Thursday, May 3, 2018

Who or what is the devil? -- "The Christians", at Road Less Traveled Productions

A friend and I went to The Christians, a play by Lucas Hnath, performed at Road Less Traveled Productions, downtown Buffalo NY. Directed by Scott Behrend. 

You can read Ben Siegel's good review of the production in the Buffalo News. He said some things better than I can.

I was so glad that Lucas Hnath, the playwright, takes the Christian characters of his play seriously. The small group of characters depend on their church to guide them through their lives and to inspire them.  They are not the ignorant cartoon Christians so easily mocked in comedy skits and Twitter rants. Their anguish at having their old beliefs and practical concerns pushed aside is real, and makes them sympathetic characters with echoes to my own life and experiences.

The central story of the play is about a successful mega-church evangelical pastor (played with admirable modulation by Dave Hayes) who one day tells his congregation that he can no longer accept his church's doctrine that only a Christian who has made Christ his savior can be saved from eternal Hell. The pastor voices a legitimate dilemma. He cites an example, an event he saw on a video. A brave young non-Christian boy in an Asian country sacrificed his life to save his sister from a fire -- and despite his sacrifice, he will be consigned to Hell for eternity because he never announced Christ as his savior. How can Christians accept this? The pastor announces a revised version of Heaven and Hell: all are instead eventually welcomed to Heaven after death, regardless of faith, or what they've done on earth. There is no judgement waiting us.

This announcement causes the young associate pastor (movingly played by Aaron Moss) to leave and form his own church, troubles the church elders, and nearly causes the pastor's wife to leave him. All rebuke him for having shaken the church and the lives of the congregation without consulting them first. A parishioner pointedly asks him if he would have made his radical announcement if the church had not recently paid off its mortgage. Why didn't he say these things before? Was he deceitful? Was he actually filled with doubts but afraid to say anything lest the church lose its financial footing? The pastor's replies are all variations of, "God had not made ready to talk until now".

You can hear all sorts of echoes to other church life issues in the play -- the role of money, financial tensions, the tensions between ancient accepted beliefs with modernity. All of it will feel familiar to anyone who attends some faith, or who has struggled with faith. 

One thought I had about the play's central premise is that many Christians are quite comfortable with the idea of non-Christians finding their own sense of salvation. I think the emphasis on emphatically accepting Christ as one's savior in order to assure salvation is an evangelical Christian doctrine. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe we and other branches of Christendom accept that salvation is not assured, and that God's actual judgement is unknowable. Therefore, it's hard to get too worked up about whether you are Christian or not -- you are not simply assured of salvation one way or another based on your avowed faith. It's your life's actions that matter.

This is a terrific production by Road Less Traveled Theater. I liked all five actors. I thought it was a great decision to make for the associate pastor to be played by a young black actor. Aaron Moss effectively shows us a man who fought and sacrificed his way up through his faith to get where he is, and he's not about to lose it all. The RLT stage was sparse, but gave a good feeling of the characters speaking to a larger auditorium. The sound design and lighting were effective, with each character using a microphone, as if on a Sunday service.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Loved the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Elina Vähälä's playing

That was a great concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic, Sunday afternoon, February 11. Wang Jie's Symphony No. 1 was a good way to open the program, brief and adventurous. 

Loved the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Elina Vähälä's solo performance. She played with controlled emotion, not showy but powerful. The cadenzas were beautiful. No signed CDs during the intermission? I'd have bought one. 

I was not looking forward to Sheherazade, having heard it a million times on the radio, but I was completely won over. Dennis Kim, the first violinist, was terrific as usual. Hearing it live, and seeing JoAnn Falletta conduct it, was exciting and moving.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Nether, a contemporary classic, at Road Less Traveled Productions

The Nether, a play by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Katie Mallinson. A very good cast. Road Less Traveled Productions, downtown Buffalo.

This is a complex, good play, impressively directed, well-performed, with an excellent set and staging. It's a difficult play that feels like a contemporary classic.

I'm glad to have read Ben Siegel's review of this production in the Buffalo News. This is a demanding play, and it helps to read a good critic's words to settle your own thinking.

