Every year, in the first week of June, numerous restaurants in downtown Milwaukee participate in “Downtown Dining Week,” in which they put on special priced menus in order to attract business downtown at the start of the summer season.  This is an opportunity for us to visit new places, or revisit favorites at a break on price.

This year, we hit two. We went to Ward’s House of Prime for a lunch, which was very good.  I had the house salad, which was nice, with good fresh greens, the prime rib French dip, also very good with lovely meat and nice French fries, and the apple tart with caramel drizzle for dessert. The tart had an unusual rather thick crust, but was tasty and had evidently been made with fresh apples. Georgie had the tenderloin tips with mushroom sherry sauce over egg noodles for main dish, and found that very good as well. At $12.50 per person, this was definitely a real deal. At noon on Friday, Ward’s was busy and loud, but service was fast and friendly.

For a dinner, we went to Pastiche at the Metro Hotel, our first time visiting this restaurant at the new location.  For starters, I tried the country style pate, which I thought was very good and compared favorably with the house terrine we had had in France at places like Les Bacchantes. Georgie had the tomato bisque, which she pronounced delicious. (I am not a fan of tomato soup, but sampled it and had to agree it was the best I had had--.) For “plat” I had the “Steak Frites,” which in this case was a grilled New York Strip, accompanied by French Fries and garlic aioli. The steak had had a very effective flavor enhancing rub, was grilled to perfection, and topped with a blob of herbed butter. It was decadent and delicious. The “frites” were nicely spiced, and went down very well with the aioli. Georgie had the pan roasted chicken breast with lemon herb sauce, which was quite delicious, accompanied by some roasted fingerling potatoes, and very fresh and tender asparagus. (Georgie tried dipping the asparagus spears in my aioli, and pronounced it “the” way to eat asparagus.)

For dessert, Georgie sampled the chocolate mousse, which was a dollop of very dark, almost bitter, chocolate confection of a puddingy consistency, garnished with some fresh berries and whipped cream. I tried the strawberry shortcake, which was a square of rather coarse, yellow cake (the better to soak up juice and not turn to pulp--), set on a coating of strawberry coulis, drizzled with juice, and topped with vivid-tasting “marinated” strawberries and also whipped cream.  I could have used a few more strawberries, but I have to say that, although on first glance, the dessert portion sizes appeared small, after the rest of the meal, they were quite adequate. We went away feeling very well fed.

On Tuesday evening, June 6th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see a really fine production of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which shows us the existential dilemma of two minor characters in a great play, and what they do, and do not do, between scenes. The play has a lot in common with Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, but we like it better since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in debate about the meaning of it all, whereas Vladimir and Estragon in Godot are just overwhelmed by the meaninglessness.

The play had an excellent cast, lead by Joshua McGuire (mainly known for British TV) as Guildenstern, Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz, and David Haig as The Player. The little pre-show film mentioned that Stoppard himself had been involved in this production, and I do believe the script had been tweaked in comparison with earlier versions I had seen. It seemed to me that scenes with Hamlet, Polonious, Claudius, and Gertrude were cut or shortened, and The Player, who is Stoppard’s voice on stage, had a good bit more to say.

The play was set in a mostly timeless time, and a largely undefined space, which underscored the characters’ being adrift from reality. This didn’t really affect the performance much, but at least did not distract.

McGuire and Radcliffe in particular were very good, and handled Stoppard’s lightning-speed dialogs with alacrity. I was a bit surprised at first that the bigger name Radcliffe did not have the more intellectual role of Guildenstern, but found that he was wonderfully good as the frequently clueless Rosencrantz, being able to do an effective variety of blank, baffled, or just plain stupid expressions.

I’m not sure I would say that this was a definitive performance, but it was very, very good, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this play. (The 1990 film with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss is also very good, in my opinion.)

On June 4th, we went to see Wonder Woman, the latest film in what is now being called the “DC Cinematic Universe,” and the first one we have seen since I declined to see Man of Steel. We were glad to see this one, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I’m a bit bemused by the decision to set the story of Wonder Woman’s entry into the outside world in the final days of World War I. I liked it, and I can understand why WWI was chosen for purposes of plot, but I wonder if anyone has considered the profound changes this would make in the DC universe timeline. In the “standard model” Superman was the first superhero to come to public notice, either in the 1930’s (per the original comic books) or the 2010’s per the newest movies. However, now, Wonder Woman is first on the scene, by almost a hundred years? I expect that this will be glossed over for the future, but there would have probably been a very different approach to Superman’s advent, had Wonder Woman been around for a long time before that.

The opening sequences of the movie, portraying Diana’s youth and training on the island of Themiscyra are beautiful and wonderful. The island is fantastic, of course, but watching the Amazons train is fascinating, and in particular it’s great to see that not every Amazon has to be young and dewy-looking. Robin Wright as lead warrior Antiope, and Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, show us that a woman can have some lines in her face, or edgy collarbones, and still be fabulous and powerful.

Gal Gadot, as Diana, is just great.  She looks wonderful in the role, and her background in the military and martial arts give her the bearing she needs to truly be a warrior princess. She’s well matched by Chris Pine, who is a smarter and edgier Steve Trevor than ever was in the comics or TV. The other “good guys” include Lucy Davis as Etta Candy. The character was originally part of Wonder Woman’s “comic relief” squad, the “Holiday Girls” in the 40’s comics. Here, she’s become a Brit, doing a WWI version of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing as a sort of Miss Moneypenny to Trevor’s Americanized James Bond. It’s a pity that we aren’t likely to see more of her. In order to foil the villains’ plot, Trevor puts together a particularly unlikely version of the classic “rag-bag team,” made up of Said Tagamouhi as a Moroccan actor turned con man, Ewan Bremner as a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American smuggler, all of whom are interesting characters and have things to say about the world of 1918.

The chief villains are Dany Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru. Ludendorff, who really existed, is an interesting choice. The historical Ludendorff was Quartermaster General of the German Army until October 1918 (and so in position to make decisions about new weapons), when he resigned, a requirement of armistice negotiations. He went on to become a nationalist politician who promoted the theory that Germany was “stabbed in the back by Marxists and Jews,” took part in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and wrote a book called The Total War in 1935, arguing that peace was only an interval between wars.  Although he did break with Hitler by 1933, I think we can fairly say that his portrayal in the film does not malign him too much, and Huston’s portrayal makes him believably megalomaniacal and dangerous.

