The Craftsman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665

The world premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Craftsman, held over until December 17 at the Lantern Theater Company in Center City Philadelphia, explores a thought-provoking dilemma from the fine art world.

You may remember the post-World War II scandal created by an exceedingly minor Dutch artist (Han van Meegeren) charged with high treason for stealing his country’s cultural heritage. He’d sold hitherto undiscovered paintings by Johannes Vermeer out of the country, one of them to German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The crime was the more heinous because of the very small number of Vermeer’s works. Only 34 of his confirmed paintings survive.

At his trial, Van Meegeren mounted an unexpected and now-famous defense that shook the art worlds in The Netherlands and beyond. He claimed he painted the “Vermeers” he sold himself. The critics who’d authenticated the works wouldn’t back down, making the trial a legendary showdown.

The Craftsman, directed by M. Craig Getting, covers the arrest of van Meegeren (played expertly by Anthony Lawton) by former Dutch Resistance officer, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), flashbacks of the scathing criticism of van Meegeren’s own work by noted art critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan), and the trial.

In this small theater, a clever L-shaped set, designed by Meghan Jones, effectively works as van Meegeren’s cell, Pillel’s office, and the courtroom. Janelle Kauffman designed projections of Vermeer’s paintings and the disputed works that turn the walls into an art gallery, enabling the audience to consider for itself the controversies the case raises.

If you saw the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, you will recall that Vermeer’s characteristic style, as the “master of light,” has engendered admiration for hundreds of years, and special exhibitions of Vermeer’s paintings draw record crowds.

By exploring the van Meegeren episode, The Craftsman asks a series of interesting questions: “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?”; what are the limits of connoisseurship (a timely question, given the recent $450 million sale of a painting that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci); and, for that matter, how is the value of any creative work established?

Can’t Get to Philly?

The Art of Forgery, by Noah Charney, profiles van Meegeren’s escapade, and many other famous forgeries throughout history, reviewed here.

Tim’s Vermeer, an entertaining documentary about how a non-artist used a camera obscura in an attempt to duplicate Johannes Vermeer’s technique, reviewed here.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel, by Tracy Chevalier, a romance about Vermeer’s most famous painting; made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

It’s a Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

John Keabler & Elizabeth Colwell. Photo: Jerry Dalia

For many Americans, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a repeat viewing of the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. You can also see this heart-warmer, on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Opening night was December 9, and the production directed by Doug West, will be playing through December 31.

In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation presented here, the story is staged as a live 1940s radio play, and the audience is, well, the studio audience. (In real life, the film was adapted for radio several times.) This stage version offers the opportunity for cast members to interact, not just as the radio-play’s characters, but also as actors in a radio studio. Other delightful touches include the “Applause” light that flashes above the stage manager’s glass booth, the advertisements for hair tonic and soap presented Andrews Sisters style, the presence on stage of the sound effects man (foley artist Warren Pace), whose activities are endlessly entertaining (and effective!), and the live piano playing of cast members, especially Russell Sperberg, who plays hero George Bailey’s younger brother and wrote original music for the production.

Lest you fear all this peripheral activity detracts from the story of George Bailey’s (played by John Keabler) discovery of the importance of his life, it does not. The actors, placed mostly in front of standing mikes, create believable relationships, and the one between George and his wife Mary (Susan Maris) is especially strong. Angel Clarence Oddbody (Andy Paterson) watches over the unfolding story, just as expected. All secondary actors play multiple parts, with vocal changes that, if you closed your eyes, would work perfectly for radio.

There’s one set (the studio) and one basic costume, embellished with hats and vests and aprons to distinguish among the characters. These quick-change artists include John Ahlin (who plays evil Mr. Potter and others), Elizabeth Colwell (Violet, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu), Leavell Javon Johnson (the announcer, Horace, and others), James Michael Reilly (Billy Bailey and others), the aforementioned Russell Sperberg (Harry Bailey and others), and Tina Stafford (George’s mother and others). All the acting is totally up to this fast-paced production. My only reservation is that Keabler’s portrayal of George relies less on his own individual characterization and a bit too much on Jimmy Stewart’s, while I suspect Keabler is well capable of developing George in his own way.

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!

LA Cultural Forays – Travel Tips

Los Angeles is more than surfing dudes and starlets. But you knew that. Our recent visit included a toe-dip into some truly world-class cultural institutions.

The Museums

LACMA

Streetlamps on Parade

In conjunction with a visit to the adjacent LaBrea Tar Pits, we visited three museums in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) complex. We wandered down the serene walkway of the Pavilion for Japanese Art vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s sinuous Guggenheim—a sure cure for I-10 traffic stresses. We didn’t allow time (perhaps a week-and-a-half!) to fully take in the other buildings’ exhibits, but did hook up with a Resnick Pavilion tour of a temporary exhibit about artistic cross-fertilization between SoCal and Mexico, “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico: 1915-1985.” Led by a knowledgeable and interesting docent, we got a lot out of it.

