Saturday, December 29, 2012

It’s a Wonderful Life during Christmas at the Omni Bedford Springs Hotel

Omni Bedford Springs Hotel in Winter
 I’m so glad I arrived at the Omni Bedford Springs Hotel at early evening on Christmas Eve. Leaving the Pennsylvania Turnpike and driving about three miles into the snow-covered hills of south-central Pennsylvania gave me a chance to decompress and get in the mood for an old-fashioned Christmas..

Turning the corner of a winding road, the hotel came into view, its long majestic building popped into view, adorned with soft white lights and dominated by a towering 40-foot tall Christmas tree that sat on the lawn. Falling snow added its bit of holiday romance and it, indeed, was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Inside, another big tree decorated the lobby, and nearby, a couple sat warming themselves in front of the fireplace, logs crackling merrily. There were nutcrackers galore filling cabinets and tabletops and even a gingerbread house displayed in the lobby. In the library, instead of glass ornaments, another tree sported paper silhouettes of U.S. presidents (Over the years, ten U. S. presidents stayed at the hotel, including James Buchanan, who made it his summer White House).

Dinner in the Crystal Room that evening proved a feast of seared scallops, lobster salad and Pekin Paradise Duck, elegant courses that also included very memorable lemon lavender scones. After a couple glasses of wine, I slept soundly, visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.

Christmas morning started with coffee in bed, an opening of gifts and a tour of the historic hotel with a truly remarkable man named Scott Mallow, who, for a small fee, shares his extensive knowledge of the 216-room hotel during a fascinating ,hour long expedition into history and architecture.

Way before White traders arrived in the area, Native Americans frequented the area’s seven springs hoping their purported therapeutic properties would ease their ailments. Foreseeing the economic potential of the site, one of the early White settlers, John Anderson, purchased 200 acres and began building the original stone section of the resort starting in 1808 as a place to stay for those coming to "take the waters." One of the first notables to visit was Aaron Burr, who came to be with his niece, who brought along her sickly child.

As word spread, Bedford Springs began to draw wealthy Southerners and, later in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, the elite of cities like New York and Philadelphia. By 1905, a series of new additions had increased the number of guests the hotel could accommodate, and the nation’s first indoor Olympic-size pool was added, complete with an elevated opera box from which musicians could entertain the swimmers.

If you take Mallow’s tour, ask him to point out the guest ledgers that date back to the 1840s displayed under glass cases as well as President Buchanan’s desk, the copy of the first transatlantic telegraph message sent to him at the hotel on August 12, 1858 by Queen Victoria and the silhouettes in the First Ladies Parlor of the US presidents and their wives who stayed at the resort.

In the Duke of Bedford Library, have him identify the windows that bear witness to the custom of newlywed brides supposedly testing the authenticity of their diamond rings by inscribing their name in the glass panes.
With history around every corner, the hotel is surprisingly in very good shape, thanks to a $120 million renovation project completed in 2007. WiFi, a state-of-the-art fitness center open 24 -7 and the Springs Eternal Spa complete with all the latest treatments are just as home here as the old copper kettles, the massive earthenware cask and display cases of implements like antique axes and other tools located outside the rustic 1796 Restaurant.

Inside the upscale steak and chop house, check out the case of antique Pennsylvania long rifles and the wonderful series of antique coverlets hung behind glass along one wall.

If You’re Going

For things to do, the resort has 25 miles of hiking trails, an outdoor stone fire pit for making S’mores in clement weather, an elegant afternoon tea presided over by host David Weir, and one of North America’s oldest golf courses, laid out in 1875 by Spencer Oldham. In 1912, the old course was changed from an 18 to a 9-hole course by golf course legend, A.W. Tillinghast.

In 1923, Donald Ross recreated the 18-hole course that was both challenging yet one with its natural landscape and was hailed as one of the best in the state. Currently the new course is the result of an $8 million restoration, which includes new greens, tees, fairways and an irrigation system overseen by golf architect, Ron Force.

The contemporary course preserves the historic holes and features designed by each of its famous golf architects, including Tillinghast’s "Tiny Tim, a par three that has served as the model for over 100 holes in various courses across the nation.

Bedford Springs Resort is located at 2138 Business Route 220 in Bedford, Pa. 15522. Phone 866-623-8176 or visit www.omnihotels.com.

Lamb Chop Dinner in 1796  Restaurant: Photo by Bill Rockwell

Hotel Ezxterior: Photo by Bill Rockwell




Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s "Nutcracker" a Visual Holiday Confection


The Nutcracker

Sitting through a Saturday evening performance of "The Nutcracker" at Pittsburgh’s ornate Benedum Center jostled my memory of the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s unforgettable "Send in the Clowns." "Isn’t it rich." Indeed!
A lush musical score by Tchaikovsky fit for a czar, Zack Brown’s gorgeous sets and regal costumes and the superb dancing by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s wonderful soloists and corps de ballet combine to conspire a magical, aesthetic experience.
And speaking of magical, artistic director, Terrence S. Orr enlivened the Nutcracker’s usually static first act with several enchanting flourishes that enrich the story line. Godfather Drosselmeyer (danced by tall and commanding Nurlan Abougaliev) and his nephew (the muscular yet supple and light-footed Alexandre Silva) unload huge colorfully wrapped presents from a van, stack them nicely on top one another, twirl them around and, presto, out jumps a swashbuckling Pirate.
In the background, a large stage-wide, stage-high scrim represents the young Marie’s home, so stately and Victorian I initially mistook it for the Frick mansion in Point Breeze. I later discovered it was actually the McKee house, which once fronted Fifth Avenue in Shadyside, but was sadly demolished years ago.
Pittsburgh enthusiasts like myself might like to know that Mr. Orr sets his Nutcracker in the Steel City with several other allusions to the ‘Berg, including a large clock face that dominates the stage from the proscenium (a reminder of the famous Kaufmann clock on Fifth and Smithfield Downtown).
As I said before, I usually find the first act of "The Nutcracker" somewhat sedate, (even Tchaikovsky seems to hold back his best music for Act Two), but Orr manages to draw in my attention and hold it with a number of interesting elements, including the way the scrim dissolves when the back stage area is lit to reveal Marie’s bedroom and a parlor full of merry people enjoying a party.
The obligatory battle between the rat and mice army and the Nutcracker’s allies seems as fatuous as ever, but the silly skirmish segues into a sensuous finale with the Dance of the Snowflakes in which the corps de ballet, outfitted in glistening tiaras, glide like perfectly synchronized swans over the stage as snow falls in copious amounts from the rafters. After all, ballet is, as I like to call it, the dressage of the arts.
Before setting off to the Land of Enchantment on an equally enchanting sleigh, Marie (Christine Schwaner) and her Prince (Alexandre Silva) dance a gorgeous pas de deux in which Silva almost miraculously supports the young ballerina with some dazzling aerial choreography.
The real sugar plum of the production comes in Act Two when the series of international-themed dances kicks off an expressive, finely honed solo by Schwaner. The ensemble that dances across the stage as the dragon in the Chinese dance, the lyrical choreography of Shepherdesses, the amazing duet of Julia Erickson and Robert Moore in the Arabian, the spirited, high-leaping virtuosity of the Russian and the splendid visual seductiveness of the Grand Pas de Deux (danced by Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski, wife and husband in real life) combine to make for an evening of terpsichorean eloquence.
Particularly noteworthy is one of the boys in the children’s ensemble who animates Act One with some playful antics. In Act Two, other children (all members of the PBT School) dressed as bumblebees and sheep add a welcome bit of humor and whimsy to the adult solemnity of the dancers who perform under a huge canopy that opens and closes as with a pulse of its own.
The entire production seems infused by a warm and enchanted glow stifled to some degree by the absence of a live orchestra, which is replaced by a recording lacking to some degree in immediacy and emotional intimacy.
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of "The Nutcracker" is at the Benedum Center, 237 Sixth Street Avenue, through December 30. Tickets are $22.75 to $95.75. Phone 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gruesome Playground Injuries - Not Your Usual Way to Romance


Erika Cuenca and Tony Bingham Star in  "Gruesome Playground Injuries"


Known for its challenging productions, Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie continues its 2012-2013 season with a provocative staging of "Gruesome Playground Injuries." Prior to its opening, director Maggie Balsley expounded on the play in a Q and A that provides a bit more insight into this challenging work.