Dr. Maru, alias “Dr. Poison”, played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya, is a recycling of a WW2 Wonder Woman villain, who was a Japanese chemist specializing in sabotage.  The doctor as portrayed is rather generically European, unsettling with the creepy prosthetic covering her scarred face, and not so much a “mad” scientist as an obsessive one. Her new weapon, the so-called “hydrogen mustard” gas is truly horrific, though not much more so than weapons actually developed. (The arsenic compound Lewisite, not used in WW1, could penetrate clothing and thin rubber--.)

I wasn’t put off by Wonder Woman’s stated goal to destroy the war god Ares as I was by (spoiler in case you haven’t seen it) Superman’s killing of General Zod in Man of Steel. In the movie, Diana considers destroying Ares to be her major mission in life, so its rather a given, and it was established in the comic books years ago that Wonder Woman would in fact kill in defense of life if the need were great enough. (And I’d be pretty sure that not all the German soldiers she clobbered liberating a Belgian village probably survived, either, although, as in many of the comic-book movies, there’s little blood, and most death is off camera--.)

We liked the movie’s approach to combat. Wonder Woman fights with focus and with purpose, but never with malice, and revenge, a frequent “hero” motivation, plays little part.

Of course, I have some technical quibbles: The Fokker Eindekker Trevor steals is way obsolete by 1918 (although that could be the reason it was in Turkey, far from the active front--), whereas the giant bomber in the final sequence, which vaguely resembles one of the late-war Zeppelin-Staaken bombers, is somewhat futuristic. We can tell that Themiscyra must be within a relatively short air flight from the Turkish coast: so far, so good, it makes much more sense for it to be among the Greek islands than off the coast of North America, as in the early Wonder Woman comics. However, in our 1918, there were no Central Powers warships, let alone German, operating in the Mediterranean, to have pursued him there--. Oh, well, it’s not actually our world, after all. However, getting from the Eastern Med to London in the course of a sleep by sail, even with the aid of a tugboat, just isn’t possible--.

Seeing this film makes me much more optimistic about the forthcoming Justice League feature.

We went to the Downer Theater to see A Quiet Passion, the film about American poet Emily Dickinson. Although now regarded as one of the most important poets of the 19th Century, her work was largely ignored during her lifetime, with only a dozen or so of more than 1800 poems written published during her lifetime, and those were usually significantly “edited” by the publishers.

Most of Dickinson’s correspondence was burned at her death by her wish, so I expect that director and screenwriter Terence Davies had to invent most of the dialog, if not incidents, but if, so, he does a very good job of evoking a very particular time and place. The Amherst we see is genteel, puritanical, and self-critical. Manners are everything. Emily’s father reproaches her, and she sincerely apologizes, for having spoken brusquely to the servants while suffering a kidney-stone attack (or something similar).

Things start off well enough. Emily has the support of her revered father, who uses influence with his friend, Samuel Bowles, to get her poems published in his newspaper. She has the friendship of her attractive sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her adored brother Austin, and her vivacious friend, Susan Gilbert, with whom she can exchange “wicked” ideas. Her mother, whom she regarded as distant, nevertheless gently tolerated Emily’s growing eccentricities.

Frustration begins to build up as she sees even her publisher, Bowles, repeat the idea that only men have the spirit to be poets in an article in his paper. (Noted poets of the time all had names like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant--.) Her comfortable life slowly unravels as her father dies suddenly. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke and eventually also dies. Susan Gilbert marries and moves away. Austin Dickinson falls off his pedestal by becoming estranged from his wife and engaging in an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. There was tension between Emily, who was shocked and horrified, and Vinnie, who was more forgiving. (Ironically, Mrs. Todd was one of the people who helped get Dickinson’s poems into publication after her death.)

She gradually became more reclusive, declining invitations to visit elsewhere, and only speaking to visitors who came to the house from the other side of a door, but all the while continuing to write poems and letters. She died in 1885, at the age of 55, of what was diagnosed as kidney disease.

Cynthia Nixon plays the adult Emily, and does a very fine job of what of necessity must be an understated role. She’s supported by a cast of very skillful and subtle actors, including Jennifer Ehle as Vinnie, Duncan Duff as Austin, Keith Carradine as her father, and Joanna Bacon as her mother.

The film looks beautiful, capturing the period well, as the people act out their austere and reserved lives against a background of Victorian elegance in homes and lush beauty in gardens.

We were very glad to have seen this interesting movie about this very interesting person. (Georgie’s one criticism was “too much hard dying, too long,” referring to both Emily’s and her mother’s death scenes--.)

We got to the Madison Radisson about noon, Friday, and made a quick check around to be sure everything was getting in gear. With no problems found, we had a light lunch and greeted people as they arrived. Early arrivals tended to be past members, so there were many faces we were glad to see again.

Panels started at 2:30, with “Held Hostage by the Internet of Things.” With the three members of the panel being professionals in software, hardware, and systems administration, the presentation was very informative, and proposed both dire and humorous scenarios. (“For only $39.95, you, too, can spy on your neighbors!”)

At 4PM, we had “Not Your Saturday Morning Cartoons,” “World Building 101: Milieu,” and “Making Movies with No Budget—And Other Horror Stories.” The World Building panel was the first of three aimed at creating a collaborative story world, and arrived at post-environmental apocalypse setting that had plenty of potential “plot hooks.”

Media Guest Michael Butt proved to be an entertaining raconteur with adventures of making horror movies in the wilds of Northern Wisconsin, including the shooting day for his feature, YETIS!, when the temperature hit 37 degrees below zero. The frigidity gave the acting great verisimilitude, but the camera nearly froze up--.

Georgie and I took Michael to dinner at Tandoori House, along with our friend Todd Voros. Food was good, but the service was a little on the ramshackle side. Dinner conversation was entertaining.
“Opening Ceremonies” went smoothly with the usual announcements and introductions. For the first time, there was not a humorous skit as part of the program, a pity too, since Janet Lewis had had an idea for a pun-laden “Forbidden Planet” parody, but other pressures took precedence. The announcements were followed by the Speculative Poetry Slam and Open Mike, which had some very good entries.

Evening programming started with “Odysseus and the First Odyssey,” and “Can We Make Democracy Work?” “Odysseus” looked back at Homer’s great saga and the character of Odysseus, as portrayed in the Iliad, the Odyssey, follow-on works such as the Theogony, and literature through history since, wherein Odysseus is perhaps the single most often portrayed character. The traditional OddCon Karaoke also broke out in room Oakbrook 3.

Formal programming ended the day with Richard Russell’s “SF Movies of 2017”, his usual encyclopediactic review of SF in media, and the beginning of the “Filksing Intime” at Mooshenko’s, hosted by Milwaukee filkers Art and Cynthia Warneke.

