Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pennsylvania Winery Makes Impressive Showing at California Competition

    When I got an email last week notifying me that Galen Glen, a winery in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, came home from the Riverside International Wine Competition with two prestigious medals, I immediately sat up and took notice.
        The 2-1/2 half day event at the South Coast Resort in Temecula, California was judged by 46 wine professionals which included wine columnists, importers, wine makers, wine educators, sommeliers, professors even executive chef William Blossom-Carter of the Playboy Mansion West, Beverly Hills.
    Obviously wielders of some hefty credentials, the judges’ panel awarded Galen Glen Winery’s 2012 Dry Riesling the Chairman’s Award (double gold, unanimous vote) and the winery’s 2012 Stone Cellar Riesling (dry) a gold medal. Only 31 wines from around the world received the gold or above award. Of those 31, only two were from Pennsylvania, and both were from Galen Glen.

    I decided to share a bottle of the 2012 Dry Riesling with a friend with a discerning palate, and our immediate reaction with the first sip was "green apples." Tart and fruity, the Riesling has subtler hints of citrus, herbs and pear with a touch of minerality.

    A few years ago, on a tour of New York’s Finger Lakes, I took along a copy of "USA Today," which carried a feature about the Riesling gold medal winners at the Eastern Wine Competition. One of my favorite wine writers, Dan Berger was a judge at the competition, which gave me even more of a desire to explore the dozen or so Rieslings given the top rating by the judges.

    On my Riesling adventures through the gorgeous Finger Lake countryside, I managed to sample every one nf the list. I only mention this because I feel that Galen Glen’s 2012 vintage is every bit as good as what I found in the Finger Lakes, where the Riesling grape is considered to be the signature grape of the area.
Another Galen Glen medal winner at this year’s Riverside Competition, its 2012 Stone Cellar Gruner Veltliner, came away with a silver medal. Made from a grape variety normally associated with Austria, the Gruner is a medium-bodied white wine with much in common with Reisling’s palate profile.

    Thinking it might be interesting to have my wine tasting group try the Gruner, I uncorked a bottle and got a mix of reactions. One found it clean and very refreshing. Another decided it was well balanced. Other comments included assessments like subtle, delicate and good for drinking by itself as well as with chicken and seafood. I thought it would be a good match for oysters on the half shell. Someone else suggested pairing it with spicy Asian food. Notes I jotted down as they came flying at me included peach and apricot, touches of licorice, white pepper, even pea pod.

    Everyone thought it was a great quaffing wine for the hot summer months ahead and a nice alternative to more well-known whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Already, Galen Glen’s winemaker, Sarah Troxell, has been getting media attention as a fine crafter of German and Austrian style wines.

    At $14 a bottle for the Stone Cellar Gruner Veltliner and $12 for the 2012 Riesling, it might be worth giving the winery a call to place an order. Phone 570-386-3682.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Karla Boos Answers a Few Questions about "Mnemonic"

Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Malcolm Tulip in "Mnemonic". Credit Heather Mull.

Just a little over a week before Quantum Theatre's opening of "Mnemonic," artistic director Karla Boos took time from her busy workload as the show's director to answer some questions about the intriguing play set to open on July 5.

Q and A for Mnemonic
Q: Considering the fact that there’s a vast portfolio of plays to draw from when planning your season, what drew you to "Mnemonic" and what influenced your decision to add it to your season and direct the work as well? Have you ever seen a live performance? If so, where?

A: I saw the very first performance of Mnemonic in 1999 at its opening at Riverside Studios in London, where it ran before it toured the world. There was a lot of anticipation; all new works by Complicite were, still are, a big deal to me and my ilk of theater people, experimenters, lovers of physical theater that asks a lot of actors, very imaginative theater that expresses a global perspective. Why would I choose to do it – well, it is all of the above, and its subject is rich - memory, our connectedness, people to each other, to the past, to our ancestors, with whom we have more common than we think.

