boundaries were no longer limited to her left-filtered impressions.  She felt like a genie escaping from its bottle and swam on a sea of euphoria.

As Bolte puts it:  My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me.  I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid.  Of course I am a fluid!  Everything around us, about us, among us, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space.  Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity.  My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others.  Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow.  I was no longer isolated and alone.  My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.

Now, before we dismiss this as so much New Age hoo-haw brought on by brain damage, let’s consider what happened here.  If the left hemisphere of the brain is a filter through which our reason, capacity to measure and ability to make connections is the part of our brain that makes sense of reality, then the right hemisphere is the part of our brains that receives reality without the blinders of cognition.  In short, perhaps what Bolte saw was indeed the world as it really is, without the blinders of our own reason getting in the way.

Another way of thinking about it is that Bolte was given the insight that the human psyche and consciousness are a very subtle type of force that interacts with the brain, but are not necessarily produced by the brain.  That we are, indeed, entities that exist without of very human bodies.  An interesting thought, that.

My Stroke of Insight is an extremely rewarding book.  If nothing else, it is a warning to take care of our health to avoid stroke, and also an invaluable guide in helping loved ones recover from stroke.  But, most important, it is a fascinating look at what might be that realm where existence within the brain ends, and something not quite yet known resides.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

William Joyce Wants Your Toys!

We have frequently looked at the work of illustrator/film-maker William Joyce (born 1957) in these pages.  He is one of the most gifted creators in the field of children’s entertainment today; his books have won numerous awards, one of his animated films has won an Oscar, he created his own wonderland-cum-story-telling-factory Moonbot, and most important, he was won a place in the hearts of everyone who takes expertly crafted, intelligent family entertainment seriously.  Joyce has shared his peculiar magic with the world, and now he wants something in return … your toys.

Recently, Joyce has been thinking about toys while preparing his upcoming book, Ollie’s Odyssey (soon to be reviewed in these pages).  In particular, he has been thinking about Big Teddy, a huge stuffed bear owned by his late daughter, Mary Katherine, as well as his own bear who became lost when we has around six years old.  What happened, he wondered, when beloved toys became separated from the people who loved them?

Right now, Joyce is collecting stories of beloved toys and their people on his Twitter account.  Tweet him at @heybilljoyce with a photo or drawing of your most beloved toy.  Every week, Joyce will pick one to illustrate and post, and then he will mail the drawing to you!

This is a wonderful opportunity to share an important part of our childhood with a man who has done so much for children’s literature, and who has brought a significant amount of wonder into the lives of children and adults.  Make your day a little happier and check out Bill Joyce on Twitter.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (2016)

It’s understandable that so many have soured on adult fiction and are finding greater rewards in Young Adult novels.  It seems that contemporary adult novelists devote themselves to a minimalist approach, stripping life of its mystery, its romance and its quality of transcendence.  This reductive quality in contemporary fiction – shorn of story, shorn of suspense, shorn of purpose – is perhaps the greatest threat to contemporary engagement with reading.

Many novels targeted towards Young Adults, however, have evaded this post modern rot.  This is largely because the fodder of so much bad contemporary fiction – failed relationships, unsatisfying sex, career depression – still lie ahead for many young adult readers.  Also, Young Adult novels drive in an engine powered by plot; and plot is something much contemporary fiction ignores.

There is also a quality of fearlessness in Young Adult fiction that contemporary adult fiction lacks.  It can take risks, go for the big effect, approach realms of magical realism.  And certainly few new Young Adult novels go for the big effect more ambitiously than Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee.

Maybe a Fox is about two sisters, Sylvie and Jules.  Both girls live with their widowed father in rural Vermont.  When Sylvie, a runner, disappears and is presumed dead, Jules must cope with her feelings of loss and guilt.  She must also try to find a greater, more deep understanding of her sister, their relationship, and reconcile them to memories of their late mother.