Saturday morning started off with bang and four very interesting panels: “Forbidden Planet,” “20 Years of Harry Potter,” Ray Bradbury’s Work in Comics,” and “Chinese SF, an Update.”

“Forbidden Planet” discussed the classic science fiction film, and its lasting impact on the film genre and SF in general. This panel was particularly well attended. “20 Years of Harry Potter” drew an enthusiastic audience reflecting on the remarkable persistence of the “Harry Potter” phenomenon, which continues to attract new readers. “Ray Bradbury’s Work in Comics” was a presentation by the nascent Ray Bradbury museum, and highlighted the author’s works as (sometimes unauthorisedly) adapted into the comic book form. In “Chinese SF, an Update,” Dr. Janice Bogstad gave an introduction to science fiction currently being produced in China, which has been garnering interest since Liu Cixin won the Hugo award for his novel (as translated) The Three-Body Problem.

At 11:30AM, we had “Being a Grownup, the Female Experience,” “World Building 201: Plots,” “Cosplay on a Budget,” and “Lounge L33ts Presents: MMO Worlds.”

This year’s “Being a Grownup” was a follow on to last year’s panel, which was very good but by coincidence ended up being all men. We thought it was worth pursuing the female viewpoint, and had a very interesting and far-ranging discussion of the changing expectations for and of “grown-up” females, and women’s issues generally. “World Building 201: Plots” took off where “World Building 101” left off, “Cosplay on a Budget” gave tips on how to create a good looking costume without breaking the bank, and “Lounge L33ts” was game writer Erin Burke’s annual roundup of new developments in online gaming.

At 1:00PM, we had “Fantasy Movies of 2017,” “Future Habitats,” “What Makes Overwatch So Appealing?” and “Should Governments Be Run Like a Business?” This last panel resulted in a very lively discussion, commencing with the clarifying question, “Which parts of government, and which types of business?” Which lead on to provocative proposals, such as, “If the government’s going to be run like a business, why don’t they monetize the military?” and “There’s no demand for critical thinkers, so schools should discontinue that product.”

The 2:30 session featured the Guest of Honor Interview with Artist Brent Chumley, whose artwork can be seen in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, the Legend of the Five Rings card game, Shadowrun, and the forthcoming Dragonfire deck building game from Wizards of the Coast, among others. Brent’s interview covered his formative years, schooling (running up against the “fine artists’” disdain for “illustration”), his breaking into professional game art work, and how he manages a full-time art career while living in a small Illinois town. Brent had a great deal to say, and all of it was both entertaining and informative.

Other events at that time included “Hybrid Publishing,” “Is Seeing Still Believing?” “Running A Successful Kickstarter,” and “Why We Love B-Movies.” Lead by hybrid publisher Brea Behn, “Hybrid Publishing” talked about the ins and outs of the expanding middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. “Is Seeing Still Believing?” considered the expanding ability to create alternative realities using visual editing and CGI software.

At 4PM, Media Guest Michael Butt was the interviewee, and spoke about how he decided he wanted to make movies rather than just act, his choice to work in the horror genre and his goals, and the unique challenges of making scary movies in a small Wisconsin town, such as: “It’s really hard to get a woman to go out in the woods with you and get covered in fake blood.” We also had “Storytelling Builds Our World,” wherein authors talk about the impact storytelling has had, and may have, on their own and others’ worlds; “SF in Translation”; and “Return of Tokoatsu,” the review of animation and special effects from Japan.

After the dinner break, we had Guest of Honor Speeches, the Costume Contest, and the Flash Fiction Contest winners. Brent Chumley and Michael Butt gave interesting and entertaining speeches. Brent had a PowerPoint show of his works, and the movie room showed Michael’s recent feature This Woods is Cursed immediately after the speeches ended. The Costume Contest had half a dozen entries, all of which were very good.

This year, we were fortunate to have the winners of both the Adult and Youth Divisions of the Flash Fiction contest in attendance to read their winning works. David Talon read his story, “The Sea Breathes Salty,” in which a man is haunted by the embodiment of his past regrets, and Zoe Leonard read “A Farmer’s Guide to Growing Faceroot,” a zany and wonderful article about how to cultivate a mandrake-like vegetable. These, and the second and third place winning stories can be read at http://www.odysseycon.org/contest/contest.html

Evening programming started off with “What Makes Science Fiction an Exciting and Inspiring Genre?” “The Workings of the Crypto-Plutocracy (How the US Govt. Functions in Practice)” and the Big Damn Filksing in Oakbrook 3, which went on until 2AM.

Late night programs in the 11:00PM slot were “Sleep is Weird,” looking at what is still an unexplained phenomenon, and “It Came from the Internet,” a review of the new truly weird and wonderful content on the Web.

Checking out function spaces on the way to bed, we noted that table-top gaming was still going strong, people were enjoying programming in the movie and Amalor Anime rooms, and that the Mad Scientist’s Party was well attended.

Sunday morning started off with another strong selection of panels. “The Animals Talk, Why?” considered the continuing popularity of talking animal stories, ranging from the “beast fables” of antiquity, through Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows, through My Little Pony, and Richard Chwedyk’s “Saur” stories. “20 Years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer” celebrated the long-running TV show. “Promotional Ideas for Books” gave tips for marketing your book, and “Portraying Accurate Military Units and People in Games and Fiction” took on some common myths about the military.

The 11:30 panel on “Heaven and Hell” was short a panelist due to sudden illness, but the survivors managed to entertain the audience by expounding on portrayals of the Underworld and the Heavens by Dante, Mark Twain, James Joyce, and others. “Get Lost” dealt with getting and being lost, in fiction and real life, and how to deal with it. “World Building 202: Characters” wrapped up the series.

At 1:00PM, “Wicked and Worse,” considered what makes a good villain, and what makes a believable villain, and why the two aren’t necessarily the same. In “Pets in Spaaace!” panel and audience speculated on the probability (or not) of your cat, dog, or other animal companion coming to the stars with you. “Movie Charades” was this year’s installment of the popular game.

Programming officially ended at 2:30PM with “Kill the Cow!”, which is the attendees’ chance to give direct feedback to the concom. After a slow start, a lot of good and useful suggestions were contributed and recorded for future planning.

