Wednesday, June 05, 2019

"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje- The Master of Metaphor Is at The Height of His Powers


Like many readers, I first became aware of the incredible genius of Michael Ondaatje when I saw the film "The English Patient," and immediately ordered the novel upon which the film had been based. I was struck by the author's ability to make history seem relevant and current. His gift of using detailed place descriptions transported me as the reader to the site of the action of the narrative. Finally, his rich application of metaphor frequently dove beneath the surface of the action to address larger philosophical and psychological issues. These same gifts are ones he brings in spades to "Warlight."

Nataniel and Rachel are two young siblings, living in post-WWII England. Their parents announce that work requires the adults to move temporarily to Singapore, leaving the children in the dubious care of a character the kids dub "The Moth." During the ensuing months, The Moth is joined by a parade of peculiar individuals who visit and sometimes inhabit the family domicile. Are they all involved in a life of crime, do they all know the parents, when will Mom and Dad return? This uncertainty plays out as Nathaniel and Rachel build relationships with this strange cast of characters.

The mystery deepens when the children discover that the steamer trunk that their mother had dramatically packed over several days of preparation for her trip to Singapore was hidden in a remote corner of the basement. When the mother finally does return, she comes without the father, and brings no explanation of why she was gone.

I mentioned that Ondaatje is a master of metaphor. The meticulous packing of the steamer trunk and its subsequent discovery and unpacking is a fine metaphor for how he reveals the truth about the lives of Nathaniel, Rachel, their mother, the Moth, et al. It is only later in life when the adult Nathaniel has an opportunity to review dusty government documents from WWII that he is able to "unpack" some of the mystery surrounding his mother and what she did during the war and in the opening salvos of the Cold War.

The narrative is richly peppered with metaphors giving meaning at many levels. Nathaniel and his short-term girlfriend Agnes spend time on the Thames with the Darter, who works at illegally importing racing greyhounds from France. In the course of their plying the many sections of the Thames, they often explore canals, cuts, and small streams that are unknown to most Londoners. We learn later in the narrative that these forgotten tributaries have purposes that are not immediately apparent. The same can be true of some of the detours and excursions that the author offers as the story unfolds. We meet characters who seem to be making only a cameo appearance, but whose significance grows are the threads of the narrative are woven together.

Another metaphorical theme is that of maps and charts. They play a significant role in the lives of Nathaniel, his mother Rose, the Darter, Mr. and Mrs. Malakite. There is special mention made of contour lines, and the author is a genius at painting characters whose contour lines provide the reader with a trek up and down literary escarpments and defilades that often astonish. Nathaniel's exploration of the contours of Rose's life and career expose him to an awareness of the danger that she and her family and coterie faced during the war years and in the tumultuous era that followed.

Another wonderful metaphor is that of a fishing lure. A young crippled boy is a master at crafting fishing flies. He teaches the art to Rachel, showing her how to construct the lure and how to use it in subtle ways to gather in the fish. And then he disappears for quite a while from the narrative. He reappear as a man who has morphed into an intelligence recruiter of some renown, who is known as "The Gatherer."

The resulting work of art is a satisfying and fascinating historical and psychological profile of a handful of indelibly limned individuals, all seen in the dim and fog shrouded light of war and its aftermath. If you have an appreciation for literary storytelling at the highest level, then you will not want to miss reading this book.

Enjoy!

Sunday, June 02, 2019

"King Edward VIII - An American Life" by Ted Powell - A Contrarian View of The Erstwhile Prince of Wales


Author Ted Powell offers a contrarian view of the Duke of Windsor in his new biography, "King Edward VIII - An American Life." Powell makes a strong case for his premise that it was far more than simply his love for Wallis Simpson that caused Edward to abdicate the British throne in 1936.

Powell posits the there were in reality two Princes of Wales inhabiting the same body. There was the official "Edward," dutifully and begrudgingly carrying out the formal ceremonial duties of the office. Then there was "David," the free spirit who longed to mix with and to understand the commoners who were Edward's subjects. The American dream was a breeding ground for David's imagination and experimentation with freedoms - risk taking, horseback riding, flying airplanes, investing in a ranch in Canada, and bedding independent minded American women.

The book takes the reader through the tortuous journey that the Prince took - psychologically and geographically. As Prince, he traveled the world, visiting much of what remained of the crumbling British Empire. As David, he was frequently drawn back to America, the wild western provinces of Canada, and the American enclave that inhabited the Paris of the 1920s and '30s. His view of a more democratic monarchy removed fro the pedestal and mixing with the commoners was sharply at odds with the more conservative views of his Father, George V, and his court.

Wallis Simpson was simply the last of the lovers that Edward/David would take. His decision to defy the rest of the royal household and marry the twice divorced American was the final straw in a prolonged struggle for the heart and soul of the Prince of Wales. His decision to marry Mrs. Simpson, and the shocking decision to abdicate the throne, created a permanent break with the royal household. He spent the rest of his life trying to get Wallis Simpson officially recognized as his Duchess of Windsor.

The book is filled with colorful anecdotes of Edward's relationships with Churchill, Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, Paul Whitman, Hitler, Mussolini, and an endless conga line of lovely "dance partners." His years after abdicating the throne were filled with frustrating attempts to be useful. During the war years, the British establishment worked hard to silence him because of his statements that implied Nazi sympathies.

Throughout the book, the author contrasts the vastly different approaches to the Prince of Wales/Duke of Windsor taken by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas the British press, Fleet Street, were deferential to the royal family, keeping personal issues out of the papers, American journalist knew no such hesitation. Edward became an American celebrity on par with Clark Gable. His every move and every dance partner was fodder for reporting, gossiping, and speculation on whether she could be a perspective bride. He was not prepared for such relentless scrutiny, and it took its toll on him.

This book as a fascinating addition to the already rich trove of books written about Edward and Wallis.

Enjoy!

Al

Brave The Wave" by Johnny Cavazos, M.D. - An Intimate Spiritual Memoir of a Journey Toward Christian Faith


In offering "Brave The Wave," author Johnny Cavazos, M.D., is presenting a memoir of his own spiritual journey. It is his stated purpose to encourage each reader to "Discover and fully realize your authentic self."  (p.28)

Dr. Cavazos has a unique perspective. He credits two sources for his decision to embrace a personal Christian faith. He credits Rick Warren's landmark book, "The Purpose Driven Life," with getting hims started on the road toward embracing Christianity. He also has done extensive research into Near Death Experiences (NDE). His journey of faith has concluded that traditional biblical teaching and the narrative from Near Death Experiences highlight the same two keystone principals: Love and Light.

Seen through another lens, "Brave The Wave" is an extended Gospel tract. The author is passionate about his discoveries of spiritual truths, and he is eager for readers to embark on a similar journey. He peppers each chapter with many Bible verses. He places these verses in context of how they have impacted him and the lives of others he is familiar with.

If you are open to reading an honest and heart-flt testimony of a medical doctor who has embraced Christ and the Christian faith, you will find this book inspiring and challenging. His bottom line conclusion about each person's purpose in life is this: "The reality is we're on this planet to learn to love others." (p. 26)

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"The Economics of Emotion" by Kyle M.K. - A brilliant practical look at behavioral economics



Author Kyle M. K. of Austin, Texas has worked for blue chip companies like Disney, Apple, Starbucks, and Ritz-Carlton. He has observed that the main trait that sets these organizations apart from those that are less successful is that they pay close attention to the emotions that they evoke among costumers and employees. In "The Economics of Emotion," he outlines how they accomplish this feat.

