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Monday, March 19, 2018

Best Comedy! 'The Death of Stalin'

Maybe Oscar will add "comedy" as a category since, for fans of Russian history, The Death of Stalin is a scream. I choked on my popcorn more than once. I loved it all.

How is it possible to laugh about a murderer who killed between three million and 60 million of his own people? (The most quoted figure is 20 million.) The movie is about his death. The Russian people sobbed when they learned he was dead! Stalin!
Well, is he or isn't he? Only a "good" doctor knows for sure, but since Stalin had them all snuffed out (to combat a conspiracy) none were left to treat the dictator save the "bad" ones. From The Death of Stalin/Photo by Madman
Recognizing Steve Buscemi (who plays a slim then Khrushchev in Death) from Fargo 22 years ago made my heart leap, anticipating I would laugh even more. I did.

Soviet leaders follow Stalin's coffin. Photo by Baltermants and Gostev - Published Ogoniok issue 11 (1344) dated Mar 13 1953., Public Domain, On the far right is Nikita Khrushchev and third from right is (I think) Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin's top secret police chief and a major role in the film, acted by Simon Russell Beale.

Just a wee bit of knowledge about the assassin's life and rule in Russia is enough to set you on track to enjoy a good time with Russian leaders while they scramble to beat up their comrades and stab each other in the backs on their marches to replace Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) after he died. (Russia's official "rules" of succession and directions for a state funeral are often screened in the film to keep viewers abreast about the order of things.)

Writer/director Armando Iannucci (the Scottish creator of the HBO series, Veep) promises half the film is true, which includes but is not limited to, the opening concert scene, the deaths of hundreds of Russians (the film says 1,500) crushed by the mobs coming to pay last respects, the tomato in the pocket, Stalin's irrational son, Vasily, the suicide of Stalin's wife, his death (after his stroke, he lay for hours in a pool of his own urine because no one had the courage to approach him), and his affinity for late night movies.

Whatever truth there is, it's a hoot and a riot with terrific music by Chris Willis to match the mood (compositions by Mozart, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky). All throughout I kept wondering where the movie was filmed (does Russia allow movie locations?) which, based on the credits, I presume was shot in London and Belgium. This story confirms London and some "secret screens" in Moscow. (как интересно.)

That the writers have brilliantly utilized facts and exaggerated them with slap stick, happening "behind the scenes" (tragic, in many cases) is testament to their originality, creativeness, and insight into what makes a great laugh out loud movie.

The Russian have banned the film, but with the election over and the victor declared (!), perhaps the government will relent and permit this one to screen so the people can scream (but would they consider it sacrilege?).

I liked Death of Stalin before I bought the popcorn. Before I ever entered the movie house, I liked it and knew I was in for a good laugh, something we don't get enough of these days. Said Director Iannucci in an interview in The Atlantic after some suggested a similarity between Trump and Stalin:

"Stalin called anyone who disagreed with him an enemy of the people. Trump calls them unpatriotic and false. With people like Berlusconi and indeed Putin, and Erdoğan in Turkey—these “strongmen,” as it were—it feels a little bit like the 1930s again.

"Trump’s instinct is to call for jailing of opponents. If Saturday Night Live does an impression of him, he starts calling for NBC’s license to be looked into. For someone who is head of a party that’s all about government backing off, he’s very much for telling people what to think, what to watch, who shouldn’t be speaking out—he’s very authoritarian. The rule of law is his law."

P.S. The F bomb drops about every 30 seconds.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Tamayo show closes Sunday at SAAM

 Rufino Tamayo, Pretty Girl, 1937, Private Collection.