Attendance was 180+, which was within range of some other recent OddCons, although down from last year. Events at-con went off with no significant hitches. There were some particularly good panel discussions, and Brent Chumley and Michael Butt were great guests. We ended the con on an optimistic note, and with several good ideas for the future.
On Friday evening, April 21st, we went to the Charles Allis Museum to hear a concert by the Madison-based Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble. The group this evening consisted of soprano Mimmi Fulmer; Brett Lipshutz, taverso (transverse flute); Nathan Giglierano, baroque violin; Eric Miller, viola da gamba and treble viol; Sigrun Paust, recorder; Anton TenWolde, baroque cello; and Max Yount, harpsichord.

The first part of the program consisted of the Quartet for two traversi, recorder, and basso continuo, TWV43:d1, by Georg Philipp Telemann; Pieces de violle, suite #3, by “M. de Machy”; “Lasciatemi qui solo,” by Francesca Caccini; and Sonate en trio for two traversi and basso continuo, opus 13, #3, by Jean-Baptist-Quentin. All these pieces were played and sung beautifully. All except the Telemann were new to us, and we were particularly interested by the solo suite for viol da gamba by de Machy, and the song by Francesa Caccini.

The second half included “Interrote Speranze,” by Johannes Hieronymous Kapsberger; Sonata a trio for recorder, violin, and basso continuo, by Johann Cristoph Pepusch; Telemann’s Nouveaux Quators, #6 in E-Minor; and “Odi, Euterpe,” by Giulio Romola Caccini. In this set, again, the pieces featuring the viol da gamba were particularly interesting, since the viol parts could almost be described as “sprightly,” which is unusual for this instrument. The final piece, which featured Ms. Fulmer accompanied by the complete ensemble, was quite beautiful.

This was a very interesting and enjoyable concert. We look forward to the company’s November concert.
On Sunday afternoon, April 9th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Milwaukee Ballet’s program.
This included a new ballet, “Sans Pleurer” (“Without Crying”), which was a new one-act ballet for male dancers by Timothy O’Donnell. The ballet explores the “boys don’t cry” idea, and the difficulties men have expressing feelings.

The ballet, which depicts a man’s inner life, begins with a young boy dressed in a school uniform, sitting downstage, crying. An adult dancer comes down to him, makes him stand up, put on his school jacket, and ushers him off. He is gradually joined by other dancers who may or may not all be aspects of his personality manifest. The dances in pairs, trios, or larger groups express anger, aggression, depression, and other emotions, generally all done in uniformity. From time to time, on or the other dancer would fall out, or break ranks, often by taking off the jacket, leaving them literally baring souls, as they are shirtless under the jackets. One of the impressive parts of the ballet was the number of subtle but firm ways in which the “deviants” were corrected, and made to put the jackets back on and join back in the dance. As the dance goes on, it becomes more agitated, until there is a general casting off of jackets. The central figure, muffling his face in the coat, weeps madly, while all the others rush to surround him. Whether they are at the last supporting him, or restraining him, is left to the viewer.

We found “Sans Pleurer” both aesthetically and emotionally powerful. The Ballet’s male dancers exhibited not only power, strength, and skill, but also grace and fluidity not often called for in male roles. The evocation of male emotion was cleverly done. Some bits involved dancing with boxes, which we dubbed “mental blocks” or perhaps the boxes one put ones feelings in. It appeared that the dancers had no choice but to lug them around, like Marley’s Ghost and his strongboxes: if a box was laid down, it had to be picked up again; no one would take, or show interest in, someone else’s box.

In the notes, the choreographer’s question was posed: “Why are men raised to suppress their emotions?” We had a couple of answers. It’s not just received culture, but that is a factor. After all, strong admirable men like the characters played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart don’t cry. James Bond doesn’t cry. Neither do John McClane, Indiana Jones, Dominic Toretto, or any other hero you can name.

But there’s more to it than that. The culture of youth is full of shallow cruelty. If you are teased or bullied, and you cry, you will be mocked. If you rage, you will be mocked. If you laugh, you will be mocked, insult added to injury. And if you fight back, verbally or physically, you will be roughed up, bully being careful to be sure of physical superiority, injury added to insult. Therefore, the safest path is to be inscrutable. It doesn’t save you from bullying, but gives them the fewest levers. Some of us learned this from direct experience. The bullies, their sycophants, and the “better you than me” bystanders from observation.

Well, you can see the piece was thought-provoking--.

The music by Ezio Bosso was actually musical, evocative, and listenable. Conductor Andrews Sills got a big, exciting sound from the small ensemble used for this piece.

La Sylphide

I had not seen “La Sylphide,” which is one of the famous pieces of the classical ballet repertoire, live, so was very interested to see how Milwaukee Ballet would handle it. In this case, they engaged the services of Dinna Bjorn as Repetiteur, who is one of the recognized specialists on the ballets of choreographer August Bournonville. Together, everyone did a lovely job.

The Sunday performance had Nicole Teague-Howell as La Sylphide, Randy Crespo as James, Jonathan Batista as Gurn, and Rachel Malehorn as Madge the witch. All of the dancers were excellent. We thought that Ms. Teague-Howell could have been more expressive in the first act, but she warmed up in the second act and made her role quite affecting. The big wedding dance number in the first act was the most intricate version of this scene we have seen, and very beautiful. Rachel Malehorn, in her final role for the Milwaukee Ballet, did a fine chewy acting job as the witch. Andrews Sill and the Ballet Orchestra gave a fine rendition of the dramatic score by Herman Severin Lovenskjold. Costumes provided by the Boston Ballet were very pretty and plausible-looking. All in all, a very enjoyable and satisfying performance.

Moral 1: Don’t be rude to the local witch.
Moral 2: If you are rude to the local witch, don’t expect her to actually help you later.

Concinnity

Apr. 11th, 2017 05:33 pm
On Saturday, April 8th, we went to the Milwaukee School of Engineering for Concinnity 17, the campus’ annual one-day gathering for science-fiction, anime, cosplay, and gaming fandom. Held on two floors of the Campus Center building, this was a nice little gathering. The commons area on the third floor was used for dealers, and we were pleased to see friends Julie Ann Hunter, Terresa Roden, Emily “Dragonwielder” Schultz, and Karen Pauli having tables. We checked out all the tables, chatted with some new acquaintances, and attended Lee Schneider’s panel on “Nudging History” and Chris Madsen’s talk about his book, “The Eyes of the Setting Sun.” We didn’t stay for any of the anime or the gaming, which ran into the evening, but had a very nice time.

We’ve usually missed Concinnity due to being on the same weekend as OddCon, but that didn’t happen this year, so we were glad to have a chance to check it out.
On Friday evening, we went to the Zelazo Center on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Campus to their production of “La Perichole,” an opera buffa by Jacques Offenbach. We had enjoyed the University’s production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in Hell,” and so were interested to see how this one would turn out.

