Tent Revival: Online Theater

Last Monday was the premiere of Tent Revival, a play by Majkin Holmquist directed by Teddy Bergman, as part of the series, Bard at the Gate. This is the third season for the series, which is co-curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel and McCarter Theatre Center Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, and co-produced by McCarter. Its goal is to create an audience for groundbreaking new plays that are “ambitious, quirky, and smart.

Tent Revival takes place in rural Kansas, 1957. The strong cast is led by Robert (played by Michael Crane), a farmer unable to make a go of it who turns to preaching. He’s strongly supported by his wife, Mary (Lisa Joyce), injured in an auto accident a decade earlier. Daughter Ida (Susannah Perkins) is the most interesting of the three, because she’s the most up-front with her doubts. She isn’t sure she buys into all the professions of faith and “Jesus is sitting right beside me,” and spends her Sunday mornings roaming the farm fields looking for snakes to have as pets. When Mary, in a frenzy of defending her husband from doubters, rises from her wheelchair and walks again, Ida’s convinced. For a time.

Someone who doesn’t share these doubts is the extremely vulnerable teenager, Joann (Allegra Heart). Joann willingly fakes a stutter so Robert can “heal” her, in order to convince people he truly has a gift. In addition to the four cast members mentioned, a fifth actor (Amy Staats) takes on multiple roles, usually as a skeptic.

The crowds grow, the pressure mounts, the demand for healing intensifies. When Mary relapses and ends up back in her wheelchair, Bob tries to exile her from the show (bad publicity). But he has to produce something to satisfy the crowds of people coming to be healed, and he talks Ida into snake-handling—with rattlesnakes. Mary has other ideas and decides to test Robert’s faith. Is it real? The ending is ambiguous, but I think he does have faith, just not in the way the tent revival audience believes.

The performances were filmed in a particular way—in closeups projected side-by-side, in color and, when Ida is narrating rather than participating in a scene, in black and white. This gives a feeling of action in what is a minimalist production. You can access Tent Revival (video on demand) through Broadway on Demand.

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Wow! LC Tiffany Makes It!!

It’s easy to overlook the New-York Historical Society as a place to visit, with the massive Museum of Natural History looming over it, right across the street. Sometimes, though, the smaller museums produce just as much interest, without the exhaustion. I like the MNH, but it’s a lot to take in.

Founded in 1804, it was the first museum in New York City, but it’s not at all stuffy. Evidence for that is the current exhibition, “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” the story of Jewish Delis in New York. (The museum is missing a big fundraising opportunity by not selling pastrami sandwiches on the spot!) It tells how the delicatessens started with the Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Delis served foods that reminded them of home that was not only tasty, but affordable. As one of the longtime deli owners explained in a video, in the early days the customers were almost exclusively Jewish, but in succeeding generations, tastes widened. They didn’t visit delis as often, and at the same time the food became more widely popular. Now, he guesses, about 40 percent of his customers are non-Jews. There’s also a reel of clips from movies and sit-coms that have filmed in delis, including that unforgettable scene from When Harry Met Sally, filmed at Katz’s delicatessen.

The variety of exhibits, some small, some large appeals to a wide variety of interests. Like politics? You can see the working documents of Lyndon Johnson chronicler Robert A. Caro. Like fine art? There’s an exhibit of paintings of New York scenes, from Keith Haring to Norman Rockwell—including the theater curtain Picasso painted for Le Tricorne that originally graced the Four Seasons restaurant. Black history? You can see the stoneware of free Black potter Thomas W. Commeraw and an exhibit on Frederick Douglass’s vision for America. Decorative arts? An unexpected treat is a gallery of 100 Tiffany lamps. I didn’t expect to be so thrilled by this last exhibit, but the museum has done such a fine job of displaying these works that it’s truly magical.

Where: on Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets.
When: 11 am to 5 pm

Sargent and Spain

Detroit’s Van Gogh exhibit (posted about it last Thursday) was only half of the Zoom presentation I gave to my women’s club. The other recent exhibit I talked about was Sargent and Spain at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. If the Detroit exhibit brought to light a $5 million art crime, there were questions of a milder variety raised in this exhibit as well.

Sargent made numerous trips to Spain in his lifetime. In the late 1800s, Spain must have seemed otherworldly to cosmopolitans like Sargent, who had homes in London and Paris. Modernization there was slow; the country was conservative, influenced by a reactionary church, and, in many ways, it was resistant to change. Visiting there must have felt like going back in time.

Yet, Sargent loved the people—especially the Gitano (or Roma) people and their dancers. He drew artistic inspiration from country’s landscape and architecture, especially its Moorish influences. In his earliest trips, he studied the Spanish masters at the Prado in Madrid. He was especially attracted to El Greco, Goya, and the Old Master Velázquez.

If you read my thriller, Architect of Courage, you’ll probably remember that a painting by Velázquez features in it. The painting above is the one I had in mind, “Las Meninas,” painted in 1656, with the painter in the frame at left. Of course, in my book, the painting turns out to be a fake. So has this one! Scholarship now says it was painted, not by Velázquez, but by one of his students.

See the figure in the background, who seems to be just leaving the room? It gives the painting a feeling of movement, of mystery. Sargent adapted this idea in his painting “Venetian Interior.” In both paintings, the background figure forces the two-dimensional canvas into a three-dimensional space.

