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Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Road To Mecca – Review

The Road To Mecca is having its Broadway premiere. Set in 1974 (and written in 1984) it is a story based upon a real Afrikaan woman; Miss Helen.  Written by Athol Fugard (Master Harold…, etc.) and directed by Gordon Edelstein (The Homecoming) this production stars Rosemary Harris.

This three person, two act play centers on Miss Helen’s future.  Her young friend Elsa (Carla Gugino) has arrived unexpectedly out of concern for Miss Helen.  Elsa, a British South African, has traveled 800 miles (to the middle of nowhere) to connect with her dear friend.  The third character, Marius (Jim Dale) does not arrive until just before intermission.  Miss Helen’s oldest friend, the reverend Marius is certain he knows what is best for her.  It seems an artist, close to 70, living alone in rural South Africa and surrounding her home with large cement sculptures, is a bit troubling to others.

There are issues with this play, but none whatsoever with the performances.  Rosemary Harris is simply awe inspiring.  The character, as written, is not terribly eccentric or unusual, and Ms. Harris does not add any forced mannerisms to compensate.  She is such an honest actor, we don’t hesitate for a moment to believe that Miss Helen is a quiet, unimposing woman who has to create.  (It is interesting to consider if the real Miss Helen was as devoid of manner, or if this is the playwright’s daring interpretation.  Artists, more often than not, are portrayed as borderline mad.)  While I was mildly self-conscious of my admiration for Ms. Harris’ stamina and memorization skills, I’d like to think my ageism was reinforced by the play itself.  Ms. Harris (in her 80s) is playing a woman nearing 70 whose faculties are beginning to slightly diminish.

Carla Gugino (Desire Under The Elms) is absolutely lovely.  Elsa is a bit of a rebel in her politics and manages to create a bit of a stir in her upscale world.  Her compassion and awareness for the world around her is genuine and she struggles to muster the same compassion for herself.  She has driven all day to the Karoo village, after receiving a concerning letter from Miss Helen.  It is a believable motivation as Miss Helen lives without electricity let alone a telephone.

The first act is too long and too repetitive.  Mr. Fugard seems to struggle with assigning worth to words.  They are not all equal.  There are questions and motivations left unanswered yet metaphors exhausted.  The second act is a marvelous change.  The arrival of (the wonderful) Jim Dale provides the tension needed.  What ensues are wonderful scenes between Marius and Miss Helen, Miss Helen and Elsa and some sly and lovely scenes with all three characters.

The set (Michael Yeargan) and lighting (Peter Kaczorowski) are technically excellent, but might need tone tweaking.  Much is made of Miss Helen’s issues with light and darkness and with her artistic prowess.  Yet, the set (her home) is devoid of much artistry.  There’s a bit of sparkly paint, and some mirrors, and maybe that’s how the real Miss Helen lived, but I’m not sure it works dramatically.  Much of the play is performed in very dim light as the action takes place during one long night.  The lighting, part of the metaphor parade, is distracting.  Each time a candle is lit or extinguished, a spotlight gets its wings.  The actors are not saddled with microphones (hallelujah) but in the sixth row, I sometimes had to strain to hear Ms. Harris.  Audience members further back and not adept at listening, may have difficulty.

If one can ignore the awkward technical bits, and endure the first act, see this play.  The performances are truly wonderful.  I saw this preview for the chance to see Rosemary Harris on stage.  I would do it again.  The final line of the play, spoken by Elsa, packs an emotional wallop not to be missed.  A predictable ending?  Perhaps.  But it works.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2011 in Theatre

 

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A Swinging Birdland Christmas

Christmas is the most romantic holiday of all. American cinema and songbook are overflowing with splendid homage to the holiday. To my mind, the British have the food, drinks and decor holiday market cornered. But one need skip across the pond to bask in the Christmas show business splendor.