I was rather surprised to see that the very slender plot was adapted from a comic play by Prosper Merimee. Merimee is best known to English speakers as the author of the story that became Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” notorious for being dark, violent, and tragic. “La Perichole,” by contrast is light and funny.

The original play and opera were set in Peru, and the “heavy” was the Spanish Viceroy, supported by his minions, the “First Gentleman of the Bedchamber” and the “Mayor of Lima.” The updated script played by the University is set in 1990’s Hollywood, with “Mr. Viceroy” (Jason Martin) as “CEO of NBC”, and being abetted in his schemes by the “VP of NBC External Affairs” (Austin Jermaine Bare), and the “Mayor of South Hollywood” (Joseph Krohlow). At a birthday party at the “Three Cousins” club, Viceroy encounters the talented but unlucky street singers, the beautiful Perichole (Laura Lemanski) and her swain, Pequillo (Emanuel Camacho). They have been trying to get enough money to get married, with no success. In fact, Pequillo is so bad at “passing the hat,” that they are on the verge of starvation. Pequillo goes off on his own to try his luck further, while Perichole stays behind and tries to sleep to forget her hunger.

She is approached by Viceroy, who offers to “employ” her as an Executive Administrative Assistant at NBC. She has no illusions as to what the deal actually is, but reluctantly agrees, hoping to string Viceroy along at least for a few good meals. She leave a good-by letter for Pequillo at the Three Cousins.

When Viceroy announces his conquest to the VP and the Mayor, they are appalled that he would hire a single woman with no qualifications. The Board of Directors would not stand for it. Relying on an entertainment industry standby, nepotism, they propose that it will work if she were married to an NBC shareholder. Viceroy directs the VP to find a man that they can marry to Perichole and make a director.

Pequillo returns to the Three Cousins, and gets Perichole’s letter. Despondent, he decides to attempt suicide, but is tripped over by the VP, who realizes that he’s found someone poor and desperate enough for anything. He plies Pequillo with liquor, getting him “blind-drunk”. Pequillo goes through with the wedding, having no idea who it is he’s marrying.

In the next scene, Pequillo wakes up in NBC Headquarters with no recollection of how he got there. He is reminded that he got married last night, but not to whom. He is treated with scorn by the NBC staff, of whom the women think of him as pimping his wife to Viceroy, and whom the men perceive as a “kept man.” The VP and the Mayor are more sanguine, advising him that “husband of Viceroy’s mistress” a.k.a. “Assistant to the Assistant Manager for Gender Affairs” is one of the best jobs at NBC, other than their own, having few duties and access to lots of money. Pequillo doesn’t care, he just wants the thousand dollars he was promised and to be allowed to leave. They agree, but insist that first he has to “introduce” his wife to Viceroy at a reception that evening.

When Perichole arrives at the reception and Pequillo realizes that she is the wife he is to turn over to Viceroy, he flies into a rage and denounces her as heartless anand mercenary. At Viceroy’s order, Pequillo is subdued and thrown into a subterranean dungeon.

In the dungeon, Pequillo meets the “Old Prisoner” (Sam Skogstad), who has spent twelve years tunneling out of his cell with a penknife, only to arrive in Pequillo’s cell. Undaunted, the rather mad old man offers to free Pequillo also, assuring him it will only take another twelve years digging through the correct wall this time.

Perichole comes to visit. After considerable recrimination by Pequillo, she lets him know that, not only has she not surrendered her body to Viceroy, she loves Pequillo, and has absconded with the jewelry Viceroy gave her, in order to buy his freedom. She attempt to bribe the guard with a diamond ring, only to find that it is Viceroy in disguise. He locks Perichole in the cell with Pequillo, saying he hopes she will change her mind. After he has left, the Old Prisoner enters and frees them from their chains. Then Perichole calls Viceroy back. The three of them overpower him, lock him up, and flee.

In the final scene, the fugitives are hiding out at the Three Cousins while Viceroy’s minions scour the town for them. While Viceroy is interrogating the cousins, Perichole and Pequillo come out of hiding and beg for their freedom with a song praising the virtue of forgiveness. Moved, Viceroy forgives them, and allows them to keep the jewels (“I am not accustomed to taking back gifts—“). All celebrate the couple’s courage and Mr. Viceroy’s clemency.

We enjoyed this production very much. Between Offenbach’s music, in which the composer employed Spanish-derived themes and dances; the English libretto by Kalmus and Daniel Pippin, Colleen Brooks, and James Zager, much of which was in rhymed couplets; and the ‘topsy-turvy’ plot, the performance had an almost Gilbert and Sullivan feel, which made it quite accessible.

Ms. Lemanski as Perichole, exhibited a lovely, warm, rich, voice which worked very well for the role and the music. Mr. Camacho (Pequillo) has a beautiful but light voice that was hard to pick out of the ensemble pieces, but he has a gift for comic acting that helped get his role across. Jason Martin as Viceroy acted and sang a wonderfully heedless and egotistical “heavy.” They were well supported by the rest of the cast who sang, danced, and acted with what must honestly be reported as varying degrees of skill, but it was all good fun for the audience.

Costumes were pretty obviously scrounged from the actor’s closets, but worked well enough. The modular set by Leroy Stoner looked good and worked cleverly. Jun Kim conducted the orchestra, which handled Offenbach’s score expertly and supported the singers excellently.

We were interested to see that the director was Colleen Brooks, whose performances we had enjoyed in the Skylight Opera Theater’s The Snow Dragon. It was obvious that she has a good grasp of the light opera genre and a clear vision for the production.
On Saturday, April 1, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the new exhibit, "Milwaukee Collects," which is made up of paintings and other objets d'art in the private collections of residents of Greater Milwaukee. The more than 100 works on loan came from nearly 50 collections, showing a great deal of community support. Some of the named donors included names well-known as patrons of the arts, and some unknown to us, and some remaining anonymous.

The exhibition is organized in roughly chronological order, with 19th Century pieces first up. These included representational and sentimental pieces such as Ludwig Knaus' "The Golden Wedding," (http://www.artnet.com/magazine/news/jeromack/jeromack5-16-7.asp); Eduard von Grutzner's fond paintings of portly monks, one of which, "The Catastophe" is in the Museum's permanent collection (http://art-now-and-then.blogspot.com/2014/04/eduard-von-grutzner.html); and some non-Academy French paintings, such as "Elodie with a Parasol," by Jules Breton (http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2017/03/10/art-private-collections-of-the-wealthy/nggallery/image/elodie-with-a-sunshade-bay-of-douarnenez-woman-with-parasol/).