The time of this play is described as near-future, something in the next few years. "The Nether" of this play is a virtual reality world, accessible by logging in, just as you log in to your Gmail account today. Once logged in, you can act out your fantasies, benign or criminal. The story of the play is that a detective Morris -- icily well played by Eve Everette -- is investigating the online child sex operation run by Sims (Steve Jakiel). Men such as Doyle (Dave Marciniak) can enter the virtual reality world and act out their fantasies, sexual and murderous. Detective Morris wants to shut down the operation.

We see scenes inside the nether, cleverly constructed in Victorian British settings -- no doubt alluding to Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll's penchant for young girls. We see the emotional connections and tensions among the logged-in characters. I wondered what the characters actually got out of their virtual reality activities (essentially a kind of dream state). But the playwright Haley shows us that the men are dramatically changed by their experiences in the online world. Doyle is desperate to stay in that world, he depends on it. It's like an addiction for him, and he reveres Sims, the man who makes his virtual life possible. 

At first I didn't grasp why the state, in the form of detective Morris, is interested in what happens in the Nether. If these are avatars acting out their whims according to the prescribed algorithms, why would the state care? But then I began to see that what happens there really does affect what happens in the real world ("offline"). The online world seems just as real to the men, and to us, as their flesh and bones world. And thus the state has an interest in both worlds. A man who would act out his desires for a young girl online must be a danger in the real world as well (though Doyle argues the opposite).

There are plenty of thought-provoking turns in the story. It's almost too much. It's the best contemporary play I've seen in a long time. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The movie Darkest Hour -- great speeches can change everything

I saw the movie Darkest Hour at the comfortable North Park Theater, in the University Plaza. The movie, directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten, focuses on the short period of time in May 1940 when the Germans were threatening to destroy the 300,000 man British army near Calais, and Churchill (played by Gary Oldman, in a good performance) becomes the new Prime Minister of Britain. He refuses to negotiate with Hitler to sue for peace and save the army, though he is under increasing pressure from Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, and even the French. In the end, moved by a scene in the London subway in which Churchill seems to ask the counsel of ordinary Londoners, Churchill decides to stand firm and refuses to negotiate, giving his famous "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech.

Much of the movie is about the political drama played out among Churchill, Halifax and Chamberlain, and the King. It's entertaining drama. The film starts slowly and builds in drama as we see Churchill beset with impossible problems on all sides. I'm not sure whether he and Britain just muddle through and save all those men at Dunkirk, or if it's Churchill's skill and stirring competence that does the job. The movie implies it's the latter, aided by Churchill's rhetorical skill. It's hard to beat quotes from heroic British poetry:

“Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the Gate: "To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his gods,” ― Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome.

The subway scene is odd. We see a group of ordinary Londoners that seem as if they're from central casting. The camera looks them squarely in their faces, emphasizing their humble, straightforward natures. A black man (the lone black character in the film). A white workingman. Working women. Churchill's questions seem obviously slanted to elicit the courageous response -- we'll never surrender. It might have happened that way, but the scene has the air of a wartime propaganda film.  

Some friends in Facebook said that this Churchill depiction was a kind of rebuke to Donald Trump -- this Churchill was a real leader. But I think both the pro- and anti- Trump camps will find things they like in the film.

I did find myself wondering what the filmmaker's intention was in making the film. I'm not sure we learned something that we didn't already know about Churchill, or that dark time.  

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Marukami exhibit at the Albright Knox Art Museum -- is there a secret code for getting it?

Visited the Albright right after Christmas, mostly to see the Takashi Murakami exhibit, The Deep End of the Universe. There must be an audience for his work, but I just can't place myself in it. I see the huge panels, the fantastic creatures, the colors...but it all doesn't communicate much to me. I feel as if I need to know something, some context, as if the creatures and crazy colors require some code to understand and appreciate. But I don't know it. It's up until the end of January, so I will visit again and see it again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Vocalis Chamber Choir's "A Vocalis Christmas" concert -- this group is different

I am so impressed by this a capella group. I attended Vocalis's Christmas concert, Friday, December 1, at Saints Peter and Paul church in Williamsville. They sang a number of familiar Christmas songs and carols (Away in a Manger, I Saw Three Ships) along with pieces new to me. Everything about it was exceptional, the sound, the vocal dynamics, the pacing, the music selections. Marilyn and I had attended Blue Heron, Boston Baroque, Handel and Hayden, and other music and choral groups in Boston, and I think Vocalis is in the same league with them. They're a smaller group, fifteen singers I think. The director, James Burritt, pays enormous attention to all details.