Q: describes Mnemonic as a "play and production from one of the world's most innovative theater companies" (the British theater company Complicite). "Mnemonic is about memory, people's personal histories, shared memories and discordant recollections - exhuming the past in order to examine it in the present. A variety of stories - from the discovery of bog people like Tollund Man to peoples compulsion to retrace the origins of their ancestors - collide and form a piece of theater which questions our concept of time, our capacity to distort history and our attempts to retell the past. An ice-preserved body from 5,200 years ago forms the central image of Theatre de Complicite's dazzlingly imaginative meditation on memory and morality. Timely and unforgettable" What would you add to or change in this concise analysis?

A: That’s a great concise analysis. You always ask not only ‘why this play’ but ‘why this play now’… the challenge is what we can offer of ourselves through the work Complicite built. The really pragmatic answer to why now is that they gave me the rights now. I’ve wanted to do the play for years… but there’s a better answer too. Back in 1999, Complicite made a play about a man who lived 5,200 years ago and led us to conclude that we’re still very much like that man. However, we didn’t have the sense we have now - that there is no 5,200 years from now. So the play has a new poignancy, I think. As director, it’s my job to bring that meaning to light, as well as realize all the magic that it asks from the team of performers and designers.

Q Would you care to say a little about the cast?

A: I like to work with diverse ensembles, and I like to  ask people regularly to do things that are new to them. It seemed right that the cast would be comprised of people of different heritages, come from different parts of the world, and they do. We have my great friend Carolina Loyola-Garcia playing the leading female character, Alice, whose story of searching for her father parallels the Iceman story. She’s from Chile, and she’s a filmmaker and flamenco dancer – in this, she’s an actress, which is very cool to me in that she’s multi-dimensional and does things that she didn’t know she knew how to do.
The leading male character, who was played by Simon McBurney, Complicite’s Artistic Director, is Malcolm Tulip, a British actor who’s lived in the States a long time teaching at the University of Michigan.  He trained at the Lecoq Institute, the gold standard for physical theater-making, is about my age and Complicite influenced him greatly, as it did me. There's a bunch of other wonderful people in the cast and crew, and the designers are very important. It’s interesting that, in our group, five people saw the show way back when, most of them when it was on tour.

Q: Some think "Mnemonic" is a difficult play to understand. Do agree with this assessment?

A: No, I think it falls in the quite accessible range. It does tell two parallel stories, and it actually rolls over you like memory. It’s ‘fractured’ as the character Virgil says, but the two stories come together, and audiences (Quantum’s especially) are very used to stories being told not just in a straight line. (C’mon. I can’t understand a lot I see – just watched the Batman movie and found it quite hard to follow, for example). But this theatrical story telling is leading you carefully, in the immersive experience it creates, to what I’d call clear, emotional conclusions.

Q: As a boon to understanding and/or enjoying the "Mnemonic" experience, do you have any suggestions for the audience as to best way to observe and intellectually absorb what’s happening onstage?

A: The play is about memory. First a guy talks to the audience and asks people to consider some facts about the way memory works… that emotion plays a role in strengthening the connections between certain scraps of stored data in the brain. Our brains are constantly forming and reforming connections and certain ones assert themselves as important – because of our emotions.
Then, after the guy talks a bit, the play starts, and it illustrates his points. Two characters, a couple, are each on a journey to make sense of certain things, and their journey involves memory. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the finding of the Iceman is a bit like searching our collective memory. There are clues to our collective past, and the international scientists reassemble his story – RE-member, ‘put the relevant members back together’. These parallel stories come together, eventually.

There’s a larger question in what you ask… I do believe in being open, ready to engage, when I go to the theater. I think the reward is great when you bring yourself in that state and a lot is asked of you. If you allow yourself to be taken along, challenged to think new thoughts, that can be very satisfying. Going to the challenging theater I seek out, for example, can make me feel like I’ve been to a foreign land, done something very physically challenging, or even the more pedestrian, tried a new restaurant, met a new, engaging person – all of these are things that ask some effort of a person and don’t necessarily just reinforce what’s already there. But life’s about meeting these challenges and what you get when you do. At Quantum, we want to present challenges with warmth, welcome, and humor. We want people to be up for it, and feel the reward is worth the effort.

