Saturday, September 24, 2016

SEE 'THE LIGHT'


You guys!


Okay, I was too late to review The Light Between Oceans (I was out of town when it opened) but you should still run out and see it. Like, now!


I never read the M. L. Stedman novel, but I was completely entranced by the sophisticated storytelling of Derek Cianfrance's film adaptation. Cianfrance takes his time to tell the story with all the depth of feeling he needs to make an impact.


Michael Fassbender is terrific as Tom, a stoic WWI vet with no family ties who takes a job as lighthouse keeper on a lonely rock off the Australian coast where two oceans meet. After the horrors of war, he's looking forward to the solitude.

Fassbender and Vikander: back to life.

The remarkable Alicia Vikander is Isabel, the spirited daughter of Tom's new boss, head of the Commonwealth that employs him. She eases past Tom's defenses and changes his plans; they marry, and she moves into his cottage on the island.


Gradually, we see all the ways that loving her brings Tom back to life.


And the always excellent Rachel Weisz co-stars as Hannah, a woman of the town with sorrows of her own to contend with, whose life and destiny becomes inexorably knotted up with Tom and Isabel's.

Fassbender and Vikander: to the lighthouse.
Any further detailing of the plot might make it sound schmaltzy. But trust me, it's not. This emotional story is told without an ounce of sentimentality.

It all revolves around what Art Boy and I call "the film noir moment," when characters make that one regrettable choice that will have wrenching repercussions throughout the rest of the movie, and their lives.

And the pivotal moment here when that choice is made is utterly persuasive. Even as the viewer thinks, "No, no! Don't do it!," we can see exactly what it means to the character advocating so desperately for it, and exactly why the co-conspirator is powerless to say no.

This is movie-making for grown-ups, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully shot.

Why are you still sitting there?


Monday, September 19, 2016

BURIED TREASURE

A vintage fairy tale book can be as enchanting as the ageless stories that inspire it. Imagine our deight to find this one squirreled away in our stuff!

First, some backstory: Once upon a time, Art Boy used to go to the flea market every Sunday to buy old books.

Most were fantasy/sci-fi paperbacks, picked up for a dime to re-sell in his comic shop (preferably with gorgeous covers by Frazetta or Boris)— an outgrowth of his previous business selling books to collectors through the mail.

Untold cartons of these old books had been taking up space in the rafters of our garage for eons. But last year, when he decided to start recycling them back into circulation, we discovered two things.

One: eBay and its ilk have taken a huge bite out of the collectible book biz; you can get anything you want online. So there's not the same thrill Art Boy used to get from finding that one weird book he knew was on some collector's wish-list.

And two: a dwindling sector of people consider books worth collecting at all. People read on the run, on devices (like they do everything else), or listen to audiotapes. Who wants to clutter up their busy lives with actual, physical books?

Oh, but look what you miss out on!

While preparing a box of old hardcovers for Logos, Art Boy found this lovely volume: Wonder Tales Retold, a collection of folk and fary tales from around the world.

It was written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle (1863-1938), sister of legendary artist Howard Pyle.

Although she is lesser-known today, Katharine Pyle was a prolific and a successful illustrator in her own right.  Besides poems and magazine stories, she wrote, illustrated, compiled, edited, and/or adapted more than 50 books for children.


Wonder Tales Retold features stories from the French, German, Russian, Norse, and English, to Bohemian, French Creole, Persian, "Hindoo," Korean, and American Indian. Some are familiar, like Baba Yaga, or Tam Lin (here called "Tamlane"), but most were new to me.

The minute we flipped open the book, I knew we had to keep it!

It may not the most elaborate fairy tale book ever, by modern standards. But even though it's only a four-color printing process, look how lovely and sinuous these illustrations are! They were done in the Golden Age of Illustration, that decorative era right around the turn of the last century that I love so much.

A lot more women have made their living as artists or illustrators than history records, especially around this era of artistic and social ferment. I'm always thrilled to discover a new one!

What else is serendipitous about finding this buried treasure of a book? It was published in September, 1916 — making it 100 years old this month!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

ALL ABOARD

Jewel Theatre Company on-track with season opener 'Streetcar Named Desire'

These days, Tennessee Williams' groundbreaking drama, A Streetcar Named Desire could seem as quaint and mannered as the fading, delusional Southern belle at its center.

