Friday, October 30, 2009

Weekend arts picks: Oct. 30-Nov. 2

His Eye Is on the Sparrow, a quilt by Wendell George Brown.

Art: Handmade quilts have been a cultural part of America’s history for practical reasons (warm bed covers), community building (quilting bees), storytelling and personal artistic expression.

But in the African-American community, quilting took on an expanded role. During slavery, quilts with secret symbols were hung on fences to help guide fugitives to freedom. In others, stories were incorporated into the patterns to document the unrecorded history of a dominated culture.

In an exhibit that opens Nov. 2, the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum presents From Quilts in the Attic to Quilts on the Wall: Exploring Textile Art by African-Americans, which will showcase seven artists. The quilts range from Harriet Power’s 1895 quilt to work by contemporary artist and educator Wendell George Brown, who is assistant professor of art at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Other exhibiting artists are Dr. Edward Bostick, Dorothy Montgomery, Torreah Cookie Washington and the two co-curators, Arianne King Comer and Catherine Lamkin.

A batik quilt by Arianne King Comer.

The exhibit was organized by the City of North Charleston Cultural Arts Department and the South Carolina State Museum. The quilts will be on display through Dec. 21. The Spady Cultural Heritage Museum is located at 170 NW 5th Ave. in Delray Beach and is open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Admission is $5 adults, $3 seniors; students and members are admitted free. -- K. Deits

Theater: The scariest theater pieces are those that avoid actual gore and mayhem and instead create the creepy anticipation of ghostly apparitions in the audience’s mind. An example of the genre is The Woman in Black, a runaway hit in London, adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s novel about an aging solicitor who hires an actor to help him recreate a spectral event that occurred years earlier: the appearance of the title character, whose very arrival causes those to look upon her to die. The esteemed Lake Worth Playhouse -- which is said to be haunted as well -- is producing The Woman in Black for two nights only, Oct. 30 (tonight) and 31, as a Halloween special. See it with someone you can risk being frightened with. Tickets: $25-$29. Call: (561) 586-5410 for details. -- H. Erstein

Michael Jackson in rehearsal, from This Is It.

Film: Sony Pictures also brings back the dead with a special two-week-only (until they extend it) theatrical run of This Is It, rehearsal footage of Michael Jackson’s comeback concert, shot soon before his death and possible homicide. As concert films go, this one packs an emotional wallop, for it reveals Jackson to be in good health and a still-sensational dancer, yet the knowledge that he would never perform this elaborate, high-tech live extravaganza adds great poignance. Say what you will about Jackson on a personal level -- a deeply disturbed child-man -- but this is the film that offers proof of his boundless talent. In area theaters. -- H. Erstein

C. Dracula, master of the manuals.

Music: One of the most recognizable sounds of Halloween is creepy organ music, thanks to years of vaudeville and early movies, and in keeping with that tradition, some of South Florida's finest organists will be taking part tonight in an evening of classics on the dark side.

The opening concert of the Spire Series at the First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach (the "Pink Church," as it's usually known) features organists Matt Steynor, Mark Jones, Chuck Stanley, Jay Brooks and Simon Jacobs in music from the French repertory by Tournemire, Vierne and Gigout, along with pieces by Reger, Chopin and Eben. And Count Dracula himself will stop by to play the Toccata and Fugue in D minor of J.S. Bach.

The church is asking a $10 donation for adults ($5 for students, children12 and under get in free), and they're encouraging you to wear costumes. For more information, call 954-941-2308, ext. 112, or visit

Jose Menor.

Meanwhile, pianist Jose Menor offers a concert Sunday evening at Lynn University of music including the First Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov (in F-sharp minor, Op. 1), a sonata by Haydn (in B-flat, Hob. XVII/41), and the First Piano Sonata of Australian composer Carl Vine, which seems to be a favorite with pianists these days. Menor is accompanied by pianist Chien-I Yang for the Rachmaninov. The 7 p.m. concert at the Amarnick-Goldstein Concert Hall on the Lynn campus in Boca Raton is free admission. For more information, call 237-9000. -- G. Stepanich

Thursday, October 29, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Playwright Seth Rozin explores faith, humor

Seth Rozin. (Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Hap Erstein

Playwright Seth Rozin is the founder and producing artistic director of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company. But when it came to premiering his latest script, Two Jews Walk Into a War . . ., he thought that Florida Stage was a better fit.

So continuing in Manalapan through Nov. 29 is the seriocomic tale of a Middle Eastern Odd Couple, the last two Jews left alive in war-torn Afghanistan, a play inspired by a true story. They should be working together to see that they, and their religion, survives in this hostile land, but they hate each other’s guts.

Rozin was unable to attend rehearsals of his play, because he was busy readying another writer’s work for its opening night in late October at InterAct. Still, he took the time to talk to Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Hap Erstein about Two Jews, the Torah and the intersection of Samuel Beckett and Abbott and Costello. 

Erstein: Seth, tell me about discovering the factual story that led to your play.

Rozin: I was working on a show that was also Jewish-themed here in Philly and my assistant director brought in this article from the New York Times a few years back called something like, “The Last Two Jews of Kabul.”

It was a great story that just immediately suggested a theatrical dramatization. Basically, someone had died and these two guys determined that they were in fact the last two Jews probably in all of Afghanistan. They shared the one remaining synagogue which was partially destroyed by the Taliban, had endured a lifetime of oppression and brutality and the kicker, of course, is that they hate each other. So the truth was not far from what I ended up writing.

It just immediately said to me, “This has got to be written.” I got into it, wrote three or four scenes and was having fun with it when I discovered that there was another play inspired by the exact same story, something that had already been produced.

I read a review; it seems to have had one production, I believe in London, I think the play was called Brother’s Keeper. The review made it sound like it didn’t go anywhere with the idea, all it was about was these two guys who hate each other.

Erstein: Whereas you wanted to use the story to examine the limits of their faith, right?

Rozin: I did. I wasn’t 100 percent sure what, but I knew it had to be more than Grumpy Old Men. What I tend to be interested in with anything I write is exploring why people believe what they believe and what would shake that foundation, what would get them to believe something different.

And this was a great circumstance, two people who hate each other. So what would get them to feel differently about each other? But more importantly, they have been stubbornly, aggressively, defiantly staying in this not very tolerant place for their entire lives while they watched their families and others leave. So they obviously believe strongly in something about the place.

So that’s what I started to invest in and create -- this was all invented -- why each of them stayed and what motivates them to stick it out against all odds, and how that leads to some kind of leap of faith that they need to take together.

Erstein: You weren’t thrilled to hear there was another play on the same subject, but that did not lead you to toss yours away, I guess.

Rozin: Well, right, I thought I was on to something a little different and I now needed to pursue that. It sounded like the first one didn’t go anywhere, so I felt fine about that. But then a few months later, I think it was in February of this year, I learned that there was yet another play called The Last Two Jews of Kabul, written about the same story, the same title as my play at that point.

Erstein: That New York Times sure gets around.

Rozin: And Lou (Tyrrell, Florida Stage’s producing director) called me, this was right after he had expressed interest in it, and he brought this to my attention and I said, “Gee, I didn’t know about this one.” So I went online and read about that, and again it turned out that the very same impetus, but again one production and it seemed limited to just where the story stopped.

By that point my play had been far enough along in a whole new direction, so I was confident in the play itself, but I had to come up with a new title.

Erstein: Your title is meant to sound like the set-up for a joke, I assume.

Rozin: One of the ways I think this play is different from the others was the whole notion of using a vaudeville start to it. I love the phrase “Two Jews” and I wanted something that would let people think it was more comedic. I thought it was better to start comedic and turn dark than to have it be serious and people not want to come because they think it’s going to be a dark play.

