Skylight

McCarter Theatre Center closes its 2018-2019 season with David Hare’s Tony-award winning play Skylight. Directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, the play opened May 11 and runs through June 2. I’d seen the Bill Nighy – Carey Mulligan version, in which the acting was great, but I actually think I got more out of this current one.

When it premiered in 1995, Skylight was a timely exploration of a clash of values between wealthy restaurateur Tom Sergeant (in this production, played by Greg Wood) and his former lover, now a teacher in a bottom-of-the-barrel school, Kyra (Mahira Kakkar). Now in 2019, gulfs between people in terms of income, attitudes, and basic values appear even more unbridgeable. Can anyone still believe love conquers all?

The play takes place in Kyra’s very downmarket apartment (exquisitely tatty, by way of Beowulf Borritt), deprived of most luxuries, including heat. Unexpectedly, she’s visited by Tom’s 18-year-old son Edward (Zane Pais), who comes bearing dubious gifts (beer and rap music). He wants to tell her how much he’s missed her since she moved out of the family home three years earlier. She decamped when Tom’s wife discovered Kyra and Tom’s long-running affair. Edward feels abandoned by Kyra and by his mother, who has subsequently died of cancer. His immediate problem, though, is with his father, who in his unresolved guilt and grief makes his son’s life miserable.

Edward leaves and Tom arrives. Tom and Kyra circle each other, the magnetic waves of their attraction so strong they’re practically visible. Yet, like magnets with matching poles aligned, they repel each other with their words.

Witty and voluble, Tom can’t accept that Kyra lives the way she does, devoid of comforts, teaching in a school where a student spit on her, a dinner lady was mugged, and the head teacher’s cat was baked in her oven. Kyra retreats to the high-ground arguments that she’s helping society, helping the most needy kids, even if only one. While Tom acknowledges, on the surface, the nobility of her effort, he can’t stop his scorn for her choices from breaking through. “You don’t have to live this way.”

Ultimately, their attraction is too powerful, and Act One ends in a satisfying clinch. But are their differences really irreconcilable? Can they adjust, recalibrate, soften? That’s Act Two.

Wood and Kakkar , with Mann’s direction, keep the dialog blazing. Wood is all over the stage, flopping in a chair, pouring a drink, never still an instant, until something makes him alight like a dragonfly, only to dart away again. Kakkar is the steady one, not as amusing, but just as passionate. (Also, she makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, in a kitchen about three feet by three.)

For centuries, stories of impossible love have been a theater staple. This compelling McCarter production lets us confront its contemporary face. A highly satisfying theater experience!

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

Vittoria Colonna: A Renaissance Woman

Never heard of her, you say? Well, she was born a long time ago, in 1490, engaged at the age of three to a Spaniard, Fernando Francesco d’Ávalos, and married to him at age 15. They had no children and she saw little of him during their marriage, as he was off fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor. He died when she was 35.

Now a widow, with her parents also dead, Vittoria was her own boss, and she became the first woman poet published in Italy. At first she wrote love sonnets to her husband. It seems she adored him—who conspicuously did not love her—more after his death than during life. She wanted to become a nun, but Pope Clement refused—needing her to control the whims of her troublesome brother. Because of her wealthy background, she knew all the important people of her age.

Vittoria was a friend of the intellectual Marguerite de Navarre, became perhaps the closest friend of Michelangelo and fell into platonic love with Cardinal Pole, another neglected Renaissance character. Reginald Pole was an Englishman, exiled by Henry VIII because he opposed The Divorce. Pole was only two votes away from becoming Pope  in the mid-1500s and became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury after Henry’s death.

Vittoria’s later poems were devotional, not romantic, and it’s ironic that Michelangelo, also a skilled poet, wrote love poems to her, while she did not write them to him. She died in 1547.

Her story was especially interesting because of a course I took last winter about the importance of the few highly educated women in the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the cultural lives of Italy and France, despite the strength of those patriarchical societies. They may not have had many rights, but they figured out a way to have influence. Vittoria herself inspired many women poets, who credited her with paving the way for them. The result was that, by 1599, Italy had 200 published women poets, compared to, say, England, with 12.

This is based on a presentation by Brandeis professor Ramie Targoff in Princeton last night. She’s the author of Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna. Writing in the New York Times, author Sarah Dunant said, “What could have been the story of a religious good girl becomes instead the study of a passionate, complex woman with formidable poetic talents: someone who, while embedded in her own age, emerges as a thinker and seeker in tune with a modern audience.” Certainly the audience that heard her story last night in Princeton would agree.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

Big Screen Music: Amazing Grace

Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.

