Pequot Museum: Gamboling vs. Gambling

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

As you approach the Mashantucket Peqout Museum and Research Center, on a lovely tree-lined weaving boulevard, you encounter a fork in the road; you‘d be well advised to take the way to the left toward the museum itself, where you would undoubtedly be well rewarded, and that will have made all the difference. The way to the right leads to Foxwoods Casino and its complex, where whether you will be rewarded is much less of a certainty. That left choice is almost immediately a satisfactory one, as the outside and grounds of the museum are stunning. Apart from the anticipated natural beauty of its surroundings, the building itself is strikingly beautiful, having won many architectural and design awards. It’s an awesome beginning, but only the first of many such distinctive elements; real beauty lies inside.

The largest Native American museum in the world, a day trip from Boston and New York, (in Ledyard, Connecticut, off I-95), it operates as a non-profit institution. Opened in 1998, the museum is owned and operated by the Pequot Tribal Nation. Since the opening, it has received almost two million visitors (including over 40,000 school children and teachers each year). The permanent exhibits follow the history of southern New England both with respect to its natural development from the Ice Age until today, as well as that of the Pequot people (and other tribal nations of the Eastern Woodland). These include a 16th century Pequot Village with fifty life-size Native American figures, wigwams, a long house, and a half acre of other depictions of early life. This is perhaps the highlight of the museum, but there’s a lot more to experience and enjoy.

Along with state of the art multi-media and hands-on computerized information stations, there are a dozen videos on various aspects of Native history and culture, and a half-hour filmed reenactment of the 1637 Pequot War, “The Witness”. Whether your interest is botany, geology, archaeology or history in general, you’ll probably appreciate the glacial crevasse, the dioramas including a reenacted caribou hunt, the tribal portrait gallery and the temporary exhibits. Of special interest is the aforementioned Pequot Village, with a complimentary pre-recorded self-guided tour. Along the way, you’ll encounter beadwork, quillwork, ribbon work and silverwork. Sounds like a lot of work, but for the visitor it’s immensely immersive fun to see crafts from the Penobscot, Micmac and Iroquois as well as your Pequot hosts. Top if off (literally) with a trip to the top of the observation tower; it’ll be the crowning moment of a fully rewarding visit.


MSMT's "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers": No Yenta Need Apply

J. Morgan White (Daniel), Carson Twitchell (Caleb), Jarid Faubel (standing, Adam Pontipee), Eric Sciotto (Frank), Alex Larson (Gideon), Karl Warden (Benjamin), Michael R. Clement (Ephraim)
(photo: Jenny Sharp)

The theatre world is suddenly awash with matchmaking. Just this past week it was Goodspeed Opera’s revival of “Fiddler”; now here we have Maine State Music Theatre’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”; all we need is a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” for a perfect trifecta. “Seven Brides” isn‘t quite a revival since it traces its existence back to the original 1954 film with Howard Keel and Jane Powell (in “gayest color”, yet) rather than to any one live theatre version. There was, however, a Broadway version in 1982 which famously flopped, but more about that later. This current production’s original source was one of the most honored and beloved film musicals of all time. It was nominated for no fewer than five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Editing, and Scoring of a Musical (for which it won an Oscar, in a category no longer honored). It’s been named by the American Film Institute as one of the best American movie musicals ever made, in large part because of the wondrous choreography by Michael Kidd, and its extraordinary use of the new form known as CinemaScope. It was also the basis for a 1982 TV series that lasted one season. The logical question might be, why did it take almost three decades before it was presented in a live theatre performance, and where did that idea go wrong?

