Category Archives: Republic of Letters

Stratford Festival Review: Richard III by William Shakespeare

The thought will not down that an unfortunate choice was made when King Richard III was selected as the spearhead stage offering. It is definitely the most unwholesome of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, and its only character of any real dramatic interest is that of Richard himself — a physically repulsive hypocrite, liar & murderer without one redeeming feature.

— The Stratford Beacon-Herald, June 30, 1953

Defying the Beacon-Herald’s strictures, the Stratford Festival nonetheless opened its inaugural season with Richard III — with no less a personage than Alec Guinness (“the old Obi-Wan”, as I overheard a Festival-going mom telling her son a few years back) in the title role, and the results were raved about throughout the Anglophone world. Since then, the Festival has mounted the tragedy at least seven more times, with both widely-known actors such as Alan Bates (1967) and Brian Bedford (1977) and talented company members like Stephen Ouimette (1997) and Tom McCamus (2002’s 50th season) flocking to fill the part.

Having paid his dues at Stratford before launching into a well-rounded career that spans Canadian biopics of Pierre Trudeau & Glenn Gould and comic book movies (Thor: The Dark World and The Amazing Spider Man 2), it’s intriguing to see Colm Feore become a repeat Richard, 35 years after he first essayed the role at the 1988 Festival. His deeply physical take on the Duke of Gloucester, complete with a gait that evokes the scoliosis evident in the monarch’s recently-discovered skeleton, is visually riveting. His way with the text is equally arresting; doing without the scene-chewing excess of an Olivier, he’s nonetheless “determined to prove a villain” from the opening soliloquy, unabashedly eager to walk the Tom Patterson Theatre audience through his machinations as he claws his way toward the throne. And like Feore’s other role this season as Molière’s The Miser, his Richard becomes the focal point around which Shakespeare’s cast revolves, constantly manipulated and mesmerized by him whether they realize it or not.

Sooner or later, however, most of the other characters do discover what Richard really wants. Freed from their self-deception and ambition, it’s their reactions that give the tragedy both its recurring sparks of conflict and its building momentum. Michael Blake’s Duke of Clarence, with his dreamed intimations of his brother’s betrayal; Jessica B. Hill’s Lady Anne, whose loathing of Richard is palpable even as he perversely woos her (and wins her!); Ben Carlson’s clueless Hastings and Andre Sills’ scheming Buckingham, whose death row regrets soar to commanding heights — all these keep any empathy the audience may be developing for the would-be usurper at arm’s length.

Towering over all these are Seana McKenna (who played Richard in 2011!) as the mad, prophetic dowager Queen Margaret, calling down curses on all and sundry; Lucy Peacock, whose Queen Elizabeth soars to dizzy heights of spite and bereavement following Richard’s slaughter of her children; and Diana LeBlanc, whose Duchess of York is shocked into cursing her upstart son just as he gains the throne. This is titanic stuff — the loosely historical narrative may drive the action of the play, but the clash of deep — and deeply flawed — characters is what keeps us from joining Team Richard, despite the combined allure of Shakespeare’s words and Feore’s strange appeal. In fact, no sooner does Richard become king than we (and possibly he) realize that his downfall is inevitable — and that we need to see it, to make some sense of these tumultyous events.

Even in the intimate TPT (with one-third the capacity of the Festival Theatre), there’s spectacle aplenty to be mined by director Antoni Cimolino and the populous, well-drilled cast as Richard approaches his necessary end. Royal processions, civil unrest, a coronation, ghostly visitations and the final battle between the forces of the usurper and Jamie Mac’s enigmatic, recessive Henry Tudor stir the blood, even as they bring Richard’s lurid dreams to both their culmination and their dissolution. And while this generally traditional production is a feast for the eyes and ears that I can’t recommend highly enough, Cimolino leaves us with more food for thought as well. His prologue and epilogue are set in the present day, with the discovery of Richard’s skeleton and his reburial in Leicester Cathedral bookending the tragedy — as if to remind us that, no matter how high Shakespeare’s characters may fly, as the Bard wrote later in his career,

Golden lads and girls all must,
Like chimney sweepers come to dust.