As soon as December rolls around, I find myself yearning for Bing to encourage me to have a drink more, because baby it’s cold outside. I catch a glimpse in the mirror and imagine what I would look like in a sequined snood, winding up a mechanical monkey and believing that next year all our troubles will be far away. During the first snowfall, I try running in the street and (quietly) wishing the building and loan a Merry Christmas. The mind reels with the richness of imagery. However, often the heart aches at the lack of real live people embracing and celebrating these traditions.

Imagine the complete and utter joy of discovering that such a thing truly exists and it involves champagne! A Swinging Birdland Christmas is a technicolor dream come true. Christmas standards, jazzy interpretations and re-imagined medleys are performed by Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch (and the Birdland jazz quartet.) Ms. Blackhurst, a new edition to the show, is utterly charming and of splendid voice. She has a surprise stupendous musical talent up her sleeve, which I will not divulge here. Mr. Caruso is a born showman, and in a decent world would be hosting his own televised variety show. His smooth voice is a natural for the repertoire. Billy Stritch sings like he plays the piano, with rich interpretation. His phrasing is reminiscent of Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. Together these three make a delightful trio.

The show is a nice mix of solos, duets and trios. A standout solo is that of Mr. Stritch’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” (Frank Loesser.) I dare anyone not to swoon. Any one of the evening’s songs would put even the most Grinchy into a better mood. But for the hardest heart and coldest soul, there was the tribute to the Osmond’s Christmas Show. Jim Caruso’s Jimmy Osmond will linger in my mind. ( A note to television producers: There is a serious demand for Christmas variety shows!) If all this wasn’t enough to make one feel jolly, a special guest was in the audience last night. For the encore, Christine Ebersole took the stage and performed White Christmas. And when she asked everyone to join in, the barn door swung open (in my mind) and it was in fact snowing. I stood in my red satin, white fur trimmed gown, clutching Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen’s hands and thinking; “Oh what a lucky gal am I.”

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2011 in Holiday, Theatre

 

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Do We Have A Witness?

“The Penn State abuse scandal is prompting new legislation that could broaden abuse reporting laws.”  According to an NPR story, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Congress are considering proposals to make every adult a mandated reporter.  Traditionally, mandated reporters are determined by profession (i.e,. social workers, physicians, etc.)  Adults working in these professions are obligated by law to report suspected abuse of children.

Ordinarily, I cringe at legislating decency and/or common sense.  I am troubled that we need laws to enforce adults to differentiate themselves from children, and to exert their inalienable right and responsibility to protect children.  But I am choosing to only see the silver lining in this development.

There are some curious (if not disingenuous) arguments being made against this proposal.  One state commissioner of Children and Family services has suggested legislation is not needed because when; “you walk in and you see somebody sexually molesting a 10-year-old, you don’t need a statute to tell you that that’s a crime.”  Well sir, recent headline stories would dispute that assertion.  Some case managers are concerned about being inundated with unsubstantiated calls.  I would argue a) 18 states currently have mandated reporting laws and calls have increased in some states and decreased in others, and b) so what.  Do we even want to flirt with an argument that might at its core be: we don’t want to increase our ability to protect children because it might result in more work for us?!

The fact that rates of reporting have not increased uniformly in states which have mandatory reporting laws is not necessarily an indication of anything.  We simply don’t know if abusers are less likely to abuse when they know the whole world is watching.

Sometimes reports are unfounded, or simply can not be proved.  That is the nature of society and of law.  Being falsely accused can be devastating to an individual and a family.  However that has always and will always be true.  There is nothing in the world preventing any of us right this second from calling in suspected abuse.  What this new proposal changes is the legal responsibility to do so.  All this really means is that if anyone over the age of 18 should come across a child appearing to be violated in a locker room shower, they will now know exactly what to do.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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Divine* Style

Writings about etiquette can be entertaining.  Whether you use them for actual guidance or not, it is interesting to get a glimpse into other people’s perspective. There is a lovely mystique, as we don’t often witness the writer practicing what they preach.  My fantasy of Letitia Baldrige is that of a woman who has never faltered and never once regretted what she has or has not said.  Writings about personal style do not support that kind of fantasy however.  The market is such that one would be hard pressed to name a “style expert” who isn’t a brand onto themselves.  Therein lies the rub, eh?  The platform of expertise is a bit unstable when we can see you.  I find it difficult to take style advice from someone who considers white a color or wears denim work shirts as if they were Chanel jackets.  And for the record, monochromatic table settings or home decor is not a style it is an absence of creativity.