After a brief Miami run and touring around the country, the live version opened on Broadway in 1982, after fifteen previews. It was July. It starred Debbie Boone. It was choreographed by Jerry Jackson (his only Broadway effort, known more for his work on the Las Vegas “Folies Bergère”). It lasted all of five performances. It still somehow snagged a single Tony nomination, for Best Original Score. This critic had the dubious distinction of attending the Barcelona 2003 production with acting in the school of the Three Stooges, canned music and singing (in Catalan, the local language), and truly uninspired choreography. More’s the pity, since this is supremely a dancing show, and when the hoofing’s as good as it is in the MSMT rendering, it’s a smash hit if there ever was one. Credit for this first should go to the team of Patti Colombo, the Director and Choreographer, and Karl Warden, not only Associate Director and Choreographer but also Dance Captain and one of the stars of the show. Their extraordinarily creative work takes this to a new level, overcoming the musical’s shortcomings, primarily the Book attributed to Lawrence Kasha and David Landay. (One was reminded of a line in the title song of another show set in the Old West, “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye”). The score is a blending of a few numbers from the film with Music by Gene de Paul and Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, with some songs dropped (notably “When You’re in Love”). Most of the numbers in the second act were written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. It should be noted that numbers such as the blithely bovine “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, and the oblivious “Sobbin’ Women” (a song based on a mass abduction), are understandably not endearing for their political correctness; times have changed indeed for the better. At least they dropped “A Woman Oughta Know Her Place”.

Gender politics aside, the story is basically harmless geometry about a bevy of possible wives and their prospective spouses. The attractive cast of no fewer than twenty-seven (over half of them making their MSMT debuts) includes the titular seven couples: Adam Pontipee (Jarid Faubel) and Milly Bradon (Heidi Kettenring), who in fact do marry at the beginning of the play, Benjamin (Karl Warden) and Dorcas (Merrill West), Caleb (Carson Twitchell) and Ruth (Shanna Heverly), Daniel (J. Morgan White) and Martha (Tara Lynn Steele), Ephraim (Michael R. Clement) and Liza (Jessica Lawyer), Frankincense (Eric Sciotto) and Sarah (Samantha Hewes), and Gideon (Alex Larson) and Alice (Sarah Marie Jenkins), whose father, conveniently, is the local preacher, played by David Girolmo, who also plays Mr. Bixby and Mr. Sanders. After some great dancing numbers and a long winter (don’t ask), eventually they all end up with the right couplings. Various other townspeople include Jeb (Eric Shorey), Joel (Edward Andrew Lawrence). Mrs. Bixby (Rebecca Beck), Zeke (Andrew Winans), Luke (Dylan Cole Passman), Matt (Alec Cohen), Nathan (Kevin Nietzel), Jennifer Maurer and Zoe Raphael. The town musicians are played by Liz Kershenbaum, Neil James and especially Silas Moores as an on-stage solo violinist. Townswomen were Zoe Raphael and Jennifer Maurer. Faubel and Kettenring make a sweet couple with a couple of sweet voices, and there’s outstanding work from the whole cast, with Warden, Larson and Sciotto particularly noteworthy. Technical crew creations are also all terrific, from the effective Scenic Design by Charles S. Kading to the lovely Costume Design by Kurt Alger, Lighting Design by Dan Efros, Sound Design by Colin Whitely, Music Direction by Edward Reichert, and Props by Kyle Melton.

Kudos for Colombo for giving this some true grit, as 1856 Oregon should have, and stompin’ and foolin’ (as well as beefcake and cheesecake) for all. And though it’s largely a product of its times, there’s enough strength in the female roles (Milly, most importantly) to provide enough old-fashioned fun to satisfy us all. For the dancers and the choreography alone, we should be glad this show has been reborn. And more good news: the next musical by MSMT, “Footloose”, brings Colombo and Warden back. Now that’s what you’d call an encore!

Alex Larson (Gideon), Michael R. Clement (Ephraim), Karl Warden
(photo: Jenny Sharp)


Goodspeed's "Fiddler": After Fifty Years...Do We Love You?

