Monday, August 31, 2009

Art review: New acquisitions add vigorous life to MAM collections

Fruit Still Life (2006), by Mette Tommerup (b. 1969).
(Photo by Peter Harholdt)

By Emma Trelles

There are glittering and faux botanies at the center of Recent Acquisitions, a gathering of approximately 20 artworks that feature some of the Miami Art Museum’s latest additions to its growing permanent collection.

Stamped with beads and sequins, the plastic and russet-hued confection of shrubs known as Endless Autumn, by Cristina Lei Rodriguez, contains South Florida’s dualities -- a region known for its pockets of unstoppable flora as well as its relentless roll of concrete and development.

The installation extends to more than 240 square feet, and placing it at the core of the MAM’s first-floor galleries was probably a necessity. But the arrangement serves the exhibition well. It suggests a glistening sort of growth, a leap into more imaginative terrains -- both key tenets in the museum’s efforts to bolster its holdings with contemporary art made by international artists, several of whom live and work in Miami.

Endless Autumn (2006), by Cristina Lei Rodriguez (b. 1974).

Recent Acquisitions first opened in March, and this display is its second incarnation, which swapped out works, for example, by Matthew Barney, Tom Wesselmann, and Anna Gaskell for a series of floating watercolors by Richard Tuttle and Lewis Baltz’s photographic paean to urban geometries (both are minimalist in gaze, although the latter’s precision held my interest longer than the amorphous splotches found in the former).

Also of particular note: Carla Klein’s Untitled, an oil with a vista of the horizon and a highway angling into it. The Dutch painter uses space as deftly as she uses the brooding blues and grays that portion the picture into nomad lands -- no one lives there and yet their stillness beckons. Although significantly abstract, I saw a shipyard, smoke, and clouds dissolving into one another in this unframed canvas, and one can lose herself in the remote beauty of Klein’s shapes.

#226 Drawing (2006), by Ingrid Calame (b. 1965).
(Photo by Peter Harholdt)

Ingrid Calame’s #226 Drawing was equally absorbing. Made with color pencil on Mylar, the sketch traces and conflates the pathways of the Los Angeles River and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. The layered end-result is beautiful and gives the work the look of an embroidered cloth that, from a distance, is also a kind of intuitive aerial map. Up close, there is almost something floral about its arcs.

In this go-round there is still the presence of locally based artists, and their aesthetics are wide, not only in their choices of materials but in how they are filtering the environments in which they make their work. By environments I mean the hamlets and cities that comprise South Florida, which is almost always depicted as a glib hub of nightclubs and crime and skin, but is, in reality, so much more interesting than that.

And since these artists live here, and are not just swooping in with boom mics and cameras for the short haul, several are able to consider the nuances that give this place its sundry textures, not the least of which is the ubiquitous presence of organic forms.

They are in abundance in Adaptation: A Visual Diary of a Mutating Language. Assembled in a kind of exquisite-corpse fashion by Julie Davidow and Carol Prusa, the five vertically hanging panels unspool from ceiling to floor, and they are scrolled with silver point, graphite, and acrylic.

As a whole, these panels present a gender-flecked display of natural and human physiologies: eggs and neurons swirl around each other, tendrils gleam, and something like stars gather towards a science-meets-magic effect. There is little question as to from where the exotic sub-tropicalia of it all stems, even if only in part.

Untitled (2008), by William J. O'Brien (b. 1975).
(Photo by Peter Harholdt)

It will be interesting to see if the MAM continues collecting works that veer away from the directly representational, especially as it marches towards its new digs, slated to open to the public in 2012 at Miami’s Museum Park.

The specific dates of when this last crop of acquisitions was purchased is unknown, but “recent” to me implies that many were selected under the stewardship of Terence Riley, the museum’s latest director and one whose tastes are clearly injecting a welcome vigor into the MAM’s predilections.

Emma Trelles is an arts writer in South Florida.

RECENT ACQUISITIONS runs through Oct. 11 at the Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and until 8:30 p.m. on the third Thursdays of each month. Admission: Adults $8; seniors $4; free for children under 12 and students with valid ID. Free every second Saturday. 305-375-3000 or

Sunday, August 30, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Bringing an ancient American city back to life

By Chauncey Mabe

Throughout American history, Indians have been viewed as either bloodthirsty savages, to be exterminated in the name of Manifest Destiny, or, more recently, noble savages who lived in reverence of Mother Earth.

Though one of these conceptions is more benign than the other, they are equally products of white condescension and bigotry. Neither leaves room for the possibility Native Americans may have been capable of developing a sophisticated urban civilization.

Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi River, the latest entry in Penguin’s excellent Library of American Indian History, will come as a shock to most readers. In clear and jargon-free language, Pauketat provides what is known to date about Cahokia, an ancient city a few miles east of St. Louis that, at its height in the 13th century, had a population of 20,000 – more than contemporary London.

This thriving metropolis rivaled the more famous Mayan and Aztec cities in grandeur, scale and influence. Centered on a 100-foot high pyramid and a 50-acre plaza, Cahokia was the capital of a political-religious culture that dominated the middle portion of the North American continent.

An archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Pauketat tells three interlocking stories: how Cahokia could have been missed for 400 years; the struggles of archaeologists, often working just ahead of bulldozers, to excavate priceless sites; and the story of Cahokia itself.

One reason Cahokia went undiscovered until recent decades is that its builders used the materials at hand in the Mississippi Valley – timber, clay, sand. These structures left not the monumental ruins of, say, Mayan stone temples, but vast, eroding mounds. And these mounds were plowed by farmers, removed for housing developments, cut to make way for roads. The site is now protected as Illinois’ Cahokia State Park, but only 80 of its 120 mounds still exist.

One fascinating figure in Pauketat’s book is Henry Breckenridge, a frontier lawyer who visited Cahokia in 1811 on his way to St. Louis. With remarkable clarity, Breckenridge immediately recognized the site, with its hundreds of mounds and regular layout, as of Indian origin, “a stupendous monument of antiquity.”

His insights were ignored for more than a century, until Warren King Moorehead began digging into the mounds in 1921. Pauketat also gives credit to Preston Holder, Melvin Fowler and Warren Wittry, among other archaeologists.

Pauketat handles his historical, anthropological and archaeological material well. It’s not his fault that a hole exists in the center of the book, the hole of what is not known about the Cahokian people – who exactly they were, why they disappeared after only 150 years, who their descendants might be, or even what they called themselves. The word “Cahokia” is borrowed from a tribe that lived nearby in historic times.

But what is known thrills and disturbs. Cahokia emerged, seemingly all at once, in what Pauketat calls a “big bang," in the middle of the 11th century, possibly inspired by a supernova visible in 1054. A village, also known as Cahokia, was razed and the city built on the same site. The dynamic new culture, by means of religion, force and public ceremony, converted or subjugated populations for hundreds of miles in every direction.

As in most Native American societies, sport played a key role, although it certainly had religious meaning as well. Cahokians were mad for “chukney," a game in which spears or sticks are thrown at a disc-shaped stone rolled across the ground. Betting on the game was fierce, with some people, Paukatet says, losing all they possessed.

Human sacrifice played a “gruesome” role in Cahokian culture. Archaeologists digging into the mounds have made amazing finds, including piles of chukney stones, thousands of beads, and numerous ceremonial graves containing an astounding number of human remains. In one mound, two male bodies, buried with pomp and honor, are accompanied by 53 young women, chosen possibly for their beauty.

