The Great British Baking Show

Great British Baking Show

From left: Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc

Don’t miss the last two episodes of U.S. Season 4 of The Great British Baking Show, airing back-to-back on many public television stations tonight. Though I’m puzzled about this: They start with 12 amateur bakers, and each week eliminate one. As of last Friday, four were left. So wouldn’t it take three shows, not two, to come up with a winner? I’ll just have to watch and see.

In case you’ve missed this wildly popular phenomenon, the show (called the Great British Bake-Off in the U.K.) is the antithesis of the typical reality contest show. It’s isn’t cutthroat competition. It isn’t “Cupcake Wars.” The British bakers are pleasant people. “It’s been very, very hard for American unscripted television to employ pure gentleness without cloying sentimentality, to balance kindness and bluntness (which) The Great British Baking Show does effortlessly,” said Linda Holmes on NPR.org last year. Maybe that’s because, instead of using a sound stage with flashing lights and booming sound effects, it takes place outdoors, under a big white tent. It’s a show about trying, not about winning.

Something so popular cannot help but be marked by controversy. Up to now, the show has been a BBC production, but it recently was bought by Channel 4. Only one of the two judges—Paul Hollywood—and neither of the hosts, the comedy duo of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, is making the shift. The first promotion for the new show has been aired and roundly criticized. You know, change. Exiled judge Mary Berry (who authored a cookbook of mine) will have a new BBC show, called Britain’s Best Cook, which will feature classic British dishes, not just bread and pastry.

Giedroyc and Perkins are important in the show, because they make the slightly risqué puns and ask the dumb questions, the kinds of things a viewer might want to know. They set a light and supportive tone. Laurie Penny in an article unequivocally titled “Cake or Death: why the Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television” says, “Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown . . . , Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true.”

The last few seasons have included a multicultural set of contestants. That’s also been controversial, apparently, and well addressed by commentator Penny.

Each episode has three parts. Part one is a “signature bake,” where contestants prepare a classic in their own unique way; part two is a technical challenge, which the contestants do not know about in advance and may never have prepared (or even seen) before; third, a “show-stopper.” For marzipan week, contestant Candace made a cake covered with marzipan to form a giant peacock. It lived up to the show-stopper name for sure. When Paul and Mary asked her about working on it at home, Candace said, “Oh, yeah, it’s been peacock all the time. What’s for breakfast, mum? Oh, peacock.”

Bread Lion

It’s the most fun you’ll have with flour, sugar, eggs, and butter, with the fewest calories. WNET New York has past shows and multiple features, ICYMI.

And, where else can you cut into a charming bread lion with almond fangs and rosemary whiskers?

Capitol Ideas

California capitol

The California Capitol; photo: Jeff Turner, creative commons license

Two years ago a visit to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield revealed such a feast of 19th c. stenciled decor, state capitols have been added to my must-see list. Let me guess: you haven’t seen the capitol in your state since junior high. (Visiting school groups is a good reason to plan your visit for the summer or off-hours.)

Capitol buildings generally offer tours, or you may be able to roam freely, helpful brochure in hand. The legislature may or may not be in session. Either way, those chambers and the building as a whole are likely rich with history, symbols of the state, statues, portraits, and murals, as well as sheer decoration and impressive domes. Tour guides are especially interested in telling you how much things weigh.

The California Capitol

The capitol building in Sacramento (completed 1874) was a little hard to get into in June, with construction on the grounds and some entrances closed for security reasons. The south entrance, facing N Street, is open. The building is set in a forty-acre park that contains a lovely rose garden and memorials. The Vietnam War memorial was especially moving, as were the tributes to fallen firefighters and peace officers. Inside is a small museum, with permanent historical exhibits and a feature gallery.

