Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Film review: Gritty 'Ajami' gains power by not preaching about Mideast life

A scene from Ajami.


By John Thomason

There’s enough action in the opening five minutes of the Oscar-nominated Israeli film Ajami to fill the hourly quota of any prime-time drama: A young boy murdered, contract-style, in broad daylight while washing his car, a man defending himself by planting a bullet in a threatening, pistol-waving Bedouin mobster, that mobster’s family taking its paralyzing revenge on the shooter and his family.

Ajami’s assaulting prologue is a deadpan crime epic in miniature, shocking less in the brutality of the violence than in the unsentimental fashion in which it is presented. These are everyday events, stripped of manipulative musical cues, ostentatious camerawork and other artificial Hollywood trappings. We observe them as if we’re eyewitnesses on the street, not spectators tucked comfortably away in a plush theater seat.

We barely know the characters introduced in the dizzying introduction, but the sequence sets the tone for an uncompromisingly naturalistic, two-hour immersion into a crime-filled world. Aside from the occasional title card dissecting the narrative into five chapters, we’re never reminded that we’re watching a movie, which gives the story a documentary-like aura of authenticity.

It’s an aura directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani worked for seven years to create, casting the movie entirely with nonprofessionals, filming with a pair of inexpensive handheld cameras, working without a screenplay, workshopping certain moments to perfection while filming other scenes guerrilla-style, surprising the actors with unplanned confrontations so as to achieve the most truthful responses.

Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that Copti and Shani culled their stories from real-life events in and around the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, the predominantly Arab city in Israel.

Characters include Omar (Shahir Kabaha), the 19-year-old, unwitting family patriarch caught in the blood feud of the film’s prologue and involved in a clandestine romance with a Christian Arab bartender; Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian refugee hired illegally as a dishwasher to finance his sick mother’s life-saving surgery; Dando (Eran Naim), an Israeli police officer and family man obsessed with finding his missing, enlisted brother; and Binj (codirector Copti), a wealthy Palestinian drug dealer who risks alienating his proudly Arab friends by relocating to Tel Aviv with his Jewish girlfriend.

Their lives intersect in violent ways, some more schematic than others, but all filmed with utmost conviction and veracity. Ajami is a film that rewards close inspection and even casual note-taking, for even the most minute details early on have tragic consequences as the fatalistic narrative wends toward its conclusion.

It’s fair to say that non-Arabic, non-Hebrew speakers may have trouble keeping up with the narrative – this nonlinear multi-character mosaic is difficult enough to comprehend without having to read the swift barrage of subtitles. Because Cliff’s Notes aren’t an option, a second look at the film might help immensely, and Ajami is such a compelling experience that it’s surely worth multiple viewings.

What’s most refreshing about the film is its lack of preachy political propaganda. In this way, it couldn’t be further from 2009’s other highly distributed Israeli film, Lemon Tree, a didactic, self-aware allegory of Israeli-Palestinian strife. While Ajami’s conflicts between Jews, Muslims and Christian Arabs might seem to suggest, tangentially, the impossibility of a two-state solution in an era this fraught with violence, such transcendent readings are more the result of viewers searching for a message in the chaos, not by the chaos itself.

What we see on the screen is a lot more universal and accessibly exportable: We could just as easily be looking at the Crips and the Bloods or the Jets and the Sharks. Yes, the stories is grounded in real events, but Ajami feels less inspired by the depressing items in Jaffa police blotters than it does such abrasive arthouse affronts as Amores Perros and City of God – films whose copious amounts of tragic bloodletting are stanched by the overwhelming rush of cinema’s possibility to expose the reality in society’s fringes.

There’s not a “pretty” shot in Ajami, and it’s all the more memorable because of it.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

AJAMI. Directors: Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani; Distributor: Kino International; Starring: Fouad Habash, Nisrine Rihan, Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Scandar Copti, Eran Naim. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. Rated: R. Opens: Friday. Venue: Regal Shadowood 16 and Sunrise Mizner Park 8 in Boca Raton, Regal Delray Beach 18, Sunrise Cinemas at Sunrise 11 and Sunrise Intracoastal 8 in North Miami Beach.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Theater feature: Laufer thrilled with response to 'Sirens'

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer.

By Hap Erstein

She has had three of her plays premiere at Florida Stage and one of them -- the apocalyptic comedy, End Days -- had an off-Broadway run last spring.

But with her latest work, Sirens, showcased at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., last month, Deborah Zoe Laufer landed on the radar of the nation’s regional non-profit theaters and commercial producers.

“There’s been a really thrilling response,” she says of the play’s monthlong run in rotating repertory. “The people who come up to you are extremely nice and positive and loving about it. I guess the ones that don’t like do not tell you.”

Sirens is about a New York empty-nester couple that has been married for 25 years, long enough for the passion in their relationship to ebb. Sam Abrams, a songwriter with one big hit to his credit, has lately been spending much of his time on Facebook and other Internet sites, seeking an old high school girl friend he never quite got over.

Brian Russell and Mimi Lieber in Sirens.
(Photo by Harlan Taylor)

And when Sam and his wife, Rose Adelle, take a Mediterranean cruise to rekindle their romance, he hears the call of a not-so-mythical siren and jumps overboard to find her. At least that is what the plays is about now, for Laufer often takes a circuitous route of discovery in her writing.

“Generally, none of my plays start where they wind up. This started with me reading Oliver Sacks’ book 'Musicophilia,'” she explains. The play “was going to be about a musicologist, about the creative impulse, and along the way it turned into a play about a middle-aged couple. But that’s typical for me. I’m usually surprised by where they end up going.”

Sirens first went before an audience at last year’s 1st Stage plays reading festival at Florida Stage, where it was embraced by the audience. Soon afterwards, producing director Lou Tyrrell announced that it would be the lead-off play of the current subscription season. But Laufer felt it was not ready for a full production world premiere then, so she withdrew it.

“Florida Stage is my home. I would have been tremendously happy to have it open there, but I am glad it didn’t. It was not ready,” she insists. “It still needed a ton of work. I knew that it couldn‘t be ready in time.”

“(Lou) was willing to get me support, he wanted to get me a dramaturg, to help on it and I crumble under that kind of pressure. It needed time. It needed the magic to happen before I’d be happy with it,” says Laufer. “I’ve been really unhappy with the play, up until probably the morning of opening (in Louisville). I rewrote up until that morning.”

Listening to Laufer talk about the development of her play, it does sound a bit mystical and quirky, just like Sirens. Initially, she was struck by the image of a siren, which is where the play began. “I fell in love with the idea of the siren. And this was still while it was a play about a musicologist,” she says.

“I love when I have an ultimate image of what my theme is. Like when I was writing 'End Days,' I had both Jesus and Stephen Hawking on the stage, representing two very different viewpoints on how the world works. So having a siren, that voice that calls you, often to your death, seemed like the ultimate idea of how music and passion and all that could be integrated.”

Back when Sam Abrams first met Rose Adelle, he wrote a song to her, which went on to become a huge hit that artists from Billy Joel to Willie Nelson recorded. But as his marriage dried up, so did his creative juices.

The notion of being a one-hit wonder is not one of Laufer’s fears. “No, because I’ve written like nine plays already, so I’m beyond that worry,” she says with a nervous laugh.

