August Wilson’s Two Trains Running at Rochester’s Geva Theatre

August Wilson

Whatever else has been on the season’s playbill at Rochester’s Geva Theatre the last four years, the play we’ve looked forward to the most each has been a play by August Wilson.  Geva has been doing one play from his Pittsburgh cycle each year, and we’ve loved them all — Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904),  The Piano Lesson (set in 1936), Fences (set in 1959; see Emsworth’s delighted review), and now this season’s play, Two Trains Running (set in 1969).  Indeed, we still have fond memories of a joyful Jitney (set in 1977) mounted by Geva in April 1999.

Pittsburgh's Hill District, seen from the Monongahela River around 1935

Two Trains Running tells the stories of the folks who hang around Memphis Lee’s ill-patronized diner in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  Memphis himself (A. C. Smith) is bracing for a fight with city authorities over the value of his building, which is being condemned for urban renewal.  He wants his price — $25,000 — but doesn’t really expect to get it after a lifetime of seeing black men cheated and robbed of their dignity.  Memphis himself, as a young man, was driven out of Jackson, Mississippi by white men who aimed to demean and humiliate him as much as to rob him.  

A. C. Smith plays Memphis Lee

Memphis has no use for the ways his friends cope with poverty and racial oppression.  His young friend Sterling Johnson (Javon Johnson) is excited about a black power rally at which Malcolm X will be speaking, but Memphis tears down the poster Wolf pins on the wall of the diner.  His young waitress Risa (Patrese D. McClain) quotes the Bible and sends her tithes to Prophet Samuel, a charismatic local preacher; Memphis scoffs at the Prophet’s money-grubbing.  Sterling, who has fallen for Risa, fantasizes about Cadillacs but is more interested in petty crime than hard work; Memphis sadly predicts that Sterling will soon be back in the penitentiary.  

Memphis can barely abide the half-crazed Hambone (David Shakes) and his fixation on being paid the ham he was promised nine years earlier for painting a fence; Memphis berates Risa for her kindness to Hambone.  And Memphis cannot bring himself to do what his best friend Holloway (Alfred Wilson) recommends to everyone: go down Wiley Avenue to see the 322-year-old Aunt Ester, a semi-mystical seer who appears, on-stage or off, in several Wilson plays.  Yet skeptical as he is that there can be justice for a black man, Memphis intends, perhaps for the first time in his life, to take a stand for his own dignity and to insist on his price for his building. 

Patrese D. McClain has a sharp stage presence as Risa, waitress and object of Sterling Johnson's desire

And as August Wilson sadly shows, oppressed black folk sometimes oppressed one another in turn.  Early in the play, Memphis gains our sympathy with his story of how his wife left him for no good reason — but as the play goes on and we see Memphis’s harsh treatment of Risa, we understand better what life might have been like for a woman of his. Prophet Samuel preys on his congregation. Everyone plays the numbers, but as Holloway explains, the numbers racket means that money just moves from one black person to another.  The wealthy undertaker West, who owns much of the neighborhood, is eager to make a low-ball offer for Memphis’s building. 

We liked these vivid characters more than we can say.  True, we didn’t grow up black in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where all these plays are set, and we certainly didn’t suffer racial oppression, but we did grow up among working-class people in western Pennsylvania, and we identify strongly with Pittsburgh, its people, and their ways.  We knew folks who talked like Troy Maxon, in Fences, and Memphis Lee, in Two Trains Running.  Like Sterling Johnson in Two Trains Running, our relatives sought work from J & L Steel.  And we were in our mid-teens in 1969, when the story of this play takes place. 

A. C. Smith in a fall 2009 production by Chicago's Court Theatre of August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The cast of Two Trains Running is excellent, though not quite to the standards of last year’s Fences (see Emsworth’s review). The actors and director Ron OJ Parson are based in Chicago, according to the program notes, and are veterans of a number of August Wilson plays. A. C. Smith, a large man, is an imposing yet vulnerable Memphis Lee; the lovely Patrese D. McClain stands out as the clear-eyed waitress Risa. 

Two Trains Running is a rich play with many more subplots and layers than we can mention here (and the characters all have a penchant for storytelling), but nothing gets lost in this well-directed production.  The performance we liked best was Alfred H. Wilson’s as Holloway, who from his side booth offers shrewd, sardonic commentary on everyone else’s troubles. Mr. Wilson has a marvelously expressive voice and stage presence — oddly, though, more than once he seemed to be struggling for his lines.

Arthur Miller’s The Price at Geva Theatre

Arthur Miller

Our first professional play was one of Arthur Miller’s masterpieces, and Emsworth wonders if he’s the only person left in Rochester who remembers it. It was 1973, and a community theater group had arranged to put on Death of a Salesman in the Strasenburgh Planetarium.  