Erstein: Dark or not, putting “Jews” in a title is a good way to sell tickets in South Florida.

Rozin: Yes, well, that too.

Erstein: How did Florida Stage get hold of the script?

Rozin: I sent it to just a handful of colleagues in the National New Play Network, either because I thought they would like the play or because they had a substantially Jewish audience. And Lou got back to me almost immediately. It was partly a lucky break in that they had originally planned to have a different play in this slot, a new play by one of the writers they have worked with quite a lot [Deborah Laufer’s Sirens].

Mine was also not 100 percent ready, but I think because it was far enough along in conception, they knew me, and because it was a two-character, very manageable play, I think they felt more confident in it.

Avi Hoffman and Gordon McConnell
in Two Jews Walk Into a War...

Erstein: It seems to have echoes of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Intentional on your part?

Rozin: I was very aware of Godot, but that comparison is almost inevitable because of the story in the first place. It was hard not to think of the existential, absurd predicament that these guys were in. So anybody who was going to write that play, I think, was going to seem at least a little bit like Beckett.

But the play surprised me, frankly, because I am not a religious person. I was not brought up with any allegiance to Judaism, I’ve never read the Torah, I was not bar mitzvahed, I didn’t have any religious upbringing at all, though I’ve always been somewhat interested in religion in general and in why people believe what they do.

So when I came up with the whole idea that they were going to try to recreate the Torah, I had a lot of reading to do. So I started looking through it and it was fun and challenging. I didn’t read literally the whole thing, but I poked through and found the parts that were useful, both in terms of funny or meaningful.

Erstein: The other influence I hear is Abbott and Costello. Are you a fan of theirs?

Rozin: Yeah, and the Marx Brothers, that sort of whole tradition of schticky dialogue, fast-paced, witty banter between people who are angry at each other, as opposed to just Bob Hope lightness. I like humor with an edge.

Erstein: How did you turn the corner into more serious territory?

Rozin: I think it was after I had written three or four scenes and I realized that all I had done was what the others had done. That that was fun, but there wasn’t really a play there. There had to be a journey, something had to change. That’s when I realized that something had to happen between them, that they had to do something together, something that would force them to work together that would either blow up into tragedy or bind them in some way. The thing I was really trying to avoid was sentimentality. I wanted there to be a friendship, but a dependence that grows without them being aware of it or wanting to acknowledge it.

Erstein: While the two characters sift through the Torah, they find some humorous contradictions in it.

Rozin: I’ve always believed that there were all kinds of hypocrisies and contradictions in religious thinking. I thought the whole sexuality thing was going to be useful, because it’s such an opportunity for comedy. And then the other stuff, like with the animals, that stuff I mostly found in service of the larger question, which is that there are things to interpret.

What happens is Ishaq seems to be the more devout, the more serious Jew, so to speak, in the beginning. But as we go on we learn that he in fact is a little bit of the take-it-at-its-word, don’t-question-anything type. That this is God’s word and that’s that.

And Zeblyan, who is in some ways more irreverent and less serious, and less faithful in a classic way, I guess, is actually asking the real questions. He’s losing his belief a little bit, but he’s asking the big questions, along with the stupid little ones.

Erstein: Do you tend to outline carefully or just put your characters in a room and watch where they lead you?

Rozin: Actually, I usually start with some kind of a question or circumstance that thrusts me into something and then I start to say, “What would they do?” “What would they say?” “What would they feel here?” And then as I get to know these people better and better, they start to tell me what they would ask, what they would do, what they would say. So, no, I didn’t know where this was headed.

Erstein: Why isn’t InterAct premiering this play?

Rozin: Well, first of all, when I sent it to the few colleagues I sent it to, it was in a slightly different form. It was a little less political and our mission is more overtly political. That’s one reason, but frankly, as much as I’ve been incredibly grateful to InterAct, it’s always nice as a playwright to have your plays get the affirmation that somebody else likes them before you put them up yourself.

Erstein: You got to know Florida Stage through the National New Play Network that your theater and Lou’s belong to?

Rozin: Absolutely. We became very, very close colleagues. Nan Barnett and I served together, I was president and she was vice-president of the network, for four years. And I’d gotten to know Lou a little bit through that and since working on the play I’ve gotten to know Lou really, really well and that’s been a real pleasure.

Erstein: Have you seen any of Florida Stage’s work?

Rozin: I’ve seen, I think, four productions there and I just know the high quality of the work. And it just felt right.

Erstein: How have you and Lou worked on the play together?

Rozin: I knew I wasn’t going to be there for rehearsals, so they brought me in for a three-day workshop in August with the cast. That was awesome, because we were really able to talk through the text. For me it was great to hear the actors. For Lou, it was great to try things out. I made some adjustments, I rewrote a couple of scenes and a whole bunch of little sections in scenes.

Then, since rehearsals started, I’ve gotten a rehearsal report every day, in which there is usually a couple of questions about lines or sections for me to look at and occasionally Lou would have to call and have me explain something.

Erstein: There doesn’t seem to be much stage action indicated in the script.

Rozin: I think that Lou is adding some stuff, some vaudeville stuff that I think is appropriate. There’s a scene where there’ll be some door slamming, because I think it needs some of that. There’s a real danger that it could be a little static.

Erstein: Were you concerned that Gordon McConnell, who plays Ishaq, is not Jewish?

Rozin: No, he’s a terrific actor and had no problem getting the basic sense of the character, though he was playing it with a kind of stereotypical New York Jewish accent. That was not quite right, but apart from that there really was no issue at all.

Avi [Hoffman, author-performer of Too Jewish?, who plays Zeblyan] of course brings all kinds of history to it. They also brought immediate chemistry to it, they had a great time together and that was fun to see. Because there has to be a lot of chemistry there.

Erstein: The Torah was new to you. Did you have what you wrote about it vetted by a rabbi?

Rozin: I did not. As I was writing it, I was actually working off of official sources so I didn’t feel like it was inaccurate. The interpretation is obviously up to whomever. But we did a reading here in Philadelphia, and one woman there asked me if I had consulted a rabbi because she thought it was very appropriate in terms of its content. So I mostly got affirmation.

Erstein: Are you prepared for the humorless audience members who will be offended by your play?

Rozin: Yeah, I know there will be some. Every show I’ve ever done, someone in the audience during the run says, like if we were doing Waiting for Godot, “Well, I have a son who’s name is Estragon and he would never act like this,” or whatever. There’s always one person who thinks that their experience, as it relates to the play, trumps everything that’s in the play.

But probably the biggest surprise in writing it, and I think the surprise for those who are going to see it, is that it ends up being an affirmation of faith. I didn’t expect to write that. I’m not a person who is all about writing about faith and how great it is. So I think the people who are going to be the most offended are probably the people who think it’s not true, because in the end there’s real value to this, as opposed to there not being.

Erstein: Three theaters in the network will be producing Two Jews this season, won’t they?

Rozin: Actually four. Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and New Jersey Repertory Theatre, who are pretty close to each other, are doing it together as a co-production, December through February. And then Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota is doing it, sometime in the spring.

Seth Rozin.

Erstein: You’ve written several other plays. What do they have in common?

Rozin: I think they have two things in common. One, as I said before, this notion of beliefs. There’s always characters that believe things and they have some kind of journey in which those beliefs are challenged and either shaken or not. And the other thing is there’s always at least one character who is impenetrable or stubborn or has a major blind spot, who at the end -- usually at the very end -- has some kind of a breakthrough.

Most of my plays have a lot of intellectual discourse, but resolve in a very emotional place. That’s really important to me.

Erstein: So why should we come see Two Jews Walk Into a War …?