Cahokia was also a center of wealth, stratified between elites, who ate meat-rich diets, and everyone else, who ate mostly corn. One garbage pit contained the remains of 3,900 deer, thousands of pots, quantities of corn, pumpkin and berries, and more than a million charred tobacco seeds — evidence of gigantic festivals.

If Paukatet errs, it’s in a too-ready acceptance of the notion Cahokians were influenced by Mayan or other Central American civilizations. Human sacrifice, sophisticated astronomy, a bird-snake deity – all recall Meso-American culture. While it is possible trade existed between the Mississippi Valley and Mexico, it’s equally plausible Cahokia is an entirely North American development. After all, Indians had been building pyramids for centuries. One mound in Louisiana has been dated to 3400 B.C.

That’s a small objection in a book that does so much, so well. Although Paukatet resorts frequently to words like “possible,” or “perhaps,” as he speculates on potential connections between Cahokian culture and other known aspects of Native American belief and custom, it rarely strains credibility.

Pauketat seldom goes more than a few steps from what is actually known, to his credit as a scientist and a writer.

Chauncey Mabe, the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel, can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

CAHOKIA: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi. By Timothy Pauketat; 194 pp.; Penguin; $22.95.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Film feature: West Coast swing hits Lake Park in 'Love N' Dancing'

Amy Smart and Tom Malloy in Love N' Dancing.

By Hap Erstein

The still-fledgling Mos’Art Theatre, Lake Park’s independent art cinema playhouse, has a double coup this weekend. Not only is it presenting the South Florida premiere of Love N’ Dancing, a romance set amid the West Coast swing dance craze, but tonight and Saturday afternoon, producer Sylvia Caminer puts in a personal appearance to field moviegoer questions about the film.

Love N’ Dancing, shot in 2007 in Albuquerque, N.M., doing a credible stand-in for Philadelphia, opened in June in Los Angeles. But in the crowded summer release logjam, it never got sufficient attention -- or audience -- to receive much national distribution. In short, an ideal Mos’Art film to showcase.

Caminer, speaking by phone from her home base of DeLand, says that she never thought of going the film festival route with it “because it’s such a light, entertaining film. I go to a lot of festivals and think they should play more entertaining films where people come out happy, but they usually don’t."

Nor does she see Love N’ Dancing as a message film, though the main character Jake Mitchell (screenwriter and co-producer Tom Malloy) is a former swing dance U.S. Open champion who is deaf. In the film, he struggles to compete again, while also battling not being defined by his lack of hearing.

“I do like the fact that it is about someone with a disability, who kind of overcomes it,” says Caminer, who coincidentally is working on a documentary about people with developmental disabilities.

The character of Jake is a composite of real people, Caminer notes. “There have been world champion dancers that are deaf," she said. "Tom was never a professional dancer, but he had studied West Coast swing before and was impressed by a dancer that he then learned was deaf. And he thought, ‘What a fascinating concept for a film.’ ”

Directing the film is Robert Iscove, who made the 1999 Freddie Prinze Jr. film She’s All That, after an early career boost choreographing the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Handling the choreography on Love N’ Dancing, however, is Robert Royston, whom Caminer calls “a legend in the West Coast swing dance world. The fact that he was involved, I knew that at least the dance would be authentic and very high-caliber, and he would get the true professionals in the movie.”

In fact, the dance sequences far outshine the story line in Love N’ Dancing. The plot involves a middle-school teacher named Jessica (Amy Smart), who has lost her enthusiasm for her work and is engaged to an unappreciative workaholic (Billy Zane) who might as well have a sign around his neck proclaiming, “Bad Choice.” When she signs them up for dance lessons to prepare for their wedding, he balks at the idea while she becomes hooked on the liberating dance steps and on her instructor -- yep, Jake.

Improbably, Jake asks Jessica to be his partner for the U.S. Open competition and the introverted duckling grows into a swan before our eyes. The story is strictly Lifetime cable quality, but the dance is astonishing and there is plenty of it.

Smart (best known for such movies as The Butterfly Effect and Just Friends) comes off as a natural swing dancer, an impression that took a lot of work. “She had done some ballet as a child, so she had had a love of dance, but she didn’t know anything about West Coast swing,” says Caminer. “She studied for eight weeks with Tom and with the choreographer and she’s fantastic.”

Additionally, the producer says, “She couldn’t have been nicer to work with, so professional, so down-to-earth.”

Through dogged persistence, Caminer was able to sign an impressive handful of recognizable performers in supporting roles, including Gregory Harrison, Caroline Rhea, Rachel Dratch and Betty White. When White’s name came up to play the cameo of a senior dancer, Caminer became determined to persuade her to be in the film.

“We got her the script and I think she thought it would be fun, and then we sent the choreographer to her home to give her a quick, 30-minute dance lesson,” recalls Caminer. “And she just thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Adding to the authenticity of the dance sequences is the casting of actual competitive dancers, including the current world champions of West Coast swing and a former winner of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance?

“It’s a great community, the dance world. We had people flying in on their own penny, flying to New Mexico from all over the country. They put themselves up just to help us out and to come for a big dance party that we held to get extras.”

OK, but why in the world was the film shot in Albuquerque?

“We had an investor initially with the condition that we shoot the movie in New Mexico,” says Caminer, echoing an oft-heard refrain of the independent filmmaker. Eventually, that investor pulled out of the project, but by then shooting had progressed to the point that they continued there.

“And we really didn’t want the movie to seem country-western, because West Coast swing is being done in urban cities across the nation, not just in country settings," explains Caminer. Scouting Albuquerque, Caminer determined that it could pass for the East Coast, “but there’s only a few blocks in the entire town that would work. There was no way we could make it look like New York, but Philadelphia, we could get away with that.”

Ultimately, she says, Love N’ Dancing was made for about $6 million and with its release on DVD in October, she expects to break even. “On a movie like this, it’s really all about the video.”

If nothing else, Love N’ Dancing will be a worthy calling card for Caminer when she begins raising the money for her next feature film. “It sure looks good, it has high production values and the performances are strong,” she says.

As to moviegoers who attend this week, Caminer adds, “I think you’ll come out snapping your fingers and maybe tapping your toes and wanting to take a West Coast swing dance lesson. And there’s a lot worse things you could do after a movie.”

LOVE N’ DANCING, Mos’Art Theatre, 700 Park Ave., Lake Park. Opens today, with Caminer Q&As at 7:40 p.m. tonight (between the 6:00 and 8:25 p.m. shows) and 3:35 p.m. Saturday afternoon (between the 2 and 4:15 p.m. shows). Call: (561) 337-6763.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Weekend arts picks: Aug. 28-30

My Life as a Dog, by Robert Arneson.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

Art: If you haven’t seen the sculpture exhibit at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, you have a few more days to see it before it closes Sept. 6. Viewers of Off the Wall: The Human Form in Sculpture can follow the evolution of the human form in American and European sculpture from the mid-19th century to current work. From wood to marble, metal to ceramics, there is a wide gamut of work in the exhibition, and aside from the various techniques the sculptors used, it is interesting to see how the concept of the figure and ideal beauty has changed over the years. One of my favorite pieces is from the Norton collection: My Life as a Dog is a self-portrait in ceramics by the late Funk Art sculptor Robert Arneson (1930-1992). For more information, call (561) 832-5196. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Admission to the special exhibitions is free to members and children under 13; $12 for adults and $5 for ages 13-21. -- K. Deits

Head to Toe (1941), by Chaim Gross.

