Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

****The Idol of Mombasa

Mombasa, Africa, Masks

photo: Angelo Juan Ramos, creative commons license

By Annamaria AlfieriSet in 1912 in the British Protectorate of East Africa (now Kenya), The Idol of Mombasa is Alfieri’s second novel featuring Justin and Vera Tolliver. In this book, the newlyweds embark on a none-too-welcome stay in the steamy, smelly coastal city of Mombasa, where Justin is the new Assistant District Superintendent of Police.

In Mombasa, they find themselves in a deliciously rendered stewpot of mixed racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds and loyalties. Though the local government is British, Mombasa—and that portion of its population that is Arab—remains under the significant influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British have introduced into the police service their loyal Indian subjects, and Africans of many tribes fill the population.

The Tollivers are a mix too. Justin is the second son of a Yorkshire earl. He had a conventional if aristocratic upbringing, but possesses no fortune. Vera is more of a free spirit. She’s the daughter of a Scottish missionary, born and raised in the Protectorate’s pastoral up-country region.

The conflicts inherent between and among such wildly diverse people are tailor-made for both social and domestic drama.

The novel’s prologue describes a daring nighttime slave and ivory smuggling operation, and the book’s central dilemma relates to the illegal, but quietly tolerated practice of holding and selling slaves. Vera is an absolutist, unable to countenance slavery in any form, whereas Justin may be as morally opposed, but constrained by unwritten policy and his superiors.

When a runaway slave is murdered, followed soon after by the death of a notorious Arab slave-trafficker, Justin and Vera both set out to find the perpetrator—he in his official capacity and she with secret, possibly risky, and sometimes unaccountably naïve actions of her own. Conflict between the couple is thereby assured, as Justin alternately admires and is frustrated by Vera’s passionate, impulsive personality.

Alfieri’s descriptions of exotic Mombasa and its environs a hundred years ago vividly evoke the setting. Her writing is clear and interesting, yet somehow doesn’t exude a strong sense of menace, despite the cast of desperate characters and perilous environment. She keeps multiple plot balls up in the air, through a set of intriguing and well-drawn secondary characters. The net result is that this atmospheric novel transports you back in time and across continents to set you down in the middle of Mombasa, 1912.

A longer version of this review appeared at crimefictionlover.com.

Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Yesterday in New York City—terrible weather threatening all day, and a one-hour train trip home transformed into a six-hour wait-a-thon due to downed wires. Trains packed to bursting!

All that couldn’t dampen my enthusiastic endorsement of the Rolling Stones exhibit at Industria, a show venue in Manhattan’s West Village near the south end of the Highline (775 Washington Street, entrance on 12th), on view until March 12.

Seeing Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the others throughout a fantastic 50-year career tickles a lot of memories. One of the themes of the show is how they—Mick and Charlie, especially—recognized early that there was more to “show business” than their music. As a result they involve many of the arts and artists in their work. Alliances with folks like Andy Warhol and top set designers, graphic artists, and fashion designers led not only to innovative, memorable album covers and shows, but also plenty of interesting material for this exhibit!

The music gets its due, as well. You see a recreation of one of their favorite studios, lyrics as they wrote them in a notebook, and, if you’ve ever picked up a guitar, the display of many beautiful instruments they’ve used over the years and their comments about them are fascinating.

An early apartment is recreated (you wouldn’t want to live there), and the show ends with a 3-D movie. “Satisfaction,” indeed.

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

Loving

loving, Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

Ruth Negga & Joel Edgerton in Loving

The landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which ended state bans on interracial marriage is brought to life here, lovingly, (trailer). This fine film is from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose script has been called subtle and “scrupulously intelligent.”

Hard though it may be to believe that miscegenation laws persisted more than a century after the Civil War, at the time the case was decided, 16 Southern states had such laws. Virginia’s law put Richard Loving and his wife, Mildred Jeter Loving—and their three children—at serious risk.

Richard and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., knowing Virginia authorities would give them problems, and when they return home and are caught, their attorney advises them to plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They are given a suspended sentence contingent on a promise to leave Virginia and not return (together) for at least 25 years. If they are found together in the state, they’ll go to prison. The judge’s sentence effectively turns them into exiles in their own country.