Rozin: Well, I think it’s funny, I hope it’s funny. I think it’s human, in that you will go on a journey that has a satisfying, emotional punch to it. It’s short. I think it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I think you’re going to see two terrific actors have a good time onstage.

And I also think you’re going to be provoked to think about some interesting things that are relevant in the world today, about how we interpret things that we’ve been told or that have a particular meaning. Whether you’re religious or not. If you’re not religious, you’re going to resonate with the questioning, and if you are religious, you’re going to appreciate the affirmation of faith.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book review: 'Hell' a darkly comic riff on the afterlife

By Chauncey Mabe

The temptation to construct a review of Robert Olen Butler’s novel Hell entirely from quotations and excerpts is almost more than I can resist. And really, why should I resist? In Butler’s propulsively clever yet unsettling vision of the afterlife, I would be unable to avoid eternal damnation no matter what I chose: virtue or vice, piety or sacrilege, ethical rectitude or professional whoredom.

Oh, where to begin? With our hero, Hatcher McCord, a TV anchorman in love with the sometimes headless Anne Boleyn? Satan’s minion J. Edgar Hoover in a powder-blue jumpsuit with Robin and Maurice Gibb as his singing, dancing henchmen? William Randolph Hearst as a blogger (“keeping up with advances in technology is one of the great tortures of Hell for the old-timers”)?

Herman Melville, trying to write a novel but unable to get past the first sentence (“Call me E-mail”)? An Automat frequented by Minor Prophets whose writings didn’t quite make it into the Bible? George W. Bush, so dumb and deluded he thinks he’s in Heaven? Or Satan himself, all smarmy cunning, smelling of Old Spice and complaining of father issues: “It’s all about family values,” he tells Hatcher.

Clearly, this is a Hell where people suffer for our amusement. And yet, Butler’s ability to maintain this juiced-up, darkly comic riffing throughout the entire novel is the least of his achievements. Becoming too dazzled by the manic satire risks missing the humanity beneath the surface. Not to mention the existential horror.

In life, McCord was no worse than the common run of humanity. A bit of talent and luck brought him wealth and fame as a newscaster of the Peter Jennings-Dan Rather ilk, which he used mostly to satisfying his own desires, leaving embittered wives and collateral-damage children in his wake. But did he really deserve to go to Hell?

The question plagues not only McCord, but everyone he meets in Hell, whch includes not only great villains (Hitler, Stalin, Leni Riefenstahl, now Satan’s personal photographer), but also ordinary people, inoffensive celebrities (Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Beach, Ray Kroc), and even men of God – Billy Graham exhorts Satan to stage an altar call.

Hell’s plot follows McCord as he seeks a rumored back door out. Dante may know the way, or perhaps Virgil. Judas is certain a second Harrowing is about a take place, with Jesus descending to pluck a few lucky and deserving souls to Paradise. McCord desires escape not only for his own sake but also for his beloved Anne.

Butler (at right) wisely makes his Hell more than a cardboard backdrop before which he can lark a succession of modernist parodies. Hell is a specific, thoroughly imagined place, a sort of Atlanta, if Atlanta were designed by Hieronymus Bosch, where all the streets are named “Peachtree.” Pleasure is impossible – Hatcher and Boleyn never succeed in consummating the act of love. Flaming sulfur rains from the sky every afternoon, melting thousands to goo. The damned are dismembered daily, only to have their fleshly bodies reconstituted so they may endure fresh agonies. This sense of endless, inescapable torture is never far from the reader’s mind, even at moments of antic hilarity.

McCord’s interview with Satan comes not at the climax of the story, where a less assured novelist might put it, pregnant with meaningful revelations, but in the middle. The one useful thing McCord learns is that contrary to common belief, Satan cannot read his thoughts. This allows Butler to regain free will, even if he cannot always act on it. He begins looking up former wives (all in Hell, too) in an attempt to make amends.

Does McCord redeem himself from past crimes, however piddling, and make it to Paradise? It would be a sin to tell – but if Sartre was right, and Hell is other people, then what is Heaven? Of course, trite though it may be to say, Butler’s subject here is not suffering among the dead in Hell, but among the living on earth. Seldom has literary fantasy turned the trick so well.

Really, it’s no more than Butler has led us to expect. Like few others, he is a gifted literary egghead who takes trash culture seriously.

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana, he produced fiction based on supermarket rags (Tabloid Dreams), alien abduction (Mr. Spaceman), vintage postcards (Wish You Were Here), beheading (Severance), and human copulation (Intercourse). In Butler’s later work, high culture and low marry happily, ennobling the one and re-energizing the other.

In Hell, though, Butler has cast aside the last crutch of self-conscious “fine” writing, which occasionally encumbered otherwise admirable books such as Mr. Spaceman. That’s a noteworthy breakthrough, and it gives Hell a feeling of culmination, as though Butler has reached the end of something. I look forward to what he might think of next — albeit with no little fear and trembling.

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

HELL. By Robert Olen Butler; 240 pp.; Grove Press; $24.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Theater review: 'Two Jews' a standout at Florida Stage

Gordon McConnell and Avi Hoffman
in Two Jews Walk Into a War...

By Hap Erstein

Wait, stop me if you’ve heard this one: There are these two old Jewish guys in Kabul, Afghanistan, see, and not only are they the last two surviving members of their much-persecuted religion, but they hate each other’s guts almost as much as they despise the Taliban.

Their days are surely numbered, so they have to figure out a way to perpetuate Judaism in their land before they die. Yes, it sounds like the set-up for a joke, but all of the above actually happened.

Just ask playwright Seth Rozin, who read about it in The New York Times and proceeded to turn the situation into a play, Two Jews Walk into a War …, which has just begun its world premiere run at Florida Stage through Nov. 29.

Given a subject of such potentially tragic consequences, of course the play is a comedy. Sort of a cross between the dark existential humor of Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon and the nimble comic byplay of vaudeville’s Abbott and Costello.

The comedy comes easily to Rozin and it is made all the funnier by the deft delivery of Avi Hoffman and Gordon McConnell as skeptical Zeblyan and more devout, self-proclaimed “Torah geek” Ishaq, his mortal enemy. Ultimately, Two Jews … is a play about renewal of faith, but you will have to take it on faith that the two characters are so willing to cast aside their differences and work together to copy down the words of the Torah -- the Jewish code of laws. That exercise, by some convoluted logic, will allow an Afghani woman to convert to Judaism and bring the religion one step closer to living on.

Uh, just go along with it, it will be worth it.

For most of the evening -- while bullets fly all around the dilapidated synagogue that the two men are so desperate to save -- Ishaq dictates the text of the Torah, which he happens to have memorized, and Zeblyan endeavors to commit it to parchment. As he does, Zeb considers the words, probably for the first time, and finds that God’s dos and don’ts for thee and thou contains a perplexing number of inconsistencies and loopholes.

And in their humble, mortal way, the start to question God. After all, if He is so adamantly against mankind lying down with mankind, why does He not bother to forbid women being with women? Does God have a soft spot for lesbians? And after painstakingly listing all the hoofed animals that are not kosher, why does he not even mention elephants?

Rozin amuses himself, and the audience, poking fun at religion, but then an interesting thing happens. In the process of questioning the Torah’s teachings, Zeblyan gains an unexpected respect for the religion as he hurries to makes his deadline. As a result, the play turns a corner, moving from a comedy sketch to a work that not only holds our interest for 90 intermissionless minutes, but offers something worth thinking about.

Before the serious side of Two Jews. . . comes into focus, Hoffman and McConnell channel a lot of classic comics. As Hoffman gets ready to write, he waves his arms in a flourish of preparation that is pure art -- Art Carney from The Honeymooners.