"Mnemonic," a Quantum Theatre production, runs from July 5 through July 28 at the Kirkwood Building in East Liberty. Phone 412-362-1713 or visitwebsite

Visiting Interesting Places Lead to Interesting Personal Experiences in Allegheny National Forest

Jack Bell Busy Behind the Deli Counter: Credit Bill Rockwell

At the maple syrup Evaporater at Sprague's Maple Farms: Credit Bill Rockwell

During a recent visit, while my initial goal was to soak in the scenic beauties of the Allegheny National Forest, I inadvertently stumbled across a bevy of interesting people as well. The first came during my lunch stop over in Kane, Pennsylvania at Texas Hot Lunch where I met Mike Bechakas, the fourth generation owner of a business that got its start when the patriarch of the family immigrated to America from Greece in 1911.
The family enterprise began in a building rolled on logs several blocks to its current location at 24 Field Street where the Palace of Sweets, a Greek-American confectionery, was born. In 1928, the focus changed with the opening of Texas Hot Lunch, which specializes in treats made by lathering plump, juicy Sugerdale hot dogs with onions, mustard and a special tasty sauce that unites all the disparate flavors.
True to his roots, current owner John Bechakas added Greek specialties to the menu that include souvlaki, Greek salads, "pita pleasers" and the obligatory gyros.
A short walk away, my next interesting encounter came at the restored 1871 rail station, currently the oldest building in town, where I met raconteur, artist and historian extraordinaire, Dennis Dixon.
"The depot sits on what proved to be the highest point on the Pennsylvania Railroad between Erie and Philadelphia," said Dixon, who oversees what has since become part museum, part art co-op.
Dixon’s knowledge seemed encyclopedic as he discussed several museum artifacts such as "the Presidential Chair," once sat upon by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, the desk chair used by Washington in New York during the Revolutionary War and portraits and memorabilia of the Kane family, which include the famous general, Thomas L. Kane, the "Savior of the Mormons." (A statue of the general stands on the lawn of a handsome, Gothic, stone memorial chapel in Kane purchased by the Mormons to honor his memory).
Before entering the section of the depot used to house the art co-op, Dixon pointed out a case full of Holgate toys. Although the wooden toy making company was founded in Philadelphia, it moved to Kane in 1884 and continues there to this day.
"Jarvis Rockwell, brother to famous illustrator Norman Rockwell, designed many of the toys and lived here in the ‘black cherry capital of the world," Dixon said.
At Bell’s Meat and Poultry, Jack Bell has to be one of the Kane’s most colorful (and culinary creative) people. Home to what he calls "4,000 quarts of pickled everything" including hot asparagus and hot Brussels sprouts, Bell also purveys 28 different kinds of sausage. Standards like kielbassa, Italian and bratwurst line up next to Irish bangers, boudin, one of only seven North American sausages included in Nichola Fletcher’s encyclopedic book "Sausage," Kick-Ass with lots of jalapeno and cheese and the best-selling Greek, made with meat, Feta and spinach.
In northwestern Pennsylvania what most folks elsewhere call ramps are termed leeks by the natives. Bell creates a leek log, made from beef, cheese and "leeks" as well as a "leek" dip, which won the Second Annual "Stink Fest" in nearby Bradford, which celebrates "leek" cuisine.
Don’t overlook Bell’s Griller - Virginia ham, Swiss cheese and Greek sausage layered on a boneless chicken breast, then rolled up with bacon and a sprinkle of rotisserie chicken rub on top.
Just across the Pennsylvania state line in Portville, New York, people line up for Sprague’s Maple Farms’ breakfasts and a chance to pour some of Randy Sprague’s 100% pure maple syrup on buckwheat pancakes or French toast. Sprague got interested in the maple syrup business as a boy when he visited a neighbor’s farm during tapping season. He started making his own - just enough for his family’s use, but eventually expanded to become a large commercial operation.
"Today, I tap close to 30,000 maple tress each spring in a ten mile radius and turn out 6,000 gallons a year," he said.
Besides breakfast and lunch, the restaurant also serves dinner with items like maple-glazed entrees of salmon, barbecue ribs and chicken.
In the adjacent gift shop I spotted maple cream, jelly, candy and sugar, some of which is shipped overseas. Not one to rest on his accomplishments, Sprague also started a 40-acre free-range turkey farm.
During the maple tapping season, the farm operates an old-fashioned sugarhouse and offers tree-tapping demos, sugar on snow parties, wagon rides and demos of how the Indians made maple syrup. Seems like a sweet way to greet the Spring.
For more information on attractions in the Allegheny National Forest, phone 800-473-9370 or visit website

