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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Gregory G. H. Rihn's LiveJournal:

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Tuesday, May 24th, 2016
6:18 pm
Captain America: Civil War
On Saturday evening, May 21, we went to see the latest Marvel superhero movie, Captain America: Civil War. While Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the nominal protagonist, it is really part of the mainstream "Avengers" plotline, as most of the Avengers (with the exception of Thor and Hulk) appear, as well as some new important characters.

The plot opens in Lagos, Nigeria, where the Avengers are on stake-out, waiting for action by mercenary criminal Crossbones (Frank Grillo). Crossbones and his gang succeed in seizing a dangerous biological sample. The Avengers manage to recover the sample in a relatively low-profile exploit, but things go wrong when Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) redirects the blast of Crossbones' suicide bomb away from Captain America, but loses control and damages an apartment building, killing envoys of the reclusive nation of Wakanda.

The team gets raked over the coals, ignoring the fact that the Skrull invasion of New York, the Ultron incidents, and the Lagos situation would all have ended far worse had the Avengers not intervened. They are presented with the "Sokovia Accords", named for the East European country devastated by Ultron, a United Nations resolution which requires that the Avengers operate only under the oversight of a U.N. panel. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) supports the measure due to guilt feelings. Rogers, however, objects, arguing that individual conscience is a better guide than political agendas.

Stark and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) go to the United Nations complex in Vienna for the signing of the accords. The building is attacked by a vehicle-borne IED, which kills King T'Chaka of Wakanda. When Bucky Barnes, the "Winter Soldier" (Sebastian Stan), is implicated in the attack, a three-way manhunt begins. Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), try to get to Barnes before an international task force with shoot-on-sight orders, managed by Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, refreshingly playing a jerky government thug--), while T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), now King of Wakanda, hunts Barnes for his own revenge. This snowballs into a major confrontation, with none of the respective players knowing that they are being manipulated by another unknown hand.

Captain America: Civil War, does a nice job of encapsulating the freedom versus accountability debate that raged in the pages of Marvel comics, and handles the subject with both dignity and passion. While there is right on both sides, Captain America's position is of course the sentimental favorite. To the movie-maker's credit, the issue is not wrapped up at the end of this film, although we can see which way the wind is blowing.

I do tend to agree with other critics that this may be one of the best superhero movies made to date, although not without its flaws. I didn't find Tony Stark's berserkergang in the final combat particularly believable, it seemed out of character. It was good to see the new characters, which I thought were done generally well: Black Panther, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, new to me, not having seen the Ant-Man movie), and Tom Holland as the newest Spider-Man. Peter Parker is somewhat of a problematical characterization, since Downey's Stark gets all the wisecracks that have long been Spider-Man's trademark, and Scott Lang/Ant-Man has some of the humor, which leaves Parker as a hyper-nerdy kid. (Spider-Man<http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4043618/?ref_=tt_trv_qu>: [to Bucky] "You have a metal arm? That is AWESOME, dude!") Time will tell if this will stand up for long--. I found the characterization of Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to be interesting and well tied-in with the theme of the movie and totally unlike the comics' Baron Zemo, who was Marvel's second-string Doctor Doom.

Next up from the Marvel Movie Machine is Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbach, and coming out this November. Of course, they had a trailer for it along with Captain America, and it looks great, potentially. We look forward to it.

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6:15 pm
Milwaukee Ballet, Alice (in Wonderland)
On Sunday afternoon, May 22, we went to the Marcus Center to see Alice (in Wonderland), a story ballet choreographed by Septime Webre, with music by Matthew Pierce.

The story is largely based on the familiar Lewis Carroll story, with observable influences from the Royal Ballet version, specifically the prolog with Alice's family; and the recent Tim Burton movie, in which Alice slays the Jabberwock.

The ballet opens with Alice (Alana Griffith) drowsing in an armchair on an otherwise bare and colorless stage. She awakens and performs a short, poignant, pas d'ane. Then, things get chaotic as members of her family and household enter: annoying sisters (Valerie Harmon, Itzel Hernandez), domineering mother (Susan Gartell), absent-minded father (Patrick Howell), dotard grandfather (Marc Petrocci), somnolent grandmother (Lahna Vanderbush), and put-upon butler (Parker Brasser-Vos). All of these appear later as wonderland characters. Then Lewis Carroll (Alexandre Ferreira) enters and sets up for a family portrait photograph. As the picture is taken, lights change and the White Rabbit (Brasser-Vos) enters and invites Alice down the "rabbit hole," in this case portrayed as a giant keyhole.

After a falling scene cleverly done with both "flying" effects and puppetry, Alice lands in the hall of doors, which involves some clever choreography with the doors and gremlin-like beings that control them. Alice's growing was also neatly done, as she raised up on the flying wires, her skirt lengthening, eventually revealing another dancer's feet below.

There are a lot of scenes and characters, so I'm not going to go over all of them. All were very good, but particularly notable were Davit Hovhannisyan as the Dodo, dancing very powerfully and athletically; Garret Glassman and Marc Petrocci as the Fish Footman and the Frog Footman, who dance a fun, bluesy pas de tres with Alice; Timothy O'Donnell and Barry Molina as the Duchess and her Cook, who have a duet where the Duchess assumes the "male" role, lifting and twirling the Cook; and Marize Fumaro as the Caterpillar, who worked in remarkable concert with the "Guys in White" (characters, eventually "cards", who do scene shifting and other character support) who lift and move her body through the sinuous movements of the Caterpillar; and James Gilmer as the Cheshire Cat, who performed a jazzy, seductive dance with Alice.

Speaking of seduction brings up the character of the Queen of Hearts, danced with great power by Susan Gartell. This character is both sexual and dangerous. In her earlier appearances, she wields a riding crop while being carried around by bare-chested Guys in White, and sometimes literally using them as stair steps. This makes one wonder if there isn't supposed to be a bit of an "Electra complex" going on between Alice and her mother, which is a bit jarring in what's otherwise presented as a very child-friendly ballet. (Young members of the Ballet School make delightfully cute appearances as baby flamingos (inevitably parodying the "Dance of the Cygnets"), piglets, cards, and hedgehogs.)

In the second act, the Queen's croquet game goes badly when the Queen loses, blaming the hedgehogs. Alice intervenes to save them, but is forced to flee into the forest. The Queen unleashes the Jabberwock to hunt her, which is a wonderful large puppet. Alice slays it with the help of The Mad Hatter (Mr. Ferreira) and Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee (Mr. Glassman and Mr. Petrocci), and a Vorpal Sword found conveniently to hand. Alice and friends are rounded up by the card soldiers to confront the angry Queen, at which point Alice realizes they are only cards. The other characters disappear, and Alice awakes in her chair at home.

The structure of the ballet is a somewhat uncomfortable fusion between "classical" ballet and story ballet. (We are somewhat spoiled by Michael Pink's smooth transitions and through-composed choreography.) Quite a few scenes just end, with no intervening action. When characters are done with a solo, they frequently just leap off into the wings and vanish. The large dance number for the corps, semi-obligatory for classical ballet, was inserted as a lengthy dance after the Caucus Race, with the dancers costumed as Flamingos, which don't appear in Carroll until the Croquet Game. This dance did nothing to advance the story, and could have been shorter with no loss.