Life in the District of Columbia is not easy or pleasant for two rural people. It is too crowded, too loud, too fast, and too dangerous for their children. But the Civil Rights movement is happening around them, and a letter Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy ends up in the hands of the American Civil Liberties Union, which takes on their case pro bono.

The decisions the Lovings make and why they make them are the meat of the movie. And while they don’t necessarily understand the machinations of the law and the courts or the strategies of their lawyers, their quiet courage is clear. As critic Mal Vincent wrote in the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, “In the end, when you think about the film’s ‘message,’ it is a very simple one. With so much hate in the world, should we suppress any effort to express love?”

With a strong supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred do a standout job in low-key, tender performances that never stray into sentimentality. Late in the day, Richard is asked whether there’s anything he wants to say to the Supreme Court Justices. He gives his lawyer a how can I make this any plainer? glance and says, “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” That’s all the Court—and the Virginia legislature, and the county sheriff, and anyone else—should need to know.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences, 79%

Mama’s Boy

Mama's Boy, Michael Goldsmith, Betsy Aidem

Michael Goldsmith & Betsy Aidem, photo: T. Charles Erickson

First up in the George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick, N.J.) 2016-17 season is Mama’s Boy, by Rob Urbinati. It’s a family drama about a very particular family—that of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the period leading up to and after the events of November 1963. Directed by David Saint, the play runs from October 18 through November 6.

The assassination of President Kennedy continues its dark fascination. Already this year I’ve read two thrillers that riff on the case, and Hulu televised a terrific 11.22.63 (starring James Franco, Chris Cooper, and Sarah Gadon), based on the even-better Stephen King time-travel book, 11/22/63.

Mama’s Boy probes the assassination from the viewpoint of Oswald’s monomaniacal mother, Marguerite. In real life, she did try to put herself at the center of the story, and Urbinati capitalizes on her obsession to great dramatic effect. Marguerite (played beautifully by Betsy Aidem) is convinced—or claims to be—that Lee’s defection to Russia, his U.S. return 32 months later, and the plot to kill Kennedy, were orchestrated by the State Department or FBI, for whom he was working as an agent.

Oswald himself (Michael Goldsmith) doesn’t give her theories the time of day. He is preoccupied with finding a “clean” job to support his baby daughter June and wife Marina (Laurel Casillo) and, subsequently, getting to Cuba. He refuses help from his mother—not an easy job, that—but older brother Robert (Miles G. Jackson) provides some support.

Marguerite says Lee is the only one of her boys who ever loved her. (They shared a bed until he was 12.) She is manipulative and distrusting, overbearing and intrusive, wildly jealous of Marina, and believes the “little people” will never receive any help or support from the government, the media, or other social institution. She rails at the fact that Jackie Kennedy is escorted to and from Parkland Hospital, where the President died, whereas she—equally deserving, she thinks—gets nothing. Her domestic drama plays out as tragedy writ both small and large, at the level of the living room and on the world stage.

Urbinati’s vision of warped mother-love is as powerful as that of Gypsy’s Mama Rose, and Aidem has called Marguerite “the role of a lifetime,” and the skewed vision thrust upon Oswald (who was barely 24 at the time of the assassination) may make you think somewhat differently about him.

Mama’s Boy premiered in Portland, Maine, in October 2015, with Aidem and Casillo in their current roles. It’s clear they inhabit these characters totally. The men, newcomers to the play, are fine. Also in the cast is multiple Tony-award-winner Boyd Gaines, who plays one of Marguerite’s interviewers in voiceover.

Saint and the production staff have made the most of George Street’s capacity, using projections in combination with the revolving stage platform. Admirable use of technology!

For tickets, call the box office at 732-246-7717 or visit the box office online. The theater is an easy 10-minute walk from New Jersey Transit’s New Brunswick station.

