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Friday, October 21, 2016

Prometheus Rebound

TWO THINGS ARE HAPPENING on the stage of Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre this weekend: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” gets stripped to its dramatic, philosophical essence, and Steven Patterson gives the performance of a lifetime as he deftly portrays the many characters through whom we’re told this tale.

Steven Patterson as the Monster
Photo by John Sowle
Patterson took on this tour-de-force a decade ago at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, whose artistic director, Jim Helsinger, fashioned the script. And the piece is an appropriate choice for the young Bridge Street Theatre, which seeks fare that’s off the beaten path, especially if there’s some moral complexity involved. We saw Patterson’s versatility in last summer’s “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” another one-man show, but “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” pushes his characterizations to even more challenging (and successful) extremes.

The action plays out on a simple-seeming set of rough wood platforms and ramps that serve as shipboard, classroom, laboratory, dwelling, and even the mountains of Switzerland. An upstage curtain takes on a variety of colors and textures to accentuate the scenes, all of it the work of the theater’s Managing Director, John Sowle, who also directed. The superb sound design, by Carmen Borgia, set up atmospheric beds when appropriate, giving the sound of a ship creaking through ice or the birdsong of a meadow, and punctuated the action with appropriate effects.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Young at Heart

BY THE TIME LESTER YOUNG hit the studio in 1936 to make his first recordings, the 27-year-old already had developed a significantly original sound – no easy feat in an era when many original tenor saxophone voices were busily redefining jazz’s boundaries. Coleman Hawkins was a few years away from revealing his more mellow side, while artists like Ben Webster, Barney Bigard, the short-lived Chu Berry, and audacious Bud Freeman were emerging from the pack.

But Young was more different still, his rhythmic intensity dancing behind harmonically inventive solos rendered in a creamy voice. And he was helped, on this session, by a rhythm section so tight that they played as one person. The triumvirate of Count Basie, Jo Jones, and Walter Page packed a syncopated wallop in every bar they played even as their music seemed to stare at you through sleepy, half-lidded eyes.

“The first thing that you have to keep in mind as you listen to these four selections is that nothing like them had ever been heard before,” writes Loren Schoenberg, a jazz historian who also wields a mean tenor sax. “And in the young Lester Young there can be heard the reinvention of the tenor saxophone as well as the first recorded examples of a new vocabulary for jazz.”

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Here’s the Beef

In a Stew Dept.: I recently taught a very successful class about making French stews (at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Albany, NY), one stew of which was Beef Bourguignon. So when Schenectady’s Daily Gazette asked me for a piece on some manner of ethnic cookery, I wrote the following.


THERE ARE MANY GOOD REASONS to revisit French cooking, and they don’t all involve butter and cream. There’s also alcohol.

Photo by Marc Schultz
Take the beginning of this recipe from Auguste Escoffier’s celebrated 1903 “Le Guide Culinaire”: “Lard the piece of beef along the fibres with large strips of salt pork fat which have been marinated in a little brandy ...”

That’s the first step in preparing his version of Boeuf Bourguignon, or Burgundy Beef, a peasant stew that acquired a fancier reputation once the likes of Escoffier got hold of it. Getting those nonprime cuts of beef to become tender and tasty is a challenge that’s usually met by slow-cooking it for a long time. (An exception is something like London broil, which achieves its tenderness mostly because it’s sliced very thin.)

What gives Beef Bourguignon (as it’s usually styled in English) its unique flavor is an overnight spent in a red Burgundy wine. This isn’t a marinade that tenderizes the meat — for that you need something more aggressively acidic, or with the kind of enzymes pineapple juice contains. As with most marinades, this one’s purpose is to enrich how the meat will taste.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Eyeing the Storm

IT’S EASY, THESE DAYS, to investigate the evolution of motion pictures, but live theater is an experience of the moment and wears its history only insofar as a contemporary play accumulates trends of the past. But those trends tend to get thrown off as theater evolves and a presentational acting style turns naturalistic and then more naturalistic still.

From left, Brett Owan, Alexandra Doggette, Elisabeth Henry,
Kane Prestenback, and David Smilow. Photo by John Sowle
By the time George M. Cohan wrote “The Tavern” in 1920, Eugene O’Neill was winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon” and Broadway was about to get his “Anna Christie,” while Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” was playing down the street. In the wings were such playwrights as Maxwell Anderson and Sidney Howard and that innovative juggernaut, The Theatre Guild, all poised to change the face of Broadway entertainment – but this also was the year of “Frivolities of 1920" and a revival of “Floradora.”