It was nice that the composer, Matthew Pierce, not only attended, but conducted the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and played solo violin as well. The score was pleasant to listen to, although I recall it as being mainly rhythmic accompaniment for dancing, with nothing in the way of memorable tunes.

The costumes, by Liz Vandal were fantastical and attractive. One curious thing was that the Flamingo dancers head pieces had the beaks on backward, but that was the only really strange detail.

Criticisms aside, we enjoyed this ballet very much. It was both beautiful and amusing to watch and listen to, and we were very glad to have seen it.

This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/293589.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
6:13 pm
Milwaukee Metropolitan Voices, “Ten Years Together, Ou
On Friday evening, May 20th, we went to Next Act Theatre for the 10th Anniversary concert by Milwaukee Metropolitan Voices.

This was a very energetic and joyous vocal concert. The company opened with a medley from the Strauss operetta A Night in Venice: “The Party of the Year,” “Gaiety in Venice,” and “When You’re in Love.” They continued in the operetta mode with a piece from Franz Lehar’s The Land of Smiles, “One More Ball.”

Then, they introduced “The Hard Knock Kids,” a group of students from Zablocki school, “wrangled” by chorus member Barbara Czarkowski, on “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.

One of the featured soloists, Geraint Wilkes, was unfortunately ill that night, so Artistic Director Trefor Williams filled in with a solo on a traditional Welsh ballad (I’m afraid I didn’t catch the title), which he juxtaposed with the “South Wales pub version,” which had humorous English lyrics to the same tune.

The chorus then continued with a very lively version of “When the Saints go Marchin’ In,” followed by “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” by Eric Idle, from The Life of Brian.

The group had a very upbeat and interesting arrangement of Route 66, which has been a past favorite, and ended the first half back in The Land of Smiles, with “Patiently Smiling,” and “You Are My Heart’s Delight.”

The second half opened with ‘We’ll Keep a Welcome,” by Jones, Joshua, and Harper, followed by a lovely solo by Claire Bilicki on “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from the opera Gianni Schicchi.

Next, was a nice version of “Follow Me,” by John Denver, and a rousing rendition of “Seize the Day,” from the musical Newsies.

Then, the kids were back for, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” from Annie, which was simply charming.

Mr. Williams soloed again with “If I Can Help Somebody,” a very moving anthem. The chorus took over again with “At the End of the Day,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables.

Next up was “Rhythm of Life,” from Sweet Charity, and an audience sing-along on “Edelweiss” from Sound of Music.

The concert wound up with “King Champagne” from Die Fledermaus, and “Goodbye!” from The Producers.

This concert was full of lovely music, very well sung. A couple of songs were accompanied by dancers Sian Davis and Matthew Nienhaus, notably “One More Ball,” and did a very nice job.

We’ve enjoyed MMV concerts before, and probably will again soon, as they have a very ambitious and interesting 2016-2017 season coming up.

milwaukeemetrovoices.org

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Tuesday, May 17th, 2016
8:51 pm
Florentine Opera, “Die Fledermaus”
On Sunday afternoon, May 15th, we went to the Marcus Center for a very beautiful and enjoyable production of Johann Strauss’ operetta, “Die Fledermaus.” There was an attractive set, on loan from the Virginia Opera, consisting of enormous paintings of lush nudes at the sides, and a gigantic Bacchanal at the back, indicative of the decadent times. (The originals were painted by Viennese artist Hans Makart, very famous in his day.) No expense seemed to have been spared on the gorgeous costumes, especially those worn by Inna Dukach as Rosalinde.

The various singers seemed to have great fun with the elaborate practical joke/revenge plot initiated against Eisenstein (Corey McKern) by Dr. Falke (Jonathan Beyer), which involves luring Eisenstein to a party under false pretenses while he supposed to be reporting to jail for having kicked a tax collector.

At the party, Eisenstein makes trouble for himself by flirting with his masked wife, who’s there because her would-be lover Alfred (John Pickle), has been arrested and taken to jail in Eisenstein’s place.

The plot all works out with great good humor, and a healthy addition of local references and inside jokes. Alfred is advised by jailer Frosch (William Theisen) to call “Gruber Law Offices” when he asks for a lawyer: Alfred, a singer whose voice Rosalinde finds ravishing, sings snatches of Tosca, Turandot, and, in the jail cell, “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” Eisenstein gets in on the fun, crooning “I’m Going to Maxime’s” (from The Merry Widow, by Strauss’ competitor Franz Lehar) on the way to the party.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider in the role of “Prince Orlofsky” presented the character as an homage to the late musician Prince, sporting his trademark hairdo, and wispy mustache and facial hair. She also had a good repertoire of rock-star poses and gestures down. Jamie-Rose Guarrine was very funny as the truant chambermaid, Adele.

All the cast and the chorus sang wonderfully well, and were well supported by the orchestra under the direction of Maestro Joseph Rescigno. It was a lovely afternoon at the opera.
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8:50 pm
A Disappearing
On Saturday evening, May 14th, we went to the Walker’s Point Center for the Performing Arts to see “A Disappearing”, the Midwest premier of a new play by Milwaukee playwright Mark Wyss, who also produced. (Mark is also my next-door neighbor, and he and his wife Sandra, who designed the sets for the show, have worked on a number of the same productions I have in the past.)

“A Disappearing” was originally presented in a shorter form at the Albuquerque short play festival in 2014, where it won “Audience Favorite”. This was the first showing of the expanded version.

The play opens as lights come up on the kitchen of Alan and Claire, a suburban couple (Ryan H. Nelson and Michelle White). It’s evident a child’s birthday party is in progress from the cake, hats, and presents on the table. Alan, Claire, and “The Great Marvin” enter, with an argument already in progress. Marvin (Luke Summers) is the magician Claire hired to entertain at their son’s party. Marvin has evidently succeeded in making a heckling child, Tommy, disappear, to general consternation, since he has no idea how he did it, or how, or if, the child can be returned. He may have gone “where lost socks go,” as Marvin speculates.

A tumultuous debate ensues as Alan and Claire try to get their minds around what has happened and wonder what to do. Marvin is alternately appalled and delighted by his new-found power. After a wide-ranging and hilarious discussion, which includes the possible monetization of making inconvenient people go away, Alan takes on the duty of phoning Tommy’s parents to deliver the bad news. The act ends as he is on the phone to them.

Then, the audience moved from the “blue box” performance space at the back of the building, to the front room of the Center, representing the living room of Tommy’s parents, Sheila and Rob (Marilou Davido and John McGreal). They are a slightly younger, somewhat more yuppie couple, who are trying to enjoy a bit of “alone time” while Tommy’s at the party. This has marginal success, since Tommy intrudes even without being their, which results in a discussion about their troublesome child, in which Rob wistfully speculates on what life would be like without Tommy. They are just beginning to settle down when the phone rings, and we hear the other side of Alan’s call. This devolves from incredulity through dismay to hysteria as the message sinks in that their only child has indeed disappeared into thin air.

The third act was back in the “blue box,” now Alan and Claire’s living room. Sheila and Rob have arrived, and recriminations fly thick and fast, while possible solutions are thin on the ground. The play works out as a very funny, very black comedy, which dares to ask the question probably hidden in the hearts of most parents when looking at the fruit of their loins in those inevitable unlovely moments, “what if?”