And on Friday evening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Northwood Village is presenting an Art and Wine Promenade in which more than 30 local artists will present their work, along with three boutique wine tastings and live entertainment. The shops and art galleries, such as EG2 and Northwood Glass Art, will be open also. The event is located on Northwood Road and 24thand 25th streets between Broadway and Dixie Highway. It is free and open to the public. For more information, call (561) 822-1551. -- K. Deits

Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano
in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock.

Film: It was 40 years ago this month that the sleepy Catskills town of Bethel, N.Y., was turned into a haven for peace, love, music and mud, when 500,000 free-love hippies -- plus myself -- made counterculture history with a concert known as Woodstock. Ang Lee, better known for such drama as Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm tries to bring the event back to life in Taking Woodstock, the story of the concert as seen through the eyes of Bethel Chamber of Commerce honcho Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin). The movie starts slow and doesn’t all work, but the recreation of the mass of humanity in the rain is impressive, as is the split screen style that echoes the Oscar-winning documentary, Woodstock. Opening today. -- H. Erstein

Brandon Morris, John Archie and Nick Duckart
in Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man.

Theater: The theater story of the summer is the resurgence of Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre, which had had two critical and audience hits under new artistic director Clive Cholerton. Its current show, Matthew Lopez’s post-Civil War drama, The Whipping Man, pit’s the son of a Richmond plantation owner against two former slaves that he grew up with. The script bristles with conflict, John Archie and Brandon Morris are terrific as the ex-slaves and the production has just been given a one-week reprieve, now playing through Sept. 6. Call (561) 241-7432 for tickets. -- H. Erstein

Robert Schumann (1810-1856).

Music: The work of Robert Schumann will be heard more frequently in the months to come, as the classical music world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. You can get an early start on your Schumann-mania in a concert Saturday afternoon by the Lynn University academic and pianist Yang Shen (at right) . She'll play two Schumann works: the Abegg Variations, Op. 1, using the name of a fellow student at Heidelberg to craft a theme built around those five notes (A, B-flat, E, G and G), and the Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, one of his finest, most Romantic works. Shen also will play a piece by a composer not known for his solo piano music when she performs the Dumka, Op. 59, of Tchaikovsky, a beautiful and difficult piece that deserves to be better-known. 5 p.m. Saturday at the Steinway Gallery, Boca Raton. Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Call 929-6633 for tickets or more information. -- G. Stepanich

And if you're interested in seeing something really different this weekend, you could take a trip to Miami's Trinity Cathedral on Sunday evening for a concert by the fine British organist Matthew Steynor (pictured at left), who will play a program of works inspired by extraterrestrial ideas.

Chief among them: A transcription of The Planets, the great orchestral suite by the underrated English composer Gustav Holst. Proceeds from the concert help pay for the work recently done to restore Trinity's organ. Tickets: $15, $5 for students and children. For more information, visit -- G. Stepanich

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Opera review: At Bard SummerScape, a stunning 'Les Huguenots'

Erin Morley as Marguerite de Valois
in Bard SummerScape's production of Les Huguenots.
(Photo by Stephanie Berger)

By Rex Hearn

Every summer for the past 20 years, the private liberal arts school of Bard College, two hours north of New York City near Annandale-on-Hudson, has taken it upon itself to perform operas, choral works, dance and drama, many of them offbeat or seldom performed.

This year's SummerScape festival saw a complete, 4 ½-hour production of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera Les Huguenots, Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus and a dance program choreographed by Lucinda Childs. The festival's president and artistic director, Leon Bostein, led the 75-piece American Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

One of the most striking things about the campus is the new opera house-concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry. The interior is simple but acoustically effective, and its outer walls -- similar to Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao -- look like children's book illustrations from the 1920s, with shining riveted silver squares shaped into sweeping, sexy curves. These walls are connected to the main building by scaffolding.

And as it turned out, what happened inside was just as compelling. I heard the festival's "million-dollar" production of Les Huguenots on Aug. 7, and I came away impressed by the singing, acting and staging, as well as the artistic courage that was required to present it.

Les Huguenots is a massive opera, and difficult to perform; top-rank artists rarely want to tackle Meyerbeer's tricky scoring for voice. The piece was last given in its entirety at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, with Enrico Caruso. One can understand why from the very first set of arias in Act I.

Eugene Scribe’s libretto concerns the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, during which French Catholics murdered thousands of Protestant Huguenots. A love interest between Raoul, a Calvinist nobleman, and Valentine, daughter of a prominent Catholic citizen, keeps the plot moving along with a couple of twists.

Meyerbeer, a Jew, knew about religious persecution and was attracted to the story. King Louis XVI later passed the Edict of Toleration in 1787; Meyerbeer's opera dates from 1836 and was given more than 1,000 times at the Paris Opera, a record that has never been surpassed.

Let it be said immediately that Leon Botstein found seven of the best singers around and they performed magnificently. Their voices matched the bel canto requirements perfectly. What you are no doubt wondering is why this opera isn't regularly performed, particularly if the right singers can now be found among today's talent.

I would have to guess that the subject of religious intolerance does not sit well in America, since freedom of worship is part of our Constitution. Also, the massacre at the end of the opera is not exactly a pleasant experience. Further, in this age of immediate gratification, the length and size of Meyerbeer’s grand opera certainly has requires huge cost outlays.

There have been reduced versions of Les Huguenots from time to time, never satisfactory from all accounts. Bard’s SummerScape length was not an issue because this lavish production moved along at an even pace thanks to the brilliance of American director Thaddeus Strassberger and Botstein's lively baton.

The excellent acting of the chorus, whose members have a lot to do, made the crowd scenes interesting. They moved props with precision, sang for all they were worth and had the right measure of enthusiasm. It was refreshing to see such a lively group; I looked forward to their entrances. Kudos to chorus master James Bagwell.

Set designer Eugenio Recuenco devised a series of cubes and a huge square table that was lowered to serve two purposes : the meeting place for ceremonials and a swimming pool for four beautiful synchronized swimmer-dancers clad only in G-strings. (This is a French opera, after all!)

The lighting designer, Aaron Black, gave each scene the right mood; one could see the faces of principals and chorus clearly. Mattie Ullrich’s costumes were practical, but that of Marguerite de Valois, queen of Navarre, was a creation of dazzling magnificence, with silver eagle's wings forming her brassiere.

Tenor Michael Spyres had the lead as Raoul, the Protestant nobleman. He has a gilt-edged flexible voice that met Meyerbeer’s daunting tessitura head-on. Still under 30, his beautiful timbre impressed greatly; European opera houses already know of this American singer's skill. As Count de Nevers, baritone Andrew Schroeder was easy on the ear and a delight to watch. A seasoned and much-recorded artist, his timbre is "chocolate-rich."

Soprano Erin Morley, as Marguerite de Valois, astonished at first sight with her vocal flexibility and bright, bright soprano. She tossed off her difficult runs and roulades with remarkable technique, all the while bearing up with ease and grace in her magnificent costume.