We walked through the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, happening upon Chris Burden’s delightful Metropolis II (see it in frenetic action here), which actually runs only limited weekend hours. Even at a standstill, amazing.

On another visit, I want to check out the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Automotive Museum, all of which are in LACMA’s vicinity.

12/12 UPDATE – The Getty Center reopened 12/8 after a two-day closure due to wildfires in the vicinity. Buildings were kept closed to protect the collection. Why the art can stay.

Getty Center

Bougainvillea bouquets at the Getty

The lengthy trip (in terms of time, not distance) to the Getty Center ends at a tram stop, from which you’re whisked uphill to the art museums proper. Again, there are multiple buildings, with views to the hills, the Pacific, and downtown in between them. We took a grounds tour, learning about the architecture and construction choices, as well as the landscaping, which is equally part of the complex’s design. The “museum highlights” tour sounded like an efficient idea, but is totally dependent on the current whims of its docent-leader. Ours had a deep affinity for Saint Jerome. Even so, she got us in and out of several buildings. Paintings are distributed over the top floors of several of the pavilions, where they can get better light, and decorative arts occupy the bottom floors. A temporary exhibit I gladly spent time in was “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.” (One of my many odd passions.) So much was lost, and what was saved is so remarkable.

Music and Theater

Walt Disney Concert HallWe weren’t willing to take out a new mortgage on our house, so did not purchase tickets for a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. However, we took the acoustiguide tour of its several floors, which allowed us to see many parts of the building, excluding the auditorium itself—too much demand for rehearsals, they say. Beautiful, and the building’s curved aluminum skin changes color and appearance as the light changes. (You can take a virtual tour at the website above.) And within walking distance, theoretically, to our hotel.

 

One evening we attended a performance at the Ahmanson Theatre, across the street from the Disney Concert Hall. The theaters in the complex have a full season of opera, plays, and other performances. We saw the musical Bright Star, written by Edie Brickell and Steven Martin (yes, that one). The story was more than a bit predictable, but the production and cast were first-rate.

So You Shouldn’t Starve

Patina, a $$$$$ restaurant in the performing arts complex serves delicious food, with (more of a rarity these days) impeccably gracious service. It was our gastro-splurge. We had a nice lunch at the Getty, as well.

Books to Toss in Your Suitcase

Hooray for Hollywood! – Travel Tips

Walk of Stars

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.

Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).

On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?

Grauman’s Theatres

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

photo: wikimedia, creative commons license

Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.

Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.

Why Starve Yourself?

We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.

Books to Toss into Your Suitcase:
The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West
A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)

The Importance of Being Earnest

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is putting on a silky-smooth version of Oscar Wilde’s classic satire, now through December 3. Although the witty dialog keeps coming and coming, you dare not do more than chuckle or you’ll miss the next line. The show’s directed by Michael Cumpsty, whom Princetonians may remember as Henry Higgins in McCarter Theatre’s excellent My Fair Lady a few years back.

Importance of Being Earnest

Sam Lilja & Liesel Allen Yeager, photo by T. Charles Erickson

And here are a few of those timeless lines:

  • The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
  • No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
  • The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Artistic Director John Dias’s program notes say this about Wilde’s brilliant dialog: “We feel both horror and delight when witnessing this expert employment of language—its flexibility and the kind of doubleness of meaning that both masks truth and somehow reveals it.”

If you haven’t seen this play recently—or if by some mishap you’ve never seen it—this is a sparkling version. The two leads, friends Algernon Moncrieff (played by Sam Lilja) and Jack Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) are especially strong, and Liesel Allen Yeager’s Cecily Cardew is a delightful flirt.

The men fall in love, and though the women are willing, circumstances are not. How they sort out the absurdity of  Jack’s dubious origins—as a baby, he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station (“The line is immaterial!”)—and the women’s outré determination to marry men named Earnest . . . well you’ll have to experience those pleasures for yourself.

Excellent scenery from Charlie Corcoran and costumes from Jess Goldstein.

In a before-the-show talk, cast member Henry Vick (perfect as Algie’s super-discreet butler) reminds audience members that only a few months after this play opened in London to great acclaim in 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He never wrote another play.

Today, 117 years since Wilde’s death in Paris, a penniless man, we can reflect on how Victorian society, which he skewered so lightheartedly in Earnest, would seem to have had the last word, yet the fact that audiences still delight in his work and flock to see it  suggests a different outcome.