Q: "Gruesome Playground Injuries" follows the lives of two people over the course of three decades after their initial encounter at the age of eight in a nurse’s office at school. In this two-character play in which Doug and Kayleen are bonded through a series of injuries and mental illness, how did you go about selecting the actors and how do you show how they age from preteens to mid-life adults from scene to scene?

A: The basic talent and ability of the actors was paramount. The combination of their gift and that of the dialogue allowed for the age progression to work with relative ease. Of course, costuming also plays a part.

Q: Playwright Rajiv Joseph was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." What can you say about his dialogue, plot structure and the way he balances humor in "Gruesome Playground Injuries" with the play’s more serious issues?

A: I am impressed with his ability to convey age through dialogue. His portrayal of the psychological pain of the characters is done with sensitivity but no romanticism.

Q: The play is anchored by the fact that both characters have a predilection for physical calamity and accidents. Does this require a lot of makeup artistry to try to replicate some of the plot’s references to blood and gore?

A: Make up plays an important part in the staging. The application is done in full view of the audience as part of the transitions from scene to scene.

Q: Have you seen the play live and, if so, where? If not what was your initial take after a first reading of the script?

A: I was completely taken with the script on first reading. It provoked images and feelings immediately.

Q: As the director, what are some of the most difficult challenges you’ve faced working on this production?

A: The transitions from scene to scene. Each scene either moves forward fifteen years or backward ten years requiring costume and set changes. Our playwright is very specific that all the changes be done in full view of the audience and done at a leisurely pace to convey the large passage of time for the characters. The challenge is to have the audience engaged in the activity which should be more than watching stage crews moving furniture in a black out. Our obligation is to justify to the audience why they are watching these changes.

Q: What reasons would you give to people for them to come to see the show?

A: The compelling story and superb performances.

Q: Would you care to comment on the overall message or theme of the play and your insights as to what major ideas the playwright is trying to address?

A: I usually prefer that the audiences find their own insights and discover the major ideas that a
playwright is attempting. 
                                                                               

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Seeing Seattle - From a Number of Vantage Points

On a Kenmore Floaqtplane Tour of Seattle; Photo by Michael Bertrand Photography
During a recent visit to Seattle, I got a good look at this bustling Pacific Rim city from a number of different vantage points. Let’s start with from the water.
I got my touristic feet wet, metaphorically speaking, by taking an Argosy Locks cruise, a 2-1/2 hour narrated experience that starts with a ride through Puget Sound from Pier 56 near the city’s iconic Pike Street Market, past the Seattle’s impressive cluster of skyscrapers, around West Point and into the Chittenden Locks.
It’s slow going through the locks and the Lake Washington Shipping Canal as the boat makes its way from salt water to fresh, but the narrator and passing scenery make the ride interesting and enjoyable. Things get even better when you enter Lake Union, home to several fishing communities and the floating houseboat "villages" made famous by the film "Sleepless in Seattle." After docking on Seattle’s north shore, the rest of the trip back to the starting point is by motorcoach..
Another splashy way (literally) to see Seattle is by a Ride the Ducks tour on board open air amphibious landing craft developed by the U.S. during World War Two. "It’s party time," yelled out our driver, part comedian, part tour guide, revving up. Everyone gets a duck whistle, and the passengers quack their way through downtown, seeing many of the major sights, intermittent pop music blaring between narrations and jokes. Then it’s into the drink at Lake Union for a look at Glassworks Park and a rear view look at the city’s impressive skyline.
Reminiscent of London’s Great Wheel, Seattle’s own version of a high-tech Ferris wheel opened this past summer at the end of Pier 57, a long-anticipated dream of restaurateur Hal Griffith. Passengers board one of 42 glass-enclosed gondolas, which can seat eight, then rotate up 175-feet to the top. Each of the gondolas are air-conditioned and heated, and one VIP gondola has four leather bucket seats and a glass floor for better downward visibility.
The view from the top is exhilarating, and each rider enjoys a minimum of three revolutions, plus stops along the way, including the very top. Be sure to take your camera.
An even loftier vantage point, the landmark Space Needle has been around since the 1962 World’s Fair but still feels new despite its golden anniversary status in 2012. It takes 41 seconds to reach the observation deck 520 feet above ground level via one of the elevators, which rise and descend at the rate of 10 m.p.h. At the top visitors get a 360-degree panoramic look of everything from Mt. Rainier to the south to the Cascades in the east to the Olympics to the West. Awesome is the word the first comes to mind.
If you’d like to get even higher, the Kenmore Air seaplane tour of the city and beyond may last only 20-minutes, but it was 20-minutes I’ll never forget. After a gentle ascent from the water at Lake Union, we were airborne in seconds, flying high over the University of Washington campus, out over Puget Sound for a look at the islands and climaxing with an upclose look at the Space Needle.
Kenmore Air, the largest full-service seaplane service in the world, has a fleet of 25 planes which log an annual total of more than two million miles and carry more than two million passengers.
From ultra high, I next headed low beneath the streets of the Pioneer Square neighborhood on a 90-minute guided Underground tour. Like many other cities, Seattle experienced a great fire (in 1889) which destroyed much of the then wooden city. Reconstruction with brick and mortar topped the ruined infrastructure, still accessible beneath the existing streets.
Guides try their best to be informative, entertaining and anecdotal, but they have to compete with the eerie, subterranean detritus that gives the tours a unique, if macabre flavor.
While you’re in the area, stop in for a look around Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park, a free museum that explains Seattle’s role as a gateway during the 1890s gold rush for some 70,000 prospectors. Interestingly, the second half of the museum is located all the way north in Ketchikan, Alaska.
If You’re Going
For more information on all these sites and more, phone 206-461-5800 or www.vivitseattle.com.
For a place to dine, Toulouse Petit comes very highly rated; I first noticed it on Trip Advisor whose readers listed it as their fifth favorite restaurant in the U.S. Fun, lively, comfortable, with a young, dedicated service staff, Toulouse Petit has a huge menu that offers everything from a prix fixe menu to chilled seafood, charcuterie, pastas, specialty steak preparations, a page of "Curiosities" and French Quarter Seafood Standards. To pair the right wine with your culinary choices, let the sommelier guide you through the global carte du vins, which has a Wine Spectator "Award of Excellence" rating for 2012. Phone 206-432-9069 or toulousepetit.com.
Diners at Toulouse Petit: Phoito by Bill Rockwell