All of the actors did a very fine job with Mr. Wyss’ edgy script. Direction, by Tim Kietzman, made sure the action and dialog was fast and appropriately furious. We found the delivery, especially of the argumentative scenes, to be very believable, and the wording naturalistic.

We had a fine time at “A Disappearing” and enjoyed very much, as did the rest of the audience. “A Disappearing” continues Friday and Saturday, the 20th and 21st. Tickets can be had at

www.adisappearing.eventbrite.com

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8:48 pm
Spaces and Traces 2016, Historic Water Tower Neighborhood
On Saturday morning, May 14th, we went on the annual Historic Milwaukee “Spaces and Traces” tour of homes, which this year was in the “Historic Water Tower Neighborhood.” This area of the city is on the north side along the lakeshore, and, for purposes of this tour, was bounded on the north by East Hartford Avenue, and on the south by East Windsor Place.

We began the tour at the Joseph and Charlotte Friend house on N. Hackett Ave., which was a handsome and spacious 1896 Queen Anne style home, and continued to the Emmons E. Chapin house on N. Summit, also a Queen Anne built in 1894, and the John F. Dahlman “Investment” house, a Federal revival, also on Summit. (For these tours, the houses are designated by the names of the original owners/residents. The current owners remain anonymous for privacy’s sake.)

We then went up to the north edge of the tour area and got to see one of the real jewels of the tour, the Orrin W. and Harriet H. Robertson house on North Lake Drive. If you know Milwaukee, you know that North Lake Drive is one of the most prestigious addresses, and the site of many fine homes. The Robertson house is such a one.

The house was built in 1912 after the Robertsons had toured France, and designed by noted Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler after the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau at the Robertson’s request. Built between 1518 and 1527, this château is considered one of the foremost examples of early French renaissance architecture.

Although for about twenty years from the 1960’s to the 1980’s the house belongs to various orders of nuns and used as a retreat, the house has been carefully restored and furnished with thematically appropriate pieces. A striking feature of the design is the corner turrets, which give the house a very fairy-tale air. The side facing the lake has a very clear view out to the horizon across a long lawn stretching to the bluff edge.

Next, we visited the W.B Rubin Duplex on N. Summit Ave. This 1911 Prairie Style building is about as different from the Robertson house as can be, with its modernistic flat roof and rectangular lines. Now a condominium, the two units have been decorated in different styles by the respective owners, but both in ways congenial to the building. The first floor in particular was furnished with Prairie-style furniture. The upper unit had combined the original flat with the third-floor servant’s quarters, which were used as a very spacious and ultra-modern master suite.
After that, we went down to the south end of the tour area to see the Elizabeth Black house, which shows influences of French Provincial design. Built in 1926 for the then elderly spinster, the house incorporates an elevator, which is still functional. This is also one of the first houses in Milwaukee I have seen that boasts a purpose-built wine cellar (although it was not likely noted as that on the Prohibition-Era blueprints). The rooms we were allowed to see were spacious and beautiful.

Our final stop was the “tavern room” of the Becker-Fitch house on E Back Bay Street, another property overlooking the lake. This room, designed and decorated to look like a rustic Irish pub, was added to the 1895 home in 1923, as a “den”. It has a separate entrance down the drive to the back, and was well situated for “discreet” entertaining.

This year’s tour was particularly good, and we enjoyed it (despite the unseasonably chilly weather).

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Friday, May 13th, 2016
4:39 pm
Cantare Chorale: An Evening of Song
  On Saturday, May 7th, we went to the South Milwaukee High School Auditorium (also known as the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center) for a performance by the Cantare Chorale. This is a community choral group, new to us, but which has members we know and have heard in other groups.

Although it was an evening of generally pleasant music, I can’t say that we enjoyed it all that much, a fact that I attribute to the Director, Lani M. Knutson.  As a rule,the arrangements chosen were neither inspiring nor challenging . Tempos were homogenous and uniform, and dynamic changes almost non-existent.

Problems were immediately noticeable with the opening number, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” I am used to hearing this song done joyously, but the arrangement made it sound more like grim duty. The following pieces, “Hallelujah, Amen,” from Judas Maccabeus, by George Frideric Handel;  “Ave Verum Corpus,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” by Johannes Brahms,  all suffered from metronomic tempos and monotonous volumes.  That the chorus was being held down became apparent on the final crescendo of Jean Sibelius’ “Onward, Ye Peoples!,” which was the first time that the voices really filled the hall.

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” was presented in an unsatisfying homogenized arrangement without a trace of “the Blues.” Although we were glad to hear all the words to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I conjecture that the lack of the jazz bounce for which the piece is famous contributed to the audience’s tepid response when asked to sing along.

The first half of the concert was nominally “sacred” music; the second half was more eclectic, but with an emphasis on show music. “It’s A Grand Night for Singing,” opened the half, but still without the swing and sway one is accustomed to hearing. “Yesterday,” was essentially a solo with some choral accompaniment. Regrettably, the soloist was not having a good night, starting flat, then recovering, but not making the high notes later in this deceptively difficult piece.

Having been in a production of “Oliver!” myself, I was well able to judge that the songs in a medley from the show were mostly up to tempo.Some energy almost showed itself on “Oom Pa Pah,” and the soloist on “Who Will Buy?” demonstrated that there was genuine vocal power available in the group. However, you wouldn’t have known that from the frustrating presentation of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which requires an intensity, and a swelling and receding in the volume levels that just was not there. I had to restrain myself from standing up and shouting, “Sing out, for God’s sake!”

The medley that followed, “Irving Berlin’s America,” had some good points, but, again, I was annoyed by the total lack of emphasis on songs such as “No Business Like Show Business,” which needs to be a punchy song, to wit: “There’s NO business like SHOW business, like NO business I KNOW!” It would perhaps have been well to have ended with the Berlin medley, but the concert wrapped up with “Lullaby (Good Night My Angel)”by Billy Joel, which was unmemorable.

What was disappointing was that we know people in this group, and they are capable of being SO MUCH better. What could have been an exciting and interesting evening of music ended up being just –nice—and insipid.

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Wednesday, May 4th, 2016
7:28 pm
The Jungle Book (2016)
Last night (May 3rd) we saw the new movie of The Jungle Book, and were very pleased with it. The CGI world is just gorgeous, and the animated animal effects, although subtly fantastic, are quite believable and easy to accept.

Neel Sethi, who, as Mowgli, is the only major character not animated, is amazingly good. He’s a charming kid, but not too cute, who looks about as much like the 1967 animated Mowgli as a human being could. He has a very expressive face, and acts very well, especially considering that most of the time he’s working with puppets and stand-ins for the other actors. He also has a good degree of athleticism, handing the character’s running and jumping quite credibly, although I suspect the more dangerous stunts were also computer augmented.

Despite the awesome cast of actors providing animal voices, I frankly wasn’t as impressed. Sir Ben Kingsley, inheriting the role of the reluctantly kind Bagheera from Sebastian Cabot, gave the role the right mixture of concern and annoyance, but many actors could have done that. Scarlett Johanssen didn’t really bring anything special to the role of Kaa. Idris Elba was unobjectionable as Shere Khan, but I remember George Sanders as bringing a greater menace to the vocal role in 1967.