The book kicks off with a basic review of the primary human emotions: Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness.  Strategically and operationally, intelligent companies have figured out how to utilize an understanding of the interplay among these emotions to create an ecosystem that encourages contentment among employees and loyalty among customers. He also aligns himself with the growing movement to identify Purpose as a key indicator of success.

"Purpose underlies everything. When organizations find their purposes, they develop the foundation for all future business decisions." (p. 85)

The author does an excellent job of demonstrating the contrast between companies that understand emotional commitment and those that ignore it. A classic quotation from Dale Carnegie sets the stage for a discussion of corporate cultures: "When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion." (p. 139) In onboarding new employees, Apple stores are assiduous about making them feel welcome and included from their first hours on the job. Disney tries to ensure that during training, new employees, whom they assume are already Disney fans, experience some fun while learning the Disney systems and the Disney way of doing things.

Final chapters delve into the important topics of creating user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) that produce positive emotions among those who utilize a company's products and services. An example of a stark difference in UX and CX for online clothing customers is highlighted by describing Stitch Fix and Trunk Club. If a customer is not happy with a piece of apparel that they have received from Stitch Fix, there is a very impersonal process for returning the item. In contradistinction, a Trunk Club customer has the opportunity to speak directly to their personal stylist to explain exactly where the mismatch occurred between product and desired outcome. "One company focuses more on the clothes, while the other focuses on the person wearing the clothes." (p, 225).

At the end of the day, it is clear from the examples that the author shares that successful companies are intentional and passionate about building relationships with their customers. When relationships are in play, emotions drive the customer experience.

The reader who is in a position to influence their company's culture and the UX and CX the company offers to their customers can use the examples in this book as templates to design a successful approach to managing the emotions of those with whom they hope to engage in positive and loyal relationships.

Enjoy!

Al

"Bar Harbor Babylon" by Dan and Leslie Landrigan - A Fascinating Look At Scandals From the Glory Days of Mt. Desert Island and Bar Harbor


Dan and Leslie Landrigan are to be commended for making gossip - sometimes over 100 years old - read like today's latest installment on E! "Bar Harbor Babylon" takes us back in time to the golden age when The Season in Bar Harbor each summer rivaled that of Newport as a playground for old money, robber barons, politicians, and rum runners.

My love for the coast of Maine hearkens back to my childhood when our family would head "Down East" to visit Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, and to climb Cadillac Mountain. When I learned that a "tell all" book about the golden era of the summer resort, I could not wait to read "Bar Harbor Babylon."

One of the reasons that this book is a satisfying read is that the authors have included names and events that ring with familiarity. The curse of the Hope Diamond takes center stage in one chapter. The Rockefellers, Joseph Pulitzer, the Astors, the Duke of Windsor, the KKK,  J. P. Morgan, and the Vanderbilts all play a role in the saga that was life at Bar Harbor from the late 19th century until the world changed and once luxurious mansions were torn down or converted to nursing homes.

The Landrigans write in a style that kept me interested as I plowed through each chapter, eager to learn inside information about heretofore vaguely familiar personages. The result is that I am already planning my next return trip to the coast of Maine to visit the sites of the long ago murders, rum running, and granite quarries that built the U.S. Treasury Build and the glorious NYC main Post Office.

Enjoy!

Al

"Truthteller" by Stephen Davis - A Manifesto To Encourage Us To Stand Up To The War Against Truth


Stephen Davis is an investigative reporter who is uniquely qualified to comment on his observations from traveling the globe to track down truth in a variety of stories. His career has spanned TV, newspaper, and documentary film making. "Truthteller" is the result of meticulous research into the rapidly escalating proliferation of techniques and tools used to mount a war against truth.

Over the course of eleven riveting chapters, Davis lays out a case for an entire tool box of obfuscation tools being deployed by government officials, politicians, business leaders, and law enforcement. The epidemic goes far beyond the outrages against truth committed each day by the current POTUS. Davis offers examples from stories he has covered that range from Estonia, New Zealand, the UK, the US, and Antarctica. Chapter by chapter, he uses case studies to reveal  the tools of avoiding truth: character assassination, shooting the messenger, conspiracy theories, delay, hiding behind the cloak of government secrecy, fake news,

Davis makes it clear that because of the fast pace of the news cycle, and the diminution of budgets by newspapers and other news outlets, it is seldom possible to dive deeply into developing stories. As a result, those who wish to hide the truth find it much easier to avoid the spotlight of scrutiny,knowing that the news cycle will quickly shift to the next "if it bleeds, it leads" headline or sound bite.

The resulting book is a virtual manifesto and call to action - encouraging each consumer of the news to use discernment and wisdom in evaluating sources of information. He asks questions that beg to be answered:

  • Why did multiple governments seek to prevent a thorough examination of the sinking of an Estonian ferry? 
  • Why was there a cover-up of multiple burns and injuries in Antarctica that may have involved a nuclear accident? 
  • Why are lawful enforcers of Brazilian environmental regulations routinely turned away from strip mines in the Amazon operated by a subsidiary of BP? 
  • Why was the confession to a murder in Sydney, Australia ignored?

The book is a must read for anyone who shares the concern of responsible citizens at the obvious erosion of truth and truth telling.

Enjoy!

Al

"The Purpose Path" by Nicholas Pearce - A Guide to Pursuing Your Authentic Life's Work


There is a very healthy trend building that encourages and empowers individuals and businesses to closely examine their purpose. Simon Sinek's bestseller "Start With Why" comes at the topic of Purpose by addressing the most important question that individuals and organizations should ask themselves. Nick Craig contributed mightily with last year's "Leading From Purpose."

White Rhino Report Review of "Leading from Purpose

Pastor Rick Warren was impactful in addressing the issue from a Christian perspective in his landmark book, "The Purpose Driven Life." Nicholas Pearce continues in the same spiritual vein with his new book, "The Purpose Path - A Guide to Pursuing Your Authentic Life's Work.."

Pearce has managed to braid together three vocational strands. He is a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, a pastor, and life coach. He looks at the topic of his book through all three of these lenses. The core tenet of this helpful book can be found here: "According to a study conducted by the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, the number one source of professional contentment is having a sense of purpose." (pp,138-9). Through nine chapters, Pearce leads the reader through an examination of how to achieve and to exercise what he calls "Vocational Courage" - the willingness to make career choices based on values and a sense of God's calling.

He offers many helpful examples of individuals who have walked that path, many of whom were students of Pearce whose courage inspired him. Among those singled out as examples of Vocational Courage was Max De Pree, former Chairman of the Board of the Herman Miler company. Through his leadership, teaching, writing, and speaking, De Pree was a paragon of the kind of Servant Leadership that flows when one is leading through Purpose and Calling. I had the privilege of sitting under De Pree's teaching when I was a graduate student, so I can attest to how inspiring is the brand of leadership that Pearce espouses and De Pree incarnated.