"Fiddler on the Roof"
(photo: by Diane Sobolewski)
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, Goodspeed Opera has just produced a dandy revival of the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. The question of whether we would all still be in love with this musical, fifty years after its Broadway debut, has been resoundingly answered in this rousing production. One forgets how revolutionary the concept was back in 1964 when Composer Jerry Bock, Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and librettist Joseph Stein first proposed it. In the publication of the book for their earlier collaboration, “She Loves Me”, they alluded to a work they were planning to do based on “Tevye and His Daughters” by Ukranian Sholem Aleichem. A musical set in a Jewish shtetl, Anatevka, about a poor milkman with five dowerless daughters amidst pogroms in czarist Russia? Crazy, no? Yet in ran 3,242 performances, almost eight years, on Broadway, having received ten Tony nominations, nine of which it won (including Best Musical). The 1971 film version earned eight Oscar nominations and won three of them. Amazingly, this is the first time it has been mounted by Goodspeed in its own over-fifty-year history. It’s surely been worth the wait.

A large part of its success, then and now, is the depth of the book by Stein, an age-old tale about love, of a father for his children (and their love for him in return) and his love for his religious faith, and what happens when these come into conflict with one another. The scene is set by one of the most brilliant opening numbers ever conceived for any musical, “Tradition”. The curtain barely goes up before the audience knows how important traditions (especially religious tenets, including taboos) were to Tevye the Milkman (here played by Adam Heller). Yet he is surrounded in his own home by creeping modernism. While his wife of twenty-five years, Golde (Lori Wilner) is old-fashioned, this is not true of his daughters. The eldest Tzeitel (Barrie Kreinik) seeks to marry Motel (David Perlman) without the services of the local matchmaker Yente (Cheryl Stern); the next in line, Hodel (Elizabeth DeRosa) plans to marry the revolutionary Perchik (Abdiel Vivancos) without her father’s permission, only his blessing; then, the ulimate crisis, the next daughter Chava (Jen Brissman) wants to marry outside the faith, not only to a Gentile but to one of their oppressors, the Russian, Fyedka (Timothy Hassler). Tevye struggles to hold onto his culture and beliefs, as his small world changes around him at a rapid pace with conflicting crises around love and family, as well as pride and, yes, tradition. How much can Tevye bend until he finally breaks? Author Alisa Solomon, in her fascinating book “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof”, notes that Tevye’s muttered blessing to Chava conveyed through her sister Tzeitel (left unresolved in the original story) and in the presence of Fyedka, “in recognition of their marriage, reluctant as it is, catapults him across time”. Teyve had emphasized, at the close of that opening number, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as-- as a fiddler on the roof!”

One might criticize such devotion to traditions (especially those that morph all too frequently into laws), as expressed in the song “Sabbath Prayer” (“strengthen them, O Lord, and keep them from the stranger’s ways”), but it’s still a very popular story, surviving even the most amateur of productions, though disappointing if not professionally choreographed, largely due to its phenomenal multi-leveled score. Bock and Harnick were never better. Who can ever forget the exuberant “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Miracle of Miracles”, and to “To Life“”, or the poignant “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From the Home I Love”, and the finale, “Anatevka”? And then there’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, in a class by itself (and performed by the cast throughout the theater, cleverly creating a truly immersive experience).

And the score is given full force by the performances of the entire cast, led by the wonderful Heller, who emerges as larger than life without ever becoming a cartoon, a perfect Tevye in his warmth and wisdom. He’s firmly backed up by a strong Wilner and a hilarious Stern. The younger members, most notably Perlman, DeRosa, Vivancos, Brissman and Hassler, also shine. The true impact of this or any production of “Fiddler” really rests on the skill and imagination of a professional choreographer. Here we are blessed with Choreographer Parker Esse, who, under arrangement with the estate of the late original choreographer Jerome Robbins, reproduces the all-important dancing, making the relatively small stage come alive (especially in the “Bottle Dance”, amazingly executed without velcro, magnets or a net). Under the terrific direction of Rob Ruggiero, the huge cast of twenty-five is fabulous both individually and as a unit. They include the other two daughters, Shprintze (Joy Del Valle) and Bielke (Allegra Rosa), as well as Lazar Wolfe (John Payonk), the Constable (Darren Matthias), and, in the most charming touch, the on-stage presence of a real live fiddler (Max Chucker), invoking the 1908 Chagall painting of “The Dead Man”, a fiddler on a rooftop, which initially inspired Stein’s book. All of the technical credits are up to Goodspeed’s exacting norms, from the spare but fluid Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt (not a painted drop in sight) to the Costume Design by Alejo Vietti, Lighting Design by John Lasiter, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, and Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty (with Orchestrations by Dan DeLange).

