Saturday, February 28, 2009

Opera review: Palm Beach 'Figaro' entertains, honors Mozart

Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova.

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- There has been a good deal of debate about the ultimate strategy of the creators of the great humanist document that is Le Nozze di Figaro: Were da Ponte and Mozart trying to say pointed things about the aristocracy, explore the vagaries of love with a pre-feminist twist, or simply try to show their audiences a good time with a screwball comedy, 1786-style?

That there is such ample food for discussion reaffirms the richness of Mozart's opera for cultural criticism, but to make the best musical impact, Figaro needs singers who can make a strong solo impression and also blend well in the big ensembles that are the structural focal point of the work. Happily, the Palm Beach Opera has such singers in the first cast of its production of Figaro, which opened Friday night at the Kravis Center.

Also happily, it is a production that stays well clear of overdoing stage business, so that the opera comes across as funny, warm and witty, but not slapstick. Marry that to an exceptional sensitivity on the part of the cast and the conductor to purely musical values and you have a reading that is straightforward and conservative, but nevertheless delights and does honor to Mozart.

The American bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs was everything a good Figaro should be. He has a strong, untiring, attractive voice, and he is a fine actor, skills that turned each of his appearances on stage into a sparkling occasion. The bass colorings of his instrument added weight and power to the ensembles and to Se vuol ballare and Non piu andrai; in the latter aria, his first-rate diction made it crackle.

As Susanna, Lyubov Petrova demonstrated a lovely, lightly colored voice that did everything it was asked to do with no sign of strain, and that had plenty of strength in reserve by the time she got to Deh vieni, non tardar in Act IV, which she tossed off, high-floating notes and all, with ease. The Russian soprano also makes a terrific comic actress, making a thoroughly believable object of real love and of unwanted lust, fighting the urge to choke the Count from behind as well as keeping his roaming right hand from attaining too secure a hold on her left breast (this is a fairly saucy production, come to think of it).

The warmest audience approval Friday night was given to Pamela Armstrong as Countess Almaviva, and she has a full, round voice that came off with an impressive dignity in her two big arias, Porgi, amor, and Dove sono. But her upper registers sounded like they were giving her trouble in Porgi, amor, and in some of the ensemble work that followed.

Her voice had warmed up noticeably by the time of Dove sono, however, which came after a beautiful piece of directing in which Armstrong walked slowly across the stage shrouded in darkness, not showing her face, until she turned upstage and into David Gano's moody bluish light. She was able to take her high A with majesty, and the whole performance of this gorgeous aria had a moving sense of tenderness and melancholy as -- in another piece of good direction -- she slowly closed the open lid of a piano.

Gezim Myshketa, an Albanian bass-baritone making his American debut in this production, made a fine Count Almaviva. He has a dark, nimble, lightweight voice that he deploys well, and with excellent musicianship. But his interpretation could have used more energy and malevolence; he was more a put-upon CEO than force of nature. His Hai gia vinta la causa, for example, was well-sung and tastefully presented, but it needed more outrage and fury; the forward motion of the plot after this point turns on the movement generated in this aria.

As Cherubino, Patricia Risley was especially good, investing this trouser role with adolescent abandon and real sexual heat, and you felt her absence in the later moments of the opera. She sings beautifully, too, with a darkly nasal quality that makes her voice stand out; her Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio, and, Voi, che sapete, were sharply and memorably executed.

Jennifer Lane was effective as Marcellina, blending well with Petrova in the Via resti servita duet, and making a good stage partner for Peter Strummer's Bartolo. Strummer did a wonderful job as Bartolo, singing a very fine La vendetta, and then proving deliciously funny in his double-duty role as Antonio the drunken gardener. Rolando Sanz made a first-rate Basilio, with a fine, athletic tenor that stood out and contrasted markedly with his gay-Pilgrim getup (that hair! Those red-buckled shoes!).

Carelle Flores, singularly fortunate in her minor role as Barbarina to have a throwaway cavatina as breathtaking as L'ho perduto, did a good job with it; she has a large voice, and it will be interesting to see how she develops.

The character ensembles in this opera, so crucial to the action, were particularly well-sung, a benefit of having so many good musicians in the principal roles. These are long stretches of music, but the listener didn't notice it, a tribute not just to Mozart but to the singers.

This is a handsome Figaro, too, with pretty sets from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, intelligent lighting choices by Gano, and very fine costumes by Allen Charles Klein. The fandango in the third act was elegantly choregraphed by Fernando Moraga, and best of all is the smart stage direction from Mario Corradi.

As noted, he does tasteful, sensitive things with the Countess' Dove sono, but he also keeps a firm hand on the stage business, making sure it amplifies rather than overwhelms the story. Characters in love or pursuit interact bodily as real people would, and this lends a feeling of authenticity to the opera that helps us forget its remoteness in time and situation.

The orchestra under Bruno Aprea was wonderful, from the swift-footed dazzle of the overture to the extraordinary breadth of dynamic range Aprea called on them to observe. As always, Aprea brings to his task a feeling of total involvement with, and advocacy of, the score. Every bar seems carefully thought out for its emotional impact, leading to moments such as the hushed mystery of L'ho perduto, the gossamer lightness of the fandango, and the muscle of Non piu andrai.

This Figaro closes with the cast turning to salute the man in the moon: the face of Mozart, the transcendent genius who made all the festivity possible. It is a suitable way to end a production that goes a good way to demonstrating in an entertaining fashion why it is that we revere him.

The Palm Beach Opera production of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) repeats today at 7:30 p.m., with Maurizio Lo Piccolo as Figaro, Layla Claire as Susanna, Timothy Kuhn as the Count, and Sola Braga as the Countess. The first cast can be seen again at 2 p.m. Sunday, and the second cast at 2 p.m. Monday. Performances take place at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Bruno Aprea conducts. Tickets: $23-$165. Call 833-7888 (PB Opera) or 832-7469 (Kravis), or visit or

Friday, February 27, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Lake Worth gallery features major American painter

Upward Lift (1985, 60-by-90-inch oil and acrylic on canvas),
by Robert Goodnough. (Photo by Katie Deits)

By Katie Deits

Robert Goodnough may not be a household name, but the American painter was working in New York when Abstract Expressionism and color-field painting exploded onto the scene.

He was considered important enough in the art world back in January 1960 to make the cover of ArtNews, but more evidence of his stature can be found in the museums that hold his work: The Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

Goodnough paintings are also in the collections of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach and the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “He is a really important American painter,” said Wendy M. Blazier, senior curator at the Boca Museum. “We have a number of his works -- five major paintings and a couple of graphics.”

A significant collection of his paintings now is on exhibit through March 27 at the Margot Stein Gallery in Lake Worth.

Abstraction X (1981, 68-by-68-inch oil and acrylic on canvas)
(Photo by Katie Deits)

“He has an intellectual side to him and is a brilliant colorist,” said gallery owner Margot Stein. “He is a fairly prolific painter. I first dealt with some of his paintings 20 years ago, but I was prompted to visit him in his studio when, two years ago, someone brought one of his paintings to my gallery.”