Near the end of the book, the author shares the pilgrimage of the founders of Ben & Jerry's as they struggled to find their calling in Burlington, Vermont. After several failed attempts, they settled on making ice cream as an affordable idea for a start-up, and found ways to weave their values into the fabric of the company. Pearce strongly suggests that one way for a company to accomplish a similar result in creating a Purpose driven organization is to incorporate Purpose oriented questions during the interview and screening processes for potential employees.

Professor Pearce's thoughts, as shared in this book, are a welcome addition to the growing conversation about the vital role that Purpose should play in the life of a healthy and happy individual and organization.

Enjoy!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"General Meade" - A Novel of the Civil War by Robert Kofman - An Excellent Read


Author Robert Kofman has written a carefully researched novel that highlights the journey that General George Meade took as he assumed command of the troubled Army of the Potomac. Kofman makes judicious use of letters that Meade wrote to his wife, Margaret, throughout the course of the Civil War. In addition, he spices the narrative with telegrams that were exchanged between Meade and Washington, outlining updates on troop movements, tactics, and strategies being deployed to pin down Robert E. Lee's intrepid troops. To fill in the gap, the author imagines conversations among the principal actors in the unfolding drama.

What becomes clear as the narrative develops is that the war could have ended much earlier had not Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton insisted that a large portion of the Union troops be positioned to thwart any possible invasion of Washington. As a result, there were insufficient numbers available to pressure Lee at Richmond and following the Battle of Gettysburg, when the rebel forces were most vulnerable.

It also becomes very clear that the delicate dance between military strategy and political strategy made things difficult for Meade. Lincoln appointed a number of politically influential men to be generals who has no real military experience, but were able to help ensure his reelection in 1864. These generals proved to often be an impediment during the implementation of battle plans. Despite  chronic interference from Washington in the execution of the plan to defeat the rebel forces, Meade developed a strong and loyal appreciation for Lincoln's leadership. He also had great respect for General Grant, even though Grant often overshadowed Meade in the latter stages of the war.

Mr. Kofman's writing style in describing battles is almost cinematic. Having spent time on several occasions at Gettysburg, I was able to read the author's account of that pivotal battle and feel as if I were there to hear the roar of the cannons and the rebel yell that accompanied Pickett's charge.

This novel serves as an excellent addition to the already rich corpus of works that shed light on the national tragedy that was The War Between the States.

Enjoy!

Al

Monday, April 29, 2019

"How Customers Buy . . . & Why They Don't," by Martyn R. Lewis - A Revolutionary Approach To Sales By Decoding The Buying Journey


In writing "How Customers Buy . . . & Why They Don't," author Martyn R. Lewis brings several decades of experience to the table. His broad experience ranges from running sales and marketing teams to consulting with companies to teach their sales and marketing teams a better approach to revenue generation. This is simply the best book I have read in several years on sales, precisely because it turns the concept of "sales" on its head, and approaches the topic through the mind of the buyer.

Writing for an audience of sales and marketing professionals, Lewis makes it clear that the major fallacy that limits the effectiveness of many sales teams is the mistaken belief that "if you clearly demonstrate the value proposition and ROI of a product or service, the reasonable person will make a purchasing decision." Nothing could be further from the truth. Chapter by chapter, the author decodes what he calls the DNA of the Buying Journey. He spends the first half of the book building a case for understanding what is happening on the buying side of a purchasing journey. He strongly advises his readers to resist the temptation to jump ahead and think about how to apply the emerging principals until a full understanding of the Buying Journey has been reached. He then spends the second half of the book describing what he calls Outside-In Marketing and Outside-In Selling.

The main segments in a typical buying journey involve Triggers, Sequential Steps, Key Players, Buying Style, Value Drivers, and Buying Concerns. Using effective case studies and clear logic, he demonstrates that most sales efforts are directed at the early stages of the Buying Journey. And at a point when the potential customer really needs help in overcoming internal push-back and addressing Buying Concerns, the typical sales team is absent.

Mr. Lewis has constructed a very helpful and simple 4Q model of four distinct Buying Styles based on the dual dynamics of Choice vs. Value and Solution vs. Product. The four styles are:

  • Search & Choose
  • Trusted Advisor
  • Sort & Select
  • Starbucks. 

He makes it clear that each Buying Style dictates a different approach to engaging with the customer's Buying Journey.

This book is so effective that I am sending copies to clients whom I feel will benefit from these insights. You may wish to buy several copies to distribute to members of your Sales and Marketing teams.

Enjoy!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

"Stop Talking, Start Influencing" by Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath - A MUST READ for Leaders, Learners, Teachers and Coaches


What does is take for a book to be considered a MUST READ? I can think of several criteria:

  • The book presents new ideas in ways that are intriguing and engaging
  • The book presents familiar ideas in novel ways that cause the reader to see things in a new light
  • The author creates a context for the content that makes the ideas comprehensible, accessible, and practicable
  • The writer weaves the concepts into memorable stories
  • The writer employs a literary style that is pleasing and frictionless

All of these things can be said of "Stop Talking, Start Influencing" by Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath. The author is an Educational Neuroscientist from the University of Melbourne and Harvard. He employs up to the minute research on neuroscience to address issues of how we learn, remember, and uses these insights to suggest impactful ways to influence those we teach, coach, and do business with.

Over the course of twelve chapters, Dr. Horvath introduces a dozen concepts that shed light on how to make a message stick. Each of the chapters is filled with insights gleaned from neuroscience discoveries, many of which were enabled by breakthrough fMRI technology. Horvath has a knack for presenting complex ideas in ways that are accessible to readers who are not scientists without devolving into simplistic summaries.

Key concepts include:


  • Explaining how the brain processes images and speech
  • Demonstrating that the brain tags memories using three dimensional space as an important tool
  • Explodes the myth that multitasking is possible
  • Introduces the concept of "interleaving" that impacts how a coach should set up practicing specific skills
  • The important role that story plays in recall and retrieval
  • The vastly different effects of moderate stress and extreme stress
  • Using distributed sequencing to enhance long term recall of important information

I am already making plans to send copies of this watershed book to friends and clients. It is that good and that impactful. I have also begun to watch and listen to several of Dr. Horvath's sessions that are available on YouTube.

If you are in a position to influence others - in your role as teacher, coach, business owner, then order this book now and put the insights to work immediately.

Enjoy!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

"Lone Soldier," by author Leo Rozmaryn - An Epic Coming of Age Tale of Israel and Israelis


In writing "Lone Soldier," author Leo Rozmaryn has penned an epic tale of Israel that would make Leon Uris proud. The nonstop action centers on Arik and Dahlia, who meet as high school students at a summer camp in Pennsylvania that serves the purpose of instilling a passion for Zionism in American Jewish students. This coming of age tale follows a grueling arc as they fall in love, fall out of love, and come back together again against all odds. Along the way, each character is tested in a variety of ways that are literally life or death.

Dahlia begins her journey as a "hothouse plant" - the spoiled daughter of Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. She learns to withstand withering challenges, and blossoms into a mature and productive woman. Arik is the son of an impoverished and embittered veteran of Israel's War of Independence. Ze'ev was a hero who saved lives, losing a leg in the process. But through an error of mistaken identity, he is labelled a terrorist and flees to America to live off the the table scraps of his brother's charity. Arik grows up in poverty in a rough neighborhood of LA. He excels athletically, and his strong moral fiber shows up early in life as he risks his safety and reputation to rescue an African American boy who is being bullied. He is arrested, but is crowned a hero in the African American community. He is convinced that his father has been woefully mistreated by the state of Israel, yet he makes the tough choice to turn down a basketball scholarship to play for national champion UCLA in order to go to Israel and fight for the IDF. His motive is to find a way to rehabilitate his father's reputation - and to spend a life in Israel with Dahlia.