Statue of General Thomas L Kane: Creidt Bill Rockwell

Monday, June 24, 2013

"Phantom" - The Alternative Masked Man


Erin Mackey as Christine and Ron Bohmer as The Phantom: Credit Pittsburgh CLO

    Who’d believe that a character that commits two homicides on stage could still engender powerful sympathetic feelings in an audience? And who’d think that someone so disfigured he has to wear a mask to cover his deformity could touch the heart strings of a beautiful, talented woman?
    Award-winning playwright, Arthur Kopit and Yale music professor, Maury Yeston, have done just that in an amazingly entertaining musical titled "Phantom." Like the Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster hit with nearly the same title, the work is based on Gaston Leroux’s 1980 novel "The Phantom of the Opera."
    Kopit and Yeston actually had the initial jump on Webber. Their work was headed for Broadway, but when word got out that Webber’s version was soon to arrive on the Great White Way, "Phantom’s financial backers "backed out" when they heard of the hefty competition they faced.
    While "Phantom" never made it to Manhattan, (it’s been called "the greatest hit never to be produced on Broadway"), the musical has had thousands of productions across the world, including two by Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera (CLO).

    Now getting a current staging at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center by the CLO, "Phantom" seems to get higher marks f rom the critics than does Webber’s version. While the latter is known for its dazzling special effects, including its iconic massive falling chandelier, Kopit and Yeston’s version fleshes out the characters to a greater extent, provides some comic relief in the form of La Carlotta, a would be opera diva and impresario, makes the phantom more of a human being than just a mysterious specter and creates a fabulous musical score that made me sit up and take notice.
    What I found most impressive about the CLO production is that it equals most of the touring Broadway shows that roll into town with big budgets and long runs. The CLO somehow manages to accomplish just as great things with a smaller run (the show closes on June 30) and presumably smaller budget.
    There’s not a weak link in the entire production. The singing voices of the leads are lush and powerful, the CLO orchestra wows with its full, polished sound, the costuming and staging are Broadway quality, the acting exemplary and Barry Ivan’s direction is solid and well designed.

    As Christine, CMU educated Erin Mackey, is spell-binding and looks and sings the part of the gorgeous chanteuse who so obsessively captures the Phantom’s heart. As the disfigured, masked soul doomed to live out his tragic life in the depths of the Paris Opera’s catacombs, Ron Bohmer captures the angst, the requisite passion and depth of feeling called for in the character.

    Heart-rending is James Fedor, Jr. as the young Erik, (the actual name given to the Phantom by Leroux in his novel), who vividly bring to life the horror he feels as he first sees the reflection of his face in the water. For an alternative mood, Donna Lynne Champlin gets high marks for her comedic skills as La Carlotta, the songstress whose sour notes and haughty airs are apparent to everyone but herself.
    One can’t overlook the excellence of the performance by Jamie Ross as Gerard Carriere, the just fired opera director who’s character emerges from what is initially seen as a minor role to become one of the musical’s most pivotal characters.
    Lovely music, a fast-paced story line, deep romance, solid acting and technical support, and a creatively choreographed divertissement combine to make "Phantom" a must see CLO production.
    "Phantom," now at the Benedum Center in Downtown Pittsburgh ,closes on June 30. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666.