Also going on, her friend Sam is dealing with the return of his brother, Elk, who is back from active service in Afghanistan and dealing with the loss of his own dear friend, Zeke. 

The novel shifts from its realist roots with sequences involving Senna, a new-born fox who feels a strange affinity for Jules.  Is this, in some way, the returning spirit of Sylvie, or something more mundane?

Appelt and McGhee are to be given kudos for their remarkable evocation of grief.  For readers (young or old) who have had to deal with loss and its resultant pain, the taste of this peculiar agony is palpable on the page.  Here is a good sample, where Jules realizes that her life can be divided into her earlier life, and “after Sylvie:”

After Sylvie, Dad laced and then untied, then relaced his boots, and then sat there staring at them as if he didn’t know whether to relace them once more.

After Sylvie, Jules caught Dad more than once pouring two glasses of milk, then pouring the second one back in the carton.  Her dad didn’t drink milk.

After Sylvie, Jules poured the rest of Sylvie’s coconut shampoo down the drain of the shower.  Even though there was no trace of the shampoo, Sylvie’s signature scent lingered in the bathroom, clung to the shower curtain, hung there in the steamy air.  Jules used her dad’s Old Spice shampoo when she took a shower.  It didn’t smell like coconut.

After Sylvie, Jules stood in the kitchen and watched Dad stir a pot of spaghetti sauce.  It was the first time since … It was the first time they were eating something besides Mrs. Harless’s soups.  She was sick of Mrs. Harless’s soup, even though she knew that Mrs. Harless was just trying to be nice to them.

The sauce bubbled, thick and spicy.  Jules made a salad and her dad dished up the spaghetti and they sat down and ate it at the table where Jules had set down three plates before she remembered.


Every day she forgot and then every day she remembered.

And that’s how it was After Sylvie.









After Sylvie.

That plaintive style reminiscent of incantation is extremely powerful and the book has many strong passages like this.  There are also several surprisingly clumsy passages, as if the co-writers were unsure of the dominant authorial voice.  Because of this, Maybe a Fox gets off to a slow and unsure start; but readers are encouraged to stay with it for the greater rewards.

The supernatural or preternatural aspects of the book will move you or not, according to taste.  It is a bold gambit on behalf of Appelt and McGhee because it mitigates, to some degree, the pain at the loss of Sylvie.  The pain of the void is great material for a novelist; for novelists to fill that void is courageous, but not always successful.  However, Appelt and McGhee do a wonderful job with their central story conceit, and it’s impossible to read Maybe a Fox and remain unmoved.

Maybe a Fox comes highly recommended to readers young and old alike.  It is deeply affecting, emotionally demanding and eminently rewarding.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Olivier, by Philip Ziegler (2013)

Of the three, great theatrical knights of the 20th Century, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) always came in third with Your Correspondent, trailing far behind both John Gielgud (1904-2000) and Ralph Richardson (1902-1983).  Olivier was indeed a great actor, but he lacked, to us, the poetry of Gielgud or the twinkle of Richardson.

However, it becomes clear in reading this champion biography by Philip Ziegler (born 1929) that of the three, Olivier was the most ambitious, the most tenacious and the most daring.  For Olivier, becoming a great actor was less a feat of artistry than an act of great will and determination.  Throughout his life, Olivier would seemingly set higher and more complex challenges for himself, stretching his powers as a performer, as an advocate for the theater, and as a man.  He sometimes fell far from his mark (most notably as a man), but as a record of passion, energy and drive, Olivier is hard to beat.

Olivier did not initially consider being an actor, but when his clergyman father (a distant, rather brutal figure) told him that he would be on the stage (“of course”), young Laurence took to it with alacrity.  He was fortunate in his early roles and in mentors … while still a young man, he was playing classical parts like Romero and Mercutio, while also finding offers to star in mainstream movies.  With successes in both Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940), it would have been easy for Oliver to take the easy route and become a movie star; instead, he stuck to his loftier ambition to become the premier classical stage actor of his day.