This was theater-in-the-round; the stage was on the central platform out of which projection equipment ordinarily protruded.  Designed for looking at stars up on the ceiling, our seats went back nearly all the way. We’d always assumed that a play would have scenery, but on this tiny, unconventional stage there was only a wooden chair.  There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people in the audience; we have a vague recollection of getting there through a blizzard.  

We found Miller’s play powerfully moving. Was it well-acted? Frankly, we have no idea, although we surely thought so at the time. Still in our teens, we were thoroughly susceptible to the raw emotional power of the tragedy of Willy Loman. And with no prior experience with theater, we didn’t know good acting from bad.  

Arthur Miller’s play The Price opened at Geva Theatre here in Rochester a week or so ago, and we went to see it after accumulating 37 years of life experience and theater-going adventures. The Price was written (and is set) in 1967, nearly two decades after Miller wrote his two best-known plays, Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), and we were surprised to find that it’s more conventional in some respects than either of those plays.  There are no flashbacks, fantasy scenes, or flirtations with the supernatural, and the entire play takes place in the course of a single morning.  

Richard McWilliams and Carmen Roman as Victor and Esther Franz

The Price is the story of Victor and Walter Franz, two brothers who haven’t seen or spoken to one another in many years. Victor (Richard McWilliams), now 50 years old, is a low-paid policeman from Queens who sacrificed opportunities for higher education to support his father, who was crushed by the stock-market collapse of ’29; Victor has spent much of his unglamorous career doing airport security. He is finally eligible to retire, and his wife Esther (Carmen Roman) is anxious for their “life” to finally begin, but neither of them have any sense what that might mean.  His estranged brother Walter (Tony DeBruno), who made no such sacrifices, has become a well-to-do doctor.  

The play takes place in the attic floor of an old house in Queens where Victor’s and Walter’s father lived until his death some years earlier.  Their father’s furniture and antiques are still there and must finally be removed; Victor has made an appointment with an elderly Yiddish antique dealer, Gregory Solomon (Kenneth Tigar), whose name he found in the yellow pages.  He wants Solomon to appraise and possibly to buy the lot. Technically, the pieces belong to both brothers, but Walter has refused to take Victor’s calls inviting him to come for the appraisal. Victor and Esther hope the pieces will bring enough of a price to launch them comfortably into their new life.  

Kenneth Tigar as the antique dealer Solomon, with Richard McWilliams as Victor Franz

Solomon turns out to be an eccentric, charming, and ultimately frustrating old man; only with the greatest difficulty can Victor, a poor haggler, bring him to place a dollar figure on the pieces. (Victor’s repeated question “But what’s the price?” tests the audience’s patience as well as old Solomon’s; we sense Miller’s nod to the then-trendy theater of the absurd.) Just as Solomon and Victor finally settle on a price, and just as the curtain is about to fall (figuratively speaking; the GeVa stage does not have a curtain) on the first act, Walter unexpectedly walks on.  

The second half of the play belongs mostly to the two brothers, who hash out the grievances and resentments that have separated them for so many years.  Secrets and truths long-repressed spill out at an alarming rate.  Solomon retreats to a back room of the attic, emerging only occasionally to offer solomonic advice to the brothers. 

The Price seemed to us to have less in it than Miller’s more famous plays.  Perhaps the themes simply aren’t as great; The Price is much less complex than, say, Death of a Salesman, which has the same number of characters, and it doesn’t begin to approach the latter play’s emotional intensity.  The playwright intended Victor’s great, apparently unnecessary sacrifice of his prospects as a metaphor for what he viewed as the unnecessary sacrifices America was making in Vietnam.  But the Vietnam war has been over for nearly four decades, and we doubt if many audience members, including Emsworth, would have noticed the metaphor if they hadn’t read the essay in GeVa’s program.  

Still, for an audience member like Emsworth who is far enough along in life to reflect, like Victor, Esther, and Walter, on his choices in life and the value of how he has spent his working life, The Price still has a good deal of resonance. And the acting in this play is very, very good — especially the veteran actor Kenneth Tigar, surely one of Miller’s most memorable characters. Tigar brings an almost unwordly transcendence to his portrayal of the old Yiddish antique dealer.  This show has our solid recommendation.  

Tony DeBruno played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009

We were interested to see that Tony DeBruno, who plays Walter,  is a long-time member of the company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which appears to be the only American classical repertory theater of comparable breadth and quality to the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Ontario, Canada, which Emsworth faithfully patronizes.  Someday we’d like to pay it a visit.

