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Golda’s Balcony: Getting It Wrong

Dramatic works based upon historical events sometimes twist reality into an unrecognizable opposite well beyond what can be justified by legitimate theatrical license. No one expects what transpires on stage to be a strictly faithful account, but it is going too far to have George Washington support monarchy or Abraham Lincoln support slavery.

Playwright William Gibson comes uncomfortably close to upending truth on this scale in a one-woman portrayal of Golda Meir, a major figure in the Zionist movement that led to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 as what Britain’s Balfour Declaration in 1917 promised would be “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Meir as a child with her family escaped the murderous persecution of Jews in Czarist Russia and immigrated to the United States. She became a committed Zionist and married in 1917 on condition that the newlywed couple immigrate to Palestine, although World War I and its aftermath delayed their departure until 1921. Causing her personal distress and guilt, her husband and children became lesser priorities as she accepted increasing public responsibilities and became a part of the inner circle of the Israeli government for decades, serving as foreign minister from 1956 to 1966 and prime minister from 1969 to 1974.

Gibson conducted a series of interviews with Meir and from those developed a play, Golda, that ran on Broadway from November 1977 to February 1978, closing a few months before her death in December 1978. That play, with dozens of characters and a conventional structure, proved a flop. Only in 2002 at the age of 88 did Gibson rework his play into a one-woman format, presenting for the most part a nuanced and sensitive portrait of a woman who was one of the most widely known and recognizable international leaders of her era, a hard-edged diplomat whose political talents were often masked by her public image as the kindly grandmother of the Israeli state.

Despite a masterful and inspiring performance by Sandra Laub almost perfectly replicating the physical appearance, distinctive accent, and plain speaking for which Golda Meir was renowned, Gibson’s very intense and entertaining play goes off the rails in choosing to frame the story around long-standing rumors that, as Israel faced existential destruction from invading Arab armies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Meir threatened first use of nuclear weapons to blackmail American President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into providing emergency shipments of arms and munitions needed to save Israel from destruction. Indeed, the play’s title Golda’s Balcony is explicitly said to refer to an observation point within the Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona.

The rumor that Meir was willing to trigger a nuclear apocalypse and start World War III was first reported by Time in 1976 based upon an anonymous source and given considerably more credence by journalist Seymour Hersh in 1991, although Hersh is notoriously unreliable on this and other matters. Nor is there any evidence for Gibson’s implication that Nixon and Kissinger intentionally delayed critical aid to Israel after the Arab attack; the more plausible explanation is that America fell victim to the same combination of incompetence and overconfidence that led Israel to be taken by surprise in the first place. With Nixon preoccupied by the Watergate scandal, top aides including Kissinger and Chief of Staff Alexander Haig were worried about his mental health and often avoided telling him what was going on. When the Arab attack came and Kissinger was awakened by telephone and notified around 6am, historian Robert Dallek cites official telephone logs showing that Kissinger delayed calling Nixon for over three hours for fear of waking him. In the early days of the war, Kissinger, who at that point had been Secretary of State for only two weeks, convened the National Security Council to ask for military aid to Israel, but was opposed by the Defense Department and the rest of his own State Department because they were convinced that the Israelis would have the situation well under control and did not need the help.

According to Avner Cohen who is the leading expert on this incident, the best evidence of what really happened is that under pressure by the military – and especially by panicked Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan – to authorize a nuclear first strike, Meir actually resisted and refused to do it, backed by other members of the war cabinet. According to Victor Israelian, who at the time was a senior diplomat in the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was ironically Kissinger and Haig who, intending to send a message discouraging intervention in the Middle East by the Soviet Union, almost accidentally started a nuclear conflagration when, late in the Yom Kippur War without telling Nixon, they ordered American forces to the highest state of peacetime alert. Fortunately, the alarmed Russians declined to respond similarly and the crisis was defused.

There is undeniable dramatic tension in supposing Israel, whose reason for being was the killing of millions of innocent civilians in the Holocaust, ready to kill millions of civilians in Arab lands in a holocaust from a nuclear first strike, but this ethical precipice that forms the core of the play is a lie.

Golda’s Balcony at Contemporary Theatre Company, 327 Main St, Wakefield. Thu (4/16), Fri (4/17), Sat (4/18), 7pm. Includes mature content, including subject matter not appropriate for anyone under 12. Tickets: contemporarytheatercompany.com/box-office/ or 401.218.0282.

Sources:

Avner Cohen, “When Israel Stepped Back From the Brink,” The New York Times, Oct 3, 2013:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/opinion/when-israel-stepped-back-from-the-brink.html

Avner Cohen, “The Last Nuclear Moment,” The New York Times, Oct 6, 2003:
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/06/opinion/the-last-nuclear-moment.html

Victor Israelian , “Nuclear Showdown as Nixon Slept,” The Christian Science Monitor, Nov 3, 1993:
http://www.csmonitor.com/1993/1103/03191.html




Three Sisters: Sweet Despair

sistersEpic Theatre Company is presenting Three Sisters, a drama from acclaimed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The show opened in previews on April 10.

