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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Movie review: 'Faces Places' is a total bore

So much for Rotten Tomatoes and its "100 percent" approval rating.

Agnes Varda may be the greatest filmmaker out of Belgium since, since...(who?) but that still doesn't make her 2017 documentary of rural France any better.  Zzzzzzzzz.....

Faces Places is a constant refrain of frame after frame after frame of Ms. Varda, 89, traveling around France in a big van with a "mysterious" photographer, "JR" (that's all), 33, who together take pictures, blow them up, and paste them to barns, trains, walls, whatever is handy.  Cool!

Ta da!  That's it!  No plot, no drama, no upbeat to this tune except he wears dark sunglasses at night and all the time!  

About a third of the way through, I thought about leaving.  About half the way through, I thought more about leaving. At the end it was too late. 
It's one of those movies you keep telling yourself it's going to pick up, pick up, pick up, but it never does, and lies flat like the train tracks. (The next time I tell myself that, I'll know it's the signal to VAMOOSE.)

Faces Places is 89 minutes long which matches Ms. Varda's age! Imagine! About 80 minutes too many.  

Dullsville, lacklustre, you catch my drift. It would make a good drugless sleep aide since it works wonders in about 10 minutes. 

Take my words for it and save your time and money and forget about Rotten Tomatoes!  You know critics:  They like films like that lifeless, depressing cat movie of 2014
arty-farty films which earn zero return because they are public flops. But the producers don't make them for the money.  Oh, no:  They do it for the art!  Yeah, right. And Donald Trump doesn't tweet. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

'Our Town,' a play to see before you die

Jon Hudson Odom in Our Town at Olney Theatre Center/Photo by Stan Barouh

You can see it now through November 12 at the Olney Theatre Center.

Its message is simple but strong, and I am happy to note that Goodreads agrees with me, including Our Town in its "Top 100 Stage Plays," and ditto, Buzzfeed (32 to Read Before You Die), and the list goes on.

Olney Theatre is nothing short of sophistication and utmost professionalism in its presentations, and Thornton Wilder's play fits the missive exactly, especially with Our Town under the baton of the esteemed Aaron Posner, director of more than 250 plays and winner of five Helen Hayes Awards.
From left, Megan Anderson, Jon Hudson Odom, a puppet, and Andrea Harris Smith in Our Town at Olney Theatre Center/Photo by Stan Barouh

But the results of Posner's choice to use puppets for 21 of the roles at the Olney are unsatisfying, leaving me practically void of emotion and feeling, well, like a puppet.  Fortunately, my experience did not mirror those around me since on my left, a 60- somethings man sobbed, and on my right, a girl, age 9, cried, too, at the end. (Come to think of it, on my first showing I was probably as emotional.)
The stage is set tennis court style, another disadvantage, with audience members facing each other in the shadows, somewhat distracting. It's a clever arrangement for theatre types, but I doubt most members of the paying audience favor the approach.

When a puppet hollers from an upstairs window on one end of the stage but its voice emanates from an actor on the other end and on a different level, my eyes floated from side to side, tracking the source, an interruption which subtracts from the message (which is, in a few words: carpe diem and tempus fugit).

The program notes that a minimalist set (by Misha Kachman) is what Doctor Wilder ordered for his show and minimalism is what you get to focus attention on what's important (not the puppets).

Sound by Sarah O'Halloran is excellent, made visible by the actors on stage.

The puppet designer, Aaron Cromie, is due much applause for creations which reflect today's population diversity, but it's exceedingly doubtful that diversity existed in a small town like Grover's Corners, New Hampshire 100 years ago (so why not place the current production in this century?).

Wilder (1897-1975) is the only Pulitzer Prize winner for both fiction (The Bridge of San Luis Rey) and drama (Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth).  Over its 80 years, this is the first time Olney has presented the play.

The actors led by Helen Hayes winner, Jon Hudson Odom, as narrator or stage manager (a role often played by Mr. Wilder himself), are nothing less than superbMegan Anderson is Mrs. Gibbs; Tony Nam, Dr. Gibbs; Andrea Harris Smith, Mrs. Webb; Todd Scofield, Mr. Webb Cindy de la Cruz, Emily Webb; and William Vaughan, George Gibbs,  Mr. Vaughan notably realistic as the boy. The chemistry flowing between him and Ms. de la Cruz conveys badly needed authenticity to the show. Ms. Anderson will have you believing you are a member of the cast, too.

Other creative team members are Helen Q. Huang, costumes; Thom Weaver, lights; Hope Villanueva, production stage manager; Debbie Ellinghaus, managing director; Jason Loewith, artistic director; Dennis A. Blackledge, production; and Jason King Jones, senior associate artistic director.
What: Our Town

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832

When: Now through November 12, 2017, Wednesday through Saturdays at 7:45 p.m., and weekend matinees at 1:45 p.m.