“No, we had very dear friends who are now gone, Gene Raskin and his wife Francesca. He wrote the song 'Those Were the Days,'” setting a lyric to a Russian popular tune that became a megahit here in the late 1960s. “Gene was a Renaissance man. He was a painter, he taught architecture. He would have been fine no matter what he did, but they lived off that song for 50 years of marriage. I was always intrigued by that.”

Lindsey Wochley and Brian Russell in Sirens.
(Photo by Harlan Taylor)


The Humana Festival production was physically impressive, with the siren entering on a hydraulic reef from below the stage. “This was the production where everything was realized,” Laufer notes. “I’ll be fascinated to see it in a little black box with none of the bells and whistles and see how the story still rings. Because I think there’s also a lot of deep pain and comedy and a real human story in it.

“It was a thrill of a life to see it all happen, to see everything you had in your head done, but better. But I would be interested to see the play is a tiny little theater with none of that. And I’ll also be interested in seeing it on a big Broadway stage with a thousand people laughing in the audience.

“So I hope it gets a New York production, and then I hope it’s done in every theater in the country.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Book review: Tale of cell line's 'mother' astonishes


By Bill Williams

Before the publication of this book, few people other than scientists had ever heard of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cancer in 1951.

Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore when doctors, without her knowledge or consent, sliced cancerous tissue from her cervix for research purposes. To the astonishment of scientists, the cancer cells began reproducing so rapidly that within a short time billions of them were available for research in laboratories around the world.

“Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse,” the author writes in her fascinating debut book.

The book garnered rave reviews and jumped onto The New York Times bestseller list shortly after its release. Skloot is a smooth writer, but the book is almost too ambitious in scope. It tries to meld science, race, poverty, family, ethics, medicine, religion and business, but the narrative is sometimes confusing as it jumps back and forth in time, place and theme.

Skloot first learned about the amazing cells -- dubbed HeLa for the first two letters of the donor’s first and last names -- in a college biology class in 1988. Her curiosity led her eventually to embark on a decade-long search to learn more about Lacks and her five children, who for years had no clue that their mother’s cells were being credited with numerous advances in medicine, including development of the polio vaccine.

Excitement about the immortal cells led to wild speculation. One of Henrietta’s sons thought that serum made from the cells might allow people to live for 800 years.

The author’s detailed discussion of cell biology may cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. The more interesting parts of the book involve Skloot’s tenacious, almost obsessive, search for information about the Lacks family, as well as her discussion of the ethical issues involved in cell research.

Initially, the Lacks children wanted nothing to do with a white author, but Skloot’s dogged persistence gradually won their trust. As they opened up, she pieced together a family history born in slavery and marked by rural poverty, discrimination, crime, mental illness and superstitious beliefs.

As Lacks’ children and grandchildren learned about the importance of their mother’s cells in medicine, they wondered, in the words of daughter Deborah, “how come her family can’t afford to see no doctor.”

One of the most affecting episodes in the book comes when Henrietta’s children finally are invited to Johns Hopkins to view their mother’s cells and watch them divide and grow under a microscope. As a researcher points to a cell splitting in two and explains that both cells will have their mother’s DNA, Deborah stands mesmerized and whispers, “Lord have mercy,” as she covers her mouth with one hand.

Although Johns Hopkins never profited from the sale of HeLa cells, others did. One commercial laboratory charges from $100 to nearly $10,000 per vial of her cells, which grow “like crabgrass” and have been an unquestioned boom for scientific research. More than 60,000 scientific articles have been published about research using HeLa cells.

Scientists have not explained why Lacks’ cancer cells turned out to be the ones that would fulfill their dream of finding a continuously reproducing cell line that would never die.

Readers naturally might wonder about the legality of using excised tissue for scientific purposes without a patient’s consent. Surprisingly, it was not illegal in 1951 and is not illegal today, as long as the tissue, such as an appendix, was removed with consent.

According to a report issued in 1999, more than 300 million such tissue samples gathered from 178 million people were stored in labs and other facilities in the United States alone. Still, the law is vague about whether and when patients have a right to control their tissues.

Although the book is not perfect, Skloot has written an eye-opening account of a milestone in medical research. It is surprising that it took this long for the full story to be told.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot; 369 pp., Crown; $26.

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.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Art review: Steichen show offers too much of a pretty thing

Actress Mary Heberden (1935), by Edward Steichen.
(Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York
© 1935 Condé Nast Publications)


By Emma Trelles

The faces of both the famed and the forgotten share equal stature in the more than 200 celebrity and couture-focused photographs on display at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

The collection unwinds across all of the museum’s first-floor galleries, yet the images found in Edward Steichen: In High Fashion – the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937, which runs through April 11, are but a modest slice from the oeuvre of Steichen, whose career stretched across seven decades and was as storied as the lives of his subjects.

It included stints in lithography and painting, the co-founding of a gallery and the journal Camera Work with Alfred Steiglitz, a tenure as chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and a late-in-life post as director of photography at the MOMA in New York. Steichen died in 1973 at the age of 93 after a lifetime of championing photography as a fine art form even as he served to commercialize it.

With that kind of pedigree, and with a roster of portraits that sandwiches models and movie stars alongside political players and writers, one might imagine the exhibit to be a tad more exciting than it comes across. There is, after all, much to ogle here, beginning with a nifty installation that divides each group of portraits by decades, painted as tabs on the walls and offering the visual equivalent of flipping through an enormous datebook.

What follows is an array of early 20th-century icons, decked in all manner of smart silk suits and Chanel evening gowns, diamond cuffs designed by Cartier and Perugia T-strap slippers filigreed in blossoms.

Actress Gloria Swanson (1924), by Edward Steichen.
(Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York
© 1930 Condé Nast Publications)


Here is the lace-veiled face of Gloria Swanson, long before her ravings on Sunset Boulevard, lips precisely painted and watery, pale eyes a hypnotic combination of directness and timidity. Actress Marion Morehouse is so stylized in a bouffant dress she appears to be carved from ivory and onyx. With a silver-tipped cane, H.G. Wells resembles the Wizard of Oz; a young Joan Crawford shares a lounge chair with Douglas Fairbanks by the shore.

There is a disheveled Yeats, a plotting Colette, a pensive (what else?) Winston Churchill. Really, the population photographed by Steichen is astonishing, although it shouldn’t be. These were not only the people he documented; they were his social peers and playmates.

In this selection from the Condé Nast archives, organized by the Musée de l’Elysée, the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in Minneapolis, and the International Center of Photography in New York, Steichen often plays with textures and surfaces, whether juxtaposing a slender arm with a brocaded skirt or playing with cigarette smoke and shadow and glowing kinds of light.

Marlene Dietrich (1934), by Edward Steichen.
(Courtesy The Richard and Jackie Hollander Collection,
Los Angeles © 1934 Condé Nast Publications)


His standouts, however, are when he marries his artifice with essence of his subjects, as he does with Amelia Earhart, for example. Steichen poses her with hands tucked boyishly beneath her knees, rocking back and looking sideways at the camera, radiant and natural, a woman more of this time than her own. Steichen perfectly captured her self-sustaining nature.

Alas, there are not enough of these inspired pictures. Somewhere around 1927, the distinctness of some of Steichen’s finer images dissolves alongside row after row of anonymous models and long-faded leading men and starlets. There is simply too much here, and not enough of it is memorable.