A pleasant fall drive to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University

Rauschenberg Robert -- Migration (1959) (Cornell)

Robert Rauschenberg's "Migration" is part of an excellent collection of contemporary art at the Johnson Museum

College art museums present special challenges for the art museum junkie because so often they’re hard to get to.  True, at the Yale University Art Gallery, in New Haven, you can just pull into a parking garage and walk a block to the museum.  But others are buried in the middle of impenetrable university complexes where there’s no parking at any price (think Harvard and Princeton).  And many of the others are on campuses a long way from metropolitan areas that you might be visiting anyway (think Williams College, in the mountains of western Massachusetts, or Bowdoin College, way up in Maine).  You have to make a special trip.

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Seen between Geneva and Ithaca

The art museum at Cornell University discourages visitors in every possible way.  The campus is a goodly drive from almost anywhere (two hours from Rochester), and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is in the middle of a maze of a campus with practically nowhere to park — especially right now, with street reconstruction and 100_9137museum expansion going on.  Like so many other college art museums, it simply doesn’t take the general art-loving public into account.  It doesn’t even charge admission!  We made the drive a couple of weeks ago on one of the finest fall days we can remember, pausing on the way there and back to take pictures of fall foliage, century-old churches, and fantastic falling-down barns and and rusting farm equipment.

100_9050 -- museum bldg croppedWhat other art museum in New York is housed in such an aesthetically interesting building as the Johnson Museum — other than the Guggenheim (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Met itself?  This is a 1973 building designed by I. M. Pei, ideally situated on top of a hill overlooking all of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake.  We liked it right away.

David Bailly - Vanitas Still Life with PortraitWe weren’t blown away by any particular part of the Johnson Museum collection, but there was still a lot to enjoy. The European art goes back 500 years, but 500 years is a lot to cover in just three galleries or so. We spent time pondering over an elaborate vanitas still life from 1650 by the Dutch artist David Bailly (just above), in which every item symbolizes some passing worldly preoccupation of men, and we admired several eighteenth-century Daubigny - Fields in the Month of Juneportraits by George Romney and other Englishmen of his day. The Johnson museum has only a few minor pieces by the French impressionists, including a Monet that’s on loan and not part of the permanent collection; the jewel of its nineteenth-century gallery is a large though not especially lively landscape by the major French Barbizon 100_9069painter Charles-Francois Daubigny, titled “Fields in the Month of June” (just above) — surely one of the artist’s finest accomplishments. Twentieth-century European art was better represented with major pieces; we were delighted to find a six-foot-tall sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, who is a favorite of ours, entitled “Walking Man II.”

The American collection was somewhat meatier, with a satisfying gallery of paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Asher Durand, and others of the Hudson River School, and another gallery with mostly American impressionist pieces. But the Johnson Museum’s twentieth-century American art — mostly abstract, with fine pieces by Hans Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Philip Guston — is really worth going out of your way to see.

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Cayuga Lake from the sculpture garden

And so is the Museum’s unique contemporary sculpture garden, for which the architect reserved a pleasant, uncrowded, open-air balcony off an upper floor. It has a spectacular view of the Cornell University campus and Cayuga Lake.  The highest floor of the museum is devoted to Asian art (we don’t know enough about it to comment, but it’s an impressive collection); this floor is surrounded by large windows with views in all four directions.

When we visited, the Johnson Museum was hosting a fascinating traveling exhibition of the works of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and other artists of the Bloomsbury school that surrounded Virginia Woolf.  If this is the caliber of exhibitions that the Johnson Museum attracts, we’ll have to pay closer attention.

We stopped to see the overlook at Taughannock Falls, just a few miles north of Ithaca, and made a mental note to come back someday to hike the path down to the gorge.  In Trumansburg, we dropped more money than we should have at Green Horse Books, an excellent used bookstore 100_9119that we spotted as we were driving through.  We took some more pictures of decrepit old farm structures, and helped the wife of our bosom to pick out a pumpkin for the Halloween and Thanksgiving seasons.

Sunday will never be the same

Tompkins H Matteson's 1860 picture, Rip Van Winkle's Return

Tompkins H Matteson's 1860 picture, Rip Van Winkle's Return

(October 2009)  Now we know how Rip Van Winkle felt. Emsworth has just retired from a long stint as a church musician in a small, mainline congregation where things changed very little during his 16 years of service. Emerging this fall as if from a long sleep, he has found an evangelical church scene that he hardly recognizes.

Yes, we’ve been church-shopping. Freed from Sunday morning duties, and keeping out of the way of our successor at our old church, we’ve been visiting potential new church homes.

