Saturday, June 27, 2015

We Three Kings of Orient are leaving the National Gallery of Art July 5

Juan de Flandes (1460-1519), The Adoration of the Magi, c.1508/1519, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, West Building, Main Floor, Gallery 40, Washington, D.C.
Before the parade on Constitution, the concert on the Mall, or anytime before the July Fourth holiday weekend comes to a close, residents and visitors will want to visit the cool confines of the National Gallery of Art with its comforting temperature, pleasures and stimulation offered by a few thousand pieces of art (including the newly opened Gustave Caillebotte:  The Painter's Eye and Pleasure and Piety:  The Art of Joachim Wtewael) and say adieu to Peter Paul Rubens:  The Three Magi Reunited.
From left on the wall, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), all, One of the Three Magi, c. 1618, possibly Balthasar,  Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp—UNESCO World Heritage;  center, possibly Gaspar, Museo de Arte de Ponce, and far right, possibly Melchior, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.  Standing from left are Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., National Gallery of Art, and Pablo Perez d'Ors, Museo de Arte de Ponce.

For the first time in 130 years, the faces of the Three Magi as portrayed by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have been reunited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  Because possibly Melchior (far right, above, in red) is part of the National Gallery's Chester Dale bequest which prohibits travel or loans to other institutions, this grouping of three will likely be the only time they will be seen together for, perhaps, another 100 years.  

(Balthasar (far left, above) is on loan from the  Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp—UNESCO World Heritage, and Gaspar (the old man in the center with the white beard) visits from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc. in Puerto Rico.)

No one knows, of course, what the three kings looked like.  The only Biblical reference to them is found in the Gospel of Matthew which pays the Magi scant attention. Nor is it firm that there were three Magi, but three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) are mentioned in the Bible which match the three ages of life (youth, middle, and old age) which have led scholars to settle on three.

Their origins may have been Europe, Asia, and Africa, or just Asia.

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

At their opening in March, the National Gallery's Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.,  said "they all are real people in some way or another. They are real figures" and how Sir Rubens brought them to life is "fascinating."  Their names, Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, have evolved over time.

Wikipedia quotes Encyclopædia Britannica:  "According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India."  (Myrrh, brought by Balthasar, is found in the Horn of Africa, close to Arabia.) 

Rubens painted them probably in 1618, upon commission from his good friend, Balthasar Moretus, whose parents named him and his brothers after the kings, a common practice then.

Balthasar, the king from Africa, brought the baby Jesus the gift of myrrh, a resin used in embalming. In the portrait Rubens placed it in a small chest similar to a sarcophagus, symbolizing the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

It is probably Melchior, the middle-aged king, who carries frankincense which scholars say represented sacrifice, prayer, and the Christ Child's divinity.

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

The old man with the long, white beard, possibly Gaspar, wears a gold brocade mantle and has a dish filled with coins.  In many Adoration of the Magi renderings (the National Gallery has 60 in its collection; not all on view), Gaspar is the Wise Man who kneels closest to the Baby Jesus.

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

What:  Peter Paul Rubens:  The Three Magi Reunited

When: Now through Sunday, July 5, 2015, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday - Saturday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday and open on July 4.

Where: Main Floor, West Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.

Admission: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215


Monday, June 15, 2015

Book review: 'Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival' is eye glue

Do not pick up this book unless you have uncommitted hours to read.

On my way to the bed chambers, I made the mistake to stop and unload my bag of library books which included Flight 232:  A Story of Disaster and Survival which had been on the reserve list owing to its popularity, and it is no wonder.

It's a spellbinder, all about the crash of United Airlines Flight 232 on July 19, 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa (and not a book recommended for those who may be skittish about flying).

The mysterious cause of the crash, its discovery and the hunt for missing parts scattered over hundreds of miles read like a "whodunit" with lengthy descriptions and photos.

Of the 296 passengers and crew on board, 184 (or 185) survived.  That any lived is shocking, especially when you see the crash (link below). 

