Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Beatles secretary and fan-wrangler celebrated in irresistible 'Good Ol' Freda'

Talk about a dream job. Freda Kelly was just 17 when she landed a job as personal secretary to The Beatles in 1962. No one had any idea how big the band would become, and Liverpool homegirl Freda rode that colossal wave with them for the next 11 years. But unlike so many others with even the most tenuous claim to having once known The Beatles, Freda never sought the limelight—no rounds of chat shows, no tell-all autobiography. Her unique story has remained untold—until now.

Ryan White's documentary, Good Ol' Freda, is as ebullient, down-to-earth, and irresistible as Freda Kelly herself. "I was just a secretary," she shrugs, with typical lack of pretension. "Who wants to hear the secretary's story?"

Now a middle-class matron (still working as a secretary)—with the best memorabilia ever in a box under the eaves in her attic—she decided to share her amazing story so that some day her grandson will know that, back in her youth, she'd done something fun and exciting. It is, as a friend says, "one of the last true stories of The Beatles you will ever hear."

Freda was a typist in a secretarial pool at a Liverpool office on the fateful day some mates took her out to lunch round the corner at the Cavern Club. The cellar location "had a very unique smell," she recalls as "disinfectant and sweat." But it was the band onstage, not the ambiance, that kept local kids coming back, and White employs what scant footage exists of John, Paul, George, and Pete Best in action at the Cavern, augmented by tons of still photos to get the idea across.
Wrap your head around this: going to see The Beatles live at the Cavern on your lunch break. Every day. The group played some 284 gigs at the Cavern, and Freda estimates she saw 190 of them. In between sets, they hung out in the band room, chatting with their loyal fans.

Brian Epstein (fondly recalled as "Eppie") managed the NEMS record store an kept an office in the building where his family sold furniture. When he came to the Cavern to see what all the fuss was about, the group was on its way. As their new manager, one of the first thing's Epstein did was hire Freda as their secretary. Her job was mainly to answer fan mail and to make sure "the boys" produced enough autographs and signed photos to go around.

"I was one of them, " Freda says of the fans, "I knew how they felt," and she did her best to accommodate their requests. She couldn't send Paul round to a birthday party, for instance, but when a girl sent in a pillow case, Freda took it to Ringo's mum to see that he slept on it for a couple of nights. Her duties soon expanded to running the official Beatles Fan Club, and writing a regular fan newsletter. On a 1963 recorded Christmas greeting sent out to Fan Club members, the boys included a special shout-out to "Good ol" Freda!"

Her insights into the group are fond, never catty. Paul was always "nice and friendly," John was "a man of many moods," and "quiet Beatle" George "was never quiet with me." While she picked a new favorite every day, depending on who was nicest to her, she does not divulge if she ever had a deeper relationship with any of them. "That's personal," she smiles.

Her friend says "The Beatles saw her as a sister and their families saw her as a daughter." When Ringo joined up, motherless Freda became especially close to his mum. George's parents, the Harrisons, she recalls, "enjoyed the fame more than the other parents." And as that fame grew, and Freda's workload increased from 200 fan letters a week to 2-3000 a day, she became even more tenacious in guarding their privacy, not putting up with anyone "telling lies about her boys."

Which doesn't mean she couldn't give back as well as she got from the boys themselves. Once when John—evidently in one of is moods—threatened to sack her for being late, she told him she'd continue to work for the other three and he could do his own mail. To which he immediately back-pedaled that he was only kidding!
Freda today at the Cavern—where it all began
White assembles a great collection of vintage still photos and newsreel footage to tell this story. The soundtrack is full of period music, mostly R&B originals (like "Twist and Shout" and "Please Mr. Postman") later covered by The Beatles. Viewers might wish for more actual Beatles recordings, but that White managed to secure the rights to the four Beatles originals he does use is pretty impressive for a Kickstarter-funded project.

From early days (when no one could imagine bigger success than Playing the Empire Theatre in Liverpool at the bottom of the bill with Little Richard), through worldwide celebrity, marriages, divorces, death, children, movies, the foundation of Apple Corps, and the final divergence of four individuals going their separate ways, Freda has seen it all. Her common sense, good humor, and irrepressible sense of fun make her a most personable tour guide through an extraordinary cultural era.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Shannon Hemphill and Ali Eppy
Marriage, sex, bloody religious infighting, a pervasive rape culture, the role of women in society—all these thematic elements might lead you to expect a play called Cell Talk: 1410 to be an edgy contemporary drama involving iPhones. But, no.