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chihuly Garden and Glass Abound in a Spectrum of Eye Candy



Purple glass spikes stand next to tree trunk in Chihuly Garden
 
The first time I heard of glass artist Dale Chihuly was in 1998 at the Columbus Museum of Art. Awed by his unique glass creations in a multitude of shapes and colors, I came upon his work at many venues since, some large like Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, others small like the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota.
Chihuly’s glass pieces have been so universally displayed all over the world it’s almost impossible not to come across them if you travel. They’re so ubiquitous, I almost started to take them for granted - until I visited Chihuly Garden and Glass, which opened in the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle on May 21st.
Billed as the most comprehensive exhibition of the Washington-based artist’s work ever assembled, the Chihuly experience takes place indoors in eight separate galleries and a 40-foot tall Glasshouse and outdoors in a lush garden, where glass competes with and compliments the trees, shrubs and flowers, all native to the West Coast. On a tour of the galleries with exhibitions coordinator, Hillary Lee, I learned that the collection represents 50 years of Chihuly’s art and is shown progressively, one stage influencing the next. As we walked from gallery to gallery, all purposely dimly lit except for the brilliantly illuminated glass, I discovered that each room dazzles in its own way, starting with the Glass Forest in Gallery One, a breathtaking curtain raiser made up of his early thin, wispy and undulating glass stems and pods.
Majestic in its sheer size and burst of color, the 15-foot tall Sea Life Tower in Gallery Three is made up of over 1,000 individual glass pieces. On the walls, charcoal sketches of individual pieces show the works in their conceptual state.
Equally impressive is the Persian Ceiling in Gallery Four, where 1,375 glass pieces inspired by Middle East glass from the 12th to 14th centuries, are a reflection of the artist’s Persian series, begun in 1986.
"Putti [chubby, naked child-angels} are the only figurative pieces in the installation, and this is the only room painted white in order to have the light play on the colored pieces," said Lee. "The walls in the other galleries are charcoal gray."
The largest gallery, Mille Fiori, or a thousand flowers, is a sea of color with green grass clusters, red spears and yellow and gold "Persians, while the Float Boat Gallery is a carnival 90 globes that fill a canoe.
"Chihuly got the idea for putting glass pieces in a boat while preparing for a show in Venice," Lee said. "He put the pieces in the river, then had children in a boat collect them. While watching them return, he got the idea for the installation."
For some, the showstopper experience comes in the Glasshouse where a 100-foot long glass sculpture, one of Chihuly’s largest suspended sculptures, is a riot of reds, oranges, yellows and ambers with 1,340 pieces held together on five separate steel arms.
My personal favorite spot was the one and a half acre garden outside, where the glass works are installed to look like they grew upwards from the ground just like the varied horticultural plantings. While some oohed and aahed at the 31-foot tall Citron Icecycle Tower, I took special pleasure in long, violet glass spikes that surrounded a massive section of a fallen log from Olympia National Forest complete with dark red, almost black, glass seal pups.
The Center offers a complimentary audio tour in which visitors can listen to Chihuly and others talk about what inspired his art and the process with which it was created. Spotlight Talks which give greater depth into the galleries, garden and Glasshouse are offered every half hour.
Last summer, visitors could return at 8 p.m. the evening of their visit to see the garden lit at night by nearly 200 lights plus another 180 in the Glasshouse. The evening experience is always available but not always with the reentry option.
If You’re Going
For more information, phone 206-753-4940 or www.chihulygardenandglass.com.
For a Place to Dine, the Collections CafĂ©, 3405 Harrison St. in Seattle, is an integral part of the Chihuly Garden and Glass and takes its name from the array of items on display from Dale Chihuly’s personal collections.
The exhibits start with a series of blown up post cards of glass conservatories near the entrance (the one of the Crystal Palace in London are said to be Chihuly’s favorite) to an amazing collection of 82 accordions that dangle from the ceiling to a wall of old plastic radios to the collections under each glass topped table (mine was stocked with vintage cameras from the 1950s).
Using locally-sourced Northwest ingredients, Chefs Jeff Maxfield and Ivan Szilak serve up a cuisine that’s just as interesting as the ambiance. Some of my favorites include the watermelon salad, fresh pomegranate-basil lemonade, pepper-crusted ahi tuna sliders, grilled wild salmon and the lamb tagliatelle. Phone 206-753-4935.
 
 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Chicago - Still That Toddlin' Town

 
Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

The last time I was in Chicago, Millennium Park, the 24-1/2 acre state-of-the-art collection of architecture, art and landscape design that straddles Michigan Avenue in the Loop, was still under construction.
Intended to celebrate the turn of the millennium in 2000, the park was completed four years behind schedule, but has really caught on since by becoming one of Chicago’s top three attractions.
After my first, but amazing, visit to the top of Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, which once held the title of the world’s tallest building for 25 years and, at 110-stories, is still the tallest in the Western Hemisphere, I strolled into Millennium Park.
Located on what was once an industrial wasteland, the park offers hundreds of free cultural events, including many in the Frank Gerhy-designed Pritzker Pavilion, a colossal elliptical structure made of stainless steel.
Another popular installation, Cloud Gate, is a 12-foot tall concave sculpture with a highly polished surface that distorts the images of its surroundings. I joined the throng of visitors who walked up to and around Cloud Gate to watch their reflection change shapes, much like the trick mirrors at an amusement park or carnival.
Not to be overlooked, the Crown Fountain is made up of two, 50-foot glass block towers built at the ends of a reflecting pool. Faces of Chicago residents are projected onto the towers, and the designer positioned holes where their mouths are located to make them look like they’re spouting water.
Five acres of the park are devoted to the Lurie Garden, enclosed on two sides by a fifteen-foot tall hedge. As I made my way through the horticultural setting, I spotted a young lady crouched on her hands and knees plating bulbs.
"You’ll have to come back this spring when 100,000 of them will be in bloom," she said.
For lunch I headed across Michigan Avenue to The Gage, a gastropub with an amazing list of hand-crafted beers. I liked the lively Chicago vibe of the place named for the Gage Group of late 1800 buildings whose facades were designed by Louis Sullivan in collaboration with Holabird and Roche, a Chicago architectural firm.
A couple of Gage menu items that enticed me included mussels vindaloo mussels and a copious venison burger with all the fixings. 24 S. Michigan Avenue. Phone 312-372-4243 or www.thegagechicago.com.
With a couple hours to spare, a friend and I popped into the Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879. I had no idea the place was so huge (it has eight buildings totaling a million square feet, nearly 500 employees and 300,000 works of art in its permanent collection).
For those in a hurry, the visitors guide suggests a list of 12 works that include Seurat’s "A Sunday on the Grande Jatte," Van Gogh’s "The Bedroom," Marc Chagall’s "America Windows," Dali’s "Venus de Milo with Drawers" and Grant Woods "American Gothic." Armed with the museum’s audio guide, I wandered along on my own and an hour and a half later, sensed that I had merely touched the surface of the holdings.