It’s questionable whether we really need to see 200 instances, many of them redundant, of how Steichen pioneered fashion photography, and cultural portraiture to some degree, although it is worth mentioning that the latter was executed more profoundly by almost-contemporary Irving Penn and with more wit, later on, by Richard Avedon.

The show might have fared better had it included a broader gathering of Steichen’s works, such as his haunted cityscapes or the stark abstractions he made from the common shapes found in natural settings: the ovals of leaves, the whorl of a shell. The eye needs more than prettiness and celebrity to sustain itself.

Emma Trelles is a South Florida-based arts writer.

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion – The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937
runs through April 11 at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except closed Mondays and open until 8 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets: $10 adults, $7 seniors, military members, children 6-17. Call 954-525-5500 or visit www.moafl.org.


Self-Portrait With Photographic Paraphernalia,
New York
(1929), by Edward Steichen.
(Courtesy Condé Nast Archive
© 1929 Condé Nast Publications)

The View From Home 3: New releases on DVD


By John Thomason


Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XVII (Shout! Factory)
Release date: March 16
Standard list price: $32.99

Aside from, perhaps, the wheel, the cotton gin and the printing press, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of man’s greatest creations. OK, well, at least it should be the top 100.

Such hyperbole is not uncommon among Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanatics, or “Misties,” as they’re lovingly called. Surely you know of the show, even if you don’t know it by name: It’s the ingenious concept wherein a man and two makeshift robots, marooned on a satellite for eternity, receive an endless supply of horrible B-movies from a mad doctor and proceed to heckle, or “riff” the poor films to our great amusement (the bad movie in question takes up most of the screen space, while the silhouettes of the guy and his robot friends line the bottom in a faux cinema setup).

The show ended its 11-year stint on television in 1999, but enthusiasm for it has hardly diminished. Its creators, writers and stars have gone on to lucrative post-MST3K projects – mostly doing the same thing under a different brand – and fans worldwide continue to clamor for the show, attending conventions and plopping down up to $200 for out-of-print DVD collections.

For longtime Misties looking to relive their favorite episodes – or MST3K neophytes newly seduced by the show’s power – each DVD box set is an event. Which episodes will make the cut this time? Will there be more Joel Hodgson episodes (Hodgson, the show’s creator, also starred until 1993) or Mike Nelson ones (Nelson took over Hodgson’s place, and the MST cult remains hotly divided over his capacity to fill the creator’s shoes)?

Rhino, the show’s longtime DVD distributor in the United States, passed the gauntlet in 2008 to Shout! Factory, which has released the past five four-disc sets. Like the previous collections, there’s no rhyme, reason, theme or chronology to the selections in the newly released Vol. XVII, which plucks episodes from seasons 4, 9, 10 and, most notably, the very first episode of the very first proper season of MST3K, titled The Crawling Eye, which aired on the long defunct Comedy Channel in 1989.

So this box set has historical importance, even if the episode in question shows just how wet behind the ears the now experienced riffers were. The episode established the structure and formula of the show (though the low-budget set is a flimsy cable-access affair): Hodgson and his homemade robots, Tom Servo and Crow, exchange an invention with their nemesis Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) before beginning their latest “experiment,” or B-movie stinkburger. They take regular breaks from the movie to present full-color comedic sketches, which often bomb, especially in the humble beginnings of Season 1.

In a newly recorded interview for the DVD, the 49-year-old Hodgson acknowledges that there was a learning curve for movie riffing. Watching this disc, it’s easy to see it. The intervals between jokes are much too long and the humorous jabs are less adventurous. Some are hopelessly dated -- I cringed when Hodgson and the ‘bots joke derisively about the idea of an “all weather channel” on TV.

It gets a lot better, though, as any Mistie will assure you, and this box set is a worthy addition to your MST3K library. The Season 4 entry The Beatniks is a classic hoot. It’s a ridiculous social-problem melodrama about a group of wayward youths: The hot jazz on the soundtrack tells us they’re delinquents even before they stick up a convenience store.

When one of the gang decides to abandon the thug life for a record-industry tart and a career singing Dean Martinesque love songs, it comes back to haunt him. Joel and the robots get great mileage out of the fact that while the characters in the film are many things, they are most definitely not beatniks (“This is one from Ginsberg’s ballad years!” Crow quips).

The later episodes in the set rank just as high in the laugh ratio. In Season 9’s cult favorite The Final Sacrifice, a wimpy beanpole of a hero joins forces with a brutish, hard-drinking trucker to form an unlikely buddy movie duo and quell a cult of executioners. It’s ripe for mockery, and the jokes practically write themselves.

I’m especially fond of this box set’s closer, the Season 10 episode The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, about the titular madman, who successfully becomes part catfish in order to – take over the world, one assumes? The movie was shot in and around Marineland, Fla., not one of our state’s proudest cinematic exports, and its ancillary characters include a racist sheriff and his black assistant (The human characters in most of these movies are usually stupid, contemptible or both).

It all makes for a wonderfully ironic white-trash setup for jokes referencing Warhol and Basquiat. Dr. Z makes for a memorably bad creature, his suit of fur resembling something out of a moderately priced Halloween shop, filed under “generic monster.” He doesn’t lurk and threaten so much as waver and stagger, the actor obviously uncomfortable in his uniform – which prompts Mike and the robots to riff, “He’s the Gerald Ford of monsters.”

MST3K Vol. XVII will no doubt sell well among the throng of Misties. Some will call it the greatest MST3K collection since the last one. At least until Vol. XVIII comes out. We’re waiting.


Dillinger Is Dead (Criterion Collection)
Release date: March 16
SLP: $21.99
This uncategorizable eccentricity from Italian subversive Marco Ferreri is one of only a few in his 30-plus film canon to see a U.S. DVD release, and it’s easy to see why.

Michel Piccoli plays a gas-mask designer living with two beautiful women (Anita Pallenberg and Carla Petrillo) he virtually ignores. Over the course of one night, he discovers a pistol possibly owned by John Dillinger. He proceeds to construct, deconstruct, cook with (!) and spray-paint the weapon while watching, and interacting with, old home movies of himself.

By the time this nearly silent movie reaches its calmly violent climax, the gun in question has been so rebranded as a cartoony art object that we almost forget its purpose – a purpose Ferreri uses to launch a surrealist cinematic Molotov at domestic complacency and narrative film in general.

Free-form and experimental, Dillinger Is Dead is as far from cause-and-effect storytelling as you’ll find, though in its idiosyncratic way, it echoes Buster Keaton’s poker-faced humor as much as it does Canadian avant-gardist Norman McLaren’s zippy abstraction.

The DVD includes newly recorded interviews with Piccoli and film historian Adriano Apra and a choice roundtable discussion with Ferreri’s industry friends, filmed just days after his 1997 death.


The African Queen (Paramount)
Release date: March 23
SLP: $19.99 single disc, $34.99 limited edition box set

It’s almost hard to believe that The African Queen hasn’t been officially released as a region 1 DVD yet; for years, it has been the only movie on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list to not have felt the comfort of a Best Buy shelf.

Held up in legal limbo for years, this John Huston masterpiece from 1951 has been digitally remastered using state-of-the-art technology, thanks to a restoration process that spanned six years.

The single-disc DVD edition includes the comprehensive making-of documentary Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen, and a limited-edition box set includes an audio disc of the Lux Radio Theater’s recording of The African Queen, a reproduction of Katherine Hepburn’s out-of-print book about the production of the film, collectible postcards and more.