Stripped to its essentials, this production provides a “Fiddler” of basic simplicity yet also great beauty, one for all ages. As Tevye himself might put it, it’s a blessing. Solomon puts it in her aforementioned work: “(Tevye) wonders if (the townsfolk) might some day meet on a train, or ‘in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America’. In all those places, and far beyond, the world has met-and embraced-him. He belongs nowhere. Which is to say, everywhere."

The Bottle Dance in "Fiddler on the Roof"
(photo: by Diane Sobolewski)


PAM's "Richard Estes' Realism": On Reflection, Is Estes For Real?

Richard Estes' "Diner" (1971)
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution
(photo: Lee Stalsworth)
There’s reason enough to visit Portland Museum of Art at any time, but now would be a particularly rewarding one, for its exhibition of some fifty works by Richard Estes, considered by many to be the master of contemporary photorealism. From his earliest roots in New York, in a challenging environment at best (since Pop and Abstract Art were all the rage), to his continual enhancement of painting from photographs, to his development and perfecting of hyperrealism, his incredibly personal perspective is astonishing. Estes’ work was and remains a stunning testament to his ability to see beyond the (literal) reflections of his world. While his subjects, from those iconic storefronts of New York City in his earliest efforts to the gradual inclusion of fellow big city residents to the most recent landscapes, are instantly identifiable, there is definitely more there than first meets the eye. The clue for approaching his pieces lies in his own description of the creative process, quoted on the wall of this exhibition; where many perceive an artist throwing herself or himself into a work to the point of exhaustion and collapse, he states that the reality is that it’s a “pretty calculated, sustained, and slow process”, where “the effect can be one of spontaneity, but that’s part of the artistry”.

Some might be fooled by the apparent faithful reproduction of real cityscapes like “The Diner” above, thinking this represents a rather uninspired copying, albeit in great detail. That would be to miss the whole point, mainly that there’s more there there. It’s all about the geometry of his vision, the outstanding light, the more-complex-than-reality dimension. One is reminded of carnival mirrors, though Estes’ images don’t distort; it’s tempting to assert that they actually seem to improve on the reality they depict. Rarely is real life this ordered, uncluttered, pristine, and, at least in works from the earliest periods, mostly unpopulated. The majority of the pieces on display are from private collections (including more than a dozen from the artist himself), affording a hitherto unmatched opportunity to appreciate the evolution of his body of work. These days, works like these aren’t seen as fashionable by some, in the same way that Wyeths or even Norman Rockwell are viewed as too literal. Most truly gifted artists endure the changing tides of popular opinion, ultimately emerging as original in vision and style. Estes, still at work today, is one such creative force.

The choices of particular works to be included in this show are crucial to understanding the journey of this unique artist. Selected by the independent curator Patterson Sims along with the museum’s own Curator of Contemporary Art, Jessica May, these chosen creations are truly representative of where Estes began and where he has come, as well as what he has captured along the way. Captured, indeed; it’s a truly captivating show.