Our goal is simple: a congregation somewhere around Rochester where we can warm a back pew in well-deserved obscurity — a haven of rest where someday Emsworth might be able to hear “let us pray” without experiencing an involuntary reflex to get up and slide onto the organ bench.

Childe Hassam -- Church at Old Lyme (another)

The American impressionist Childe Hassam's painting, Church at Old Lyme. Classic churches on the town square are historical relics now.

Going to church without any responsibilities! That’s what we want. Being able to sing parts during the hymns!  The luxury of actually being able to pay attention to the Scripture reading, instead of using the time to check our tie and our fly and to sneak one last look at the beginning of the choir anthem to think about the tempo!

We know now what a fantasy that all was. A back pew?  Hah!  Most of the new churches don’t even have pews anymore. They don’t even have “sanctuaries,” just stadium-style auditoriums with gently reclining, consumer-friendly padded seats.

It's unlike that Emsworth will ever again sing "The church in the wildwood" in church

Emsworth may never sing "The church in the wildwood" in church again

Or hymnals either.  They don’t even sing hymns anymore, unless they slip a verse of one in as part of a medley with a contemporary Christian song that half the congregation doesn’t know. 

Scripture reading?  Hah!  Several of the churches we visited didn’t even have a part of the service devoted to reading Scripture (notwithstanding our Lord’s example (Luke 4:16-20)).

It would have been satisfying to see someone else fretting over his choir.  But where have the choirs gone?  We hardly heard any since we gave our choir a final cut-off last June — mostly worship bands and soloists with pre-recorded accompaniments.   The churches we visited were surely big enough to have choirs every Sunday — all at least five times larger than our former haunt.  But they don’t. 

St. Paul's Cathedral in London

St. Paul's Cathedral in London

At least we won’t have to worry about ties anymore.  The last two Sundays, at two different churches, no more than half a dozen men besides Emsworth sported coats and ties.  And the other men had lapped us by at least 15 years. We won’t miss wearing ties.

No reason not to name names. Here are some of the Rochester-area churches we’ve visited over the last several months, some more than once: Hope Lutheran Church, Browncroft Community Church, North Baptist Church, Open Door Baptist Church, First Bible Baptist Church, and Pearce Memorial Free Methodist Church. Each one soundly evangelical, each prospering nicely in its own way (with two or three different Sunday morning services), each focused on getting bigger, each with a full line of spiritual growth products in the form of women’s Bible studies, home fellowship groups, and so on, and each obsessed with being fully contemporary and consumer-friendly.

Most even have coffee shops.  Even though we’re not very strict sabbatarians ourselves, nothing has been more jarring about the “new churches” than seeing coffee and pastries sold inside the house of the Lord.  Emsworth’s parents, who took the fourth commandment very seriously indeed, would have been appalled.

Open Door Baptist

The architecture of the Open Door Baptist Church will not be confused with St. Paul's Cathedral.

We started counting the references to contemporary pop culture in the pastors’ sermons. One pastor alluded to two different movies and a vintage TV show during his sermon. Another message, in which Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and the chain of Ikea stores were all mentioned, actually began with the music leader’s pounding out the opening riffs of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the piano. 

Some of these churches try to tap different components of the market by having both “contemporary” and “traditional” services on Sunday morning.  (We were especially amused by Hope Lutheran’s Coca-Cola-like name for its traditional service: “Classic Hope.”)  The main difference, as we take it, is that contemporary services use worship bands to lead congregational singing. That’s assuming, of course, that leading people in singing is really their goal. Truth is that one can almost never actually hear any congregational singing over the bands. 

Mostly, the people don’t even try to sing.  They don’t know the songs, whose syncopated rhythms are a lot more complicated than, say, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And the people don’t have any music to look at to see how the melody goes — just lyrics up on projection screens.

Despite these disappointments, there weren’t any of these churches we couldn’t settle down in. We heard thoughtful, well-delivered messages from pastors (in several cases assistant pastors) at each church on the core subject of becoming better Christians. (Tom Hauser, at Open Door Baptist, gets our vote as the most gifted natural speaker we’ve heard in a while.) All these churches are sadly committed to “contemporary Christian music” (the style is 1980s soft rock, with bland, theologically fuzzy lyrics — think Bryan Adams and Toto); nevertheless, the quality of the musicianship was high wherever we went. (The worship band at North Baptist, which we have heard both in mostly-acoustic and more-electrified configurations of instruments, gets our nod as having both the best overall sound and the tightest arrangements.)