The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox)
Release date: March 23
SLP: $17.99

Judging by the 93 percent positive ranking on the film critics’ aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it appears I’m once again in the minority when it comes to Wes Anderson’s gorgeously composed but cerebrally esoteric cinema.

Still, fans of Anderson’s will no doubt love his quirky adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s like any other Wes Anderson movie, in which characters speak softly but carry a big dictionary -- only this time with talking animals (kids will no doubt love the existentialist angst!).

Its plot is simple enough: The titular character, a newspaper columnist voiced by George Clooney, steals from and consequently battles the three nasty farmers who toil near his new home, leading to a mess of trouble for his already fractured family unit. I actually admire the way Anderson molds a popular children’s story into his own distinct, mannered style, but the main stumbling block for his Fox is that it’s simply too busy a picture.

The film is directed with such exhaustive, manic energy that it feels twice as long as its 87-minute running time, overstaying its eccentric welcome.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Music review: Early Brahms sparkles under young pianist's fingers

Pianist Ran Jia.


By Greg Stepanich

The piano sonatas of Johannes Brahms are all early, thickly scored, finger-busting works, and while they receive respect from the performers who study them, rare is the pianist who brings them along on recital.


The young Chinese pianist Ran Jia was an exception to that rule last Wednesday at Stage West in the Duncan Theatre, ending her meat-and-potatoes recital of Beethoven, Schubert and Ravel with the first of the three Brahms sonatas: his Op. 1, in C major.


Jia, who is 21 and the daughter of a prominent Shanghai academic and composer, currently lives in Philadelphia, where she studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music. She is a fine musician already, one with a large technique and something to say interpretively.


The youthful Brahms thought big, and the First Sonata is full of expansive gestures, huge chords and driving rhythms. It makes a strong impression, and Jia supplied all the power, intensity and volume it needs.


But she also supplied taste, when this noisy sonata allowed. In the first movement, she made much of the Schubert-style contrasting melody and gave the canonic passages that follow the opening an admirable clarity, all the while hitting the far reaches of Brahms’ keyboard writing with great accuracy.


Her second movement Minnelied was clear and forceful rather than hushed at the opening, and its major-key elaboration was tender and lovely. Jia handled the awkwardly written Scherzo with aplomb as well, managing both times in its closing bars to hit the octave-to-falling-thirds leaps that can turn this passage into a mess if they’re missed.


She took the Finale very rapidly, rattling off its repeated double thirds with precision, a considerable feat. This movement in general showed her reading of Brahms at its best: fingers that were nimble yet strong enough to get the composer’s orchestral effects across, and an interpretation with enough warmth to bring out the charm of its contrasting themes. It was a persuasive performance of this ungratefully written sonata, so much so that she almost made it sound easy.


Before the Brahms came the Jeux d’eau of Ravel, in which Jia made a good case for her French music chops. The waves of water were expertly played, and in her left hand she brought out the melodic fragments with rhythmic tension, which gave the piece form and structure and kept it from turning into an indistinct wash of sound.


Jia opened her concert with the Sonata No. 27 (in E minor, Op. 90) of Beethoven, a two-movement, semi-experimental piece (though I’ve always suspected that the composer just left it that way after never getting around to writing a finale). It certainly cries out for a concluding movement, especially in the hands of a pianist like Jia, who is able to convey a good sense of dramatic arc.


Her first movement was full of drama, with a tense opening and then a main theme in which she stretched out the tempo for maximum emotional effect. She was also adept at this movement’s many changes of mood and pace, getting across its emotional highs and lows without overdoing
it.


Jia took the pretty Rondo second movement at a swift clip, avoiding sentimentality while at the same time producing good singing tone for its melody. She took more liberties with the tempo here, too, slowing way down for the second theme before returning to the Rondo. I don’t think this approach worked all that well, as it pulled the music out of shape a bit, adding a stop-and-start feel.


She followed the Beethoven with the Drei Klavierstücke (D. 946) of Schubert, starting the set off with a violent, speedy take on the E-flat minor first piece. Again, her fine sense of structure served her well in No. 2 (in E-flat), with its beautiful main theme, played here with poise, and a nice sense of mystery in the way she played the murmuring figure that presages the lengthy disquisition to come.


In the C major third piece, she gave the syncopations plenty of muscle in a rendition that stressed athleticism over wit. These late Schubert impromptus are less well-known than the Op. 90 and 142 sets, and Jia had the right feeling for their spontaneity overall, and the sonata-style narrative line of No. 2 in particular.

Theater feature: Laufer's 'Sirens' looks like future commercial success

Brian Russell and Mimi Lieber in Sirens.
(Photo by Harlan Taylor)




By Hap Erstein

For the past 34 years, theater companies and critics in search of new plays of quality have been making a pilgrimage to Louisville, Ky., in the early spring as the non-profit resident company Actors’ Theatre of Louisville has rolled out its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Over that time, The Humana Foundation -- the grant-giving arm of the powerful managed health-care group -- has underwritten the development and production of hundreds of plays, representing the longest-running collaboration between a corporation and an arts organization.

In its earliest days, the Humana Festival gave such plays as The Gun Game, Agnes of God and Crimes of the Heart their first productions. In recent years, as more companies around the country have jumped into the new play business and Broadway has been less welcoming to non-musicals, the festival has not had as many visible successes, content to feed the non-profit theater network.

Still, during ATL’s so-called Special Visitors’ Weekend, Louisville becomes the capital of American theater. Artistic director Marc Masterson is justifiably proud that 85 percent of Humana Fest scripts receive subsequent productions elsewhere.

And a play that is bound to get many of them is Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Sirens, a cleverly constructed and written comedy about restoring the passion in a long-term marriage, or at least stopping it from disintegrating after 25 years.

Laufer (at right) has been championed by Manalapan’s Florida Stage, which has produced the world premiere of three of her plays -- The Last Schwartz, The Gulf of Westchester and End Days. In fact, Sirens was supposed to kick off the current season at Florida Stage, until Laufer withdrew it, begging off that it was not yet ready to be seen. But it certainly is now, as the reception it got from the often tough theater industry audience could attest.

By a quirk of ticket distribution, in the 318-seat theater where Sirens played -- one of three stages in Actors’ Theatre’s complex -- I was seated right next to Laufer, a proximity that probably made both of us a little uncomfortable. For my part, it was a relief to discover that the play is quite good, probably Laufer’s most audience-friendly and potentially commercial work yet.

It begins in a Manhattan travel agency where Sam and Rose Adelle Abrams are picking out a vacation to celebrate their significant anniversary. But it soon becomes clear that all is not well in their relationship, that Sam has been spending time on Facebook seeking a high school crush he never got over. His impulse to want something more than his unsatisfying life with Rose only increases on the Mediterranean cruise they take, when he hears the alluring call of a genuine, melodic siren and jumps overboard to be with her.

Laufer’s depiction of the Gameboy-playing siren and Rose’s pursuit of her own high school crush give the play a few tasty twists, plenty of laughs and, ultimately, some poignancy. According to Florida Stage, Tyrrell is strongly considering putting Sirens in its new season and it seems likely to be embraced by his audience if he did.