Bass Peter Volpe, in the pivotal role of Marcel, has a voice that is sepulchrally dark, rolling off the stage and into the audience like a blast from a fiery furnace. Alexandra Deshorties as Valentine, the Catholic love interest of Raoul, was superb. Her lovely soprano voice scaled the heights easily; her divided loyalties between lover and family got the emotional treatment worthy of the best Method actors around.

Bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel as Count de Saint-Bris has a ringing timbre and Marie Lenormand’s soprano was winning and effective as the page, Urbain. The comprimario roles were all perfectly cast. Great care in selecting these singers, essential to an opera's success, was clearly evident.

Perhaps the subject matter of what amounts to ethnic cleansing is too uncomfortable for modern audiences to watch, even in grand opera form. They see it too regularly on television: Iraq, Sudan, Sarajevo and so on.

When Meyerbeer wrote this opera in 1836 about a massacre that happened in 1572 , he obviously intended to shock. Little did he realize how prescient his choice of subject would be.

Rex Hearn is the founder of the Berkshire Opera Company, the only professional summer opera company in Massachusetts. He has been reviewing opera in southern Florida since 1995.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Theater review: 'Cannibal!' provides silly, gory fun at Promethean

Andy Quiroga as Frenchy in Promethean Theatre's Cannibal!
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

The opening announcement at The Promethean Theatre is a sprightly caution that the following show will contain “blood, puke and pus.” Eeew.

Well, they didn’t need to warn us about the blood: The back wall of the stage is already splattered with the stuff before we even enter the Wild West world of the black-box playing space at Nova Southeastern University.

Still, the Promethean’s production is more likely to elicit giggles and guffaws than cries of gruesome horror. For the show is Cannibal! The Musical Live on Stage, a theatricalized version of a student film by Trey Parker (co-creator of Comedy Central’s South Park) about the only convicted cannibal in American history.

That would be Alferd Packer, intrepid but overconfident wilderness guide who led a group of gold-grubbing miners from Provo, Utah, to Breckinridge, Colo., in 1873. Only they got caught in a blizzard before they reached their destination, ran out of food and, well, you can guess their solution. So as Cannibal! begins, Packer is in jail, convicted of going all Sweeney Todd on his expeditionary charges, and the good folks of Breckinridge are eager for a lynching.

You would think that such an unappetizing, offbeat show is a far cry from Oklahoma! But that is exactly the template that Parker, who also wrote the songs, has used to tell this tale. He would often demonstrate his winking affection for and awareness of musicals in South Park, so it was hardly a stretch for him to model his main character here on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cowpoke Curly.

Packer/Curly sings of his unbridled, if unfounded, optimism in his opening solo, Shpadoinkle! (an all-purpose upbeat adjective, particularly as applied to the day). We are quickly drawn to anyone willing to declare in song, “My heart’s as full as a baked potatah,” even as we realize he is fated for disaster.

The love of his life is his horse Liane, a frisky filly with a flair for flatulence (played coquettishly by a blonde-maned Katherine Amadeo). As Packer, square-jawed, big-voiced Matthew William Chizever wrings his musical tribute to her (When I Was on Top of You) for every single-entendre laugh. If Liane turns out to be less than faithful, that is probably because she is based on a similarly named ex-fiancee of Parker’s whom he discovered was having an affair.

Much of the show’s humor tends towards the downright silly, and apparently neither Parker nor Promenthean resident director Margaret M. Ledford ever met a blood squib that they didn’t like. At a strategic point in the 90-minute, intermissionless show, the cast rolls in a stage-sized carpet, which A) serves as the blanket of snow in the Rockies’ winter and B) catches the spurting blood and minimizes the eventual cleanup.

The miners, led by Jeffrey Bower as a religious zealot, are a rough-and-tough bunch, until called upon to execute Chrissi Ardito’s choreography, a cross between moves from The Unsinkable Molly Brown to West Side Story.

Anne Chamberlain has a relatively straight assignment as earnest Denver Post reporter Polly Pry, whose knee-jerk liberal prose earns Packer a re-trial. A trio of pig Latin-spouting Ute Indians are anything but straight and Ken Clement has fun with a self-reverential role known as -- what else? -- Judge Ken.

Musical direction and piano accompaniment is provided by the ivory-tickling Mark Fiore, whose pre-show medley of TV themes turns out to be mere set-up for some musical punch lines during the show.

Considering how easily the company has made the transition, you would never guess that this is their first foray into musical theater. But judging from the sold-out Sunday matinee attended -- populated by more theatergoers than I have ever seen at a Promenthean show -- it seems unlikely that this will be their last.

CANNIBAL! The Musical Live on Stage, at The Promethean Theatre, Don Taft University Center Black Box Theatre, 3301 College Avenue, Nova Southeastern University campus, Davie. Continuing through Sept. 6. Tickets: $25. Tickets: (866) 811-4111.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

ArtsBuzz: In Atlanta, the tableaux of Whitfield Lovell

28M, by Whitfield Lovell.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

By Katie Deits

Seeing or creating art is always part of my travel plans, whether it's visiting museums, galleries and artist studios, hearing a lecture about art or taking an art-related seminar. Packed in my carry-on without fail are a sketchbook, conté sticks and watercolors.

Late last month, I spent a week in Atlanta, where the art scene is thriving. The High Museum of Art was featuring a classical exhibit from the Louvre and Monet’s large canvases of water lilies, which I had seen before in Paris. But, like visiting an old friend, it warmed my heart to see them again. (Monet’s Water Lilies are on exhibit through Sunday, and The Louvre and the Masterpiece runs though Sept. 13.)

The National Black Arts Festival was also being held at the High, with music, vendors and a lecture and art opening featuring Whitfield Lovell. I had seen his work at Art Basel two years ago and remembered that Lovell had been awarded the MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2007. He also was awarded the Malvina Hoffman Artist Fund Prize in 2009 at the A184th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the National Academy Museum in New York.

Whitfield Lovell.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

Lovell, who was born in New York in 1959, received his BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art, attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and New York University’s graduate program in Venice, Italy. He exhibits internationally and often is a visiting artist at colleges and cultural venues. He is represented by DC Moore Gallery in New York City, and his work is in many public collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art (Smithsonian Institution) and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

At the Atlanta event (July 30), photographer Carrie Mae Weems interviewed Lovell for an interested audience. “I am a contemporary artist commenting on issues of the past," he said. "There’s a need in our culture to look at where we came from to know who we are as a people.”

Lovell said that he enjoys looking at good prints, woodcuts and etchings, and has been influenced by artists such as Betty Saar, Charles W. White and Jacob Lawrence. Mercy, Patience and Destiny: The Women of Whitfield Lovell’s Tableaux, co-sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design, is on exhibit until Sunday in the Woodruff Arts Center.

All Things in Time, by Whitfield Lovell.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

Like artists through the ages, Lovell is a visual storyteller. While his work is representational, his concept is original and runs deep through the veins of the African-American community. In large formats, he reveals the tales not told, the people that history forgot, except for remnants of their lives left in aging black- and-white photographs.

Influenced by watching his father developing and printing photographs in the family darkroom, Lovell uses his dad’s images and old photographs that he collects as reference for life-size conté, oil-stick and charcoal drawings created on tall, worn-wood planks that he finds. He then creates installations that concentrate on the period of time from the Civil War to mid-20th century by combining the images with found objects such as old radios, books, architectural elements, household goods and tools.