Stein has 16 Goodnough paintings in her gallery, ranging in price from $10,000 to $45,000.

Robert Goodnough (b. 1917).

Goodnough, who is 91, lives with his wife Miko in upstate New York and still is painting. Born in Cortland, N.Y., he settled in Manhattan after service during World War II. There, he studied with Hans Hofmann and Walter Long and earned a degree in art education from New York University.

He was a compatriot of the first and second generation of Abstract Expressionists, and in addition to creating and exhibiting his art, supported himself by teaching and writing articles for art magazines.

“Coming from that period – the mid-20th century – he knew all the greats,” Blazier said. “He’s a great connection. (In his paintings) from the ‘70s and ‘80s, when you get up close, you see some of the very intentional masking, rich overlapping of paint, in which he masked out areas and then painted others; (it’s) a density that he builds up, yet it is unprimed canvas, so it floats.

“There is a physicality of the paint that comes out of the Abstract Expressionists, but you have these shards that are clustered, and that gives a feeling of weightlessness,” she said.

Boat (1963, 20-inch oil on canvas)
(Photo by Katie Deits)

The Boca Museum has a large, 5-foot-by-9-foot Goodnough called Angular Development, painted in 1985, in its second-floor permanent collection.

“It has shard-like shapes -- he liked them to be called shapes and not forms, as they are flat, and ‘forms’ imply a three-dimensional quality," Blazier said. "It’s a combination of the loose, gestural drip-paintings of the Abstract Expressionists and more overlapping angular shapes that is more tight and constructed.”

Brianna Anderson, assistant curator of American art at the Norton, said the museum has four Goodnoughs: The paintings Color on Pale Gray (1974) and Pale Green on Pale Green (1973), along with a print and a silkscreen.

Bombed Boat (1966, 30-by-56-inch oil on canvas)
(Photo by Katie Deits)

It’s easy to see Goodnough’s knowledge of art history in his earlier paintings such as Bombed Boat (1966), which seems to reference Picasso’s Guernica. At the time Goodnough painted the work, the Vietnam War was raging, and just as in Picasso’s Spanish Civil War canvas, Bombed Boat depicts a hand shooting up in the air. His abstracted interpretation of a bomb and its destructive havoc is emotional and intense.

Goodnough’s influence can be seen in the work of a painter such as Julie Mehretu, and Stein said there has been talk of a museum retrospective of his work.

Robert Goodnough: Paintings 1963-2007 will be on exhibit through March 27 at the Margot Stein Gallery, 512 Lucerne Ave., Lake Worth. For more information, visit, or call (561) 582-5770.

At right, Margot Stein, with Julie Williams,
assistant director of the Margot Stein Gallery.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

Film review: ‘The Class,’ France's Oscar nominee came up short, but is a class act

Francois Begaudeau in ‘The Class.’

By Hap Erstein

Just days after the Academy Awards, a film called The Class arrives, and this little Oscar-worthy gem is a class act. France’s foreign language film nominee, it is a perfect antidote to all those wildly inspiring Hollywood movies where a cares-too-much teacher breaks through to an unruly group of students, turning them into nuclear physicists or at least master debaters in two
hours’ time.

The Class has a more realistic view of public education, in part because it is based on the experiences of an actual teacher, Francois Begaudeau, who wrote a book on the barriers to education, and in part because of director Laurent Cantet (Time Out) and his unsentimental, documentary-like approach to this material.

Adding to the film’s degree of difficulty, Cantet chose to use non-actors, including Begaudeau as the teacher through whose eyes we see the daily challenge and a remarkable multi-cultural group of teens who helped develop the script through role-playing and improvisation.

Each class is a struggle for Francois, to maintain order, keep his students’ attention and, if there is any time or patience after that, to try to cram a little knowledge about French grammar into their heads. It is a film about the odds against Francois’ success when there are so many other things going on in his students’ heads and, as would surely be the case, he fails to reach more of his class than he is able to crack.

The screenplay, by Begaudeau and Cantet, gets beyond stereotypes to vivid characterizations that viewers are bound to find themselves rooting for, if not necessarily liking. There’s a belligerent Arab girl (Esmerelda Ouertani), a brooding tough from Mali (Franck Keita), and a shy, but intelligent Asian kid (Wey Huang), to name a few.

Cantet keeps most of the action in Francois’ classroom, though we also get occasional glimpses inside the teacher’s lounge, at a staff meeting where priorities are out of whack and at the inevitable parent conferences, which often need the intervention of interpreters.
There are plenty of confrontation in The Class, but no villains. The teachers can be seen as heroes, if only for their efforts, while accepting that each has his own flaws which become barriers to success.

The film in rooted in its impoverished Parisian arrondisement, but the problems it illustrates are surely universal. The Class did not win the Oscar, but it did walk off with the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Too gritty and pessimistic to become widely popular, at least it has received mainstream distribution from Sony Pictures Classics and should spark discussion wherever it plays.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Theater preview: ‘Dangerous’ is McKeever’s walk on the dark side

David A. Rudd and Marta Reiman
in Caldwell Theatre's production of ‘Dangerous.’

By Hap Erstein

If you think you know Davie playwright Michael McKeever from last season’s knockabout farce Suite Surrender, or even such older comedies as Open Season or 37 Postcards, think again.

The diminutive, prolific advertising copywriter-turned-dramatist is in a distinctly darker mood with his new play, Dangerous, which premieres Friday at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton.

Dangerous is his “deconstruction” of the 18th-century novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the epistolary work dealing with sex as a blood sport, which was adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton, then brought to the screen as Dangerous Liaisons, as well as Valmont and Cruel Intentions.

It was McKeever’s notion to set the action in the Weimar Germany of the 1920s. “I loved the novel,” he explains excitedly. “I always just found these people wonderful in their absolute horribleness. Because they’re so terrible, but so beautiful in how they do these terrible things. I said, ‘One of these days, that should be updated.’ ”

He first considered setting his play in Manhattan, in the latter days of the Bush Administration, until he settled on ’20s Berlin. “Now that’s decadent,” he says, savoring the thought. “A perfect breeding ground for that sort of story. And then literally it was like puzzle pieces clicking into place.”

The play begins as the Nazis are coming to power, at a time that “all these incredible art forms get born because there was no oppressive government overseeing any of that,” says McKeever. “Along with that came a sexual revolution. The rules all went away and so Weimar became a giant party time. That freedom brought with it hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis, who promised the Germans a strong Germany again. But at what cost?”

McKeever calls Dangerous a “deconstruction” of Laclos’s narrative because “about halfway through it, my characters just took on their own story lines. And there were a couple of characters I had simply fall away, because they were going nowhere. I kind of combined different characters and made male characters female and female characters male.”