The exhibition will continue at PAM until September 7th. Also currently on view are Andrea Sulzer’s “Throughout Sideways” and George Daniell’s “Picturing Monhegan Island”, not to mention the museum’s ongoing exhibitions of its own collection. October 2nd to January 4th will feature an exhibition of “Treasures from the Berger Collection: British Art, 1400-2000”. Just don’t forget you’ve got to catch that return train trip, or you’ll have to stay over in the city. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Portland's Victoria Mansion: Edifice Complex

The "Smoking Room" at Victoria Mansion
Victoria Mansion (or as it’s also known, the Morse-Libby House for the names of its successive inhabitants) is a little gem in the heart of the arts district of Portland, Maine. It was built between 1858 and 1860 by a wealthy Southern hotel proprietor in the Horatio Alger mold, one Ruggles Sylvester Morse. He and his wife Olive, both natives of Maine, made their fortune in New Orleans but wished to summer back in the cooler Northern climate (as anyone who’s spent summertime in New Orleans could surely understand). The Victoria Mansion complex, consisting of the main building with its ornate living quarters and a simpler adjacent carriage house (now the ticket kiosk and museum store), is renowned for both its architectural significance as a “High Victorian” villa in the Italianate style (the work of famed New Haven architect Henry Austin) as well as for its amazing interior decoration (by Gustave Herter of the equally famous New York City firm, Herter Brothers).

After Ruggles died, Olive sold the property, along with most of its furnishings and decorations , to locale magnate J. R. Libby, whose family occupied it into the 1920’s. Threatened with demolition in the late 1930’s, it was rescued by a former teacher, William H. Holmes in 1940, then made into a museum a year later. He dedicated it to the British Queen, hence the current name. Since then it has operated as a non-profit entity open to the public, having been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970. It’s open seasonally (May to October) for guided tours, as well as at the holidays, suitably decorated, each December. Special admission rates are offered for families, children, seniors and college students, any of whom would find many things about the museum to intrigue them.

What makes this property unique is that, unlike any other historical residence in the nation, its contents are ninety percent original to the house, dating back to the first family residents. What this means is that one can get an atypically authentic window into everyday life of the pre-Civil-War period, at least for the wealthier citizenry of the era. Not only is it considered the finest existing Italian style villa in this country, it’s also a virtual time warp. The decorative arts, from the wall paintings by Giuseppe Guidicini (a theatrical scene painter), to the two identical sets of china (one red, one green) actually used by the family, to the over-the-top (but somehow still tasteful, even if it doesn‘t reflect prevailing taste today) “smoking room” (see the above photos of the room before and after restoration), it’s a total immersion in another era. And then there are all those stained glass windows, the original rugs, and…well, you get the idea. “Original” is the operative word.

The mansion is a logical stop on a city walking tour (just a few blocks, for example, from other museums like the Portland Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, to name but a few). Because of the extraordinary state of preservation of both the edifice itself and its contents, affording an unmatched view into another time, this is a must for tourists of all ages. Even Victoria herself would have been amused.

Met Opera's "Otello": Wherever You Go, Iago

Johan Botha & Renee Fleming in Met Opera's "Otello"
(photo: Ken Howard)
Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water amid the summer doldrums, here comes a cure for the seasonal artistic wasteland. Fathom Events, as part of its summer encore series of four Met Opera HD broadcasts to theaters, is providing another opportunity to see their acclaimed production of Verdi’s “Otello”, first broadcast in October 2012. If you missed it the first time, you were in store for a terrific treat, and there’s one more encore: the popular “Enchanted Island”, to be re-broadcast in theaters on Wednesday July 16th. (And they’re already selling tickets to the Tim Rice musical “From Here to Eternity” this coming October).

