Baipás

The nation’s English-language premiere of acclaimed Puerto Rican artist Jacobo Morales’s play Baipás, directed and choreographed by, Julio Monge, is currently on stage at George Street Playhouse. It premiered March 4 and runs through March 20 in New Brunswick, N.J.

Live theater has a special role in presenting real, flesh-and-blood people in challenging situations and seeing how they react, live, and, in the process, challenging audiences as well. Baipás (pronounced BI-pass) does that in ninety minutes while managing to be entertaining, romantic, sorrowful, and even funny.

A big part of its success can be attributed to the two performers: Maggie Bofill as Lorena and Jorge Luna as Antonio. They meet in a strange place—a bare room that might be somewhere in a hospital. They are decidedly human in an abstract space.The most recent event she remembers is being on a respirator after a serious suicide attempt, and what he remembers is undergoing coronary bypass surgery. From time to time they are aware of their “real” bodies, wherever they are: His heartbeat stops, to be revived by a kiss from her; she takes a breath on her own. In these moments the play captures the terror and confusion of hospitalization.

Lorena and Antonio wonder about the room. What is it? A waiting room for death? Who are these people watching them (us)? Among us, they believe they see people from their past—a dead ex-wife, a dead mother. Occasionally speaking about and to the audience is odd at first, yet makes us complicit in their search for understanding.

They circle each other like wary housecats, each taking a turn expressing guilt, fear, hope. Lorena repeatedly voices her mantra, “live in the moment,” but can’t quite do it, suffused by regrets and by curiosity about the future. Pre-heart attack, Antonio’s life was a mess. You’re relieved when they finally come into the moment to dance a love song, a bolero. Adrift in a sea of uncertainty, they find their moment in the dance.

The story unfolds in a bare, elevated box, decorated occasionally with projections that mirror what is going on inside Lorena and Antonio’s hearts. Mostly, there’s nothing there for them to hang onto except each other.

George Street should be congratulated for easing back into live-audience theater with such a complex, innovative, and memorable play. Author Morales is a poet, playwright, actor, and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, while director Monge was an artistic collaborator on the recent high-powered remake of West Side Story, a production on which George Street’s Artistic Director, David Saint, served as Associate Producer.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

2022 AA Nominees: Live-Action Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

Last weekend, our local movie theater showed this year’s Academy Award-nominated Live-Action Shorts. These do tend to be rather depressing, and this year’s nominees were no exception. Even so, we put ourselves through this, year after year, to see what talented filmmakers from around the world will come up with. Two are available for streaming using the links provided; otherwise, trailers are available.

You’ll have trouble believing this, but the most feel-good story was an end-of-life story from Denmark (which tells you something about the others). In “On My Mind,” a man (played by Rasmus Hammerich) wanders into a bar early one morning and seems determined to get drunk. He notices a karaoke machine and wants the sympathetic bartender (Camilla Bendix) to cue up “Always on My Mind” so he can sing it, and she can record it, for his dying wife. Alas, the bar-owner (Ole Boisen) is determined to complete work on his taxes, without distraction. Discussion ensues.

The satirical U.S. entry, “Please Hold,” (trailer) anticipates a future when law enforcement, incarceration, and legal aid are handled by drones and automated systems. The hero, a young Latino man (played by Erick Lopez) is arrested apparently for no reason and desperate to explain his plight to a human who can get him out of it. The film has quite a few funny bits, but overall it seems a cautionary tale of corporate technologists run amok. Kafka would love it.

“Alu Kachuu (Take and Run),” Switzerland’s entry (trailer), filmed in beautiful Kyrgyzstan, is the story of limited opportunities for women, made even more limited by forced marriage. Alina Turdumamatova plays the unwilling bride. Beautiful costumes! This film was shown last, and we were already so down in the dumps from two others that our mood colored reaction to this film, but it was excellent.

The Polish and UK entries (“The Dress” (trailer) and “The Long Goodbye,” respectively) were too depressing to revisit. Sorry.

Advice from Raymond Chandler

Author Raymond Chandler, considered the godfather of hardboiled crime—don’t call it noir—stepped out of his fictional mean streets and into the real world on occasion and wrote some rather charming and forward-thinking essays of workplace advice: “Notes to an Employer” and “Advice to a Secretary.” Thank The Strand Magazine for reprinting these a few months back.

Chandler’s secretary at the time he wrote “Advice to a Secretary” was Juanita Messick, and it’s down-to-earth, simultaneously encouraging and, on some points, demanding. Chandler is expressing very clearly his own needs and starts by saying, “Never pretend to know something which you do not know, or only know imperfectly.” This dictum is routinely ignored in social media, but Chandler says it’s a prescription for misunderstanding.