In author Dana Bagshaw's pop-up theatre production, the "cell" in question is a Spartan monastic room, the kind to which a woman under holy orders might retreat to live out her days in contemplation. A woman like the historical Julian of Norwich, whose conversations with another real-life medieval mystic and pilgrim, Margery Kempe—ca. 1410—make up the bulk of Bagshaw's ambitious play of ideas.

Santa Cruz author Bagshaw lived in England for 18 years, where early versions of the play were staged at offbeat but atmospheric venues like medieval churches. Cell Talk: 1410 had its American premiere last Sunday at Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz, and will be performed again next Sunday, September 29, at the First Congregational Church on High Street.

The play is largely based on Kempe's book, The Book of Margery Kempe,  (dictated to a priest, since she never learned to read or write), considered to be the first autobiography in the English language. Bagshaw distills the fascinating events of Kempe's life to a series of vignettes in which Margery (Shannon Hemphill), tells her story to Julian (Ali Eppy), or interacts with her long-suffering, yet loyal husband, John Kempe (Rick Kuhn).

A self-defined visionary and mystic, Margery had her first apocalyptic vision after the difficult birth of her first child. Chained up as a madwoman for a while, she only recovered after Jesus appeared to her to talk her down—beginning what she claimed was a lifelong series of conversations with her Savior.

After bearing 14 children, Margery made a bargain of celibacy with her husband, visited Julian, another famed mystic, for confirmation that her visions were of Divine and not demonic origin, and spent most of the rest of her life on holy pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Assisi, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela.

 At a time when the Holy Church was routinely burning "heretics," Margery was tried and briefly imprisoned for heresy. She outraged church fathers for daring to have a personal relationship with Jesus outside of the church, and even for wearing white, supposed to be the sole province of virgins or women in holy orders.

Bagshaw's play is thoughtfully directed by Matt Matthews (making smart use of the outdoor space, a walkway alongside the Calvary library). It begins with Margery's first terrifying visions, and her husband's bewildered response. (The affable and funny Kuhn's John Kempe is the audience touchstone throughout.) They have a couple of more scenes together, including the entertaining moment when Margery prevails upon the disappointed John to embrace celibacy. But the rest of Margery's story unfolds in conversations with Julian.
Rick Kuhn, Shannon Hemphill, Ali Eppy

These mostly concern the quality of spirituality and the goodness of the Lord, along with the revelation of Margery's "secret sin," stemming from a rape she endured as a young girl. (Some graphic descriptions in this scene may not be suitable for young children.) Some of these conversations could stand a little pruning to sharpen their focus. But all is redeemed in their final encounter, when Bagshaw's themes of the triumph of the God of Love over the punishing God of wrath, and intuitive feminine mysticism over rigid church doctrine, register with gusto.

As Margery, Hemphill is a tad girlish and modern at times, but she also has moments of humor and warmth. Eppy's elegant Julian is the voice of serenity throughout. And the use of a quartet of musicians on hand, playing authentic medieval music between scene breaks, is an especially nice touch.

Cell Talk: 1410 plays next Sunday,  Sept. 29, 4 to 5:30 p.m., at the First Congregational Church, 900 High Street,  Santa Cruz. Tickets available at the door for a $10/15 donation.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Art, life, past, present merge in meditative 'Museum Hours'

If you've ever been to the venerable Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, you're in for a nostalgic treat with the film, Museum Hours. But you need not have ever been to Vienna to be drawn into the odd, languid spell cast by this Austrian-American co-production. Anyone who has ever haunted any Old World museum with a rich collection of Late Middle Ages and Renaissance paintings may find herself strangely beguiled by this meditation on art and life, past and present, and the many ways and places in which they intersect.

The film is written and directed by American Jem Cohen, who has an extensive list of credits in music videos and documentary shorts. Museum Hours has a bit of a documentary vibe to it; the main character, a museum guard, narrates his thoughts and observations as he goes about his daily life, and onscreen conversations have an unscripted feel. There's not much in the way of plot or action, yet the film is thematically rich in its ideas on the secret symbolism of pictures, and art as the social media of its day.
Bruegel, "Fight Between Carnival and Lent," 1559

Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a uniformed guard at the KHM. He spends his days on a chair in a niche before a heavy wooden door and behind a red velvet rope, although he often gets up and wanders around the colossal picture galleries.

His favorite is the Bruegel room, large canvases teeming with messy life in all its diversity—allegorical wedding or hunting scenes, religious or mythological scenes radically reimagined in terms of 16th Century peasant life.

Johann "always sees something new in the paintings" that continue to speak to the human condition.