This production, adapted by Sarah Ruhl, focuses on Olga, Masha and Irina, the “three sisters” of the title. They live together in a Russian village and yearn for their hometown of Moscow. Olga, the oldest, is a teacher. The middle sister, Masha, is married to Kulygin but is having an affair with Vershinin, an Army commander. The youngest sister, Irina, is good-natured and dreams of finding love. Their brother Andrei works for the town council and is married to the loathsome Natasha, who has no love for anyone except their two children.

The lives of the sisters intertwine with other members of the village, including Chebutykin (Jason Quinn), an army doctor, Tuzenbach (Rico Lanni), a lieutenant in the army, Fedotik (Christine Pavao), an amateur photographer who has affection for Irina, Ferapont (Terry Simpson), a doorkeeper at the local council offices, and Anfisa (Joan Dillenback), an elderly family retainer and former nurse.

Director Tammy Brown has assembled a superb cast for the production. Hannah Lum, Mia Rocchio and Stephanie Traversa have a winning chemistry as Masha, Irina and Olga.

Shawn Fennell portrays Andrei, who is one of the most tormented characters in the story. By the end, we see him as a man whose spirit has been completely destroyed. Patrick Keeffe, as Vershinin, also has some powerful moments, particularly when he deals with a mentally ill wife. Melanie Stone also makes a strong impression as Natasha, who treats Anfisa in the harshest way imaginable.

The characters are striving for happiness, but are thwarted from finding it either due to their own insecurities or by the cruelty of fate. The overriding theme is survival. No matter what circumstances befall the sisters, they keep pushing on. In the last scene, Olga, Masha and Irina embrace each other and vow to keep fighting to see another day. It is an uplifting moment in an often somber story.

The production doesn’t feature any sets. The performers succeed in transporting the audience into their chaotic world through the power of their words and their ideas.

Three Sisters runs until April 25. Theatre 82, 82 Rolfe Square, Cranston. For tickets, go to artists-exchange.org/epictheatrecompany.html or call 401.490.9475.




Mystery, Wonder and Awe, “O” My! 

musicJust over the Massachusetts state border in Fall River, 20 or so highly skilled and dedicated classical singers gather weekly to rehearse the complex and beautiful vocal music of various composers. This group calls itself “Sine Nomine,” which translates to “Without a Name.” Founded in 1993 by early music specialist Glenn Giuttari, Sine Nomine has been in existence for over 20 years.

Joseph Fort, Sine Nomine’s new music director, is currently a PhD candidate in music theory at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and also has studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A mild-mannered man full of musical integrity, Fort has been involved in choral music his entire professional life, both as a director and as an accompanist. In addition to his duties at Sine Nomine, Fort conducts the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and is the music director at Grace Church in Newton, Mass.

Being a chamber choir, Sine Nomine differs from a traditional choir in a couple of ways, most notably by its small size. With fewer vocalists per part, each individual singer carries more responsibility.

“What’s great about this group is that between all the rehearsals, [the singers] go and prepare for the next rehearsal on their own,” says Fort. “When we actually rehearse together, we don’t have to worry about crashing thru the notes. We can actually work on crafting the piece of music. That’s what really makes this group stand out. Also, in comparison to a church choir, we’re not affiliated with any particular church service. We are able to focus exclusively on preparing the music for our concerts, and we’re able to broaden our choice of repertoire.”

Sine Nomine will perform its first concert of 2015 on Jan 17 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bristol, RI. A second performance happens on Sun, Jan 18 at Grace Episcopal Church in New Bedford.

Tag-lined with the single-letter Latin word ‘O’, the program features both classic and modern settings of influential texts that begin with O.

Fort explains this concept:

“We looked for inspirational settings of text that begin with this word. Usually they are trying to express wonder, mystery, distress or some other powerful emotion. There are so many brilliant settings of texts like ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ and ‘O Sacrum Convivium.’ Originally they were performed for one Sunday of the year in the church. In this sense, they actually get very few performances.”

A key concept behind this concert program is the juxtaposition of old and new settings of the same text, in many cases written centuries apart. “For example,” continues Fort, “we’ll be performing the William Byrd setting of ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ (written in the early 1600s) as well as the Morten Lauridsen setting of the same text written in 1997. It’s quite interesting when you take the same texts set by different composers and discover how they each approach it. They’re after the same thing, but they use very different techniques.”

On Sat, May 16, Sine Nomine will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’ at Saint Michael the Archangel Church in Woonsocket, RI. The year 2015 marks the 100 year anniversary of this work, which has been labeled by many scholars as Rachmaninoff’s finest achievement. Even more poignant is the context in which it will be performed in Rhode Island.

“Saint Michael’s is a Ukranian orthodox church that recently burned down. They’re just finishing their restoration and rebuilding of the church. We’ll be performing ‘Vespers’ as part of their celebratory church service, so we’re doing a liturgical form of it. This should be interesting, as it’s almost always performed as a concert piece.”

“Vespers” will also be performed in its full concert version on Fri, May 15 at St. Lawrence Martyr in New Bedford, Mass.