The House and Senate chambers were beautiful—perhaps the hope is that surrounding legislators with elegance will lead to lofty thoughts—the House mainly green (for California) and the Senate mainly red (patterned on London’s Houses of Parliament), or so the guide said. It was fun reviewing the portraits of California governors that line the hallways to see whether I could recognize any of them. I did identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the basement, where the tour starts, are murals painted in a particular dark style called “California decorative” that is repeated in some works at the nearby Crocker Art Museum.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

Harrisburg is such a down-at-heels city, this seems like a dubious destination, but the capitol is beautiful. When President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” White marble and gold leaf are everywhere in the lobby (lobbyists, too), and the floor comprises Pennsylvania-made Moravian tiles interspersed with mosaics symbolizing animals, industries, occupations, and historical features of the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome - Harvey Barrison

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome; photo: Harvey Barrison, creative commons license

Looking up, you can see the 272-foot, 52 million pound dome, reportedly inspired by the one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, while the lobby’s grand staircase and three-tiered gallery were designed with the Paris Opera House in mind.

William Penn was a Quaker and a highly religious man, and biblical quotations abound in the capitol’s décor and in the rich symbolism of the many works of art (another attempt at fostering high-mindedness, perhaps). Many of the murals, including those in the Supreme Court, were painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley. Oakley was the first woman artist to receive such a commissions, which began when she was only 28 years old. Over a period of 25 years, she painted 43 murals for the capitol.

Books to throw in your suitcase

For Sacramento:

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – an award-winning memoir about Chinese immigrants in California (and so much more) – this one I’ve read and highly recommend, even though it takes place in Stockton, not Sacramento
  • Locke 1928 by Shawna Yang Ryan – if you are particular as to place, this is the story of the tiny town of Locke, a few miles outside Sacramento, which was a hotbed of vice
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – hey, you’re on vacation

And Harrisburg:

  • Visit The Midtown Scholar independent bookstore
  • Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley – classic reminder of life before women’s lib, set in Philadelphia
  • Plain Missing (An Amish Mystery) by Emma Miller – the writing of mystery and romance novels set in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country has become a cottage industry

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Austin Blunk, Courtney McGowan, & Vanessa Morosco; photo: Jerry Dalia

This staple of outdoor summer stages—Shakespeare’s most frequently performed play—is on view in a delightful production from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30. STNJ’s annual outdoor productions are performed in the beautiful Greek amphitheatre of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park, N.J. (take cushions).

STNJ artistic director Bonnie Monte directed the production, and she must have had a very precise idea in mind, because she served as the set and costume designer as well, inspired perhaps by Shakespeare’s own words in the play:

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream,
past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream - 2

Felix Mayes; photo: Jerry Dalia

The sets on the outdoor stage are always fairly simple, but the costumes were knock-your-socks off. Creative recycling was the theme, with iridescent CD’s forming a glittering backdrop for both the forest outside Athens—the fairy world—and a scaly cape for fairy queen Titania. Puck was gleefully porcupinish with headgear and epaulets sprouting colorful chopsticks? pens? A bathtub was filled with wine corks. More than thirty individuals and families received recognition in the program for aid in collecting the hundreds of “items of refuse” that went into the production. This made sense, actually, fairies being notorious pilferers.

We went to a matinee where numerous children were in the audience—an outdoor theater is one venue where sitting still and silent in your seat is not an absolute requirement, particularly for a comedy. Some of the complicated plot—the two sets of characters, the two sets of lovers, the play-within-a-play—may have been difficult for the youngest audience members to follow precisely, but there was such effective physical comedy and so many hilarious touches, like the performance of Ian Hersey as the ass, Bottom, they stuck with it happily.

The cast had many suitably antic performances, including the aforementioned Hersey and Felix Mayes as Puck, Courtney McGowen as Lion, Vanessa Morosco as Titania, and all of the fancifully costumed fairies.

STNJ produces an excellent KnowTheShow guide. Call box office for tickets (973-408-5600) or email: BoxOffice@ShakespeareNJ.org

Oak Park, Illinois, & Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laurel Highlands

Fallingwater (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

This year marks the 150th year anniversary of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth, and the design world is using the occasion to reexamine his ideas and precepts, as well as to celebrate his lasting legacy. My parents were big FLW fans in the 1950s, and my dad designed our little house with many of his principles in mind. Although Wright died almost 60 years ago, in 1969, he’s probably still the architect most Americans can name.