(Cymbeline)

Richard III runs through October 30th at the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre. Tickets available at stratfordfestival.ca.

— Rick Krueger

Stratford Festival Preview: The Miser by Molière

Harpagon, the title character of Molière’s The Miser, is a flat-out fool. Money — getting it, keeping it, hoarding it — is his obsession; in the presence of his stash, he kneels in abject devotion. But he also projects that obsession onto everyone else in his life. He berates his adult son and daughter for their “spendthrift” ways; he lends cash only at exorbitant rates (with outrageous stipulations in the small print); his fear of both having his treasure with him and letting it out of his sight easily slides into wholesale paranoia that everyone is out to part him from it.

The thing is, Harpagon isn’t completely wrong; his single-mindedness warps how everyone in his life approaches him. Both his children hesitate to reveal their new loves to him, for fear he’ll deny access to their trust funds. His household servants (including his son’s shady buddy and his daughter’s lover) suck up to him and diss their colleagues to his face, bitching behind his back and battling for dominance all the while. The local matchmaker (who Harpagon has tasked with finding him a new, young wife) and moneylender butter him up outrageously, hoping against hope to profit from their flattery. Even the ingenue both Harpagon and his son are after wants the miser’s money — to provide for her ill mother’s medical care, but still! The farcical complications of the play flow naturally and wittily from this set-up; in the company of a master fool who has what they desire, everyone’s foolishness will out.

Where the Stratford Festival’s new production of The Miser is faithful to that core revelation of Molière’s wry fable, it sparkles with a sneaky glee — even through two layers of adaptation (Ranjit Bolt’s Anglicized translation of 2001, further updated to contemporary Canada by director Antoni Cimolino). Guarding not only his briefcase full of Canadian $100s, but every absurd knick-knack in his Victorian horror of a house, Colm Feore’s Harper is the blazing star of this show; his alternating mania about Mammon and cluelessness about everything else send everyone around him into their own eccentric orbits. The household servants — ne’er do well Fletcher (a phlegmatic, sly Emilio Vieira), butler/secret lover Victor (Jamie Mac, confident and bewildered in turn), and chef/chauffeur Jack (Ron Kennell in full clowning mode) — alternately brazen their way through Harper’s whims and unleash their frustrations on each other; matchmaker Fay (Festival stalwart Lucy Peacock, in what amounts to a well-deserved star cameo) puts on a show of managerial competence for everyone else while gingerly fumbling with Harper like he’s about to explode; love interest Marianne (an empathetic, determined Beck Lloyd) stands up for herself and her mother appealingly, even as Harper and his son Charlie scrap over her like kids on a playground.

The characterizations of Charlie and Harper’s daughter Eleanor were what struck me as the weakest part of this production. While Qasim Khan and Alexandra Lainfiesta hit the right notes of frustration and futility (aided by the campy thrift-store chic of their costuming), their amped-up desperation comes across as shrill and brittle. The struggle between a serenely ignorant father and his deprived yet somehow spoiled children — the heart of the play’s satire — is where Cimilono least trusts Molière to connect. Instead, he crams gratituous Boomer vs. Millenial references into both the program notes and the script, saddling Charlie with a petty consumerist materialism and Eleanor with a string of cliche “woke yet broke” slogans. It has to be said that Khan and Lainfiesta sell this material with all their considerable ability; but for me, the insistence on painfully present-tense content is what keeps a funny production from crossing over into the hysteria that Molière generates when played with trust. There are plenty of simmering chuckles and outright hoots here, but not as many unstoppable guffaws as I had hoped for.