Defining quality over quantity, Sine Nomine performs only two programs each season. Both of these upcoming concerts promise to be unique listening experiences. For more information, visit sinenominechoir.org

 




CD Review: Able Thought’s serene In Limbo

sereneLocal one-man band Able Thought brings a dose of tranquility to the Providence music scene with his latest album, serene In Limbo. People like Andrew Bird and Kishi Bashi have made looping an art form and removed the need for a backing band to produce a full sound. Able Thought uses a loop pedal — I’m assuming — to create his own brand of atmospheric, low-fi folk.

What’s striking on first-listen is the use of a nylon string classical guitar as a specific choice. Where folk musicians usually swear by the metal strings, Able Thought embraces the nylon, giving serene In Limbo a signature sound. The guitar playing sounds like a mix of fingerstyle and traditional picking that works well, especially in songs like “In Limbo” and “Places.”

But the ambient quality that attracts people to this kind of music has a way of mashing the songs together and making it hard to differentiate one from the next. The level of manipulation makes me wonder if they’d be recognizable played with no effects. To be fair, this gripe is more of a comment on the musical style; I have been accused of not being able to enjoy “chill” music, but many artists these days seem to be drowning themselves in ever-increasing levels of reverb.

Maybe the best way to describe the sound is by simply recalling the name of the album. You feel like you’re floating in limbo in some echo-y, open forest. With tons of reverb. Much of the lyrical content also works to give the album a detached feeling, like in “From Space:”  “Breathe, breathe quickly, the air around us sings / fall, fall with me, to the ground and to our knees/ this world seems so empty, compared to what this means.” The abstract language, though sometimes hard to hear over all of the studio tinkering, falls into place with the trance-like sounds.

For me, serene In Limbo (along with Able Thought’s influences Bon Iver and Youth Lagoon) is something you’ve really got to be in the mood for. But when you want to relax and avoid the 2-4 backbeat of whatever’s hot, sometimes it’s nice to listen to something that isn’t loaded with hooks. And even though the album didn’t blow me away, it’s pretty impressive that this guy can probably recreate all this live without much trouble.

You can pick up Able Thought’s serene In Limbo locally. Or check out the band’s website.




CD Review: Mike Gendron’s The Day That I Give Birth

birthDon’t you hate when you see someone on TV, or even worse, on the street, and can’t quite place from where you know them? We start running through the alphabet in our head, hoping to hit upon their name. We flip through our cerebral Rolodex. Maybe we went to school with them? Maybe they work in our office… maybe we were in the service together… college? JAIL!!??

I went through those same machinations when I first set sight on The Day That I Give Birth, the new CD by Mike Gendron. I knew that I had seen/heard this guy before, and then it hit me. OF COURSE I know him! Not only was he with perennial local favorites GrandEvolution, but he’s the “Mike G” behind Mike G & Associates (both of whom I’ve covered for Motif in past columns).

In fact (with apologies to the late Godfather of Soul), Mike Gendron just might be the hardest working man in show business. Well at least in RI. In between recording this original material, for which he plays almost all of the instruments (more on that later) Gendron boasts residency in not one but TWO popular tribute bands (a John Lennon act called Lennon Live,  and the Neil Young tribute “Young Rust,” which Gendron fronts). Not bad for a kid who made his bones playing gigs at The Living Room at the tender age of 15.

A few moments into a deep listening of The Day That I Give Birth, it becomes amply apparent exactly from where Mike Gendron culls his songwriting influence. While much of the music throughout is deep driving rock & roll, his lyrics expose a poetry that often leans toward the surreal. The title track alone repeatedly reveals Gendon’s unconditioned ability to turn quite the thought-provoking phrase: “Fault lines crack where lava flows deep beneath the earth… Spiders raise and eat their young, they’re boiling in the pot… Let me paint you gold so you can shine.”

The acoustic folk ballad “Universus” sparingly utilizes a Neil Young strumming style and borrows melodically from Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.” That said, Gendron unabashedly displays his vulnerable side by calling out to some higher power for guidance and strength to face an unknown future: “My path has been laid out before my blinded eyes to see. Somewhere deep into the fog is who I’m supposed to be. I can’t cut through this haze. Guide me through this treacherous, all consuming maze.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the final, somewhat disturbing track, “Anonymous.” What can only be described as the “Revolution 9” of the album, an ominous backing track plays over the recorded voicemail message of a very disturbed woman. With wailing guitars, she’s heard claiming the government has targeted her for assassination, which will come about by the explosive device they previously implanted in her head. Unfortunately her near-whisper is practically inaudible, and had it not been for an explanation detailed in the album’s press kit, I wouldn’t know what I was listening to. Frankly, unlike The White Album’s “Revolution 9”, “Anonymous” does nothing for what up to that point had been a strong body of work.

That small point aside The Day That I Give Birth excels as an example of Mike Gendron’s  ample gifts as a singer-songwriter. The disc was engineered by famed member of The Schemers, Emerson Torrey. And based on this output of work, Mike Gendron has earned his deserved spot alongside  Torrey, and Mark Cutler, and all the other best songwriters Rhode Island has to offer.




Roots Report: Don’t Let These Shows Pass You By

Okee dokee folks … As I mentioned last month the summer shows are plenty. I have managed to get to quite a few so far and have many more to attend. One commonality I have noticed among the performers is that a lot of these folks are getting old, some very old. I guess I am, too. With age comes wisdom … or just the AARP?