One thing McKeever definitely specifies in his stage directions is frequent nudity. “I’m not a big fan of nudity in plays for the sake of nudity, but it can serve a purpose,” he explains. “In this case, in the love scenes, it shows vulnerability. It shows two people at their most intimate and if you have them dressed in lovely romantic outfits, it’s not quite what if should be.”

Nor does McKeever waste any time establishing the decadence of the evening. “I have one of the characters flashing the audience, it’s how the play starts,” he says. “It sets the tone, it lets you know where we are and where we’re going. It’s ‘Welcome to Berlin.’ It’s absolutely essential.”
Audience members have been warned about the nudity, which is mentioned in the show’s advertisements.

“It was done as a caution,” notes McKeever. “Who knew it was going to be the lure that it was.
“People forget that the Caldwell has done nudity for years. They did it back in Bent in the ’80s, and that was a big huge success. And Love! Valour! Compassion! and Take Me Out.”

Still, McKeever had his doubts that Dangerous was a good fit for the Caldwell. “Just by the nature of the subject and the harshness of some of the situations, I never thought the Caldwell would take it. I didn’t think it would appeal to Michael (Hall, the theater’s founding artistic director). But they put it in their reading series last year before they ever read it and the audience just loved it. I thought it was going to be too strong for the audience here, but they proved me wrong.”

Ironically, this play that he thought might be too dark may prove to be McKeever’s most commercial property yet. He is already very popular in Germany, where many of his plays have been produced, and his agent over there is already clamoring to get the finished script. “I just spoke with a theater in San Francisco and they’re interested in it for next season already,” says McKeever.

“There’s a whole market that I’ve never really touched and it may happen with this play.”
Speaking a week before the opening of Dangerous, McKeever concedes, “I’m always a wreck at this point. I hope for the best, I expect the worst.”

Regardless of the critical and audience reaction, he is on his third draft of his next play, which is already scheduled to open later this season. “The next show is called Lewd and Lascivious. It’s for GableStage, so it has to live up to that title.”

DANGEROUS, Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. From Feb. 27 to March 29. Tickets: $36-$42. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

Weekend arts picks: Feb. 26-March 2

Michael McKenzie, Brett Fleisher and Wynn Harmon in Dangerous.

Theater: Prolific South Florida playwright Michael McKeever has noticed that his work has grown darker over the years, but never more so than his latest, titled simply Dangerous, a “deconstruction” of the classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which has spawned several film versions.

McKeever sets his version in Weimar Germany, just as the Nazis are coming to power, a time of sexual experimentation and treachery. Dangerous, directed by Clive Cholerton, contains lots of nudity. Consider that a warning or a come-on. The world premiere production at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton opens Friday and continues through March 29. Call (877) 245-7432 for reservations.

Miller revisited: Written in a vastly different economic time, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible requires a cast of 21, which means that most professional theaters shy away from this towering work of guilt by association and mass hysteria, set in 1692 Salem, but talking very much about present-day America.

Fortunately, the Lake Worth Playhouse, a community theater, has no payroll constraints, but the selection of The Crucible is quite a departure from its usual big musicals and fluffy comedies. Opening Friday and running through March 15. For tickets, call (561) 586-6410. -- H. Erstein

A scene from France's The Class.

Film: You’ve seen those inspiring but preposterous movies that show a crusading teacher who confronts an unruly classroom of students and turns them around to become Rhodes scholars.

Now see a film with a more realistic view of education: France’s foreign-language Oscar nominee this year, The Class, which takes a near-documentary look at a multi-cultural high school full of amateur actors whose lives it would be hard not get wrapped up in. It did not win the Oscar, but it did take home the top prize at Cannes last year. Opening locally on Friday. -- H. Erstein

Soprano Lyubov Petrova.

Music: The Palm Beach Opera's third production of the season, opening Friday, is Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Written in 1786 to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, who adapted the play by Beaumarchais, it's a wonderfully humane story about love and social station, and it's got the some of the little man from Salzburg's greatest music.

Daniel Mobbs (Friday, Sunday) and Maurizio Lo Piccolo (Saturday, Monday) share duties as Figaro, with Lyubov Petrova as Susanna to Mobbs, and Layla Claire paired with Lo Piccolo. Gezim Myshketa and Timothy Kuhn alternate as the count, with Pamela Armstrong and Sola Braga as the countess. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and Monday, at the Kravis Center. Call 833-7888 (the Opera) or 832-7469 (Kravis) for tickets, which range from $23-$165. -- G. Stepanich

Aaron Kula (center, with accordion) and the Klezmer Company Orchestra.

Festival: Florida Atlantic University is in the middle of its first-ever Kultur Festival, billed as the only event of its kind to celebrate Jewish music and the arts. Events include today's focus on the art of cantorial improvisation, featuring Cantor Jacob Mendelson, an examination Friday of the shared Jewish-American arts of composers Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein, who also were close friends, and a final concert on Sunday afternoon featuring Aaron Kula's Klezmer Company Orchestra and the Ebony Chorale of the Palm Beaches.

There are several other events in this five-day festival, and tickets, which are mostly $8 except for the KCO concert, can be had by calling 1-800-564-9539 or visiting - G. Stepanich

Istanbul No. 3, by Terre Rybovich.

Art: Terre Rybovich, who is based in Lantana, covers paper with charcoal and then presses her body onto the paper. The resulting impressions or designs create patterns and images that she then enhances to create a visual language that leaves a lot open to the viewer's imagination. And her drawings are usually large, which gives them more impact.

Mary Segal, who lives in Roseland, creates colorful paintings using her garden as her muse. Actual flower blossoms are incorporated into her flowing compositions.

The work of both artists will be on display at Mary Woerner Fine Arts beginning Saturday night and lasting through March 28. The gallery is at 6107 S. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. For more information, visit or call (561) 493-4160.
-- K. Deits

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Movie review: 'Two Lovers' gets staggering performance from Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in Two Lovers.

By John Thomason

Bizarre. Stoned. Catatonic. Disoriented. Fishy. Odd. Painful. Amy Winehouse-esque.

Joaquin Phoenix’s recent appearance on David Letterman has been called all of these things and more in the thousands of Web hits since it went viral a couple of weeks ago. It’s all of those things, yes, but one word best describes Phoenix’s laconic, gum-chewing, somnambulistic grizzly man: brilliant.

Phoenix is a great actor – a claim few would dispute. He already proved his Method mettle when he learned how to play guitar to become Johnny Cash a few years back. His hijinks on Letterman were Method rigor too, just for a documentary instead of a fiction film (We assume the jig will be up when Casey Affleck’s Untitled Joaquin Phoenix Documentary reaches completion).

But just for fun, let’s take him at his word when he says Two Lovers, which hits South Florida screens Friday, is his final picture and that he’s retiring from acting to pursue (stifle your sniggers) a hip-hop career. If nothing else, his antics are a hell of a marketing tool for a movie that would otherwise slip through the cracks like so many great films released in the post-Oscar, pre-blockbuster dump time of late winter.