La La Land

traffic, Los AngelesEnvision nine days in Los Angeles Thanksgiving week. Is this what you see? This terrifying photo’s  from 2016, and I’m happy to say it wasn’t that bad this past week. With GoogleMaps directions, we survived. Most days, we got around pretty well. No dents in the rental car. No need to reenact “Another Day of Sun” from the hit movie La La Land. Are you curious how they turned a traffic jam into a musical extravaganza? Watch how they did it!

We stayed downtown at the Hilton Checkers, which was close to great restaurants and other walkable destinations—practically straight uphill to the cultural attractions at The Music Center and Center Theatre Group though. For that, we used Lyft.

It’s a 188-room boutique hotel, with a Spanish-style façade, designed in the 1920s by Charles Whittlesey, who designed the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. Online sources differ regarding the origin of the name—the staff didn’t know—with some saying it’s named after Chequers, the traditional country retreat of the UK Prime Minister. “Richard Nixon’s dog” gets my vote.

To ease into a different time zone, our first night we ate dinner in the hotel. Given that there were only about three tables of diners, and despite our modest expectations, the food was amazingly good. If we hadn’t had so many other cuisine choices and logistical considerations, we would gladly have eaten there again. Staff was terrific.

Friends who stayed at the Checkers a few years ago report a beautiful rooftop pool. The Internet has pictures of it. We were there nine days and never saw or heard a thing about it. It may be gone or out of season.

Related travel tips:

coffee mug, traffic

My favorite museum gift shop coffee mug.

Now THAT’s devotion!

Big Thanks for Small Blessings

Turkeys

photo: Paul VanDerWerf, creative commons license

“Family and friends” people say when asked what they are most thankful for. I agree, though as a run-up to Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about the small things that warm my heart. Here are five:

  • Our local farmer’s market, considered the best in New Jersey (which is, after all, “The Garden State”) has added immeasurably to our family’s quality of life
  • The color blue—not just any shade, the blue of mysotis and morning glories. This will come as a surprise to everyone who knows my favorite color is green. I am not alone:
  • The fish and frogs who call my pond home. Not the snakes.
  • The folks who’ve come up with new taglines for the news media “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (Washington Post); “Stand with the Facts” (NPR).
  • The Oxford comma and other grammar rules and conventions that help bring order to the words I put on the page.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

A Fresh Crop of Movies Based on 2017 Books

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

I wish a bang-up movie would be made from James Joyce’s Ulysses, so I could watch it and no longer feel guilty I’ve never read this nearly 700-page classic. OK, I’m a heretic.

As for lesser works, this same time-saving compulsion makes me glad Paula Hawkins’s new book, Into the Water, is among the 2017 novels being prepped for the tv or the movies. Having seen the film of her so-so debut, The Girl on the Train, I don’t want to spend more than two hours on the new story, if that.

Shayna Murphy in the BookBub Blog has compiled a list of 22 recent books en route to screens large and small. No surprise that Stephen King’s 700+ page Sleeping Beauties, written with his younger son Owen, is on the list, despite tepid reviews. Ditto James Patterson and David Ellis’s Black Book, whose protagonists and plot Kirkus Reviews deemed “more memorable than Patterson’s managed in quite a while.”

I’m delighted that Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for television. Like her remarkable earlier mystery, Everything I Never Told You, it’s about family secrets under the deceptively placid surface of suburbia. I’m also excited about plans for a movie of Artemis—another futuristic tale by Andy Weir, whose book The Martian translated so effectively to film in 2015—and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, set in our Civil War past, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope Hollywood doesn’t make a hash of them.

Some critics considered Don Winslow’s disappointing book The Force to have been a victim of early interest in making a movie out of it. The characters turned to cardboard and the complexity of his much better The Cartel went out the window. In his story, Manhattan reveals itself to be top-to-bottom corrupt, unbelievably so. And, yes, that movie is coming 3/1/19. Maybe playwright David Mamet can save it.

Two fine literary authors are in the movie mix: Alice McDermott for The Ninth Hour and Jennifer Egan for Manhattan Beach. About this book, Alexandra Schwartz writes that, to Egan, 9/11 felt “like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world” and the new book, set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s, was a backwards look to “what was the beginning of that something.” My book group loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man called Ove, which I didn’t have a chance to read (or see on film), and now a television series is planned for his book, Beartown.

All in all, some tantalizing screen-time coming up.

Weekend Movie Picks: LBJ & Battle of the Sexes

Spanning the short period 1960 to 1973, these two movies are based on real events—political, in the largest sense, and human, with their subjects’ vulnerabilities and strengths on view on a very public stage.