[On Sunday, I’ll interview Laufer and will have a further report on the saga of Sirens and how it changed from being not-ready-for-prime-time to the accomplished, entertaining play I saw Friday.]

On the other hand, don’t look for Deborah Stein’s Heist! to be frequently performed. I got back at 12:30 a.m. today from the 21c Museum Hotel, a tony new Louisville hotel and gallery of 21st-century art, which was the venue for a site-specific performance art-improvisational, interactive late-night goof that was commissioned for the Humana Festival and seems unlikely to be able to exist outside the giddy festival atmosphere and locale.

Mingling among the theatergoers in the hotel’s museum-quality art spaces were members of Actors’ Theatre’s apprentice group, acting broadly their cartoonish roles in an elaborate art theft and other diabolical schemes. If nothing else, their participation in Heist! will prepare them for careers in such improv comedy shows as Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding and assorted murder mysteries.

In among the actual out-there contemporary art were faux exhibits and a painting, valued at $200 million -- or so we were told -- by art world darling Archie Pellago. At the cue of a blood-curdling scream, however, all eyes went to the dead body sprawled across a gallery skylight, just long enough for the theft of Pellago’s masterwork to go unseen.

Then the captive audience was enlisted to help solve the crime, observe lots of over-the-top acting and, as Stein’s convoluted plot had it, find the right red penguin statue that would prevent the many hidden caches of dynamite from blowing up all of Louisville. Never let it be said that the Humana Festival takes itself too seriously.

Editor’s note: Hap Erstein is attending the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., for Palm Beach ArtsPaper.

Lindsey Wochley in Sirens.
(Photo by Harlan Taylor)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Weekend arts picks: March 26-31

Pianist Ingrid Fliter.

Music: The Cleveland Orchestra wraps up its third and final week of
residency in Miami with two performances by the fine Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter, who will perform the Chopin Concerto No. 2 (in F minor, Op. 21) with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Also on the program is the Romeo and Juliet suite from Prokofiev’s ballet score. 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday night. Tickets: $40-$165. At the Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami. Call 305-949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.

Also tonight, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra plays its last of three concerts this weekend, featuring English pianist Tom Poster in the Schumann Piano Concerto (in A minor, Op. 54). Conductor Stewart Robertson has also planned an adventurous rest of the program including Pomo Canyon Air, by American composer Paul Dooley, and a finished version of the Schubert Unfinished Symphony (No. 8 in B minor, D. 759). 8 p.m., Lyric Theatre, Stuart. Call 772-286-7827 or visit www.lyrictheatre.com.

In addition, the Seraphic Fire concert choir continues its latest concert series with the Handel oratorio Israel in Egypt, timed to coincide with Passover. This is a marvelous work, and refreshing to hear after all those Messiahs at Christmastime. 7:30 p.m. today at the First United Methodist Church of in Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach. Call 305-285-9060 or visit www.seraphicfire.org.


Pianist Xiayin Wang.

Upcoming in the days ahead are two other pianists: Lang Lang, who is one of the best-known of all contemporary pianists to general audiences, plays Wednesday and Thursday at the Kravis Center with the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra under the fine conductor Christoph Eschenbach. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, Lang plays the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 (in C, Op. 26); at 2 p.m. Thursday, he performs the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17 (in G, K. 453). Wednesday’s concerts also include the Prokofiev Classical Symphony (No. 1 in D), and the Brahms Second Symphony (in D, Op. 73). On Thursday, it’s two works by Beethoven: the Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Symphony No. 7 (in A, Op. 92). Tickets: $25-$85. Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.

And then it’s the turn of Xiayin Wang, who appears Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, and on the following Wednesday (April 7) at the Miniaci Center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. Wang will play selections from Richard Danielpour’s The Enchanted Garden, written for Wang, as well as Haydn (Sonata No. 52 in E-flat), Chopin (Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1), Debussy (L'Isle Joyeuse), Ravel (La Valse), J.S. Bach's arrangement (BWV 974) of an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, and two arrangements of Chinese popular songs (Celebrating Our New Life and Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake). 7 p.m. Wednesday, Lyric Theatre, Stuart. Tickets: $30. Call 772-286-7827 or visit www.lyrictheatre.com. – G. Stepanich

Elayna Toby Singer with her kinetic hanging sculpture.

Art: At Studio 1608 in West Palm Beach, a group show titled Right Here, Right Now features 75 artists and opens Saturday night for a brief run. Produced by photographer Montana Pritchard, the venue will display sculptures by local legend and former Palm Beach State College professor Reuben Hale and huge sculptures by Susan Phipps Cochran, along with the kinetic sculptures of Elayna Toby Singer and photographs by Barry Seidman. The show, which opens from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, runs through April 2. Studio 1608 is located at 1608 S. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, just a couple blocks south of the Norton Museum of Art. For more information visit www.studio1608exhibition.com, or call Montana Pritchard at (561) 659-5940.

Meanwhile. an exciting new art program in the town of Lake Park debuts Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the Art in the Park Festival. Artists working in various mediums from painting to sculpture to fine crafts will be displaying their works on Park Avenue. For more information, call (561) 881-3338. – K. Deits

Actress Kim Cozort.

Theater: Continuing through Sunday, multiple Carbonell Award-winning actress Kim Cozort will be playing reclusive poetess Emily Dickinson in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, the one-woman biographical play that Julie Harris originated. The play is being produced by the new Burt Reynolds’ Under-the-Bridge Players at the Burt Reynolds Institute & Museum in Jupiter, at Indiantown Road and U.S. 1. Directing Cozort will be the company’s executive director Kenneth Kay, who happens to be married to her. By his count, this is the 30th time he has directed her, so that must mean their marriage can survive anything. Tickets are $25 ($12 for students), call (561) 743-9955 for reservations. – H. Erstein

Ben Stiller in Greenberg.

Film: Ben Stiller is usually associated with nerdy comedies such as Meet the Parents and Zoolander, but in his new film, Greenberg, he tackles a dramatic role as a New Yorker who has spent time in a mental institution. Trying to escape his past in California, Stiller gives an impressive performance even though his character is actively annoying, house-sitting for his older, more affluent brother who leaves on vacation, and launching an affair with his brother’s socially inept household assistant (Greta Gerwig). The movie is ultimately about accepting our failures in life, probably not a theme that will interest Stiller’s fan base. It is, however, an obsession of director/writer Noah Baumbach, who previously made the terrific The Squid and the Whale and the far less satisfying Margot at the Wedding. Greenberg has its flaws, but is worth seeking out for Stiller’s performance. Beginning this weekend at area theaters. -- H. Erstein

Theater reviews: Three shows demonstrate strength of South Florida season

Tom Beckett, Bret Shuford and Tari Kelly in Anything Goes.


By Hap Erstein


Depression-era escapism proves to still be potent entertainment as Cole Porter’s 1934 enduring hit Anything Goes splashes across the stage of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

Surely it cannot be because of the flimsy story line, even if it got a major overhaul in 1987 by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who simply added new wince-inducing jokes.

No, the material works almost entirely because of the martini-dry Porter score, which boasts such pop standards as I Get A Kick Out of You, You’re the Top, Friendship, It’s De-Lovely and the title number. And the Maltz version works on the strength of its buoyant cast and the tap-happy production numbers, directed and choreographed by the endlessly inventive Marcia Milgrom Dodge.