That, ultimately, may be the main impetus behind Phoenix’s “breakdown:” The more it is discussed, the more times Two Lovers is mentioned in turn. If it’s true, and we never see Phoenix rise onscreen again, Two Lovers would be a staggering conclusion to an intense career.

He plays Leonard Kraditor, an emotionally unstable bachelor whose opening suicide attempt is only the beginning of a volatile journey. Leonard is a tangle of fear, anxiety, depression and passive aggression – a volcano that could erupt at any time. In the wake of a mysterious broken engagement, he lives with his concerned parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) in Brooklyn, who wish he would just settle down with their friends’ daughter Sandra, a nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw).

But he’s more interested in the Trouble that lives in his neighboring building – an unwitting femme fatale whose own psychological baggage could jam the conveyer belt at JFK. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the kind of woman who gets high, cries and passes out in nightclub bathrooms, is stuck in a romantic quandary with an older married man (Elias Koteas, unctuous as ever). She settles immediately in the friend zone with Leonard, who naturally wants more.

When love is unrequited, narratives are only destined for disaster, but James Gray and Ric Menello’s screenplay takes its share of surprising twists. As the relationship between Leonard and Michelle develops, it takes on a naturalistic potency that echoes John Cassavetes, with preoccupations of obsession and voyeurism that recall Hitchcock.

This is no surprise coming from director Gray, a consummate dramatist whose style is so understated that it’s almost absent, while at the same being so meticulous that it was clearly storyboarded to perfection. Together or not, he frames his two lovers in muted settings that accentuate their isolation – on rooftops, the frame impeded by red brick pillars; across the painful distance of their apartment bedrooms; in inopportune cellphone calls received in secret.

Gray’s direction is brilliant without being self-consciously so. Note the way Leonard is framed in one communiqué between the frustrated lovers: He sneaks away from Sandra to respond to a troubled phone call from Michelle, his figure doubled through the thick glass partition of a fancy restaurant, a shot that subtly evokes his increasing emotional multiplicity.

But Gray isn’t the kind of director that will tell you what to think, which is why his work should be more revered than it is. Phoenix worked with Gray on The Yards and We Own the Night, neither of which matches Two Lovers, an apex for both director and muse. Let’s hope Phoenix doesn’t end his acting career prematurely – we’ve already seen his brother River tragically end his – but if Two Lovers really is his final act, you’ll be satisfied enough that no encore is necessary.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

TWO LOVERS. Director: James Gray; Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas; Studio: Magnolia; Venue: Sunrise Mizner Park, Boca Raton; opens Friday

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Commentary: TV's Maher gets off to shaky start in new season

Comedian Bill Maher.

By John Thomason

The seventh year of Real Time with Bill Maher (10 p.m. Fridays, HBO) began on a clunky note.

The opening monologue Friday of the comedian/provocateur’s first show since November yielded only a couple of memorable quips, comic gold hidden among pyrite bombs like, “Sean Penn showed up in a rented huff,” to the Oscars because of the tight economy. When the joke was met with the proverbial crickets, Maher explained the premise – “’Cause, you see, he’s always in a huff!” – which added little to the sporadic ripples of yuks from the live studio audience.

Credit it to off-season rust, I guess. But Maher should have had a lot of material to work with in his downtime – the inauguration and transition, Rod Blagojevich, Roland Burris, Michael Steele, Obama’s cabinet, John Boehner’s House floor temper tantrum, Rush Limbaugh’s resurgence, the never-ending Minnesota Senate battle and the octuplet mom. Few of these issues were addressed, even in the panel discussion that followed the monologue, and we got an opening riff that sounded like something that was stumbled through during the writer’s strike.

Then there’s the perpetual question we’ve been hearing about since Nov. 4: How will comedians deal with President Obama? If you read most stories about how late-night comedians will be able to thrive in a post-Bush environment, you’d think Dubya’s exit from the White House was tantamount to a comic apocalypse, with jokester after jokester walking on eggshells trying to avoid any accusation of an “ism,” their delicate ribbing of Obama hardly extending beyond a parody of his speech pattern. And most comedians are liberal, so there’s less of a desire to knock somebody on your own team.

But you can’t say Maher is buckling under the pressure of finding humor in the Obama administration. About Obama’s stimulus and mortgage bills, Maher quipped in Friday’s season opener, “He’s only been in office a month and he’s already dropped a trillion (dollars). Is that black enough for you?” – a reference to the ludicrous criticism early in Obama’s campaign that he “wasn’t black enough.”

You won’t hear that on The Daily Show or David Letterman, and it’s the reason Maher remains such a popular and influential force on television: He says what he wants and is beholden to no one, a tendency that leaves some audiences gasping in their seats at certain off-color or deliberately button-pushing jokes. He doesn’t toe any party line, covers the news without a filter of tastefulness isn’t afraid to discuss, and show, what most media shy away from.

Good luck looking elsewhere for guests such as Republican congressman Ron Paul and Lebanese-American activist Brigitte Gabriel, whose organization American Congress for Truth focuses on threats from Islamic fundamentalism. Maher had Gabriel on to discuss a Pakistani-American television entrepreneur who beheaded – yes, beheaded – his third wife. Irony alert: The guy founded a television station aimed at debunking backward stereotypes about Muslims.

You won’t find that story, or flame-throwing guests such as Paul and Gabriel, on most mainstream media outlets, and you can say the same for many of Maher’s past panelists and guests (like Cornel West, Ralph Nader, Mos Def, Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Salman Rushdie, Janeane Garafalo and Richard Dawkins).

But the best part of the Maher’s first broadcast? There was not one mention of that New York Post cartoon that has caused such an uproar amongst the same leftie hypocrites that railed against GOP opportunists for turning Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” quote into a faux controversy. Over on MSNBC, the increasingly reaching Keith Olbermann did four segments in three days last week on the in-poor-taste but clearly non-racist cartoon, turning his manufactured-outrage odometer to 11 and giving Rupert Murdoch oodles of free publicity.

Maher, we can only assume, understood that the story was really a non-story, and that there were more important things deserving of his viewers’ time. So we were treated to an all-female panel of intellectuals (journalists Tina Brown and Chrystia Freeland and Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters) discussing, with applaud-worthy profundity, the economic crisis better than anyone I’ve heard this side of Paul Krugman.

That’s why we stick around with Maher, even if not all of us agree with everything he says. We come for the comedy and stay for the information. In a time with viewers are getting their news from comedy shows (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert) and comedy from their news shows (Olbermann, Rachel Maddow), nobody strikes a better balance of infotainment than Maher.

Let’s just hope this week’s monologue rises once again to last year’s gold standard.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Monday, February 23, 2009

2009 Oscars: A 'Slumdog' triumph, but revamped telecast had mixed results

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire.

By Hap Erstein

Call it Slumdog Snowball.

The sweet -- well, except for the terror scenes -- film about a lower-caste tea boy who triumphs on a Mumbai game show, rolled over the competition at Sunday night’s new-look Oscars ceremony. Slumdog Millionaire won eight of the 10 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, losing only for sound editing -- a category that most voters probably could not define -- and for its second nominee in the Best Song group.