Shawn Colvin was the first of the bunch of concerts I went to last month. Colvin played the Narrows in Fall River, and she made several jokes alluding to her age. She is just 58 years old. In spite of her mocking her own diminished capacities of memory and eyesight, she put on a great show. Nimfest in Newport presented Susan Cowsill. She is the youngest member of the Cowsills and checks in at age 54, just a year older than I am. She still has the youthful look she had as a child. Her voice and performance are still top notch and I didn’t hear her make any age-related jokes, though her audience was a bit up there in years. The former Newport resident drew a nice-sized crowd to King’s Park. Unfortunately, Cowsill seemed to rely more on random cover songs than her own or even Cowsills material. Next up was Yes at the Newport Concert Series. This bunch just looks ancient. Despite the fact that I thought they might break a hip or need CPR on stage, they too put on an amazing show and pulled off great live versions of the Fragile and Close To The Edge albums in their entirety. They can still play as well as they did the last time I saw them 30 odd years ago. The lead singer who replaced Jon Anderson seemed young enough to be a son or even grandson of the band members, though he behaved and looked very Jesus-like and appeared to be singing to his father above. The topper of the senior citizen summer tour had to have been the Crosby, Stills and Nash show at PPAC. What was supposed to be a CSN show was more of a Crosby-Nash show. Stephen Stills’ voice, for lack of a better word, is toast and he was off stage quite a bit. He could barely talk, let alone sing. I actually felt bad for him. However, his guitar playing is still strong. CSN as a group, whose ages are 69 to 72, are pretty tired, though Nash is still a pretty strong performer at 72. They did make age-related jokes; Crosby made one in reference to putting out a new album instead of rolling over and dying at their age. Funny, but not really. For some, the nostalgia factor of seeing these legends live skews their audio palates. While CSN was an enjoyable show, it is tough to see legends who are burning out with age. I guess maybe it is better to burn out than fade away. I would much rather watch these bands than most of the auto-tuned/computer sampled products of music of today. These folks are/were the real deal. There are still plenty of great performances (young and old) to catch during the remaining days of summer. Read on…

Singer-Songwriter Jackson Browne will visit the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) on Wednesday, August 20. Playing solo guitar and piano, Jackson will perform songs from his entire body of work. Jackson Browne has written and performed some of the most literate and moving songs in popular music and has defined a genre of songwriting charged with honesty, emotion and personal politics. The 65-year-old Browne is best known for songs such as “Doctor My Eyes,” “Here Come Those Tears Again,” “Rock Me On the Water,” “The Pretender,” “Running on Empty,” “The Pretender” and “Fountain of Sorrow.” He was honored with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007. Beyond his music, he is known for his advocacy on behalf of the environment, human rights and arts education. He’s a co-founder of the groups Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and Nukefree.org. For more about this show, “Take It Easy” over to PPACRI.org

If you don’t know who Kala Farnham is by now, you should. She is a pint-sized, piano-playing powerhouse from Putnam, Conn. Kala is quickly becoming a mainstay in the RI and surrounding area’s music scene. I first saw Kala perform as part of the Sweet Little Variety Show at the Roots in PVD about two years ago. I was amazed at the talent of the young girl who played a keyboard that was bigger than her. From where I sat she appeared to be no more than high school age but I was shocked when she said she had been playing piano for more than 20 years. Kala started lessons at age 3 and now at the ripe old age of 26 has been playing piano almost as long as she has been walking and talking. She just released her first studio CD, Anahata: Wake Up Your Heart. Farnham’s three previous releases were more homemade products. Though I am not fond of reviewing CDs, I am making a bit of an exception for this one. I love this CD and wanted you all to know about it! The disc starts out with a simple tinkling of a couple of notes on the keys, but quickly launches into the big, fully produced sound of ”Naked Honest”. The 13 song recording features 12 original songs by Farnham and one cover. Kala handles all keys and vocals; Daisy Castro adds nice touches with violin, and master guitarist Duke Levine provides tasty licks throughout. From the aforementioned lead track ”Naked Honest” to the final cut, “Maitri,” the CD delivers wonderful songs that are strong both lyrically and musically. Favorites of mine are: “Songbird,” “Pencil & Ink,” “Ruthless” and “Maitri.” She is a classically trained musician with influences of pop, Broadway and world music in her sound. For ease of description, Farnham’s style can be compared to other female singer-songwriters such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Vanessa Carlton, Fiona Apple and Norah Jones, but she definitely has a style of her own. Those who are fortunate to see Kala live are wowed in the same way that I was. If you are interested in catching one of her shows this month, she will be splitting the night with Adam Trudel at Stage Right Studio, 68 South Main Street in Woonsocket (stagerightstudio.org) on Friday, August 29. For more, tickle your ivories to kalafarnham.com