But the old girl holds up surprisingly well in the smart new production of Streetcar that launches the twelfth season of Jewel Theatre Company.

First produced onstage in 1947, the play was controversial for daring to whisper (obliquely) about taboo subjects like homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and rape. It examines the erosion of Southern gentility, in the hothouse flower that is Blanche DuBois, exposed in the merciless glare of the postwar modern world represented by her rough-hewn working-class brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

But Williams knew that the perceived elegance of the Old South — built on generations of slavery and repression — was as much an illusion as Blanche's fragile image of herself as a genteel lady.

Schindele and James: culture clash
These are no longer considered scandalous, or particularly new ideas. But director Susan Myer Silton sets them up vividly in her JTC production. The story is set in the French quarter of New Orleans, and one of Silton's coolest innovations is to place a three-man jazz combo on a wrought-iron balcony overlooking the stage; they play the actors in and out of scenes, subtly punctuating the action, but never overwhelming it.

Stanley Kowalski is played by Brent Schindele, previously seen in a dinner jacket, tinkling the ivories as the lounge pianist in JTC's delightful film noir musical, Gunmetal Blues. His performance here is a pretty nifty about-face. Erika Schindele (she and Brent are married in real life) plays his wife, Stella, with strength and compassion. The Kowalskis  enjoy a strong physical, if sometimes volatile, relationship.

Stanley and Stella: volatile
But their marriage is strained when Stella's older sister, Blanche (Julie James), arrives. A spinsterish onetime high school English teacher, Blanche spins a tale of woe about how the family home (a Mississippi plantation called Belle Reve), has been "lost," as the elder generation died out.

Alternately reproaching Stella for "abandoning" the family that Blanche had to care for, and buttering her up as her "precious baby sister," Blanche has nowhere to go, and her travel plans are indefinite.

Blanche deplores what she considers the Kowalski's miserable living conditions in their two-room apartment, and finds Stanley crude and common. Stanley suspects her of cheating Stella out of the family inheritance; he loathes her superior attitude, her interference in his marriage, and her pretense to gentility, which he considers a phony act.

And the clash of wills between them only intensifies. (Read more)

All photos ©2016 Steve DiBartolomeo-Westside Studio Images

Thursday, September 8, 2016

THANKS A MILLES

The Inconstant Traveler goes to Sweden!

The next time you're in Sweden visit Millesgarden, a fabulous home, art environment, terraced sculpture garden, and gallery space overlooking Stockhom Harbor.

It was created by and for sculptor Carl Milles (who studied with Rodin) and his wife, Austrian-born painter Olga Granner Milles, in the artistically simmering early decades of the last century.

This object to the left is a actually a (very thin) sponge, purchased in the gift shop, but I won't be mopping up spilled champagne with it anytime soon. I love the way its Wiener Werkstatte-inspired design and colors look on my aqua-green kitchen wall!

The graphic in the upper corner of the sponge replicates the design of this wrought-iron gate on the grounds. My Swedish is too rusty (okay; nonexistent) to translate the words, but I can read the date well enough: 1920.

This was right around the time the intricate, floral Art Nouveau aesthetic was starting to segue into the clean, machine-made design motifs of Art Deco.

Milles' bronze sculptures are monumental, mostly figures taken from Greek, Roman, and Christian mythology. On the grounds of Millesgarden, they are made even more imposing by their gravity-defying placement on tall, thin pedestals.

(For scale, see the tiny figures huddled at the low wall to the left, between the huge statue in the foreground, and the little spritz of water bubbling out of the fountain to its right? Those are actual people; that's how gigantic these sculptures are!)

Carl Milles' sculpture garden: monumental.
Each irregular paving stone in the terraces was placed by hand. Construction lasted for decades!

Austrian-born architect and textile designer, Josef Frank, who relocated to Sweden in the second half of his life, had a hand in some of the building on the Millesgarden grounds.

When we were there, the Millesgarden gallery was hosting an exhibition of Frank textiles, created by the Swedish design group,  Svenskt Tenn, with which Frank had a long association.

These are modern textiles based on Frank designs, shown alongside Franks' original watercolor sketches of each pattern. The colors are bold, the attitude playful, and the images abstract and amorphous, or wonderfully curvy, inspired by the fecund shapes of flowers, fruits, and leaves in nature.