However, his success in film (something denied Gielgud and Richardson in their early years) also provided Olivier with insight enough to know that cinema was an important medium.  While he claimed that he didn’t fully understand ‘movie acting’ until rather late in the game, he was wise enough to make large-scale movie adaptations of several Shakespeare plays that provide us some clue as to his in-person dynamism.  His film versions of Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III – both as director and star -- are not only good Shakespeare, they are good movie-making.

But this complete man of the theater was unsatisfied with performing and filmmaking; he also wanted to be the man who created a National Theater of Britain.  It was a project to which Olivier would dedicate more than a decade of his life and his not inconsiderable energies.  As star actor, occasional director, business manager, spokesman and man-of-all work, Olivier faced the Herculean task of building a national theater that showcased both the classics and contemporary plays.  It was not for the faint of heart.

In a book with more than its share of delicious gossip and screamingly-funny theater bitchiness, Ziegler devotes most of the book to the almost day-to-day business dealings of building the National.  For one of the foremost actors of his age, the great dramas of Olivier’s life were born in board rooms, political gatherings and backstage meetings.  More than just an actor-manager of the old school, Olivier virtually carried the foundation, creation, formation and survival of the National Theater on his back.  When the Board, in a stunning act of treachery, let him go after it was up-and-running, Olivier’s physical and mental health were permanently hampered.  It’s odd for a theatrical biography to read like a business primer, but it is this heroic struggle that made Olivier so interesting, and what makes Ziegler’s book so out of the ordinary.

This is certainly a warts-in-all portrait, but more often it seems that Olivier was more sinned-against than sinning.  Ziegler looks at Olivier the husband and father, as well as at Olivier the artist.  It would seem that he was a man capable of great generosity, kindness and wit – but a basilisk if you crossed him or got in the way of his ambition.  Like many great men, he was a mixture of the petty and the perfect, of vaunting ambition and piddling meanness.

For those who love backstage stories, Ziegler does not disappoint.  One of the more interesting revelations for Your Correspondent was Olivier’s volcanic temper and gifted potty-mouth.  At one point, Olivier calls fellow actor Laurence Harvey a “fucking stupid, sniveling, little cunt-faced asshole.”  Though hardly Shakespearen, such invective is heroic.

But these aren’t the stories that resonate with Ziegler, amusing as they are.  Olivier had Olympian aspirations, and Ziegler wisely reflects those aspirations in the story of his life, matching them up against his very real achievements, which continue to reverberate in the world of theater today.  Ziegler, a biographer of Lord Mountbatten, actually closes his biography with notes on the similarity between the two men.  This is a book for those who long for star biographies, but with a little more depth.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Bill Cunningham New York, a Film by Richard Press (2011)

Photographer Bill Cunningham (born 1929) loves clothes.  He initially started as a hat maker, a trade he happily plied until he was drafted.  Back in his civvies, he worked as a fashion photographer until he grew unhappy with the demands upon his vision and editorial policies that he saw as unkind to average people who wore designer clothes.  Without regret, he left for different (if not greener) pastures.

Instead, he started taking pictures of New Yorkers as they were on the street – a fascinating record of how Gothamites have dressed and looked since 1978.  His New York Times column, On The Street, is a weekly collection of the trends or looks he noted each week, for which he also does the layout and a brief commentary.

Filmmaker Richard Press created a documentary about this illusive figure in 2011, Bill Cunningham New York.  The film tracked Cunningham breezing through Manhattan on bicycle and living in his tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building – an apartment with no closet, kitchen or private bathroom.  The apartment was furnished only with filing cabinets (holding hundreds of thousands of his photographs), a mattress propped up on some books and boxes, and many books.  Cunningham lived there happily until the Carnegie Hall Corporation evicted him in 2010 – an artist, a living New York institution, and a man well into his 80s.  Think of that the next time you want to spend your hard-earned ticket money.