Sargent had a near-brush with crime, too. You may be familiar with this enormous painting of a Gitano dancer—seven 7 feet 10 inches tall and 11 feet 5 inches wide (at the top of the post). It’s at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and I guess it was just too big to steal in the notorious 1990 robbery. Despite the painting’s many details, it has a sense of the unfinished that gives a sense of being in the moment, of the movement and passion of flamenco. The National Gallery went a little high-tech and produced this video mashup of many of Sargent’s flamenco paintings. Not a complete success, but lively.

The National Gallery exhibition also included numerous examples of Sargent’s accomplished watercolors. Here is a pair of pomegranates, popular fruit of Spain that, of course, gave Granada its name. On top, a watercolor; on the bottom, the same subject in oils. Very different, both beautiful.

Van Gogh Still Makes Headlines

Over Christmas, we went to the blockbuster Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts—the DIA–focused on his works in the context of American art collecting. The DIA pulled out all the marketing stops, as the photo suggests. And it received an unexpected boost from reports of a $5 million art crime (more later).

The Detroit exhibit included 74 works from around the world, many of them rarely seen, because they are in private collections. But Why Detroit? Why now? The exhibit celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the museum’s purchase of this beautiful van Gogh self-portrait, painted in 1887. In January 1922, the DIA became the first public museum in America to purchase one of the artist’s works.

In fact, as the exhibit emphasized, it was museums and collectors in the middle of the country who initially were acquiring and exhibiting van Goghs, while the major museums on the coasts were still snubbing him. Not until 1941 was the first van Gogh painting purchased by a New York museum, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired “The Starry Night.”

A trio of art scholars from the van Gogh museum in the Netherlands described some of the myths surrounding the artist. For example, the myth that he sold only one painting in his lifetime—a “The Red Vineyard,” now in Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum. In fact, van Gogh sold several other paintings, their titles unknown and details lost. He also sold drawings, and he sometimes exchanged paintings for food or art materials. By the time of his death, his fame was growing in Europe. He was on the verge of a breakthrough.

Another possible myth is that he didn’t commit suicide, but was accidentally shot by some children and kept it a secret, so as not to implicate them. It is an attractive theory, but the van Gogh Museum experts don’t buy it. They believe he was simply worn out by his mental health problems.

Bringing his work to this country depended on many forward-thinking individuals, especially Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, widow of Vincent’s brother Theo, who worked tirelessly to gain attention for her late brother-in-law’s work. And many of his other collectors, purchasers, and advocates were forward-thinking women.

The painting below, which you’ve probably never seen in person, because it’s privately owned, is “The Novel Reader.” According to federal court documents, Brazilian art collector Gustavo Soter purchased the work for $3.7 million in 2017. Today’s value is an estimated $5 million. Soter transferred possession of the painting (but not the title to it) to a third party, who absconded. The owner learned the painting was in the DIA show and sued to recover it. A federal judge has ordered the museum not to move the painting until this dispute can be resolved. They’ve given it its own security guard.

Do you subscribe to the foreign television streaming service MHz? If so, you might enjoy the fun series, The Art of Crime, in which an uncultured Paris cop is teamed with a spacey researcher from the Louvre.

David Crosby, RIP

Truthfully, though I loved the CSN and CSNY music, I never paid too much attention to the personalities behind it, I never traced their peregrinations from one band to another, their spouses and romantic partners, their breakups and reunions, their drug busts and recoveries.

This state of unknowingness lasted until a spate of movies came out in the last decade or so about these personalities. Yes, I’d seen the concert film where Neil Young talks about his near-death experience with a cerebral aneurysm. (I think that was the film Heart of Gold), but in general, I didn’t know about Big Pink, the Laurel Canyon scene—you name it. These were documentaries that benefited from compelling on-screen interviews of interesting subjects and extensive archival footage. And, by resurrecting the music, they drew on their audience members’ deep well of musical nostalgia.That I certainly do have, in abundance.

Two of the CSNY documentaries were especially memorable. David Crosby: Remember My Name by AJ Eaton focuses on the eponymous musician. In the film, Crosby said he was 76 years old, had eight stents in his heart, and numerous other serious medical problems. As to the repeated breakups and reunions of the group, in interviews by Cameron Crowe, he didn’t spare himself or hide his regrets, especially the time he wasted as a junkie. Time, he said, is the ultimate currency: “Be careful how you spend it.” If you want to see Joni Mitchell and her contribution to the group, this is the documentary to see. Available for streaming on YouTube.

Echo in the Canyon is Andrew Slater’s documentary about the brief years in the mid-1960s when Laurel Canyon was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers. Jakob Dylan is the interviewer. Again, David Crosby fesses up. The Byrds booted him not for “creative differences,” the euphemism of the time, but “I was kicked out because I was a ‘glass-bowl.’”Having seen these two films, I’d agree with that, at least in those years. Still, there’s the music . . . Available for streaming on YouTube.

In a heartfelt tribute to Crosby, Washington Post staff writer Pamela Constable explores her unexpected sadness at his death last week. She says, it “feels to me like the death of harmony in a new age of rage.”