Interestingly, it won best picture without a single nominee in the acting categories. The previous time that happened was Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. Also rare is the fact that the four acting honors were divided among four pictures -- Sean Penn for Milk, Kate Winslet for The Reader, the late Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight and Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

While it was a great night for Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscars were otherwise well-spread around, although Frost/Nixon and Doubt both came up empty-handed.

As to the new look for the Oscars telecast, the results were also mixed. The best idea that producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark (both of Dreamgirls) had was presenting the acting awards by a quintet of past winners, each of whom singled out a nominee to deliver a tribute for his or her performance. The effect was novel and the result was personal, and it could become more so if presenters who could read teleprompters were chosen.

In the You Can’t Blame Them for Trying Department, Condon and Mark went for a song-and-dance man as emcee, instead of the usual comedians and talk-show hosts. Hugh Jackman is wildly talented and very charismatic, but his material was sorely lacking.

The opening production number, which crammed in lyric references to all the Best Picture nominees, made me yearn for the filmed vignettes with Billy Crystal. The number may have looked good in the Kodak Theatre, but it was badly captured for television. The “spontaneous” surprise of Jackman pulling Anne Hathaway out of the audience to play (and sing and dance as) Richard Nixon was the best moment of the opening.

About halfway through the three-and-a-half-hour show, Jackman, Beyonce Knowles, the young up-and-comers from High School Musical and Mamma Mia!, plus a lot of anonymous tuxedoed dancers, offered a Baz Luhrmann-directed, Busby Berkeley-ish salute to the return of the movie musical. It would have been fine if the telecast were running short -- which it never is -- but it was instead the sort of superfluous, show-stretching segment that the Academy keeps talking about eliminating, but never does.

To the show’s credit, the onstage orchestra never interrupted a long-winded acceptance speech, despite warnings that the “thank-yous” would be limited to 45 seconds.

The most moving of the speeches came from Milk’s screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who spoke of the difficulties of penning an autobiographical film of openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and his “promise” that equal rights for those of all sexual orientations would be federally mandated very soon.

Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker of Man on Wire, assured his place in future acceptance montages by juggling (at least briefly) the Oscar on his chin. And Sean Penn probably assured he would be cut out of those montages with his opening line, “You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns,” when accepting for his performance as Harvey Milk.

The advance word was that this year’s Oscars would cut out the cutesy banter between presenters, which mostly happened, but it was replaced by a strained attempt to group the awards in an order that told the story of the making of a movie. It proved just as arch and artificial as the banter. Besides, if the presenters were as funny as Ben Stiller, wearing a very fake beard and doing a deadly imitation of a spaced-out Joaquin Phoenix, the show would not have a banter problem.

With no front-runner for many of the awards, and Slumdog Millionaire capturing most of the Oscars it was up for, there were few real surprise wins. The Foreign Language award was said to be a toss-up between Israel’s Waltz with Bashir and France’s The Class, largely because they have gotten the most distribution in the United States. But the Oscar went to Departures, from Japan, seen so far only by Academy voters in screening rooms.

And in case you doubted that Kate Winslet is a terrific actress, she again broke into tears when she won the Best Actress Oscar, just as she did at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild awards and several other ceremonies. Now, that’s acting.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Theater review: ‘The Weir,' Irish things that go bump in the night

Dennis Creaghan (left), Lena Kaminsky, Karl Hanover,
Frank Converse, Declan Mooney in Palm Beach
Dramaworks' production of The Weir.
(Photo by Shel Shanak)

By Hap Erstein

Put a handful of Irishmen in a bar and they will soon be drinking and swapping lyrical tall tales. It is a fact of life and of the theater, as evidenced by Conor McPherson’s simple, plotless, yet haunting collection of ghost stories, The Weir, which opened Friday evening in an understated, though compelling production at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

While the 1999 work won London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play and introduced the young writer to Broadway in an acclaimed transfer the next season, it is probably best approached without heightened expectations. Unlike his fellow countryman Martin McDonough (The Pillowman, In Bruges), who traffics in grisly theatricality, McPherson is content to draw word pictures, to draw on an audience’s imagination and to draw us in until we are listening intently on the edge of our seats.

The Weir contains the very essence of theater, though one might correctly observe that little actually happens in the course of its intermissionless two hours. One by one, the denizens of a humble country pub arrive out of the blustery night, warm themselves by the hearth and fortify themselves with liquid refreshment. They idly banter among themselves, and it only when their routine is disrupted by an outsider — a Dublin lass who has just bought a nearby house — that they are prompted to launch into their whiskey-soaked yarns of the other side.

Jack (Frank Converse), a gregarious old barfly so comfortable in these surroundings that he often pours his own drinks, begins with an unnerving anecdote of fairies that would knock on the door of the cottage that newcomer Valerie has just purchased. Less verbal handyman Jim (Karl Hanover) follows it up with a spooky graveyard vignette. And dapper Finbar (Dennis Creaghan), the real estate agent celebrating Valerie’s contract-signing, adds his own creepy tale involving the return of a dead woman. Each story works as an engrossing narrative, as well as a character-delineating sketch.

But if the men intended to frighten Valerie (Lena Kaminsky), they sorely underestimated her. For she soon takes her turn, with a deeply personal, spectral story of her own that explains why she has taken solitary refuge in the town. It is the locals who are devastated by what she has gone through and Jack is then moved to tell the evening’s only tale that does not involve ghosts, but a tale of loss which fills us in on why he never married.

Director J. Barry Lewis weaves all of this with an invisible hand, setting a tone of naturalism that offsets the poetic language. Although no dialect coach is credited, the entire ensemble is adept at the Irish accents, which adds a crucial air of authenticity. He never seems to impose movement on his actors, yet the evening avoids feeling static.

Dramaworks has scored a coup with the casting of stage and screen star Converse, who anchors the production as wry Jack, whose gruff exterior is belied by the twinkle in his eye. As talkative as Jack, that is how taciturn barkeep Brendan is, but Declan Mooney manages to make a great deal of his silences.

Hanover comes alive in his story, while keeping Jim an enigma and Creaghan — fresh from McPherson’s The Seafarer at Mosaic Theatre — oozes hale charm. Just as Valerie stuns the group with her tale of loss, Kaminsky’s understated rendering of her story is a highlight of the evening.

The usually reliable Michael Amico’s pub set is rich in details, but too well appointed for the dilapidated establishment described. Fortunately, Joseph P. Oshry’s shadowy lighting compensates, casting a dank glow over the evening.

The Weir — the word refers to a nearby dam — is helped by the intimacy of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ playing space, which places the audience inside the pub with the locals. The only thing that might improve the production is if we too had pints of Guinness to help sustain us as we take in these tales of the supernatural.