The mismatch of Arik and Dahlia's social and economic positions prompts Dahlia's father to use his weight as Ambassador to sabotage the relationship. In rebounding from the loss of Arik, the naive Dahlia is lured into the snare of rich sociopath Za'ev Ehrenreich, son of one of the wealthiest American patrons of Israel. He leads her down a primrose path of sexual depravity and drug abuse that almost extinguishes her candle. Over time, she rebounds, due to therapy, the harsh realities of service in the Israeli Army, and responding to emergencies that wold have crushed a more delicate flower.

As the heroic story unfolds of Arik, and the redemption of Dahlia and of Arik's father, the author weaves the action around real historic events: The War of Independence, Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Munich Olympic Massacre, the raid at Entebbe. The action ricochets from the slums of LA to the mansions of Washington, D.C. and Herzliya, from the desert of Las Vegas to the Negev, from the fortress of Masada to the summits of Mount Hermon.

The author provides a balanced view of the many faces of Zionism, from the Orthodox and observant to the secular and liberal who want to find a way to coexist with the Palestinians. The result is a stirring work of art that creates an indelible hero in Arik. I cannot help but wonder who will play Arik in the film that should inevitably follow.

Enjoy this well crafted saga.

Al

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The Flea Theater Presents "Southern Promises" by Thomas Bradshaw - Through April 14th


The Flea Theater, and its resident troupe of young actors known as The Bats, have a reputation for taking bold risks in telling important stories. In their current staging of "Southern Promises" by Thomas Bradshaw, they take that boldness to a chilling extreme in dramatizing the worst rapacious excesses of American slavery. Bradshaw assaults the audience with graphic imagery that limns twin evils. The first evil is the constellation of dehumanizing violence perpetrated by slave owners over their chattel. The second evil is the fig leaf of religious hypocrisy behind which the slave owners hid to justify their inhumanity to men, women,and children of color.

This play is not for the faint of heart. The portrayal of violence and hypocrisy is literally and figuratively naked. Acts of simulated rape are portrayed in agonizing brutality and clarity. In a preamble to the play, each cast member introduces himself/herself and points out that the cast is composed entirely of persons of color. The point being made by the Playwright and Director is that the evils being depicted are not rooted in color, but in the human heart. Under the deft Direction of Niegel Smith, the Flea's Artistic Director, the cast members are uniformly effective. Especially impressive is Shakur Tolliver as Benjamin, the slave whose promised freedom was taken away by his late master's treasonous widow. The master on his deathbed had made his wife promise to flee all of the slaves, but she claimed that he was not in his right mind when he made that demand, and she refused to free them. She, her brother, and her new husband all claimed that they were doing God's will in brutalizing their slaves, misquoting Scripture by claiming that by punishing them, they were saving them from a worse punishment in Hell.

The writing and direction of this raw play are most arresting in the moments of violence, and in the moments when the unctuous misapplication of Scripture screams hypocrisy. Like those who caution that the horrors of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, so too this play reminds us that we must not be allowed to cover over the ugly wounds that still fester from the abuses of slavery and its lingering aftermath.

For those who have the courage to confront the ugly realities of the past, this production os worthy of your consideration.

Shakur Tolliver, Marcus Jones, Jahsiah Rivera, Brittany Zaken, and Yvonne Jessica Pruitt
Southern Promises by Thomas Bradshaw
The Flea Theater
Through April 14th
Photo by Joan Marcus
(Southern Promises plays at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, through April 14, 2019. The running time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Mondays at 7, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $15 - $50 and are available at theflea.org.)

Southern Promises is by Thomas Bradshaw. Directed by Niegel Smith. Set Design by Jason Sherwood. Costume Design by Claudia Brown. Lighting Design by Jorge Arroyo. Sound Design by Fabian Obispo. Hair and Makeup Design by Nikiya Mathis. Violence/Intimacy Choreographer is Rocio Mendez. Stage Manager is Anna Kovacs.
The cast is Adam Coy, Darby Davis, Marcus Jones, Timothy Park, Yvonne Jessica Pruitt, Jahsiah Rivera, Shakur Tolliver, Adrain Washington, and Brittany Zaken.
Content Warning: Please be advised there is physical and sexual violence, full nudity, racial slurs, and a gunshot in Southern Promises.
Enjoy!
Al

The Barrow Group Presents the World Premiere of "PERP" by Lyle Kessler - Through April 11th


Tony-nominated playwright, Lyle Kessler, has written an enigmatic new play. "PERP" is a bit of a morality play, set as if it were a "Law and Order" style TV cop drama. Jack (Tricia Alexandro) and Harvey (Paul Ben-Victor) portray a parody of the Good Cop - Bad Cop routine as they interrogate a murder suspect. Douglass (Ali Arkane) is a naif - a collector of bugs who may be on the spectrum. In his innocence- think of Lenny in "Of Mice and Men"- he falls for the cops' ploys and pleads guilty to a crime he did not commit. He is led to believe that by doing so he may be able to help the police apprehend the real murderer.

There are some plot twists that strain credulity. Douglass ends up sharing a prison cell with kind-hearted Myron (Craig Mums Grant). Over checkers games, Myron helps Douglass plan an escape so that he can go back to the woods to find the real murderer. In a Dickensian chain of coincidences, Douglass does indeed encounter Harry (Javier Molina). The final scenes play out the subtle confrontation between Harry and Douglass.

Mr. Kessler's theme in this play seems to be that good and evil can be found in unlikely places, and that innocence can prevail over malice. In the Barrow Group's cozy performance space on 36th Street, the metallic Set Design by Edward T. Morris, complemented by the Lighting Design by Marika Kent, enhance the storytelling. Costumes are by Kristin Isola, and Sound Design by Matt Otto. The excellent cast of five actors is ably directed by Lee Brock.

The play, even with its flaws, is worth watching. The actors create credible characters, even those that are written as caricatures.



Perp runs through April 11 at The Barrow Group (312 West 36th St.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday–Monday. Tickets may be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting barrowgroup.com.

Enjoy!

Al

Monday, March 18, 2019

"The Last Jews of Kalisz"- Keeping Alive The Rich Legacy of the Jews of Poland



Kudos to author Irv Kempner for his commitment to keep alive the memory of his father, David Kempner, who survived the Holocaust to live a full life in America. This very personal book, "The Last Jews of Kalisz," is also a loving tribute to the countless Jews from David's home town of Kalisz, Poland, who perished under the thumb of the Third Reich and their Polish collaborators.

The early chapters of this book set the scene and tell the history of Jews in Kalisz in Western Poland, perilously close to the German border. Jewish history of Kalisz began in the 12th century with settlers who were fleeing Crusaders. Over the years, the Jewish population of the city grew to close to 35%, and stayed that way until the purges began.