For what it is worth, the story takes place aboard an ocean liner, populated by a stowaway Wall Street apprentice, the girl he loves who is betrothed to an upper-class British twit, an evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer, her four blonde backup girls, a low-ranking crook on the Public Enemies list and a celebrity-obsessed ship crew. Of course, mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences, hokey disguises and an epidemic of romance ensues.

But don’t let the flimsy plot get in the way of your enjoyment. Concentrate instead on Tari Kelly (Reno Sweeney), a dead ringer for Christine Baranski, with a similarly dry comic delivery and a belter’s way with a song. Deft comic Tom Beckett (mobster Moonface Martin) mines his wheezy material for plenty of laughs, while Richard Vida and Catherine Walker are aptly toothsome and bland as the young lovers.

It is too bad that Dodge could not bring her recently shuttered Broadway revival of Ragtime, or something with a similar weight, to the Maltz. But as fluff goes, this Anything Goes is effervescent sure-fire entertainment.

ANYTHING GOES, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday. Tickets: $40-$59. Call: (561) 575-2223.

* * *
Steve Gouveia, Joseph Leo Bwarie,
Ryan Jesse and Matt Bailey in Jersey Boys.


Four years ago, Jersey Boys sneaked onto Broadway, expected to be just another lazy “jukebox musical,” a catalogue of song hits by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons clumsily grafted onto a Behind the Music press release biography of the group.

Of course, it was instead the show that demonstrated that “jukebox” did not have to be a pejorative, thanks to a compelling script full of Garden State attitude by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice -- both musical theater neophytes -- taut, cinematic staging by Des MacAnuff and a cast that was as capable with the dramatic script as they were replicating the The Four Seasons’ signature sound.

After winning the 2006 Best Musical Tony Award, road companies became inevitable and it is a relief to report that the same care was taken to produce a first-rate touring show, continuing through this week at the Kravis Center.

The show divides neatly into four sections -- four seasons, get it? - each narrated by one of the four members of the group that go through the uneasy rise, sudden success, constant ego battles and resentments that mark their previously little-known saga. And of course, their ups and downs are accented by the Four Seasons’ soundtrack-of-our-lives song trunk -- numbers like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, My Eyes Adored You, Oh, What a Night and on and on, that could have motored a far less gripping story.

Jersey Boys takes its time chronicling the group’s beginnings, but about an hour into the show it all clicks into place with an explosive appearance on American Bandstand, as The Four Seasons and their high-pitched, nasal lead singer Valli deliver their career-making number, Sherry. From there, at least until the squabbling starts, their upward climb is propelled by a string of hits, each with its four-part precision choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

Just as the group was soon overshadowed by Valli, the musical belongs to diminutive Joseph Leo Bwarie, who has the acting chops and freakish vocal range to be a very convincing Valli. Still, Matt Bailey, Steve Gouveia and Ryan Jesse each get their spotlight moments as his back-up singers, with Bailey a standout as abrasive, irresponsible group originator Tommy DeVito.

You just know that other pop groups have noticed the success of Jersey Boys and are readying their own musicals, not a happy prospect. Until the market becomes flooded, go enjoy Jersey Boys and notice how well-crafted it is.

JERSEY BOYS, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. Tickets: $35-$90. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

* * *

EJ Zimmerman and Christopher deProphetis in Miss Saigon.

So what do you do after you have muzzled the naysayers and exceeded all normal expectations with a first-rate home-grown production of the epic Les Miserables, which is likely to be showered with Carbonell Awards next month? What do you do for an encore?

If you are Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse, you move on to the next challenge, another of the British mega-musicals of the 1980s -- Miss Saigon. This update of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, set against the fresh wounds of the Vietnam War, the chaos of America’s withdrawal and the result of wartime cross-cultural coitus, may be a cut below Les Miz, but it is full of heightened emotions and tragic consequences, as befits its operatic roots.

Those familiar with Butterfly will probably know what lies ahead when American soldier Chris falls in love with a Saigon bar girl named Kim, but fails in his attempt to take her home to America with him, then later learns that she has given birth to his son. What sets Miss Saigon apart from its antecedent is the character of The Engineer, a Eurasian pimp and war profiteer who will do anything to come to America, where kindred spirits will do anything for a buck.

Like most Actors’ Playhouse productions of major musicals, it strives to duplicate most of the effects of the Broadway original -- no mean feat -- rather than preconceiving the material. What director David Arisco has done is a major accomplishment, even if it has no personal stamp. Yes, scenic designer Sean McClelland and lighting wizard Patrick Tennant manage to approximate of the arrival of a helicopter on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon and other effects, but at least as impressive is the passion the cast infuses in the saga.

Arisco has predominantly cast actors who have performed Miss Saigon previously, on Broadway or in tours. That is completely understandable when he can get a Herman Sebek, deliciously oily as The Engineer, so captivating and conniving in his 11 o’clock solo of sleaze, The American Dream. Or EJ Zimmerman as the delicate Kim, with a powerful vocal instrument. A greater effort might have been made, however, to cast locally for other non-Asian roles.

Still, this is an impressive show in all respects. So now what does Actors Playhouse do for an encore?

MISS SAIGON, Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Through Sunday, April 4. Tickets: $42-$50. Call: (305) 444-9293.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Film review: Cult oddness of 'Panic' only partly successful

A scene from A Town Called Panic.


By John Thomason

You can pay half-attention to A Town Called Panic and still be able to follow the story. You can just as easily pay complete attention and have no idea what's going on. Bottom line: Just leave logic at the door and try and enjoy yourself.


Opening Friday at the Lake Worth Playhouse, the film is based on a long-running Belgian stop-animation cartoon of the same name, most of whose episodes ran about 5 minutes in length. The show detailed the zany antics of Cowboy, Indian and Horse (creative names indeed), three toy figurines who shared a house in which doors opened upward and the furniture was inflatable. It was more weird than funny, but it had its dedicated followers.

Compared to the bite-sized sketches of the series, the movie feels epic and overstuffed, even though it clocks in at just over 70 minutes. The plot is a succession of absurdist adventures beginning with Cowboy and Indian's realization that they had forgotten Horse's birthday. As a last-minute gift idea, they decide to build a homemade barbecue, only to accidentally order 50 million bricks from a Website.

Somehow, this leads to the destruction of the town as they know it, sending the peculiar family on a perilous trek across frozen tundra and an underwater civilization to retrieve their possessions from pointy-headed cretins. All the while, Horse just wishes he was back home taking music lessons from the sexy filly who's teaching them.

The animation style is deliberately crude and imperfect, making South Park look like Pixar. "My kid could animate that!" could be a justifiable gripe. Of course, for Panic fans, like the contingency of audiophiles who prefer the warm crackle of vinyl over the sterile clarity of digital recordings, the self-conscious stop-motion formalism is part of the show's lo-fi charm and humor.

Except that, if A Town Called Panic is more like a record than a CD, it's one that feels like it's being played on the wrong speed. Everything in the movie's hyperreality proceeds at a blistering pace, so that keeping up with the subtitles while following the dizzying action onscreen becomes a formidable challenge. There's nary a moment that isn't chock-full of activity. It's ADD in cinema form, a caffeinated jolt to the senses.

All of the film's (and by extension, the series') distinguishing features -- its nonstop pacing, its esoteric humor, its barely animated animation -- are at once its most appealing characteristics and its most alienating drawbacks. It's different, to be sure, but does it work?