Is it any wonder then, that when I come across someone who dedicates himself to living artfully, I am besotted?  A writer who extols the virtue of written holiday greetings and shuns the gift card?  I’m yours.  A man who lives life out loud and strictly by his convictions?  Color me a fan.  So of course, I spent last night at the John Waters’ Christmas show.

Good taste or bad, Mr. Waters does it with intent.  Always immaculate and exuding a quiet sophisticated style, Mr. Waters takes center stage and talks in the manner he writes (or is it the other way around?)  He waxes poetic about his favorite holiday and fantasizes about the perfect Christmas presents (books and more books) and films.  I can’t possibly keep up with the cinematic references made by someone who got his start in 1960s underground.  But I can certainly admire the encyclopedia knowledge of outsider art.  What is far more captivating to me is the goodness and generosity of spirit which exude from a man steeped in style.  With little fanfare, for years he has been volunteering in prisons and recently a first-grade classroom. (And the parents gasp.)  He is legend for his friendship and support.

While it isn’t that much of a wonderment that an artist lives artfully, Mr. Waters is willing and able to share his skill with others.  Fan of his films or not, it is difficult to not embrace his authenticity.  In Mr. Waters’ world, style should be synonymous with self expression and etiquette is synonymous with decency.  I want to live in that world.

*Divine (1945-1988) star of Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble…

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2011 in Style, Theatre

 

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School Scandal’s Sexist Subtext

It is a national pastime to second guess the handling of situations we couldn’t possibly imagine.  In that vain, I find myself asking, if the child (allegedly) being violated (in a university locker room shower) had been a girl, would this story have a different ending?

Would an adult, regardless of professional status or age, hesitate even for a moment before dragging a girl child to safety?  Would anyone, anywhere, doubt for a moment that the child was in serious jeopardy and needed rescue?  But substitute a boy child and our impulses become a bit more restrained.  Our sexist view of sex knows no age limits.  Our reaction to an adult male authority figure having sex with an adolescent girl is that of revulsion.  We wouldn’t dream of nudging and winking as we do when hearing about a teenage boy having sex with his female teacher.  Somewhere down deep we feel that boys, once physically able, are always delighted to have the opportunity to have sex.  Girls, however need to be protected.

I do wonder (indulging hindsight) what would have happened if a young female staffer had come across the boy (allegedly) being violated.  Would a woman had seen two males being sexual, or would she have seen a child being attacked?  Would a woman have gathered up the boy while screaming rabidly at the perpetrator?  This is of course is a gross generalization of gender proclivities, but it does feel accurate.

I’m going out on a limb and suggesting that despite political strides (equal marriage) and representation in popular culture, as a country we are woefully uncomfortable with homosexuality.  (The fact that men incorporate (simulated) lesbian intimacies into their heterosexual fantasies is not proof of enlightenment but of viewing women sexuality existing only to please men.)  Despite the fact that adults having sexual contact with children, has nothing to do with being attracted to members of the same gender and everything to do with a sexual attraction to children, it is conceivable that the shower violation was interpreted as homosexual.  I find it repugnant to consider that anyone would view a child being accosted as a sexual act, period, but I can’t help come to this conclusion after playing the hindsight game.  I fervently hope I am wrong.

Perhaps if any good can come of this scandal, it is a reexamining of childhood and our (adult) role in children’s lives.  All adults have a moral obligation to protect children.  In the extreme, we concur.  Most of us would drag a child out of the path of oncoming traffic.  Danger really is not always that black and white however.  If we are confused about what we are witnessing, ask questions.  Asking a child if they are okay will almost always tell you what you need to know.  Even if you are not certain about anyone’s age of consent, a simple “Whoa, what are you guys doing?” will yield information.  Silence really is complicity.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2011 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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