Of the many beautiful pieces, I remember one song in particular, Winter Sun, by Don MacDonald, based on a poem by Malca Litovitz:

To light,
   to water,
and the flow of birds
through ancient stars.
To the wild sun of winter
   startling the dark green
trees: giants
of majestic silence.
To snow on roofs
and the peace of Sunday.
To quiet and certitude,
   to breathing, to air.
To acceptance, to dreams.
To disclosures of the sleeping heart,
   for air, for light.

This is good poetry. It's an interesting, bold choice for a Christmas concert. Many directors and choruses perform with an emphasis on the sound and the effect of the sound. The text is often secondary (and you often can't understand the words in the audience). But Barritt and Vocalis is different, and this song demonstrated that. The words were clear and emphatic, even to where I was sitting, halfway back in the pews. This was very good poetry, and it sounded great. It all matters to this group.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A good read, but somewhat mechanical: The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016).

This well-written novel set in the 1850s is about an English nurse (Lib Wright) who is sent to a remote Irish village to observe an eleven year old fasting girl (Anna O'Donnell) who purports to have not eaten anything in four months. The village committee that hires her and a fellow nurse (a Roman Catholic nun), wants to certify that the girl is in fact not secretly receiving any nutrition and that her story is not a hoax. Lib, who believes religion is silly superstition, is certain the story is a hoax, and that she will soon get to the bottom of it within a few days, finds herself instead loving the starving little girl for her innocence.

Once I got a third of the way in, the book was very hard to put down. I wanted to know just how the girl was actually getting any food. She grows steadily weaker, and she is heading toward death. Lib's attempts to save the girl from herself and the delusional obsessions of her parents are gripping. She is joined in this fight by William Byrne, the newspaperman from Dublin. The two of them devise a somewhat hard to believe plot to save the girl.

I wondered how a nineteenth century nurse, such as Lib, could be so anti-religious. She clearly thinks religion is in general a sort of hoax. Even Darwin left room for religious belief as being rational. It would be easy to think this is an anti-Catholic book, but he book itself doesn't really take a stand on religious thought -- the nun Sister Michael turns out to play a crucial role in the fight to save the girl's life, and Byrne himself seems to be a faithful Catholic.

It was a little hard to believe that Lib would talk to Byrne the journalist in the first place. She seems too knowing herself to not realize that Byrne is in the business of making money on his stories, and that he will write about the little girl. Their eventual romance seems a bit odd, kind of mechanical, without much heat.

Yet, the book was hard to put down.

In case you're interested, Stephen King wrote a review in the NYT Book Review.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Buffalo Chamber Players Pergolisi concert at the Albright Knox

That was a great show. Lydia Evans and Lynne McMurtry were excellent in the first half. And we can't say enough about soprano Colleen Marcello, baritone James Wright, and actor David Bondrow in La Serva Padrona -- they performed as if they were major stars. In fact, the whole thing seemed so natural and solid, it felt as if the cast had already sung this many times before. And of course, the little Chamber orchestra was terrific.

Great food and wine, too. 

The acoustics in the Albright's old indoor courtyard are difficult. The acoustics were not a problem for the second half opera, probably because we were listening to solo voices, and they were at a distance from the musicians. It was more difficult hearing the two women in the first half in the Stabat Mater, with the orchestra directly behind them. (It would have been helpful having the Latin text in the program, along with the English translation.)

But a great show.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Happiest at afternoon tea: Robert Massie's book, Nicholas and Alexandra

Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie (Random House, New York 1967).