McConnell wears a perpetual scowl of disapproval that brings to mind Oliver Hardy, and when the two of them degenerate into rolling on the ground in a physical squabble, it is hard not to think of the Two Stooges. Lou Tyrrell directs the evening by injecting lots of movement for his two-man cast, counteracting the play’s wordiness and keeping the production from feeling static.

Ishaq and Zeblyan are the show, but if Two Jews. . . has a third character, it is surely Richard Crowell’s synagogue set. Funny enough in its truly sad state, the house of worship has a few comic gotchas of its own, as it crumbles before our eyes beginning right at the start of the play. And reminders of the ongoing conflict happening just outside its walls occur at regular intervals as stray gunshots, and their collateral dust clouds, accentuate the dialogue like comic rim shots.

In addition to the gags, there is a human wisdom to Rozin’s play that should mean it might outlive the fighting in Afghanistan, not that it is ending anytime soon. Both ripped from the headlines and also timeless, Two Jews Walk Into a War… is exactly why we go to Florida Stage, and have been for the past 22 seasons.

TWO JEWS WALK INTO A WAR . . ., Florida Stage, 262 S, Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Continuing through Nov. 29. Tickets: $45-$48. Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Music review: Lynn Phil opens season with strong Prokofiev

Albert-George Schram and the Lynn Philharmonia.

By Greg Stepanich

You can't get a majority of people to like Schoenberg, it seems, even 100 years later, but that should not obscure the main impression left Saturday night by the Lynn Philharmonia -- that this is an orchestra that keeps going from strength to strength.

The Lynn orchestra, like all such student groups, has a continually changing roster, but the ensemble's quality has grown steadily in recent years, and with the first concerts of the current season it has taken things another step higher. The Philharmonia opened its season with the Five Pieces for Orchestra, a major work of early atonality by Schoenberg, and closed with a powerful, persuasive reading of the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony.

Neither of these two works is easy in any respect, nor was the third selection, Mozart's Prague Symphony (No. 38 in D, K. 504). And while the performances lacked some of the lived-in polish that comes with prolonged exposure and practice, more important were the things you didn't hear: No major missed entrances, no obvious disagreements about tempi, and most importantly, no section that was noticeably weaker than another.

Conductor Albert-George Schram told the audience at the Roberts Theatre to concentrate on the sound pictures Schoenberg had painted as they are, rather than how they relate to consonant music. "Think of it as The Twilight Zone without the movie," he said, to appreciative laughter, but Schram doubtless knew the Five Pieces (Op. 16, composed in 1909 and heard in their 1949 chamber orchestra version) would be a tough sell.

That's unfortunate, because the Philharmonia played these absolutely original, groundbreaking works rather well. This version of the score doesn't have the monumentality or the extravagance of the original, but it still has plenty of impact. The first piece (Premonitions) came across with plenty of nervous energy, and the second (Yesteryears) had some good string playing in the most contrapuntal part of the piece that gave the music a strong sense of regret and loss.

The great upward swoop of sound that closes the fourth piece (Peripetia) was most effective, and the fifth (The Obligatory Recitative) had a squirmy energy that could have evaporated more convincingly had the closing bars been judged better. The third movement (Colors) was more monochromatic than it should have been, but if it didn't deliver what its composer had in mind, it was of a piece with the overall cautiousness the Lynn displayed throughout the work.

As expected, the audience gave the Schoenberg only tepid applause, and many grousing remarks about it could be heard at intermission, perhaps proof that there are some innovations that just won't take no matter how much time they've been around. Still, on a technical level this was impressive music-making, and it could be that this afternoon's performance will be more confident from an interpretive position and help the five pieces stand out with greater singularity from one another.

The Mozart symphony that followed might have been chosen for its relative brevity, having only three movements instead of four. But it's a marvelous work, and Schram's approach was on the fast and nimble side, which suited it. Ensemble was solid right from the opening bars, with the up-rolling triplets in synch, and each subsequent entrance accurate carefully placed. It's in these very exposed slow introductions of the Classical period that an orchestra's weaknesses are often cruelly apparent, but there was little to none of that here.

The outer fast movements had vigor and plenty of punch, and the fugal section of the first movement bustled along with clarity and snap. The middle movement was less slow than it was lilting, thanks to Schram's brisk tempo, and while there was some unsteadiness at the outset about the actual pace of the movement, it cleared up quickly (the same thing happened in the finale).

This was good Mozart, with excellent ensemble throughout, particularly in the violins, and an unsentimental interpretive overview that brought the variety of the composer's invention to bracing life.

The second half was dominated by the Fifth Symphony (in B-flat, Op. 100) of Sergei Prokofiev, written in 1944 and premiered just days before the fall that compromised the composer's health for the remaining nine years of his life. It is strong, virile, brash music, replete with Prokofiev's muscularity and his enviable gift for tunes.

Both the first and fourth movements feature chattering motifs in the strings, music that sounds like sarcastic commentary on the previous bars, and the precision and ensemble of the Lynn violins was impressive. Just as impressive was the brass playing in the first movement in the chorale moment near the end; the trumpet tone in particular was round and rich, not merely loud and forceful, and it's that kind of detail that make music deep rather than only entertaining.

Schram's tempo for the second movement was very fast indeed, but it held together without flagging, and there was good solo work from clarinet and horn in addition to the famous carnival-style tune in the middle, which showcased exemplary unity in the woodwinds. Some fine work from the cellos stood out early in the third-movement Adagio, as did the brass-and-percussion explosion of the funeral march passages and the smooth lyricism of the violins.

The fourth-movement finale also had good solo string playing at the opening, and a strong solo from the principal clarinet. The cohesiveness of the Philharmonia by this point was nearly unbudgeable, and the members of the orchestra drove this restless, exciting music to its powerful conclusion as one.

A conservatory orchestra content to serve only as a sonic outlet for required credits does not necessarily pursue the Prokofiev Fifth or the Schoenberg Five Pieces when a Beethoven will do, but this is a group with serious chops, and the Prokofiev in particular was everything it should have been for a 20th-century masterwork in a sometimes difficult idiom. It raised the bar for the rest of the Lynn Philharmonia season, and should raise the orchestra's profile in the minds of the local concertgoing public.

The Lynn Philharmonia Orchestra repeats this program at 4 p.m. today at the Roberts Theatre at St. Andrew's School in Boca Raton. Tickets are $30, and can be had at the door or by calling 237-9000 or visiting

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Art feature: Folk artist celebrates Americans in their 90s

LeVerne Oveson, by JoAnn Nava.

By Katie Deits

A self-proclaimed contemporary folk artist who used to create faux-Pompeii scenes for a South Beach nightclub is currently paying tribute to nimble nonagenarians in a series of paintings on exhibit this month at Fort Lauderdale City Hall.

JoAnn Nava's Living Treasures series honors four Americans in their 90s, including a fishing guide on the Canadian boundary waters named LeVerne Oveson.

In the summer of 2008, Nava went fishing with Oveson on Lake Kabetogama, on the Minnesota-Canada line. The 94-year-old professional guide, whose small frame weighs but 90 pounds, counts President Harry Truman as one of the clients he's had over the course of a long career.

On a 37-inch-by-30-inch canvas, Nava depicts Oveson against a starry, predawn sky holding paddles that he hand-carved from trees he planted himself. Nava's straightforward realism has a sense of naiveté that helps the viewer feel part of the scene.

You can almost feel Oveson’s toughness and determination, but also that he has a down-to-earth kindheartedness. “During World War II, LeVerne was sent to the Aleutian Islands to train soldiers to survive in extreme conditions," Nava said. "He also flew small planes into the northern bush, although he never had a license.”