It sounds as if he’s run up against sticklers of various types and considered it a bad experience. He didn’t welcome input about grammar, literary usages, and punctuation, believing there’s more latitude than purists might think, “Punctuation is an art and not a science.” It has to replicate, insofar as possible, the natural cadences of speech, which vary from what precise rules might suggest.

He tells Messick to never take anything for granted. Ask questions if something isn’t clear. “Demand an explanation.” Being my own secretary, I admit to interrogating myself frequently about sentences I wrote a month, or a week, or an hour before: “Yes, but what do you mean here? What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, words that seemed perfectly clear when I wrote them somehow manage to shed all significance. It’s the one advantage of a short attention span; every time I read something I’ve written, it’s new to me.

Chandler was uncomfortable with the employer-employee relationship and there’s no stronger egalitarian impulse today, seventy years later, than when he said, “If he (always a he in Chandler’s piece) is talking nonsense, tell him so; you can do him no greater service.” And he encourages the secretary to stick up for herself when she’s tired or late or must leave on the dot: “We are both just people.”Strand editor Andrew Gulli discovered “Advice to a Secretary” in a shoebox at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Gulli was engaged by it in part because, he says, writers whose work embodies very dark themes often” are among the most friendly and benign people around.” In my experience, gatherings of mystery and crime writers bear out this impression. Certainly, “Advice to a Secretary” suggests a considerate and accommodating employer. Or, as Cynthia Conrad wrote in BookTrib, “For a moment we see the big-hearted softie under the tough-guy trench coat.”

Weekend Movie Pick: Death on the Nile

If you’re hesitating to see Death on the Nile because you remember Kenneth Branagh’s previous expedition into the world of Dame Agatha—Murder on the Orient Express—and its tepid reviews, reconsider. The new film is enormous fun (trailer). You also may remember that many viewers couldn’t get past the super-sized mustache worn by Branagh (who plays Hercule Poirot)—such a contrast to David Suchet’s neat, restrained, Poirot-like pencil-line.

The extravagant facial hair just didn’t seem to fit, but the producers aren’t giving up. Instead, they give Poirot a touching back story that explains not only why he has the mustache, but links his adoption of it to his own heroism. Regardless, they’ve attracted a stellar cast to this new film, which includes Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Dawn French, Sophie Okenedo, and a whole array of memorable supporting players.

There’s been a British society wedding. A beautiful young woman of great wealth (Israeli actor Gal Gadot) has married a man well below her financial station (Armie Hammer). His vengeful ex-girlfriend (Emma Mackey) follows them throughout their Egyptian honeymoon, making the new bride increasingly uneasy. To escape their pursuer, the couple entice the whole party of hangers-on to board a luxury Nile cruise boat where, as one gleefully anticipates, mayhem ensues.

Christie was a master at creating a closed world—a stranded railway car, a party on a remote island—throwing people with barely-masked resentments together, and letting audiences anticipate what happens next. In this film, the unraveling of motives, opportunity, and nerve doesn’t disappoint.

Loved the CGI scenery though, as you probably know, the Nile River does not run alongside the pyramids, but more than five miles west. A bit of geographic and artistic license, but gorgeous throughout. The scenes of the sun rising over the river were spectacular, bringing back memories of my own Nile cruise with my friend Nancy in 2019. Memorable, but many fewer dead bodies.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 64%; audiences 82%.

Weekend Movie Pick: Parallel Mothers

Seeing Penélope Cruz in a movie’s cast-list is enough to make me want to see the film, and that decision-rule works flawlessly in Parallel Mothers (trailer), her latest work for writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a moving tale about what’s lost and what’s found, about the importance of knowing who you are and where you came from (coincidentally, the theme of yesterday’s post about genetic genealogy).

In this film, Cruz plays Janis, a professional photographer who, after a photo session with a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) asks about the exhuming the graves of her great-grandfather and several other men murdered by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Such excavations take place under Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory, but Arturo says the arrangements will take time.

He and Janis begin an affair that, months later, leads Janis to a hospital maternity ward. She’s very happy to be pregnant and about to give birth. Not so, the frightened teenager Ana (Milena Smit), her hospital roommate. Janis gives Ana a lot of support that is not forthcoming from Ana’s mother, and they promise to stay in touch.

Arturo isn’t wild about the baby, and the future of his and Janis’s relationship is uncertain. Janis reconnects with Ana and engages her as a nanny. Soon she’s faced with a powerful moral dilemma, and both their lives are about to change profoundly.

When the film returns to the question of the exhumation, it can feel like someone in the projection booth switched up reels, but again, the subject is knowing where you came from, which Almodóvar illustrates in two completely different ways.

Cruz and Smit are wonderful as the new mothers, and the rest of the cast does well too. Quite entertaining, especially after recent disappointments (Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley). In Spanish, with subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 83%.