Cunningham, who never married, lives a life of Spartan simplicity.  His home is, for the most part, on the streets of New York.  Cunningham is not interested in celebrities, models or people paid to wear the latest fashions.  His art is akin to stealth warfare – he sneaks onto the teeming streets of New York, gets his shots, and retreats to the Times to do his column.  His has very little life other than this.

Though Press’ film does an admirable job of shedding light on Cunningham and his life, the artist’s natural reticence renders him a somewhat opaque figure – even his closest friends know little of his private life.  In the few instances in the film where Cunningham is asked direct questions, his answers are more evasive than luminous.  In the final analysis, Cunningham comes across as a sad, rather stunted man.  His palpable sense of joy at both photography and clothes is a delight – but other than that sense of freedom and joy, there seems to be little else to him.

Disquieting too is the New York depicted in the documentary.  We are given snippets of commentary from people as diverse as Tom Wolfe (born 1931), Anna Wintour (born 1949),  Patrick McDonald (who strikes us as rather ridiculous), Kenny Kenny (who seems to be some kind of drag performer), and Harold Koda (1950) – and Your Correspondent’s takeaway is that New York is rather a squalid, provincial, intellectually challenged little burgh.  The City of this documentary seems insular, incurious, uninteresting and rather dirty. 

Now, despite its fecundity, New York is a blank canvas – people mostly see what they bring to it, and not how it really is.  I think the problem for me is that this is not my New York and, frankly, the idea of being stuck in this version fills me with something akin to dread.

Still, for people who have a taste for big city street vibes, New York eccentrics, the world of fashion or even the triumph of free spirits, then Bill Cunningham New York is a safe viewing bet.  It’s available at and at Barnes & Noble nationwide.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Franz Anton Maulbertsch

To Your Correspondent, it’s one of the most inexplicable passages in the Old Testament.  In order to assure himself of Abraham’s devotion, God orders him to kill his son, Isaac.  And … Abraham agrees. 

In Genesis 22, you will find the tale of how God had Abraham take Isaac up to the land of Moriah (a great distance away), separate the boy from the bearers and others that travelled with them, and then had the poor boy cut and carry wood for his own sacrifice.

Abraham readies the alter and wood, only to then bind Isaac and place him upon the pyre.  He is about to stab the boy to fulfill God’s command when God sends an angel to stop him.  God provides a ram, stuck in the nearby bushes, as a substitute, and one assumes that they went home, with Isaac never to turn his back on his father or trust him again for an instant.

It is stories like this that make Your Correspondent, a product of 13 years of private Catholic schooling, wonder if anyone reads this stuff critically.  The Biblical point here is that Abraham, after luring his son away from witnesses and making the poor boy carry the wood for his own funeral pyre, is viewed heroically because he valued God’s word more than he did the life of his own son.  The religious reading of the story puts a smiley face on an act of stupefying barbarism.  It’s an act of religious obligation counter to common sense, ethics and even fundamental morality.  This is the kind of thinking that leads to jihadism, suicide bombings, and the murder of abortion providers, much less countenancing child abuse.

We have looked at a number of brilliant depictions of this fable in the past, and to that list we must add that of Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796), currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

Looking at Maulbertsch’s work, one marvels at his ability to tell a story vertically.  For much of his work, the story sweeps up and down, rather than across.  Maulbertsch packs a great deal of drama in this picture, mostly communicated through composition and coloration.  Indeed, though Maulbertsch was a capable painter, his true genius lie in color and composition.  Weaknesses in drawing and painting are more than compensated for by his use of both to drive the narrative.  He has an artistic point of view – something that some more technically skilled painters lack, leaving their work sterile or unmoving.

The painting swoops from lower left (the angel’s wings and Isaac’s wonderfully lit legs), though the body of the boy and leading up to Abraham’s face, the light reflected on his helmet, and his upraised knife.  In that bottom to top arc, we have the entire story of the near sacrifice, told with impressive narrative thrust and significant drama.