THE WEIR, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Feb. 20 - April 5. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

Oscar predictions: Ledger, Cruz, Langella, Winslet, 'Slumdog'

By Hap Erstein

Probably the most important thing to keep in mind when handicapping the Academy Awards tonight (8 p.m., ABC) is that quality -- in films, performances and other skills -- is usually a secondary consideration in the voting.

Oscar victories have a lot more to do with rectifying past snubs, nominees’ personal comeback stories, voters’ opinions of the people up for the awards and, in rare instances like this year, whether a nominee died between the time he made the movie and the Oscar balloting.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Which brings us to our first category, Best Supporting Actor. If you want to bet the mortgage, bet it on Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. It is a wonderfully maniacal performance that motors the whole movie, deserving of a statuette even if he is in the sort of pure commercial product that usually gets relegated to wins in the technical awards. But Ledger’s death adds a palpable poignancy that makes him a shoo-in.

In a different year, it might have gone to Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder) for his remarkable career and personal comeback, but Oscar voters are wary of comic performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific as the accused priest in Doubt, but voters expect him to be terrific, just like his co-star, Meryl Streep.

Michael Shannon is a worthy nominee for his brief, flashy role as a mentally unstable suburbanite in Revolutionary Road, but for him and Josh Brolin, just be be nominated is honor enough, as they (cynically) say.

Who should win: Heath Ledger
Who will win: Heath Ledger

Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Much harder to call is the Best Supporting Actress category, with stunning work from Taraji P. Henson (Benjamin Button) and Viola Davis (Doubt), both much younger than the their roles, as their appearances on the awards circuit has shown.

I think Davis’s one-scene work as the possibly molested boy’s mother steals the entire movie from some heavyweight co-stars, and the role walked off with the Tony Award on Broadway. But she is up against Amy Adams, also from Doubt, and that is bound to split off some votes from Davis.

I’m still reeling from Marisa Tomei’s win in 1993 for My Cousin Vinnie, a dreadful choice, and I’m underwhelmed by her work in The Wrestler. I would have been more pleased if the Academy had nominated Penelope Cruz for Elegy, where she gives a very impressive dramatic performance and contracts a disease and dies, always great Oscar bait.

But she was tapped for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, playing a tempestuous Spanish artist, and Woody Allen has uncanny luck winning supporting actress Oscars for women in his movies.

Who should win: Viola Davis
Who will win: Penelope Cruz

Frank Langella as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon.

This year’s comeback kid is surely Mickey Rourke, who is good in The Wrestler in a role that eerily parallels his career ups and downs. The Academy loves background stories like this, and he did pick up a Golden Globe, but I just don’t believe he’s going to win the big one. Brad Pitt is good in the title role of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the film is really a triumph of special effects and make-up.

Richard Jenkins is brilliant, but perhaps too subtle in The Visitor. Still, he has probably worked with and become friends with most of the Academy members in his years in the business, so don’t rule him out.

I think it comes down to a two-man race between Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Sean Penn (Milk), two first-rate performances as real-life politicos. I would give the edge to Penn, but he won for Mystic River and Langella has never won an Oscar, and the Academy likes to spread the wealth.

Who should win: Sean Penn
Who will win: Frank Langella

Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader.

Between Mamma Mia!, Doubt and last year’s The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep is finally big box office and she is very good as the suspicious Sister Aloysius in Doubt, but that is par for her. Melissa Leo is astonishing as a mother who will do anything to provide for her children in Frozen River, but I suspect few voters saw her movie.

Anne Hathaway’s crafty performance in Rachel Getting Married made Hollywood look at her in a new way, but they also figure that there’s plenty of time for her to win an Oscar, so not this year. And I don’t know that there is any buzz for Angelina Jolie in Changeling, a good performance but not good enough.

This looks like Kate Winslet’s year. I have long said that she is the best actress working today who has not won an Oscar yet, and between The Reader and Revolutionary Road, she gives a great one-two punch in the acting department. I completely agree with the Academy that her role as the former Nazi guard in The Reader is the better work and it is certainly no supporting performance, even though that is the category she won in the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards.

And if she gets all misty-eyed again when she wins, then we’ll know she is a good actress.

Who should win: Kate Winslet
Who will win: Kate Winslet

Dev Patel as Jamal Malik and Anil Kapoor as Prem Kumar in Slumdog Millionaire.

This may not be a great year at the movies, but there are five films nominated for Best Picture and all of them are top-drawer films. Where is the head-scratcher “What-could-they-have-been-thinking” pick?

If I had a vote, it would go to Milk, a superb biography that also works as a history of the gay rights movement, with several impressive performances. And there was reason to think parallels between the initiative battle that San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk fought and last year’s California battle skirmish would put the film over the top as a message vote.

But there is such a groundswell for the swell Slumdog Millionaire -- Golden Globe, Producers Guild Award, SAG Ensemble Award (the closest that guild comes to a best picture category) and the Directors Guild -- that the small, low-budget movie looks unstoppable.

Benjamin Button
has the most nominations with 13, but I don’t see it having a very good night tonight. It would appear to be a Slumdog sweep (well, wins for director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, too).

What should win: Milk
What will win: Slumdog Millionaire

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Music review: Violinist Hou exceptional in Flagler concert

Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.

By Greg Stepanich

PALM BEACH -- If ever there were a violinist whose gifts and achievements suit her perfectly for the modern age, it might well be Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.

The Shanghai-born Canadian violinist brought her hair-raising technical wizardry and hair-tossing theatrical flair to the Flagler Museum on Thursday night as part of Whitehall's chamber music series. She showed absolute confidence and mastery in every respect of her program, which extended from Beethoven to Kreisler, and easily exuded the star quality that has put her in the spotlight for two years as a lead violinist in Bowfire, the touring Riverdance-with-fiddles extravaganza.

Given that, it would be logical to suggest that she was more effective in the flashier, less substantive parts of her recital, but in addition to the dazzling things she did with Sarasate, Hou also proved in her weightier selections that she is a player of real depth and interpretive seriousness, and that makes for an almost unnervingly successful combination.

Hou was accompanied by her cousin, Elaine Hou, a Canadian pianist pursuing doctoral work in New York, and began with the Romance in F, Op. 50, of Beethoven, the second of the two he wrote, and normally heard in its original orchestral version. From the very first phrase, Hou demonstrated that she is the possessor of a gigantic sound, a perfectly centered tone, and a deep understanding of musical structure.

The music was strong and serene at the first appearance of the main theme, intense and passionate in the minor-key contrasting section, and she offered up little moments of bravura -- a wonderfully light, skittering downward scale in the ornamented recapitulation of the theme, for instance --- that showed not only how well she plays but how well she understands the entertainment value of what she is playing. It was a lovely performance, and one only wished for the sound of an orchestra behind her, Elaine Hou's fine work notwithstanding.

The Beethoven was followed by the sole Violin Sonata (in E-flat, Op. 18) of Richard Strauss, a marvelous piece that makes one regret the composer's later focus on opera to the exclusion of chamber music. This sonata calls for a player like Hou in that it demands great resources of power and technique, and she was more than up to the challenge. In the first movement, she played with sweep and strength, navigating the octave leaps of the secondary theme in particular with an acrobat's precision.