Staff Outside Lockwood Restaurant
 As I waited for a table at the Palmer House’s Lockwood Restaurant, I sat in the lobby, abuzz with activity, due partly to the presence of a film crew making a documentary. Sitting on a cushy sofa, I took in the eye candy of the 141 year old grand dame of a hotel’s four-diamond rated elegance. They just don’t make them like this anymore crossed my mind as I gazed at its famous frescoed ceiling.
Dinner at the Lockwood (where the brownie was invented) proved memorable from start (an amuse bouche of cauliflower mousse with foie gras) to finish (wild Alaskan halibut with trumpet mushrooms and artichokes) followed by pear fig tatin with Port  ice cream.

Pear Tatin at the Lockwood Restaurant

I ended my day with a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the work Beethoven considered his crowning achievement, "Missa Solemnis." The before concert lecture by William White, assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, gave me valuable insights into the work. Led by conductor Bernard Haitink with four soloists, the massive Chicago Symphony Chorus and the orchestra, the "Missa" was 90 non-stop minutes of unbridled classical music bliss.
If You’re Going
For more information on Chicago, phone Choose Chicago at 312-567-8500 or choosechicago.com.
For a place to stay, the Flemish House was built in 1892 as a single family greystone rowhouse. Located on quiet but elegant Cedar Street just off Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the Flemish House takes its name from the building’s exterior Flemish Revival detailing.
 The owners have chosen an English Arts and Crafts interior decor and have undertaken a sensitive restoration program since purchasing the property in 1997. Guests can choose between furnished studio, one and two bedroom apartments complete with stocked kitchens. Phone 312-664-9981 or www.innchicago.com.



Monday, October 15, 2012

Off The Wall - New Location, Same Bold Productions



Scene from "The Other Place." Left to right Ricardo Vila-Roger, Virginia Wall Gruenert and Mark Conway Thompson
 
If its debut offering in its smartly designed theater space in Carnegie is any indication, Off the Wall Theater will continue to stage the thoughtful, provocative dramas that delighted so many audiences in its previous home in Washington.
To introduce its new patrons to the kind of theater that stokes the mind, senses and spirit, artistic director Virginia Wall Gruenert chose playwright Sharr White’s fittingly titled "The Other Place."
Gruenert, who dazzled in the debut production, "Shaken & Stirred," at the Washington location, picked up where she left off in Carnegie by tackling a behemoth role, one that anchors both the show and the four character cast.
When the lights go up, we find her as a biochemist named Juliana talking about a recent experience in which she addressed a room full of doctors about the efficacy of a new drug that treats dementia. In the middle of her talk, we learn that she spotted a woman sitting amidst the physicians dressed only in a yellow bikini, a sight that produced spontaneously what she calls an "episode."
The play then segues into a new location where Juliana is seeing a physician, believing she might have brain cancer. As her story unfolds even more, we also learn of her suspicions that her husband is philandering behind her back at the same time she’s facing a medical crisis.
The play’s scenes change frequently from the doctor’s office, back to the room where she gave her talk and to her home, where she aggressively confronts her husband, Ian, played by Mark Conway Thompson as a patient man who listens to his wife’s charges of infidelity and earnestly disavows them.
Complicating matters even more is the couple’s estranged daughter, Laurel, who left home at the age of 15 with one of Juliana’s research assistant and hasn’t been heard from in more than a decade. While her mother tries to cope with the onset of her recent malady and her rapidly disintegrating marriage, Laurel abruptly renews contact with her by phone.
For most of the play, the script is written puzzle-like and challenges the audience to follow along so as not to miss the important pieces. Director Melissa Hill Grande makes sure the audience is aware of the scene changes by doing things like dimming the lights and putting the spotlight on Gruenert, while the other characters make their entrances and exits.
Erika Cuenca has the onerous task of playing three separate roles, but manages to evoke distinctly differentiated characters with finely tuned nuances. Ricardo Vila-Roger nicely fills in the gaps in a rather ancillary role.
The play comes to a climax when Juliana goes to visit her daughter at the family’s summer home in Cape Cod (the other place), when all of the questions as to what is really happening in Juliana’s life begin to take shape.
Kudos to set designer, Gianni Downs, whose initial minimalist, somewhat abstract design cleverly evolves into a more detailed, realistic setting, then transforms once again to serve as a movie screen which reveals the identity of the girl in the yellow bikini.
Overall, the weight of the play falls mainly on Gruenert’s shoulders, and she manages to carry everything off with a commanding tour de force performance. The production, the exemplary cast and the creative tech crew combine to establish the benchmark and set tone for Off the Wall’s future endeavors as the seasoned theater finds its way in its new and cozy digs in Carnegie.
"The Other Place" is at the Off The Wall Theater, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie, at 8 p.m. on October 18, 19, 20, 25, 26 and 27 and at 3 p.m. on October 21. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for seniors and $5 for students.. Phone 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com.

Annie Liebovitz' "Master Set" at Wexner Center, Columbus


Wexner Center Exterior

 As a teenager, acclaimed photographer, Annie Liebovitz, snapped her first pictures when her father was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War.
Still going strong now at the age of 63, the artist who started her career as a photojournalist for "Rolling Stone" magazine in 1970 then moved on to "Vogue" and "Vanity Fair," where she remains today, has photographed American presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama as well as many of the most notable figures of our time. These include athletes, actors, dancers, musicians, fashion designers, scientists and business leaders.
Over the years, Liebovitz’ body of work has earned her many awards and honors, both national and international, and her images are emblazoned in the minds of people around the world.

For the very first time, the 156 images Liebovitz personally selected as the definitive edition of her work from 1968 to 2011 is on display in its entirety at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. This "Master Set," on exhibit through December 30, 2012, is drawn from thousands of photographs taken over the years of professional assignments.
Some of the images like her "Richard Nixon Leaving the White House," a work that shows the president’s copter barely rising from the ground after his resignation in 1974 while workmen hurriedly roll up the carpet he just trod over, are familiar to most Americans over the age of 40.
One of her best known works, that of John Lennon in the nude snuggling up to a fully-clothed Yoko Ono in bed, won, in 2005, the number one spot in a compilation of the forty top magazine covers of the past forty years by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Just five hours after she took the iconic photograph, Lennon was shot and killed outside his residence in the Dakota in Manhattan,.