He’s of course known for his many heavily visited landmarks: Fallingwater and the nearby Kentuck Knob south of Pittsburgh, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, and if you go to the Guggenheim Museum, you’re in the Wright place. I’ve also visited the lesser-known, but beautiful Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill., but until this month, had never been to where it all started, in Oak Park, Ill.

If you go, the FLW Trust offers a guided tour of his studio and home, where he lived with his first wife and their children. There’s also an easy walking tour of nine Wright-designed houses in the immediate neighborhood. The Unity Temple, recently refurbished for millions of dollars, is nearby (not yet reopened for visitors as of early July).

After these experiences, you’ll recognize how Wright’s prairie-style designs, daring cantilevers, and use of simple materials for complex effects continue to influence architects today. You may be surprised at how many of his rooms are rather small. He emphasized the quality of the space people were to inhabit, not the quantity.

Wright was a larger-than-life personality—with a messy personal life—and maybe that’s what it took to break with the past and develop new approaches and methods to solve design problems. While he was a modern architect, he didn’t go in for the spare, unembellished approach we think of as “modern.” His work contains a surprising amount of beautiful decoration, in the form of leaded glass, wood carving, brickwork. He even designed the furniture and light fixtures for his buildings.

In a Wright structure, there is always something interesting to draw the eye, including nature—outdoor views he brought inside through thoughtful window placement. So in this 150th year, celebrate an American icon.

See:
Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA, New York City – an exhibit with much new material and insights
Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz.
FLW Trust, Oak Park, Ill.
FLW Public Sites Directory

Special coverage:
Architectural Digest, “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beautiful Houses, Structures & Buildings”
Metropolis, July/August, “Wright, Relevant as Ever”
Bloomberg, “Frank Lloyd Wright Is Not Who You Think He Is”

The Big Sick

The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan  The Big Sick is loosely based on the real-life romance between comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who together wrote the script. Directed by Princeton native Michael Showalter (trailer), it puts fresh juice into the romcom genre.

Kumail’s family moved from Pakistan to the Chicago area when he was a child, in part to give him a better life. What they gave him was an American life. While his parents (played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher) expect religious devotion,  marriage to a Pakistani girl, and a professional career, he’s become perhaps too assimilated—secular, uninterested in an arranged marriage with any of the beautiful but traditional young women his mother parades before him, and a part-time Uber driver focused on developing his skills as a stand-up comic. At the downscale comedy club where he works he meets graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan), and the two of them hit it off. Really well.

Ultimately, though, if he marries a woman who’s not Pakistani, he knows his family will disown him. When Emily at length senses the problem, she asks, “Can you envision a future where the two of us are together?” He can’t say it, but he shakes his head, and she breaks off the relationship.

Kumail finds out Emily has developed a mysterious illness and is hospitalized with cascading medical complications. He goes to visit her and ends up signing papers allowing the doctors to put her in a medically induced coma. Now he’s responsible, and he cannot leave her bedside. Her frantic parents (played to perfection by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) arrive from North Carolina. Aware of the unhappy break-up, they are not very friendly, and now Kumail must deal with them too. And his wobbly career.

Nanjiani does a terrific job as himself (much harder than it might seem). He occasionally reminds me of Bill Murray, in the way he has of being acutely observant and still, as if thinking, “Ok, I’m smiling, but would somebody please tell me what the hell’s going on here?!!?”

The acting all around is warm-hearted and true. Particularly enjoyable are the other comics (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) jabbing each other mercilessly. They’re all experienced, well-regarded comedians IRL, and kudos to Braunohler for taking the role of a somewhat dim guy who the others decide is really not that funny.

It’s sweet, you’ll laugh, and it has a rewarding core of truth.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; Audiences: 92%.