Many of you may remember the work of the late singer-songwriter Harry Chapin. “Taxi,” “Cats in the Cradle” and “W.O.L.D.” are just some of the fine songs that he left us with. He also left a daughter, Jen, as part of his legacy. Jen Chapin is a remarkable singer-songwriter in her own right. She writes and performs her own music but it has the soul of her father’s work. She has been compared at times with Laura Nyro, Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette. Jen has been featured on “Late Nite with Conan O’Brien,” NPR’s Mountain Stage and WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, and Sirius Satellite’s The Loft. She has performed on stage with Bruce Springsteen, and has opened for Bruce Hornsby, Smokey Robinson and the Neville Brothers. When Chapin tours, she plays with her husband, bassist Stephen Crump, as well as guitarist Jamie Fox, a group billed as the “Jen Chapin Trio” that is described as playing urban folk music. She is out on the road this summer and will be making a stop at Sandywoods Center for the Arts in Tiverton on Friday, August 22. She released her 7th album, Reckoning, last year and when I saw her this past November in Hingham her show consisted mainly of material from this disc. Reckoning was produced by 5-time Grammy award winner Kevin Killen and its songs are “songs of ambition (and the lack thereof), of anger, and gratitude, of privilege, and being without, of being overwhelmed but still hungry for more life. In short, of family.”   Harry Chapin was instrumental in starting the organizations the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and World Hunger Year, and worked tirelessly for them. Jen Chapin carries on his work and is on the board of WHYHunger, the organization founded by her father. The show at Sandywoods will keep this up. They will be collecting canned goods for the local food shelter and donations for WHYHunger. For more, taxi over to jenchapin.com or sandywoodsmusic.com

There is a LOT of music this summer in the City by the Sea. The Newport Concert Series keeps it going under the big white tent on America’s Cup. Rounding out the summer dates are August 10 with Gregg Allman (66 years old), Dean DePalma will be on the Point Stage; on August 16 is The Beach Boys (in their 70s) with Joe Silva on the Point Stage; on August 20 will be Alanis Morissette and on August 31 is Kenny Wayne Shepard. For more, navigate to newportwaterfrontevents.com. On August 29 you can Rock the Fort and get hoochie-kooed with Rick Derringer (he is 66, just to keep the age thing going). The first classic rock concert at Fort Adams will also include Steely Dan tribute — Hey Nineteen and Rhett Tyler and Early Warning — a Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired group. For more about the show, sloopy over to: newportrocksthefort.com. You still have a few Sundays left for Nimfest’s free shows at King’s Park on Wellington Avenue. They happen from 3-6pm. For more about those shows, float over to: facebook.com/nimfest. The Touro Synagogue will present a Klezmer concert featuring the Yiddishkeit Klezmer Ensemble on Sunday, August 10 at 4:30pm in Patriots Park on Touro Street. The concert, presented in cooperation with Common Fence Music, is being given by Touro Synagogue in celebration of Newport’s 375th anniversary. Klezmer music, for those of you who don’t know, originated in the villages and ghettos of Eastern Europe where itinerant Jewish troubadours traveled from town to town and performed at joyful events, particularly weddings. With its lively beat and distinctive sound, Klezmer music, which is similar to a big band sound or jazz, has enjoyed a renaissance and renewed popularity on the concert stage and as dance music. It is free and open to the public. In case of inclement weather, the concert will take place nearby in the Colony House in Washington Square. For more, dreidel your way to commonfencemusic.org

This year, Nashville-flavored Americana, Canadian music and hot Louisiana dance bands each get a stage at The 17th Annual Rhythm and Roots Festival on opening night. This is the BEST festival and party of the entire year. No singular location outside of New Orleans or Chicago can be said to celebrate traditional music perhaps more than southern Rhode Island. Charlestown hosts the well-known summer music festival that features North-American born musical traditions that include bluegrass, folk, jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, R&B, country and rock & roll. The annual festival attracts over 10,000 festival-goers from about half the US and several countries to Rhode Island over Labor Day Weekend. Nationally recognized producer of the Rhythm and Roots Festival, Chuck Wentworth, describes the essence of roots music. “You know it when people play from the heart. When people are there for the joy of making music, not to make money or achieve fame… it’s non-cognitive.” This year Wentworth has booked several tradition-bending (and blending) performers never before heard in New England, and plans to introduce his loyal audience to exceptional Canadian artists in a special opening night tribute. On Friday, August 29, the live performances kick off at 4pm with three stages of music in three diverse themes. The Canadian Stage will feature a special tribute to outstanding north-of-the-border performers, and is hosted by Leonard Podolak of The Duhks (Podolak’s band is the host band of this year’s festival). Other celebrated Canadian artists to take the stage include blues sensation Matt Andersen, and the folksy, award-winning Ten Strings and a Goat Skin. Rhode Island native, and now Nashville mainstay Sarah Potenza, hosts the Americana Stage, with a night of music that features traditional bluegrass artists the Travelin’ McCourys and Grand Ole Opry outlaw (and “It Takes Balls to be a Woman” songwriter) Elizabeth Cook. This is the hottest festival of music and dance in New England. The Rhythm and Roots Festival serves as the grand finale to a Rhode Island summer. This two-and-a-half day, five-stage, all-ages festival takes place August 29, 30 and 31 at Ninigret Park in Charlestown. There is SO MUCH MORE to this festival but I am out of room! Find out more by two-steppin’ over to rhythmandroots.com.