Monday, June 10, 2013

"Other Desert Cities" - Where Exceptional Writing Meets Talented Cast

Left to Right: Cast of "Other Desert Cities": Helena Ruoti, Susan Cella, John Patrick Hayden and Pilar Witherspoon.
     One of the things that hooked me on Pittsburgh theater soon after I moved back from the West Coast in 1984 was actress Helen Ruoti. Her performance in a 1986 City Theatre production of "Crimes of the Heart" (I believe) was so outstanding it made an indelible impression on my memory.
    That’s why, when I saw her name in the program as one of the leads in "Other Desert Cities," the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s last show of the 2012-13 season, I looked forward to an evening of entertaining theater.
    And I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did Ruoti meet my expectations as the matriarch of a troubled family with more dark secrets in their closet than a Tim Burton movie, but the rest of the cast proved more than up to the challenge.
   The Wyeths, as the old guard Republican family is called, have gotten together in their tony Palm Springs home for the 2004 Christmas holidays. Lyman Wyeth, the father, James De Marse, is cut from the Ronald Regan mold, physically imposing and mildly charismatic without being overbearing . Affectionate and protective when it comes to his family, his charms and talents were enough to make him a star of the silver screen, then a player in both California and national Republican politics and eventually, an ambassador.
    As his wife Polly, a former script writer, Ruoti is strong in the Nancy Regan sense of the word, able to hold her own when hobnobbing with Old Guard icons like the Annenbergs and Bloomingdales, a control-focused wife and mother who enjoys her elite stature as a creme de la creme socialite.
Threatening to unravel the elder Wyeth’s comfortable life style and social position is daughter, Brooke (Pilar Witherspoon), cut from her mother’s cloth, but on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Recovering from a six year bout with suicidal depression, she’s now on the rebound with a memoir she’s written that deals with her older brother, Henry, implicated in an underground bombing attempt that took a life but who’s since disappeared and presumed dead.
    Henry was Brooke’s best friend as well as her older brother, and her memoir takes a close look at her reminiscences about family relationships and implicates her parents to a large degree in turning Henry into the family black sheep. As strong-willed as her mother, Brooke is adamant that the book be published even though her parents might suffer from the ensuing scandal it is sure to provoke.
    Caught in the middle is Trip (John Patrick Hayden), the Wyeths’ younger son and producer of a B-grade courtroom reality program, who manages to keep up with the rest of the family’s witty banter and edgy personal and political conversation.
    Playwright Jon Robin Baitz a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, not only creates some deliciously poignant and sophisticated dialogue, he masterfully unfolds his drama slowly exposing the family’s dark secrets to the light of day. By the end of Act One, he manages to firm up a substantial profile on each character and outline a sketch of their history.
    However, in a theatrical tour de force, everything takes a sudden, unexpected out-of-the-blue twist midway in Act Two that completely overturns what is thought to be true. Not only do that characters of the main protagonists morph and evolve but the chronicle of their history takes an entirely new shape.
    While the bulk of the play has an earnestly serious content, Baitz shows his talent with comedy in the character of Silda, Polly’s liberal sister and fellow script writer who’s just out of rehab but who’s lost none of her biting repartee. Played impeccably by Susan Cella, Silda utters a swarm of comedic lines so hilarious Lisa Lampanelli is probably rolling over with envy.
    The final scene jumps from Palm Springs and Christmas Eve 2004 to Seattle, Washington 2010. Relatively short, Baitz masterfully (again) raps up the story line by giving follow-up information on what has since happened to each of the characters, putting a cap on an engrossing evening of theater that’s one of the best reasons to turn off the telly and see something live and vital.
    "Other Desert Cities" is at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through June 30. Phone 412-316-1600.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Riding in an Open Air Cockpit Makes Flying a Breeze