Spy Fic: “Freshly Relevant”

Spy

photo: Joshua Rappeneker, creative commons license

The old saw “truth is stranger than fiction” was never more apt than when applied to the Trump Administration. Back in February, its bull-in-the-China-shop approach to national security inspired me to create a recommended reading list—as a public service [!]—comprising a few thrillers that would illustrate how espionage works and how to behave in order to protect our country and its secrets. The books on that list provide a much more exciting and vivid curriculum than tedious daily briefings, for sure. Apparently, my post came too late for Don Jr. Ah, well, authors keep trying. And the parallels keep emerging.

Last Friday Dwyer Murphy in LitHub said he also finds spy literature “freshly relevant.” And apparently, Senator Tom Cotton agrees. Murphy’s essay, “10 Great Spy Thrillers That Could be New York Times Headlines” starts like this:

The cast of characters is almost too much to believe: a Russian pop star, a British tabloid veteran, an attorney with mysterious ties to the Kremlin, a Moscow-funded lobbyist running a White House campaign, a real estate scion married into political power, and the son of the soon-to-be President of the United States.

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

Murphy contends that you can get “uncannily close” to the strategies and schemes filling 2017 newspapers—and understand how the U.S.-Russia relationship got to be what it was and is—all while lounging in your beach chair with some pretty exciting novels. I remember wondering what John le Carré would do after the Cold War ended. Now we know. Trot out his backlist.

Here are Murphy’s picks that I’ve read too:

  • The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton – “cynical, paranoid, and savvy”; and the 1965 Michael Caine movie was a winner too
  • Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst – The hero of this novel is caught up in the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, “a work on a grand scale”—I’m a big Furst fan.
  • The Human Factor, by Graham Greene – Like many of Furst’s books, Greene’s classic starts with the protagonist, an MI6 operative near retirement, taking a few slight actions to aid the Communists and, when he’s in too deep, finding out they have an altogether different game on. The film version had an all-star cast and a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré – Murphy calls this the ne plus ultra of the Russian spy game. Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy is the favorite of other writers, including Philip Roth.
  • The English Girl, by Daniel Silva – Silva has cited this novel when discussing the Russian interference in the U.S. election. “KGB playbook 101,” he reportedly said.

If you still have room in your vacation suitcase, the other books on his list (which I have not read) are: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, David Downing’s Zoo Station, Mesmerized by Gayle Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana, Seventeen Moments of Spring by Yulian Semyonov, and JFK’s favorite, From Russia with Love, by Ian Fleming. Read all these and you will be every bit as well prepared to manage our country’s security services as some of the people actually doing so.

The Bungler

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Kevin Isola & James Michael Reilly; photo by Jerry Dalia

Molière’s classic, but infrequently produced comedy about a lovelorn swain and his wily servant premiered July 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and is on stage through July 30. The theater’s promotion promises that “if laughter is good medicine, then this show will cure all ills,” and the production directed by Brian B. Crowe leaves the audience well-healed.

Adhering to the strict requirements and principles of French Neoclassicism, Molière’s first full-length play has a single plot that takes place in one setting, in a compressed time span. His characters reflect the conventions of their class (the principle of decorum) and their actions and attitudes are real, probable, and (mostly) believable (the principle of verisimilitude). Molière stretches those rigid rules, established by the redoubtable Cardinal Richelieu, as much as he can through the introduction of elements of Italian Commedia dell’Arte. Many of The Bungler’s characters typify that tradition.

In Messina, Sicily, the young Lélie (played by Aaron McDaniel) falls for a servant, a ravishing gypsy girl (Sophia Blum). Upper-class, but without financial prospects, he must contrive a way to free her from her curmudgeonly master (Eric Hoffman). Alas, Lélie is not very bright, and relies on his valet Mascarille (a classic harlequin, played by Kevin Isola) to develop some ingenious plan. Complicating the valet’s stratagems are a formidable romantic rival (Sam Ashdown), Lélie’s upstanding father (Drew Dix), a money lender who could help out, wants to, then . . . (James Michael Reilly), and his glamorous daughter (Devin Conway).