Josef Frank: "Terrazzo."

Wall tapestries of Frank's designs were hung amid pieces of furniture  upholstered in these same patterns, ebulliently padded and poofy sofas, pillows, and chairs.

(Frank's dislike of hard, sharp corners is thought to have inspired Apple designer Jonathan Ive, a Frank fan, in his creation of the original blue iMac.)

I loved the designs for "Terrazzo," inspired by Italian mosaics. I also liked the starry, cloudlike silhouettes of "Zodiac," and a design based on images of historical sailing ships.

But for me, Best in Show was this whimsical riff on the classic bearskin rug (displayed only a couple of inches off the floor). The best thing about this life-sized accent piece is that it doesn't require the death of an actual animal to produce!

Oh, and the title of this piece? "Beast."


Saturday, August 20, 2016

AFTERGLOW

Okay, my opinion is not exactly impartial. But even I didn't expect to have so much fun at the premiere of Alias Hook last night at Louden Nelson Center!

I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Santa Cruz Parks & Rec Teen Theatre leaders Sara Jo Czarnecki and Darwin Garrett fooling around with my grown-up story for a cast of 12-17-year-olds.

But I was very impressed with the way they managed to telescope the book's action and themes in an early draft of the script they showed me.

And last night onstage, it came together with much more pizzazz than I could ever have hoped for!

There's a real thrill in seeing my characters brought to life before my eyes, not to mention hearing my jokes get laughs from the audience!  (Although, some of the biggest laughs were for funny lines that Sara and Darwin added.)

Sure, compromises were made. There's no flying, and no underwater merfolk community. The sexy Fairy Revels are replaced by a crew of cute flapper fairies doing the Charleston.

The racier aspects of James and Stella's relationship are eliminated (no doubt to the cheers of my readers over at the Republic of Goodreads, who are often shocked to find this is an adult fantasy, not written for kids). But Stella still indulges her fondness for wine!

And while James Hook's backstory is mostly cut out, the character of Proserpina, the voudon priestess who cursed him to eternal life in the Neverland, weaves in and out of the action, haunting him with his lifetime of mistakes.

There were other clever additions. I especially liked the moment when James, no longer able to play his beloved piano one-handed, rises from the bench, hand and hook moving over imaginary keys in the air, while the music playing in his head fills the auditorium.

Proud author with Aidan Brekka as Hook!
Most importantly, the heart of the story comes through intact — James Hook learning to give up the endless war games with Pan and extricate himself from the Neverland by finally growing up.

Much credit for this goes to Aidan Brekka for his brisk, commanding performance as James. He strikes just the right notes of sarcasm and despair. Sophia Alexander-Sidhom is poised and funny as Stella.

In the role of Pan (ironically played by a girl), Seyla Manzo is just as brash and bratty as she should be. And kudos to every single cast member, playing various pirates, fairies, Lost Boys and Indians, for making this show such a success.

After the show, Sara and Darwin presented me with this copy of the production's poster, signed by everyone in the cast! That was very, very cool, and I was also thrilled to meet a lot of the young actors down in front, afterwards. I said they were all great, and I meant it.

"Thank you for writing us!" They responded.

Seriously, I couldn't have had more fun!

Friday, August 19, 2016

WORLD PREMIERE!


Hey, Santa Cruzans, tonight's the night!

Alias Hook will have it's World Premiere, live, onstage, at Louden Nelson, courtesy of the spirited folks at Santa Cruz Parks and Rec Teen Theatre. These kids have been working for 12 weeks to get my book up on the boards, and tonight, we lucky local get to see the result!

Check out some of these rehearsal stills. Looks like fun!

The unsinkable Sara Jo Czarnecki, godmother of the program, has been (among other accomplishments) assistant fight choreographer with Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

So expect plenty of crossed swords, one damsel (occasionally in distress, but mostly not), plenty of pirates, fairies, and Lost Boys, and one voodoo priestess.

And, of course — the (dreaded) Pan!

Showtime is 7 pm tonight (Friday) and Saturday night, plus a 2pm Saturday matinee. Talk about an exclusive engagement!

If you've ever longed for Captain James Hook to have a chance to be the hero, this is the show for you!