Though this is happening at the beginning of September, I figured I would give you a head start for your musical planning. The first annual Providence Folk Festival will take place on Sunday, September 7 at Roger Williams National Memorial in Downtown Providence. The fledgling festival will feature two stages of acoustic-themed music. Headlining artists are Robin Lane (of Robin Lane and the Chartbusters) who is known for her hits: “When Things Go Wrong” and “Why Do You Tell Lies” as well as her backing vocals on Neil Young’s first album. Legend of the 1970s Andy Pratt, best known for his hits, “Avenging Annie” and “Summer, Summer” will also be gracing the festival stage. Also on the main stage, The Rank Strangers will bring bluegrass, Ed McGuirl and Joe Lambiase bring the blues, Lisa Martin a bit o’ country/folk, Dan Lilley (with Amy Bedard and Scatman) strums out the Americana sound, Allysen Callery and Bob Kendall will perform both together and solo, and Steve Allain will the provide his entertaining MC and singer-songwriter talents. The Rhode Island Songwriters Association sponsors the second stage and will present solo artists such as Kala Farnham, Jake Haller, Tracie Potochnik, WS Monroe and many others. The festival is free and is a great opportunity to get a good dose of the RI sound as well as some classic performances. If you are interested in supporting the festival financially you still have time and can help out by going to the Indiegogo fund raising site:  www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-providence-folk-festival–2. For more about the festival, cock-a-doodle-doo to HearInRhodeIsland.com

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading!

John Fuzek

www.johnfuzek.com




Feeding the Masses

The doors won’t open for another 30 minutes, but already a crowd is gathering at the side entrance of All Saints’ Memorial Church on the west side of Providence. Right at 4 o’clock a sea of people crams through the entrance, along a downstairs hallway, around a corner and into the parish hall where one of the best meals many will have this week awaits.

Welcome to City Meal Site. Started in the mid-1980s, it got new life when the operation moved from the East Side two years ago. The Rev. David Ames is the priest-in-charge at All Saints, founded in 1872 and the largest Episcopal Church in the state. But like some parishes in the diocese, All Saints was experiencing declining numbers when Father Ames arrived four years ago.

“All Saints is the only Episcopal church on the west side of Providence now and it has to bring value to the surrounding community, as historic buildings have to do. I saw a need and saw what was possible here and began to develop a number of programs that could meet those needs,” Father Ames said. “And the meal site is one of them.”

When the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John, the home sanctuary for the diocese and the City Meal Site for decades, closed in 2012, Father Ames agreed to bring the program across town. With it came Alane Spinney, who became head chef after graduating from culinary school six years ago when the program was still at the cathedral.

“I walked into that kitchen the first time and I’ve been doing it just about every Tuesday ever since,’’ said Spinney, who works as a barista at a bakery just up the street, but volunteers her time and talents here. “We try to put out the very best meal we can on our budget. Things that maybe other meal sites wouldn’t serve. And we run it like a restaurant.”

And like a restaurant Spinney quickly learned what the customers like: Lasagna is a hit, tuna casserole not so much. She also has to keep in mind that many of those who come every week have dental issues and some have high blood pressure or diabetes.

Spinney and a staple of others arrive mid-day Tuesday to begin food preparation. They are joined as the day goes on by an army of volunteers who all make it work as 4 o’clock approaches. “Our volunteers are the heart and soul. They make it happen. We serve between 100 and 250 people a three-course, sit-down meal, and we’ll do it in an hour,’’ she says.

“There are a lot of very hungry people out there, and I’ve learned there are all kinds of hunger,” Spinney said. “There, of course, is the physical hunger. We can take care of that of that physical hunger. But a lot of people come here just to see friends. And to sit down, be served a meal and talk to each other.”

City Meal Site feeds an average of 150 to 200 people a week, depending on the time of the month. And it does so on an annual budget of just $20,000 a year in donations and grants. That works out to under $3 per meal.

Jack Nolan was recruited by Father Ames seven months ago to serve on the board of directors for City Meal Site, which is incorporated as its own non-profit entity and not under the umbrella of any one church, even though it operates out of All Saints.

“When was the last time you bought a meal for $2.70 that was balanced and hot and served over your shoulder?” Nolan asked. “That’s incredible and can only be done with volunteers. That is enormous bang for the donated buck.’’

Father Ames said the weekly meal helps bridge a gap for many. “They can’t make it and a meal like this helps. And one of the goals of this is to help lift people out of that poverty trench, which is so pervasive. And I think if people can get a little help, even if they’re working two or three jobs, and find a meal for themselves or their family once a week, that’s a big help.”

So what’s the message?

“That this is a hospitable place, that it’s welcoming, that the food is excellent and that they will go home feeling satisfied.”

If you want to see the video version of this story go to wwwRhodeIslandSpotlight.org. If you know a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org.




The Songmill: Mary Ellen Casey’s Ordinary Day

songmillLittle Rhody is a tiny state, but I am willing to bet we have more songwriters per capita than any other. Afloat this summer in our vast pool of dedicated and talented singer songwriters is Mary Ellen Casey.