“The Tavern” opened in the midst of all this as a both a tribute to and satire of the simplistic melodrama that O’Neill et. al. sought to supersede. This kind of story must have bubbled in Cohan’s very bones, given his by-then very long theatrical career, both as a writer and performer. He grew up touring in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and, with a long line of successes behind him, became fascinated with a script deemed so lousy by another producer that he sent it to Cohan just to share a laugh.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Gypsy for Me

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Among of the highlights of my busy reviewing schedule thirty years ago were the trips into New York’s Washington County to a converted dairy barn where the chamber group L’Ensemble performed. This also dates back to when I typed my review into a terminal in the office of the Schenectady Gazette, and thus have no computer file in my archives. I assembled booklets of clips from that era, and have enjoyed going through my thirty-years-ago cultural history.


THE FIRST SURPRISE FLUSHES OF FALL provided an atmospheric setting Saturday night for L’Ensemble’s “A Gypsy Summer” at the group’s not-too-modified barn-cum-concert hall in Cambridge, NY.

The spirit of the Hungarian fiddler was effectively captured in performances of mainstream classical chamber music with characteristic gypsy elements.

The idea for this program came to artistic director Ida Faiella last New Year’s Eve at a café in Budapest, she explained in her introduction; as a performer in the first half of the Cambridge concert, she sang Brahms’s “Ziegeunerlieder” with a vivacious understanding of the evocative poems.

Brahms spent some time performing with a violinist who shared with him the characteristic sounds and stylings of the gypsy’s music, so that the composer could inform even original melodies with an appropriately exotic flavor.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Vaudeville Revisited

From the Vault Dept.: The New Vaudeville still struggles to find a mainstream toehold, and I suspect it never will. Which, while it may help preserve its weird, antic nature, renders it hard to find outside of the biggest cities. Here’s a 30-year-old look I took at one such event, brought from Washington County into Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theatre.


SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAPPENED at Proctor’s Theatre Saturday night, although it left much of the audience wondering exactly what it was that had happened. It was funny, it was tricky, it sang, it danced, it disappeared.

It was the New Vaudeville Show from Hubbard Hall, originating just upstate in Cambridge, Washington County.

Now, it wasn’t vaudeville with potted palms and signboards, and there wasn’t a dog act anywhere near it. In fact, it was a collection of five acts with a cooperative attitude. Let’s look at them one by one.

George Wilson is a fiddler who looks the part: bearded, grey, red suspenders. He gave us a medley of contagiously fun rhythmic material that made you want to get up and dance, which is exactly what clogger Ira Bernstein did throughout the show. Joining Wilson for tapping or clogging, Bernstein started off in jeans and ended up in a modified tux, and in the course of things gave us the exuberance of Ray Bolger and the elegance of Astaire – with some down-home heel-kickin’ thrown in.

The Wright Bros. aren’t consanguineous brothers, as they explain in a comic song, and yet it seems as if they must be related. They must be. You get the feeling that this must be what the five Marx Brothers were like, but with a dash of Three Stooges thrown in. They juggle, they dance, they sing (with dreadfully funny results), they tear up the stage.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Gettin’ the ‘Cue

THERE’S NOT A BIG BARBECUE PRESENCE in Provincetown, Mass. Stroll down busy Commercial Street and you’ll be exhorted to try burgers and pizza and, of course, seafood. So my wife and daughter and I were delighted to learn of a fairly new place with a wonderfully impressive moniker.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The first surprise at Two Southern Sissies is that the barbecue on offer, which includes pulled pork and beef brisket, isn’t smoked. The second is that it’s nevertheless delicious. Not that it should be any surprise: although he was raised in upstate New York, co-owner Keith Lewis claims a Virginia heritage that goes back far enough to number explorer Meriwether Lewis among his forebears. “My father was the first in the family to stray farther than fifty miles from home,” Keith explains.

Thus, his recipes are taken from a long family tradition, but adapted to be more healthful than might otherwise have been the case. Hence the smoke-free slow-cooking, not to mention ingredients that come from grass-fed, humanely raised critters and, when possible, local farms.