That said, this production of The Miser (complete with an over-the-top fairy-tale ending that does retain its hilarious impact through the layers of updating, as David Collins’ wonderfully deadpan Sir Arthur Edgerton sticks the landing) had the Festival Theatre audience in stitches, attested by the generous, heartfelt ovation for Feore and his supporting cast. If you can peer through the alternately opaque and overripe references to “the next Bezos” and “the land of Tim’s” (oh, and Harper’s distrust of safes — they attract the FBI as well as burglars!), you may well find yourself reflected in Molière’s unflattering yet strangely revealing mirror.

The Miser is currently in previews at the Stratford Festival Theatre. It officially opens on August 26th, playing through October 29th. Tickets are available at stratfordfestival.ca.

— Rick Krueger

Live from the Stratford Festival

This is an exciting time for the Stratford Festival. In 2022, we reopen our theatres, honour the excellence of the past and embark on a new leg of our journey together. A fresh start: an opportunity to reassess ourselves in the world today, reaffirm what we value and take the best path to an extraordinary future.

This will also be a year to celebrate milestones: our 70th season, the 20th anniversary of the Studio Theatre, the 10th season of The Meighen Forum, and the grand opening of our glorious new Tom Patterson Theatre.

It’s fitting, then, that our season theme for 2022 is New Beginnings. Our playbill explores the difficult moral and ethical decisions a new journey entails: What is the best way to start again? How can we avoid the traps of the past? In an imperfect world, what is good?

From Shakespeare’s most iconic play, Hamlet, to the American family classic Little Women; from the great Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman to such captivating new plays as 1939 and Hamlet-911, we offer you stories about navigating a new start in life.

Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director, Stratford Festival

Since 2004, my wife and I have been regular visitors to the Stratford Festival in southwestern Ontario. We’ve fallen in love with the Festival’s unbroken ethos across 70 seasons — dynamic, top-level performances by a dedicated repertory company of classics by William Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, Berthold Brecht and others, as well as substantive, appealing musicals and fresh, often experimental works by today’s playwrights. We’ve also fallen in love with the city of Stratford; set in the heart of Ontario farm country, it combines picturesque architecture, unique shops and eateries, and a stunningly beautiful park system along the Avon River and Lake Victoria. And the thought of everyone who’s trod a stage at the Festival’s multiple theatres, played a rock show at the hockey rink or busked for change on the streets (ranging from Alec Guinness and William Shatner to Richard Manuel of The Band and native son Justin Bieber) makes the place a performing arts lover’s dream.

Which is why it hit hard when, in the wake of the worldwide pandemic, the Festival’s 2020 season was cancelled and the 2021 season only went on under severe limitations and restrictions. It’s true that the summer of 2020 brought welcome YouTube screenings of the Festival’s ongoing project to film every play by Shakespeare (along with other archival videos), culminating in the online Stratfest At Home subscription service. But, a few days back at a local B&B, with a full season of 10 productions energizing the town around us, has served to remind me that there’s nothing like the real thing. And that experience is what I plan to share here with you.

Over the next few days, we’ll be attending Molière’s The Miser (currently in previews at the Festival Theatre), Shakespeare’s Richard III (at the new Tom Patterson Theatre), and Freedom Cabaret 2.0: How Black Music Shaped the Dream of America (at the TPT’s Lazaridis Hall). Look for reviews posted here ASAP after each performance. Whether you’re able to visit the Stratford Festival this season or in the future (or take in what it offers online), my hope is to capture at least a bit of the serious fun, the sheer emotional and intellectual sweep, the thrills, spills, heartbreak and heart’s ease — in short, the immersive, cathartic experience live theatre at its best can provide, and that the two of us have come to love and crave.

— Rick Krueger

Pure Americana

Recently I was on another ferry ride to San Juan Islands, that last frontier before Alaska, in fact at various points on those islands we can gaze at the Canadian shores across the water. Most of my previous rides were during colder months of autumn and spring, so almost always I was the lone motorcyclist on the ferry. This time it was a summer group ride and also there were several other unknown motorcyclists waiting at the terminal for the ferry back to Anacortes.