Amazing Grace

Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history.  Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).

Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.

I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.

At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 90%.

Cybersecurity: What the Experts Say

cyberspace

If only I were as clever as Brad Parks who took his outrage over the pass given to Wachovia and Wells Fargo Bank execs who laundered many millions of dollars for a Mexican drug cartel (and they’re still at it) and turned it into a fantastic new thriller, The Last Act (my review here). What you’ll read below has the seeds of innumerable great and terrifying stories, but when I read it, I start spitting. These quotes were a handout for my Great Decisions group, a discussion program sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association

 “Our adversaries and strategic competitors will increasingly use cyber capabilities—including cyber espionage, attack, and influence—to seek political, economic, and military advantage over the United States and its allies and partners. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways—to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.” Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as he presented the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of worldwide threats, 29 Jan 2019.

“Few Americans realize the extent to which foreign intelligence services are stealing our most important secrets.” And “China is without question the number one counterintelligence threat facing the United States.” James Olson, former CIA Chief of Counterintelligence

“The Russian intelligence services, the inheritors of the legacy of their Soviet forebears, are our inexorable adversaries. They have at one time or another penetrated every significant organization and agency in the U.S. Government and, as evidenced by their recent efforts to undermine American democracy, are the most professionally proficient intelligence adversaries we confront.” Mark Kelton, former CIA Deputy Director for Counterintelligence

“Foreign cyber criminals will continue to conduct for-profit, cyber-enabled theft and extortion against U.S. networks.” And “Terrorists could obtain and disclose compromising or personally identifiable information through cyber operations, and they may use such disclosures to coerce, extort, or to inspire and enable physical attacks against their victims.” Daniel R. Coats

“The sheer acceleration in the number of attacks, and their rapidly changing goals, is one of several warning signs that we all are living through a revolution, playing out at digital speed.” David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon

“We cannot afford to protect everything to the maximum degree, so we’d better figure out what cannot fail.” Thomas Donahue, Senior Analyst, Center for Cyber Intelligence

Read More

I highly recommend Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon, P.W. Singer’s Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media, and if a well-constructed fictional scenario holds more appeal, P.W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet.

Photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

20 Miles, 200 Varieties, Millions of Blooms * A Visit to the Met

New Jersey Tulip Festival

Monday’s drizzle didn’t deter the tulip-lovers at Holland Ridge Farm, whose motto is “Don’t fly to Holland. Drive to Holland.” While I’ve studied the Facebook pix from friends who went to Keukenhof Gardens this spring with great envy, I realized, you know, we have tulips in New Jersey! This IS the Garden State.

On more than 150 acres in the community of Cream Ridge, Holland Ridge Farm devotes 50 acres to its colorful stripes of tulips, the largest tulip farm on the East Coast. The owners have brought their fields to the point that the farm now has an annual Tulip Festival, in full bloom this month. There must have been hundreds of people there, strolling the grounds, smiling, but the areas is so large, it never felt crowded (Easter Sunday was another story, I’ll bet).

Gift shop, café, U-pick opportunities, hayrides around the fields, and lots more, with more tulips every year! While a leisurely walk around the tulip beds may seem an old-fashioned, almost quaint pursuit, the farm’s FAQs offer a sign of the times: No, you cannot fly your drone over the tulip fields.

Only an hour from Philadelphia and New York, getting there entails a lovely drive through farmland and past horse farms. Buy tickets online.

Metropolitan Museum

Last weekend in Manhattan we saw the Met’s “The World Between Empires” exhibit, “art and identity in the Ancient Middle East,” on view through June 23. Some of those empires I’d never even heard of before, so I definitely learned something. The exhibit focuses on the Middle East conflict between the Roman and Parthian empires.

The art and objects of the period (c. 100 BCE – AD 250) came from the civilizations along the great trade routes and show the influences of Arabea, Nabataea, Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Says The Wall Street Journal, “Nothing short of spectacular.”

Photos: Vicki Weisfeld

The Mustang * Woman at War * Beirut * Rembrandt

The Mustang (2019)

Mustang, horse

Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).

The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.

There’s a special prison program (in place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”

The parallels between the confinement and anger of this mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters. But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .

Woman at War (2019)

This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.

The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.

She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From this point, carrying out one last adventure before  flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.

Beirut (2018)

Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated into civil war (trailer). In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund Pike seems to have her head on straight.  He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%. 

Rembrandt (in theaters 2019)

This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of recent films on Caravaggio and Van Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was “An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you can find a screening near you.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet. 

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.