Still, we can’t help regretting intensely what’s been lost in the new evangelical and updated churches, especially with church music. The hymnody of the last 250 years, some of it very good, has all been tossed in the trash.  The gospel songs of the first part of the twentieth century that we grew up with — some of them weren’t that good, perhaps, but at any rate they aren’t even on the radar anymore. So many Christians Sunday will never be the samewill never sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “In Shady Green Pastures”! Small congregations are already becoming “collateral damage” of the new-style churches. Congregations that fail to achieve a certain critical mass won’t have the resources to field respectably contemporary worship bands, or to build worship spaces big enough to contain the sound.

As Spanky MacFarland used to sing, back in the day:

Sunday will never be the same
I’ve lost my Sunday song — it’ll not be back again

Richard Brookhiser on Bill Buckley and National Review (Right Time, Right Place)

Right Time Right PlaceIf Richard Brookhiser had to sort out some feelings when he wrote Right Time, Right Place (a Father’s Day gift from Emsworth’s youngest daughter), well, so did we when we read it. Brookhiser’s subject is William F. Buckley, Jr., who discovered Brookhiser as a teenager, talked him out of Yale Law School, gave him a job at National Review, mentored him, and, when Brookhiser was only 23, promised that he’d be the next editor-in-chief and owner of National Review upon Buckley’s eventual retirement.

Brookhiser

Richard Brookhiser, a Rochester, New York native. One would think that the local press would have taken notice of this locally-born author of several popular books on the Founding Fathers, but if so, we've missed it.

Brookhiser had to adjust his image of his hero when, eight years later and out of the blue, Buckley told Brookhiser (in a note left on Brookhiser’s desk) that he’d changed his mind and had concluded that his protege lacked executive ability and was “unsuited” to edit the magazine. Brookhiser overcame his bitterness at what he still considers Buckley’s “cowardice” and continued to work part-time for National Review; Buckley died in 2008. On the side, Brookhiser has written several popular books about American history.

Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. with Ronald Reagan

We never knew any of this, even though Emsworth has read National Review faithfully for over 35 years and has admired Brookhiser’s work. We remembered when (without explanation) Brookhiser became a “senior editor” instead of “managing editor” about 20 years ago. After that, all we knew was that we didn’t see Brookhiser in NR nearly as often.

Later, we bought and appreciated his excellent biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Knowing no better, we assumed that Brookhiser had independent means and had decided to pursue free-lance writing as his primary career.

In this new book, Right Time, Right Place, Brookhiser tells the story of his years with National Review and yields up his memories of his imperfect hero. Brookhiser has a rare ability to reflect with objectivity on his own life, and his controlled prose has never been better. We were fascinated. The magazine has been part of our life for a long time, and Bill Buckley was one of our heroes too.  Finally, here was something more than the air-brushed stories of life at NR that we’d always had to settle for.

The book also brings into view other long-familiar National Review figures like William Rusher, Joe Sobran, and Jeffrey Hart. Brookhiser was more enthusiastic about some of his NR colleagues than others. (Sadly, Brookhiser’s wariness of Sobran has kept him from appreciating the arguments in favor of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the Shakespeare plays. Sobran has been a prominent champion of Oxford.)

But it was the glimpses of the human side of Buckley (as opposed to the public figure with the carefully cultivated public image) that kept us glued to the book. We expect more of the same when we get a copy of Christopher Buckley’s book about his father.

And what feelings do we have to sort out as we read Right Time, Right Place? Frankly, jealousy of Brookhiser, his superior talents, and the doors that opened for him. He’s about our own age, he’s a fellow pianist, and his interests in literature very nearly mirror ours. We’ve known for years that his political views are closer to ours than anyone else at National Review. And he’s from Rochester! — born and raised in Irondequoit (sadly, with no more independent means than we have).

We don’t complain about our own career. But how we would have enjoyed working at National Review, making words matter, wrestling with ideas and policies, mixing with people of congenial views, trying to make the conservative case. Brookhiser, to his credit, seems genuinely grateful for the opportunities he’s had.

August Wilson’s Fences at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre

Wiley Moore and Tony Todd in Fences

Tony Todd (right) and Wiley Moore (left) as Troy Maxson and his best friend Bono.

It’s too late now to do anyone any good, because the show closed a week ago, but GeVa Theatre just put on a fabulous production of August Wilson’s Fences here in Rochester.  Unfortunately we couldn’t make it down to GeVa till the run was almost over. We would have loved to have seen it again.

August Wilson

The late playwright

This is surely one of the very best American plays. We say that not merely because the play (a) is set in Pittsburgh, near our boyhood home in western Pennsylvania and (b) involves baseball. No, Fences is a masterpiece because of Wilson’s gorgeous cascade of language and his sympathy for the frailties of mankind.  What happens to the soul of a good man who is blocked from fulfulling his dreams? What if he finds himself resenting the promise and potential of his own son? How can a man who loves and honors his wife nevertheless end up in bed with another woman?