By far the largest part of the exhibition is 20th Century work, and the sophistication of the local collectors is impressive. While "usual suspects," like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are represented, there are significant examples from important art movements like the "Ashcan School," the "Chicago Imagists," and the Dusseldorf School. We fond particularly amusing Erika Rothenberg's 1991 "Another Century of Progress," one of her "signboard" series (http://erikarothenberg.com/#works)a rather more humorous bookend to works like "America, the Greatest Nation on Earth" (not part of this exhibition).

Also just opened is the the exhibit "How Posters Work," which is a display focusing on the graphic design elements that make posters, now a fading art form, effective. Items from the Smithsonian Cooper Hewett collection are central to the show, which includes industrial and governmental designs, as well as examples of posters for films, plays, and concerts.

These were both very interesting shows and we were glad to have seen them.

Milwaukee Collects runs through May 21.
How Posters Work is on display through June 25th.
First, let me address one point: Casting Scarlett Johannsen as the main character is NOT a “whitewash”. “Major Kusanagi,” as she’s generally known, has never, ever been drawn as Asian-looking either in the manga or the anime. She’s always had round eyes, and, when in color, they are blue (or red, in one of the animes), and her skin is white. “Section 9,” the special law enforcement group she belongs to does not exist in any recognizable version of Japan, instead it’s “manga Japan,” which, in that, as well as other works, is populated by racially ambiguous people, many of which are pale-skinned, round-eyed, and have hair in Caucasian shades (when it’s not blue, purple, or other colors not occurring in nature). The director of the animated films, Mamoru Oshii said: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

That being said, we went to a preview of the movie at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night, March 29. I liked the movie a lot, and Georgie did, too, as it didn’t exceed her tolerance for violence and flashing/booming.

The movie looks great to my eyes. The long shots of the urban landscape are amazing, rife with gigantic advertising holograms, which Georgie called “Blade Runner all grown up.” The opening sequence of the creation of the Major’s cyborg body is pure science-fantasy, but beautiful, and almost mystical as her framework is levitated through the various stages of its “birth.” That life is not going to be quite easy for the new being is immediately apparent with the dialog between her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and the owner of the company that created her, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), in which he declares, “She’s a weapon.”

Flash ahead to a year later, and “the Major” is lead operator for “Section 9,” here described as an anti-terrorist unit, where her strength, speed, and ability to make herself virtually invisible, are of great use. Her ability to “deep dive” into cyberspace is less well understood, and her commander, Aramaki (veteran Japanese action actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), is uneasy with her using it. She has an uneasy comradeship with the other members of her unit, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Han (Chin Han), Ladriya (Danusia Samal), and Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere).

I was really struck by Ms. Johannsen’s abilities as a physical actress. Although her role as Marvel’s “Black Widow” is superficially similar, both being female super-agent action heroes, the characters are quite different. I was particularly struck by the Major’s walk, which is a heavy-looking flat-footed trudge, as though she indeed had a steel skeleton. She walks with her head pushed forward, sometimes “forgetting” to move her arms, subtly underlining that she’s only had this body for a year and is still learning to use it. Similarly, her resting expression is very neutral: you don’t see thoughts cross her face, except when she is speaking or taking action.
The plot has some similarities to the 1995 animated film, with the major antagonist having the ability to “hack” people’s minds, but goes in a very different direction, becoming the Major’s origin story, which is more detailed and dark than any version given before.

Ms. Johannsen is well supported by the cast, especially Pilou Asbaek as Batou, and Marion Cotillard as Dr. Ouelet, who are the human heart and mind of the movie, respectively. It’s also good fun to see Mr. Kitano “taking names” in a wonderfully no-nonsense style. Peter Fernandino as Cutter is a villain for the 21st Century, taking personal command of mayhem with a remote-control interface.
The film’s portrayal of “augmentation” is quite compelling, and a lot of ways evocative of what the “man-machine interface” might be like. In other ways, it is quite fantastic and dreamlike, with robotic arms repairing the Major’s damaged muscle fibers by painting on new material with brushes. It’s never explained how she can jump off the top of a skyscraper (her favored method of “tactical insertion”) without harm, but still be damaged in combat. Of course there’s lots of over-the-top combat, but shooting and exploding is at a tolerable level. There’s some blood, shown as the aftermath of being wounded, but not much. No bad language or sex. We do see quite a lot of the Major’s artificial integument, but it’s not what one would call sexual nudity (unless you are already a robot fetishist--).

Recommended for fans of anime, SF/action, and superheroes.
We noticed in the newspaper that Mason Street Grill was having a monthly special series based on movies, with the first one being “Julie and Julia,” the movie about the young woman who cooked her way through Julia Child’s “The Art of French Cooking.” We loved that movie, love the cookbook, and the special dishes looked really yummy, so we thought we’d give it a try.

The Mason Street Grill is a very nice place. If you are an old Milwaukeean, you might remember the space they are in as having been Grenadiers’ years ago. It has been entirely redecorated since then, of course, with a lot of dark wood and tasteful accents.

If you want the “movie menu”, you have to sit at “The Chef’s Corner,” which is a less-formal seating location at a marble-topped counter, with a good view of the open kitchen. Our server, Ryan, was very friendly and informative.

We ordered a starter of the charcuterie, which was good, but not special. The only home-made part was the chopped liver on toast. The sausage and ham were good, but probably not anything you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere (or at the grocery store). An amuse-bouche of a crostini with grilled tomatoes and cheese also comes with the movie menu (Georgie was able to brush the cheese off this--). That was tasty also. The breadbasket came with cottage cheese bread and a parmesan flatbread. I tasted both, but of course Georgie couldn’t eat either and it would have been nice to have had a non-cheese offering.

For main course, I ordered the Lobster Thermidor. This is bits of lobster, sautéed in cognac, in sauce, topped with bread crumbs, and broiled in half a lobster shell. I found it very tasty and good, and was glad to have had the opportunity to try this preparation.

Georgie ordered the Poulet au Porto, which was a lovely portion of roasted chicken, sauced with a port wine, cognac, cream and mushroom reduction, and accompanied by tiny fingerling potatoes. The Amish chicken was some of the best we had had, and the sauce was delicious.

For dessert, we had the Mouselline au Chocolate, which was a chocolate tart with whipped cream on top. The chocolate filling had a lovely texture, very rich and smooth. It was also flavored with espresso, which was a bit stronger than I liked, and pretty well overpowered the Grand Marnier element. The tart crust for some reason was unusually hard, (made from crushed ladyfingers) but was quite delicious in flavor. If you could manage a bite with crust, filling and whipped cream, it was a very mellow and luscious dessert.