The roles of Balloo and King Louie were re-written substantially, partially as part of the general updating of the script, and perhaps partly to take advantage of the talents of the assigned actors. Bill Murray’s Balloo is a wheedling con-artist, something Murray does very well, but which is quite different than the joyous loafer role given to singer Phil Harris. In the 1967 movie, the role of King Louie was also given to a performer best known for music, jazz man Louis Prima, who made the most of his musical number, “I Wanna Be Like You.” In the new film, King Louie is voiced by Christopher Walken, who does one of the things he does best, making the monstrous character quite creepy. Interestingly, the 1967 movie was noted for its edgy casting, not only in Sanders, known mostly for classy dramas, but Harris, who had invented the boozy entertainer character later patented by Dean Martin, and Prima, who, having been married five times, was not what one usually expected to be found associated with movies for children. (Both Harris and Prima went on to work with Disney on other projects.)

A word about the songs: the movie retains parts of the 1967 songs “Bare Necessities,” “Trust in Me,” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but they are more integrated into the action and not done as set pieces. Murray is no singer and there’s no attempt to match Harris’ performance. Walken, who actually has a song-and-dance background, made King Louie’s song a megalomanical rant, which implies the question, if he wants to be (like) you, who do you get to be afterward? Johanssen gets to do a full-length and more seductive version of “Trust In Me” as part of the end titles, which are cleverly done and worth sitting through.

The updating of the script adds back some of the drama and darkness of Kipling’s work that had been sacrificed for humor in the 1967 film. In particular, the climactic confrontation with Shere Khan was exciting and satisfying. Other, more solemn elements, such as the “Law of the Pack,” and the awesomeness of the elephants, added gravity to the film.

Interestingly, the movie also departs from the 1967 version at the ending, in which Mowgli, despite having in many ways become a “man,” and no longer a “man-cub,” does NOT leave the jungle—which leaves the door open for a possible sequel.

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Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016
5:44 pm
Trump Names Running Mate!
Having accepted the National Enquirer conspiracy theory that Cuban expatriates, including the father of Senator Ted Cruz, were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump went on to declare:

That, if elected, he will deport all extraterrestrial Aliens from Area 51, and force them to pay for a wall around the planet:

That he will defeat ISIS by conscripting Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) into the Special Forces and parachuting them into Syria:

And, that, when nominated, his Vice-Presidential nominee will be Elvis Presley, " a real American, and a true patriot."

Mr. Presley was unavailable for comment.

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Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
7:38 pm
Philomusica Quartet

On Monday evening, April 25th, we went to Schwan Hall on the Wisconsin Lutheran College campus to hear a concert by the Philomusica string quartet.  Founded in 2008, the Philomusica Quartet is Wisconsin Lutheran’s resident string quartet, is well known regionally, and has played across the country.

The group’s members are Alexander Mandl, violinist and conductor; Jeanyi Kim, violinist; Nathan Hackett, violist; and Adrien Zitoun, cellist.  Among other work, Dr. Mandl is Concertmaster of the Racine and the Kenosha Symphonies, and a faculty member at Wisconsin Lutheran and other institutions.  Jeanyi Kim is Associate Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony and Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra.  Mr. Hackett is a member of the Milwaukee Symphony, principal violist for Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, and faculty at Wisconsin Lutheran.  Mr. Zitoun is also a member of the Milwaukee Symphony, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, and the Wisconsin Lutheran faculty. The busy artists also work with a large number of different groups and institutions.

The program consisted of the Quartettsatz in C-minor, D. 703, by Franz Schubert; String Quintet in D Major, K. 593, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and the String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Quartettsatz is an interesting piece, part of planned multi-movement quartet that Schubert planned but never finished.  It begins with a dramatic theme, that transitions to a lyrical second theme, and a peaceful third theme, before the recapitulation and closing coda.

For the Mozart quintet, the group was joined by violist Matthew Michelic, who is currently on the faculty of the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, and who, like the other players, has a diverse and distinguished work history.  This quintet was one of Mozart’s last two string quintets, which were anonymously commissioned at a time when Mozart’s fortunes were at a low ebb.  The work seems to have cheered Mozart up somewhat, as the Allegro first movement is quite cheerful, the second movement Adagio, slow and sighing, but not sad, graceful and, at times, almost fragile.  The third movement Menuetto is bright and humorous, and the fourth movement Allegro is based on a lively “Tarantella” structure.

The Quartet has been working its way through all of Beethoven’s string quartets, and we were privileged to hear them finish the journey with Number 14. Monumental, particularly by quartet standards, the piece has seven movements, played without interruption, which amounts to forty intense minutes of music. I found this piece in some ways to be more playful than “typical” Beethoven, perhaps in part because Beethoven by this time had pretty much thrown over conventions about the quartet form. The lengthy fifth movement Presto was particularly invigorating, and was followed by the short , Adagio quasi un poco andante. This was a good entrée to the finale Allegro, which was the most dramatic and sober—most “Beethoven-like”—part of the quartet.

All of the musicians displayed the highest degree of skill and ability in interpreting the music, and the concert was very well received by an enthusiastic audience.  We enjoyed it particularly for the uplifting character of the music.

The Philomusica Quartet has announced their Wisconsin Lutheran concert schedule for next season, which looks very interesting.  Doubtless we will attend some, events permitting.

http://www.philomusicaquartet.com/Philomusica/Home.html


 

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Tuesday, April 26th, 2016
7:05 pm
April and the Extraordinary World
The new French animated Steampunk movie, billed as April and the Extraordinary World, opened Friday, April 22nd, in Milwaukee. We saw it on Saturday the 23rd.

April and the Extraordinary World is the title used for English distribution. The French title, Avril et le monde truqué, more accurately translates to "April and the Twisted World." The "Twisted World" is a fair description of this Steampunk dystopia, which has its roots in France's Second Empire, which is on the verge of war with Prussia. Emperor Napoleon III has engaged a scientist to create a serum that will make his soldiers invincible. The serum has not had the desired effect, and the Emperor orders the experiments destroyed, which results in a catastrophic explosion, killing the Emperor.

This is the point at which history twists aside from our world. With the death of the Emperor, war is averted and peace made. However, leading scientists world-wide begin to disappear, which causes technology to stagnate. By 1931, reliance on steam power has not only exhausted Europe's supplies of coal, but deforested the continent as charcoal has become a strategic resource.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, creator of "Adele Blanc-Sec," and his character design style is quite distinctive. Scenery and backgrounds depict a fascinating Steampunk Paris, with the skyline defined by the twin Eiffel Towers, the cable-car railroad, and a colossal martial statue of Napoleon III dominating the world.

In 1931, the son of the original scientist, Gustave (French voice by Jean Rochefort), his son, Paul (Oliver Gourmet), daughter-in-law Annette (Macha Grenon), are attempting to continue the family work on the Ultimate Serum, while in hiding from the French police, because all available scientists are being conscripted to design new weapons for the Empire. Their young daughter, April (Angela Galluppo) assists where she can. They are raided by the police, led by Inspector Pizoni (Benoît Brière), who combines the persistence of a Javert with the ineptitude of a Clouseau. (Tardi typically depicts the French police as corrupt, brutal, and stupid. For some reason, many have Italian surnames--.) In the resulting debacle, Gustave escapes, Paul and Annette are lost in the explosion of a cable car, and April is sent to an orphanage, from which she escapes with the aid of her scientifically enhanced cat, Darwin (voice by Phillippe Katherine).