This double-edged sword of cult quirk is destined to be loved by few and puzzled over by many.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC. Directors: Stephane Aubrier and Vincent Patar; Distributor: Zeitgeist; with the voices of Aubrier, Patar, Bruce Ellison and Benoit Poelvoorde; Opens: Friday; Venues: Lake Worth Playhouse, Lake Worth; Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opera review: Sarasota's 'Giovanna' revealed Verdi gem

Cristina Castaldi as Giovanna and Rafael Dávila as Carlo
(Charles VII) in Giovanna d’Arco.
(Photo by Rod Millington)



By Rex Hearn

The Sarasota Opera likes to say that no other company in the world will have completed a Verdi cycle – a complete survey of all the composer’s stage works -- when it comes to an end in 2013 on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.

The company’s just-finished production of Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) was the 29th opera in the cycle, and its boast of exclusivity is a strong one: Victor DeRenzi, the company’s artistic director, even produces all of Verdi’s revised versions, in Italian and French.

This Verdi cycle has been the anchor for this very successful, 51-year-old opera company. Each season offers four works in the winter, during the months of February and March. Two years ago, it ventured into fall, adding a fifth opera.

Fall attendance at the 2009 La Traviata was a series of full houses, and a 30 percent growth in new audiences. But like other nonprofits, Sarasota Opera has felt the pinch of the economic downturn. Its annual budget has been reduced to $7.7 million, down $500,000 from last year.

Also last year, 64 “Star” donors (those who gave $5,000) died. Replacing them in these hard times will be a Herculean task.
***

Despite all that, this production of Giovanna d’Arco was wonderful. The costumes were exquisite, the singing excellent and the scenery magnificent. Lighting and orchestral playing rounded out all the arts involved and they were superb.

Faced with an opera that has had only five American productions in the last 35 years, DeRenzi made this one so appealing that it would not surprise me if there is a wave of opera companies scheduling this Verdi gem. It needs only three leads, an active chorus and lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes.

But here’s the rub: Where today does one find Verdi tenors and sopranos who can sustain the intensity of the master’s difficult writing? Joan herself has a bitch of an opening aria that makes Mozart’s tour de force for the Queen of the Night look like a cinch. Verdi, skilled as he was, avoids having all three soloists on stage all the time, interspersing their entrances with battlefield scenes of soldiers, English and French. Or lovers in sylvan settings: Joan falls in love with the Dauphin, whom she later crowns King Charles VII. The tenor and baritone work hard when they are on stage, and Verdi gives them great melodies to work with.

Giovanna, which premiered in 1845, is based on Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans, which Temistocle Solera reworked into a tight libretto of six scenes in four acts. This version has Joan dying on the battlefield, not burned at the stake. There is no Inquisition in this opera, who in Shaw’s play (Saint Joan) try her for heresy and craftily hand her over to the English, thus avoiding eternal damnation.

Pageantry lends itself to opera and there’s a lot of it in Giovanna d’Arco, including processions of nobles, cardinals, bishops and knights, plus peasants waving flags and five pretty flower girls, a nice directorial touch. There is plenty of good work for chorus and supernumeraries, too. (I spotted some opera donors in the procession to Charles VII’s coronation – and why not?)

Joan was sung by American soprano Cristina Castaldi. Her lovely voice isn’t quite heavy enough (yet) for this difficult role, but toward the end, in softer passages, she was in full control and sounded superb. Her acting was in character as she wrestled with holy visions and demonic voices. It was an excellent portrayal, courageously sung.

Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Dávila as the Dauphin, later King Charles, is the perfect Verdi tenor. He has a plum rich sound with a wide-open delivery that gives him so much ease in reaching Verdi’s high notes. He was sweeter in the softer passages, as he and Joan fall in love, and the chemistry between the singers was nicely evident. Dávila was believable, and acted the part of royalty convincingly.

Giacomo, Joan’s father, a shepherd, was magnificently sung by Marco Nistico. His rolling rich baritone was a delight for the ear, and he sang with clear Italian diction. This is a difficult role because the Schiller play has him delivering his daughter to the English, thinking she has dishonored the family in a love affair with the king. Later, he frees her from her English captors and laments her death in battle.

Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, an English general, was sung by bass-baritone Benjamin Gelfand. I could have listened to more of his fine voice; it is not a major role, however. Heath Huberg was Delil, an official of the king. As a Studio Artist he sang well and carried himself with dignity, in and out of uniform.

Martha Collins’ stage direction was brilliant. Her crowds moved easily on Sarasota’s restricted stage. In choruses she had members move forward in threes to emphasize Verdi’s music on the downbeat, which was most effective. Movement was continual in what could so easily have been a static presentation (the fault, I might add, of Ricardo Chailly’s Bologna Opera production of some years ago).

Jeffrey Dean designed some lovely sets; the Rheims Cathedral was to scale and sensational in its reality. He subtly places a stake, with kindling, stage left, to let us know that’s how Joan really died. Howard Kaplan’s costumes were beautiful -- for the record, Joan’s armor, given to her by the king, was white.

Lighting by Ken Yunker was splendid. Georgianna Eberhard’s wigs and make up were just right. Roger Bingaman had his choristers trained to perfection, and they carried a large part of the opera with good work.

Of course, what stands out in this clever production is Verdi’s music: The long dramatic overture, so familiar to brass band enthusiasts. The orchestral writing, in which every section has an opportunity to shine in the fullness of its detail and scoring.

The orchestra, under DeRenzi, played beautifully and with heart.

One quibble: Early on, the supertitle translation refers to “the English soldiers.” At the end of the opera they become “the British.” At the time the Maid of Orleans was giving the English Plantagenets the business (1429), Scotland was independent, Wales and Ireland were subject nations and the East India Company was 300 years away from setting up what became the British Empire. So, “English” it is, and should remain.

***

Die Zauberflöte
(The Magic Flute), Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, and Hansel and Gretel (in English) were also given the weekend I stayed in Sarasota. I didn’t make it to Hansel, but here are brief reviews of the other operas:
Lindsay Ohse as the Queen of the Night
and Maria d’Amato as Pamina, in Die Zauberflöte.
(Photo by Rod Millington)


In a small, 1,100-seat, former vaudeville house, Sarasota Opera’s production of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute, had all the authenticity of how Emanuel Schikaneder might have staged it. He commissioned Mozart to write this singspiel (play with music) in 1791, and the composer died 10 weeks after its premiere at age 35.

Stage director Alison Grant made it a lively and gripping experience. I dare to say it was near perfection, the best of many Flutes I’ve seen.

The opera is filled with Masonic philosophy and ritual because Mozart and Schikaneder belonged to the same Masonic lodge. They present only the basic tenets, however, which must have fascinated Austrian audiences back then, since they thought they were being let in on Masonry’s secret inner workings. (They were not). But what a come-on.

Heading an enormous cast was the Korean bass Young-Bok Kim as Sarastro, whose golden, refined voice and commanding presence riveted the attention. Prince Tamino, sung by tenor Joshua Kohl, had a few vocal problems early on, acted well and managed to get through to the end.

Pamina, his love interest, sung by Maria D’Amato, has a beautiful, sweet-sounding soprano. Soprano Lindsay Ohse as the Queen of the Night offered a dazzling, crystal-clear voice. Baritone Sean Anderson as Papageno was an absolute delight, a fine singing actor whose dulcet tones were very distinctive.