Tickets: Begin at $47 with discounts for groups, seniors, military, and students. 

Ages: Recommended for ages 10 and up due to themes

Duration: 2.5 hours with two intermissions

Refreshments: Available and may be taken to seats

Parking: Free, nearby, and plentiful on-site

For more information: 301-924-3400 for the box office or 301-924-4485

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

All Saints Day free concert Nov. 1, St. John's, Lafayette Square

Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455), The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24), National Gallery, London/Wikipedia

Maurice Duruflé, George Shearing, and J.S. Bach are some of the composers whose works will be played at a free lunchtime concert Wednesday at St. John's, Lafayette Square in honor of All Saints Day.

Brent Erstad, an organist and assistant director of music at St. John's who teaches at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, will play Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537 (Bach), Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain (Duruflé), and There is a Happy Land (Shearing).

Also on the program are Elegy by George Thalben-Ball and Litanies by Jehan Alain. The performance is part of the church's First Wednesday concert series.
Brent Erstad/Episcopal High School

All Saints Day commemorates those who have died and have gone to heaven. It falls between Halloween and All Souls Day or Day of the Dead on November 2, the latter which recognizes those who have died and have not yet reached heaven. 

All Saints often commemorates the lives of loved ones who have died in the past year, including those known to members at St. John's who, throughout the year, provide names of the deceased to the church where they are read aloud in services.

The history of All Saints' Day can be traced to Pope Boniface IV, who in 609 AD consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs. In the next century, All Saints was given officialdom on November 1 by Pope Gregory III.
All Saints' Day at a cemetery in Sanok, Poland, November 1, 2011/Silar, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

St. John's was founded in 1815 and is known to Washington residents as the yellow church at Lafayette Square. It's often called the “Church of the Presidents” since beginning with James Madison, who was president from 1809 to 1817, every president has attended services at the church. A plaque at the rear of St. John's designates the pew where President Abraham Lincoln often sat when he stopped by the church during the Civil War.

Benjamin Latrobe, known as the "father of American architecture" and the architect of the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House porticos, designed St. John's Church in the form of a Greek cross.

The church bell, weighing almost 1,000 pounds, was cast by Paul Revere's son, Joseph, in August, 1822, and hung at St. John's that November where it has rung since. Wikipedia says two accounts report that whenever the bell rings on the occasion of the death of a notable person, six male ghosts appear at the president's pew at midnight and quickly disappear.
St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C./Photo by Patricia Leslie

Dolley Madison, wife of President Madison, was baptized and confirmed at St. John's, according to the National Park Service, which calls the church "one of the few original remaining buildings left near Lafayette Park today."

Following tradition, President Donald J. Trump and his family began his presidency on the morning of January 20, 2017 with private services at St. John's.

For those on lunch break Wednesday, food trucks are located at Farragut Square, two blocks away.

Who: Brent Erstad, organist, playing an All Saints' Day concert

What: First Wednesday Concerts

When: 12:10 p.m., November 1, 2017

Where: St. John’s, Lafayette Square, 1525 H Street, NW, at the corner of 16th, Washington, D.C. 20005

How much:
No charge

Duration: About 35 minutes

Wheelchair accessible

Metro stations: McPherson Square (White House exit), Farragut North, or Farragut West

For more information: Contact Michael Lodico, St. John's director of music ministry and organist, 202-270-6265 or or 202-347-8766

Other First Wednesday concerts all beginning at 12:10 p.m. and lasting until 12:45 p.m. are:

December 6: Music of the Season
by the Episcopal High School Chamber Choir

January 10, 2018: Music by French composers by Julie Vidrick Evans, organist

February 7: Soloists
from St. John's Choir

March 7: Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier by Mak Grgic, guitar, and Stephen Ackert, organ

April 4: The premiere of Paul Leavitt's Fanfare for Trumpet and Organ by Lisa Galoci, organist, and Chuck Seipp, trumpet

May 2: Music for Angels, including Craig Phillips' Archangel Suite by Michael Lodico, director of music and organist, St. John's

June 6: Music by Women Composers, including Margaret Sandresky's Dialogues for Organ and Strings by Ilono Kubiaczyk-Adler, organist, with the U.S. Air Force Strings

Sunday, October 29, 2017

NextStop Theatre targets 'Assassins'

Assassins is on stage at NextStop Theatre in Herndon/photo by Lock and Company 
Leave it to Stephen Sondheim to take an idea about assassins and write music and lyrics for a show. This is one you aren't sure is about assassins, but it is, with songs to boot.

Wikipedia says the play began off-Broadway in 1990 and opened in 2004 on Broadway, winning five Tonys.

The actors at Herndon's NextStop Theatre Company put on a big, provocative  show with lots energy and a desire to please, impressive for a young troupe in only its fifth year.