As I read the story of Mr. Kempner and his family and fellow citizens, I was reminded of the notorious quotation often attributed to Joseph Stalin: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." By highlighting his father's tale of survival in contradistinction to the death of many of his family members, author Kempner moves the reader beyond mere statistics to make the tragedy of the Holocaust very personal. Writing this book is only one part of Kempner;s commitment to uphold the memory of the Jews of Kalisz. He is involved in a movement called March of the Living that brings visitors to Poland and Germany to learn details about the history of the Holocaust.

After being liberated from a death camp in May of 1945, David Kempner made good on a promise he had made to a young woman he had met before his imprisonment. He tracked Marilla Freidenreich down in Germany. Not long afterward they were married. Thanks to the kindness of a boyhood friend from Kalisz who had emigrated to America, the newlyweds were sponsored to resettle in the U.S. by Manny Duell. David started as a low-wage worker in the garment industry, and eventually founded his own successful company.

My reason for giving this fine book 4 stars rather than 5 is the author's propensity for needless repetition. He often repeats the same information several times within the same page or paragraph. For the second edition, some judicious editing will make this important book  even more compelling reading.

Enjoy.

"If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka" by Tori Sampson - at Playwrights Horizons


Tori Sampson is a new voice that should be - and can be - heard when you travel to Playwrights Horizons to see her play "If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka," She adapts a Nigerian folk tale, and uses Beyonce lyrics to address the issue of beauty and body image among teenage girls. She stands on the shoulders of Middle Ages Morality plays, and claims August Wilson's "Fences" as a strong creative inspiration for her writing. There is a bow to "Mean Girls" in the interactions among the village girls.

Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is the prettiest girl in her village, coddled and sheltered by her parents. Maechi Aharanwa and Jason Bowen. Her fellow 17 year-olds resent her for her beauty and perfection, and plot to remove her as a threat by drowning her in a nearby river. Her rivals are Akim (Nike Uche Kadri), Adama (Mirirai Sithole),and Kaya (Prumzile Sitole). The role of Kasim, the young man who catches the eye of Massassi, is played by Leland Fowler.

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy
Nike Uche Kari, Mirirai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole
"If Pretty Hurts. . ."
by Tori Sampson
at Playwrights Horizons
Through April 5

The tale is narrated by Rotimi Agbabiaka, as Chorus. He throws a good bit of campy Billy Porter into his vibrant portrayal of the voice of the village oral tradition.

The plot to drown Massassi is complicated by the fact that the river is inhabited by river spirits. In the most visually and aurally stunning scene in the play, we see Massassi being welcomed by the spirits, accompanied by a soaring Gospel rendition by Carla R. Stewart as The Voice of the River.

The Drowning Scene
"If Pretty Hurts. . ."
by Tori Sampson
at Playwrights Horizons
Through April 5
There is a scene that closes the play that shows one of the girls sitting at a makeup table applying beauty products while gazing in a mirror. Ms. Sampson is offering this play as a mirror to prompt us to take a look at ourselves and at our culture's preoccupation with surface beauty while ignoring deeper values. While this play is not perfect and could use some judicious cutting, it is a compelling examination of a contemporary issue that rightly has caught the eye of a number of  playwrights.

The cast is well directed by Leah C. Gardiner. The shimmering Scenic Design is by Louisa Thompson, Costumes by Dede Ayite, Lighting by Matt Frey. Original Music and Sound Design are by Ian Scot.

The play run at Playwrights Horizons through April 5th, and is worthy of your patronage and consideration.

Enjoy!

Al

A Jewish Joke - A Play by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson - McArthyism Was No Laughing Matter

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz
"A Jewish Joke"
by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson
The Roustabouts Theatre
Theatre Row
The Roustabouts Theatre production of "A Jewish Joke" is a serious exploration of the invidiousness of the the Hollywood Blacklist during the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria. We see the destructive results of the witch hunt through the eyes and voice of a screen writer, Bernie Lutz, played in a tour de force performance by the amazing Phil Johnson. Mr. Johnson co-wrote the script of "A Jewish Joke" with Marni Freedman.

In the course of an hour and a half, we get to see Bernie travel a painful arc, from euphoria to despair. The play is set on the eve of the Premiere of a film that Bernie wrote with his partner, Morris Frumsky, who is notably absent. The action transpires in Bernie and Morris's writer's bungalow on the MGM lot in 1950. As Bernie awaits the arrival of Morris - a la"Waiting for Godot" - he handles an avalanche of incoming phone calls, each of which leads him deeper into the realization that he and Morris are the targets of an investigation into Communists in Hollywood.

When the pressure on Bernie gets too great, he injects comic relief by pulling an index card from his desk and reading a standard Jewish joke in an aside to the audience. It is an ever-present reminder that humor, and especially Jewish humor, almost always is birthed in tragedy, As the reality of the situation becomes clear, Bernie faces a moral dilemma. The FBI offers him a chance to save himself by implicating Morris. As he wrestles with this crisis, we see Bernie slowly emerge as a mensch from the chrysalis of a schlemiel. Under the fine direction of David Ellenstein, Mr. Johnson gives a memorable performance that is no joke.

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz
"A Jewish Joke" 
by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson
The Roustabouts Theatre
Theatre Row

Costume Design is by Jordyn Smiley and Peter Herman and Sound Design by Matt Lescault-Wood.  The play can be seen - and should be seen- at Theatre Row on West 42rd Street.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

"The House of Medici" by Christopher Hibbert - Insights Into Renaissance Florence and Beyond


Previously, I reviewed the book "The Medici Effect" by Frans Johansson.  In his work on innovation, Frans uses the Medici family of Renaissance Florence as template for the kind of enabling patronage that draws together talent from a variety disciplines, arts and sciences - with the ultimate impact of empowering extraordinary levels of creativity and innovation.

As I read Johansson's book, I was struck by the fact that I knew precious little of the history of the Medici and the story behind them emerging as the greatest patrons of the arts the world has ever known.  Despite the fact that I have visited Florence, Italy, I still felt that my knowledge of that world needed to be enhanced.  As someone who often alludes to Renaissance Men, I felt that it behooved me to learn more about the time and place that spawned the first generation of prototype Renaissance Men - Leonardo, Michelangelo and their ilk.

A quick Google search led me to Christopher Hibbert's classic book on the history of the Medici - "The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall."  Hibbert does a nice job of leading the reader through a Grand Tour of several generations of the Medici - bankers to the Papacy who investments a large portion of their largesse in supporting artists and scholars of many stripes.  A nice set of end notes provides a parallel tour through the architectural history of all of the sites mentioned in the body of the text.

While I will not take the time for a full review here, I do want to share some insight that I gleaned early in the book that shed important light on how Florence emerged as the haven for genius that turned it into the magnet that it remains today for people who want to experience the glory of its Golden Age.

In 1438, Cosimo Medici arranged for a Council to be convened in Florence that would attempt to repair the breech between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople.  The Council ultimately failed to bridge that theological chasm, but had more salubrious effects on the reputation of Florence as a center for the arts and scholarship.

"Yet for Florence, as Cosimo had foreseen, the Council had happier consequences.  As well as profiting the trade of the city, it was an important influence on what was already being spoken of as the Rinascimento ["Renaissance"].  The presence of so many Greek scholars in Florence provided an incalculable stimulus to the quickening interest in classical texts and classical history, in classical art and philosophy, and particularly in the study of Plato, the great hero of the humanists, for so long overshadowed by his pupil, Aristotle." (Page 68)

This book helped me to fill in some missing pieces in my understanding of how the Renaissance emerged from the Dark Ages that had beclouded and adumbrated Europe for so many centuries.  I recommend it as a useful resource for those, who like me, are not serious students of history, but who desire to know more than "the average bear" about the intellectual history of Western Civilization.