Who Are You, Really?

Being bitten by the genealogy bug gives you a ticket to the vast carnival midway of life, with all its delights, haunted houses, and proofs of strength. You can wander into any number of enticing alleyways, all in the name of “research.” Recently, I participated in a Zoom lecture by author Paul Joseph Fronczak who’s written books about his strange history, which was made into the CNN documentary, The Lost Sons.

Ten-year-old Paul Fronczak found some newspaper clippings from the mid-1960s hidden in the family attic. They described how a woman disguised as a nurse had kidnapped a day-old baby boy from the maternity ward of a Midwestern hospital.

Fifteen months later, a toddler boy was found abandoned in northern New Jersey, identified as the missing child, and returned to his parents. The stories he’d found were about him, Paul Fronczak. Although raised in a loving home, Paul always felt like an outsider. In later years, he convinced his parents to get a DNA test, to make sure he was really their missing child. Short answer: he was not. But who was he?

He embarked on a quest to find his biological parents and, if possible, the kidnapped Paul. Again, DNA provided answers as well as new questions. The author Paul’s birth name was Jack Rosenthal, and he was born in New Jersey. (Ironically, he’s grateful to have grown up in the Fronczak home, because the Rosenthal family “was a nightmare.”) Jack Rosenthal’s birth certificate revealed a new mystery. He had a twin sister, as yet unidentified. After six years of effort, Paul did find the Fronczak’s biological son, called Kevin, living in Michigan.

If the Fronczak case weren’t convoluted enough, The Washington Post (paywall) recently covered the story of the Bryntwick family of Montreal. Anne Bryntwick was a single mom in the 1950s, who for a decade had an occasional liaison with a man named Mike Mitchell. Apparently she saw him frequently enough, because, as her son Bob says, she gave birth like clockwork “every year, year and a half.”

Anne raised five children herself, but six of her babies disappeared. As DNA-testing became more popular, information on what happened to these babies began to appear when two of the adopted-out siblings found each other. And they found their brother Bob. All but one of the adopted-out siblings were raised as only children, and, even though they are now in their 70s, they enthusiastically embrace their new-found brothers and sisters.

It seems Mitchell, their father, was selling some of Anne’s babies for $10,000 apiece to U.S. and Canadian couples desperate for adoption. Laws at the time didn’t ban such sales, and poor, uneducated women like Anne were ripe for exploitation. Meanwhile, Mitchell was married to another woman, with whom he had eight more children.

“DNA doesn’t like, people lie,” says one of the adopted-out sisters. And lying was easier when people didn’t discuss certain things. Some families still don’t. The other Rosenthal children are not interested in meeting their brother Paul, nor are most of the Bryntwick half-siblings, children of the married couple. Both of these sagas are eye-popping reads!

True Identity by Paul Fronczak

A Valentine to Agatha Christie

The Guardian has a new monthly guide to the works of selected authors and their first pick recently was the creator of the intrepid Miss Marple and Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot, the original queen of cozy crime, Agatha Christie. Modern-day crime novelist Janice Hallett wrote the commentary, which amounted to a love-letter to the Dame of Detection.

Early on, Hallett reveals her pick for the “best” Christie: And Then There Were None. You may  I remember it by the title Ten Little Indians, which was used in the 70s paperback edition and as the title of two films. Says Wikipedia, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie said it was the most difficult book she ever wrote.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the Wikipedia article includes a chart showing how each of the characters died and how the manner of their demise matches up with the nursery rhyme. You get a little peek into Christie’s head as she made those associations.

The isolated setting, the group of friends, a shocking death. That staple of crime fiction today was debuted in Christie’s lesser-known Sparkling Cyanide, and it’s the best story to refer to at a dinner party, says Hallett. (Remember to strike her from your invite list.) Echoes of both of these books are apparent in many modern tales—One by One by Ruth Ware and two books by Lucy Foley—The Hunting Party and The Guest List.

Hallett dubs 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express and its many cinematic and theatrical adaptations as Christie’s “classic.” The photo above shows the (movable) set created for a brilliant production of the theatrical version of the story at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Real-life events—the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and a stranded train in Turkey—were Christie’s inspirations.

The one Hallett calls “the shocker” is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose sudden, violent death is investigated by his neighbor, Hercule Poirot. It was voted best crime novel ever[!] by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013. The title, alas, always reminds me of a famous 1945 essay by American critic Edmund Wilson, no fan of detective fiction. His article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, expressed an opinion generations of mystery fans have gleefully ignored.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The Tragedy of Macbeth

If you’re thinking “The Scottish Play” is so familiar, why sit through yet another production of it, even one directed by Joel Coen (trailer)? Well, think again. This is a story that greatly benefits from all of Coen’s noir sensibilities—from the dark portrayals by the protagonists to the look and feel he gives to the Scottish highlands and its stark castles. (Available on streaming)

Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are in equipoise, as if personal strength were a zero-sum game. In the beginning, she’s strong and he’s weak, then he becomes strong in madness and she diminishes. In an exemplary cast, special mention must be made of Kathryn Hunter’s phenomenal work as the Witches. She is ungainly, crude, and sly. At one point the camera seems to capture her in the process of transforming into one of the ravens circling ominously overhead.