No one would accuse Maulbertsch of delicacy when rendering the human face; indeed, many of his faces are indistinct or only adequately drawn.  Look, however, at Abraham’s face, which is very striking indeed.  Shown only in half light, this is the look of religious mania at its worst – the satisfaction evident on his face is consistent with people who have gone blood simple, and relish the act of murder.

Another reading is, of course, that Abraham’s face is lustful.  Time and again in depictions of Abraham and Isaac from artists as diverse as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Titian, we have seen something in the myth that seems to inspire dark contemplations of parental abuse, sexual and otherwise.  All of these painters have fetishized Isaac to some degree, and Maulbertsch is no different.  Note the radiant, heavenly light specifically highlighting his muscular legs and flat stomach, focusing its spotlight on his private parts.  Discreetly covered by the torn fragments of his robe, there is no mistaking that the focal point of the painting is Isaac’s groin. Indeed, if the eye flows up in a straight line, Abraham’s knife is directly over Isaac’s genitals.

Though rendered without “fussiness” or fine detail, Maulbertsch’s take on the Abraham/Isaac myth has an almost Mannerist monumentality and epic feel.  It is not my favorite painting of the myth, but it may be one of the most idiosyncratic.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Allegory on the Fate of Art, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1770)

Here is a stunning painting by an artist we have not looked at before, Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796), Allegory on the Fate of Art, painted in 1770, currently in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna.

Maulbertsch was Austrian, working as both a painter and engraver.  Although he has been recognized in the Central European regions where he worked, Maulbertsch has remained outside the general canon of art history. His fame rests as one of the most famous rococo painters in and around Germany.  He was born in Langenargen, and studied in the Academy of Vienna.  His major influences were the Venetian painters Piazzetta and Giovanni Battista Pittoni (1682-1754 and 1687-1767, respectively). He also made a study of the frescoes by Sebastiano Ricci in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and frequented Giambattista Tiepolo, who was active in Würzburg starting from 1750.

Maulbertsch was especially adept at frescoes.  He painted frescoes for multiple churches in Bicske, Kalocsa, Vienna’s Michaelerkirche and Piaristenkirche Maria Treu. He also decorated the Porta Coeli in Moravia, the Kroměříž Archbishop's Palace and the villa of Halbturn.  He died in Vienna in 1796.

There is a champion book about Maulbertsch, Painterly Enlightenment, by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann.  It’s the only comprehensive overview of the artist in English, and essential reading for anyone interested in this neglected master.

What is most striking about Maulbertsch is his bold, striking use of color.  Maulbertsch was a fresco painter at a time of transition to easel painting, a colorist at a time when color was not fully appreciated by contemporary observers, and an interpreter of religious themes at a time when secular subjects were becoming more popular. It was because of these conflicting forces -- caught between the intellectual forces of the Enlightenment and the waning power of the traditional church – that Maulbertsch is perhaps historically neglected.  However, Kaufmann believes that he is one of the great painters of eighteenth-century Europe, and he may not be far wrong.

Which brings us to this work, which was Maulbertsch's reception piece in 1770 for the Engravers' Academy in Vienna, founded in 1766 by his eventual father-in-law Jacob Schmutzer (1733-1811). The Engravers' Academy would later be united with the Academy of Fine Arts in 1772, and remained an incredibly important guild until the 19th Century.  The picture is oil on wood, 105 x 72 cm, and highlights all the delirious wonder of Maulbertsch’s work. 

Like most Rococo masters, Maulbertsch’s intent was the not the meticulous life-like rendering found in Renaissance or Mannerist paintings.  The Rococo is more a study in style than anything else, and the style of this picture is infinitely more important than its substance.

The sweeping upward progression of the picture is what gives this picture is drama and emotional heft.  In the lower regions of the picture an artist, on the left, huddles bereft over the broken pieces of decorative urn he has created, to the right of the picture, bathed in a reddish light that is probably a glaze of vermillion over the body color, reaches an artist whose creation slowly floats away from him.  His creation, the woman rising upward with help of a putti, is emerging from her clothes (the art of the artist) to ascend into a nude purity on a loftier plane.