Among those unknown riders was this older gentleman riding a 500cc Royal Enfield. The signature classic look and that inimitable thump, even though muffled by the newer pipes, were instantly discernible. I walked over to him and mentioned how much I have enjoyed touring on these motorcycles, but of course it was over a decade ago and it was also the older 350cc variant. Interestingly he knew exactly what I was talking about. Even though a Westerner, evidently he has been living in Nepal for a while, and has done extensive touring of Indian subcontinent. More I conversed with him, more I realized how well aware he was about the machine’s quirks, subcontinent geography, and the motorcycle culture there.

Just to put all this in perspective – my conversation is with an American several generations older to me, riding a motorcycle originally invented in Britain, but now Indian engineered and exported to the US. While I am on a British designed Triumph, and most likely manufactured in Thailand. We are having this impromptu talk on a ferry terminal, in a corner of the world so distant from the Great Britain, Thailand or India. Even in our near past, possibility of this happening would be remote. But not anymore, seems like both humans and the products we engineer travel the world.

Even though the conversation itself wasn’t about the US, this situation might just be another silent illustration of American exceptionalism. Might sound like a leap, but we are in a more cohesive, connected world because of early American Federalists. That causal chain from the formation of an experimental republic, to current world is definitely long, tortuous, and involves several complex factors. But, beneath all the layers, that mechanism underlying globalization — which is essentially a contractual union of countries retaining their political identity but coexisting without cultural and economic barriers — sounds like pure Alexander Hamilton – James Madison – Americana!

Podcast: The Return of the King

Our three-part series on The Lord of the Rings comes, sadly, to an end. A huge thanks to John J. Miller for bringing me onto his excellent show and allowing me to talk and talk and talk about some of the things I love most in this crazy whirligig of a world. A true and meaningful honor.

Here is part III:

https://www.nationalreview.com/podcasts/the-great-books/episode-163-the-return-of-the-king-by-j-r-r-tolkien/

The Gay-Conservative Conspiracy of the 1950s

Russell Amos Kirk, 1950s

That most overrated academic fop of the twentieth-century, Peter Gay, spent a considerable amount of time and vitriol in the 1950s taking swipes at Russell Kirk, believing the duke of Mecosta a superficial romantic, stuck in the past, fighting for the most worthless and transient of causes. In 1961, he finally wrote something of substance (if poorly argued) against Kirk, replacing the one liners of the previous decade. Taking the efforts of Kirk and his allies into account, Gay lamented. “But the prevailing mood in the historical profession, always timidly sensitive to the drift of the times, is conservative,” he wrote in the prestigious Yale Review, a journal for which a number of prominent conservatives wrote as well. 

“The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” So much for all of the work of Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Robert Nisbet. 

“Hogwash” Gay might as well have cried in his obvious frustration. 

“Consider the brave new words on the lips of philosophical historians: ‘complexity,’ ‘the human condition,’ ‘the crisis of our time.’ A bill of these things suggest that the assault of Whig clichés has laid us open to an assault by counter-clichés.” It should be noted here that both Friedrich Hayek and Kirk understood well the word, “Whig,” and they employed it properly, in ways that Gay simply failed to understand. Others, such as Caroline Robbins Douglass Adair, though not allied with the Kirks and Hayeks of the world, would have understood it as had Kirk and Hayek. “In discarding the liberal view of history, we have not replaced falsehood with truth, but one inadequate scheme of explanation by another. Conservative ideologues have been much helped, of course, by the effects of the recent researches which have torn so many holes in the fabric of liberalism. But superior information, while never in itself a Bad Thing, does not insure superior wisdom.”

There are probably many proper critics that could be leveled at Kirk, but superficiality and lack of wisdom would not spring to the mind of any sane critic. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Kirk’s close friend, Peter Stanlis, wrote a letter of unadulterated glee and mischief after reading Gay’s piece in the Yale Review. They had successfully gotten under the Columbia’s historian’s skin. 