Feats of True Grit

suitcase, Asian

photo adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

In this political season, when so much airtime has been expelled on the issue of immigration and the negative characterization of immigrants, I’m reminded of what a rich vein of stories the immigration experience has provided us and continues to do so.

Immigration Stories in Literature

Shawna Yang Ryan has written a beautiful meditation on recent immigration. Her mother immigrated from Taiwan when she married Ryan’s father and worked for a time as an “Avon lady”—a desperate choice that daily forced her to confront strangers at their own front doors and in their language, to face rejection. “To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit,” Ryan says.

The immigrant’s persistent sense of dislocation and not-belonging has nourished many great stories. We think of Cólm Toibín’s Brooklyn. We think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, of Sandra Cisneros and her culture-straddling kin, never feeling fully at home anywhere, of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. We may even think of The Godfather and his literary family.

And In Your Own Back Yard

These stories, separate and unique, yet all similar and at a fundamental level, shared, are the sometimes uneasy bedrock of America, “a rich array of experiences: loss, longing, duality, triumph and contradiction,” as revealed by the immigration stories of Latinos who work for National Public radio.

Members of my mother’s family came to America as early as 1634, but on my father’s side, I know little. I’ve researched and developed a speculative jigsaw puzzle of these grandparents’ separate experiences. Hungary was all my dad knew, and the rough time period, 1900-1910.

The treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I changed their origin story forever. My grandfather, to the best I can determine, came from a part of Hungary that is now Romania (Transylvania, to be exact), and my grandmother, about whom I know even less, from a Hungarian region ceded to Czechoslovakia, now the Slovak Republic.

Share your family’s immigration experience at MyImmigrationStory.com, whose message is a nice counterpoint to the political debate: “Statistics do not tell the story of immigration. People do.”

Mad-Town & Milwaukee

UWisc marching band

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A recent midwest trip took us to spots in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you might want to add to your touring agenda.

Madison

In town for a University of Wisconsin football game, we put on our red shirts and walked to Camp Randall stadium on a gorgeous fall day. There’s nothing like the Big Ten football game for over-the-top pageantry. The 300-member Wisconsin marching band is justifiably famous for both musicality and precision maneuvers, plus cheerleaders, pep squad, Bucky Badger, smoke cannon, and boistrosity.

When the opposing team took the field, taking note of the deafening roar from a sea of red, I thought they might just turn around and go home. The Wisconsin fans may have wished they had that day, because though the spectacle was great, the UW football was only so-so (video highlights). In the end, though, Badgers ruled!

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum (which currently has a special exhibit of World War I posters) provides a manageably sized, well designed tour of Wisconsin residents’ role in the military, from the Civil War to the present day. (30 West Mifflin Street on the Square).

Madison, state capitol

Wisconsin state capitol dome – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The State Capitol is well worth a visit. We didn’t take one of the guided tours, and just walking around the building offered plenty to see. Beautiful murals throughout the Supreme Court and legislative chambers (missed it, if there’s a brochure explaining these). The rotunda I’m told that, of all the state capitols, is most like that in Washington, D.C. Building and grounds are in impeccable, restored condition.

 

Hungry? Great places to eat:

  • with kids: Ella’s Deli, 2902 East Washington Avenue
  • if you love Italian: Naples 15, 15 North Butler Street
  • for a casual, tavern atmosphere: Old Fashioned, Pinckney Street on the Square

Milwaukee

To recreated our experience in Milwaukee, I’d have to provide the contact information for a lot of friends and family members! Failing that, something all visitors might enjoy—either in Milwaukee or in a theater near you—is the IMAX National Parks Adventure, narrated by Robert Redford (trailer). This will be one of the last films to be fully shot on 70mm celluloid, rather than digitally.

It’s a terrific, dizziness-inspiring look at our nation’s jewels—from Hawaiˋi to Acadia, from the Everglades to Alaska, from hot, hot, hot to Lake Superior ice caves. And I’m not ever going to do that bicycle thing.

Reading on the Road

Nick Petrie’s The Drifter – a former Marine lieutenant visits Milwaukee after the suicide of one of his men and finds unexpected danger, starting with the vicious dog hiding under the widow’s porch.