Behind that figure is yet another artist.  Note the expression of his face – loss, longing and disbelief.  He looks on as his creation, shed of her garments, join celestial figures bathed in a heavenly light.  Another work of art has been completed, only to escape the control (and ownership) of its creator.

Note the dramatic coloration of the figures and the spotlight quality of the lighting (the key figures move in-and-out of a hot white glare), and see how Maulbertsch uses these techniques to tell his story.  The broken-urn artist (beautifully drawn and painted) is in partial shadow, the white cloth by him and his leg and torso lit to move the eye upward.  Our other two artists, key to the composition but not the story, are lit in muted reds and grays.  The upper most figures enter the heavenly light of artistic excellence, spectacularly illuminating the female figure, the head and shoulders of her guiding angel and the putti hovering above.

Though certainly not to every taste, this is a spectacular picture.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

1776, Encores! at City Center

Once again, Encores! pulls a musical gem from out of the ether, this time 1776, last seen in revival in 1997 with Brent Spiner (born 1949) as John Adams.  1776 features music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards (1919-1981) and a book by Peter Stone (1930-2003). The original production opened on March 16, 1969, at the 46th Street Theatre and played for 1,217 performances, winning the Tony for Best Musical, trouncing Hair and Zorba in the process.  (Inexplicably, time has looked favorably on both Hair and Zorba, but here the Tony committee made the right decision.)

The show was invited to perform at the White House, Courtesy of then-President Richard Nixon (1913-1994).  This caused concern for some in the show, most notably Howard Da Silva (1909-1986), who played Ben Franklin.  The last time Da Silva had received an invitation from Nixon, it was to testify before 1947's House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), the anti-communist purge Nixon enabled during his time in Congress. Da Silva refused to talk and was subsequently blacklisted from Hollywood for many years.  Amazingly, the show decided to play for the President, and did so uncut.

Many are familiar with the movie version, released in 1972 and retaining the entire, original Broadway cast – a rarity at the time.  The film is a record of the show as it was originally, save for the excision of a song critical of a conservative Congress, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” which was cut by Jack Warner at the request of Nixon – a cut the Broadway producers would not allow when the show played live in the White House.  The film was a commercial disappointment, but it has had a continual afterlife on television, where it plays every July 4th.

In an election year, when it seems that the nation is moving further and further away from the democratic ideals of the Founding Fathers, it’s only natural that Encores! revive the show now.  Despite that impetus, though, it is a choice more interesting than artistically sound, for no matter how much I immoderately love 1776, I must admit that it is an uneven, and ultimately unsuccessful, show.  While it has always remained a great favorite of Your Correspondent, I cannot dismiss its many flaws.

What’s good:  Peter Stone’s book, which is amusing, compelling and historically accurate.  Rather than render the Founders as a bunch of plaster saints, he creates real human beings who have their private agendas, rivalries and petty complaints.  What’s not-so-good: much of the score by Edwards.  It’s not surprising that there are no songs from the show that have emerged as standards, because none of them work outside of the context of the action of the show.  And even with that in mind, most of the songs are ponderous, heavy-handed and unsingable.  What’s bad: even a musical with indifferent songs should sing, and so much of 1776 concentrates on the book, that the distantly-placed songs often seem like an after-thought.

The original Broadway and film cast were able to surmount many of these complaints through sheer charm and magnetism.  The Encores! cast includes Santino Fontana as John Adams, John Behlmann as Thomas Jefferson, and John Larroquette as Ben Franklin, with Nikki Renée Daniels as Martha Jefferson and Christiane Noll as Abigail Adams.  With the surprising exception of Larroquette, each performer brings a great deal to the table.