Without its tail-mounted engine, flight controls, and only the pilots' ability to turn the plane right, it crashed on a runway with the largest section of the plane landing in a cornfield where some of the passengers were thrown. When the survivors rose from the ground, one rescuer compared them to ghosts rising from a cemetery, while other rescuers thought they were more helpers who had arrived at the airport to help in the recovery.

The author, Laurence Gonzales, a commercial pilot who obviously knows his stuff, conducted hundreds of interviews (many with survivors) and studied many more documents to present an intricately researched, balanced, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute description of the flight, its final minutes, and the aftermath. 

The extraordinary skill and experience of the pilots, aided by a flight instructor who happened to be on board, and their abilities to all work together ("crew resource management") resulted in many lives saved. (Perhaps on summer break, elected leaders in Washington could attend a "crew resource management" session(s).)

The harrowing tale follows many of the passengers en route, sketching their life histories and interests, and what happened to them, sometimes years later; however, it is difficult to keep their identities straight and to know, while reading, who lived and who died.  (The book has about everything in it except a map of the route from Denver to Chicago's O'Hare with the detour to Sioux City, and a list of all the passengers and whether they lived.)

Yes, I did skip many of the technical parts (e.g., the first half of Chapter Four), and I tried to overlook the color photographs of the makeshift morgue and caskets lined up in a hall at the airport hangar.  The 1989 practice of identifying the dead by cutting off fingertips and removing jaws has been discontinued. 

See the crash and hear the communications between the control tower and the pilots at, and get ready for a long, but very fast, night.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Broadway's 'An American in Paris': oui! oui!

Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris, Palace Theatre, New York

This show is so good it's worth a second trip on the Gold Bus to New York to see it again.


Mais non.

At the Tony awards Sunday night, An American in Paris won four of 12 nominations:  for Choreography (Christopher Wheeldon), Orchestrations (Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, and Bill Elliott), Scenic Design of a Musical (Bob Crowley and 59 Productions) and Lighting Design of a Musical (Natasha Katz). 

The stars are ballet dancers who can sing (!), Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, both nominated in their respective categories, both making their Broadway debuts, and they are outstanding.  But, it's New York where the competition is fierce, and many on stage are outstanding.
Whatever!  The fun!  The music!  The dancing!  The 1940s costumes and set changes!  Oh, la, la!  Your head will spin as it tries to keep up with the action on all sides.

You like dancing?

And Gershwin?

You're in for a smashing night about an American soldier who stays in Paris after World War II and strikes up a romance with a French gal who is pursued by two others.  'S marvelous.  It's a different story from the 1951 film version which starred Gene Kelly (Fairchild's idol).

The big Gershwin hits are here:  "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful, “But Not for Me,” “Stairway to Paradise,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” "The Man I Love," "Shall We Dance?" and George Gershwin's orchestral music including “Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,” and “Second Rhapsody.”

Mr. Fairchild, dancing, leaping, twirling while he breaks out in beautiful song, and yet, never relinquishing his dashing smile, dominates the performance, and Ms. Cope becomes a star in his sun's orbit, but their movements and timing show off their years of training plus...they can sing.

One of the most preposterous scenes are the jumps and skips from one department store cosmetic counter to another as the counters (and dancers) move in sync with the music, and everyone keeps singing.  You just hold your breath, hoping no one will fall in what seems like an Olympics ice skating competition.
An American in Paris, Palace Theatre, New York

In the audience, those to the right of me, those to the left of me at the preview (the week before it officially opened on April 12) came not for the music (tourists from Australia and Latin America who had never heard of George Gershwin (!)), but for the title, I suppose, and they got a treat off the street at the box office.

Maybe the play is 15 or 20 minutes too long, and maybe there are too many boyfriends (one whose role seems especially superfluous), but these are minor blemishes on this big and beautiful stage.

I think the show will last a long time on Broadway and on tour, likely much longer than the opening stars will dance it. 

Christopher Wheeldon's directorial debut and creation of this ballet musical is one unforgettable event. 
At last count, the Washington Post was weighing in with three (update:  four) glowing stories about the play. 