Looking at "The Wall" at the Wexner Center

At the Wexner, the Master Set is arranged chronologically and takes up the entire gallery space, when added to a second collection of 78 of her photos of interiors, landscapes and objects of historical figures taken throughout the United States and Great Britain for a personal camera project titled "Pilgrimage."
The earliest photo in the Master Set, "American Soldiers and Mary, Queen of the Negritos," was taken at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in 1968.
The newest, taken in 2009 and simply titled "Niagara Falls " is a dramatic look from the top of the falls. So powerful is its imagery, it feels like the rushing waters can pull you over the precipice. Fittingly, the work from the Pilgrimage collection is mounted at the top of a staircase connecting the Wexner’s two main gallery spaces and is a sensational preface to the rest of the exhibit.
A few of my favorite Liebovitz works in the exhibit include Bette Midler lying on a bed of rose petals, taken as a promo for the film, "The Rose; two side by side portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama; and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth shot at Buckingham Palace in March 2007 that shows the queen gazing towards a large open window and reveals some of the room’s furnishings and a reflection of a chandelier in a mirror.
A third, informal component of the Liebovitz exhibit is mounted on the "Wall" in the Wexner lobby and includes feature portraits and related prints taken by Liebovitz of artists who have appeared at the Wexner over the years.
On November 9 through 11, Liebovitz will visit the Center to accept the Wexner Prize, given to "a contemporary artist in any field who has been consistently original, influential and challenging to convention." During her visit Liebovitz will deliver a talk that’s open to the public.
From November 15 through 18, the Wexner, a multidisciplinary arts center that features an array of theater, music and dance performances, will also stage Sontag; Reborn," a tender look at the prolific essayist and long-time Liebovitz companion before she became a world-renowned author and activist.
If You’re Going
For more information on the Wexner Center and Liebovitz Exhibit, phone 614-292-3535 or visit website wexarts.org/annie.
For a place to stay, the Lofts Hotel, 55 E. Nationwide Blvd., is offering a Liebovitz Exhibit Package that includes two tickets to the show, overnight accommodations, valet parking, a $25 gift card for one of fourteen participating restaurants, two tickets for a movie of your choice at the Arena Grand Movie Theater and a complimentary breakfast at Max and Erma’s Restaurant. Phone 614-461-2642 or www.55lofts.com.
For a place to dine, Lemongrass, 641 N. High Street, features Pan Asian dishes such as sushi, sashimi, soups and a variety of creative Asian dishes, many with a European twist. Entree examples include Hawaiian duck and banana-wrapped orange roughy served in a colorful, artsy atmosphere. Phone 614-224-1414 or www.lemongrassfusion.com.
Lemongrass Restaurant Exterior

Friday, October 12, 2012

Quantum Theatre Stages Pittsburgh Debut of "Ainadamar"

Since its founding in 1990, Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre has considered itself a kind of laboratory and an incubator for the amazing by bringing to the forefront actors, directors, playwrights and influencers forging new theatrical ground.
To pull from the theater’s own self description on its website quantumtheatre.com, their shows "run the gamut from those you thought you knew but now experience like never before to shows that didn’t exist until their elements mixed in its laboratory. Sometimes there’s singing. Often a sunset. Always a reaction."
Starting October 19, Quantum Theatre will stage "Ainadamar," a chamber opera by Grammy Award winning Argentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov with lyrics by David Henry Hwang..
In a recent interview, I managed to get stage director Karla Boos, to provide some valuable insights into the production of "Ainadamar," Arabic for "Fountain of Tears," slated to open October 19 at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

Q: I see that "Ainadamar" considers Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s relationship with Catalan tragedian, Margarita Xirgu, who Lorca considered his muse. In view of Lorca’s homosexuality, which included an implied erotic relationship with Salvador Dali, what exactly was Lorca’s relationship with Xirgu? Romantic, platonic or what?

A: Platonic muse, a very intense friendship and artistic kinship. Love, they loved each other. No question that Lorca was homosexual.

Q: How much of Lorca’s life does the chamber opera cover? Is it just the time he spent in his relationship with Xirgu or does it extend all the way from boyhood to his death at the hands of the Falangists?

A: It doesn't intend to cover Lorca's life… Margarita is remembering… she remembers their meeting, their friendship, the great moment they were invited to perform Mariana Pineda in Cuba, and how Lorca wouldn't come because things were terrible in Spain, he chose to stay and be counted among those fighting. So she's actually remembering the last time she saw him alive, and she imagines his death.

Q: In looking at the places where the opera has already been performed (Tanglewood, where it premiered, the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Boston, Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, the Cincinnati Opera, Carnegie Hall in New York and Granada, Spain near Lorca’s hometown of Fuente Vaqueros), I didn’t see a mention of Pittsburgh. Will your production, then, be making its Pittsburgh debut? A: Certainly.
Since "Ainadamar" was written as a chamber opera to be performed by a chamber rather than a full orchestra and since Quantum Theatre usually stages live dramas without music, how did you go about selecting the musicians who will provide the accompaniment?

A: We have quite an extensive track record of operas at this point. I like to experiment with the language that theater can use - music is a language to me. The musicians were chosen by the piece's music director: Andres Cladera. Andres and I have collaborated before, this our third time, and I think about eight musicians out of the large ensemble have worked on previous Quantum works.

Q: Will the staging of the opera be in a recital format or will its be fully or partially staged with costumes, sets, lighting elements and props?

A: Fully staged, a completely immersive experience.

Q: Since the opera will be staged at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, will the audience be seated in the entire expanse of the church or in a more concentrated area"

A: We're not in the sanctuary, we're in a wonderful, two-level room called the Social Hall. It looks like a Spanish courtyard to us because of the balcony level, and slate floor, dark wood, fancy aluminum. There's a monumental staircase at one end and a stage at the other. Stage functions like scenery - the opera begins with Margarita onstage, about to perform Mariana Pineda for the umteenth time, when she sort of breaks down, can't do it, becomes lost in memories of Lorca.

Q: The opera, the first by Argentine composer Osvaldo Gorlijov, has a flamenco-based score which won him two Grammy Awards - for Best Opera Recording in 2006 and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. David Henry Hwang, whose credits include "M. Butterfly," wrote the opera’s lyrics. How well do they fit Gorlijov’s score, how well do they tell Lorca’s story and would you comment on their artistic merit?

A: It's a work of genius, pretty much in the world's opinion as well as mine! Golijov also won a MacArthur award.

Q: I see that you’re bringing back the artists from Quantum’s 2011 production of "Maria de Buenos Aires." Would you care to comment about some of the voices of the leads?

A: Raquel Winnica Young, who played Maria, is a stunning Lorca - you understand it was written for a woman, a mezzo? Katy Williams is a gorgeous soprano with both amazing high and low ranges - that's what's needed for the role of Margarita, as well as great acting ability. I think Katy is respected in Pittsburgh, but she's given an opportunity here to show all her talents in a way that is going to surprise and amaze people.
The third lead is Leah Edmondson Dyer playing Nuria, Margarita's favorite student. Leah's a recent CMU graduate with a gorgeous soprano. These three female voices work beautifully together, one voice climbing over another throughout the opera.

Q: I assume the opera is sung in Spanish. Will there be something like OpTrans to translate the lyrics into English for the audience?

A: Yes, large, prominent, easy-to-see supertitles throughout. The libretto by David Henry Hwang is too good to miss, he honors the poetry of Lorca in his libretto.

Q: Lorca is considered by many to be a martyr to freedom of artistic expression. Does the chamber opera consider this element of his life and to what extent if it does?