Most will be familiar with the plot based on the Shakespearean tale of the Moor, Othello, governor of Cyprus (tenor Johan Botha) who returns victorious from war with the Turks. His ensign, Iago (baritone Falk Struckmann), hates Otello for advancing Cassio (tenor Michael Fabiano) over him; he thus convinces a drunken Roderigo (tenor Eduardo Valdes), who’s in love with Otello’s wife Desdemona (soprano Renée Fleming), to get into a fight with Cassio, which leads to Otello’s cancellation of Cassio’s promotion. Otello notices Desdemona’s disturbed reaction to this, but for the moment they pledge mutual love. Iago urges Cassio to plead his case to Desdemona, and when alone sings of his belief in the cruelty of God and evil of mankind. When with Otello, Iago casually questions Desdemona’s fidelity, planting seeds of jealousy. Her plea on behalf of Cassio only stirs the pot and she leaves, throwing down her handkerchief, which her attendant (conveniently, Iago’s wife), Emilia (mezzo Renée Tatum) rescues. Iago tells Otello he saw it in Cassio’s hand, leading to the Moor’s swearing an oath of vengeance. Iago joins him, in a chilling, justifiably famous, duet, wherein the servant becomes the master.

Later, Otello demands the handkerchief from Desdemona, which of course she can’t produce. She makes an all too ill-timed plea for Cassio again, which inflames Otello to accuse her of infidelity. Later, Iago, handkerchief in hand, sets up a conversation with Cassio to be observed by Otello, who assumes they are talking about Desdemona. Recalled to Venice by Lodovico (bass James Morris), Otello explodes, insults Desdemona, and collapses in a seizure as Iago exults. Later, Desdemona prepares for bed, praying. Otello wakes her with a kiss and talks of killing her, causing her to protest her innocence, which further inflames him to strangle her to death. Emilia enters with the news that Cassio has killed Roderigo and reveals what Iago has manipulated. Otello sings of past glory and stabs himself, kissing his wife for one last time before expiring.

As conducted by Semyon Bychkov, this was a stirring performance, with the expected fine level of singing, this despite the fact that Botha had been ill for days prior to the broadcast, and in close-ups appeared feverish. Fleming proved once again that, even if she’s not quite the pure singer she was earlier in her career, she is one of the Met’s best actresses. The rest of the cast, especially the chorus in some lengthy segments, is memorable as well. The Production by Elijah Moshinsky with Set Design by Michael Yeargan, is a bit clunky to say the least (sometimes hindering the crowd movement as well as the Choreography by Eleanor Fazan), and at least in the first and third acts too dimly lit (with Lighting Design by Duane Schuler) to appreciate the intricate Costume Design by Peter J. Hall.

Verdi’s music is of course wonderful, especially the “Credo” by Iago, the prayer scenes with Desdemona, and the entire last act. His use of solo instruments (the cello in the first act, the clarinet in the final act) is quite remarkable, delivered beautifully in this performance. This broadcast, hosted by Sondra Radvanovsky, was a production well worth taking in, even for a second time.


Portland, Maine: Arts, Architecture and Amtrak, or the Downeaster on One's Keister

Portland Museum of Art's Estes Exhibition
The romance of the rails beckoned, as did the Boston-to-Portland half price senior fare on Amtrak’s relatively new “Downeaster”. (Only one of several discounts currently available, including a military fare, for retired or current personnel, of $11 each way on the 11th of each month). The prospect of traveling by train was alluring, as were the many possible attractions of this walkable city. The train was due to depart North Station at 9:05am, and it did precisely that, a promising sign for wished-for efficiency (but be careful what you wish for). Due to arrive in Portland at 11:45am, it almost succeeded, but delays enroute led to a half-hour late arrival at the Portland Transportation Center, where one could rent a bike for the day or take the convenient Metrobus to downtown (Amtrak, at this writing, even provides a free one-way ticket for the bus, at the Café on board the train).