One day, he strikes up a conversation with Canadian visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara). A distant cousin is in a Viennese hospital, and in the absence of any other family, Anne has come to spend time with her. Johann offers his services as a translator, and soon they become allied art explorers, soaking up the pictures and viewing art through the lens of life (and vice versa). It's especially fun to see the way filmmaker Cohen composes every exterior shot like a Bruegel canvas. (Read more)

The lack of narrative drive will frustrate some viewers, but Museum Hours is more about reverie than story. It would make a great double-bill in your Netflix queue with Lech Majewski's splendidly nutty Bruegel-movie mash-up, The Mill and the Cross, but it will be so much more compelling on a big screen.

Meanwhile, take a mini virtual tour of the museums of Vienna in this blog I posted after my visit there last summer!

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Tatou shines as pre-feminist desperate housewife in 'Thèrése'

Audrey Tatou continues to grow in complexity onscreen. In the handsome and elegantly mounted period drama, Thèrése, the former Amelie gamine stars as a young woman entangled in bourgeois dynastic obligations in the southwest French countryside in the 1920s.

It's a part that calls for brisk intelligence (but not warmth) quiet desperation and a soupcon of cold fury, and Tatou plays every note with striking precision.

The final offering from the late French filmmaker Claude Miller, the film is adapted from the 1927 novel, Thèrése Desqueyroux, by Francois Mauriac. (Miller co-wrote the screenplay with Natalie Carter.) Although the novel was written long before modern notions of feminism had gained much currency, its portrait of a woman trapped in an ill-fitting social role continues to have resonance today.

As young girls, Thèrése and her best friend, Anne, grow up as best friends in adjoining estates nestled in a vast pine forest outside of Bordeaux. Anne is active, uncomplicated, "simple;" Thèrése always has her nose in a book. Everyone assumes that Thèrése will marry Anne's older brother, Bernard Desqueyroux, uniting the families' properties, and so it comes to pass—although his mother (the great Catherine Arditi) worries that Thèrése "thinks too much."

Thèrése (now played by Tatou) jokes to Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) that she's marrying him for his pines; theirs is not a love match, but she tells Anne (played as an adult by Anais Demoustier) she hopes marriage will "save" her and put the chaotic ideas in her head into some kind of order.

But marriage to pompous Bernard is hardly salvation. Uninterested in him physically, yet rushed into motherhood, she finds herself confined, not liberated, by her wifely duties.Oppressed by every aspect of her life, Thèrése begins to take a perverse interest in the arsenic-laced medicinal drops Bernard takes for his health.

If the novel had been written, say, half a century earlier, this would be a very different scenario. Viewers expecting a conventional morality play a la Anna Karenina, say, complete with passionate awakening and forbidden love affair, may be surprised at the way these events play out. It all adds up to an engrossing portrait of psychological turmoil in an era of simmering cultural upheaval. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Stoppard's ambitious 'Arcadia' launches new JTC season

Tom Stoppard's plays are not for the intellectually faint of heart.

In his dazzling and accomplished Arcadia, the playwright's roving mind and lively wit concoct a densely-packed thematic narrative touching on mathematics and physics, English history and culture, landscape gardening, the Romantic movement, academic infighting, Lord Byron, and—of course—sex and literature.

It's a long, smart, frequently funny play, and Jewel Theatre Company enhances its reputation for ambitious productions by staging Arcadia to kick off its ninth season.
Hannah Mary J. Keller and Robert Anthony Peters

The play is written as a kind of literary mystery, which plays out alongside its resolution in two separate time periods, 200 years apart, on the play's single set, a drawing room at an English country estate. Returning JTC stalwart Susan Myer Silton directs with efficiency and aplomb, keeping characters moving crisply in and out of Ron Gasparinetti's handsome, stationary set.

She also manages the tricky dance of keeping each character true to his or her historical and cultural era, even when they (occasionally) occupy the same set at the same time.

In 1809, at the country estate of Sidley Park, a proper young lady of the Regency era, Thomasina Coverly (a spirited Hannah Mary J. Keller), is attempting to study Fermat's Theorem with her self-possessed young tutor, Septimus Hodge (the very effective Robert Anthony Peters).
 Meanwhile, her mother, Lady Croom (a terrific Shannon Warrick), is suffering the renovation of her formal, Classicist garden with an overlay of faux-wild, gothic elements, in keeping with the fashion for Romanticism that's becoming all the rage.

In alternating scenes in the present day, a pair of literary scholars (Jeff Garrett and Julie James, left) attempt to piece together a mystery from the past, and adroit comedy is made from the juxtaposition of the modern academics' theorizing and the way events actually play out.

Garret's hilarious Bernard Nightingale is the raucous centerpiece of this production, a volatile academic hell-bent on pummeling a few scant crumbs of historical possibility into the proof he needs to support his pet theory. (Read more)

(Photos by Steve DiBartolomeo)