A: Oh my yes, that is the opera's point, that Lorca could not be silenced, not through his death, and that it fell to other brave artists to carry on his legacy. Golijov actually makes a beautiful point in setting it in 1969… Lorca is long dead but Franco is still ruling in Spain.
Xirgu was never allowed to set foot in Spain, and it was no picnic in Latin America either actually, but she performed his plays until her own death, and as the opera shows, her students carried on after her death, Eventually Spain could once again claim and celebrate Lorca, as can the world.
For ticket reservations and more information, phone 1-888-718-4253.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

National Aviary - Fun with Our Fine Feathered Friends

Dave Miller with Flamingo at the National Aviary
On the way to feed the lorikeets at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, I passed by Giggles, a laughing Kookaburra perched nonchalantly on a roost in her cage. A member of the kingfisher family from Australia, Giggles didn’t live up to her name until a guide gave her an aural cue. Then all hell broke loose.
The opened up with a long series of sounds so awesome, she made me chuckle with delight. Those who’ve seen the old Tarzan movies will recognize her call, which positively reeks of jungle.
Further on, I entered the lorikeet enclosure, saucer of nectar in hand. Before I could say holy parakeet, three of the colorful birds perched on my outstretched arm bobbing their beaks into the sauce for their tasty treat.
If you ever get to the National Aviary, one of the first things you should do after saying hello to Peanut, the scarlet macaw "greeter bird" with a 31-inch tail in a cage near the aviary entrance, is look at the daily schedule to plan your day.
Each of the aviary’s three free flight areas, woodlands, tropical rainforest and wetlands, has their own daily feeding shows, and you certainly want to catch one of the upclose penguin feedings as well as the "Parrots of the Caribbean" show in the FliteZone Theater. To get everything in, good planning is a must.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, you might also want to go up to the Skydeck on the roof to watch free-flying raptors like peregrine falcons, kites and Martial eagles do aerial gymnastics trying to catch one of the lures tossed skyward by the staff.
According to Erika Douglas, marketing associate, the National Aviary got its start 60 years ago with a tropical rainforest installation. An expansion in 2010 added the new glass-domed atrium as well as Penguin Point, a large zoo-like installation with African penguins including Sidney (for Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins), Patrick (for the hockey division they play in) and Stanley (for the coveted hockey cup).
"In 1993, Congress gave the aviary the national designation it now adds to its title," Douglas said.
The aviary currently houses over 600 birds representing 250 species from all over the globe. According to Douglas, everyone has their own favorite, but the ones that made the biggest visual impact on me were the pair of sea eagles, one of which perched on a limb close to the wall of its glass enclosure.
"The sea eagles are found in Siberia and Alaska and can weigh 10 to 15 pounds with a wing span approaching nine feet," Douglas said.
After following guide, Janet Robb, into the grasslands exhibit, I was impressed with her knowledge of things avian. She had no trouble pointing out the gorgeous golden finches or explaining that the Eastern Paradise Whydah is a parasitic nester that lays its eggs in other birds nests and lets the adoptive parents raise them. And I was amused to learn from her that the African gray parrot can mimic not only the human language but also cell phone tones, even radio static.
After watching the penguins gorge themselves on fish handed to them by their feeder in Penguin Point, I watched wetlands coordinator, Dave Miller, conduct one of the day’s most entertaining events. As visitors sat on bleacher seats, Miller passed out grubs to his audience and asked them to hold the worms between their fingers and raise their arms. It wasn’t log before birds swooped down and plucked the tasty morsels (to them) out of our fingers. The same exercise was duplicated with fish, and this time around it was the Inca terns that stole our catches.
I ended the day in the tropical rainforest where the feeding program began with hard Brazil nuts given to green-winged and hyacinth macaws while 90 other birds representing 30 species, mostly from Southeast Asia and Africa, flew freely overhead in the expansive enclosure.
One word of caution. Keep a wary eye out for Charley, a common grackle housed in the wetland enclosure. He’s known for his penchant for going through bags and purses of unsuspecting visitors and stealing things like their car keys.
If You’re Going
For more information on the National Aviary, located at 700 Arch Street on Pittsburgh’s North Side, phone 412-323-7235 or Aviary.org.
For a place to stay, the Parador Inn, 939 Western Avenue, is a unique hostelry with a Caribbean-Victorian flair. Located within walking distance to the aviary, the Parador takes its name from the Spanish words for "to stop" or "an inn" and occupies the former 1870 Rhode mansion. Owner Ed Menzer claims the main house holds over fifty stained and leaded glass windows. Along with its Caribbean ambiance, the inn features a full American-style breakfast each morning. Phone 412-231-4800 or theparadorinn.com.
For a place to dine, the Willow Restaurant, 634 Camp Horne Road in Pittsburgh, was voted "Best New Restaurant" in 2005 by readers of Pittsburgh Magazine. With a very attractive decor and sophisticated lighting, Willow changes its menu seasonally, and Chef Anthony Pupo, trained at Johnson and Wales, serves exemplary Contemporary American cuisine.
Popular dishes include the prime sirloin, crab cakes and Branzino Seabass, seared and filled with proscuitto and asiago, but I particularly enjoyed my rabbit stew appetizer and duck entree. Desserts are made in house, and the wine list is eclectic and well put together. Phone 412-847-1007 or willowpittsburgh.com.

Parador Inn, Pittsburgh


Duck entre at Willow Restaurant

 


   

 
 
 


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sunset Boulevard - A Class Act from Start to Heart-rending Finish



Expecting to be jump started by a brisk and vivacious opening overture typical of many a musical production, I was pleasantly surprised by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beautifully lyrical orchestral introduction to "Sunset Boulevard." Played exquisitely, by the way, by the impressive sounding Pittsburgh CLO Orchestra, the overture did have a fair share of moody and somber modulations, befitting the dark noir quality of the story line.
Webber also did some fine composing elsewhere in several songs new to me that left me wondering why they don’t have a more familiar ring and pop culture exposure. But more than just songs, the musical based on the classic Billy Wilder film of the same title also relies on sung dialogue in the manner of operatic recitatif to get its plot across. Initially my ear had difficulty making out the sung words, adequately electronically amplified by the production’s sound technicians, but after a brief aural adjustment on my part, I was soon in sync with an easy understanding of the actors’ sung words.
The play opens with the troubled story of unsuccessful screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who has high hopes of making the big time in Tinsel Town. Hounded by creditors, he escapes the repossession of his car after a fast chase by pulling it into the garage of a Beverly Hills mansion owned by fading film star Norma Desmond. Now in her fifties, she’s is hoping to make a comeback by writing a role for herself as a teenage Salome.
As the young screenwriter, Matthew Scott is energetic, despite his sea of troubles and lack of professional success as a writer, quick witted and viscerally seductive, a trait that soon captures the interest of the failing starlet. In exchange for favors and financial gain, he reluctantly takes on the job of rewriting Desmond’s ridiculously unreasonable script and eventually becomes her boy toy.
While the story starts out focusing on Gills, the real character in the limelight is Norma Desmond. Tony Award nominated (for "Merrily We Roll Along") Liz Callaway plays the star’s diva quality to the hilt with just enough panache not to be over the top. She’s also able to show her vulnerable side along with her sorrows and melancholic longing for the past though never surrendering to the inevitable ignominy of getting older and being considered ill suited for a role by a casting director.
Hopelessly lonely in her plush Sunset Boulevard mansion, she lives in a fantasy world and watches old films in which she starred each evening with her faithful butler, Max, until Gillis arrives to reawaken old dreams and new erotic possibilities.
Vocally, Callaway is as dazzling as the numerous extravagant costumes she wears, particularly in the moving "With One Look" and "New Ways to Dream." The latter is sung as a duet with Gillis, who has his own solo in the show’s somewhat lackluster title song, "Sunset Boulevard," which opens the second act.
Other great voices in the production include Walter Charles, who as Max, wows with "The Greatest Star of All," and Jeffrey Howell as legendary film director, Cecil B. DeMille, who delights the ear in a much too brief reprise of "Surrender."
Vocally as well as dramatically, Amanda Rose as Betty, Gillis’ true romantic interest, leaves nothing to be desired as she becomes ensnared in relationship that arcs from initial antagonism to a powerful mutual attraction.
With all the lavish costumes, set designer J, Branson’s wonderful rendering of Desmond’s mansion and obvious hard work that went into staging the production, you wonder why the short eight performance, six-day run isn’t a bit longer. Quality-wise, the show certainly merits it.
Speaking of merit, director Barry Ivan deserves credit for the smooth, seemingly seamless scene transitions that fluctuate between a movie set, Desmond’s domicile and several other locations. Under his supervision the show glides along nicely like a well oiled clock.
With no obvious flaws, the Pittsburgh CLO’s staging of "Sunset Boulevard" ends chillingly with the iconic "mad" scene in which Desmond is finally pushed over the edge, deliriously descends the staircase from her bedroom and utters the now classic line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up."
It’s theatricality at its purest emotional essence.
"Sunset Boulevard," a production of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, is at the Benedum Center, 237 Seventh Street in Pittsburgh, at 8 p.m. on July 26, 27 and 28, at 7:30 p.m. on July 29 and at 2 p.m. on July 28 and 29. Tickets range from $10 to $65.75. Phone 412-456-6666.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Terra Nova Serves up Meaty Production of "Lettuce and Lovage"