Then, we flash forward to 1941. April is grown up (now voiced by Marion Cotillard) and continuing her clandestine work on the family's serum project. The demoted Pizoni has her under unofficial surveillance by a parolee, Julius, (Marc-Andre Grondin), in hopes she will lead him to her grandfather, who is still at large. There is a war in progress between France and the United States over access to Canadian forests. Meanwhile, the mysterious force behind the abduction of scientists begins to close in on April and her work.

The story of how this all plays out is a grand adventure, with the settings, including the desert that is now rural France, well realized, and the Steampunk and other alternative technology creations depicted being worth the price of admission. I liked the fact that grown-up April is a rather plain-faced, square-shouldered young woman, not conventionally beautiful. Julius, the eventual and reluctant male lead, is a classic Parisian street youth, not conventionally handsome. Tardi's convention of drawing eyes with only black pupils but no irises is a bit unsettling at first, but one grows used to it. The characters as written are all very strong and well done, including April's grandfather, Gustave, who is the ultimate scientist.

One significant disappointment of the movie is that the ultimate crisis/climax very strongly parallels that of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. However, getting to that point, and, ultimately, past that point to a very satisfying conclusion, is very much worth the ride.

Recommended for Steampunks everywhere.

The main feature was preceded by two animated shorts, "French Roast," dealing with the embarrassment of a gentleman (drawn as sort of a French John Cleese) who, having had coffee in a café, discovers he hasn't got his wallet. Humorous complications ensue, in a beautifully drawn little movie. In the second one, "In Between," a young woman's social anxieties manifest as a cartoony blue 'crocodile' that follows her everywhere. This one was cute, sweet, and funny. These are both worth looking up, and can be found on YouTube.

French Roast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wbmsid57MXw

In Between: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xp22IYL2uU

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6:47 pm
Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble
Friday evening, April 22nd, we went to the Charles Allis Museum for a concert by the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. The evening's performers were: Mimmi Fulmer, soprano; Brett Lipshutz and Monica Steger, traverse (transverse flute); Eric Miller, viola da gamba, baroque cello; Consuelo Sanudo, mezzo soprano; Anton TenWolde, cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

The concert began with "Occhi miei, che faceste?" HWV 146, by Georg Friedrich Handel, sung by Ms. Fulmer, accompanied by Mr. Yount and Mr. TenWolde. Ms. Fulmer is a very expressive singer with a lovely voice and made this a very enjoyable piece to listen to. Next was "Sonata for two German flutes and bass," by Flippo Ruge, played by Mr. Lipshutz and Ms.Steger, Mr. Yount. This was a very pleasant, mellow piece.

Then there was, "Sonata for viola da gamba solo," by Georg Philipp Telemann, played by Mr. Miller. Fascinating to listen to, and to watch. The viola da gamba is an awe-inspiring instrument with its seven strings. Sitting at chamber-music range, I was able to hear the sounds of fingers impacting the fretboard, which was a strange little percussive accompaniment.

"Pur ti miro," from L'incoronation di Poppea, by Claudio Montiverdi, Ms. Fulmer, Ms. Sanudo; Mr. Yount and Mr. TenWolde. This was a very nice rendition of this duet. Poppea may have been the first Baroque opera I experienced, and I have a fondness for it.

The second half began with "Duetto in G-major for two traversi," by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Mr. Lipshutz and Ms.Steger did a lovely job with this much more intricate piece for the two flutes. The two lines twined intricately about one another. After that, we had "Duets for two sopranos," from Madrigali, Book 7, Claudio Monteverdi as sung by Ms. Fulmer and Ms. Sanudo. Pieces from the Monteverdi Madrigal books seem to be a theme lately. This was a very pretty piece and nicely sung.

"Premier Concert," from Concerts Royaux, by Francois Couperin called for all the instrumentalists to take part in this multi-movement suite of dance-music inspired pieces. It was very enjoyable to hear them all working together. The concert ended with Antonio Vivaldi's "Di verde ulivo," from the opera "Tito Manlio." Ms. Fulmer did a lovely job with it, and ended the concert on a very satisfying 'note'.

We were very pleased with this concert, and will be watching for future Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble performances in our area.

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Thursday, April 21st, 2016
8:14 pm
Madison Opera, “The Tales of Hoffman”

Seeing that the Madison Opera was doing “Tales of Hoffman,” one of our favorites, we drove over to Madison for the matinee performance, Sunday, April 17th.

The opera begins with the prolog set in the tavern Hoffman (Harold Meers) frequents. Once Hoffman is prevailed upon to regale the customers with the stories of his lost loves, the set opens up, and the set pieces for the first act story of Olympia move in, as though conjured forth by Hoffman’s story telling, a conceit that we thought worked very well, with the tavern guests becoming the guests at Spalanzani’s party.

The same idea was followed in Act Two, the story of Antonia. No chorus is called for in this scene, so the customers form an on-stage audience. In Act Three, the customers are the carnival revelers.

Act One is the most fantastic of the acts, presented in candy colors, with Spalanzani (Robert A. Goderich), Cochenille (Jared Rogers), and Coppelius (Morgan Smith, who also sings Lindorf, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto) portrayed as cartoonish mad scientists. Jeni Houser presents Olympia as much more of a “dancing doll” than a credible automation, but, given this choice of interpretation, did very well with it. Her ability to hold postures and expressions was first rate, and she handled the difficult vocal part flawlessly.

Act Two is a bit less fantastic but more dark. Sian Davies sings the role of Antonia, the ill young woman whose desire to sing exceeds her body’s strength. The scene is lightened somewhat by Mr. Rogers’ comic song as the servant Frantz, but goes dark again at the entrance of the vampiric Dr. Miracle, whose power over Antonia forces her to her death. A particularly effective and creepy effect was the apparition of Antonia’s mother. I had thought the statue on stage was merely a prop and that the mother’s voice would come from offstage as it frequently does when her image is represented by a portrait. Thus I was genuinely surprised when the statue, like a Dr. Who “Weeping Angel” came to life. (Kelsey Park sang and acted the role of the statue.)

Act Three, the carnival of Venice scene, made a linkage back to the 20’s era dress of the chorus, by costuming Giulietta (Ms. Davies, who also sings Stella in the epilogue) as a silent-movie Cleopatra with gestures that might have been borrowed from Theda Bara in that role.

The Epilogue had a very original and redemptive staging. Commonly, the drunken and passed-out Hoffman is left on stage, alone except for Nicklausse/the Muse (Adriana Zabala) possessively watching over him. In this production, the Muse summons back characters from the prior scenes, and Hoffman, reconciling his memories, begins to write furiously in his notebook as the curtain falls.

This was a really fine production in all respects, which we enjoyed greatly. Kudos in particular to the inventiveness of Stage Director Kristine McIntyre and Scenic Designer Erhard Rom. All of the singers were in excellent voice, and the orchestra, conducted John DeMain, and the chorus, lead by Anthony Cao, were the equal of any.

After the opera, we went down State Street to Kabul Restaurant, a favorite stop for us in Madison. This was our second visit to their new location, and we were pleased to see that the operation has tightened up to old standards. And, speaking of old standards, we chose familiar dishes, lamb kabobs and Koftachalow (Afghani meatballs), which were flavorful and did not disappoint.

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8:12 pm
Early Music Now, Stile Antico, “Sacred or Profane?”

