A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

****The Fourth Courier

By Timothy Jay Smith – Take a walk back in time to Warsaw, 1992, with Timothy Jay Smith’s new crime thriller. The Cold War has recently ended, but average citizens struggle to figure out the new economic realities. Nothing quite works yet, and the gray concrete dullness of Soviet brutalist architecture is made even harsher by the dismal April weather. Politically, old relationships are unraveling, and chaos in the former Soviet Union and some of its satellites raises an important question, who’s watching the nukes?

Warsaw police, meanwhile, are dealing with a baffling series of murders. Over just a few weeks, three unidentified young men have been shot to death, their bodies abandoned on the banks of the Vistula River, one cheek slit open, all labels expertly cut from their clothing. Now they’ve found a fourth victim, older this time. By chance, the forensic pathologist noticed the third victim’s hands bore traces of radiation. Whatever he’d been smuggling, Poland’s new Solidarity government wants help to stop it.

American aid comes to them from the FBI in the person of Jay Porter, who in turn calls on the expertise of the local CIA officer—a gay black man named Kurt Crawford—and the genial Ambassador. There are good interactions and good humor among the three Americans. They all want to put an end to what seems to be nuclear material being spirited out of the former Soviet Union—but each has a totally different way of going about it.

Porter meets an attractive Polish woman, Lilka, who, he learns, is divorced from her abusive husband, but the apartments in Poland are so few and so small, so they still live together. The American starts seeing Lilka, which gives author Smith a vehicle for introducing realistic aspects of everyday Polish life—the shortages, the cranky cars, the small indulgences, and the stresses immediately post-communism—one of the most interesting aspects of the book, in fact.

Perhaps there are a couple too many plot coincidences and intersections among the cast of characters. All of them remain distinctive and interesting, though, even the minor ones. Smith’s well described settings put you right in the scene, whether it’s the drably elegant hotel favored by a Yugoslav general, a seedy bar in the bowels of the train station, or the riverside wasteland where the corpses keep washing up.

Photo: “Soviet buttons” by seitbijakaspars, creative commons license.

A Trio of Fascinating Reads

*****The Surfacing – literary fiction

Cormac James tells the story of the dangerous 1850 voyage of the Impetus, which sailed north of Greenland to find and rescue men who’d been lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The story is told from the viewpoint of Impetus’s second in command, Mr. Morgan, and his doubts about the judgment of their captain are growing. Captain Myer has a monomaniacal desire to push on, even though it’s late in the season, and his ship risks being trapped in the ice.

It’s ice and snow and wind and water and more ice everywhere. Such conditions might seem likely to become rather tedious, but James surprises with his inventiveness and acute perception, expressed in beautiful prose.

Despite conditions, there’s good humor among the crew, especially between Morgan and his friend, the ship’s doctor. The woman with whom Morgan had a dalliance in their last port-of-call has been smuggled on board, pregnant, and he must contend not just with an incompetent captain and implacable weather, but with the unexpected pull of fatherhood.

The conditions so far north put everyone to the test. As the darkness of another winter descends, they must each face their fate in their own way. Order from Amazon here.

****No Happy Endings – comic thriller

I won Angel Luis Colón’s novella at an event where he did a reading, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it. Readers may have trouble with a couple of disturbing scenes in a crazy sperm bank. Those aside, protagonist Fantine Park is funny and engaging. She’s a thief, a safecracker, and a good daughter. To protect her father living in a nursing home, she agrees to steal some of the sperm bank’s “product.” So much easier said than done. As Joe Clifford wrote for the book jacket, Colón “takes the time-tested trope of retired robber on a final heist, and delivers one of the most weirdly original, satisfying, and unexpected capers of the year.” Order from Amazon here.

****The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – non-fiction

Fifty years ago, the murders of seven young women rocked Ann Arbor. Maggie Nelson’s book tells the real-life story of one of those deaths. Her aunt, Jane Mixer, a law student at the University of Michigan, put up a bulletin board request for a ride home. She found one. Though at first believed the third of the “Michigan murders,” her death did not fit the pattern of the others.

In November 2004, 35 years after Jane’s death, Nelson’s mother received a call from a Michigan State Police detective who said, “We have every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.” DNA evidence had at last identified Jane’s killer. This is the story of the family’s reaction to reopening these old wounds, of attending the trial of a now-62 year old man, of seeing the crime scene photographs, of dealing with the media. It traverses the landscapes of grief, of murder, of justice, and the importance, even after so many years, of bearing witness. Order from Amazon here.