Make no bones about it. You don’t have to be a vegan to sink your teeth into Peter Shaffer’s over-the-top comedy, "Lettuce and Lovage" and come away with a satisfying taste in your mouth. Everyone from omnivores and carnivores to strict vegetarians should find plenty of comedic cud to ruminate on with this delightfully campy pastiche of preposterous theatrics.
During one of the evening’s two intermissions, I had a chance to talk briefly with the production’s director, Mark Stevenson, who informed me the Shaffer wrote the play specifically for British actress, Maggie Smith. If he hadn’t told me, I’d have thought he’d written it for Susan Martinelli, the Terra Nova actress who fits the role like it was custom made for her.
Martinelli dominates the first act of this three act play with her exuberance as she, as the eccentric Lettuce Douffet, leads groups of tourists through a rather unexciting and undistinguished British manor house. To enlarge, enliven and enlighten her audience of tour takers, she like, Don Quixote, takes liberty with reality, stretches the truth and gives the prosaic a shot or two of experience enhancing narrative.
In less capable hands, there would be a tendency to go over the top on this decidedly over the top role, but the actress plays it just right, hitting everything from her moues and movements to her accent and ambient airs with a wonderfully apt tone that generates laugh after laugh.
In act two, Martinelli recedes a bit into the background, but not much, which allows her antagonist, the much more staid Lotte Schoen to emerge into the spotlight. As the head of the Preservationist Trust which employs the libertine lady, Allison Cahil as Schoen, makes a wonderful transformation from a stiff employer intent on releasing the transgressive tour guide from her duties to an intimate confidante - with the help of several quaffs of Lettuce’s lovage laced libation, a potent home made cordial direct from the Elizabethan era.
Act two also introduces some interesting concepts that focus on the mediocrity of modern architecture (both women are romantics whose tastes look backwards on a more aesthetically inclined past) and who long for the days when "the communal eye" produced such magnificent cities like pre-World War Two Dresden.
As enthrallingly comic as act one is, as cerebrally stimulating as act two is, act three is almost abysmally inane by comparison. After some introspection, I place the blame on the author who seems to have gotten off track here, although he redeems himself with an inspired finish that washes away any residue of theatrical regret.
As the author of such noteworthy plays as "Equus" and "Amadeus," Shaffer hits some false notes when he takes the play in a new direction in the final episode, only to come up short. I felt a bit embarrassed for Mark Yochum, who deserves much praise for his splendid depiction of Bardolph, a solicitor sent to defend Lettuce in a court case against a rather serious charge. As Lettuce readies for her next big scene, he’s asked to mimic the sound of a drum role, which comes off somewhat awkwardly and absurd. Again, I blame the playwright for demanding this out of character behavior in his text.
Despite its third act weakness, "Lettuce and Lovage" is more than worth the price of admission, if only to watch Martinelli captivate the audience with a fine evening of entertainment, bolstered by some exceptional acting that extends all the way to Julianne Avolio in a rather undersized role.
"Lettuce and Lovage" is at the Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville section, at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, through July 7, and at 2 p.m. on July 1. Tickets are $20 at the door, $15 in advance, $12 for seniors and students.. For reservations, phone 412-394-3353.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bardstown Offers Varied Experiences


Anyone who has attended the Kentucky Derby knows how emotional the playing of the state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," can be as the thoroughbreds parade before the grandstand.
While visiting Bardstown, one of the oldest towns in the state, I had a chance to visit the historic home thought to have been the inspiration for Stephen Foster's touching musical anthem.
Built by the Rowan family in 1812, the federal-style home aptly called Federal Hill, also sports the title "My Old Kentucky Home."
Stephen Foster Statue - My Old Kentucky Home State Park Bardstown Ky.JPGAlong with prominent visitors like Henry Clay and the Marquis de Lafayette, legend has it that composer Stephen Foster, a cousin of the Rowans, visited Federal Hill in March 1852, an event that eventually gave birth to the renowned state song.
While some scholars doubt the authenticity of the claim, the mansion is the centerpiece of My Old Kentucky State Park, which surrounds it.
Visitors to the park are able to tour the mansion with a guide dressed in period attire -- 50 percent of the furnishings were once owned by the Rowans and the guides are knowledgeable about the history of the plantation.
To add even more pleasure to a visit, be sure to stroll the beautiful landscaped grounds around the house.
For a totally different experience, stop in at the Jailer’s Inn at 111 W. Stephen Foster Boulevard. You can take a tour of the old jail, built in two sections, the first in 1819 and an 1874 addition, surrounded by intimidatingly tall stone walls.





The Stephen Foster Statue at My Old Kentucky
Home State Park in Bardstown, Ky., honors
the great American songwriter.
(Photo credit Bill Rockwell)


The cells are open for touring and memorabilia (hoods from the last hanging, hand cuffs and a soap gun made by one of the inmates) and historic photos of life "back when" line the walls.
Understandably, the place has an inherent gloom, and partially because several prisoners were executed here, some visitors report haunting stories of ghostly experiences.

The jail actually held prisoners until 1987, at that time the state’s oldest operating prison facility. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the jail actually serves as a bed and breakfast inn and guests can spend the night in one of the jail cells, complete with bunk beds, a waterbed and black and white decor.
The remaining five guest rooms are attractively furnished, so much so you probably won’t be reminded where you are. (Two rooms have double Jacuzzis, but one has the original iron bars at the entrance).
Owner Paul McCoy is knowledgeable about the area and the history of the jail. In the summer and clement weather, he or his innkeeper serve overnight guests breakfast outside in the courtyard surrounded by the high stone walls.
Whether an overnight guest or day visitor, be sure to have your photo taken while posing with your head and hands in the stocks outside in front of the main entrance. Phone 502-348-5551 or jailersinn.com.
While stately Wickland, the circa 1825 mansion once home to three state governors, is high on Bardstown’s must-see list, there's even more reason to visit what manager and local historian Dixie Hibbs calls "the best example of Georgian architecture in Kentucky."
Friday evenings at 7:30, two young mediums, twin sisters Michael and Katie Wilhite lead 90-minute "paranormal tours" that start with a prayer in the parlor, then proceed down to the basement, haunt of a nasty spirit named Benjamin Ford. The mediums are sensitive enough to communicate with other spirits as well, such as Waleta, a large Black woman once responsible for doing all the mansion cooking.
Along the way, tour takers get to try their hands with divining rods and ask the spirits questions via the mediums.
"It’s not a scary tour, it’s a research tour," said Hibbs. "As an historian, it’s interesting to learn about the daily lives of people who lived here long ago." (502-507-0808)
If You’re Going . . .
For more information on Bardstown attractions, phone 800-638-4877 or visitbardstown.com.
For a place to dine, Kurtz Restaurant, 418 E Stephen Foster Blvd., has been in business since 1937 and owned by three generations of the same family. Skillet fried chicken, Kentucky country ham, homemade soups and casseroles are some of the community favorites, but the homemade cobblers, pies, biscuit pudding and skillet fried cornbread have become signature dishes. Phone 502-348-8964.
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Guest Entering Jailer Inn Bardstown Ky.JPG
Tours of the old jail, built in two sections,the first in 1819 and
an 1874 addition, are available. (Photo credit Bill Rockwell)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Death and the Maiden" - A Somber Look at Justice in the Face of Tyranny