What:  An American in Paris

When:  Tuesday and Thursday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. Dark Mondays.  Through April 3, 2016

Where:  Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York, New York 10036

How much:  Tickets start at $57 ($65.75 with fee) at Ticketmaster (877-250-2929 or, or skip the fee and buy at the box office, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sunday, 12 - 6 p.m.  Do not make my mistake and buy through a ticket or "vacation" broker which tacked on big fees for horrible seats (first row with the orchestra pit in your throat; ditto at The Lion King) until the people beside me and I complained to the AIP house manager who promptly gave us better seats with the tourists who had bought their tickets moments earlier at the box office!

Rush tickets:  A limited number are available every day.  Cash only.  Two per person/maximum.

Age recommendation:  6 and up

Duration:  Two  hours and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

For more information:  212-730-8200

For more reviews of An American in Paris and other plays, go to DC Metro Theater Arts.

Monday, June 1, 2015

'The Letters,' an extraordinary show at Metro Stage

Michael Russotto and Susan Lynskey star in The Letters now playing at Metro Stage/Photo by Chris Banks
Michael Russotto and Susan Lynskey star in The Letters now playing at Metro Stage/Photo by Chris Banks

Two actors, one act, one scene come together brilliantly in the drama The Letters by John W. Lowell now playing at Metro Stage.

It's as good as what you've heard and read, and stars a tight script matched by exceptional performances with every word, every clap, every desk walk around and eye rub, important to the show.

Set in the Soviet Union in 1931, a government bureaucrat (Michael Russotto) summons an employee (Susan Lynskey), a prudish. timid little lady, to his office (eerily reminiscent of a prisoner's dark cell) to see if she likes his news about a promotion. 

It doesn't take long for Herr Direktor to show his real colors which illuminate why he brought her in for a tete-a-tete in the first place!

"You are right for this, if I say you are," he thunders.  "The more you accomplish, the more you're expected to accomplish."

Bit by bit, the sharp dialogue unfolds and reveals what he was brewing in his concoction. How would she like her apartment to be searched to find the letters?  Or, her colleague's apartment?  Her co-worker who has been tortured for the last 24 hours because the government can't find copies of the letters.

What letters? 

Copies of letters written by a famous composer (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), whose actual sensual correspondence with a man lay the groundwork for  Mr. Lowell's play.

Under the masterful direction of John Vreeke, The Letters grabs you from the get-go with excellent lighting (by Alexander Keen) and design (Giorgos Tsappas) which, with film noir effect and shadowy silhouettes against an opaque glass door, accentuate the dialogue's edgy angles, and its twists and turns until control is relinquished. 

Institutionally painted walls and singular props from a purse to a big desk to the phone (sound design by Aaron Fensterheim; I can hear it ringing) cast the black mood of the all-too-real story.  

Ivania Stack, the costume designer, made sure that nothing distracts from the exchange, especially the little lady's apparel in black and muted browns, from head to toe which complement her mousiness, at least at first.

The Letters first ran on stage in Los Angeles in 2009, after the extension of the U.S. Patriot Act passed in 2006 (strong-armed through Congress by President George W. Bush) and another extension in 2011 (endorsed by President Barack Obama; who would have thunk?).

Lowell presaged the stage performances currently running this week on the floor of the U.S. Senate where some members have dared question the government's collection of citizen data and its purposes while their loyalty and obeisance are doubted by other senators and the president.

Sound familiar?

Talk about the timing of a D.C. premiere! An Edward Snowden strike.

No D.C. drama lover will want to miss this show with its coming Helen Hayes nominations, I just know

It's scary out there.

Other key crew members are Carolyn Griffin, producing artistic director; Richard Lore, stage manager; and Eliza Lore, assistant stage manager.

What:  The Letters by John W. Lowell

When:  Wednesday through Saturday nights at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., and weekend matinees, Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. through June 14, 2015

Where:  Metro Stage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

How much: $50 and $55

Duration:  75 minutes, without intermission

Parking:  Plentiful, on-site, and free

For more information:  703-548-9044

For more reviews of The Letters and other plays, go to DC Metro Theater Arts.