Enjoy.

Al

Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Crack The Funding Code" by Judy Robinett - A MUST READ for Founders Seeking To Fund Their Startup


Whether a founder is looking to start a new business or grow an existing enterprise, finding appropriate sources of funding is always a major challenge. Only a small percentage of entrepreneurs are successful insecure funding from banks, angel investors, or venture capitalists. Author Judy Robinett offers a vital tool for increasing a founder's chances of success. "Crack the Funding Code" lives up to the promise of the subtitle: "How Investors Think and What They Need To Hear To Fund Your Startup." Throughout this well-conceived book, she and her team of collaborators and guest writers take the reader inside the mind and mindset of a wide variety of investors.

Having set the stage for helping the founder think like an investor, she leads the reader through a logical progression of topics: What kind of Investors are out there, How to choose the right target investors, How to secure an appropriate introduction, How to prepare for first and second meetings, The details of financial information that will be needed, How to read a term sheet, How to prepare for due diligence, and finally, How to decide whether or not to accept an offer of investment.

This book will be literally "money in the bank"  for any founder who assiduously follows the path that Ms. Robinett has laid out here. There are several important themes that stand out:

Never, under any circumstances, cold call a potential investor. That investor will surmise that if you lack the resources and resourcefulness to secure a warm introduction from someone the investor knows and trusts, then you do not have what it takes to build a successful company.

The initial scrutiny by potential investors will be of the person of the founder and his or her team. Is this a person of integrity, intelligence, hard work with a track record that leads me to believe they will make good use of any money I might choose to invest? Are they responsive in a timely and respectful manner? Are they open to coaching and constructive feedback? Would I enjoy interacting with them deeply over the next 3-5 years as together we build a company? It is only in later meetings that the investor will take a close look at product, service, and business plan.

Now that I have finished reading this MUST READ book, I plan to hand my copy to a first time entrepreneur who is just beginning the journey of securing funding for a startup. This book will make an excellent compass as he begins that long journey.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline - A Thoroughly Engaging Scavenger Hunt In Cyberspace


In a recent visit to a client in Texas, I entered into a discussion with the family about interesting books we had each read. One of my client's sons - a Millennial - told me about "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline. The plot and structure reminded me of some of the novels of Neal Stephenson that I have come to appreciate, so I decided to add the book to my reading list. Before I left Austin to return to Boston, my client's son graciously gifted me with his lovingly dog-eared copy of the novel, and I was off on a fantastic journey.

While the primary audience for this tale of a hi-tech and high stakes multiplayer contest is Young Readers, this Baby Boomer thoroughly enjoyed the story and the literary style that Mr. Cline brings to his craft. The plot revolves around a dystopian world in 2044.  Teenager Wade Watts is an orphan living with a drug-addled relative. His only real pleasure as he seeks to stay alive is experienced when he is on line playing games and solving riddles in cyberspace.

Things take an interesting turn when the will is read of a billionaire game designer. The will announces that the winner of a complex scavenger hunt will receive the bulk of the hermit's fortune. And the race is on, pitting Wade and a few of his on-line friends against a devious global cartel that will stop at nothing to claim the prize and eventually gain control over all of cyberspace.

The pace of the narrative is non-stop action, intrigue, and hidden dangers. Players whose default setting is independence and isolation have to choose to adapt and become interdependent if they want to survive this deadly sprint and claim the prize. The science and science fiction that the author describes are both fascinating and plausible.  The novel is full of fun allusions to pop culture phenomena from the 1980's, when Halladay, the billionaire game developer, was in his heyday.

The journey through the novel's almost 400 pages is well worth the investment of time and brain share.

Enjoy!

"Gone So Long" by Andre Dubus III - A Great Writer At The Top of His Game


It was well worth the wait for Andre Dubus III to produce his latest novel, "Gone So Long." As a novelist, Dubus was gone far too long, but he is back and in top form. I have followed his work closely since reading "The House of Sand and Fog," What I have always appreciated about Dubus' writing is the indelible and memorable characters he creates, and the strong sense of place. In the case of "Gone So Long," the two places are the North Shore of Boston, specifically Salisbury Beach and Newburyport. Subsequent action takes place around the rural Tampa Bay area.

The three main characters include Daniel Ahearn, an ex-con who has finally finished his parole many years after killing his wife, Linda, in a fit of jealous rage. The murder took place in front of his three year-old daughter, Susan. Susan was raised by her maternal grandmother, Lois. The grandmother's mission in life was to shield Susan from any contact with her father.

Daniel senses that he is nearing the end of his life, with his prostate cancer accelerating. So he does research, and finds that his estranged daughter Susan is living in Florida, teaching English, and struggling to find the courage to publish her writing. He decides to head south and try to make amends with his daughter after an absence of almost 30 years. He has no idea if she will agree to see him.

The development of the characters in this novel is brilliant. The end result is that even Daniel, a murderer, becomes a sympathetic figure. Ugly - hooked-nosed with eyes set too close together - he struggles to find answers to why he allowed himself to become consumed with rage and jealousy of his beloved Linda. We see Susan grappling with a complex relationship with the over-controlling Lois. She also is not sure how to learn to really love her husband, after she had spent her adolescence and early adulthood in a series of meaningless and promiscuous relationships. As the action progresses, the individual threads begin to weave themselves together, toward a denouement that is not entirely predictable. Themes of forgiveness, identity, jealousy, creativity, ambivalence, obsession, and brokenness are explored as the story unwinds.

I mentioned the writer's strong sense of place. Daniel was able to attract Linda in their youth because his sonorous voice allowed him to be hired as the DJ on the iconic Himalaya ride at Salisbury Beach. Beginning with their high school years, both my sister and brother worked at Shaheen's Fun Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. so, I was intimately familiar with the Beach. Dubus perfectly captures the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the kitschy Salisbury Beach ethos. A could almost taste the friend dough, and hear the screams from the Himalaya riders.

It is hard to imagine a more engaging and thought-provoking novel. If you appreciate great writing and story telling, this book is a must read.

Enjoy.

Al

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review of "The Boys Who Woke Up Early" by A.D. Hopkins - A Brilliant First Novel


In creating his intriguing first novel "The Boys Who Woke Up Early,"A.D. Hopkins has drawn from the deep well of his memories of growing up in Appalachia at the end of the Eisenhower era.  The title has a wonderful double meaning. Stony and Jack were two friends living in the southwest Virginia town of Early. While still in high school, they teamed up to form a private detective practice. I think of this work as The Hardy Boys meet "To Kill A Mockingbird," with a dash of "Tom Sawyer." The boys volunteered to help at the short-staffed sheriffs office. Through that lens, they saw the underbelly of the Jim Crow South, and eventually played a role in changing the nature of racial tensions and race relations in their corner of the world. So, in that sense, they helped to wake up the town of Early. And in another sense, they became "woke" to the realities of discrimination and prejudice at an early age.