Sadism and Schubert, justice and vendetta, madness and healing, violence and rapprochement.
In his moral thriller, "Death and the Maiden," Chilean playwright, Ariel Dorfman, certainly employs enough in the way of concepts to awaken the thinking cap and keep it occupied for a good 95 minutes.
Adrienne Wehr and Ken Bolden 
Set in an unnamed, presumably Hispanic, country just after the forces of democracy overthrow its totalitarian dictatorship, the play opens just as progressive attorney, Gerardo Escobar, gets word that he’s included in a special commission whose objective is to investigate the previous regime’s crimes against humanity. What makes the position significant to him on a personal level is that his wife, Paulina, was imprisoned, tortured and raped by his country’s security forces. Even after her release fifteen years previously, she still suffers so much from the scars of her ordeal that she’s unable to reclaim her life.
After an odd and somewhat unlikely circumstance (following a flat tire, her husband is helped by a stranger passing by named Miranda who later visits the couple in their seaside home), Paulina begins to suspect that the good Samaritan is none other than the doctor who raped and tortured her and perpetrated these heinous crimes while nonchalantly playing the music to Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden,." Hence the play’s title.
During a sleep over, Paulina, convinced he’s her man, pistol whips Miranda, then ties him to a chair in an attempt to inflict a bit of suffering on her torturer but, more importantly, to get him to confess to his crimes.
As Paulina, Adrienne Wehr deftly straddles the line between unleashing her anger and intense desire for revenge and keeping her wits about her enough to see her mission through to the end. As a government commission lawyer, Mark D. Staley has the equally tenuous task of upholding the principles of fair play (and a fair trial) for all while simultaneously keeping the lid on his seething hatred of the man who presumably ruined his wife’s life.
What makes the play so mentally and emotionally infuriating is the way Dorfman keeps his audience guessing about the truth of Paulina’s accusations. Is she perhaps psychologically unbalanced and the victim of her own delusions? Is Miranda such a polished liar that he can cast substantial doubts about his culpability?
As the accused hostage, credit Ken Bolden for putting forth a plausible defense and convincing demeanor, one that keeps the audience on the fence as to his guilt or innocence.
Near the end of this tautly drawn drama, I was able to draw my own conclusions, but thanks to some deft writing by Dorfman, others might leave the theater with a different notion of Miranda’s guilt or innocence.
Written in 1990, "Death and the Maiden" remains vitally topical in view of the string of recent revolutionary collapses of dictatorial regimes in Africa and the Middle East and the subsequent endeavors to redress past wrongs. With its latest production, the Off the Wall Theater in Washington continues to bring provocative, relevant and stimulating work to its stage.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill - Tranquillity in Kentucky Bluegrass Country

As the song goes "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning." However, depending on your taste, I’d say that Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, could give Carolina a run for its money.
Meeting House at Shaker Village
By the look of the worn stone fences that lined the road I drove on in the dark of a Kentucky spring evening., I knew I was getting close to my destination. I’d read that the Shaker religious community once hired a man to build the fences at a cost of $1,000 a mile, and, over the course of 12 years, he constructed 40 miles of the picturesque stone walls that gave the area the look of rural Ireland or Wales.
Pulling into the Shaker Village parking lot at what had originally been the trustees building after a long seven hour drive, I reveled in the warm glow of the surroundings, then headed up the old stone staircase into the handsome though humble building. After a brief stop to check in at the front desk, I made my way up to the second floor by way of one of two identical curved staircases (one originally for the men, the other for the women), found my accommodations and nestled in for the night in a room furnished with Shaker reproductions, including the bed.
The next morning, I got my first glimpse of Shaker Village by daylight and what a sight it was. Due to an unusually warm March, everything - daffodils and forsythia to lilacs, red bud and dogwood - was in full bloom simultaneously. Add in venerable old trees and meadows full of that famous Kentucky bluegrass and I was in bucolic bliss.
Tom McIntosh Making Oval Boxes at Shaker Village
After sating my appetite with a morning breakfast buffet included some tasty country ham in the Trustees Dining Hall, I headed outdoors for a tour with Susan Lyons Hughes, the Shaker museum manager.
"Pleasant Hill, one of two Kentucky Shaker communities, got its start in 1805, when Shaker missionaries arrived from New York to start a new community," said Hughes as I relished in the fresh cool air of a flower scented breeze.
By the next year, 44 converts joined the celibate community that shared the work, property and profits in common. At its height in 1839, the community grew to 5,000 acres and 491 celibate members who lived or worked in 260 different and sturdy structures.
Shakers were very good farmers and craftsmen, and their goods and products commanded higher prices than that of their neighbors or competitors as far away as New Orleans. However, after the Civil War, the community started a slow decline and the community finally dissolved in 1910.
From then until 1961, the property was privately owned until a group of preservationists formed a non-profit and began a successful restoration project. Today, Shaker Village has a total of 34 restored structures, 13 of which hold rooms for overnight guests, backing up its claim to be the largest historic community of its kind in the nation. The property boasts nearly 3,000 acres, most of which are a nature preserve with a 40-mile trail system open to hikers and bikers.
During my stay, I especially enjoyed the living history interpreters who, dressed in traditional clothing, demonstrate Shaker crafts like broom making, cooperage and the community’s iconic oval box making in village buildings. All of the crafts, including the colorful oval boxes that come in a variety of sizes and hues, are sold in the village gift shop, definitely worth a browse.
In season, visitors can take either a self guided or guided tour of the village, listen to talks on Shaker beliefs, history and customs, take a ride on the Dixie Belle riverboat and attend a musical performance or the annual chamber music festival.
As a special treat, lunch or dinner in the cozy atmosphere of the Trustees Dining Hall includes a chance to taste some Shaker specialty foods such as pickled watermelon rind, its signature tomato celery soup, cole slaw to die for and seasonal Kentucky favorites including the Hot Brown, a filling concoction of breast of turkey on toast points that’s topped with Morney sauce, crisp bacon, diced tomatoes and cheddar cheese.
The wholesome food is a great match for the spirit cleansing Shaker Village experience.
For more information, phone 800-734-5611 or visit website shakervillageky.org. For more information on area attractions, phone 800-355-9192 or visit website harrodsburgky.com.