Photo: maxpixel.net, creative commons license.

Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

You can read that headline two ways and either works. I enjoyed all three of these books, out of my usual crime fiction lane.

****The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best books of the year” by many sources.

****The Book Thief

Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement, the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is a joy.

They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events, would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though not these constant interruptions.

***Midnight Blue

Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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*****Righteous

photo: Telstar Logistics on Visualhunt, creative commons BY-NC license

By Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Second in Joe Ide’s series about Isaiah Quintabe, a young black man living in tough East Long Beach, California, who’s really good  to have around if there’s trouble. Not that he’s a crack shot or a kung-fu warrior. Quintabe gets people out of jams large and small by sheer brainpower.

If you’ve read his earlier book, IQ, you’ll happily see the return of a number of its characters. None is more welcome than Quintabe’s sometime partner Juanell Dodson. The fast-talking, wise-cracking Dodson is forever hoping yet failing to outthink the younger man. Ide writes the Dodson character with much humor and affection and gives him girlfriends with attitude. With impending fatherhood, he’s adopted a veneer of responsibility that crumbles under the slightest pressure.

Quintabe was seventeen in the first book when his adored older brother Marcus, killed in a hit-and-run, left the teenager on his own. This book takes place eight years later, and he’s still a solitary soul, alone except for his dog, and emotionally isolated. His neighbors gladly call on him to help him solve their problems—missing jewelry, a threatening ex-husband—which helps him make ends meet, barely.

He gave up his obsessive search for the car that killed Marcus some years ago, but in a short prologue, he finds the car and with the few clues inside, rethinks the events of that deadly afternoon. His conclusion? Marcus’s death was not a random traffic fatality, it was a hit. But why? And who?

Las Vegas strip

photo: Mariamichelle, creative commons license

In Las Vegas,  a young Chinese woman and aspiring DJ Janine Van and her deadbeat boyfriend Benny are gambling away money they don’t have. He’s behind on the vig with some rough characters more than willing to hurt him and Janine too. Benny is a whiner, and not very appealing, though the sassy Janine loves him. As a flavor-enhancer, here’s her exit line after jockeying a club set: “Whassup my people! This is your queen kamikaze, the heat in your wasabi, the gravy train in the food chain, the champagne in the chow mein, I’m DJ Dama, baby, that was my set, and I’m gettin’ up outta heeerre, PEACE!”

Out of the blue, Quintabe is contacted by Marcus’s ex-girlfriend, Sarita, now a lawyer at a high-priced law firm. Quintabe had quite a crush on her, still does, and she wants to meet. His hopes raise (the one illogical thought he pursues), but what she wants is for him to find her younger half-sister, in trouble in Las Vegas where she hangs out with her screw-up boyfriend. You guessed it, Janine and Benny.

What sounds like a simple rescue operation becomes terrifyingly complicated, as Ide deftly sets several crisscrossing plots in motion. Quintabe has a run-in with a Mexican gang, the Sureños Locos 13, and they’re out to get him. Janine and Sarita’s father seems a respectable business man, but somewhere in the background are human trafficking, prostitution, and the murderous Chinese triads. The ethnicities vary but the characters are alike in their mastery of the entertaining verbal insult.

And Quintabe still searches for his brother’s murderer. His prime suspect is Seb Habimana, a dangerous East African man who lost a leg in the Hutu-Tutsi wars. He uses a cane he made from the legbone of the man who maimed him.

As with the previous book, Sullivan Jones’s narration of all these muticultural, crosscultural and anticultural characters is flawless. You get Benny’s whine, Dodson’s jive, his girlfriends’ attitude, and the Chinese black-gangster rifs. Jones hits every comedic and ironic note, making music out of it all, and never missing a beat.

****Beside the Syrian Sea

Beirut, street, watcher

photo: Jonhy Blaze, creative commons license

By James Wolff – When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head.

Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We?

Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment.

MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

The Rider

The RiderThe movie The Rider isn’t really about rodeo. It’s a character study and an exploration of what it means to lose your dreams, and how to be a man in a culture that glorifies danger. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao may have been born in Beijing, but she has made one of the most authentic films about the West in recent years (trailer) and one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

She’s drawn on the real-life story of a young man’s recovery from a rodeo injury that nearly killed him and probably will if he falls again. Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) had a solid career on the rodeo circuit in front of him. As the film opens, his skull looks like Frankenstein’s monster, a metal plate rides underneath, and he has an occasional immobililty in his right hand—his rope hand. The doctor tells him no more riding, no more rodeo. She might as well tell him not to breathe.

He’s “recuperating,” but determined to get back in the saddle. He lives in a trailer with his father (Tim Jandreau), who puts on a gruff front, and feisty 15-year-old sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has some degree of Asperger’s. The disappointment his fans feel when they find him working at a supermarket is visible to the taciturn Brady and to us.

In his spare time—and this is where the movie comes spectacularly to life—he trains horses. Watching him work with them, you know for sure that he’s no actor. This is his real-life job, and Zhao has captured those delicate moments of growing trust.

Not that interested in rodeo? You don’t see much of it. And most of the rodeo scenes are in the video clips Brady and his best friend Lane watch. Watching them watching is the bittersweet point. Lane was a star bull-rider now unable to walk or speak. The way Brady interacts with him is full of true generosity and mutual affection.

When Brady throws his saddle into the truck to go to another rodeo, in vain his father tells him not to. The father accuses him of never listening to him, and Brady says, “I do listen to you. I’ve always listened to you. It’s you who said, ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man,’” the kinds of messages men give their sons that sometimes boomerang back to break their hearts.

Cinematographer James Joshua Richards’s deft close-in camerawork captures the personalities of the horses, and his wide views put the windswept grasslands of South Dakota’s Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is shot partly on the Lakota reservation, but not much is made of the cast’s Native American heritage. By grounding the script in Brady’s real-life recovery and by surrounding him with his real-life family and friends, Zhao creates a wholly natural feel for the film, which has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.

And what was it like for Brady to work with the filmmaker? “She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said in a Vanity Fair story by Nicole Sperling. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 80%.

Award-Nominated Movies: The Shape of Water & The Greatest Showman

Shape of WaterThe Shape of Water
The acting alone is a good reason to see writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy (trailer), written with Vanessa Taylor, although the origins of the story are now in dispute. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, the most for any 2017 movie, including best picture, writing, directing, best actress, best supporting actor and actress (Jenkins and Spencer), cinematography, and costumes.

Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins, who was terrific last year in Maudie) plays a mute young woman who, with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a cleaner at a sketchy 1960s military research facility. The researchers bring in a merman-like creature (the unrecognizable Doug Jones) found in the Amazon, whom they mistreat, believing him violent, but whom Elisa befriends. If you’ve seen the previews, you get the idea.

Playing the heavy is a furious Michael Shannon,  Elisa’s neighbor and friend is Richard Jenkins, and a scientist more interested in saving the “monster” than killing him is Michael Stuhlbarg. All three are super!

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, there’s lots of drama and a warm core to this film you may enjoy. I did. As “an enchanting reimagining of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ it is an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria,” said Colin Covert, reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences, 78%.

Greatest Showman The Greatest Showman
By contrast, this movie musical of the P.T. Barnum story (trailer) directed by Michael Gracey disappointed, especially because the songs were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (fellow U-Mich grads!) who wrote lyrics for La La Land and music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen.

Talented Hugh Jackman (as Barnum) sells it, but there’s little “it” there. He apparently wanted to do Barnum’s story for some time, but couldn’t get backing. Although the film received three Golden Globe nominations (best musical or comedy, best actor in a musical or comedy for Jackman) and won for best song (Pasek and Paul), Oscar took a pass.

You may enjoy the movie’s spectacle aspects, but it will require you to pause your brain. Plot holes make it hard to stay interested in the story, which is in part Barnum’s highly fictionalized career and in part the love story between him and his wife (nicely played by Michelle Williams).

OK, it’s a musical, so it’s the musical numbers that should shine. The pop-music songs were just bearable until Barnum met The Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). She has an eye-roller of a pop number (lip-synced, by the way; the real singer is Loren Allred), so contrary to how an internationally famous singer in 1850 would have sounded that the artifice of the whole production collapses under its own absurdity. As San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s an awful mess, but it’s flashy,” calling it “The perfect realization of a really bad idea.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 55%; audiences: 89%.