Mary Ellen is not new to songwriting. She has been writing and performing for years. Like many local songwriters trying to support themselves or supplement their income, she performs a hearty mix of her own compositions along with well-known songs by nationally known artists. Her latest and second commercially released CD of original music, Ordinary Day, showcases how beautiful and pleasant her original music really is.

Similar to the rich vocal styling of Anne Murray, Mary Ellen’s strong, yet smooth voice is perfectly suited for, and carries well, the songs she has selected for this CD.

On first listen, the songs appear to be light with very pop memorable and melodic refrains. Digging in deeper, though, you will hear much more. Between the soft lines of her lilting voice lies an undercurrent of deeper meaning – a soul searching for itself.

The album, dedicated to her soul mate, leads with an up-tempo number “The Love of Her Life” – a quest for someone looking for, and finding, that special someone. Several cuts in this collection laud those who have stayed together through the thick and the thin of it all and come out shining. Probably the finest song on the album is, “You Love Me Anyway” – a passionate and honest reflection on the strengths, weaknesses and differences that hold a couple near and dear. If you buy just one single from this collection, “You Love Me Anyway” would be this reviewer’s pick.

Just when you think the CD only shines a light on love, Mary Ellen’s out celebrating with her mates on “Paddy O’Hara,” a sprightly number that has the listener leaving their troubles behind as they step through the doors of their local pub. ”Paddy O’Hara” celebrates the Irish in us all as we tip a pint or two and toast good friends.

Recorded at Lakewest Recording and produced by Jack Gauthier, the album is a strong, comfortable listen with Duke Robillard backing Mary Ellen on lead guitar and Mark Teixeira moving things along with some tasty rhythms.

The album, all in all, is a salute to the hard working gal/guy. On “Ordinary Day,” you are encouraged to call in a “well-day” from work and simply enjoy a walk about your own town. The title cut, “I Would Love You Despite Of,” takes another look at that couple who despite working hard, carrying a multitude of family responsibilities and the weight of the world on their shoulders, push through and endure. “This Lady” is a tad sad, yet a reminder of how we all feel at times, as we struggle to juggle what life throws at us while trying to find peace, acceptance and a higher purpose in life.

“Bathroom Trash Blues” is a cute tribute to her pup’s trash-pickin’, incurable blunders. The final cut, “New England Town,” captures what it means to be home – a songwriter’s blessing for all she values.  It is a beautiful closing number acknowledging those who have come before us and the gifts we’ve been given.

Make a songwriter happy this week by buying a CD, downloading a tune or two, or shutting down that Facebook and going to listen to some original music – maybe even Mary Ellen Casey, on August 17, from 11am to 2pm at Java Madness in South Kingston. Learn more about Mary Ellen by visiting www.maryellencasey.com




Mike D’s Top 5 Can’t Miss Shows of August

top51. Monday, August 18: “Tunes on the Dunes” with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds; Free!; 6 to 8pm; All ages; Westerly Town Beach. Here we are in August and once again summer is almost over. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I accomplished very little. I know nothing about this music series, but I know it’s very to close to the beach. Beach, outdoor music, one last chance at redeeming summer. Sister Sparrow are an eight-piece funk / soul act hailing from Brooklyn and seem like they would be perfect in at sunset. So where should one get dinner in Westerly? As a true Rhode Islander, I’ve never been — too far to not have a casino.

2. Tuesday, August 19: Arcade Fire, Antibalas, Dan Deacon; $40 and up?; 7pm; All ages; XFinity Center (GREAT WOODS), Mansfield, Mass. What price were tickets set at? No clue. Clicking on the venue’s site directs you to the Ticket Liquidator. Thanks for everything, Ticketmaster. Anyway, being a fan of Arcade Fire is much like being a fan of Kanye West in that you have to consistently be an apologist for their actions and words. And this tour has ruffled some feathers with the band’s instructions that patrons should wear formal attire or costume. I will be wearing my iron-on tuxedo t-shirt to the 15,000 plus Mansfield costume ball. The huge crowd should be an excellent contrast in high concept art piece meets suburb culture. Maybe I will dress up my red Solo cup for the parking lot as well.

3. Sunday, August 24: Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, The Raskins; Xfinity Center (GREAT WOODS), Mansfield, Mass. Finally, a farewell tour to Motley Crue. I have never been to a Crue show, and I most likely did myself a disservice by not seeing them in the heyday. Not entirely sure I recommend the show, but here’s notice to all those who, like me, did want to see them at some point. Regardless of it being 2014, Crue and Alice Cooper should deliver some fantastic circus-type atmosphere. And for all those who wish they had and still refuse to see them in 2014, I recommend reading The Dirt, the band’s first-person tell-all of their sordid and almost ludicrous adventures from humble beginning to the furthest thing from and on top of the rock world. It is the best autobiography of a rock band I have ever read hands down, and enjoyable regardless of whether you like the band or not.

4. Wednesday, September 3: DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist; $32; 7pm; All ages; House Of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St., Boston, Mass. The two best hip-hop turntablists of the ’90s/early 2000s are touring together for the first time since 2008. DJ Shadow broke into the mainstream with his 1996 debut full-length record Endtroducing, a masterpiece in samples and made Time Magazine‘s Top 100 All Time Albums (and my top 10 all time records as well). Cut Chemist came to popularity working with funk act Ozomatli and hip-hop act Jurassic 5 in the ’90s. The two collaborated on the 1999 self released Brainfreeze and 2001’s Product Placement. Both showcase not only the depth of their collective record collection with samples of obscure soul and hip-hop, but stand as the benchmark for the flux of mix artists to come. Do yourself a favor and pay the large cover for this one.