“The really orgasmic part of a project,” Lovell said, “is choosing the objects and seeing how they enliven the image and how the image enlivens the objects. I learned about flea markets with my grandma when I was a kid. She would buy and paint flowers on the objects.

"I choose objects that look like something my great aunt or grandma might have in their cabin. Someone used it on a daily basis, in some mundane but meaningful ritual," he said.

In the beautifully shaded and rendered drawings, one can almost feel the spirit of each subject, as dignified faces peer out from wooden surfaces and the hands imply a gesture or feeling. Lovell’s aim is “to evoke a sense of place, to be able to feel the spirit of the past for a moment, to feel the presence of these people.”

In 28M, a disc is perched atop an old radio, while a portrait of a fashionable young woman seems ready to tap out a jazz beat. An antique spinning wheel stands in front of a drawing on red clapboards in All Things in Time. The pensive woman taking a break perhaps from her labors reminds us of the importance of patience, and that things happen in the universe’s time and not ours.

Servilis, by Whitfield Lovell.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

From an immense piece of wood, five women in uniforms and aprons look directly at the viewer in Servilis, a word derived from the Latin servus, which means slave or servant. Their straight posture and confident body language seem to rebel against the five stuffed black crows perched on pedestals before them. The Jim Crow laws in the South institutionalized prejudice toward the black community, but these women, who are perhaps household servants, project the strength and dignity to patiently overcome those injustices.

Whitfield Lovell’s work is not only technically excellent but gives a voice to subjects who can no longer speak for themselves.

“My work is more abstract than realistic,” Lovell said. “The concept of spirituality — that which is left behind when someone is no longer here — I am acknowledging and honoring the lives of ordinary people. I seldom make images of famous people.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Music review: Senior-citizen CSN proves the best wine is vintage

Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby,
at the Seminole Hard Rock on Thursday night.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

By Thom Smith

Do, do, do-do, do, do, do-dah-do, do, do. Not a hint of Judy's blue eyes. No holding anyone close before the fire. Nothing about Chicago or Ohio or Woodstock.

But with Crosby, Stills and Nash, so much water has moved underneath their bridges that no matter what or how many songs they performed at Seminole Hard Rock on Thursday night, it wouldn't be enough for the helplessly hoping crowd.

Still, they were able to cram a lifetime of pain and glory into 100 minutes with an artistry that many modern entertainers could only hope to emulate. Sure, they're old. Crosby may have turned 68 the week before but on Almost Cut My Hair (which he still hasn't) he served notice that his freak flag still flies.

Stephen Stills is pushing 65, and while his voice is a bit raspier, his guitar licks (including mimicking a police siren in the same song) may be better. Nash, 67, still the stable figure in this cyclonic group, set the tone by leading off with Helplessly Hoping, joking that they would sing every song that Crosby could remember the lyrics to.

Having set the tone for an evening of oldies, Crosby immediately announced they would include songs made famous by others: the Stones' Ruby Tuesday, James Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes, Dylan's Girl From the North Country. He hinted that the group's next project might be an album of covers, then jumped right back to their own library with Guinnevere.

The hits just kept coming, the crispness and power of Southern Cross bringing the crowd to its feet, Crosby's voice seeming to strengthen through Long Time Gone, Stills ripping through his old Buffalo Springfield classic Rock 'n' Roll Woman with a faster tempo and more drive than the original.

Here's a band that's been together on and off for 40 years, who admitted when they took the stage at Woodstock that they were “scared ----less,” who cut many of their musical teeth in an underappreciated mid-60s pop-folk scene in Miami, who developed social sensibility in the California counterculture, who had run-ins with the law, who struggled with bad health – and still managed to not only survive but prevail.

Theirs was a show that could rekindle the fires of the “Woodstock generation” – the one in power now – and also capture the spirit and emotion of the new generation. When they sang “you've got to speak out against the madness,” they weren't blowing smoke. We may have been there before, as they suggested in Deja Vu, but it wasn't like this: Every song offered something new, be it phrasing, tempo or instrumentation, while retaining its original integrity. Nash pulled out a harmonica; Stills took at turn at the Hammond B3.

It didn't hurt that they brought along the cream of the crop for backup musicians – veteran drummer Joe Vitale, organist Todd Caldwell, bassist Bob Glaub (originally from Hollywood, Fla.) and keyboardist James Raymond (Crosby's son).

The music continued through Bluebird, a singalong on Our House and a screaming Wooden Ships. For an encore, two messages: Love the One You're With and, if something results, Teach Your Children. Then a quick group bow and they were gone, three buses and a column of trucks bound for Clearwater, St. Augustine and Melbourne before finally wrapping up at the end of September in California.

They're eligible for Social Security and Medicare, yet still ready for the next inspiration, proving again, as they so often have, that good music never grows old.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Weekend arts picks: Aug. 21-23

The Boys With the Big Beaks Play All Night, by Suzette Urs.

Art: You’d never know that it is still summer, as the local art community appears to be in full swing from Northwood in West Palm Beach to downtown Lake Worth and on south to Boynton Beach.

This photomontage by Sue Stevens
is offered in an edition of five.

At the EG2 Northwood gallery, three “under 30” artists -- Carolyn Sickles, Ryan Toth, and Sue Stevens -- are presenting Paper Piracy, a thought-provoking contemporary exhibition that deals with the practice of appropriation. "The title acts as a pun: Piracy is considered theft, and the works are our personal interpretations of what we are constantly fighting to not lose,” said Sickles, a Florida Atlantic University BFA graduate and current master-level student at Manhattan’s Bank Street. The Paper Piracy exhibition is free of charge; the opening reception is today from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the gallery, which is located at 408 Northwood Ave. in West Palm Beach; hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, call Glen Barefoot at (561) 315-5947.

A cloisonné pendant by Gael and Howard Silverblatt.

In Lake Worth, the Clay, Glass, Metal, Stone Cooperative Gallery of more than 20 artists is featuring Susan Bordas, Sheri Goldstein, and Gael and Howard Silverblatt at their opening today from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., with a wine-and-cheese reception sponsored by wine broker and artist Barbara Eden and building owners Jay and Cathy Bernhardt. Bordas works in clay to create realistic and imaginative sculptures. Goldstein, a glass artist, uses brightly colored dichroic glass to make pieces into abstract shapes with rich textures. The Silverblatts are well known for their narrative cloisonné images fashioned into jewelry and miniature objects. The gallery is located at 605 Lake Ave. in downtown Lake Worth. For more information, call (561) 588-8344.

Further south in Boynton, the Urs Art Studio Gallery is presenting nine artists: Rick BeauLieu, George Cheskes, Mike Hazzard, Jean Hutchison, Portland Jastram, Vera Rekstad, Naomie St. Amand, and Lorrie Turner, along with gallery owner Suzette Urs. Works include steel sculptures, glass bead art, works on paper and canvas, and photography. The Urs Art Studio Gallery is at 802 N. Federal Highway in Boynton Beach. Today's reception lasts from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call (561) 734-6926. -- K. Deits

A scene from Philipp Stolzl's production of Benvenuto Cellini.