In 2007, Nava was fascinated with an exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. The quilts were made by the descendants of former slaves and tenant farmers who have lived for generations in the Rehoboth and Boykin areas of Alabama.

“I was determined to go to Alabama where the quilts were made,” Nava said. “There is a ferry that takes you across the bend in the river to the small community of families that have lived there since before the Civil War. The workshop and gallery are welcoming and unpretentious.

"I inquired as to who was the oldest quilt maker, and I was brought into the workshop to meet Allie Pettway. At 93 years of age, she was smiling and busily working. The quilt in the painting is one of her creations that is [currently] in a New York art gallery.”

Allie Pettway, by JoAnn Nava.

Nava’s skill at capturing a subject’s personality is evident in her portrait of Pettway, who peeks from behind her colorful geometric quilt, her flowered hat framing her joyful face, as she shyly shows off her labors. In the 41-inch-by-53-inch painting, other quilts on the clothesline behind her are visible, as is the top of a humble home.

A tribute to the never-ending hope for romantic love is captured in a 54-inch-by-64-inch painting titled Happy Birthday, Ag & Ed. When Ag and Ed each were 82 years old and widowed, they met at Century Village, Nava said.

“When Ag met Ed for the first time, she told me that he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. They fell in love, and she walked down the aisle in a long, white dress with white roses and daisies," she said. "In their 12 years as husband and wife, they have traveled to Paris and taken numerous trips across country by train. They are 95 years old now and still going strong.”

Happy Birthday, Ag & Ed, by JoAnn Nava.

Nava has depicted the happy couple sitting on a couch about to blow out candles on a cake. The celebratory image seems like a snapshot taken by an amateur photographer who accidentally has cut off the top of Ed’s head in the image. But this technique brings to the painting a strong feeling of intimacy.

Nava, who grew up in the South Bronx in the 1950s and studied art in Chicago, spent 15 years as the resident artist for Twist Nightclub of Miami. There she annually transformed the South Beach club, creating scenes of such places as Pompeii and Tibetan temples, with inspirations coming from sources such as Picasso, Jackson Pollock and ancient Greek pottery. An expert faux finisher, Nava also restores and reproduces milk-paint finishes for 18th-century Swedish furniture.

All of this experience and inspiration blends into a style that incorporates muted colors and earthy tones such as maroon and rich greens. Interestingly, she paints with ordinary house paint, believing that it “brings a harmony to the eye of what we see in our environment.”

Her paintings range from portraits of South Bronx residents to birthday-cake still-lifes. In the Living Treasures series, she has created works that are touching for their sensitivity and ability to tell stories.

LIVING TREASURES, which is sponsored by the Broward Art Guild, runs through Oct. 30 at the Fort Lauderdale City Hall, 100 N. Andrews Ave. Hours are Monday through Friday from 7:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. For more information, call City Hall at (954) 828-5000 or contact JoAnn Nava through her Web site at

Friday, October 23, 2009

Film feature: 'Trucker' star Monaghan found role refreshing

Actress Michelle Monaghan.

By Hap Erstein

Eye candy with a comic flair. That sums up most of the roles that 33-year-old, Winthrop, Iowa-born Michelle Monaghan has played (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Mission Impossible: 3, Eagle Eye) in her decade-long career. But Hollywood is going to look at her differently once Trucker, in which she play tough-talking, hard-drinking, stubborn big rig driver Diane Ford, gets seen.

She arrived today in South Florida, jetting in to receive a Star on the Horizon Award at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, where the low-budget, independent Trucker screens Saturday at 6 p.m. Can’t wait? Then head to Lake Park’s Mos’Art Theatre, where the film opens today, a state-wide theatrical exclusive the out-of-the-way art house wangled for the week, with an extension likely once word-of-mouth gets out on the film.

Although I tried to get Monaghan to complain about the way Hollywood had been typecasting her as the sexy appendage, she would have none of it.

“I’ve never felt that I’ve been typecast,” she says by phone from Los Angeles. “There’s definitely a mix of comedy in there and drama and action.”

But nothing that prepares us for her work in Trucker, playing a reluctant mother reunited with her bratty, 11-year-old son. “Well, y’know, they don’t make a lot of movies like Trucker, to be quite honest,” she says. “If a studio’s going to make a film like that, that’s a miracle.

“And if they did, certainly it would have to be with an A-list actor. I’m not deluded in any way to think that they would go with me at this point in my career.”

Perhaps, but she gives a stunning, gritty performance that is going to make a lot of casting directors look at Monaghan completely differently from here on.

“Time will tell, I guess,” she says. “There are no guarantees in this industry. I realize that it’s fickle and fleeting. I don’t want to change the course of my career by any stretch of the imagination.”

Because Trucker was a $1.5 million movie with an untested director-writer, it was relatively easy for Monaghan to gain the title role. “James (Mottern) has seen me in a movie called North Country,” about women miners crashing through the gender barrier in that field.

“That’s where he says he saw Diane, in that movie. So he sent the script to my agent, my agent sent it to me, I read it and met with him the next day and immediately attached myself. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to make this movie. I had never been more passionate or excited about something.”

It was a character that Monaghan says she instinctively understood, but also a stretch for her as an actress. “It was definitely a challenge for me, without a doubt. It also felt like a familiar place for me, a familiar world,” she says. “I grew up in a working-class family, a working-class environment, and here was a real woman, sort of your woman next door, a really honest and hard look at a woman. So that’s what drew me to it certainly.

“I don’t read roles like this very often -- a woman who’s not a victim, who is unsentimental, who’s just very honest through and through. And somebody who’s flawed upon first glance. I was really intrigued to play somebody that maybe wasn’t even likeable initially. But hopefully, by the end of the movie, you would at least understand her.”

Comparing herself to Diane, Monaghan says, “I think that she’s pretty stubborn, and I’m very stubborn. She’s not very maternal, or she hasn’t found her maternal side yet. And certainly I am maternal,” doting on her 11-month-old daughter Willow, whom she had with her husband of four years, graphic designer Peter White. “Unlike Diane, I’m going to stick around.”

To prepare for the role, Monaghan insisted that she learn to drive trucks and do all of the character’s driving in the film.

“It was very daunting,” she concedes. “I don’t even drive a five-speed. I walked into truck driving school and the first thing that somebody said to me was, ‘You don’t look like a truck driver.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I doing?’ But I knew that it would inform me as an actress so much to immerse myself in that culture. I don’t even know if my performance would have been half the performance it is if I hadn’t learned how to drive a truck.”

First screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring of 2008, Trucker’s fate was in limbo for a long time. Why? “Well, the bottom fell out of the economy, unfortunately,” says Monaghan, and distributors were suddenly scared off from dramatic films. “I honestly question if we wanted to make this movie today, if we’d get the $1.5 million to do it. I don’t think so. It’s that bleak.”

But it found a distributor in Monterey Media, has opened in a few cities and is already garnering positive reviews, especially for Monaghan.

No matter what Trucker eventually means for her career, Monaghan is proud she made the film. “I love the idea that it’s about a woman in a male-dominated field, a woman who makes no apologies, who really sort of lives her life the way she wants to live it. I just think that’s a really refreshing perspective.”

Music review: Allman Brothers cook up blues-rock perfection

Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks play under the watchful eye
of the band's long-dead founder, Duane Allman,
seen on the screen behind them.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

By Thom Smith

The night belonged to Gregg Allman.

He sits at his Hammond B-3 as if he's riding a chopped Harley, sometimes hunched over the keyboard as if he's looking for cops, sometimes laid so far back his foot barely reaches the pedal. On Melissa, he took a turn on acoustic guitar. But what really set the night apart was Gregg's vocals, an emphatic punctuation to the penultimate performance on the Allman Brothers Band's 40thAnniversary Tour.