This biography of czar Nicholas II and his wife the empress Alexandra tells the story of their lives in the decades leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the royal family's brutal murder in a basement in Ekaterinburgh in 1918. Massie pays close attention to the characters of the royal couple, and of their hemophiliac son Alexei (the heir to the throne). The family's intimate life is documented and detailed with excerpts from the czar's and the empress's diaries, as well as observations of the family by friends, relatives, loyal retainers like the French tutor Gilliard, and important political figures such as Kerensky. Massie is an excellent writer with a great sense of drama. Once you start the book, it's hard to put down. 

In this book, Nicholas is a gentle, earnest, pious man who never was comfortable with the demands of being czar. He wavered on significant issues, acceded too often to strong personalities (including Alexandra herself), and could not comprehend the vast social changes in Russia nor the growing crisis of the autocratic system itself. He seemed a likable man who was happiest with his wife and children around him at afternoon tea -- not something to hate him for, but not the best characteristics for the czar of Russia.

We see Russian history and the buildup to the Bolshevik Revolution through the lives of the royal family. Massie makes the history understandable and dramatic. I felt an increasing sense of dread, knowing the fate of the family. I sympathized with them and their world. How could you not sympathize with a family nursing and shielding the angel-faced young czarevich Alexei, who suffered the terrible effects of hemophilia?

Massie shows that it was Nicholas and Alexandra's isolation that both supported them and helped lead them to their doom. They relied on each other for mutual support in family and political matters. Their obsessive struggle with Alexei's hemophilia led them to rely on the crazy monk Rasputin. Rasputin did seem to have some weird beneficial effect on Alexei, and the empress thought of him as a kind of saint. She believed Alexei was doomed without him. She consistently relayed his deranged political advice to Nicholas and pressed him to follow Rasputin's direction (advocating the sacking of effective ministers, generals, and administrators, advice meant mostly to bolster Rasputin's position). Nicholas acceded with catastrophic consequences. They were unaware and ignorant of the growing hostility to themselves right up to the collapse of the czar's government in World War I.

I think it's a minor weakness of the book that the level of hostility directed at the royal family by the Bolsheviks is not really explained. Once they were arrested, following the czar's abdication, the family was treated crudely by their communist guards. They were repeatedly humiliated. Their escape routes were closed off by mobs of citizens and soldiers. Who were these Russians? What led to this? A short two years before, thousands were kneeling piously before Nicholas as he paraded in Petrograd. The discontent and hatred of the royal family comes as something of a surprise, at least to me.

One of the strong personalities who attempted to sway and control Nicholas was Kaiser Wilhelm (the czar's cousin), who successfully set up a private channel with Nicholas. Through their private correspondence, the Kaiser tried to weaken the anti-German alliance between Russia and France, and to maintain autocracy in Russia and Germany. In the time while I was reading Nicholas and Alexandra, I read a report that Donald Trump had attempted to set up a private channel in the White House with Russia's Vladimir Putin, and this channel would have supposedly been off limits to American intelligence agencies. If this report was true (which would be astounding), it's interesting to consider the parallel to that earlier private correspondence. We know that Putin's strategy has been to weaken NATO and the Western alliance, just as the Kaiser's had been to weaken the Russia-France alliance.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How relevant is a classical work like "Belshazzar's Feast"?

On Sunday, the Buffalo Philharmonic and its chorus (JoAnn Faletta conducting) performed Belshazzar's Feast, by William Walton. Based on the Old Testament story about Belshazzar, the son of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, this was composed in the 1930s. The story is of a king whose hubris and vainglory is such that he ignores biblical injunctions. After a wild feast and night of revelry, he is killed in his sleep (I'm not sure by what).

The chorus sounded strong (although they were sometimes overwhelmed by the huge orchestra), and Kevin Deas, the baritone soloist, projected the verses with a tremendous voice. It's a short piece, only 35 minutes, and the audience gave a good round of applause. Yet, the work didn't feel that compelling to me as a composition. The old bible language had an old-fashioned, voice-of-God tone that doesn't speak to me. It sounds morally right that heedless cruelty and wild revelry should exact a just punishment. Yet, as modern people we are accustomed to frequently seeing violent images and cruelty on television and in our media. Terrorist attacks, war, crime, greed, avarice, viciousness of all types -- it's in our faces all the time. But rarely do we see justice done in a succinct, satisfying way. Therefore, simply being told (or sung to) that Belshazzar met his just end one night just doesn't move me.