With a well-received exhibition of the work of photorealist Richard Estes on view, the Portland Museum of Art was the obvious first stop (to be reviewed here, in a subsequent dedicated posting). A few blocks away, the incomparable Victoria Mansion (also to be a posting here) beckoned, but there are other nearby choices depending on the ages and tastes of one’s group (the Children’s Museum, the free Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art, and the like). Some of the city’s attractions include the Observatory; the Tate and Longfellow Houses; the Narrow Gauge Railroad, Maine Lighthouse and Jewish Museums; and the waterfront Eastern Promenade walking/biking trail.
There’s a huge and helpful waterfront Visitor Information Center as well. Shopping abounds along the cobblestoned streets, from Ten Thousand Villages arts and crafts, to the Country Noel holiday store, to outlets for Cabot cheeses and Stonewall Kitchen (182 Middle St.). Dinner can range from the quick and easy at Five Guys Burgers and Fries to Gorgeous Gelato, to Holy Donut (renowned for its coconut and ginger sweet potato donuts), to Standard Bakery (equally famous for its raspberry scones). There’s no end to the enticements, as long as you keep the train’s schedule in mind.

The last train for Boston was scheduled to depart Portland at 6:50pm, which it more or less did. It was supposed to arrive in North Station at 9:20pm, which it more and more didn’t. It’s about that romance of the rails. It undoubtedly still exists, for a price (for example, the Orient Express, the Trans-Canadian-Rockies route, the Red Line from Boston to Braintree). Here the romance (as many do) faded. For what seemed like an eternity (and very nearly was), the train inched along at about five miles an hour for over ninety minutes, without any intercom or in person announcements, and in fact no sign of either of the two conductors. There never was a public message or apology, only a last-minute appearance to answer individual complaints. Most people, yours truly included, were justifiably astonished at the total lack of communication. In this day of instant contact and connectedness, it was an inexcusable omission and truly bad public relations. By the time compensatory coupons for a free future ride (one way, and unreserved at that) were meekly distributed, the damage had already been done. Communicating what the problem or problems were, even if temporarily irresolvable, is one of the first dicta in dealing with the traveling consumer…at least, if you ever want to see her or him agin.

Would one recommend a daytripping jaunt on the Downeaster? Yes, with reservations (no pun intended). Take along a lightweight book. Otherwise, should service problems recur, you just might well end up all a-bored.


Cirque's "Varekai": Finding Whereverland

"Russian Swings" Finale in Cirque du Soleil's "Varekai"

Just about everything in a typical production by Cirque du Soleil falls under the category of extraordinary. “Varekai”, their current creation appearing in Providence, is no exception. The word means “wherever” in the Romani language of gypsies, those nomadic souls known as universal wanderers (and, it must be said, not always portrayed benevolently elsewhere). The story begins deep in a forest at the summit of a volcano, (“a captivating forest inhabited by whimsical and enchanted creatures”), where a solitary man, Icarus, parachutes in from the sky to a fantastical kaleidoscopic world where “something else is possible”. Thus begins a journey “both absurd and magical”, as the troupe describes it, populated with characters such as the funny Skywatcher, the Betrothed, and The Guide. As with most Cirque du Soleil productions, the story exists as a structure intended to support a series of athletic and acrobatic showstoppers.

The Acts include variations of performances that the company is justly renowned for, including the flight of Icarus (a spectacular entrance if there ever was one), trapeze artists, aerial strap hangers, a Georgian dance, hand balancing on canes, “Icarian games” (humans juggling humans), Russian swings, and clowns, as well as some strikingly original ones, such as a solo artist on crutches. There are even baton twirlers. They are accompanied by two singers, The Patriarch and the Muse, as well as a seven piece band. This production is heavy on the clowning (several times going on a bit long), best in the “following the follow spot” number. Standout acts include the solo trapeze artist hanging by the back of her neck and a dazzling twosome on aerial straps. But the greatest is saved for last, with the entire company on hand, as exemplified by the photo above. The sets are minimalist, but the costumes and props are fantastic.

If this show isn’t quite as overwhelming as some of their other efforts, with respect to those acrobatic athletes, for those of us who find balancing a checkbook too challenging, this is quite a demonstration of superhuman abilities. Unaccountably, the lobby souvenir stores still don’t offer gym memberships. While the emphasis of this particular production is on an “incantation to life rediscovered”, the familiar subtext of a tribute to centuries of circus traditions is also there. Should you see it? As teenagers today might put it, “Wherever”.