Visit SCP&RTT's Facebook page for more details.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

PUTTIN' ON THE GLITZ

Dreamy vision of Old Hollywood dished up in Cafe Society

If Blue Jasmine was Woody Allen's homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, his latest, Cafe Society, evokes Casablanca, in tone and romanticism. True, Allen's film is set in the 1930s, not the '40s; it takes place in Hollywood and New York City, not Paris, and there are no Nazis lurking about.

But otherwise, this plays like a spiritual prequel to the classic Bogart movie, the kind of bittersweet story of young love that might come back to haunt the participants years later, after they've moved on. (It even ends up where Casablanca begins — in a nightclub.)

Beautifully shot by veteran Vittorio Storaro, at Old Hollywood locations all over Los Angeles (including the Chinese and Los Feliz Theatres, and several vintage Bel Air mansions), Cafe Society revolves around Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg).

An innocent nebbish from one of Allen's typically large, boisterous Jewish families from the Bronx, Bobby wants more out of life than working in his father's factory. So his mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), ships him off to her brother, Phil Stern (Steve Carrell), a hotshot Hollywood agent.


Stewart and Eisenberg: they'll take romance.

Phil assigns his personal assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to drive Bobby around and show him the town. Beautiful, level-headed Vonnie isn't interested in the glitz and glamour of showbiz; she'd rather live at the beach and eat tacos in a cozy Mexican joint. Bobby is completely smitten with her, even though she tells him she has a boyfriend.

Allen presents a romanticized vision of a 1930s that never was — except in the movies. (The same way Casablanca romanticized the wartime era, Nazis and all.) And as a confection celebrating old-time Hollywood glamour, Cafe Society is pretty irresistible.

Still, as fresh and youthful as the central love story is, this is the work of a mature sensibility, a wistful meditation on choices made that invites us to ponder what might have been. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

THE DANISH GIRL

SCS reinvents Hamlet in solid new production


It's not like a woman has never played Hamlet before.

Sarah Bernhardt famously played the great Dane onstage in 1899, captured for posterity in this poster by Alphonse Mucha.

Classical Danish actress Asta Nielsen essayed the role in a 1921 silent film.

(Although, it seems like Shakespeare without spoken words is sort of missing the point).

What's wild about Nielsen's version is that this Hamlet was supposedly born female, but her parents brought her up disguised as a boy to preserve the lineage.

That this Hamlet has lived all her life in male drag complicates relationships in the drama: she sort of jollies along old Polonius' attempts to match her up with his daughter, Ophelia, but she secretly pines for friend and schoolfellow, Horatio.

Here's a highlight reel of the film via You Tube, with includes a link to the entire two-hour film.

What's fresh about the new Santa Cruz Shakespeare interpretation is that Kate Eastwood Norris plays the character of Hamlet as a woman.

Nothing is changed in the script, except references to "son" are switched to "daughter," and the prevailing form of address becomes "my Lady," instead of "my Lord."

The rest of the play is still intact, including Hamlet's love affair with Ophelia.

Everyone knows they've always been drawn to each other; when Hamlet feigns madness, in hopes of sussing out the truth of her father's untimely demise, everyone assumes she's out of her mind with love for Ophelia.

Dueling Hamlets: Eastwood Norris
And here's the deal: nobody thinks anything of it. Casting Hamlet as a woman doesn't turn it into a "lesbian love story." The Hamlet-Ophelia subplot is about young love, in all its recklessness, passion, and confusion — just as it always has been.

Meanwhile, the rest of Shakespeare's tragedy marches on in this bare-bones, yet powerful production. The metal monkey-bar towers from Midsummer are wrapped in bunting to stand in for interior castle columns.

And without atmospheric sets, it's up to the writing and the acting to deliver the goods. Happily, both Shakespeare, and this excellent cast, are up to the task.

Norris doesn't miss a note of the character's complexity; her Hamlet is dashing, introspective, and witty, by turns. Torn as she is between inaction and confident resolution, she also makes the most of every wry aside — especially concerning the marriage of her mother, the queen, to her uncle, after the sudden demise of her father, the king.


Dueling Hamlets: Bernhardt

When she cries,, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" this female Hamlet sounds both astonished and self-deprecating.

Bernard K. Addison (so boisterously funny as Bottom in Midsummer) is both fierce and stately as the Ghost of Hamlet's murdered father, as well as his own murderous brother, Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, all too speedily wed to her mother, Queen Gertrude (Carol Halstead).