LBJ

LBJ - HarrelsonWoody Harrelson as LBJ? Actually, the Texas actor does a fine job in this eponymous movie written by Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner (trailer). When it comes to the history depicted, this film gets it more right than most, partly because Reiner took the time to read and absorb the Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin histories.

In 1960, LBJ is a genius in the Senate, though he’s profane, even vulgar, the opposite of the Kennedy clan. Johnson won’t say whether he plans to run for president in 1960 because, his aides suggest, “he’s afraid he’ll lose.” Lady Bird (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) overhears and corrects them: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.”

When Jack Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) surprisingly asks the Texan to become his vice president, Johnson accepts. You think it may be as much to tweak Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who obviously loathes him, as anything else. One of the most uncomfortable scenes occurs when he corners Bobby in a door alcove and says, “Bobby, why don’t you like me?”

Johnson never expects this office will be a sure path to the presidency, especially not after a mere thousand days. Seeing how the public loves Jack, and the outpouring of grief after the assassination, he apparently decides the best way to make people love him is to pursue Kennedy’s policy relentlessly. And, thankfully, he did.

That decision brought us new Civil Rights laws, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start—and, tragically, the full-on Vietnam War. (The War just received the full Ken Burns treatment and isn’t touched on much here.) He achieves those programs by continuing his masterful managing of the Senate, personalized here by Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) and Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins).

Though the critics are cool to it, for the accurate history and some fine performances, it’s nevertheless worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 52%; audiences 64%.

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the SexesThis film is much lighter fare, though it certainly has moments of intensity (trailer). Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it shows the lead-up to the famous 1973 tennis match between world number one women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). You even get a bit of Howard Cosell, though filmmaking magic.

In 1970, women tennis players received far less (about a tenth, I think) prize money than the men, because, as the head of the lawn tennis association explained (Bill Pullman again), women’s tennis is just less interesting. King led a walkout, and the women left the association to form a new league. With Virginia Slims cigarettes as a sponsor, they had their own competitive tour (ironically, none of them smoked), managed by highly entertaining Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) who does.

In that context, Riggs—a hustler and clown, playing tennis costumed as Little Bo Peep, complete with sheep, wearing swim fins, and the like—said he could easily beat the best woman player. “I love women,” he says, “in the kitchen and in the bedroom,” an attitude, unfortunately, newly topical. King takes up the challenge. While she trains, he cavorts.

Home life isn’t simple for either of them. Riggs’s wife has left him, tired of his gambling, and King, though married, has her first lesbian relationship. At the time, public knowledge of that might have destroyed her career.

Emma Stone does a fine job—likeable and focused—and Carell is a believably driven character, teetering on tragedy as comics convey so well.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 84%; audiences 76%.

Shakespeare in Love

Perhaps you remember remember the charming 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Lee Hall—best known for Billy Elliott—has transformed Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay into a theatrical version, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through November 12. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directed this lively production, which she describes as “a perfectly ebullient homage to Shakespeare, to life, to love, to the art of theatre, to the centuries of players who inhabit our stages, and to the process of creating art . . . a delight from beginning to end.”

Will Shakespeare (played by Jon Barker) is having trouble finding the right words for a sonnet, and is helped by his friend, fellow playwright, and competitor Kit Marlowe (Anthony Marble). Will encounters the enchanting young Viola de Lesseps (Whitney Maris Brown) and Marlowe again feeds him the words he needs to entrance her.

Viola, on the cusp of marriage, is smitten with the stage and, disguised as a man, tries out for Shakespeare’s new barely-begun play, and is tapped for the part of Romeo. With Viola as his muse, the Bard’s writing takes off. It being forbidden for women to appear on stage at the time, the lovers are in risky territory, not least because Viola’s fiancé (Marcus Dean Fuller) believes Something is Up.

The perils of casting, the comedic antics of rehearsals, the wiles of Viola’s nurse (Erika Rolfsrud), and the parallels between the evolving play and obstacles to the lovers keep the action moving in about a dozen directions at once. A fine—and large—supporting cast, especially noting Ames Adamson, Edmond Genest, Garrett Lawson, and David Andrew Macdonald, plays about forty roles! Spot, (Boston Terrier Dublin Delancy McFinnigan) makes his bone-afide theatrical debut, well trained by Seamus Mulcahy (playing John Webster). (Mulcahy has produced a DVD of dogs performing Shakespeare. A niche product in so many ways.)

Jon Barker and Whitney Maris Brown generate considerable heat in their lovely scenes together. Barker is a frequent STNJ cast member and has a gift for achieving perfect body language and gestures in any role, including this one.

Mention should be made of the energetic and entertaining way the cast pitches in with the set dressing for the numerous scene changes. Brian Clinnin’s deceptively simple-looking scenic design lends itself to transformations from lowly tavern to royal theater box to boat on the Thames.

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!