Jackie Robinson

Troy Maxson claimed that Dodgers star Jackie Robinson wouldn't have been good enough to play with him in the Negro Leagues

Fences is the tragedy of Troy Maxson (Tony Todd), a former star of the Negro Leagues whose career ended before baseball was integrated. Now he works on a garbage truck, bitter about missing out on the fame and money enjoyed by younger men like Jackie Robinson — who, he says, wouldn’t have been good enough to make the teams he and Josh Gibson played on.

Clemente 1959 topps

Clemente's 1959 baseball card

What Troy refuses to see is that times are changing. He tells his best friend Bono (Wiley Moore, who nails the role) that baseball will always keep the black man down. Why else, he asks, would the Pirates be keeping Roberto Clemente on the bench? In fact, by 1957, ten years after Robinson joined the Dodgers,  Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were among the biggest stars in baseball, and Clemente had been the Pirates’ full-time right fielder since 1955.

And Troy himself has won a victory in the struggle for racial equality. When he files a formal employee grievance against the policy that only white men could drive the garbage trucks (black men had to work on the ground), he and his wife Rose (Nora Cole) worry that he’ll simply be fired. Instead, his grievance is upheld and Troy is promoted to the cab of his garbage truck.

Rose is proud of their son, Cory (Jared McNeill), who has become a high-school football star and has been offered a college scholarship.  But Troy is afraid that sports will be a dead end for Cory as it was for him.  Or so he says — is Troy really jealous that his son might achieve the success in sports that eluded him?  He refuses to sign scholarship papers for his son and insists that Cory keep working at the neighborhood grocery instead of pursuing football.

Tony Todd has an unforgettable, modulated, gravelly voice, and he was a superbly physical Troy Maxson.  He had his audience in the palm of his hand from the opening scene in which Troy drinks whiskey with his buddy Bono (Wiley Moore) and brags about his wife and their vigor as lovers. Like Troy Maxson, Todd is a master storyteller; in one of the most unforgettable scenes in this show, Troy reminisces about his abuse at the hands of his own father. Tony Todd is known for his movie roles (Candyman, The Rock), but he is a first-rate actor, and here in Rochester he left nothing of August Wilson’s script on the page.

Nora ColeIn fact, the entire cast of this show was up to Todd’s standard, especially Nora Cole as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose. This production richly deserves to be seen elsewhere — we thought it every bit as fine as the recent production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway, which we also saw and loved (see this post) — but as nearly as we can tell, it closed for good here in Rochester.

Mark Cuddy

Cuddy

It was August Wilson’s general policy that his plays be directed by black directors.  We understand that GeVa Artistic Director Mark Cuddy obtained special permission from Wilson’s widow to direct Fences (which necessarily has an all-black cast) himself.

This exception for Cuddy didn’t get any particular public attention, so far as we know.  But the selection of another white man, Bartlett Sher, to direct the afore-mentioned production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway did stir up a fuss. The choice of Sher aroused the ire of some African-Americans — in fact, we ran across one blogger (here he is) who complained hysterically that this was yet another “openly blatant example” of “insidious and pervasive American racism.”

It didn’t seem very “blatant” to us, and personally, we didn’t think GeVa’s production of Fences was tainted by having a white director. Perhaps Mr. Cuddy can’t claim to fully appreciate African-American culture. But people are still people. Who would argue that Mr. Cuddy shouldn’t direct Chekhov because he didn’t grow up Russian?  Anyway, the themes of Fences are universal, not tied to the experience of being black in America. We don’t see why Mr. Cuddy or Mr. Sher should have been disqualified from directing two of the very finest American plays simply because of their race, and we’re glad Mr. Wilson’s estate agreed.

We also think this show succeeded so well mainly because of its superb performers, not because of Mr. Cuddy, whose direction was unobtrusive. Our guess is that Mr. Cuddy had the good sense not to interfere with veteran actors who plainly understood Wilson’s play and what to do with it.

UPDATE: APRIL 2010.  Emsworth greatly enjoyed GeVa’s production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.  See this link.

American art in New Britain, Connecticut

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The old museum building is on the right, the new one on the left.

(April 11, 2009) Till a couple weeks ago, we hadn’t been back to the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, Connecticut) since before its new building was built three years ago. We were a little nervous; part of the charm of visiting this museum had been muddling about in the old Victorian mansion (on a quiet city street) that housed its collection. The truth was, though, that the place was cramped and inadequate.

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The fine old houses on the other side of the street from the museum. We were able to park our car on the street right in front of the museum steps.