The label copy says Pretty Girl was inspired by a photograph of Rufino Tamayo's wife, Olga, with her sister when they were children.  It made a big hit with a critic when it hung in a "blockbuster exhibition" in New York at a time when Tamayo's Mexican colleagues weren't drawing pretty pictures but incorporating issues of the day in their art.
 Rufino Tamayo, Carnival, 1936, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Tamayo drew more than one rendering of Luna Park at Coney Island which the label copy identifies as "a favorite haunt of many New York artists who wanted to capture modern urban life."
 Rufino Tamayo, Factory Workers' Movement, 1935, Collection of Brian and Florence Mahony

The label copy for Factory Workers' Movement says that although Tamayo rejected the injection of politics in art, European fascism and the growth of the violent anti-labor movement in Mexico made him sensitive to workers' needs and their goals. Here he drew them rallying outside a factory, urged on by a man in the distance who calls for action.
 Rufino Tamayo, Lion and Horse, 1942, Mildred Layne Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

Arts thrive in Mexico which produces not only movie winners but distinctive artists, too, like abstractionist Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) whose time spent in New York was the subject of an exhibition which ended Sunday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.   

From the late 1920s until 1949, Tamayo lived off and on in New York, a period some consider to represent his greatest artistry output. 
 Rufino Tamayo, New York Seen from the Terrace, 1937, FEMSA Collection, photo by Roberto Ortiz

After Tamayo moved to the Big Apple in 1926, it didn't take him long to establish a following since several galleries hosted shows which heightened his reputation and led to a warm welcome when he returned to Mexico three years later, a contrast to his sendoff, caused by politics and his being called a "traitor." 

He did not support the violent changes erupting in Mexico, unlike  contemporaries such as Diego Rivera. Tamayo believed a more traditional approach to change was the right direction and that politics and art did not mix.
Rufino Tamayo, Women Reaching for the Moon, 1946, Private Collection, Courtesy of Christie's

Hoping to find more tolerance for his conservative views, he moved to New York where he was influenced by Pablo Picasso and was introduced to fauvism, cubism, and impressionism.  These styles were apparent in the Smithsonian show which, it said, was "the first exhibition to explore the influences between this major Mexican modernist and the American art world." The show of 41 pieces traced his development from urban scenes to dreamy landscapes.

After New York, Tamayo and his wife moved to Paris and lived there for ten years before returning to Mexico in 1959 where they opened a museum in Oaxaca.

Tamayo was proud of his Mexican heritage and displayed it, sensitive to perceived contempt on art not made by those of European descent.

He finished his last painting, Moon and Sun, when he was 90, the year before he died in Mexico City.  

What: Tamayo:  The New York Years

When: Closes Sunday, March 18, 2018. The museum is open from 11:30 a.m.- 7 p.m. every day.

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets, N. W., Washington, D.C. 20004

How much: Admission is free

For more information: 202-633-1000 or visit the website.

Metro station: Gallery Place-Chinatown or walk 10 minutes from Metro Center

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Herndon's 'Godspell' is next stop for theater fans

Alan Naylor (center) is Jesus in Godspell at NextStop Theatre/Photo by Lock & Company

Godspell is so good that on his show last Thursday night, Stephen Colbert carried around a Barbie doll who was wearing a Godspell t-shirt 

Talk about great press!  

The performance in Herndon at the NextStop Theatre Company is like watching a party of Jesus freak college kids dance and sing non-stop while they present his parables in high kickin' fashion.

The cast's chemistry and enthusiasm can't help but infuse audience members with a good dose of the power of the message and reminders to "let the one of you who is faultless cast the first stone" and "no man can serve two masters—God and money," and the most important:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind
Love your neighbor as yourself.

You don't have to be Christian. 

It all started in 1970 with a master's thesis by John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University who wrote the script, and Stephen Schwartz, another Carnegie Mellon alumnus, who was hired by producers the next year to compose music and lyrics when the show moved to off-Broadway.

Mr. Schwartz based many of the songs on selections from the Episcopal Hymnal, like "Save the People," "Bless the Lord," "All Good Gifts," "Turn Back, O Man," "We Beseech Thee," and the most popular, "Day by Day."  

Most of the parables are from the Gospel of Matthew.

Alan Naylor is "Jesus," and he authentically looks the part  and has no trouble convincing anyone on stage or in the audience that he's the man to follow. 