Their exaggerations and lampooning of guns, starting out with seven or eight lying on a table while a Secret Service agent stands immobile nearby (so etched in permanence I thought at first he must be a mannequin), is filled with coarseness and surprising bits of humor. (No one will leave humming, Walking on Sunshine.)

Action is swift. Director Jay D. Brock elicits strong portrayals about these detestable creatures, with standout performances by Bobby Libby as John Wilkes Booth (fierce in his opposition to President Lincoln and his creed) and Katie McManus, brash and obnoxious as Sara Jane Moore  who quietens her son (Logan Wagner) when she aims a gun at him, accompanied by soft, awkward laughs from some members of the audience.

Jaclyn Young bears an eerie resemblance to Squeaky Fromm (whose love for Charles Manson never ends). 

The subjects are not glorified but that the script gives them recognition is troubling. Their crimes are presented in vignettes in helter-skelter order. It's doubtful that audience members will recognize every character, like Samuel Byck (Alex Zavistovich), attempted assassin of President Richard M. Nixon, Giuseppe Zangara (Brice Guerriere) and Leon Czolgosz (Daniel Westbrook).

(I kept hoping JFK's murder would be omitted since I don't want to relive it over and over and over like the media presents.)

The timing of the show's opening weekend coinciding with President Trump's announcement that he would release documents related to JFK's assassination was prescient, however the producing artistic director, Evan Hoffman (who is also the sound designer) writes in program notes that he and Director Brock selected the title a year ago, and it has no relationship to the present administration.  
In no way do they seek to exalt the men and women portrayed or to castigate the current administration, Hoffman writes (Actually, that never entered my mind while watching the show. What I did think about was gun control and keeping weapons out of the hands of crazies, like assassins. The play's Broadway opening was delayed three years because of September 11.  How immune have we become to these horror stories, this production following so closely the tragedy of Las Vegas this month?  Not to fault the timing of the show which must "go on.")

"Our hope is by providing a relaxed and entertaining venue for the community to gather together and be immersed in stories highlighting diverse perspectives, that we can help break down barriers which divide."  What is the diversity here? That assassins think differently from you and me?

For gun control advocates, the play is a great selection to take on the road. That Americans continue to tolerate extreme violence and death and quickly discard these events from the public consciousness is almost as shocking as the sudden deaths presented. Who will be the next perpetrator to step up to the window and claim temporary fame? 

An excellent stage design (by JD Madsen) with flowing red velvet curtains as backdrop is clever and simplified, with emphasis on the American flag styled in flooring (meaning?) and platforms which have multiple purposes. A rectangular box at the front becomes a table, a seat, and the sound of gunfire when actors flip it on its side. 

Flashing lights (by Catherine Girardi) are not bothersome, but too-frequent and loud sounds of gunfire, especially when the chorus line aims the weapons at the audience (more than once) are jarring.

Marc Bryan Lilley is music director. Seven musicians make noticeable contributions with haunting solos by an electric pianist and percussionist. In vocals, group harmonies, naturally the strongest, are the best.

Playbill calls it a dark comedy but is it?  "Dark" and "bleak" certainly apply to "perhaps the most controversial Broadway musical ever written." That's up to the viewers.

Other cast members are the proprietor, Mackenzie Newbury; John Hinckley, Jr. Mikey Cafarelli; Charles Guiteau, Andrew Adelsberger; the Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald, John Sygar; Emma Goldman/Ensemble, Megan Adrielle; Gerald Ford/Ensemble, Jason Hentrich; Ensemble, Madeline Cuddihy and Colton Needles.

Also on the Creative Team are assistant director, Christie Graham; costumes, Kristina Martin; stage manager, Laura Moody;
props coordinator/ASM, Jade Brooks-Bartlett; costume apprentice, Marilyn Lopes; ASM, Quoc Tran; co-master electricians, Jonathan Abolins and Maeve Nash.
What: Assassins, book by John Weidman, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

When: Thursday through Sunday nights and weekend matinees, now through November 12, 2017.

Where: NextStop Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA 20170 in the back right corner of Sunset Business Park, near the intersection of Spring Street/Sunset Hills Road. Right off the Fairfax County Parkway. A wee big hard to find on a first visit, so allow an extra 15 minutes.

Free parking: Available near the door.

Admission: Tickets start at $20 with group discounts and student rush seats (if available). Call 866-811-4111.

Duration: A little under two hours without intermission

Rating: R due to frequent vulgar language and phraseology.

For more information: 703-481-5930 or

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Inside the Cosmos Club

 The Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008/Photo by Patricia Leslie

The Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. "founded in 1878, is a private social club for men and women distinguished in science, literature and the arts or public service. Members come from virtually every profession that has anything to do with scholarship, creative genius or intellectual distinction."