In the Andante cantabile second movement, Hou provided welcome respite from the bigness of the first movement, playing the gorgeous theme with sensitivity and attention to its long-breathed nature; she made a special point of emphasizing the tiny four-note downward scale that closes the melody, marking it each time with a different color. The finale, dominated by a large-boned theme that looks forward to the tone poem Don Juan that was only a year away, constitutes a workout for both violinist and pianist, and the two Hous carried it off with fire and a good sense of the nascent Straussian style.

There might have been a little too much of that style in Susanne Hou's playing, in that there were one too many near-portamento swoops, but in the next work, the Paul Kochanski transcription of Manuel de Falla's Suite Populaire Espagnole, that mannerism had disappeared. Instead, Hou gave each of these six short pieces a superb focus that made each of the songs' characters completely distinct.

She was especially affecting in Nana, the second song, which she played with a pale shading that gave it a haunting sadness, and in the fourth song, Jota, in which her Bowfire persona took front-and-center with a winning verve.

The closing work was the Faust Fantasy of Sarasate, based on Charles Gounod's deathless opera about the medieval alchemist who cut a bad deal with Beelzebub. This is a showpiece first and last, and Hou played it beautifully, tearing off even the treacherous pizzicati of Sarasate's treatment of the waltz music with great accuracy and elan.

Two pieces by Fritz Kreisler, Schoen Rosmarin and, for an encore, Syncopation, also were part of Hou's recital. She has a fine sense of what to do with these tasty miniatures, giving them the communicative immediacy they demand but not succumbing to an overdose of schmaltz. It also was interesting to hear these pieces, which are much more delicate in Kreisler's own recordings, played with Hou's full-voiced approach; it made them somehow more impressive.

Hou is an exceptional violinist who has an unusual combination of highly developed talents that are ideal for an arts age in which making a forceful media impact grows more important each day. At the same time, she is musician enough to tackle the more subtle regions of her art with equal panache, and that should make this 31-year-old Canadian far more of a household name than she is now.

The next and final concert in the Flagler Museum series features Tempesta di Mare, a five-member touring ensemble from the Philadelphia Baroque orchestra. The group will present a program called Handel's London, featuring music from the early Georgian period in England, including William Babell, Rudolf Straube, Arcangelo Corelli and Handel himself. The concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 3. Tickets are $60, and can be had by calling 655-2833 or visiting the museum's Website at

Yi-Jia Susanne Hou and Elaine Hou in concert Thursday night at the Flagler Museum.
(Photo by Amanda Wilson, copyright 2009 Flagler Museum)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Music review: Mozart foursome exemplary in canonical program

From left: Mark Gothoni, Paul Rivinius, Hartmut Rodhe
and Peter Hoerr.

By Greg Stepanich

LAKE WORTH -- Although much of the activity in today's classical music world is spent in pursuit of the new or the old but overlooked, it's always nice to check in on the canon and see that it's doing just fine.

The Mozart Piano Quartet, a foursome of performers and academics who work in Berlin and Leipzig, has the kind of solid excellence you would expect from veteran European musicians who have impressive lists of recordings and concerts to each of their names. During the group's appearance Wednesday afternoon at the Duncan Theatre, it was always clear that the audience was in the presence of musicians to whom these pieces are second nature.

The program was as core repertory as it could be, with piano quartets by Beethoven (in E-flat, Op. 16), Schumann (in E-flat, Op. 47) and Brahms (in G minor, Op. 25). Familiar as these works are, the four men -- pianist Paul Rivinius, violinist Mark Gothoni, violist Hartmut Rohde and cellist Peter Hoerr -- still found stores of surprise and fresh insight buried within.

As perhaps befits a chamber music ensemble that specializes in piano quartets, it was pianist Rivinius who made the biggest impression Wednesday. Playing works by composers who were at one time or another first-class pianists themselves, Rivinius had a lot to work with, and he acquitted himself beautifully.

The Beethoven quartet that opened the concert -- the three works were played in chronological order, after a last-minute switch to the program that originally called for the Schumann to be played last -- is one of the composer's earlier works, and is an arrangement of a quintet for piano and winds. Yet aside from the Haydnesque cast of its melodies, it's a progressive work that bears the definitive stamp of its creator.

And so this was a performance that emphasized Beethoven's confident youthful swagger. Textures were kept clear so that the music could speak for itself at its most Beethovenian, such as the brutal, almost grinding transition to the relative minor at the beginning of the development section. In general, the three string players, who sat in a semicircle with Hoerr in the middle, constantly looking at each other for cues, laid back and blended with the piano in concerto style rather than engaging in combat.

That made them a trio unto themselves at points such as their entrance in the second movement after the piano solo with which the section begins; at this point, the players opened up some more, taking center stage over soft arpeggios in the piano with rich, soulful playing. In the finale, Rivinius played with sparkle and fire, showing why this piece makes a good demonstration vehicle for the keyboardist.

The Schumann quartet, written nearly 50 years after the Beethoven, offers its four players more opportunities to shine. The third-movement Andante cantabile was particularly notable in this respect, as Hoerr sang out the lovely main theme of the movement with plenty of hearfelt Romanticism, to be followed by Gothoni doing the very same thing. The middle section of the movement also had a good hushed sound from the four musicians that made a very effective contrast with the big, songful cast of the primary material.

The same attention to clear texture and good balance was evident here as it was in the Beethoven, and while the piano still tended to dominate matters in the outer movements, the whispering chatter of the second movement had a gripping sort of tense excitement, and there was good playing all around with the racing contrapuntal fabric of the finale.

Brahms' G minor quartet, the first of three he wrote, is, like the Beethoven a relatively early work, but also is quite distinctive enough for the voice of its composer to be heard. Rivinius began the quartet in a manner faithful to the score but somewhat unusually in my experiences of hearing this piece in concert: Quietly and moodily, unlike the soft but stentorian marching I often encounter.

This added a welcome touch of mystery and growth to the first bars, so that the first climactic rendering of the theme several bars later was explosive and thrilling. The Intermezzo that followed was taken at a good fast clip and remained light on its feet, which let the fragmented melody dip in and out of the texture with an athletic glimmer.

The middle of the slow movement presented the only real chances of the day to be unaccompanied by the piano, and the three players plainly relished their brief strings-only ensemble work, never losing the string of Brahms' powerful emotional argument. For the Gypsy-flavored finale, which had much of the audience bobbing their heads along with the beat, energy and high spirits were the order of the day, even after violist Rohde had to stop the proceedings halfway through to replace a broken string.

Repairs made, the quartet began the movement again, heads began to move, and the group built to a joyous, breathless conclusion in accurate, committed and intense style. All in all, it was an object lesson in musical excellence that helped explain why it is that audiences still hold these pieces dear so many years after they were introduced.