All in all, a very pleasant and delicious dining experience. We would definitely eat there again. (But maybe not for the April movie theme, which is "The Big Night." Georgie has trouble finding any Italian dish that doesn't have cheese in it--.)
Just a quick note. We went to a preview of the new "Ghost in the Shell" film on Wednesday night. It was really good and fantastic to look at. The cityscape is, as Georgie put it, "Blade Runner all grown up!" Long review to follow--.
On Sunday, March 26, we went to see the new movie of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney (mostly) live action adaptation of their 1991 all-animated feature. I say “mostly” live action: Belle, her father Maurice, villain Gaston, Le Fou, and the other villagers are live-action. Dan Steven’s Beast form and all of the enchanted servants, Lumiere, Cogsworth, et al, are CGI until the curse is lifted from them.

The movie looks great. The village is beautiful, the Beast’s castle fantastic, costumes excellent and casting all very good.

There are significant changes from the original other than the medium. There are some “new” songs, brought in from the musical play version, and some minutes of new music specifically for the film, none of which are very consequential or memorable. Some, such as “Evermore,” a song for the Beast mourning Belle’s departure to rescue Maurice, seem strongly influenced by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

My major disappointment with the 1991 movie was that Belle had no “big song.” It was a letdown when the orchestral musical buildup following “Belle” (“Isn’t she a funny girl—“) peaking in her sung line “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!” just stops. Brave, bookish Belle is my favorite Disney/fairy tale heroine, and I’ve always wanted her to have her own anthem, her own equivalent of “Let it Go,” but we still don’t have it. To be fair, the Beast doesn’t get a “big” song either: all the really memorable songs are for the ensemble or the servants: “Belle,” “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and that hasn’t changed.

The singing is very good, and on the film, you will hear the actual actors doing the songs, which shows that Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) all have very creditable singing voices. Frankly, I think they are preferable to some of the more professional singers that are featured on the soundtrack album.

There are some significant changes to the characters, which are mostly to the good. Maurice is played with more dignity and as less of a screwball, which makes him a more sympathetic character, but makes Gaston’s railroading him into the madhouse less credible.

Gaston, as played by Mr. Evans, initially comes over a bit more likeable. He seems humanly smitten/obsessed with Belle, and less just convinced of his entitlement to her. Ultimately though, he’s even more rotten than his cartoon counterpart, as his murderous streak comes out earlier in the film. He’s also a bit psychotic: LeFou (Josh Gad) heads off a berserk episode by saying, “Go to your happy place, Gaston! The war! All those widows!” “Widows!” murmurs Gaston in reply, with a glassy grin. Whether he’s remembering exploiting them or creating them is left unsaid--.

While I kind of miss the evil Monsieur D’Arque and the “Maison de Lune” song, it’s apparent they don’t fit in with the style of the new production. Instead, we have more dialog, particularly between Belle and the Beast which helps develop the growth of their relationship.

There were some bits that were overdone: “Be Our Guest” is always an over-the-top production number, but this version went ridiculously far. It’s a bit much even for magically animated crockery and flatware to improvise indoor fireworks and disco lighting effects on short notice.

So, it’s a really good film, and we liked it a lot. I still think I like the cartoon one better, though.
On Friday evening, March 24th, we went to hear Great Lakes Baroque’s first concert of the year, featuring mezzo soprano Suzanne Lommler, cellist Paul Dwyer, and founder and harpsichordist Jory Vinokur.

Besides being a wonderful singer and operatic performer, Ms. Lommler also demonstrated that she is a real trouper, showing up despite having one foot in a cast, and standing up to sing all her pieces

In the first half, she gave us lovely renditions of “Amanti, io vi so dire,” by Benedetto Ferrari, and “L’Eraclito amoroso,” by Barbara Strozzi, whose proto-fado, proto-blues music we particularly enjoy. Then, Mr. Vinokur soloed on the Handel Suite in E Major, HWV 430 (“The Harmonious Blacksmith”) which displayed his virtuosic level of skill on the harpsichord.
Then, Ms. Lommler gave us a very passionate rendition of Handel’s La Lucrezia, wherein we got a good sample of her operatic skills in song, expression, and gesture. The cantata adopts the same classical story as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece,” and the portion in which Lucrezia curses her attacker, Tarquin, is truly fiery.

Mr. Dwyer accompanied La Lucrezia also, and did a beautiful job of it. The singing tone of the cello was truly a duet with the human voice.

In the second half, Mr. Vinokur moved to a fortepiano, to accompany Ms. Lommler on first, a set of songs by Franz Joseph Haydn, which set to music “She Never Told Her Love” (Shakespeare), “The Mermaid’s Song”(Anne Hunter), “O Tuneful Voice” (Anne Hunter), and “Cupido” (G. Leon).
This was followed by a second set of songs set to music by Mozart: “As Luise Burned the Letters of her Unfaithful Lover” (Gabriele von Baumberg); “In A Dark and Secluded Wood” (Antoine Houdart de la Motte); “Contentment” (Christian Felix Weisse); “Evening Thoughts” (Joachim Heinrich Campe); and “To Chloe” by Johann Georg Jacobi.

After a rapturous ovation, all three performers joined in an encore, also a Mozart piece that I did not catch the name of.

Pretty much all this music was new to me, and I very much enjoyed it all.
On Sunday afternoon, March 19th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera’s production of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.”

This was a revival of a 2006 production (reviewed back then in this journal) played mostly on a bare stage set with a few necessary pieces and with light. There seemed to be some tweaks to the new appearance: we believed the lighting was brighter and more colorful than in the past.

This was perhaps musically one of the best casts we have heard in a long time. Alexander Dobson (Don Giovanni), Emily Birsan (Donna Anna), Emily Fons (Donna Elvira), Musa Ngqungwana (Leporello), Brian Stuckey (Don Ottavio), Ariana Douglas (Zerlina), and Leroy V. Davis (Masetto) all sang beautifully and acted very well into the bargain. The brightest jewel of the collection was Ms. Fons, who sang the role of the obsessive Donna Elvira with power and tragic beauty while still managing some genuinely funny interactions with the other characters. David Leigh as the Commendatore gave good support (and got to come down front in the final scene, an improvement in staging from 2006), and shows promise for the future.

We still didn’t care for the purposeless hooded figures stalking across the stage, or the “escape from Hell” joke at the end, but the singing made it not matter.