Members in the Cosmos Club have included three U.S. presidents, two U.S. vice-presidents, 12 U.S. Supreme Court justices, and more than a few Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winners, in addition to recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (Please see below.)

A few Saturdays ago I got to go on a public tour and saw:
This portrait of artist and inventor Samuel Morse (1791-1872) in the entrance hall.  (Terra Foundation's 2014 Gallery of the Louvre about Morse's painting is a fabulous book which may be in the Cosmos library.  It should be.)/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Also in the entrance hall on the right side is a bust of ...?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
On the second floor and centered at the end of the Long Gallery is a couple taking a dance lesson in the recently restored Warne Ballroom/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The recently restored (2012) Beaux-Arts Warne Ballroom where a dance lesson was underway. It was shocking to see...across the floor! Men in coats and ties on a Saturday. I declare!  Magnifico.  Maybe it is close to the apocalypse, after all/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Back to the Long Gallery above this mantle is a portrait of Henry Clay (1777-1852), statesman, member of the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, three time unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. presidency, and not a member of the Cosmos Club which was founded after Mr. Clay died/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A closer view of Henry Clay with a bad light reflection/Photo by Patricia Leslie
From the Long Gallery, peeking into what is perhaps a private dining room where luncheon is served?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
On the second floor is a bust of John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), the Cosmos founder and in whose home the Club was born/Photo by Patricia Leslie
One of the most spectacular rooms at the Club is the library which the website says contains 9,500 volumes.  It is a lovely, comfortable room where bookish luxuriate/Photo by Patricia Leslie
These visitors became like statues, unable to move, starstruck by the sight of a wealth of books in an elegant setting/Photo by Patricia Leslie
What? Cards?  Paper cards?  Used for checkouts?  Are the Digital Police aware?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Books written by living Cosmos Club members are found on these shelves, and once the authors die, their places here terminate and their books are moved elsewhere in the Club, a docent told me/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Another view of the library.  Can you tell it's one of my fav digs at the Cosmos Club?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
And another view. Don't you like the circular arrangement of books on the table?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Titles you may have read/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Another view of an unusual book arrangement.  I am the bookish sort who relishes them!/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Atlas, anyone?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Through a curtain darkly, a window at the front of the mansion looks out on Mass Ave./Photo by Patricia Leslie
How about a blind date with a book? What a clever idea!
/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The Club's chess champions for all to see, in the Periodicals Room which features 140 journal titles and adjoins the library/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The Periodicals Room/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A hallway which separates the Periodicals Room from the Warne Ballroom over which Mathilde Townsend (on wall) presides in a digital presentation, donated by members and hung in 2015. The original, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1907, was given in 1952 by Ms. Townsend, the daughter of the mansion's previous owner, to the National Gallery of Art where it is currently not on view/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Mathilde Townsend by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).  Please pardon the light's reflection/Photo by Patricia Leslie At this link is a better photograph. From just a cursory search, I was unable to find the birth and death years for Ms. Townsend.
One of the Cosmos' grandfather clocks, this one at the top of the stairwell on a second floor landing/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The view from the grandfather clock/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 Some of the 61 Pulitzer Prize winners and Cosmos' members, pictured on the ground floor beyond the entrance hallway/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Some of the 36 Nobel Prize winners and Cosmos' members, pictured on the ground floor beyond the entrance hallway/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Some of the 55 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award and Cosmos' members, pictured on the ground floor beyond the entrance hallway/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Dolley Madison (1768-1849) presides over her room with a face rendered not as attractive as the one we have come to love and adore/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 A U.S. silver dollar commemorating Dolley Madison who lived in what is now known as Madison Place on Lafayette Square from 1837 until 1849 when she died. The Cosmos Club bought the house in 1886 and occupied it until 1952 when it moved to the present mansion/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Postage stamps in the U.S. and beyond honoring past Cosmos Club members/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Darling, how pleasant it was, so unusual to see gentlemen dressed in coats and ties on a Saturday.  A Saturday.  Men dressed up as men!  
Dearie, they were taking dancing lessons, no less, with gentlewomen dressed as if they were going to a White House eventQuelle surprise!  People dressed to impress! On a Saturday morning in this town where the fashion de jour is to look as bad and as wrinkled as you possibly can.

At the Cosmos Club, gentle people treat each other with respect and dignity and dress the part. Thank goodness, some are still left. Come and see for yourself!  And, perhaps, join the Club!  Membership is open to all presidents, vice presidents, other VIPs named above, and others with proper credentials and pedigree. Fees are not as costly as one might think.

What:  Public tours of the Cosmos Club

When:  Every other month at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.  The next tour is scheduled for November 11, 2017 (Veterans Day weekend).

Where: 2121 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008

How much:  No charge

For more information:  202-387-7783 or