Yet, it is well worth considering Gay’s critique, no matter how false it was. Though Gay failed to articulate his position well, he clearly “felt” some kind of upheaval in the history profession. Not being a part of the cause of that upheaval, the priggish Gay chose to lash out at Kirk and his fellow conservatives in an anti-quasi conspiratorial way.

Had Gay lost his mind, or, in his muddled confusion, was he on to something vital in the conservative movement?

Kirk, Hayek, Nisbet, and Strauss—along with Eric Voegelin and Peter Stanlis and others—had changed the debate. They had each—though to varying degrees—understood how important Burke and Tocqueville were as symbols in a way to bolster the West’s understanding of itself as it had defeated German fascism and Japanese imperialism, but now confronted Soviet and Chinese communism. With much effort, the great non-leftist academics had spent the decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II doing everything possible to promote the newly discovered figures of Burke and Tocqueville as the quintessential thinkers of the modern era to combat modernity. Not only had they networked with one another in person, they had professionally and quietly encouraged this or that scholar to debate this or that opponent of Burke and Tocqueville, whether in mass media, or in journals or periodicals, or at conferences. Often the defenses and attacks were open and direct, but, just as often, the conservatives and libertarians promoting Burke and Tocqueville came from the side or even the rear. 

In one telling example, Kirk attacked the well-recognized and most important 20-century scholar of Samuel Johnson, Donald Greene, using his review of the man’s book to promote the excellence of brilliance of Leo Strauss. If only Greene would read Strauss, Kirk suggested, he might be able to overcome his “logical positivism” and “latter-day liberalism.” Indeed, Kirk suggested that readers should merely pity Greene for being so uneducated. Once he read Strauss, Kirk continued, Greene would not only see the errors of his ways, but he would become a member of the “Great Tradition” of the western great books, thus seeing Johnson and Burke properly.

Not long after Kirk’s death in 1994, Peter Stanlis revealed just how detailed and intimate their concerted plan of attack had been. Because of the rise of Strauss and Nisbet, the two men believed that the western world had come to a “Burkean moment.” As much as each man loved and respect Edmund Burke, they clearly loved him for real and actual self as much as they loved him as a symbol. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More could each be found in the thought of Burke, thus allowing the Anglo-Irish statesman to become a stand-in for all of the greats of western civilization. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis revealed in his 1994 talk about his secret alliance with Kirk. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. That is, they could not only critique what was liberal and progressive and wrong in the modern world, they could also, perhaps more importantly, defend something positive from the past, a conserving of the true, the good, and the beautiful. And, they could do so in a gay and willing pride.

Quoted: The Federalists and Anti-Federalists

During times of national crisis, turmoil, and dissatisfaction, we should always return to first principles and right reason.

Some of my favorite quotes from the Federalists and Anti-Federalists:

The Federalists

“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour.  It is essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.” (Fed 39)

“A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states.  And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, “federal” did not mean the same thing as “national,” for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state.  In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.” (Fed 39)

“Justice is the end of government,” Madison stated bluntly in Federalist 51, following Plato and Aristotle.  “It is the end of civil society.”

In discussing the need for a strong executive branch in Federalist 70, Hamilton explained: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government.  A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Arguments for energy applied to more than just the executive branch. 

“Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government.  Stability in government is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.” (Fed 37)

The Anti-Federalists

Though never the cohesive force the Federalists proved to be, the Anti-Federalists feared what they considered to be the objective of the Constitution: a consolidated, national government.  Such a desire, the Federal Farmer, a leading Anti-Federalist, argued, mostly likely came from “those who expect employments under the new constitution; as to those weak and ardent men who always expected to be gainers by revolutions, and whose lot it generally is to get out of one difficulty into another.” Federalists merely played on the fears of the people, promoting the notion that the current government is fully in a crisis.  The result, the Federal Farmer claimed, is predictable.  “Instead of being thirteen republics under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government,” he wrote.  “This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past.”