In this version, Patty Gallagher plays a female Polonius as a sort of dotty matchmaker, egging on her daughter, Ophelia (Mia Ellis), to encourage and comply with the increasingly distracted Hamlet in hopes of arranging a royal union.

Mike Ryan makes a stalwart Horatio. And Larry Paulsen is absolutely terrific in voice and manner as the Player King.

This is where this season's costume budget went, with B. Modern designing a fabulous lace-covered gown for Queen Gertrude, and a magnificent, ivory-hued robe for the Ghost — who makes an eerie circuit around the back of the seating area before joining the action onstage.

(However, the backpacks and plaid skirts for the female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make them seem more like Catholic schoolgirls than university students. But it's a nice touch that Hamlet wears her skirt rakishly over pants, and her vest unbuttoned.)

The play is definitely the thing in this streamlined, highly effective production.

Addison, Norris, Halstead: that's Princess of Denmark.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

UNMATCHED

Robust: Adam Campbell as Tevye
Soaring performances, production, fuel Cabrillo Stage's 'Fiddler on the Roof'

Back in 2012, the Cabrillo Stage summer musical series mounted one of its most successful productions, Anything Goes. It was a frothy 1930s period piece built around vintage Cole Porter songs, and featuring what may be the single most electrifying production number in CS history, a massive syncopated tap extravaganza to the title tune, in which everyone but the orchestra was onstage dancing.

That show was directed and choreographed by Kikau Alvaro, making his CS debut. And now Alvaro is back in the same capacity for the second production of the company's current season, Fiddler On the Roof.

True, there are few opportunities for ensemble tap dancing in this enduring tale about the denizens of a poor Jewish shtetl in a remote area of Russia toward the end of Tsarist rule. But Alvaro still delivers a wonderful production of this classic musical, vividly imagined in the design and dance departments, and blessed by a knockout centerpiece performance by Adam Campbell in the central role of Tevye, the dairyman.

The original 1964 production was directed and choreographed by the great dance maestro, Jerome Robbins (whose choreography Alvaro reproduces here, according to the credits). And while the dancing is terrific, this is not a show that depends on dancing; rather, it's a moving tale of life, love, family, and, of course, tradition, in an era of changing values.

Tevye is the engine that makes this show go. Campbell's great singing voice can be big and expressive, or soft and sweet, and his wry demeanor is irresistible, whether conversing with God, or in his robust rendition of Tevye's signature song, "If I Were a Rich Man."

Upholding "Tradition"
 A poor dairyman whose assets amount to one milk cow and a lame horse, Teyve and his wife, Golde (Marianne Thompson, another fine singer) have five daughters to see settled, with the help of village matchmaker, Yente (Alice Hughes). A staunch upholder of "Tradition" (as laid out in the rousing opening number), Tevye's worldview is challenged as, one by one, his three eldest daughters choose their own husbands for love, rather than submitting to arranged matches.

In terms of production and performance, this Fiddler is rich indeed. (Read more)

Monday, July 25, 2016

FAB TECHNICIANS

Dysfunctional duo ages disgracefully in 'Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie'

The new Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is not for the uninitiated. If you're not already a fan of the cultish '90s TV series, chances are you'll have no clue what's supposed to be funny about two clownish women of a certain age in ridiculous clothing attempting to stave off the ravages of time with gallons of champagne, while clinging desperately by their ferociously manicured claws to the ragged fringes of trendy pop culture.

But those who already have a soft spot in their hearts for the ribald and outrageous TV series will find much to chuckle at in the big screen adventures of sad-sack Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and coolly caustic Patsy (Joanna Lumley).

Scripted by series creator Saunders for director Mandie Fletcher (veteran of many of the TV episodes), the movie falls prey to the usual pitfalls of TV-to-film adaptations: it's tough to maintain a coherent storyline and keep delivering the laughs over 90 minutes (instead of 30).

Still, despite the slower passages, the brio with which Eddie and Pats pursue their absurd agenda, in the face of common sense, common decency, and reality, remains oddly cheer-worthy.

La Dolce Vita: In their dreams.

And beneath the frantic facade lurks a sharp satire of our celebrity-obsessed society, along with, at times, a surprisingly poignant look at how women who have the bad judgment to age are treated by the popular culture that finds them so instantly disposable. (Read more in this week's Good Times)