The production opens on the interior of a modern day, used furniture, locally owned coffee bar (you've been there), this one aptly named the "Holy Grounds Café," found in Everywhere, USA, and occupied by solo guests attached to their devices, all heads down, please.

(On the backdrops projectionist Sean Cox casts their words  to insure their non-privacy.)

Jack Golden has created a single effective set whose actors deftly move furniture pieces to side shows, their actions almost undetected until the lights (by Brittany Shemuga) shine on the next artists who let loose in melody.

With plenty to fill eyes and ears, the audience is never left yearning for more.

That the director, Lorraine Magee, is also the choreographer demands considerable acclaim since constant dancing and action pack the production, quite a role.

Jennifer Lambert is a member of the ensemble in Godspell at NextStop Theatre/Photo by Lock & Company

The delightful ensemble is essentially nameless but Jennifer Lambert as the sexy "come here, Sugar Boy" tease is memorable, and the baseball player (A.J. Whittenberger) wearing a Washington Senators uniform (he said at the play's end) makes him easy to pick out. 

Costumer Maria V. Bissex fits everyone in varied and typical millennial styles.

Willing audience participation is invited to play "Charades." 

Elisa Rosman on keys directs the hidden six-piece orchestra who add depth and enjoyment although the musicians occasionally eclipse some of the soloists.

Everyone has a good time, and the show's infectiousness quickly transmits to the audience who gradually realize that despite the mostly merry mood prevailing, the Last Supper and the crucifixion loom.
The scene in Godspell reminded me of Salvador Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955, on view in the West Building at the National Gallery of Art

At the closing a member of the audience was overheard to say: "This is great timing for Easter" which is the last day for the show (April 1).

Stadium seating means there is not a blocked view in the house.

The ensemble includes Angeleaza Anderson, Philip da Costa, Javier del Pilar, Tess Higgins, Bobby Libby, Jolene Vettese, and Chani Wereley.

Other creative team members are Neil McFadden, sound; Rebecca Talisman, stage manager; and Colleen O'Brien, assistant stage manager and properties.

What: Godspell

When: Thursday through Saturday nights at 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., and weekend matinees at 2 p.m., through Easter, April 1, 2018.

Where: NextStop Theatre Company, 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. 
The program notes that GPS map systems often give incorrect driving directions once inside the Sunset Business Park. From the "Taste of the World" restaurant, circle counter-clockwise around the building and look for maroon awning.

Free parking: Available near the door.

Tickets start at $35 with dynamic pricing which fluctuates with demand. Groups of eight or more get a 20% discount, and student rush seats, if available, sell for $5.  See FAQ or call 866-811-4111 to purchase, however, online ordering is recommended.

Duration: Under two hours with one intermission.

Rating: G without any adult language although the crucifixion ending may be too intense for young guests .

For more information:
703-481-5930 or

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Free guitar and organ concert Mar. 7 at St. John's, Lafayette Square

Mak Grgić
Slovenian guitarist Mak Grgić and organist Stephen Ackert will play preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" in a free lunchtime concert Wednesday at St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square. 

Mr. Grgić, born in Ljubljana, performs at venues throughout the world.  He earned his bachelor's degree at the University for Music in Vienna and his doctorate at the Thornton School of Music, the University of Southern California where he was the first guitarist in USC's history to be invited to the artist diploma program.

In his non-music hours, Mr. Grgić helps fund raise for Bosnian children in need. 
Stephen Ackert

Mr. Ackert, also a well known harpsichordist in addition to his organ playing, is the recently retired director of the music department at the National Gallery of Art, where he produced Sunday concerts. He received a doctorate in organ from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Germany.
From 1974 to 1978 Mr. Ackert was the music advisor and resident keyboard artist of the National Iranian Radio and Television Network in Persia.