On the other hand, the piece that opened the concert, An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise, by Maxwell Davies, was beautiful and emotional. After the dancing and drunken goings on of the guests celebrating the wedding, the sudden appearance of the bagpiper marching down the aisle of Kleinhans and playing the pipes -- the sunrise -- was wonderful and moving.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A forgotten hero of Crete during the German occupation: The Cretan Runner, by George Psychoundakis

The Cretan Runner: His Story of the German Occupation, by George Psychoundakis. (New York Review Books, 1998, first published in Great Britain by John Murray in 1955. Translated from the Greek by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

George Psychoundakis was a young shepherd on Crete in 1941 when the German army invaded. He joined other Cretans in the 10-day resistance. After the occupation of the island and evacuation by the British and Greek armies, he volunteered as a runner for the British underground service -- simply referred to as "the Service". The Cretan Runner is his memoir of the years of occupation, translated and annotated by his good friend, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a British officer who coordinated intelligence and resistance efforts on Crete, and George often took orders from him. George's modesty and humility help him come across as a very sympathetic and trustworthy figure.

He records the many missions, battles, encounters with the Germans that he took part in. As a runner, he carried messages and supplies over great distances and rough terrain, at great peril to himself. He was often on the brink of exhaustion and starvation, and was shot at numerous times. An uneducated man, George nevertheless writes with a good literary sense for observation, and a sense of drama. He describes his fellow Cretans and British soldiers as mostly brave and patriotic. However, he also names and identifies collaborators, and others who stole from fellow Cretans (sheep stealing was apparently common). George several times refers to the summary executions of collaborators by fellow Cretans. He offers no justifications for the executions, nor does he voice his disapproval.

I enjoyed the sense that I was reading a very "Greek" book, plainly written, with Greek intonations and behaviors. His fellow resistance fighters were "boys". Finding some good wine and hospitality is always a good thing. Spending a day resting with friends and eating well after so much hunger, is a very good thing. The egoism among the Cretans is there, their belief that each man is a heroic captain.

The memoir is somewhat repetitive, as this is a log of people and events, many of which have the same outlines. It will mostly be enjoyed by readers who want a closely observed account of what happened in those distant mountain villages.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Donald Marguiles should re-write Act 2 of "The Country House"

We saw "The Country House," a play by Donald Marguiles, at Road Less Traveled Productions, downtown Buffalo, on Thursday night, May 18, 2017.

This play depicts an acting family getting together for a summer holiday in the Berkshires in the family's country house. It is one year since the death of the daughter of the family matriarch has died of cancer. The deceased daughter's husband shows up with a Porsche and a young girlfriend. A famous handsome actor spends a few days in the house, attracting the active attention of every woman on the stage. The matriarch's son, a failed actor who wants to write a play, is angry at everybody. And so, a number of strained family interactions are set off.

The first half of the play has a decent share of humor. There are some nice quips. The set has a comfortable feel (although it doesn't hint at any underlying tensions in its design or setup). This is a very good cast, and they made the first act enjoyable. I especially liked Christian Brandjes as the failed actor Elliot, and enjoyed his energetic depiction of Elliot's cynicism. To my surprise I also liked Kristen Tripp Kelley as Nell, the gorgeous young girlfriend -- Nell did not come off as "incandescent" (in Walter's words) and didn't initially seem right for the part. Yet Kelley has a quiet focus and a way of depicting an interesting interior life that makes up for her not being the flashy eye candy referred to in the play.

By the intermission however, I began to feel that the playwright's grasp of the characters was weak. These were stock characters in fairly cliched exchanges. The hunky actor building schools in  the Congo as a display of his virtue. The deluded aging matriarch who thinks she still attracts young men. The aging director who mounts a defense of his wealth earned by making commercially successful films. The second act seemed predictable and strained. The last twenty minutes in particular, with Elliot wailing about how his mother, Anna, didn't really love him when he was a boy, were painful to watch. I couldn't help but feel that Marguiles needed a strong revision.

I wanted to like the play because of the very good cast. We appreicate the Road Less Traveled troupe and their energy in mounting the play. But the play itself needs work.