From the plaintive “I have not come . . . to testify” on Not My Cross to Bear to the defiant “Might be your man, I don't know” of One Way Out, the only living Allman in the band sounded half the age of a man who'll turn 62 on Dec. 8. A man who's battled drugs, failed marriages, tragedies, the endless misery of hepatitis C, has been bent but not broken. Somehow he summons the strength, using the detritus as a palette to create aural art as inspiring as an Old Master's canvas.

It helps to be surrounded by men who've been with him in those hells and faced hells of their own. They know how to grab suffering and from it create art.

The nearly sold-out crowd was reminded of that early on as the overhead screen flashed photos of the band's iconic founder, Duane Allman, who died 38 years ago, just as they were hitting their stride. More tributes abounded with videos of ancient bluesmen and former band members capped by a Warren Haynes' solo in Nobody Left to Run With Anymore. It seemed eerily in sync with Duane's on-screen playing, although the song wasn't even written until 1994.

Of the 16 selections in the set, Gregg wrote seven, including a collaboration with Haynes on Soulshine; six were written by long-dead bluesmen Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Blind Willie McTell, Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson. Curiously, two others came from one of the band's other tragic figures. Dickey Betts, who grew up in West Palm Beach, wrote the rousing Jessica in the early '70s and the prescient Nobody Left to Run With in 1994. Despite producing some of the band's best songs, Betts wouldn't cope with his own demons, and the other original members – Gregg, drummers Butch Trucks (who now lives in Palm Beach) and Jaimoe forced him out.

Gregg Allman at his Hammond B-3 organ Tuesday,
nging It's Not My Cross to Bear.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

His specter still hovers over the band like a poisonous spider, but his songs can't be ignored, and Haynes and co-lead guitarist Derek Trucks did them justice.

Obviously, 40 years later, the skinny longhairs who posed naked in a forest pool for their first album are craggier, heavier, balder and, they hope, wiser. The entire band is sober and has been for years, Trucks said in a recent interview. They have children who now have their own bands and sometimes sit in with their folks.

Their bodies ache: “I wish I could retire,” Butch Trucks said in the back lot after driving down from Palm Beach with wife Melinda. But he knows Hollywood is the penultimate stop on the tour and he'll be able to make return to southern France to check on the old farmhouse he bought.

Drummer and Palm Beach resident Butch Trucks.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

The “dream house” was built in the 7th century; a second floor was added in the 16th century; the walls are 3 feet thick. “I will build Melinda an artist’s studio where she can finally get away from the constant distractions endemic to Palm Beach,” he said recently, “and I will build a horse stable where I can get back to my love of playing cowboy. I also plan, when I retire in a few years, to do a lot of writing. I believe I have several books in me that are busting to get out.”

Except that the music and the band keep pulling him back.

The Allmans stay young in spirit – OK, they don't rap, and you won't hear any hip-hop or techno – but with the infusion of younger members such as Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew), who just turned 30, bassist Oteil Burbridge, 32, and percussionist Marc Quiñones, 41, they've retained a youthful perspective and attitude.

Each goes his own way after the tours – Haynes, who may be the hardest working man in rock 'n' roll, to his other band Gov't Mule; Derek to a tour with his own band and with blues singing wife Susan Tedeschi or perhaps backing and even upstaging Eric Clapton; Gregg to his band, and so on.

But on this night, in an arena filled with love, they are the Allman Brothers Band, ripping through Trouble No More, Come & Go Blues, Leave My Blues at Home, Hoochie Coochie Man, Statesboro Blues and Desdemona as if they had just been discovered. Two and a half hours of relentless music/blues/rock 'n' roll.

The road may not go on forever, but the end still is beyond the horizon.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

The Allman Brothers at the Seminole Hard Rock
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

Film feature: Lauderdale fest shorter, but movie quality is high

Michelle Monaghan and Jimmy Bennett in Trucker.

By Hap Erstein

Now in its 24th year, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival no longer talks about being the Guinness Book of World Records-sanctioned festival of longest duration.

Cuts in state government arts funding, the dwindling of corporate donations and the economy in general makes this such a bad year that FLIFF is forced to fall back on touting the quality of its films.

The festival, which kicks off today, runs a “mere” 20 days, and the number of films has been reduced 10 percent to only a 100 or so. But 50 or those are premieres of some sort -- either World, United States, Southeast, East Coast or Florida. And the Fort Lauderdale fest still has clout overseas, drawing entries from more than 30 countries.

The recession has done little to dampen FLIFF’s ability to draw celebrities with the lure of awards. Actor Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Best Man) and cinematographer Mario Tosi (Carrie, MacArthur) with each receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Producers) will pick up a Career Achievement Award and Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Gone Baby Gone) has been selected for the Star on the Horizon Award.

The latter two will also be appearing in support of their films in the festival. Monaghan stars in the independent drama Trucker, playing a tough-minded interstate big rig driver whose estranged 11-year-old son turns her life upside down when he appears on her doorstep. And Broderick headlines Wonderful World, about a deeply cynical proofreader and chess player whose pessimistic view of life seems confirmed when he loses his job.

Whether or not the films prove to be worthy, the Lauderdale festival knows that you can always compensate with parties. In fact, there is a reception or party almost every night of the festival. Often movies are matched with venues, like Black Dynamite at Bova Prime on Las Olas, An Englishman in New York at Pillars on New River Sound and a Queen to Play bash at Smith and Jones.

All screenings will be held at Cinema Paradiso, 503 S.E. 6th St., Fort Lauderdale, with the exception of opening night, when the film Timer will be shown at the Miniaci Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Nova Southeastern University in Davie. Tickets are available at (954) 525-3456 or online at

Here are a few thumbnail reviews of films made available by the festival for advance screening.

* Official Rejection (Noon, Sat., Oct. 24) -- Talk about the ultimate film festival film. Check out Scott Storm’s tongue-in-cheek documentary expose of the way film festivals really work and why he had such difficulty getting his 2004 crime flick, Ten ‘til Noon, accepted into any of the major fests. And if the film they made is half as entertaining as the chronicle of their rejection, you’ll wonder why it never received much love, too.

The serious message is that the studios have co-opted the Sundances and their ilk, so do not look for the next Kevin Smith (Clerks) or Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) to emerge from festivals anymore. Still, it is possible we will hear more from Storm, who makes being turned down very entertaining.

* Trucker (6 p.m., Sat., Oct. 24) -- Remember how you thought of Charlize Theron differently after she showed what acting skill she really had in Monster. Well, Michelle Monaghan is unlikely to cop an Oscar for her performance as interstate big rig truck driver Diane Ford, but she gives a who-woulda-thunk-it powerful performance that is light years above her work on the enjoyable Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or even the worthy, but little-seen, Gone Baby Gone.

She plays a tough, free-spirited loner whose only goal seems to be arriving at her destination promptly and picking up her “on-time” bonus. Naturally, then, her life is due for major upheaval when her former husband (Benjamin Bratt) contracts cancer and her brat of an 11-year-old estranged son gets dropped off on her doorstep and he is reintroduced to his highly unmaternal mother. James Mottern’s script and direction are both lean and taut, but it is Monaghan who owns the film.

* When the Evening Comes (6 p.m., Thurs., Nov. 5) -- Walking a tightrope, director Craig Geraghty turns what could have been a formulaic comedy or even an overly sentimental tale into a very human slice-of-life drama. Charlie (Leo Marinello) is a 39-year-old “successful” New York lawyer, but he lives with his overbearing grandparents (Philip Bosco, Anne Meara) who cannot help but meddle in his life.