We have admired Fontana in the past (notably in Cinderella and Zorba), but he is perhaps too soft and likeable a player for the obnoxious and disliked Adams; he is, however, top notch in his romantic duets with the incandescent Noll, who glistens as Abigail.

Daniels has only one number as Martha Jefferson, but she and it are spectacular.  Her voice is clear and dulcet, shimmering with a vibrancy that is palpable.  One day she will be a big star.  Behlmann, as Jefferson, is Americana personified.  Tall, lanky and impossibly handsome, Behlmann brings Gary Cooper more to mind than Jefferson, but his grace and charm radiate from the stage.

Larroquette would initially seem to be inspired casting, but his performance is disappointing.  As written, Franklin serves more as a Greek chorus to the action, making wry asides and winking at the audience.  Larroquette – under-rehearsed and under-prepared – seems so peripheral as to be absent.  Franklin has the best lines in the show, but you wouldn’t know it from Larroquette’s lazy performance.

Director Garry Hynes stages 1776 in contemporary times, and it’s not surprising that much of the cast struggled with their lines in such a book-heavy show.  But the Congressmen who do not carry their weight (how some things never change!) are more than complimented by those who shine.  Particular praise should go to Jacob Keith Watson as Robert Livingston of New York, Macintyre Dixon as the Custodian (handily stealing every scene he is in), and the fabulous Robert Sella as Secretary Charles Thomson.  Thomson is a thankless role, but Sella brings so much wry humor, understatement and weight to the part that the impression is undeniable – more of Mr. Sella, please.

Alexander Gemignani nearly stops the show with his powerful number “Molasses to Rum,” a song virtually impossible to sing, and Bryce Pinkham, as Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, shows very strong.  Ben Whiteley is the guest music director, and he acquits himself smartly.

Much like the original, Viet Nam-era production, director Hynes uses the story of the Founding Fathers to comment on contemporary, dysfunctional politics.  Where the original emphasis may have been on a Congress and American leadership disassociated from the public actually fighting the war, Hynes uses the opportunity to attack our Congress which is so mired in party politics as to be paralyzed.  The song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” has been slightly tweaked to Conservative men, and while we here at The Jade Sphinx think there is more than enough opprobrium to spread on both sides of the political divide, the choice works well. 

1776 also stars Terence Archie (Dr. Josiah Bartlett), Larry Bull (Col. Thomas McKean), André De Shields (Stephen Hopkins), John Hickok (Dr. Lyman Hall), John Hillner (Lewis Morris), Kevin Ligon (George Read), John-Michael Lyles (A Courier), Laird Mackintosh (Judge James Wilson), Michael McCormick (John Hancock), Michael Medeiros (Caesar Rodney), Wayne Pretlow (Roger Sherman), Tom Alan Robbins (Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon), Ric Stoneback (Samuel Chase), Jubilant Sykes (Richard Henry Lee), Vishal Vaidya (A Leather Apron), and Nicholas Ward (Joseph Hewes). The show will run from March 30-April 3, 2016.

Though never a perfect show, 1776 is a stunning reflection of American ideals, grounded in debate, high-minded moralism and Enlightenment era independent thinking. We could use a little more of all of that right now.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Taking of Christ, by Caravaggio (1602)

We are closing the week (and marking Good Friday) with this stunning picture by Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, commissioned by nobleman Ciraco Mattei in 1602, and currently found in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Caravaggio was the original ‘bad boy’ of art.  His remarkable body of work, with its heightened drama and use of differing levels of dark paint, created the bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque school of painting.

There is a compelling quality of Caravaggio’s art that makes him entirely modern.  He took his models for saints and angels from the Italian streets; he was a painter of the people, dressing the most heightened figures of religious myth in the clothes of the everyday, so that the public would recognize themselves on a spiritual plane.

His intense focus on human interaction also isolates him from his High Renaissance brethren – never one to be fussy or painterly in his effects, he shines the hot light of focus on the interplay between dramatically lit figures and ignores backgrounds.