Saturday evening, April 16th, we went to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee for Early Music Now’s presentation of the concert “Sacred or Profane?” by British vocal music group Stile Antico.

There was quite a full house for this performance, and we were glad to find out that the Cathedral has marvelous acoustics. The singers gathered at various points in the building during the concert, and could be heard as clearly from any one point as any other. The Cathedral’s relative lack of echo made the sound very clean and it was easy to pick out individual voices. On the other hand, it was pleasing how rich and full four, nine, or twelve voices sounded in the space.

The theme of the concert dealt with how secular tunes have been adopted into liturgical music. The concert began with the group processing in as the male singers chanted L’homme arme (“The Armed Man”), a martial chanson that may have its origin in the Crusades. A popular tune, it was adapted for liturgical music more than once, and the group gave us one of the earliest known versions, the Kyrie from the Missa L’homme arme, by Guillaume Dufay, in which the song appears strongly in the baritone line with intricate counterpoint in the other voices.

The lyricist Aquilino Coppini of the opinion that any good music, given appropriately spiritual words, could be rendered acceptable to God and the saints, and Coppini “rendered” a number of tunes from the highly secular madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi. We heard four, interspersed through the program, beginning with Rutilante in nocte, which came next.

The (literally) profane song, Entre vous filles de quinze ans, (“You fifteen-year old girls”) by Jacob Clemens non Papa, was adapted as part of the Gloria from Orlando Lassus’ Missa Entrevous.

Clement Janequin’s long and --- song, La guerre, notable for its “battle music” and vocal recreation of the sounds of warfare, became a basis for the Credo from the Missa pro Victoria, by Tomas Luis de Victoria.

The Monteverdi/Coppini Plorate amare ended the first half.

The second section began with Westron Wynde, a very old British tune. Georgie in particular was very interested in this piece, having read several references to it, but never having heard it.  John Taverner was among other composers that made use of it, putting it into the Sanctus and the Benedictus from the Western Wynde Mass.

Monteverdi and Coppini followed, with O Jesu mea vita.

Mille regretz (A Thousand Regrets), a sad song by Josquin des Prez, was used in the Agnus Dei in the Missa Mille regretz, by Christobal de Morales.

Another adapted madrigal, Qui laudes tuas cantat, followed.

The evening ended with the pairing of Mort et fortune (“Death and Luck”) by Nicolas Gombert, and its adaptation into the solemn Magnificat tertii toni super Mort et fortune, by Orlando Lassus.

The Stile Antico singers perform a cappella, grouping and regrouping into ensembles and sections as the musics require. Every voice was clear, pure and beautiful. We were extremely glad to have been able to enjoy this concert, which was an aesthetic joy in addition to its historical interest.

Prior to the concert, we had dinner at Sake Tumi, the Asian fusion restaurant nearby on North Milwaukee Street. We dined on tempura green beans, pork gyoza (pot stickers), “dancing shrimp’, and teriyaki chicken, all from the “small plates” section of the menu. Everything was excellent. The tempura batter for the green beans was a bit heavier and firmer than we were used to, but very flavorful and delicious and the beans appropriately crisp. The pork dumplings were delicately flavored and very good.

“Dancing shrimp” are crisp-fried wonton cups, filled with a creamy mixture of steamed shrimp,  kani kama (“imitation crab meat” or pollock), cucumber, masago (capelin roe), & sriracha mayonnaise, which was tasty and excellent. The teriyaki chicken was perfectly prepared.

Service at the early dining hour of 5 PM was fast and friendly, and the prices very reasonable. Recommended for the adventurous diner.

 

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Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
9:02 pm
The Met in HD: Roberto Devereux

On Saturday afternoon, April 16th, we went to see the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera, Roberto Devereux. The story, by librettist Salvadore Cammarano, is very loosely based on the final days of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was convicted of treason and beheaded in the reign of Elizabeth the First of England.

This romantic tragedy assumes that there was a deep passionate relationship between Devereux (sung by Matthew Polanzani) and the Queen (historically, he was a favorite for a time, but doubtful if more than that). Devereaux has been recalled from a military expedition against rebels in Ireland and charged with treason over his mishandling of the job. Parliamentary enemies, lead by Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, have convicted him, but the Queen’s signature on his warrant of execution is required.

The Queen (Sondra Radanovsky) summons Devereux to a private audience. She guesses, correctly, that his affections have lit on another woman. She offers Devereux a deal, that she will pardon him if he tells her who her rival is.  Devereux, fearing the Queen’s vengeance on the woman he loves, denies that he is in love with anyone. Stung, the Queen bids him leave and to think further.

Devereux goes directly to the house of Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (Elena Garanca), the wife of his best friend, and the woman he is in love with. Sarah advises him to forget her and flee England. He agrees, and she gives him a token, a blue silk scarf embroidered with gold. In turn, he leaves with her a ring given him by the Queen as a sort of “get out of jail free” card.

Devereux’s loyal friend, Nottingham (Mariuz Kwiecen), argues on Devereux’s behalf to the Queen, but cannot get her to agree to excuse him. Devereux has been taken into custody, and the love token found in his possession. The Queen confronts Devereux with it in the presence of Nottingham, who recognizes it as his wife’s handiwork. Furious, he declares that he will have vengeance. Once again, the Queen demands to know the name of her rival. Devereux refuses, and she signs the death warrant, ordering his execution the following noon.

At home, Nottingham confronts Sarah, and orders his serving men to keep her from leaving so that she can’t take the ring he has found to the Queen.

In the tower, Devereux expects a messenger with his pardon to arrive any time. He hopes to live to prove that his love for Sarah was platonic and restore her reputation. Instead, the guards come to take him to the block.

The Queen has sent for Sarah to attend her which Nottingham has to allow. When Sarah arrives, she presents the ring to the Queen, and confesses that she is the rival for Roberto’s affections. Nottingham gloats that he is responsible for the arrival being to late to save Devereux, who has by then been executed. Raging, the Queen blames both of them for Devereux’s death, and calls down curses and punishments upon them. Declaring James of Scotland to be her heir, in this production, she dies.

The opera is here staged as a play within the opera, a memorial performed before Elizabeth’s tomb. There is an on-stage audience of Elizabethan courtiers, who are the chorus and supernumeraries as required.

The role of Elizabeth is a tour de force for Ms. Radanovsky, who this season has completed the difficult “hat trick” of performing the leading roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda; the so-called “three queens.” The role of Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux is a particularly difficult one, requiring great range and rapid fluctuations from high to low and back again. Ms. Radanovsky sang the role beautifully, not only with power and passion, but marvelous skill and control. She also acted exceptionally well. By the time of Roberto Devereux, Elizabeth was sixty-nine years old and suffering with an arthritic hip. Given her looming costumes, vampirically pale makeup, and lurching gait, Ms. Radanovsky makes Elizabeth a sort of Bride of Frankenstein haunting her palaces, monstrous without, as her ego and anger make her monstrous within.

Voicewise, she is well matched by the other principals, who make the most of Donizetti’s beautiful music. The duets between Sarah and Roberto, Roberto and the Queen, and Sarah and Nottingham, are particularly fine, as is Devereux’s aria in the tower, Come uno spirto angelico.

We thoroughly enjoyed this performance, which was excellent in all ways. The staging worked well, the costumes were beautiful, and the orchestra, conducted by Maurizio Benini, flawless to our ears.