Charlie dotes on the two of them, but when grandma Marion cannot hide her contempt for his gir friend, trying to correct the mistakes she make raising her own daughter, the relationship is strained to the breaking point. The dialogue seems honest and spontaneous, or maybe that is just Bosco and Meara demonstrating what old pros they are. Still, you will find yourself rooting for Charlie, even as you sense that happiness is not in the cards for him.

Scott Storm in Official Rejection.

Weekend arts picks: Oct. 23-25

Trumpet Player, by Herman Schreiber.

[This entry has been updated to correct a factual error.] This weekend, the south end of Palm Beach County has what you need for your art fix. Opening Friday night at the Urs Art Studio Gallery in Boynton Beach is an exhibit featuring eight artists: George Cheskes, Portland Jastram, Vera Rekstad, Naomie St. Amand, Maxine and Herman Schreiber, Stella White and Suzette Urs. Maxine Schreiber’s tropical landscapes are oils on canvas, while her late father, Herman, created highly detailed pastels. White’s abstract painted collages recall earthy and ancient times. Artwork includes glass mosaics, pen and ink drawings and airbrush paintings. The gallery is at 802 N. Federal Highway in Boynton Beach. Today's reception is from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call (561) 734-6926.

Orange Shadow, by Miami-based artist James Drain.

This weekend is the last full one in which to see work by the winners of the 2009 South Florida Cultural Consortium Media and Visual Arts Fellowships. The exhibit at Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus ends Oct. 31. Admission is free; the Schmidt and Ritter art gallery hours are 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Call 297-2966 or visit

And at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach are exhibits of tetsubin -- cast-iron teakettles from the 19th and 20th centuries -- and Japanese woodblock prints with moon and plum blossom motifs. These exhibits run though Dec. 6. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $11 for seniors 65 years and older, $7 for children and college students with identification. The Morikami is located at 4000 Morikami Park Road in Delray Beach, Florida. For more information, visit or call (561) 495-0233. -- K. Deits

Audrey Tatou in Coco Before Chanel.

Film: Personally, I tend to skip the early sections of a biography, which talks about the formative years of the subject before he or she established himself in his field. But that is exactly the focus of an entrancing new film, Coco Before Chanel, which shows us the beginnings of the woman who would revolutionize women’s fashions with simple lines and a lack of feathers and frills. The movie is visually impressive and period perfect, but what makes it so compelling is the title performance of Audrey Tautou (Amelie), who grows more and more like another cinematic Audrey -- Hepburn -- all the time. Opening today at area theaters. -- H. Erstein

Theater: Joseph Adler has already directed three of Neil LaBute’s ill-mannered plays of the gulf between men and women at his GableStage in Coral Gables, so it was no surprise that he was itching to get his hands on reasons to be pretty, LaBute’s Tony Award-nominated Broadway debut from last season. It begins with a white-hot verbal battle between lovers breaking up over a rumor of an overheard slight about the woman’s looks, and it rarely lets up for two hours of escalating misunderstandings. Adler gathers some first-rate actors, including Todd Allen Durkin, Erin Joy Schmidt and Amy Elane Anderson. (Hmm, wonder what it is about all these three-named actors?) The production opens Saturday evening and continues through Nov. 22. For tickets, call (305) 445-1119. -- H. Erstein

Albert-George Schram leads the Lynn Philharmonia.

Music: The Lynn Philharmonia, the student orchestra at the Lynn University conservatory, draws large crowds to its concerts each season, and this weekend the group is starting off with a challenging program that should put it to the test. Conductor Albert-George Schram has chosen two major 20th-century works: the Fifth Symphony (in B-flat, Op. 100) of Sergei Prokofiev and the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, of Arnold Schoenberg (in its 1949 chamber-orchestra version). "Both the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony and Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra are pinnacles of the symphonic art," Schram wrote in an e-mail. "It is good for our musicians and audience to be exposed to and explore this historically significant music." The orchestra also plans the Symphony No. 38 (in D, K. 504, Prague) of Mozart. The concerts are set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Roberts Theatre on the campus of St. Andrew's School in western Boca Raton. Call 237-9000 or visit

Meanwhile, the New World Symphony joins forces this weekend with the Master Chorale of South Florida for two performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony (in D minor, Op. 125, Choral), along with selections from Beethoven's lone opera, Fidelio. Soloists are soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Kendall Gladen, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and bass Luca Pisaroni. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts. 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Knight Concert Hall of the Arsht Center in downtown Miami. Tickets: $10-$123; call 305-673-3331 or visit -- G. Stepanich

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Film review: 'Tetro' marks Coppola's return to youthful form

Vincent Gallo in Tetro.

By John Thomason

If Tetro is the 70-year-old Francis Ford Coppola’s final film, it would be an elegant swan song to an accomplished career: an invigorating inhalation of arthouse air to remedy the commercial drudge work to which the director confined himself in the ‘90s.

Indeed, the Francis Coppola of the late half of the late ‘00s harkens more to his rebellious, rulebook-eschewing, film school upbringing than any period since his ‘70s zenith. But if Coppola has indeed found his muse again in the wake of such puzzling directorial decisions as Jack and The Rainmaker, he overplayed his hand with the self-marginalizing Youth Without Youth (2007), a pull-your-hair-out mystery that made sense only to him.

His first fully realized project in a decade’s time, it all but cemented the filmmaker’s reputation as a pretentious, out-of-touch megalomaniac who’s lost his place in modern moviedom. I would not be surprised to learn that more people under 30 know Coppola for his wine than for his films.

Yes, Coppola knows about displacement and disillusionment, two of the strongest themes in Tetro. Set in Argentina, it’s about brooding writer Tetro (Vincent Gallo), who abandoned his family, life and birth name in New York years earlier to go on an endless writing sabbatical in South America. When we meet him in Buenos Aires – grumpy and crippled, after being hit by a bus – it’s clear his creativity has been blocked for some time.

But he’d already written a kind of memoir-slash-manifesto attacking his father, a world-famous conductor, and reflecting on his late mother, an opera singer who died in a car accident with Tetro at the wheel. It’s a mammoth text, spilling out of suitcases stuffed in hard-to-reach cubbyholes, with no conclusion planned and no publication desired. He gets by on the occasional lighting job for a local Felliniesque theater company and on the income of his live-in girlfriend Miranda (Maribel Verdu of Pan’s Labyrinth), a mental health nurse who fell in love with Tetro when he was assigned to her clinic.

This is the world in which Tetro’s estranged brother Bennie (an unknown actor named Alden Ehrenreich), an 18-year-old cruise-ship busboy, enters when his ocean liner breaks down. He stays with his older brother for a week, reigniting old flames of familial discord left simmering on a long unattended burner of Tetro’s mind. Bennie wants to learn more about the complicated history in which he was raised – about the mother he never knew and father he barely knows -- and his surreptitious reading of his brother’s work leads both men to reevaluate relationships past and present, resulting in some surprising revelations.

Shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, Tetro captures Buenos Aires as a slice of towery German expressionism, all chiaroscuro lighting, canted angles and oblique shadows, photographed from the most compelling nooks and crannies in the city’s topography. Bursts of color (which Coppola experimented with in another otherwise monochrome film, Rumble Fish) and brilliant bursts of light illuminate Tetro’s visions, fantasies and flashbacks, the muddled muck of a mind that prohibits him from engaging in any kind of normal relationship. In its occasionally surreal visuals, the film recalls the hyper-stylized plasticity of previous Coppola works such as One from the Heart and Dracula, as well as such Italian dazzlers such as Nights of Cabiria and La Notte.

