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Monday, February 11, 2019

Old-Fashioned Love

LEGENDARY MEZZO-SOPRANO CATHY BERBERIAN developed a program in the early 1970s that presented a song recital as it might have been performed in 1909. She dressed accordingly and sang numbers ranging from “The Song of the Flea” to “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” It was recorded at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, so you can hear (if you can find the LP) the twinkle in her voice as she sails from one song to the next. It’s a wonderful conceit, but, without being too sardonically self-conscious, it’s as rooted in the 70s as it is in the aughts.

There are delightful chestnuts from the early 20th century, but they typically display an intensity of sentiment that we’ve long been too hip to indulge. Thus, when you do find performances of “On the Road to Mandalay” or “Trees,” the singer finds a way to telegraph this emotional detachment – usually through some manner of camp or other exaggeration.

This was not the case when John Charles Thomas sang these songs, or John McCormack, or Leonard Warren. And it was Warren’s work that inspired baritone Brian Mulligan not only to develop his own splendid operatic voice, but also to record a collection of 21 songs written between 1877 and 1939 – and to record them with nothing but the total conviction the material deserves.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Moscow on the Mohawk

From the Food Vault Dept.: I’ve been researching Russian cuisine for an upcoming dinner, which reminded me of a review visit I made in 1996 to an ambitious Russian entity. That it ceased to exist not long thereafter should come as no surprise. The mayor referenced below was trying to close down the city’s several strip joints at the time, a task that took much longer to accomplish, and even then I think the places simply died of boredom.


LATER, TRYING TO RECONSTRUCT THE EVENING, my wife and I had trouble ascertaining just what it was that pushed us into the realm of no-holds barred absurdity. The big birthday party, to be sure, and the Russian disco band. The mini-skirted, satin-bloused waitresses added an entertaining touch (and the worry that Schenectady’s fleshaphobic mayor might try to close down this place). Then there was the formidable menu, sporting such unusual items as “schti,” which our waitress wouldn’t describe because the kitchen was out of it, so why bother?

This photo has nothing to do with the article alongside.
Troika – the name refers to the team of three horses that pull a traditional Russian carriage – occupies a building that went through a few incarnations as an Indian restaurant, interrupted by a few years serving Korean food. To put a Russian restaurant there is a delightful idea. The location does seem to be a kiss of death, though.

So my first question would have been about that location. Unfortunately, my follow-up phone calls to manager Ella were unsuccessful – she was too busy with customers to talk one day, which is a good sign; but she couldn’t honor our phone appointment the next day, however, because “she’s having some trouble with the boss,” the phone-answerer whispered, explaining, “I’m just a friend who stopped by to visit today.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Torch Song

AS THE YOUNG WOMAN OBSERVES, it was Cousin Need, who “read all that Truman Capote all the time,” who told her about Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They are identified with spinning, measuring, and cutting, an activity we witness in the form of fuse-making. The fuses are awaiting future torchings by a professional arsonist, an unnamed but memorable character in the latest offering by New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre, proving once again that a small cast, a poetic script, and excellent acting can pack a thought-provoking plenty into a short stretch of time.

Sean Cullen and Jenny Jarnagin
Photo by Bryan Godwin
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “The Arsonists” is getting its regional premiere here, directed by Denizen co-artistic director Ben Williamson. The experience begins as you move from the lobby into the black-box space along an overgrown, verdant pathway. And then we’re in the Florida swamp, where M, who otherwise is referred to as “Littles,” cowers in a cabin, her latest job an out-of-control failure that cost the life of her father, who taught her the business.

Triumphing in this difficult role is Jenny Jarnagin, who brings to it a sense of sorrow that’s imbued with determination to continue to struggle against everything that weighs her down – and, in this case, it’s just about everything: father, mother, identity, future. Jarnagin is a member of Manhattan’s Flea Theater, but she’s also a very committed activist who is creating theater to effect social change.

While there are no such axes to grind in “The Arsonists” (despite M’s facility with a hatchet), I would argue that any desire for social change begins within, and this show demands that you reassess yourself. If it’s going back to the Greeks to find thematic resonance, that’s only because these issues have a profoundly long-ranging provenance, and we can’t move forward without knowing our cultural past.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Bliss on a Bun

FIRST, A CONFESSION: I have only ordered burgers at this place. Yes, I need to try different things, and I've tasted some of the alternate offerings ordered by friends, but the pursuit of superior hamburgers is a calling, a mission, and I have been so called. What you’re getting at Dave’s Gourmet Burgers and More is both a gustatory and architectural marvel, a jumbo-sized creation tamed by a knife through its heart.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This incarnation of Dave Khan’s burger-joint concept has been operating in Schenectady for two years; his previous locations include a stint on Albany’s Fuller road. What he’s doing, and doing well, is offering an alternative to the more upscale burger chains. If you’re dining at McDonald’s, forget it: you’re not interested in flavor. But next time you’re thinking about Smashburger or Red Robin or Sonic or the like, try this place instead.

You won’t find fancy pre-fab decor – far from it. It has a couple of picnic tables in the center of the room, more tables against a wall; a reach-in cooler with drinks, a TV spitting out cable news, and walls covered with homilies, wise saws, and other such sayings. The restaurant is located in Rotterdam, on lower Broadway, with on-street parking and a few parking spaces in the rear.

If you’re not immediately welcomed by Dave, it’s because he has something on the stove. He’s the do-it-all factotum of the place, and the first thing he’s going to do is get an order of black fries cooking for you. Black fries? you wonder, and your gaze lights on a menu or wall notice informing you that unlimited black fries are part of your meal.