 

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8:59 pm
Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa, “The Skin of Our Teeth”
On Friday evening, April 15th, we went to the Inspiration Studios performance space to see the Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa’s production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I was curious to see it, because it is a famous play in American letters, and won Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the play has not aged well, in my opinion.

The play concerns the Antrobus family, who, in the play’s present day, reside in a pleasant residential neighborhood in New Jersey. Mr. Antrobus works in New York—inventing the alphabet, multiplication tables, and the wheel. It soon appears that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Robert A. Zimmerman and Joyce Sponcia) are more than 5000 years old. They may or may not be “Adam and Eve”, but they have a son, Cain (now known as “Henry”) (Scott Sorenson), who long ago killed his brother with a thrown stone. Henry, who seems a bit simple-minded, has anger issues and a slingshot, with which he is deadly dangerous. “Henry” has a scar on his forehead that he must keep covered or fear his father’s wrath. Whether Henry/Cain was injured by his brother and lashed out at him, or by his father in punishment is not revealed. They also have a younger daughter, named Gladys (Jordyn Stewart).

The household is completed by their maid of all work, Sabina (Alexis Fielek), pet dinosaur, and a woolly mammoth that Sabina is expected to milk as part of her duties.

Wilder breaks the “fourth wall” repeatedly in this play, beginning early on with Sabina’s monologue, in which she confesses to us she has no idea what the play is about and doesn’t understand a word of it. We are also occasionally reminded that it IS a play, as when the put-upon stage manager (Jessie Barr0 dashes across the stage in response to a “missed” entrance.
The New Jersey of 1949 is a mélange of times. Not only is Antrobus’ seemingly anachronistic work of value, a glacier is threatening New York, and Antrobus takes in refugees who include Moses and Homer.

The first act in particular seems heavily influenced by the “funny papers” and radio comedies of the forties. Antrobus is supposedly a domestic tyrant that all live in fear of, but the shrewish Mrs. Antrobus runs the house. Although Henry and Gladys are over four thousand years old, they are infantilized by their parents treatment and remain eternal children. The “Bickersons”-style dialog between Mr. and Mrs. May have been funny back then, but it just struck me as depressingly abusive. After dishing out expository lumps, the act ends with pointless noisy chaos.

The second act has the plot of a classic sex farce, or would have, if there were actually any sex. The glacier having receded, the Antrobus family is in Atlantic City on holiday, where Antrobus (whose list of inventions now includes beer) has been elected President of the Loyal Order of Mammals. As we have found, Sabina was at one time Antrobus’ second wife, whom he “brought back from the Sabines,” and, for a time exalted over Mrs. Antrobus. However, Antrobus returned to the mother of his children and reduced Sabina to the status of servant. She is scheming to win him back, disguised as “Miss Fairweather,” a beauty pageant winner. Her cynical speech to Antrobus to the effect that most people are straw men and pretend to have emotions although they really don’t, is one of the more biting bits of the play. She’s succeeding in her purpose, too, until the actress flatly refuses to perform the sex scene, resulting in a debate on stage.

After it’s decided to continue as though the scene had gone on, the act ends with a hurricane warning escalating to “end of the world” level, and the Antrobus family takes shelter in a large ship, along with numerous pairs of other mammals, thus bringing the Noah story into the mix. One intriguing character in this act is the boardwalk fortune teller (Scott Stenstrup) who claims to infallibly tell the (usually dire) future from faces, but declares, “if anyone says he can tell you the past, he is a charlatan.”

The third act is the most powerful and effective. It is seven years later, and the world, including New Jersey, has been devastated by war. Sabina, Henry, and Mr. Antrobus have all gone off to fight, with Henry and his father on opposing sides. Peace has been declared at last, and one by one, the fighters return home. Sabina comes first, finding that Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys, who now has a baby, have been living a wretched existence using the basement as a bunker. As Mrs. Antrobus begins preparing the house for her husband’s return (and dragooning Sabina back into her subservient role) Sabina sighs that she actually liked the war.

Enter Henry, weary and hungry, the scarred place on his forehead freshly bloodied. No longer a dullard, Henry/Cain is fully awake, a mature warrior, and angry. They give him food, and he falls asleep. Antrobus (the inventor of gunpowder) enters, drawing his gun. He has a bloody bandage over the same spot on his forehead, his own “mark of Cain.” In the scene that follows, Henry demands that Antrobus kill him. He repudiates his family, wanting no father, no mother, no sister, only wanting to be alone—in death. Antrobus declares that “it’s easier to fight you than live with you. War is a pleasure compared to what faces us now.” Antrobus wavers, until Henry throws himself at Antrobus’ throat. It’s only when the stage manager joins the rest of the cast intervening that we realise that this isn’t in the supposed script—the “actor” playing “Henry” is having a flashback to abuse suffered by him at the hands of his own father.

This was by far the most striking sequence in the play, and an excellent acting job by Scott Sorenson, who made juvenile Henry, warrior Henry, and “actor” Henry three distinct voices.
When things settle down, the play ends where it began, with Sabina preparing the house for Antrobus’ arrival from work, saying to the audience, “this is where you all came in, we have to go on for ages and ages yet. You can all go home, you see, the end of the play isn’t written yet.”
All the actors did a fine job with the material, presenting a lively and energetic production, with some high drama in the third act. The Village Playhouse made very creative use of the limited facilities available at Inspiration Studios, the minimalist set being a frequent choice for this show based on what I’ve looked up. So, it’s kind of a glass-half-full situation—getting a good presentation of a play I didn’t care for. Kudos to the Village Playhouse for their artistic efforts, not so much for choice of vehicle.

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Tuesday, April 19th, 2016
7:45 pm
Haggerty Art Museum, Exhibitions, January 21-May 22
On Thursday evening, April 14th, we went to the Haggerty Art Museum on the Marquette University campus to see their current exhibits. This small museum consistently has interesting shows, and this season’s collection was particularly interesting.

“Women” was a common theme to all the exhibits. There was “Joan of Arc: Highlights from the Permanent Collection”; “Carrie Schneider: Reading Women”; “Page Turners: Women and Letters,” and “Bijinga: Picturing Women in Japanese Prints.”

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the reconstruction of the nearby Joan of Arc chapel, the museum pulled out four interesting pieces from its collection. There was a beautiful alabaster bust and a medieval-styled tapestry, both showing the “Maid of Orleans” as a shepherdess. The evening sunset light had a fascinating effect on the bust, as the expression changed if it was in shadow, or if the full sun was falling on it. The saint’s warrior phase was represented by a silver reproduction of a statue by princess Marie de France which shows Joan of Arc in armor, praying; and a study for a cathedral fresco, which shows a close-up of a formidable laurel-crowned saint scrutinizing her viewers.

“Reading Women,” by Carrie Schneider, has an interesting premise. The exhibition is a collection of poster-sized photographs depicting women reading works by women. In addition to the photographs, there is a four-hour long video installation of close-ups of the readers, which includes one hundred subjects. While there is a variety of women and settings in the photos, I was struck by an undercurrent of sameness in the poses. The majority of the women depicted are young. They mostly have a cozy-looking spot to sit or recline, most often by natural light. They all have serene expressions of contemplative concentration. Most all of them are reading serious literature, non-fiction or biography: in the collection of a hundred books, one is an Agatha Christie; there’s one Austen and one Bronte; after that the lightest work might be Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore collection. We didn’t have four hours to spend watching the video, but I would be surprised if any of the readers were depicted smiling or laughing.