The San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet continues the Duncan chamber music series at 3 p.m. Friday, March 6, with the Mendelssohn Quartet No. 2 (in A minor, Op. 13), Beethoven’s last string quartet (in F, Op. 135), and a quartet by the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts. Tickets: $20. Call 868-3309 or visit

Weekend arts picks: Feb. 20-24

Lorin Maazel and his band.

Music: Lorin Maazel is wrapping up his tenure as director of the New York Philharmonic this year, and Sunday night he brings the band back to West Palm Beach with a non-controversial program that should show this great orchestra to good advantage.

The concert, set for 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center, includes the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture of Mendelssohn, Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (in D minor, Op. 120), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in the celebrated orchestration by Ravel. Tickets: $30-$175. Call 832-7469 or visit

The St. Lawrence String Quartet.

That same afternoon at the Society of the Four Arts, the St. Lawrence String Quartet --violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza -- welcome clarinetist Todd Palmer as a guest for the Clarinet Quintet (in A, K. 581) of Mozart. Also on the program are the last string quartet of Haydn (No. 67 in F, Op. 77, No. 2) and the powerful String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, of Mendelssohn.

The St. Lawrence also will tout in the program its new recording of quartets by Haydn and Dvorak, tracks of which will be available for free download from ArtistShare. 3 pm, at the Society for the Four Arts, Palm Beach. Tickets: $10. Call the society at 655-7226. -- G. Stepanich

A scene from Another Evening: Serenade/A Proposition.

Dance: The Harlem-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, now in its 25th year, presents Another Evening: Serenade/A Proposition, a work by Jones (with a classical/folk score by Chris Lancaster and Jerome Bergin) that tackles the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in the bicentenary year of the 16th president’s birth. 8 pm today and Saturday at the Duncan Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach Community College in Lake Worth. Tickets: $35. Call 868-3309 or visit -- G. Stepanich

Universal Love, by Yvonne Parker.

Art: The work of artists Ron and Yvonne Parker, individually and jointly made, is featured in an exhibit at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach that opens tonight.

The Parkers met 15 years ago at Art Basel in Switzerland and have since lived on both sides of the Atlantic, sharing their passion for creating and collecting art. Tall, red-haired and glamorous, Yvonne is a European-born former fashion model and interior designer. She combines her collection of porcelain, ceramic and glass objects to make mixed-media sculptures that she calls “fragmented beauty.”

Meticulously crafted and symbolically arranged, these sculptures evoke a trip back in time, yet are presented in a thought-provoking and contemporary manner.

Eve, by Ron Parker.

Ron Parker’s line drawings depart from the Baroque nature of his wife’s art. The flowing lines in his portraits suggest the simplicity of Matisse’s later works, with a simple, but bold, color palette.

His, Hers and Ours: The Art of Ron and Yvonne Parker will be in the Armory's Colaciello and Greenfield Galleries from today through Saturday, March 7. The show opens at 6 p.m. today, and the artists will be on hand. -- K. Deits

Is This the End or the Beginning? by Brian Somerville.

Starting Tuesday, the invitational Food for Thought: Second Course will feature new works by 30 Florida ceramic artists, on display at the Eissey Campus Gallery on the Palm Beach Gardens campus of Palm Beach Community College. The show, which runs from Tuesday through March 27, invited the artists to create dinner plates -- functional or not -- that would express the theme of "food for thought."

All platters displayed will be available for sale, with a percentage of the proceeds donated to the Art Alliance at PBCC. The reception runs from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, admission is free, as is the exhibit. For more information or gallery hours, call 868-3309 or visit the gallery’s Website at -- K. Deits

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Theater feature: Veteran TV, stage actor Converse makes local debut in 'The Weir'

Declan Mooney, left, and Frank Converse in The Weir,
at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

By Hap Erstein

When stage, screen and television star Frank Converse was growing up, actors had two ways to go with their careers.

“I came from a school where we were either going to be Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier,” he says. “Those were the choices in the ‘60s. I went for the latter, I got into a Shakespeare company and worked there for a couple of years,” appearing in such shows as Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing.

The result? “Fortunately what that did was get me an agent and work in television.”

Better known for such television series work as Coronet Blue, N.Y. P.D. and Movin’ On than for spouting the Bard, Converse, 70, is now making his West Palm Beach debut in the Palm Beach Dramaworks production of Conor McPherson’s collection of Irish ghost stories, The Weir, which opens Friday.

With his Tony Award-nominated wife Maureen Anderman, Converse has been a part-time South Floridian for the past five years. They bought a condo in West Palm on the advice of his accountant/business manager (“That was when the market was a little better,” he says drily) to be near Anderman’s mother.

And in their exploration of the neighborhood, they noticed Dramaworks’ tiny playhouse on Banyan Boulevard.

“One of the bad jokes I make is that it’s an easy walk from my apartment,” Converse explains. “In the beginning, we kept driving by the theater and we would always laugh and say, ‘Oh, look what they’re doing. We’ve got to go over there.’ And we put it off and then finally said, ‘You know, we’re fools if we don’t go over there. It might be worth it.’ Now maybe people can drive by and laugh at me.”

Frank Converse.

Producing artistic director Bill Hayes was instantly receptive to the idea of having 6-foot-2-inch Converse in a production, initially offering him the father role in Moon for the Misbegotten.

“I said he might have a problem, because that would mean he’d have to have a double-sized Josie,” notes Converse. “She’s supposed to dominate everybody.”

They settled instead on Jack, the gregarious grease monkey and confirmed bachelor in The Weir, even though Converse was not familiar with McPherson’s plays. But a voice from the grave gave him encouragement.

“I watched an interview with Harold Pinter the other night on Charlie Rose. It was more than a year old, from March of ‘07,” recalls Converse. “He asked him about some of the playwrights he liked and (Pinter) mentioned in particular McPherson. I had already made my commitment long before that, but now that Harold Pinter gave him posthumous endorsement, I felt a lot better about it.”

Working on the play has given Converse even more respect for McPherson’s writing skill.

“The general notion at first was that it was just people telling stories. But I’m convinced now after studying the text quite a bit that he’s one of these playwrights who is able to put two different things on the stage. What the people are talking about and everything is not really what’s happening,” he says. “There’s all these connections developing underneath. It’s a little Chekhovian in that way.”

Converse feels comfortable with the character of Jack, even though he is very different from himself. “He’s never been married and I’m in my ultimate marriage, my third. We’ve been very happily married for 27 years, been together 30 years, have two kids,” he reports.

“I think I identify with (Jack) because of his worldliness and his sense of humor. I have that cantankerous, nasty sense of humor, the kind that doesn’t suffer fools. It’s fun to try to create someone like that.”

Do not be surprised if Dramaworks is able to lure Converse back again to be in another production in the future.

“I’ve got to say that I took this kind of as a bet with myself,” he concedes. “It’s very hard to know if it’s going to work, and I’ve been looking at it steadily since the end of October, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to learn the lines.

“And now I find that I’m really hooked.”

THE WEIR, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Feb. 20-April 5. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.