While there may be nothing quite like Tetro, it broadcasts such reference points – Coppola has also cited On the Waterfront as an inspiration for Tetro’s atmosphere, and Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman and The Red Shoes are shown in stock footage and homaged, respectively.

It all doesn’t quite add up, but unlike the convoluted clutter of Youth Without Youth, this time each enigma is worth deciphering, urging you to view the film a second time to crack its codes. Like a great work of art, it doesn’t play its entire hand on first look.

Coppola called Tetro a very “personal” project in an interview with Empire magazine, and it’s telling that this is his first original screenplay credit in 34 years. Boundless in its sweeping Shakespearean drama and boldly experimental in its form, Tetro is the sign of a filmmaker reconnecting with the young Movie Brat of The Conversation and The Godfather.

It is the real youth without youth.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

TETRO. Director: Francis Ford Coppola; Cast: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Carmen Maura; Opens: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ArtsPreview 2009-10: The season in opera

Carl Tanner as Otello. (Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Greg Stepanich

The coming opera season has been scaled back somewhat in both of the major local companies, but opera devotees will still have plenty to look forward to.

In addition to the seven local productions, there will be five others from two different trunk companies, and 11 high-definition broadcasts of live performances from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, screened at the Society for the Four Arts and a handful of commercial theaters.

Farther afield, true opera fanatics can take a pleasant journey of two to three hours across the state and see Victor de Renzi’s impressive Sarasota Opera, which continues its complete Verdi cycle with the Italian master’s rarely heard Giovanna d’Arco, his 1845 treatment of the Joan of Arc story.

Palm Beach Opera: For the first time since the early 1990s, the Palm Beach Opera will present just three full productions, and in place of the fourth plans a season opener of two concert performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra and chorus, and soloists including soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, tenor Clifton Forbis and bass Morris Robinson. The two performances will be led by Bruno Aprea on Dec. 11 and 13 at the Kravis Center.

The PBO’s first opera will be Verdi’s Otello, perhaps the finest work of this composer, a shatteringly beautiful, powerful adaptation of the Shakespeare play about the Moor who loved not wisely but too well. American tenors Carl Tanner and Alan Glassman share the role of Otello, while Desdemona will be played by the Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak and Canada’s Michele Capalbo (Jan. 22-25).

Mozart’s supreme Don Giovanni takes the stage next, with the Albanian baritone Gezim Myshketa and another singer to be announced as the lecherous nobleman who comes to such a sorry but spectacular end. Pamela Armstrong and Alexandra DeShorties share the role of Donna Anna, with Julianna DiGiacomo and Michele Losier as Donna Elvira (Feb. 26-March 1).

The company wraps the season with one of the most durable of all operas, Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin and Poland’s Magdalena Wor share the role of the free-spirited Sevillian cigarette worker, and tenors Andrea Care and Rafael Davila trade the role of Don Jose, the obsessed soldier who won’t let go. The opera will be conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud (April 9-12). Finally, the Grand Finals vocal competition, the 41st of its tribe, is set for April 25.

Kelly Kaduce in Suor Angelica.

Florida Grand Opera: Not long ago, the FGO was doing six productions a season, one of them a world premiere (David Carlson’s attractive Anna Karenina, in 2007). But these days the venerable Miami company is keeping things safe and concentrating on good box office.

It opens with a double bill: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, paired with Puccini’s Suor Angelica (instead of the usual Cavalleria Rusticana of Mascagni); soprano Kelly Kaduce stars as the suffering nun in Angelica, and then plays Nedda to the jealous Canio of tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Nov. 14, 18, 20, 22, 24, 28, Arsht Center; Dec. 3, 5, Broward Center).

Eglise Gutierrez returns to the FGO stage for its second production, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a tale of passion and madness drawn from a Sir Walter Scott novel based on a real incident. Tenor Israel Lozano is Edgardo, and baritone Mark Walters is Enrico. For the performances on Jan. 27 and 30, Lucia will be sung by Maria Alejandres, Edgardo by Mark Pannucio, and Enrico by Jeremy Kelly. (Jan. 23, 26, 27, 29-31, Arsht Center; Feb. 4, 6, Broward Center).

Rossini’s Barber of Seville, easily the most performed and familiar of the Italian composer’s works, takes the stage next, with Sarah Coburn as Rosina, the woman at the center of the amorous and comic intrigues of this 1816 opera buffa. English baritone Roderick Williams is Figaro, and Frederic Antoun is Count Almaviva; the eminent baritone Sanford Sylvan, beloved for his decades of work on the Boston early music scene, plays Bartolo. On Feb. 24 and 27, Kyle Pfortmiller sings Figaro, Andrew Bidlack is Almaviva and Lielle Berman is Rosina. (Feb. 20, 23, 24, 26-28, Arsht Center; March 4, 6, Broward Center.)

To end its season, FGO, like Palm Beach, has chosen Bizet’s Carmen. The title role will be sung by Kendall Gladen, with Adam Diegel as Don Jose. Miami-born soprano Elaine Alvarez appears as Micaela, the peasant girl adopted by Don Jose's mother who tries in vain to summon the prodigal son home. (April 24, 28, 30, May 2, 4, 8, Arsht Center; May 13, 15, Broward Center).

Guest companies: The Teatro Lirico d’Europa, founded by a French ballet master and Bulgarian tenor and now based in suburban Baltimore, does 70 full-scale productions a year of various well-known operas, and is a regular guest company each season. The company also has a working relationship with the Coral Springs-based Gold Coast Opera, and all told the two troupes will present five different operas, though two of them are the Barber of Seville and Carmen.

First, Teatro Lirico mounts Verdi’s La Traviata on Nov. 18 at the Kravis Center, and reprises it March 27 at the historic Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce. Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus is presented under the Gold Coast Opera umbrella Jan. 25 (PBCC’s Eissey campus), 27 (FAU in Boca), and 28 (Broward Center).

Rossini’s Barber is scheduled by Gold Coast for Feb. 22 (PBCC/Eissey), 24, (FAU/Boca) and 25 (Broward Center), and on Feb. 26, Teatro Lirico mounts Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Sunrise Theatre. Finally, the Gold Coast returns with Bizet’s Carmen on March 22 (PBCC/Eissey), 24 (FAU/Boca), and 25 (Broward Center), closing out the season.

One local company currently in hiatus for the season is the Treasure Coast Opera Society of Fort Pierce, which had to suspend operations after 31 years of bringing opera to northern St. Lucie County.

Sarasota: The Sarasota Opera this year mounts its second season of fall productions, with Verdi’s La Traviata on the boards for six performances from Oct. 30-Nov. 11. Georgian soprano Lena Tetriani sings Violetta; Edgar Ernesto Ramirez is Alfredo.

The opera company’s winter festival opens in early February with the traditional double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (10 performances, Feb. 6-March 21). The Magic Flute, Mozart’s great Masonic-flavored singspiel, is next, with Maria d’Amato as Pamina, Joshua Kohl as Tamino, and Lindsay Ohse as the Queen of the Night (10 performances, Feb. 13-March 21).

Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic children’s tale of Hansel and Gretel is scheduled third, sung in English rather than the original German. Mezzo Heather Johnson is Hansel, and soprano Angela Mortellaro is Gretel (6 performances, Feb. 27-March 13).

But the special glory for opera junkies of the Sarasota company is its Verdi cycle, which will conclude in 2013, the year of the composer’s birth bicentenary. This year, the company mounts Giovanna d’Arco, an early and little-played opera about Joan of Arc. It’s a must-see for lovers of Verdi and doubtless will shed some new light on the composer’s work; soprano Cristina Castaldi sings the title role, with tenor Rafael Davila as Carlo VII, king of France (6 performances, March 6-20).