Boeing Streaman Biplane in the Air
If two heads are better than one does that also mean that two wings are better than one?
Bruce Klein, a seasoned pilot with over 47 years of flying experience, seems to think so, and he’s willing to let passengers see for themselves by offering 20-minute long flights in a 1943 Boeing Stearman biplane out of Bradford Regional Airport in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania.
"The Stearman was restored last year to museum quality with a new engine," said Klein, who also operates Klein Aircraft Services out of the airport, offering certified maintenance services to 15 to 20 of the 30 planes in the hangar. "Of the roughly 9,000 Stearmans built in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s, only 900 remain scattered throughout the world."
Throughout his life, Klein has owned a staggering 67 airplanes, but he insists the biplane is his favorite.
"It’s always been a dream to own a Stearman for fun flying," he said. "Now that I have one, I’m living my dream and sharing it with others."
Obviously proud of his well-cared-for Stearman, which he restored at a cost of $30,000, he maintains that two wings, one on top the other, give the flying machine more lift and make it very aeronautic, which is one of the reasons they are used in air show aerobatic demonstrations and for crop dusting and basic training by the American military during World War Two.
For $80 a passenger, Klein takes adventure seekers on a roughly 20 minute ride at 90 m.p.h. and 1,000 feet above the Allegheny Forest, a site that thrilled about 300 passengers last year, especially in the fall when the colorful foliage could be seen from a unique perspective A highlight of the excursion is the view of the renovated Kinzua Bridge Skywalk and wreckage of roughly half the bridge, once the tallest railroad bridge in the world that was partially destroyed by a July 2003 hurricane.
For $240, the ride expands to a full hour and includes a look at the Kinzua Dam, which holds back the waters of the mighty Allegheny Reservoir or anywhere else the passenger might want to go. Also available are Sunset Marquis flights taken at near twilight to catch the last rays of the sun from on high.
While $80 a pop might seem a bit steep for a short but exhilarating ride, Klein seems to be barely making a profit with the price of gas pegged at $6 a gallon at the time of my visit (the plane consumes 15 gallons for every flight hour) and tires coming in at $500 each.
What makes the ride different from others, besides the open cockpit, is the fact that the passenger rides up front while Klein positions himself in the rear. Both front and rear seats are equipped with instrument panels and controls. And, while the noise from the engine and propeller can really generate the decibels, the sound is mitigated by the helmet equipped with a microphone that allows the pilot and passenger to communicate with one another during the flight. Goggles are also provided.
Just before he revved up the engine, Klein turned by hand the wooden propeller nine times, a precaution that insured that no residual oil had collected in the lower cylinders, something that could wreck havoc when the engine kicked in. He also lifted up an inspection panel to show me the quality of the plane’s construction.
"The fuselage is made of chrome moly tubing covered with fabric, and the wings are made of fabric-covered spruce," he said. "Actually, the biplane is stronger than a metal plane, which depends on its external skin to hold it together. The Stearman is held together by the way it’s constructed, with the fabric or skin serving as an aerodynamic element. The 3000 pound Stearman can generate 220 horsepower and withstand 12 G’s positive and 9 Gs negative, meaning it can’t be broken in the air."
No need to hold onto your hats during the flight; the helmet will keep your hair in place, and the goggles will prevent your eyes from tearing up. As a bonus, you’ll also get to experience something unique that’ll be the envy of your cronies. Living his dream, Klein will give you a ride you’ll never forget.
If You’re Going
For more information on Bruce Klein’s Vintage Biplane Rides, phone 814-642-9486. For more information on the Allegheny National Forest and the surrounding region, phone 800-473-9370 or visit website
For a place to dine, the Westline Inn, located 3 miles off US Route 219 on Westline Road in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest, was built in the late 1900s as a domicile for the Day family, owner of a chemical works, and added onto over time.
The rambling spacious restaurant is full of eye-catching antiques and memorabilia and serves a sophisticated range of food that includes seafood, steaks, lamb, chicken and more. Coming up the third Sunday in July, Crabfest is held outdoors on the patio (weather permitting) with an array of seafood sold by the plate while a live band performs in the Sidedoor Café. And did I mention the word fun? Phone 814-778-5103.

Bruce Klein Overseeing Passenger before  Takeoff