A striking moment occurs early in the film when Macbeth and Banquo approach the witch through the fog, and she stands on the other side of a pond, a black pillar with no reflection. The other two witches are invisible, but their reflection does appears in the pond. (this moment appears briefly in the trailer). It’s an image that shakes you out of your expectations. All is not as it should be. And then some.

This film is the product of a powerful artistic vision, from shooting it in an almost-square format (1.37:1 aspect ratio), to eliminate any distracting elements cluttering the periphery, to choosing stunning black and white, to Carter Burwell’s dark score. The castles are devoid of decoration and seem as cold as the hearts of their occupants. The mist-obscured crows, the dripping water, the knocking. Is that the sun shining through the fog, or is it the moon? Is it day or night?

Near the end, when Macbeth is on the battlements of Dunsinane, and Birnam wood is indeed about to come to him, fulfilling the Witch’s prophesy, he’s surrounded by fallen leaves, a visual reminder of his heart-wrenching speech about what might have been: “My way of life is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.”

Rotten Tomatoes  critics rating: 93%; audiences 80%.

Making Contact: Octopus

octopus

Watching the replay of the PBS Nature documentary last night about an Alaska professor with an octopus in his living room reminded me of the other great books I’ve read about these amazing creatures. Their facility for mimicry, their distributed brains, their obvious intelligence. Such a good explanation of how far back came the divide on the evolutionary tree that led to, well, us, and to them.

Sy Montgomery’s book, Soul of an Octopus, goes even further into their fascinating behavior and how she befriended a particular octopus at the New England Aquarium. That review also has a link to my post, “Why I Don’t Eat Octopus.” I’m guessing you know the reason already!

Have a wonderful weekend.

Your Family Coat of Arms

The study of family history—of little interest to many people and of intense interest to others—has innumerable byways and sidelines. Curiosity about your forebears almost naturally leads to questions about where they lived and how they lived.

Scampering down any number of who-where-how rabbit holes has been delightful. I found out, for example, that in the late 1700’s, my great-grandmother’s family established “the gentleman’s sport” of horse-racing in both Virginia and Maryland. No wonder I gave my husband a trip to the Kentucky Derby for his recent “big birthday!” And SO much more (stop me now).

The latest byway I pursued was a 3-part introductory course on heraldry from American Ancestors. Now, it isn’t that I believe any of my family came from European gentry so distinguished they were granted “the right to bear arms,” but in writing my family history, I’ve succumbed to using purported family coats of arms as occasional graphic elements. Oops!

Hearing the scorn with which the researchers view “arms by name,” I’ll have to stop doing that! Discover the problems for yourself by researching my family name “Edwards coats of arms” (better yet, substitute your own family name) and see the wild variety. But which of these belongs to your family, and can you prove it? In the past, family historians weren’t especially particular about documentation, so you cannot rely on an old family history.

Nevertheless, coats of arms of towns and counties are relatively stable (County Tyrone, Ireland, is shown), and I’ll still use Lord Baltimore’s arms in a chapter about early Maryland relatives, because they became the basis for Maryland’s distinctive state flag (below).

Did You Know?

  • Coats of arms began around the 12th century, used in seals and on tombs, and, especially, battle flags.
  • The English king sent his representatives (called heralds) into the countryside to make sure people using coats of arms were entitled to do so and were paying the associated taxes. These visitations, made from 1530 to 1688, resulted in extensive notes about lineage invaluable to genealogists today.
  • First sons could adopt their father’s coat of arms unchanged; second sons generally added a small crescent and third sons a star. But there are many exceptions. A daughter could become a “heraldic heiress” if she had no brothers.
  • All official coats of arms use only five colors: red, blue, black, green, and purple, plus gold and silver. Rules about use of color assured good contrast and visibility on the battlefield.
  • Even today, people like to look back in time and establish their right to their family’s ancient heraldic arms, with Colin Powell’s father one of the most notable of these aspirants.

In America, educational and other institutions frequently adopt some type of heraldic emblem and are free to use it without engendering a visit from the Homeland Security Herald.

Interested to know more? For the traditional approach, try the UK College of Arms, a government agency. Or, for something more American and do-it-your-own-way, the nonprofit American College of Heraldry.