Mr. Grgić and Mr. Ackert will play:
Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Transcribed for guitar and organ by Stephen Ackert

Prelude and Fugue in F Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
Transcribed for guitar and organ by Ackert

Prelude, Allemande, and Courante from Suite for Cello in D Major, BWV 1012
Transcribed for guitar by Mak Grgić

Prelude and Fugue in A Minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Transcribed for guitar and organ by Ackert

Maybe a young Bach/Wikipedia

The presentation is one of St. John's First Wednesday Concerts, always performed without charge and lasting about 35 minutes.

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, and several have been members. 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 was 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."

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

Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier by Mak Grgić, guitar, and Stephen Ackert, organ

What: First Wednesday Concerts

When: 12:10 p.m., March 7, 2018

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

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

Take a hike in winter on Gerry Connolly's Cross County Trail

Ain't it a beaut?  Even in winter. That's the Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail in Fairfax County/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Through the woods we go!/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Yeeks!  It was deer hunting season where deer slayers can kill deer in the park!  Poor little deer.  The season has ended already/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Roots, roots everywhere as they reach for room and water/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Pavement in a park? Baa humbug/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Evidence existed that big beavers with big, precision teeth liked the surroundings, too/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Yonder above stood civilization/Photo by Patricia Leslie
What's this growing on the tree?/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Oh, no!  Trees get tumors, too, but they are not like mammalian tumors, but, according to a New York Times' article, they are held in place by cell walls and caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus stemming from injury.  In other words, they look worse than they are /Photo by Patricia Leslie
My hair in the morning (if I had this much)/Photo by Patricia Leslie
At night, she's a tap dancer/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Yonder there! What looks to be...hunters!/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A hiking we will go, a hiking we will go, hi ho the derry o, we are not... cold/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A girl and her dog is ever the pleasantest thing/Photo by Patricia Leslie
He wore University of Tennessee orange to ward off the hunters/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Look!  Even on the trail!  Free eatins' and lots of iron! You try them first/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Ain't it gawgus? And see those tire marks?  This was before the big rains but you get the picture: Trump is right: We live in a swamp/Photo by Patricia Leslie

On a warm (relatively speaking) winter's Saturday afternoon, friends and I hiked a wee portion of the 40+ miles long Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail in Fairfax County which extends from one end of the county to the other. 

Who needs a car?

We hiked about two miles roundtrip on the Difficult Run Stream Valley Trail portion, beginning at the intersection of Leesburg Pike and Colvin Run Road. (Parking at the "septic site" (?) at the intersection at Colvin Run is easier than parking at the mill up the hill since there's nowhere to walk safely on the street to reach the trail from the mill, but their cars are nicer than mine, and just to be on the "safe side," they parked upstream. )

We had not gone far on our little venture until we found a sign announcing we were in the middle of deer hunting season which was a mite disconcerting until an important Fairfax County official told me later that hunters have been taking out precious deer for a long time on the trail, and this practice was nothing new. (I declare if you live long enough you can learn something new every day.)

Besides, deer hunters don't come out until dusk when the deer come out (!), so we had no reason to worry. That the trail weaves in and around neighborhoods still makes for some consternation, but being that Fairfax County residents are not known for silence when it comes to matters of controversy (or any matters, for that matter), I suppose this is not a controversial matter since you never hear about it, the little deer being slayed. (If it doesn't bother them, it surely doesn't bother me, especially since I don't even live there!)

With the curves, rocks, roots, dogs, soggy conditions, streams, talks and scenery, we non-runners completed our short hike in about 90 minutes. 

Why is the trail named after Congressman Gerry Connolly?  Glad you wondered.  He is considered the father of the trail since he essentially started it 19 years ago (pre-Congress), working on it years and years and years until the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors decided to call it after him.  And then he quit.  Just kidding!

The trail is part of the East Coast Greenway which stretches from Maine all the way to Key West, and on it, they recycle, using plastic and fiberglass for all the signs. Glorify!

So, take a hike in winter! A delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon getting some exercise and enjoying the outdoors with friends at no cost! (A cheap date.)

What:  The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail

When:  Not at dusk during deer hunting season

Where: Fairfax County

How much:  It's free!  (The Fairfax County Park Foundation welcomes donations.)