Music: On Saturday, the Lake Worth Playhouse presents another in the Emerging Cinema series of opera performances, and this one is not only a rarity but a production that's already become legendary for its sheer invention. It's Hector Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini, first performed in 1838 and based on the memoirs of Cellini, the 16th-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor. The production is the 2007 Philipp Stolzl version at that year's Salzburg Festival, starring Maija Kovalevska and Burkhard Fritz. Just a glimpse of the trailer gives you an idea what you're in for, but this also is a unique chance to see and hear a fascinating opera that Berlioz, who had so little luck with his stage works, said later in life "contains an energy and exuberance, and a brilliance of color such as I may perhaps never find again, and which deserved a better fate." It screens at 12:30 p.m. Saturday; tickets are $18. Call 586-6410 for more information. -- G. Stepanich

Meanwhile, the St. Paul's series of monthly Sunday concerts continues right through the hot months with a detour into jazz. Singers Adriana Samargia and Anita Smith join Larry Mellone and the St. Paul's Jazz Ensemble for an afternoon of standards. 4 p.m. Sunday at the church on Swinton Avenue in Delray Beach. Tickets: $15-$18. Call 278-6003 for more information. -- G. Stepanich

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Film review: Tarantino's 'Basterds' distinctive, but also idiotic

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds.

By Hap Erstein

With a regard for history as erratic as his spelling, Quentin Tarantino brings us his idiosyncratic -- and occasionally idiotic -- vision of World War II, Inglourious Basterds, a fitfully amusing, frequently brutal spin on war movie clichés.

The title, swiped from an obscure 1978 Italian film, refers to a small group of Jewish-American viligante G.I.s airlifted into Nazi-occupied France. This Dirty Half-Dozen ambushes German soldiers, kills them and scalps them, in honor of their part-Native American commander Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, spouting a Tennessee accent). Another in the platoon apparently has no such ancestry, so he simply smashes in skulls with a baseball bat.

Tarantino rose to prominence in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, which spawned many less talented imitators but few worthy follow-up films on his own. He is certainly well-versed in the traditions of cinema lore, and according to this inglorious release, it is the movies themselves that are responsible for the fate of the war and of Adolf Hitler.

Do not write about this on your history exams, kids, but as Tarantino recalls matters, Joseph Goebbels, head of German propaganda films, seeks to premiere his latest masterpiece at a Paris movie palace. Since most of the Nazi inner circle, including Der Fuhrer, intend to attend, a British munitions expert plans to blow up the place, and the Basterds scheme to kill Hitler with celluloid -- setting the cinema on fire with a pile of highly combustible nitrate-based film.

If any if this sounds preposterous to you, you are getting the picture. Still, Tarantino remains a visual virtuoso, so the suspense-laden sequences leading up to the incendiary climax still impress, even if they lack a shred of credibility.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is the prologue, set in 1941, in which a merrily malevolent S.S. colonel (Christoph Waltz), calmly and methodically goes from French farmhouse to farmhouse, in search of hidden Jews. He stares down a stubborn farmer until he cracks, and mows down the family in the basement. All except a grown daughter named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who not only gets away, but makes it to Paris where she comes to own that show piece movie palace.

Facts may not matter to Tarantino, but irony is alive and well.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 32 minutes, Inglourious Basterds is edited indulgently, but there are several sequences full of the filmmaker’s rich, flavorful dialogue. One bizarre but memorable scene sees Gestapo officers, Allied spies and a famous German film star (Diane Kruger) sitting around a beer hall playing a parlor game of guess-the-celebrity, just prior to a bloody shootout.

Pitt plays a slightly more intelligent, far more violent version of his two-dimensional Burn After Reading character. Laurent is probably the most fleshed-out character and the striking young actress looks likely to come out of this film with considerable attention. Rod Taylor, of all people, shows up briefly as Winston Churchill and if you look real close, you might be able to spot Mike Myers as a British officer under a lot of makeup.

Reportedly, Tarantino has been working on the script of Inglourious Basterds for more than 10 years. Whether or not it is the film he wanted to make after all this time, maybe he has gotten his World War II statement out of his system.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Studio: Universal Pictures; Director: Quentin Tarantino; Starrring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger; Rated: R: Opening: Friday, most area theaters.

Theater review: GableStage's 'Speed-the-Plow' a satisfying leer at movie biz

From left: Paul Tei, Gregg Weiner and Amy Elane Anderson
in GableStage's production of Speed-the-Plow.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

GableStage often produces name-brand plays that recently opened in New York, regardless of their quality. What else could explain artistic director Joe Adler’s selection of Romance and November, two undeniably subpar stabs at farcical satire by the cunning David Mamet?

On the other hand, the Coral Gables company is now serving up one of Mamet’s most concise, savage and satisfying works, Speed-the-Plow -- which premiered in 1988, but also just had a much-publicized Broadway revival this past season. This morality tale of amoral Hollywood has two juicy roles, which GableStage regulars Paul Tei and Gregg Weiner devour with relish, giving a textbook lesson in the delivery of fragmentary, foul-mouthed Mametspeak.

Speed-the-Plow is, in effect, a buddy play about the making of a buddy picture. Pseudo-humble Bobby Gould (Tei) has just been promoted to head of production at a major movie studio. And before painters have a chance to spruce up his office, his old pal Charlie Fox (Weiner) arrives with the deal of a lifetime. It seems that highly bankable Doug Brown -- yes, THE Doug Brown -- has agreed to do a formulaic, but unquestionably commercial, action script that Fox has been peddling. The catch is he has to get it “greenlit” by a studio in 24 hours.

Mamet, who has written and directed his share of films, usually outside the studio system, has an insider’s awareness of Tinseltown and the little boys at play dressed up in those studio suits. Mamet has built a career from the schemes and scams of America’s con men, hype artists and power brokers, of which Speed-the-Plow is a prime example. But unlike American Buffalo or his Pulitzer Prize winner, Glengarry Glen Ross, this workplace saga hinges on a dame, one of ambiguous intelligence and ambitions.

Enter Karen (Amy Elane Anderson), the attractive temporary secretary assigned to Gould, so naïve of the ways of Hollywood that she takes him seriously when he asks her to give a courtesy read to a deadly, unfilmable book in the pipeline called The Bridge: or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society, a Study in Decay.

Gould’s motive is clear. He has bet Fox $500 that he can bed Karen. But whatever Karen’s motives are, she becomes a rabid fan of the tome and convinces her boss to film it instead of the Doug Brown project.

That is a narrative leap that would strain all plausibility if Mamet were not having so much fun with it. In the second scene, at Gould’s home, Karen reads whole chunks of the strangulated prose and it lands on the ear with a thud. Mamet also captures well the glee of Gould and Fox over their imminent windfall on the Doug Brown no-brainer and, later, Fox’s volcanic anger over Gould’s inexplicable turnaround.

Tei and Weiner expertly handle Mamet’s dialogue riffs, hitting them back and forth like a killer handball match, with their enjoyment palpably evident. Anderson has the heavier lifting, since Karen -- like most female Mamet characters -- is simply less well written, but she manages the assignment well enough to keep the ball in play. A recent graduate of the University of Miami, Anderson may well turn out to be another valuable discovery of Adler’s.

Sean McClelland’s scenic design captures the temporary nature of the movie biz, as well as the creature comforts it affords. Adler either guides his two lead actors in their banter fest, or stays out of their way. Whichever it is, Speed-the-Plow is GableStage so on top of its game, it almost -- but not quite -- erases bad memories of Romance and November.