The Three Ladies were excellent: Alda Lynn Hamza, Sarah Asmar and Alissa Anderson. The Three Sprites sounded like boy choristers, which was fine because Mozart scored their songs for boys’ voices, but here they were beautifully sung by girls: Amanda Capps, Mary Akemon and Maria Elena Arrate. They moved well and were easy on the eye.

John Tsotsoros caught the tongue-in-cheek character of his role of his role as the bad guy, Monastatos, singing his part with gusto and a grin.

Soprano Katherine Werbiansky, in the dual role of Old Woman and Papagena, was a perfect match for Papageno and sang very well. This is the fifth production of Flute by this company. It is such a delight in every way I think it deserves a wider audience. HD-TV, anyone?

***

Evan Brummel as Silvio and Aundi Marie Moore as Nedda in Pagliacci.
(Photo by Rod Millington)



Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, two verismo operas from the 1890s by Mascagni and Leoncavallo, respectively, were directed by Stephanie Sundine. She kept the productions in traditional focus and created clever crowd movements on stage.

In Cavalleria, Kara Shay Thomson’s strong dramatic soprano as Santuzza was ideally suited to this role. Argentinean tenor Gustavo Lopez Manzitti was vibrant as Turridu but his small red beret, perched precariously on his head, made him look ridiculous and distracted from his fine singing.

Lola was beautifully sung by soprano Stephanie Luaricella. Alfio was the excellent baritone Michael Corvino.

Mark Bingaman’s chorus was superb all through the opera. Most effective was the use of a double chorus in the Easter Hymn: some back stage in the church and some front stage in the town square or piazza. It’s a musical nod to those early polyphonists, Monteverdi and Gabrieli, who invented this early stereo effect at St. Mark’s in Venice.

In Pagliacci, Manzitti sang Canio and Corvino was Tonio. The prologue, which Corvino sang in front of the curtain, was a little masterpiece. Nedda, sung by the young soprano Aundi Marie Moore, sent thrills around the audience with her stunning vocalizations: what a lovely voice!

Studio Artist Heath Huberg gave his role of Peppe a good reading and looked great in his Harlequin outfit. Evan Brummel’s Silvio was believable. Sundine managed to have 40-plus people appear from nowhere and disappear just as quickly on the cramped Sarasota stage. No mean feat.

The set was not in the right proportion to the people on stage, however. They, and even the statues of the saints, seemed huge in comparison to the buildings. Musically , it was a very fine performance.

***

In 51 seasons of professional opera, Sarasota Opera has risen to the top. It is a well-managed company with everything running precisely, with an army of helpful, neatly uniformed volunteers.

Already it has announced next season’s operas: Rossini’s La Cenerentola in October-November, and for the winter, Puccini’s La Bohème, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s I Lombardi (the cycle opera), and Robert Ward’s The Crucible.

If you like your opera in big doses, there are two weekends in which you may catch all four on a Friday night, Saturday matinee and evening, and Sunday matinee. If you can drive 50 miles or so to hear your local opera company, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to hear Sarasota Opera.

The quality is first-rate and you’ll hear top-notch international singers mixed in with promising youngsters on the cusp of greatness. It’s worth the trip.

Rex Hearn, founder of the Berkshire Opera Company, has been writing about opera in South Florida since 1995.

Sarasota Opera can be reached at 941-366-8450, or by visiting www.sarasotaopera.org.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ArtsBuzz: Boca native’s film of Nepali rebels screens at Delray fest before HBO

Kiran Deol discovered the subject of her first film while studying at Harvard University.

“I learned the statistic that 40 percent of the rebel army in Nepal's fighting forces were women,” says Deol, a 2001 graduate of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton. “That statistic had my jaw on the floor. So the idea of showcasing the story of a woman that showed women as agents of change, as opposed to victims of circumstance, was important to me and became something of a passion.”

Her 37-minute documentary short, Woman Rebel, was short-listed for an Oscar nomination this year and has just been picked up for airing on HBO. But before the rest of the country sees it, it will play twice in the Delray Beach Film Festival.

The first screening is at 9 p.m. today at the Crest Theatre, followed by a 10 a.m. screening Sunday at the Movies of Delray.

The film is set in Nepal, where Deol (at right) spent a year in production. It looks at the Maoist rebels fighting in the recent Nepali civil war (and one rebel, code-named Silu, in particular) and their causes -- their right to an education, to own property, to seek justice in domestic abuse cases, and to become equals in village governments -- as well as their postwar efforts to run for public office.

Deol says she hopes to parlay the film into a series about other “women rebels” who are revolutionizing social change in their societies both at home and abroad.

She said is pleased the film will be shown so close to her hometown and hopes audiences will “be engaged by the main character's story of struggle and triumph, and get the opportunity to step into a different part of the world for a little bit.”

Marcus Bellamy and Holly Shunkey in Vices.
(Photo by Sean Lawson)

‘Vices’ to return in new Caldwell season

Caldwell Theatre Company artistic director Clive Cholerton will revive one of the most talked-about shows of his first season in the 2010-11 season announced this week.

Boca Raton’s professional theater troupe kicks off Nov. 7-Dec. 12 with Vices: A Love Story, a musical with dance that had its world premiere as the first play of Caldwell’s 2009 season.

The psychological comedy and 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist Becky Shaw is the second selection for Jan. 2-Feb. 6. The script by Gina Gionfriddo, a writer and producer for TV’s long-running Law & Order, is about “the ultimate date from hell,” or perhaps not.

The third play, set for Feb. 20-March 27, has yet to be set.

The romantic comedy In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), by Sarah Ruhl, is the fourth production, showing April 10-May 15. Catherine is the wife of a doctor who believes in modern technology in helping his female patients sexually satisfied. The only person who isn’t fulfilled is Catherine. It’s described as a play for adults with “open hearts and open minds.”

Season subscriptions range from $70 to $130 for previews and $100-$170 for regular season. Call 561-241-7432, 877-245-7432 or visit www.caldwelltheatre.com.

Academy, ballet company to pay tribute to slain girl

Jupiter Academy of Music and Florida Classical Ballet will present Shine the Light, a celebration of music and dance in memory of Makayla Joy Sitton, who was killed last Thanksgiving.

The program will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 25, at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 Indiantown Road, Jupiter. The program includes classics, hymns and inspirational tunes with accompanying ballet.

The production is presented by the Jupiter Academy of Music with participation by Florida Classical Ballet Theatre and the Young Singers of the Palm Beaches. WPTV-Channel 5 anchor Kelly Dunn will emcee.

Makayla, 6, was shot to death after Thanksgiving dinner. Her cousin, Paul Michael Merhige, is accused of killing Makayla, his twin sisters and an aunt, and wounding two others.

“In the midst of our deep grief and sadness over losing our precious daughter, we find comfort knowing that Makayla’s light shines on through her faith and her love for beautiful things like music and dance,” said Jim and Muriel Sitton. “We’re thankful that this performance will help make it possible for other children to share in the joy of the arts.”

Kretzer Pianos will provide post-performance music and the Lighthouse Center for the Arts will display work in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre lobby. Tickets are $50 VIP, $25 for center, and $12 and $15 for mezzanine. Call 800-445-1666 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.

Compiled by Hap Erstein and Skip Sheffield