Caravaggio studied in Milan under a master who had trained with Titian.  He moved to Rome while still a young man in his 20s and quickly set up a reputation as a painter of considerable skill.  He also established his reputation as a wild man – drinking, brawling and having a string of affairs with young boys.  He killed a man in 1606 during an argument, and fled Rome with a price on his head.  He was involved in serious fights in 1608 and 1609 (in Malta and Naples, respectively), and died at 38 from a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.  (Even then, it paid to have friends in official places.)

The stunning The Taking of Christ presents seven figures: John, Jesus, Judas, three soldiers and Peter, holding a lantern (from left to right).  We cannot fully see their bodies, but clearly Judas has just kissed Jesus as a means to betray him to the soldiers.  As with much of Caravaggio's work, the background is dark and indistinct, drawing complete attention to the human drama.  Also, the light source is unclear – it would seem to come from the upper left, though the lantern light does not seem to be significant.  St. Peter holds the lamp; he also betrayed Christ, and spent the remainder of his life repenting and spreading his gospel to the world.

Let’s contrast the two figures at opposite ends of the painting.  St. Peter, holding the lamp, is said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio.  The man running away (his cloak held by a restraining soldier) is said to be St. John.  If Peter is indeed a self-portrait of the artist, what is Caravaggio trying to tell us?  That he, a sinner (and what a sinner!), is better equipped to shed light on the divine than a saint?  That his clear vision is aligned with that of God Himself?

Equally striking is the stark, white light on the foreheads of Christ, Judas and Peter.   There are two lines on Christ’s brow, but the forehead of Judas is a network of lines.  Peter, in contrast, is nearly clear-browed.  Even in these little details, Caravaggio speaks to us from across the centuries.  The lines on Christ’s head clearly indicate suffering, or, perhaps, the full realization of the suffering to come.  The clear-head of St. Peter is clearly the clear-head of the artist; he sees and records, but does not necessarily judge.

But Judas – his forehead is a complex pattern of lines, befitting one of the most complex figures in New Testament mythology.  Judas is key to the story of Christ, because without the him, there is no crucifixion, and no resurrection.  There is an argument to be made that Judas was the most courageous of all the apostles, for he willingly took on the role of betrayer to ensure the death and resurrection of Christ, making the entire Christian tradition possible.  If that is the case, then Judas is indeed the most misunderstood figure in the Christian mythos.

Even more interesting, look at the hands in this picture.  The soldier restraining Christ wears a gauntlet and is invisible; the hands of the solider holding St. John’s cloak are in shadow (probably by Caravaggio using a glaze of burnt umber or some other transparent brown paint) – so we can eliminate those hands.  But, look at the hands of St. Peter, St. John, Judas and Christ.  Compositionally, good pictures ‘read,’ drawing the eye in a consistent pattern.  We follow Peter’s hand to John’s, down to the hand of Judas, and finally to those of Christ.  According to myth, Christ was praying when identified by Judas, and his clasped hands look as if they are already under police restraint.  Not only do these hands help the ‘flow’ of the viewer’s eye, but notice that the hands of Peter, John and Judas indicate one direction, while those of Christ indicate another.  This going against the tidal flow of humanity also helps underscore the look on pain on the face of Jesus.

Finally, let’s look at the dramatic, white-hot reflection off of the soldier’s armor that runs through the center of the picture.  The face of that solider is undefined in the picture, but the reflected bar of light is fully depicted.  There are some scholars who believe that Caravaggio’s intention is to replicate a mirror, and that those gazing at the solider should feel as if they are gazing into a mirror, seeing their own faces.  It is a compelling argument, as the biggest patch of reflection is dead-center in the picture.

Whatever the interpretation, though, this is a stunning picture rewarding prolonged examination.  There is something mysterious, uncanny even, in Caravaggio’s best work, and this picture is no exception.  I don’t think I have fully exhausted everything it has to say.

(More on Caravaggio’s works can be found on this blog on links to the right.)