As told through a series of adventures and misadventures, we see Stony and Jack learning to find their place in a backwoods world that was mired in old ways of thinking while the world around them was changing. This is a coming of age story - both for these two young men and for the town that they called home.

The narrative is full of tales of comradeship, moonshine, hunting, bullying, Klan rallies, domestic violence, political corruption, puppy love, and a feud that rivals that of the Hatfields and McCoys. The author has created characters that are both believable and relatable. I came to care about each of them.

This is a book worth reading. I look forward to the author's next offerings.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Classic Stage Company Presents August Strindberg Retrospective - "The Dance of Death" and "Mies Julie" In Repertory

August Strindberg
1849-1912
Classic Stage Company is staging an impressive look back at two of August Strindberg's best known plays. "The Dance of Death" and "Mies Julie" are running in repertory through March 10 in the East Village - 136 E. 13th Street.

"The Dance of Death" being presented is a new version by Conor McPherson and Directed by Victoria Clark. The title of the play has multiple meanings. Protagonist, Swedish Army Captain Edgar (Richard Topol), and his wife, Alice (Cassie Beck) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Yet it is clear from the opening montage that love has no place in this relationship, and the Silver Anniversary is tarnished. Edgar is literally dancing with death as his heart is giving out. And it becomes clear that the playwright (thrice divorced himself) sees dysfunctional marriage as a figurative dance of death. As the action of the play progresses, that figurative dance almost becomes literal as swordplay enters the arena. The cast of characters is filled out by Kurt (Christopher Innvar), a former lover of Alice and newly appointed Head of the Quarantine Station at the remote island outpost to which Edgar and Alice have been posted The addition of Kurt to the mix throws additional light and shade on the complex relationships among the three.

Set Design is by David L. Arsenault, Costumes by Tricia Barsamian, impressive Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier, Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta, and Original Music by Jeff Blumenkrantz.

Running in repertory is Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's "Mies Julie." The play is set in South Africa on the eve of the annual celebration of Freedom Day. The characters in the play are anything but free. Julie (Elisa Kibler) is the daughter of a Boer farmer. She was raised lovingly by the housekeeper, Christine (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Christine's son, John (James Udom), and Julie played together as children and became friends. But as they became young adults, their expected roles were solidified - John as farm laborer, Julie as the untouchable daughter of the white land owner. Yet their passion thoughtlessly breaks through those taboos and they enter into a night of passion that fuels a desperate love/hate Dance of Death.

James Udom as John
Elisa Kibler as Julie
"Mies Julie" by Yael Farber
Adapted from the play by August Strindberg
Classic Stage Company
Through March 10th
Photo by Joan Marcus

The play examines the deep wounds of the policies of colonialism and dispossession. The farmhouse is built over the graves of Christine's ancestor's, represented by the ghostly figure of Ukhokho (Vinie Burrows), who glides silently through the action as a reminder that the racist policies and actions of the Boers haunt the present generation.

The play is sensitively Directed by Shariffa Ali, who was born in Kenya and lived in South Africa before relocating to the U.S. She infuses into this production her sensibilities to the complexities of social structures and strictures. The creative team include Set Design by David L. Arsenault, Costumes by Ntokozo Fuzanina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk, Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier, Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta, and Original Music by Andrew Orkin.

Strindberg plumbs dark depths in his plays. In each of these two works, it becomes clear that as individuals struggle to find their place in the world and within relationships, they fight forces within themselves and outside of themselves in their culture. Although the actions of these two plays are set in Sweden and in Africa, the lessons are applicable to the struggles we face in America in this century.

Make your way to the East Village between now and March 10th and see both of these fine productions.

Enjoy!

Al


Playroom Theater Presents "God Shows Up" by Peter Filicia - A TV Evangelist Feels the Wrath of God!

Lou Liberatore, Maggie Bofill, Christopher Sutton
"God Shows Up" by Peter Filichia
Playroom Theater - 151 W. 46th St.
Through February 21st
Photo by Andy Evan Cohen
Playwright Peter Filicia has perfectly captured the bizarre and profane world of TV evangelists, using an effective blend of gallows humor and well-placed righteous indignity. In "God Shows Up," evangelist Dr. Thomas Isaac Rehan (Christopher Sutton) invites his viewing audience to pay close attention to his next guest - none other than The Almighty Himself (Lou Liberatore). In the Beginning, God shows up dressed like a lumber jack, and engages in light banter with Rehan about the weather and other topics. But The Omnipotent One eventually brings the focus of his questions to His real agenda - unmasking the hypocrisy of Rehan and his ilk.

Every few minutes, Rehan interrupts the dialogue to hawk the latest holy tchotchke that viewers can receive for a donation to the ministry. As God - also presented in female form by Maggie Bofill - continues His/Her questioning, we learn of Rehan's expensive limousines, designer clothing, extravagant homes, body guards, child labor in the developing world making trinkets for pennies a day, sexual impropriety,etc.

While appearing over the top, this portrayal of the prototypical TV evangelist hit close to home. I recently fell asleep with my TV turned on. When I awoke at 3:00 AM, there was an evangelist I had not seen before, promising blessings galore if viewers would send $58.00 to unleash God's bounty upon them. There was the Prosperity Gospel in all of its ugliness and bad theology.

The trinity of actors are effective in telling the story, and are well directed by Christopher Scott. The action is helped by excellent Projection and Sound by Andy Evan Cohen, Lights by Joan Racho-Jansen, Costumes by Michael Platkowski, and Set by Josh Iacovelli.

The play runs through February 21st at the Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th Street.

This play is worth seeing. And that is the Gospel truth!

Enjoy!

Al

Saturday, February 02, 2019

"Barefoot" by Kate Billingsley & Thomas G. Waites - by Black Rose Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre - Through February 9th


"Barefoot" is a fascinating study of a love quadrangle - soon to become almost a pentagon when the Pizza Delivery Man (Trent Cox) is baked into the narrative - that at its core is an existential exploration of the meaning of life. The play opens with Sylvia (Playwright Kate Billingsley) arriving home, drenched from a downpour, and clearly verklempt. This quintessential Jewish American Princess dourly surveys her domain, which is filled with elegantly wrapped wedding gifts that have arrived in advance of her approaching nuptials.Before she has had a chance to collect herself, a knock is heard at the door, announcing the arrival of equally soaked Teddy (Elissa Klie). It seems that Sylvia has just caught Teddy kissing the groom-to-be, Robert (Judah Tobias), and Teddy wants to apologize and explain.

It is clear from the dual entrances of the protagonist and antagonist that the playwrights are showing us that "into every life a little rain must fall."  As the narrative develops, it becomes clear that this deluge of existential rainfall includes betrayal, obsessive compulsive behavior, mistrust, abuse of drugs and alcohol, clashes over socio-economic status, and verbal and psychological abuse.

Things take an interesting turn when the next knock on the door brings Robert and Marc (Will Rosenfelt) into the mix. Marc is Teddy's cuckolded finance, and he is not too pleased to learn that she has been fooling around with Robert. The playwrights do a commendable job of demonstrating the biblical principle of "straining at gnats and swallowing camels." A sign inside the front door commands those entering to remove their shoes and go barefoot in the home. Sylvia is trying to keep specks of dirt from marring her perfect world, but has no trouble later in the play trashing her own place by allowing cocaine to be snorted from her coffee table, and throwing and smashing fine china dishes in a fit of pique. Likewise, Sylvia and Robert's need to control is shown by their assiduous insistence on pronouncing February as "Feb-roo-ary," Perhaps they can control the enunciation of their tongues, but not much else.