SPEED-THE-PLOW, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables. Continuing through Sept. 13. Tickets: $37.50 - $42.50. Call: (305) 445-1119.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Ex-FDA chief lays out map of our flabby discontent

By Bill Williams

After remaining stable for generations, Americans’ body weight suddenly began to spiral upward in recent decades. The average weight for women in their 20s soared from 128 pounds in 1960 to 157 pounds in 2000.

Those numbers are included in The End of Overeating, David A. Kessler’s fascinating new book exploring the causes of weight gain along with strategies to take off the pounds, which have led to an explosion of diabetes cases and other serious illnesses.

Kessler has excellent credentials. He led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; he is perhaps best remembered for his aggressive campaign against Big Tobacco.

The shift toward excess food consumption coincided with shrewd strategies by restaurant chains. Half of today’s food dollars are spent in restaurants. Marketers found they could make food more appealing by stuffing it with fat, sugar and salt in enticing combinations. In a little more than three decades, per-capita consumption of fat and oils jumped from 53 to 86 pounds.

“Fat helps flavors merge and meld, creating a smooth sensation as it brings disparate ingredients together in a symphonic whole,” Kessler writes.

Panera Bread offers fancy bagels larded with sugar, fat and salt. Burger King’s breakfast sandwich features four eggs, four strips of bacon and four slices of cheese. Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, with 1,420 calories, is stuffed with bacon, cheese, mayonnaise and butter. Starbucks’ Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino comes with whipped cream and 18 teaspoons of sugar.

Foods high in sugar, fat and salt rewire the brain, the author says, making it more likely that customers will return again and again.

Kessler compares the allure of restaurant food to addictions involving drugs, alcohol and gambling, and cites studies involving animals and humans to bolster his point.

Marketers test foods to create combinations that will turn eating into an irresistible experience. Advertising pushes the theme that hard-working, stressed people deserve the treats they crave. Restaurants offer all-you-can-eat specials, supersize portions and processed foods that go down quickly and easily.

“By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster,” Kessler says. “Refined food simply melts in the mouth.” Kessler rejects the common notion that eating in moderation is simply a matter of willpower.

Although he notes the correlation between overeating and various other addictions, he fails to make the obvious point that no one has to drink alcohol, use drugs, gamble or smoke to stay alive, which is not the case with food.

Changing any ingrained habit, including what we eat, is difficult. Kessler recommends that people adopt sensible meal plans and stick to them. Just as eating junk food is a habit, eating nutritious food can become a substitute habit. He advocates consuming high-fiber or complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and vegetables, combined with protein and a small amount of fat.

Kessler also advocates listing calorie counts on restaurant menus, showing the percentage of added sugars, refined carbohydrates and fats on all food products, and conducting more public education.

These are useful points, yet everything must begin with an individual’s decision to change, just as with any addiction or habit.

The End of Overeating reflects considerable research. Kessler interviewed scores of scientists and physicians, and he lists every one of them (more than 160) in the back of the book. At times the book bogs down in jargon, such as “asymmetrical selection pressure,” and references that might interest scientists, but are likely to bore general readers.

Kessler acknowledges his personal interest in food addiction. “For much of my life,” he writes, “sugar, fat and salt held remarkable sway over my behavior. I have lost weight, gained it back, and lost it again – over and over and over.”

I wish that Kessler had gone into greater detail about his own struggle, but perhaps that is a subject for another book. Another sequel might be a book with more practical diet tips and less theory.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

THE END OF OVEREATING: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David A. Kessler, M.D.; 320 pp., Rodale; $25.95.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Armory's summer camp show spotlights kids' creativity

A multimedia collage by Meitar Magin, 7, of Wellington.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

By Katie Deits

When does a person become an artist?

People are often at their most creative when they are young and uninhibited, and the ups and downs of life haven't eroded their confidence. But kids’ work is often relegated to the kitchen and attached with magnets to the refrigerator door.

Last Friday night, though, the Armory Art Center staged a large and outstanding exhibit that gave kids from kindergarten to high school the opportunity to show off their artwork to friends, family and art lovers. The budding artists all had attended the Armory’s summer camp of classes in art history, drawing, painting, mixed media, sculpture and ceramics.

Ann Fay Rushforth, director of programs and chief curator at the Armory Art Center, worked with instructors all summer to organize the exhibition, a big one that included work by most of the 650 students.

The Space Project, left, and The Colorful Project gave students
the chance to work in large formats.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

“I asked the instructors to save the best work from each student at the end of each week. Some students were only at camp for a week, and others attended all summer,” Rushforth said. “We tried to have all the students represented in the show, but we were also choosing art for quality.

“We ended up with very nice pieces of art,” she said. “Every year, I think that the work gets more outstanding. This year, we hired more art teachers, and we were so pleased with the results.”

A sculpture by Andrew Kovalainen, 12, of Hypoluxo.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

Rushforth said that the Armory’s goal is for the young people to come away with art as a concept.

“They study the history of art, as well as the nexus of art, science and the environment. We cover technology, different nations and different periods of time," she said. "We also have them create ‘green’ art and make students aware that they can live a carbon-neutral life.”

For instance, in a sculpture class taught by Hans Evers, a Dreyfoos School of the Arts teacher, students were encouraged to use “found” objects in their work. One such work, by 12-year-old Andrew Kovalainen of Hypoluxo, was a figure by fashioned from cardboard and wire that was very gestural, displaying a confident and casual attitude.

Selections from the Modern Art History Pizza Project.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

One of the most interesting exercises was called the Modern Art History Pizza Project.

Innovative instructor Kim Kovac of Lake Worth taught the students about styles such as Impressionism, Cubism and Expressionism. From historic pictures, the students chose a style they liked and then did original colored drawings the size of a pizza. Then, they recreated the drawing in clay, glazed the pizza-like shapes, cut them into slices and fired them in a kiln. The final results were displayed in pizza boxes.

From left, drawings by Katy Short-Hamiwka
and Gabrielle Wilde.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

In Ryan Toth's Teen Drawing I class, students did sketches of common objects, still lifes and figures, and the quality of the drawings was impressive, in particular a picture of a clarinet by Katy Short-Hamiwka and one of a corkscrew by Gabrielle Wilde.

Children are often limited in the size of their artwork, but the camp gave kids the opportunity to work in large formats. The Space Project was a group effort of students Joshua Barron, Benjamin Barron, Ellie Bender, Lucas Cabot, Dylan Cabot, Lindsay Ehrlich, Olivia Klein, Lindsay Kuperman, Jack Shepherd, Isaiah Suriel and Miles Wang.

“Instructor Rebecca Mock put paper on the floor,” Rushforth said, “and the students painted it just as Jackson Pollock did. Then each student made his or her own spaceship that they colored, cut out and suspended out from the painting with wire.”

Standing in front of her self-portrait,
Devin Ruskin, 11, of Lake Worth

shows off a ceramic cupcake.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

From ceramic pizzas to jumbo paintings and drawings, the work demonstrates the talent of these children, as well as the ingenious ways the Armory instructors thought of to inspire them. The show will be on exhibit through Sept. 4 and would be interesting to art teachers, parents and art lovers alike.

SUMMER ART CAMP EXHIBIT. Through Sept. 4, Armory Art Center, 1700 Parker Ave., West Palm Beach. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit, or call (561) 832-1776.

Rivkah Kranz, 13, of Royal Palm Beach with her black-and-white painting of a figure in an architectural setting. (Photo by Katie Deits)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Theater review: 'Whipping Man' provides searing parallel tales of emancipation

Nick Duckart, John Archie and Brandon Morris
in Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man.