It was interesting how this dovetailed with the “Page Turners” collection, which deals with written works about women reading, women’s education, and women’s rights. Through the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries, women readers were depicted as thoughtful and serious, the same slant as given by Ms. Schneider’s works. Of course, the women of earlier centuries were expected to be reading mostly prayer books. In the 19th century, we see more intellectual ferment, as both leisure reading in the form of novels for women, and books, articles, and broadsides for and against women’s education and rights began to appear. These texts are also represented in the collection, with illustrations reflective of the respective publishers’ often unflattering opinions on the subject.

Upstairs, there was a very interesting collection of Japanese woodblock prints. Although coming from a number of different genres, they all fall into the class of “bijin”, or “beautiful woman” pictures. Some were illustrations from classic stories, some were essentially advertisements for courtesans, some records of life in the kabuki and noh theaters (in which the beautiful women are actually men), and everyday life. Usual suspects like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro are represented along with other less-known artists. This was a particularly beautiful collection, with the artists’ meticulous depictions of fabrics as they fold and fall being just amazing.

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7:43 pm
Zootopia
On Tuesday, April 5th, we went to see Zootopia, the new animated feature starring Ginnifer Goodwin as “Judy Hopps,” a rabbit who aspires to be the first rabbit police officer in a world of talking (mostly) civilized animals. Jason Bateman is the voice of “Nick Wilde,” a street-hustling fox that she initially coerces into helping her with her first big case.

Zootopia is the greatest city of the animal world, where all species* live together in relative harmony**. The city is a beautiful construction of the scene designer’s art, a modernized Metropolis (or Duckburg), divided into climatically controlled neighborhoods suiting various tastes in habitat. There are also some very clever adaptations allowing large creatures like elephants and giraffes to co-exist with mice and shrews.

(* All species, as long as they are mammals. I don’t recall seeing any intelligent birds or reptiles, and insects aren’t represented. For that matter, there are no apes or monkeys, either, at least not with speaking roles.)

(** It’s glossed over what the civilized carnivores eat. The only foods we see on screen are rabbit-raised vegetables, frozen desserts, and doughnuts. Hey, it’s a cop movie, gotta have doughnuts--.)

The early part of the film follows rookie cop movie clichés: Judy graduates top of her police academy class through grit and wit, is accepted by the Zootopia Police Department under the Mayor’s affirmative action program, and then is assigned to parking patrol by Chief Bogo (Irdis Elba), since all the other police officers are large, powerful animals. Frustrated, Judy shoehorns herself into an unsolved missing persons case, wagering the Chief that she will resign if she doesn’t crack the case in 48 hours.

She does so, and normally this is where the movie would end. Judy keeps her job, gets a commendation, and becomes the public face of the Police. However, there’s a larger mystery yet unsolved, and Judy doesn’t help ease public fears.

How Judy and Nick solve the greater problem, expose the ultimate villain, and resolve their difficult relationship takes up the second part of the film, which is also interesting and exciting.

The film is really clever in a lot of ways. We will see it again just to look at backgrounds and character designs. While using a lot of cliché characters (the gruff police chief, the doughnut-gobbling desk officer), the film also has a lot to say about “profiling” such as the “dumb bunny” or “sly fox” caricatures and how this causes people to sometimes live down to expectations.
Good clean fun for all ages, although (as the toddler behind us demonstrated) some action sequences and snarling beasts may be too intense for young children.

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Monday, April 18th, 2016
7:56 pm
Milwaukee Art Museum, “Nature and the American Vision”
On Sunday, March 27th, we went to see the exhibition “Nature and the American Vision,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This exhibition features masterpieces from the New-York Historical Society’s acclaimed collection of landscape paintings. The exhibition charts the emergence of the Hudson River School, considered the nation’s first original aesthetic movement.

Although the collective art works produced are often referred to as being of “the Hudson River School,” there was much more going on than just a “school” of painting. Writers and poets contributed to the movement, and many of the painters wrote extensively about the artistic, philosophical, and spiritual groundings of the ideas.

The school in particular sought to evolve a uniquely American vision and aesthetic based upon the observation, study, and recording of the American landscape. In part, the paintings preserve the unspoiled and fabulous wildness of America’s vast expanse, not just in the Hudson River Valley, but all up and down the East Coast, as far west as Yosemite, and into South America.

The founding artists of the movement, such as Thomas Cole, were born and trained in Europe, and brought polished technique and attention to fine detail to their often panoramic paintings. Later, Hudson Valley School artists traveled to Europe and applied their practice to creating expansive views of the Old World.

This exhibition was fascinating, in part because it preserves color views of landscapes since vastly changed. We do not, these days, think of New Jersey as a rural Arcadia, but many of the New York-based painters went afield there to find the pastoral and wilderness settings they sought. It’s interesting to see pre-photograph depictions of Niagara Falls, knowing how much erosion has changed the shape of the Falls in the decades that have passed. The paintings are in themselves beautiful, but perhaps they have their greatest value in preserving the vision of a land that was to the artists’ eyes, shining and full of promise.

“Nature and the American Vision” continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum through May 8th.

http://mam.org/american-vision/

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7:55 pm
The Lady in the Van
Sunday, March 20th, we went to the Downer Theater to see “The Lady in the Van,” the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s quirky memoire covering the fifteen years that he had “Miss Shepherd” living in her increasingly dilapidated van in the driveway of his Camden Town, London, house.

Bennett is played with amused British low-keyed-ness (an ongoing topic of conversation in the movie) by Alex Jennings, and Miss Shepherd of course is Dame Maggie Smith, playing a role that’s not as far from the Dowager Countess of Grantham as you might initially expect.
“Miss Shepherd” is a bundle of contradictions. As an aging homeless woman partly dependent on the tolerance of others, she is wheedling, insinuating, and needy. However, she can also be imperious, rude, and ungrateful. Some of these are artifacts of her troubled past, but some are just her own crotchety character. Having known some individuals with “issues” ourselves, Georgie and I found the portrayal very creditable.

We never find out her entire story but do get enough bits to piece together her real name, and revelations about her relationships with music, the Catholic Church, mental health, and the police.
The piece is very much a tour de force for Dame Maggie, who claims by right every scene she is in, but Jennings very ably holds his own, especially given the script which allows him to literally talk to himself, as well as to the audience, a trademark of author Bennett’s plays.

It’s a very unusual story, particularly by American standards. Miss Shepherd survives not only on Bennett’s forbearance, but also on the bemused tolerance of the “liberal” people of Camden Town. Their willingness to allow the usually dirty and sometimes frightening old woman to squat among them passeth all understanding, save that the British tend to love their eccentrics. In America, at least one neighbor would have had police, lawyers, zoning, and health authorities thundering down on Bennett’s head.

Dame Maggie is worth the price of admission alone, but Jennings’ wry and understated performance is a pleasure, and they are supported by a comfortable and entertaining cast of faces familiar from British TV and film.

The ending is unexpectedly upbeat, but, as Bennett discussed (with Miss Shepherd, and with himself) there would come a point at which he could write whatever he wanted—so he did.

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