All of these fine players (and others) eventually figure in Mascarille’s clever stratagems, none of which are understood by Lélie, who at every turn foils certain victory. Although there is only one plot in the play (as required by Cardinal Richelieu’s rules), Molière finds ever-more imaginative ways to set up and carry out the joke, which left the audience laughing uproariously in both anticipation and execution.

Director Crowe keeps the action moving, thanks to his skilled players’ exquisite timing and aided greatly by the many talents of Isola as Mascarille for both physical comedy and the on-point delivery of a line. McDaniel as Lélie, the perpetually confused yet inexplicably confident suitor, is a picture of bafflement. The set design by Dick Block is like a trip to the candy store, and Paul Canada’s costumes are beyond beautiful.

The Bungler, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Sophia Blum, Kevin Isola, & Aaron McDaniel; photo: Jerry Dalia

The STNJ used a translation of The Bungler by Richard Wilbur, the nation’s second poet laureate. Wilbur has won numerous awards for his translations, as well as his own work. The brilliance of his achievement is evidenced by the fact that, although the dialog

proceeds in couplets throughout, this device never becomes tiresome. Instead, it repeatedly delights with its freshness.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey produces an excellent know-the-show guide for each production. Performances are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!

Distances:

From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels

Travel Tip: Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga VNP

photo: Cuyahoga jco, creative commons license

If what springs to mind when you hear “Cuyahoga River” are the images from 1969 when the highly polluted waterway actually burned, the long, narrow Cuyahoga Valley National Park will be a more than pleasant surprise. Not only did the infamous fire prompt environmental legislation that led to a desperately needed clean-up of rivers nationwide, it got some folks thinking about the positive aspects of the river and the beauty of the valley through which it flows. Once nearly barren of fish and wildlife, it’s now a thriving habitat.

I’m told the word Cuyahoga comes from a Mohawk Indian word for “crooked,” and this river does indeed twist and turn repeatedly on its 85-mile journey, first southward, then north, eventually emptying into Lake Erie in the city of Cleveland. The Indians would make the eight-mile portage from the Cuyahoga to the Tuscarawas River for access to the Ohio, then the Mississippi and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: David Fulmer, creative commons license

What To Do There

As Europeans settled the area, the Cuyahoga become the waterway that enabled construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal between industrial Cleveland and tire-manufacturing mecca Akron. The meticulously maintained canal towpath is now a centerpiece of the park’s offerings, well traveled by walkers and bicyclists.

Also nestled in the valley is a historic train line, which runs the length of the park. From the train, you can not only appreciate the surrounding woodlands and adjacent villages, so removed from urban bustle, but you also may view wildlife. Passengers on our trip saw hawks, a young eagle, turtles, deer, and the tourists swarming the bicycle rental shop in the tiny town of Peninsula.

The Park has nearly 125 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty for hikers, skiers, and horseback riders, camping options (we stayed at a ritzy B&B), canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, and lovely Brandywine Falls (pictured). We visited a huge marsh created when beavers were introduced into an area that was the former site of an auto salvage lot. A green heron visited when we did.

covered bridge. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: Tim Evanson, creative commons license

Villages incorporated in the park harbor interesting features: a covered bridge (closed in the evening for clog-dancing), huge farmer’s market, canal locks, a ski resort, golfing, nature education centers, canal history, and the famous Blossom Music Center concert venue. So near to major cities, on weekdays at least, it’s a true getaway for all seasons.

 

Distances:
Planning on a visit of a day or two or just a stopover when driving through, here’s how close you are when you’re in Cleveland: 24 miles, 36 minutes or
Pittsburgh: 123 miles, two hours.

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – beautifully written novel about the unexplainable death of a teenager
  • All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House by David Giffels – a young family’s trials when reclaiming a rubber-baron’s elegant Akron mansion from the forces of nature (rain, critters, wisteria)
  • Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner – a novel about social class, city movers and shakers, and the Cuyahoga River—“funny, tough, elegiac”
  • The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case by James Neff – the real-life 1954 murder case that made F. Lee Bailey famous

On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!