Maestro Joseph Resigno once again conducted, leading the orchestra flawlessly.
On Saturday evening, March 18th, we went to the Skylight to see their new production of Beauty and the Beast, based upon Zemire et Azor, a 1771 opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, with libretto by Jean François Marmontel, after the story La belle et la bête by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and the play Amour pour amour by P.C. Nivelle de La Chaussée.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.

The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.

Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.

At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.

When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.

After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”

Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.

This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.

This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.
On Sunday afternoon, March 19th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera’s production of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.”

This was a revival of a 2006 production (reviewed back then in this journal) played mostly on a bare stage set with a few necessary pieces and with light. There seemed to be some tweaks to the new appearance: we believed the lighting was brighter and more colorful than in the past.

This was perhaps musically one of the best casts we have heard in a long time. Alexander Dobson (Don Giovanni), Emily Birsan (Donna Anna), Emily Fons (Donna Elvira), Musa Ngqungwana (Leporello), Brian Stuckey (Don Ottavio), Ariana Douglas (Zerlina), and Leroy V. Davis (Masetto) all sang beautifully and acted very well into the bargain. The brightest jewel of the collection was Ms. Fons, who sang the role of the obsessive Donna Elvira with power and tragic beauty while still managing some genuinely funny interactions with the other characters. David Leigh as the Commendatore gave good support (and got to come down front in the final scene, an improvement in staging from 2006), and shows promise for the future.

We still didn’t care for the purposeless hooded figures stalking across the stage, or the “escape from Hell” joke at the end, but the singing made it not matter.

Maestro Joseph Resigno once again conducted, leading the orchestra flawlessly.
On Saturday evening, March 18th, we went to the Skylight to see their new production of Beauty and the Beast, based upon Zemire et Azor, a 1771 opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, with libretto by
Jean François Marmontel, after the story La belle et la bête by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and the play Amour pour amour by P.C. Nivelle de La Chaussée.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.

The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.

Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.

At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.

When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.

After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”

Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.

This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.

This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.
On Tuesday, February 14th, we went to see “The Illusionists” at the Marcus Center, which performance was part of the “Associated Bank Broadway at the Marcus Center” series.

The show features seven performers who exemplify various aspects of stage magic as it is currently practiced.

The performance is hosted by Jeff Hobson, a.k.a. “The Trickster” (each performer has a moniker that makes them sound rather like a super-villain team--). Hobson specializes in close-up magic and what used to be called “snappy patter,” a running stream of humorous commentary that was slightly risqué and seasoned by his characterization as an out gay man. (His wardrobe would have been called “flamboyant” anywhere but in the home of Liberace--.) Like most of the performers, he put a new twist on classic tricks, such as the basic “pick a card and don’t show me what it is” trick.

The stylistic contrast between Hobson and Dan Sperry, “The Anti-Conjuror” could hardly be greater. Sperry appears looking like a Goth zombie, in ragged clothing, tattoos, and ghoulish makeup. His “shock illusion” tricks included making a coin vanish by apparently pushing it into his right eye socket, and then producing the marked coin from a cut in the skin on his left forearm. His gleefully creepy manner and patter was quite entertaining, and, in the second act, he performed a lengthy sequence of rapid-fire productions, substitutions, and vanishes that showcased extraordinary skill at sleight of hand.

Kevin James, “The Inventor”, was one of the most classically styled performers, doing the large, prop-centered illusions found in big magic shows of old. In one trick, he assembled a dummy in view of the audience, which then “came to life” as a dwarf. In another, he “accidentally” cut one of his assistants in two with a chain saw, and then restored him. Although neither trick was that hard to suss out as to how it was done, they were innovatively presented with style and humor. James also did a charming bit with a child from the audience, animating a piece of tissue paper, which he them made into a paper rose and levitated, and then transformed into a genuine rose.

“The Daredevil,” Jonathan Goodwin, is a bit different. Billed as “an accomplished knife thrower, archer, escape artist, fakir, martial artist, free diver, aerialist, and rock climber,” the program also notes that there are no illusions involved in his performance, “everything you see him do is very, very real.” In this show, Mr. Goodwin performed an archery act, showing his exceptional skill with the crossbow, being able to hit and split a sheet of newsprint edge on. That it took him two tries underscored the reality of the performance. The act culminated with bursting a balloon held on the head of his assistant while he was blindfolded. While real, I am pretty sure there is an inobvious but clever trick to the performance, which however, takes nothing away from the skill and nerve of Mr. Goodwin and his assistants.

Colin Cloud, “The Deductionist” does what used to be called a “mentalist” act, of the sort performed by Dunninger or Kreskin, but updated. Drawing on the popularity of the “Sherlock” TV series, he purports that at least some of his effects are obtained purely by observation and deduction. Although he shows an excellent grasp of how to manipulate audience members, and skill at some other tricks that Houdini and Scarne would have recognized, some of the others could not possibly have been accomplished by any deductive means—such as taking the product of three supposedly randomly selected three-digit numbers and coming up with 1875021417920, which broke down to the (alleged) number of people in the audience, the day’s date, and the hour and minute (9:20PM) of the pronouncement.

“The Manipulator,” An Ha Lim, has won numerous international prizes for his skills, and put on a beautiful performance in the first act, producing hundreds of cards seemingly out of thin air. (In magic parlance, “manipulations” refer to such things as single-handed card fans, “waterfalls,” palming, and substitution, which require great skill, dexterity, and strength.) He also ended the show with a very clever and amusing sequence of tabletop manipulations and substitutions, which we could easily see due to a hand-held camera and on-stage video screen.

One of the headlining acts of the show was “The Escapologist,” Andrew Basso, who performed the notorious “Water Torture Cell” escape, made famous by Houdini. While I have great respect for Mr. Basso’s nerve, skill, and endurance, I found the act somewhat disappointing, because it totally de-mystifies the famous trick. It is still very impressive—the “official” time for his escape was two minutes, thirty seconds, but in fact Basso was submerged longer than that, as the count didn’t start until the top of the cage was locked down, which meant he had to go more like three minutes and a half without breathing. Unfortunately, showing us how it is done downgrades the effect from an “illusion” to a stunt. Not that Houdini didn’t do stunts—escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a crane in full view has little mystery about it other than that it can be done at all—but I’m sorry to see one of the most famous effects in history lose its glamour.

All in all, we were very happy to have seen this show. The performances by James, Sperry, and Lim were worth the price of admission alone, and the others all showed great style, skill, nerve and cleverness worthy of admiration.

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