We now give our belated review of the new facility: it’s excellent. They’ve put up a 43,000 square-foot building with two floors of nicely designed exhibition space (including a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging over the staircase). The pleasant neighborhood is the same. The old building, next door, is connected by a walkway; it’s just not used for exhibiting art anymore.

Of all the museums that exhibit only American art, the one in New Britain is still our favorite. Its collection certainly isn’t the largest or finest (that would be the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.), and much can be said for other museums of its ilk (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City; the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio; and the Terra Foundation for American Art (not currently located anywhere at all). Still, this collection, benton-boomtown-magespecially in its new digs, touches us at all the right points, and it includes a number of our very favorite American paintings.

For anyone who might go out of his way to see the works of Thomas Hart Benton, the New Britain Museum of American Art must be visited. Here in Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery has one of Benton’s very best, Boom Town, from 1928 (above) — but if Boom Town is the only Benton painting you know, you absolutely must see the Bentons in New Britain, benton-arts-of-the-west-new-britainespecially Benton’s large, lively, mildly racy mural, The Arts of Life in America. The various parts of the mural occupy all four walls of a gallery on the museum’s second floor. (This is the ten-foot section of the mural entitled “Arts of the West.”)

100_7872-croppedAnother reason we’re high on the New Britain Museum of American Art is its superb gallery of American impressionists. There are first-rate pieces by Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam, Richard E. Miller, J. Alden Weir, and Willard Metcalf, among others. (We put images of a couple of these in this earlier post.) We said earlier that Colin Campbell Cooper’s Main Street Bridge, Rochester (also at the Memorial Art Gallery) is the best Cooper we’d ever seen. But the New Britain museum also has a wonderful Cooper, entitled On the Rhine, also a painting of a bridge. We were fascinated to see how differently Cooper approached painting the European bridge in the New Britain painting.

koch-interlude-magOne of the most “hmm”-provoking paintings at the Memorial Art Gallery is John Koch’s 1963 painting Interlude. The painter (presumably Koch himself) takes a break and sits back to think about his canvas; an older woman in an orange morning robe (presumably the artist’s wife) placidly serves coffee to a nude model. In the New Britain museum, we were delighted to see a John Koch painting that depicts his wife in earlier years. From the museum’s exhibition label for Koch’s The Florist, we learned that in 1943 Koch was newly married and had just 100_7933been drafted into the armed forces when he painted this picture. “He thought he might never return to his bride and his career as a painter. Consequently, he worked feverishly to complete The Florist, which he hoped would establish his fame and also serve as a looming tribute to his wife, whom he portrayed surrounded by beautiful flowers.” Fortunately, The Florist was neither Koch’s last picture nor his last portrayal of his wife.

We devoted an entire post several months ago to George Grosz’s 1943 painting, The Wanderer, another of the Memorial Art Gallery’s prizes, which portrays a weary man 100_7913fleeing a burned-out city. So far as we know, the New Britain museum does not have any works by Grosz, but a 1946 painting by Carl Frederick Gaertner (a new artist for us) reminded us immediately of The Wanderer. The scene of devastation in Gaertner’s The Search Begins looks a lot like the product of aerial fire-bombing, and in this picture Gaertner used a palette similar to Grosz’s in The Wanderer. But The Search Begins is not a war scene at all, except possibly figuratively; it shows an area of northeastern Cleveland where in 1944 an explosion of gas tanks devastated a large neighborhood, with a large death toll.

This is the same tragedy described in a novel we liked when we were young. Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread tells the story of a nine-year-old Cleveland boy who was caught up in the chaos of that very explosion and fire. We re-read the book (still in print) with great pleasure just a couple of years ago.

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The MAG’s “Chinese Restaurant”, by John Sloan

The Memorial Art Gallery’s pieces by the Ashcan painters and the later American impressionists, including Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and especially John Sloan (the MAG’s two Sloan paintings are among his very best) are good, but so are the ones at the New Britain museum, which are all part of a very satisfying exhibition of “The Eight” at the New Britain museum for the next several weeks. The show includes works from the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Terra Foundation for American Art. We wish we had a chance to go back and spend more time with “The Eight.”

One thing we do think the New Britain museum could use is a better copy writer. Go back four paragraphs to the museum’s discussion of its John Koch painting; did you gulp at the phrase “a looming tribute”? In what way, exactly, might a tribute “loom”? Then consider this sentence from the gateway page of its website:

The NBMAA is thought to be one of the nation’s most dynamic art museums by exhibiting the permanent collection and special exhibitions on widely diverse subjects in ways that combine the highest aesthetic standards with engaging and intellectually accessible presentations.