Another Anti-Federalist, Brutus, claimed the constitution would render the states obsolete through the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8. Though the Federalists might write in placating tones regarding the status of states prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the tone would necessarily change once the Constitution was implemented.  “It will be found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” Brutus wrote.  This will follow the law of nature, as “every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.”

Old Whig: “Before all this labyrinth can be traced to a conclusion, ages will revolve, and perhaps the great principles upon which our late glorious revolution was founded, will be totally forgotten.  If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter.  People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it. . . . The legislatures of the states will be but forms and shadows, and it will be the height of arrogance and presumption in them, to turn their thoughts to such high subjects. . . . The great, and the wise, and the mighty will be in possession of places and offices; they will oppose all changes in favor of liberty, they will steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents.  The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.” 

Old Whig: “But yet we find that men in all ages have abused power, and that it has been the study of patriots and virtuous legislators at all times to restrain power, so as to prevent the abuse of it.”

Brutus: “The nations around us, sir, are already enslaved, and have been enslaved by those very means; by means of their standing armies they have every one lost their liberties; it is indeed impossible that the liberties of the people in any country can be preserved where a numerous standing army is kept up.”

THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL GOES DIGITAL

From Broadway World:

The Stratford Festival is following up on the success of its recent Shakespeare Film Festival with a $10-a-month digital content subscription, Stratfest@Home, offering more Shakespeare and more films, along with new commissions, music, conversation, cooking and comedy. A free film festival, with a theme of Hope Without Hope, will once again be offered on Thursday evenings.

“At this particular moment of pandemic, with social isolation once more upon us, nights growing longer and winter approaching, we need the consolation of community like never before. With these viewing parties and the many related artistic programs in Stratfest@Home, we invite you to enter the warmth of the Festival bubble,” says Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino.

The subscription cost will include:

  • access to the 12 Shakespeare films streamed on YouTube this past spring;
  • a growing library of Festival-related legacy films, interviews & discussions;
  • new content like the filmed-in-Stratford mini-soap opera Leer Estates, holiday specials for Halloween and U.S. Thanksgiving, and video introductions to the young actors currently studying at the Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory;
  • coming in 2021, the game show Undiscovered Sonnets and the concert series Up Close and Musical.

The free film festival begins this Thursday on YouTube. Already on the schedule are:

  • October 22: The 2011 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night featuring the late Brian Dennehy (a great version that my wife & I saw in person – it includes cool songs by then-artistic director Des McAnuff, who worked with Pete Townshend on the Broadway version of Tommy);
  • October 29: The Stratford Festival Ghost Tours Halloween binge.
  • November 5: The 1994 production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This one’s a legendary part of Festival history.
  • November 12: The 1992 production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, with a young Antoni Cimolino as Romeo and Anne of Green Gables’ star Megan Follows as Juliet.
  • November 19: The 2000 production of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, a Festival commission. Playwright Findley was in the acting company with Sir Alec Guinness for the Festival’s inaugural season in 1953.
  • November 26: The Early Modern Cooking Show U.S. Thanksgiving binge.
  • December 3: The 2010 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer. (Another great version that we saw live — and also got Plummer’s autograph on his memoirs!)
  • December 10: The 2008 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Christopher Plummer.
  • December 17: All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, a lecture with readings.

You can learn more about Stratfest@Home and subscribe at https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AtHome

— Rick Krueger

Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

Beauty like that is strength. One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.

Doestoevsky, The Idiot

Over the past three decades, Minnesota-born composer Maria Schneider has staked out her own unique territory, based in jazz but expanding beyond category. From classical training and an apprenticeship with master arranger Gil Evans, Schneider parleyed her vivid sense of musical color, vibrant compositions and power-packed conducting skills into the leadership of a 20-piece Jazz Orchestra. At the height of the 1990s jazz boom, Schneider’s ensemble maintained a weekly residence at the New York club Visiones and recorded three fine, critically acclaimed albums (Evanescence, Coming About and Allegresse) for the German label Enja.