By Hap Erstein

The surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The beginning of Passover, 1865.

The intersection of these three events are the crux of a compelling, if improbable tale by Matthew Lopez, The Whipping Man, the second straight theatrical coup for new Caldwell Theatre artistic director Clive Cholerton.

Set in Richmond, Va., in a once-grand plantation home, now as shattered and splintered as the nation trying to heal the wounds of war, Lopez’s play has only three characters. But among those three -- Caleb, the son of the owner, and two of his former slaves, Simon and John -- is a microcosm of a country adjusting to the changes the divisive conflict has brought.

Hobbled soldier Caleb arrives home in agony, dragging a leg infected with gangrene from an untreated bullet wound. He finds himself at the mercy of the newly emancipated slaves, who cannot quickly forget the violent ways of their former master, of his title whip-wielding discipline enforcer -- and of Caleb as well. As the older, seemingly benevolent Simon sizes up Caleb’s condition, he insists on amputating the limb, perhaps with a sadistic satisfaction.

Over the course of the 90-minute, intermissionless evening, playwright Lopez has several secrets to reveal about the characters, and some of them are a bit contrived. It begins slowly, but gradually gathers momentum as national scars merge with personal histories, not unlike the apartheid saga of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold . . . and the Boys.

What gives The Whipping Man its novel slant is that Simon and John have adopted their owner’s Jewish faith, while the horrors of war have caused Caleb to stray from religious belief. The arrival of Passover, the celebration of the Jews’ exodus from Egyptian slavery, presents an apt parallel with the release from bondage of the Southern slaves. The play climaxes with an irony-laden Passover seder service conducted by Simon with a distinctly holy-roller fervor.

Carbonell Award winner John Archie heads the cast as amateur surgeon Simon, who towers over the production with a moving monologue in reaction to the news of Lincoln’s death and, soon afterwards, a rousing rendition of the Passover saga. Brandon Morris, recently relocated to New York, returns to South Florida to play John, a seething, bitter former slave whose own liberation is underscored by his preoccupation with liberating property from nearby homes. He, too, is harboring secrets and they surface with visceral impact.

Rounding out the dramatic triangle is New World School of the Arts graduate Nick Duckart as Caleb, able to hold his own against his two veteran cast members, even though the character’s infirmities keep him supine and stationary for most of the play.

Cholerton stages The Whipping Man with a tight rein, building theatrical impact with melodramatic assurance. Tim Bennett’s anteroom unit set is simple and effective, complemented well by Chris Hill’s lighting.

While other area troupes devote the summer months to lightweight fare, the Caldwell has counter-programmed with a dramatic script that would be welcome in any season.

THE WHIPPING MAN, Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Continuing through Aug. 30. Tickets: $38 - $47.50. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Music review: Dave Matthews shows who's king of the anthill

Dave Matthews Band in action Friday at the Cruzan.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

By Thom Smith

Driving in on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction

And all the little ants are marching

Red and black antennas waving

They all do it the same

They all do it the same way

– from Ants Marching

Not rain, nor heat, nor gloom of blight could deter the generation of ants that swarmed the mound at Cruzan Amphitheatre on Friday and Saturday night, their antennae homing lovingly on their “king."

As he has for more than a decade, Dave Matthews ignored the early rain and the later steamy sweat that glistened on his face like royal jelly to make his annual proclamation that music can make the world better, for the ants, and for him and his band.

A trying year behind – Matthews was singing, sometimes screaming, that the show must go on: Without a keyboard player, without sax man LeRoi Moore. In May 2008, keyboardist Butch Taylor signed out for personal reasons. He said he wasn't happy on the road and wanted to spend more time with his family. Unsaid: despite 10 years with the band, he was still only a “touring” member.

A month later, sax man and founding member LeRoi Moore broke several ribs and punctured a lung in an ATV crash on his farm in Virginia. After several days in the hospital, he returned to his home in Los Angeles to begin rehab. But on Aug. 19 he fell ill and died later that day. Cause of death: pneumonia. Jeff Coffin, saxophonist for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, filled in for the remainder of the tour and remains with the band.

So, what's it like without keyboards and with a new sax player?

Meet the new DMB, almost the same as the old DMB, just edgier. Throughout Friday's set the band eschewed any softness of past years for more urgency, as if taking the Epicurean-like chorus from Ants Marching to heart:

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time

Lights down, you up and die

Matthews and his merry men began traveling new, unfamiliar ground. Their catharsis was to face reality, to deal with the losses – especially that of Moore – and move on. So they made a record.

Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is a tribute to Moore, and its third track, a rousing Funny the Way It Is, was Dave's Friday opener. He followed with the older So Damn Lucky, then came back with the new Why I Am, “for the GrooGrux King."

“I hope everybody is doing their thing,” Matthews intoned, as beachballs labored to stay airborne in the humidity. The crowd seemed to hang on the arrival of each number, bursting into Pavlovian cheers of recognition with each initial chord.

Candyman tempting the thoughts of a
Sweet tooth tortured by the weight loss

In the plaza, aromas of arepas blended with sausages and occasionally some herb, all washed down by vats of beer including Starr Hill, a new microbrew from Matthews' home base of Charlottesville, Va. -- $8 for a pint bottle, $10 for a large draft. Add food costs to ticket prices that soared past $100 and fans obviously were willing to sacrifice. But they did enjoy some return on their investment.

As the breeze came up and the air cooled, “touring members” Coffin, guitarist Tim Reynolds and trumpeter Rashawn Ross (who may be the largest musician on tour, anywhere), began to heat up, paying homage to Moore while setting their own course. Nowhere was the new vibe better displayed than on Jimi Thing, Shake Me Like a Monkey and No. 41, jumping from jazzy to bluesy to soulful to raga-esque to hippity-hoppity.

Rocco Nigro and his mother Bernardine, bonding over DMB.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

“Best I've seen 'em this year,” said Rocco Nigro, a DMB devotee from Matawan, N.J. Taking in his ninth show this year, 22nd all time. “In April I saw them at the Izod Center (in the Meadowlands) and they were still getting over LeRoi dying; now they're into it."

Joining Nigro at Cruzan Amphitheatre for the second year was his mother Bernardine. “It's a bonding thing,” she said. “I love 'em, too!"

Typical of many DMB fans, they just want to hear the music. A few, of course, are never happy, and thanks to cell phones they have a new weapon: All night long, the receptionist in the amphitheater office fielded calls from patrons on the lawn complaining about the sound.

“We're trying to fix it,” she patiently told them, recognizing many caller IDs from previous concerts. Tech checks, however, uncovered no problems. As one fan noted, “It's OK, just not loud enough.”

Others weren't happy because he did not do standards, such as the most-played Ants Marching (excerpted in this review), Watchtower and Satellite. He did do Crash Into Me, a rousing Burning Down the House and Dancing Nancies, but some people want blood. After all, they had three hours.

Honestly, toward the end, Dave looked weary, and kept fans waiting more than five screaming, stomping, clapping minutes before returning to do Sister, a tease of Little Thing and finally Grey Street.

Friday's show drew a 3 1/2-star rating from Web-based critics, but the anticipation of a two-week break before the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco must have provided inspiration for Saturday's show, which topped out at 5 stars.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.