The interplay among these four as they act out what happened during the betrayal is both hilarious and heart-breaking. The arrival of hipster Pizza Man adds a new element of homoerotic tension to the mix.

Co-playwright, Thomas G. Waites directs this quintet of actors with a deft touch, allowing each to establish a distinct persona. The actors are uniformly convincing in their roles. Despite their various peccadilloes, these are characters we come to care about, seeing through the fog of their ennui and nihilism. Several of the characters explicitly express the underlying theme of this play:"Does this existence of living, loving, betrayal, fighting, and dying ultimately have any meaning?"

Produced by Black Rose Productions, "Barefoot" runs through February 9th at the Gene Frankel Theatre at 24 Bond Street.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"Carmelina" - Musicals In Mufti Series at The York Theatre Company - Through February 3rd

Original Poster
"Carmelina"
1979
It is a truism in the world of theater that "there are no small parts - only small actors." Never has that cliche been more true than in the case of the current enchanting production of "Carmelina," the opening salvo in this year's York Theatre Musicals in Mufti series. The role of Roberto, a humble fisherman.s son (Antonio Cipriano) does not offer much in the way of solo opportunities throughout the musical, but it is crucial, in that Roberto opens the play by introducing the first strains of "It's Time For A Love Song." Roberto enters from the rear of the house, accompanying himself on the guitar, and meanders down the aisle and onto the stage. Mr. Cipriano's voice and stage presence are such that with the opening note, I turned to see where the sound was coming from and who might be producing such perfect music. From that moment, I was drawn into this fisherman's net, and into the charming web woven by Alan Jay Lerner's story and lyrics and the melodious music of Burton Lane.

Antonio Cipriano as Roberto
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd

The plot is based upon a 1968 film, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," starring Gina Lollobrigida. The story line is remarkably similar to that of "Mama Mia," with a young woman having conceived a daughter during wartime, and not knowing which of three men may be the father.

For this staged reading limited production, Director Michael Leeds has assembled a stellar cast, ably supported by Musical Director David Hancock Turner on piano, and Joseph Wallace on bass.

Carmelina (Andrea Burns) shimmers when she embraces the beautiful songs written for the protagonist. In particular, "Someone In April," which she shares with her cook, Rosa (the brilliant Anne L. Nathan) is memorable. Not only is the song lovely, but it brilliantly provides back story to explain how the sweet sixteen year old Carmelina could have had three lovers in the course of one short month.The role of Rosa is written and acted in a way that brought to mind the comic relief provided by Juliet's nurse in "Romeo and Juliet."

In order to protect her reputation among her pious neighbors in the small Neapolitan village, Carmelina invents a story of a husband, American GI Lt. Eddie Campbell, who died heroically in the war. In the meanwhile, she has convinced each of the three soldiers with whom she shared a night that he has a daughter who needs support. She has been receiving three checks each month for seventeen years!

Vittorio (Joey Sorge) has been in love with Carmelina forever, but she refuses to accept his offers of marriage in order to preserve the charade of being a grieving widow. Mr. Sorge gets to showcase his powerful voice in "Carmelina," "You're A Woman," and "I Will Kill Her," as well as a reprise of "It's Time For A Love Song."

The three "father's" are part of a regiment of veterans who come from the U.S. to revisit the site of their war service in Italy. The three actors, Evan Harrington, Timothy John Smith, and Jim Stanek really shine as they harmonize in "One More Walk Around the Garden," a highlight of this delightful score.

Jim Stanek as Smith
Timothy John Smith as Karzinski
Evan HArrington as Braddock
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd

Carmelina's daughter, Gia (MaryJoanna Grisso) has been off at finishing school in Switzerland, but makes a surprise visit home after Roberto calls to tell her the Americans are coming. She can't wait to interrogate them about her war hero father. Naturally, complications ensue! Ms. Grisso has her vocal moment in the sun with the lovely "Smiling at Me."

MaryJoanna Grisso as Gia with her three "fathers"
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd

This production has as Scenic Consultant James Morgan, and Lighting Design by Steve O'Shea. If you want to see this delightful little gem, this coming weekend will provide the last opportunities. The 2019 Musicals in Mufti Series continues with "The Day Before Spring" (February 9-17) and "Lolita, My Love" (February 23-March 3).

Cast
"Carmelina"
Musicals In Mufti Series
The York Theatre Company
Through February 3rd


Enjoy!

Al



Tuesday, January 22, 2019

"Master of the Crossroads" by Paul Calderon - Presented by Primitive Grace Theatre Ensemble


Playwright/Director Paul Calderon has crafted a compelling and masterful drama in "Master of the Crossroads." The play draws in the audience at a primal level as we see three individuals struggling with the affects of PTSD upon each of them, and upon an unseen innocent victim.

The action is set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as Yolanda (Sarah Kate Jackson) enters in a frenetic state, frantically downing pills and alcohol to try to find a way to calm herself so she can convince her ex-brother-in-law, Jim-Bo (Obi Abili) to intervene in an unfolding tragedy. Her ex-husband, Cornbread (Nixon Cesar), is off of his medications and has taken a hostage, whom he plans to crucify. Yolanda has discovered this heinous situation when she dropped by to check on Cornbread. Jim-Bo is reluctant to intervene for a whole host of reasons. He and his fraternal twin are estranged, each choosing to wrestle with their demons in isolation. Jim-Bo clearly has adopted a dual coping mechanism to handle his own PTSD and moral guilt. He has emotionally barricaded himself behind a facade of church and religiosity. He also is clearly someone who hangs onto sanity using Obsessive-Compulsive (OCD) rituals. The playwright shows this OCD behavior clearly when Jim-Bo obsesses over the color of the shirt and tie he will wear that day. It is also clear that Jim-Bo fears what may happen to shatter his fragile shell of normalcy if he engages with Cornbread.

It becomes clear as the narrative develops that Yolanda and Jim-Bo have a history that transcends their former relationship of brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Yolanda finally persuades Jim-Bo that he has an obligation to intervene, and the scene shifts from Jim-Bo's place to Cornbread's hovel. Cornbread enters naked, emblematic of the fact that by the end of the play each of these three characters will have been stripped naked emotionally and psychologically. As Jim-Bo tries to reason with Cornbread, the well-dressed brother - a Dr. Jekyll figure - devolves into a manic Mr. Hyde. At some point in the drama, each of the three characters erupts in a primal scream that we know comes from the depth of their troubled souls.

Mr. Calderon explores themes of hyper-religiosity, betrayal, guilt, denial, rituals, mental health, the trauma of war, and the insidious effects of poverty and racism to weave together a troubling tapestry of three lives hanging on by a thread. The acting by this trio is mesmerizing and believable. They are directed by Mr. Calderon in a way that gives them free rein to vent their rage, frustration and fear.

Be warned that the play features nudity, racially sensitive language, and violence, none of which is gratuitous, but is firmly rooted in the text and subject matter of the play.

The play runs through February 9th at the Bridge Theater at Shetler Studios, 244 W. 54th St.

Enjoy!

Al