Reacting nimbly to the Internet’s disruption of music’s value, Schneider pivoted to crowdfunding for her 21st-century recordings. Concert in the Garden, Sky Blue and The Thompson Fields (along with Winter Morning Walks, a classical song cycle composed for soprano Dawn Upshaw) inhabit a rareified sweet spot where composition and improvisation feed each other, fusing the potent swing of classic big bands and the lush warmth of orchestral tone poems to evoke a deep-rooted, constantly unfolding delight in the world of nature.

But in 2014, David Bowie recruited Schneider and her orchestra for the jolting noir single “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).” The collaboration didn’t just boost Schneider’s profile (and result in sax player Donny McCaslin and guitarist Ben Monder backing Bowie on his swan song Blackstar); it unlocked a grainier, more shaded musical vocabulary, evident in her most recent commissions. This expansion also mirrored Schneider’s dedicated activism on behalf of copyright owners, pushing back against Big Data’s predation on both creative content and personal information.

The new Maria Schneider Orchestra double album Data Lords is the magnificent result, their most complete statement to date. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning musical structures that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody.

Continue reading Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

John Garth, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

Serious fans and scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien need little introduction to John Garth.  His Tolkien and the Great War (2003) is among the best books of this century on the creator of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  With urgency and clarity, Garth laid bare the biographical and historical roots of Tolkien’s legendarium, along with the unique gifts and vision of the man who gave it life.

In the acknowledgments for The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Garth promises that another major book on Tolkien’s creative process is in the works.  Until then, what an delectable hors d’oeuvre we have to sate our appetites!   Focusing on “the places that inspired Middle-Earth,” Worlds is gorgeously illustrated with snapshots, paintings and drawings from Tolkien’s life, along with many more maps, illustrations and stunning photographs (sampled below).   

But it’s Garth’s commentary — always accessible, always deeply empathetic  — that leaves us richer for the reading.  He probes much farther than any mechanical equation, i.e. “Tolkien saw this [location/building/natural feature] and this place from the legendarium was obviously the result.”  In fact, knocking down some of the wilder theories in play is part of his brief — the family names in the Shire don’t all come from two villages in Kentucky; the “two towers” aren’t a dystopian refraction of Birmingham’s dark satanic mills.  Instead, Garth strives to see Tolkien’s art as the holistic fruit of his life — the circumstances, people, environment, culture and education that shaped him, working together organically with his mind and heart, loves and hates, interests, friendships, education, vocations and travels.

The result can seem unsystematic, yet it’s satisfyingly thorough, surveying how Tolkien drew on the creation he knew to realize his sub-created imaginary world over six decades.  The chapter “The Land of Luthien: from Faerie to Britain” is perhaps Garth’s most delightful achievement here, tracing the evolving picture of Middle-Earth and its correspondences with this world from 1918’s The Book of Lost Tales through to The Lord of the Rings.  But there’s a great deal more on display, as Garth muses on the impressions that seas, mountains, rivers and lakes, forests, centers of learning and towers of guard made on Tolkien — not just in his early life, but throughout his years as a scholar, soldier, husband, father, linguist, storyteller, colleague and friend.  The penultimate chapter, “Places of War” focuses once again on the crucible of the Western Front; Garth is in his element here, digging ever deeper into how the Battle of the Somme and its aftermath refined Tolkien the man, ultimately unleashing Tolkien the legend-maker.

For all this, John Garth and the design team at Quarto Publishing deserve heartfelt thanks.  Words and images work in concert throughout The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, convincingly showing how the bardic depths of Middle-Earth are firmly founded on Tolkien’s experience in — and meditations about — the wonder and beauty of the fields we know.

To order The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien direct from the publisher at 50% off (ending June 28 at 11:59 pm EDT), click here.

— Rick Krueger