5. Sunday September 7th; Wavves; $16.50 advance / $20 day of; 6:30pm doors / 7:30pm show; All ages; The Met, 1005 Main St., Pawtucket. Psych surf punk stoner favorites Wavves return to Rhode Island for the first time in almost four years. They are playing a few dates on what seem to be warm-ups on their way out to Riot Fest in Chicago. Since their last time into town, they released Afraid Of Heights in 2013, a record that shows great leaps forward in song writing and recording, but still doesn’t entirely take itself seriously. The record grows on you with each additional play and spent the entire summer in my car player last year. Not only are Wavves one of my favorite bands of this decade, they are at their best live.




The Female Playwrights Issue Takes Center Stage

I’ve been lamenting the representation of women playwrights on the American stage since I learned that only 17 percent of all plays produced in the U.S. are written by women. And women playwrights are lamenting as well.

In a 2008 New York Times article, playwright Gina Gionfriddo protested the lack of women’s plays produced in New York. “Producers, directors and perhaps audiences,” she said, “seem much more willing to accept unappealing male characters than unappealing women.”

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman addressed this issue a year later in “Not There Yet:  What Will it Take to Achieve Equality for Women in the Theatre?” published in Theatre Communications Group. She writes that “the U.S. Department of Labor considers any profession with less than 25 percent female employment, like being a machinist or firefighter, to be ‘untraditional’ for women. Using the 2008 numbers, that makes playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing and lyric writing all untraditional occupations for women … If it goes on like this, women will either quit writing plays, all start using pseudonyms, or move to musicals and TV, where the bias against women’s work is not so pervasive.”

Five years later, in a June 16, 2014, New York Times article, a group of women playwrights and producers, who call themselves The Kilroys, submitted 46 plays by women to theaters encouraging them to produce more plays by women. This list was developed to help artistic directors, “who have good intentions,” while “confronting others” who might be biased toward male playwrights.

For example, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is sometimes considered one of the best plays ever written, an excellent representation of the human struggle, effective in its ability to connect with “everyman.” And while I love much of what Mr. Miller put down on paper, this play does not represent MY struggle. I feel alienated from that play, particularly as a woman, and even more so because of the way women are portrayed in it. On the other side, numerous plays by women have not been mainstreamed because they were too much about a woman’s experience rather than the human one.

Huh? Are women aliens and nobody told me?

This problem plays out on Rhode Island stages as well.  Let’s look at 3 of RI’s more prominent theaters: The Gamm in Pawtucket, 2nd Story in Warren (where, full disclosure, I have been a long time subscriber and actor) and Trinity Rep in Providence. In an analysis of three seasons from these theaters, 12 out of 62 plays were written by women. I have debated this subject with many a talented male director or actor, people I consider friends and even feminists.  The excuses are 1) I couldn’t get the rights to any of the plays by women I wanted to produce; 2) The shows I am producing include strong female characters in lead roles; 3) I produce plays written by gay men; and 4) Women haven’t won many Tonys (thus there are no good plays by women).

The Gamm has no women playwrights in their upcoming season. Trinity has one. 2nd Story has not announced their season yet.

For some time, I blamed this local “miss representation” on the fact that the people choosing these seasons and running these theaters were white men (Tony Estrella at The Gamm, Ed Shea at 2nd Story, and Curt Columbus at Trinity Rep). However, out of six plays produced last season at ART (American Repertory Theatre) in Boston, only one was written by a woman, and ART’s Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, is a woman.

There is hope. Maybe not on the big stages, but on the smaller ones. Epic Theatre’s Artistic Director, Kevin Broccoli, put together an upcoming season of nine shows featuring six women playwrights. I asked Kevin why he thinks artistic directors don’t care about diversity. “I don’t think it’s that they don’t care, I think they don’t realize what it means to include diversity in your season. It doesn’t just happen. I think that’s the problem: A lot of people assume it’s just going to happen on its own. You have to make it a point to strive for diversity and make it happen.”

He continues, “It’s a problem that starts from the top and works its way down. If more women playwrights don’t start getting produced on Broadway and in major regional theaters, you’re not going to see smaller theaters taking those leaps. And since Broadway is the furthest thing from daring, it’s up to the regional theaters to take the lead.” His advice to his brother artistic directors is this: “You have to make it a priority — maybe the top priority even. Deciding that you want a diverse season makes the entire season better because it forces you to constantly rethink your choices and your play selections. It forces you to read more plays, and become more familiar with who’s out there.”

What can you do to promote the representation of women playwrights? To start, take a look at the seasons offered by your local theaters. What percentage of the playwrights are women? What percentage of the playwrights are people of color? Write to those theaters and ask for a better representation. Write op-eds. Don’t subscribe to theaters that don’t demonstrate a commitment to diversity and social justice. Remind them they are missing half of the HUMAN experience.