What a dreadful, ungrammatical, jargon-full sentence! Ouch.

Sweeney Todd at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre

We never saw Sweeney Todd on Broadway, nor did we get around to seeing the movie version of this musical. So our first taste of the demon barber of Fleet Street was the remarkably sharp new production currently at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre.

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Stephen Tewksbury as Sweeney Todd, and Kristie Dale Sanders as the maker of the worst pies in London

Granted, there’s no such thing as a “normal” premise for a musical play. By any standard, though the premise of Sweeney Todd is outrageous. The play’s hero, the barber Sweeney Todd (Stephen Tewksbury), has returned to late-eighteenth-century London obsessed with getting revenge on a corrupt judge who, years before, abducted and ravished Sweeney’s lovely young wife. Judge Turpin (James Van Treuren) had covered up his crimes by having Todd himself transported to Australia on a trumped-up charge.

Todd sets up his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop, hoping to lure the judge into his barber’s chair so he can ply a fatal razor on the judge’s throat. In the meantime, though, he strikes up a stomach-turning relationship with the brassy, vulgar Mrs. Lovett herself (Kristie Dale Sanders); Todd slits the throats of random customers and slides their bodies down a trapdoor into her kitchen.  Mrs. Lovett incorporates the meaty parts of their corpses into meat pies and feeds to unsuspecting customers.

Here’s what you should know if you’re thinking of seeing this show:

1. The grisly business isn’t as stomach-turning as you might expect. Granted, throats are slit and customers sit at cafe tables clamoring for pastries made of human flesh. But the blood-shedding is minimal and stylized (especially compared to the oceans of blood that reportedly flowed in the movie version of Sweeney Todd). And of course the audience can’t actually smell or taste Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies.

Maybe we’re jaded and shock-proof after all the graphic violence we’ve seen on film for the last 35 years, but in any case Sweeney Todd doesn’t really press the envelope. We may be titillated, but we’re not revolted.

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Stephen Tewksbury

2. It’s not as terrifying as you might expect. Sweeney Todd isn’t a thriller, and it doesn’t have nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat qualities. And the villains in the play (in fact, all the characters are scoundrels)are not played as larger-than-life sociopaths; they don’t terrify us. Director Mark Cuddy didn’t go for shock value.

3. You’ll end up enjoying the music. Of course, the music of Stephen Sondheim is a far cry from the feel-good, sing-along anthems of Oklahoma or the sentimental song in Fiddler on the Roof. Sondheim doesn’t shy aware from dissonance or from startling melodic leaps.  No hit songs came from Sweeney Todd.

But we liked the music — welcome relief from the bland, cliched numbers in popular musicals of recent years (think Wicked and Rent). Sondheim’s lyrics are perfectly fitted to the melodies, and the musical accompaniments are exquisite. We have only one real complaint. Why did Sondheim write duets in which the singers are singing different lyrics at the same time? The audience can’t understand either lyric.

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Roland Rusinek played Beadle Bamford

4. It’s an good cast. Stephen Tewksbury, as Sweeney Todd, and Kristie Dale Sanders as Mrs. Lovett have fine singing voices and as a couple they are remarkably well-matched. (Their relationship is worth paying attention to; the middle-aged Mrs. Lovett has lascivious, even matrimonial, designs on Todd, but he has nothing on his mind but revenge.) We liked the singing of Daniel Bogart, who plays Todd’s friend Anthony Hope, and we especially enjoyed Roland Rusinek as the judge’s brutal strongman, Beadle Bamford.

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Marissa McGowan: her lyrics were sadly unintelligible

We were disappointed only in Marissa McGowan as Todd’s daughter Johanna, whose diction was so poor that we simply couldn’t make out any of the lyrics of “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird.” We were sorry, incidentally, not to see any local actors in the cast.

We attended the last performance of Sweeney Todd before its official “opening,” and it wasn’t a good night for the sound crew. As the show opened with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the very first singer’s microphone wasn’t on (we heard him just fine anyway).  The amplified voice of the second singer came as something of a jar.

Having decided to mike the lead actors, the sound designer evidently felt he needed to mike everyone in the chorus as well — another eight or ten voices. This went badly. The vocal mix was much too loud and resulted in distortion, so we didn’t understand a lot of the lyrics sung by the ensemble. Unfortunately, the orchestra (especially the electronic keyboard) was also over-amplified at various points during the show.

But why amplify the voices at all? GeVa Theatre (550 seats) just isn’t that large. None of these talented performers would have had difficulty projecting their solo singing voices throughout the hall, and amplifying the ensemble was not only unnecessary, but deleterious to the sonic effect. We were against it.