Geneva Anderson digs into art

The Voca People are landing at San Francisco’s Marines’ Memorial Theatre on June 5, 2012

“Voca People,” a musical theatre event that combines vocal sounds, a cappella singing, comedy and the art of beat box, takes the stage at San Francisco’s Marines’ Memorial Theatre, June 5 – 17, 2012. Photo: Voca People

Direct from New York, via a galaxy far, far away, comes Voca People—an out-of-this world musical theatre performance by singing aliens from the planet Voca, at San Francisco’s Marines’ Memorial Theatre, June 5 -17, 2012.  Their mission: to refuel their spaceship by performing the music of Earthlings and to then return safely to planet Voca.  Created by Lior Kalfo and Shai Fishman, Voca People is performed by eight friendly snow-white, ruby-lipped aliens with perfect harmony—3 female singers (alto, mezzo, soprano), 3 male singers (bass, baritone, tenor), and 2 beat box artists that create extraordinary human beat box sounds. There are no musical instruments, no sound effects, only vocals!  Performed with humor and the help of the audience, Voca People features a cappella and beat box versions of over 70 well known songs, including hits from Madonna, Queen and even Mozart.

Called “rousing and amusing” by The New Yorker and “The coolest show ever” by Jimmy Fallon, Voca People has won intergalactic success with sold-out tours throughout Europe, South America, the Middle East, Mars and, most recently, a highly successful engagement at West Side Theatre Upstairs and New World Stages in New York City.  Their videos on YouTube have received over 20 million hits.  

Out of town guests?  This Out-of-this-World Musical Event is worth crossing the bridge for!  Landing at San Francisco’s Marines’ Memorial Theatre on June 5, 2012

The creative team for Voca People includes Lior Kalfo (Director / Co-Creator), Shai Fishman (Musical Director / Co-Creator), Roy Milo (Lighting Design), Naor Ben Meir (Sound Design) and Hana Yefet (Costume Design).

Details:  Voca People runs Tuesday, June 5, 2012 through Sunday, June 17, 2012.  8 PM shows Tuesday-Friday; 6:30 PM and 9:30 PM shows Saturdays; and 3 PM and 6 PM shows on Sundays.   Tickets range in price from $49 to $75 and are on-sale now at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre Box Office, online at, or by phone at (415) 771-6900.  The Marines’ Memorial Theatre is located at 609 Sutter Street, San Francisco.

May 29, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A.C.T.’s Samuel Beckett double bill—“Endgame” and “Play”— through June 3, 2012

Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, left, is Hamm and ) and A.C.T. core acting company member Nick Gabriel is his servant, Clov, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

No one pokes fun at the misery of existence with the crystalline lines of the late master playwright Samuel Beckett. The problem has always been finding actors who can deliver those lines with the exact flavor of irony and detachment that Beckett calls for.   Two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, no stranger to Beckett, gives a memorable performance as Hamm in Beckett’s masterpiece, Endgame, which is currently at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in a double bill with Beckett’s Play, a lesser known absurd comedy written in 1963.  These two Beckett one acts are well-executed revivals that pair well together.

Play opens with a spotlight directed on the three babbling ashen faces protruding out of three huge funeral urns, placed side by side.  A man (M), Anthony Fusco, occupies the middle urn, while his wife (W1), René Augesen, occupies the left urn, and his mistress (W2), Annie Purcell, occupies the urn on the right.  Eternally together in the afterlife, locked in their urns and only able to engage in slight turns of their heads, Beckett uses this trio of lovers like a captive chorus.  Each is condemned to repeat his or her version of the affair for eternity.  One character speaks at a time, in a very mechanical and detached refrain, and only when the spotlight shines on his or her face.

A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell (left), A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco (center), and A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen (right) in Samuel Beckett’s Play, performing together with Beckett’s Endgame at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

After the realization that you cannot possibly comprehend all that is said because it is delivered too quickly, you begin to experience it as a concert, taking in fragments and understanding that the heads aren’t communicating with each other, they seem oblivious to each other.  Beckett is all about repetition, which is core to his discourse and is used as a means to unsettle some of our most fundamental notions of how humans function.  Once completed, the cycle of dialogue is repeated.  Hearing it all again, you begin to get a sense of Beckett’s brilliance, much of which will only come through if the timing and delivery of these lines is perfect.  Last Wednesday’s performance was delivered with admirable skill by this unharmonious trio of dead lovers.  A.C.T. core-acting company member Annie Purcell, who gave a vivid performance this February in as the daughter/sister, Janine, in A.C.T.’s Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, again gave a compelling performance as a seething woman who felt she had won the love of this man (M) and scorned her rival, his wife Augesen (W1).  The wife, of course, has a different take, she feels she owns him.

What makes Play all the more interesting it that it somewhat models Beckett’s personal experiences.  When Play premiered in June 1963, Beckett had recently married his long-time companion of twenty-odd years, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil.  He had also resumed his long-term affair with Barbara Bray, the acclaimed BBC script editor, who had moved to Paris to be near him.  When Play premiered, Bray not only attended but reviewed it favorably for the venerable Observer, referring to the man (M) as “scooting breathlessly back and forth between the two women, perhaps the worst of the bunch: all need and weakness and feeble, if amiable duplicity…” (A.C.T.’s program p 20).

Bill Irwin portrays the invalid, Hamm, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Endgame, one of Beckett’s best plays, takes its English name from the final part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left, and the outcome is obvious. Its French title, Fin de partie, applies to games beyond chess as well, but there is no precise English equivalent for the phrase.  Beckett himself was an avid chess player.   Endgame is a commentary on death and our transition through life.  Beckett has whittled human drama down to the bone—longing, relationship, abuse and hope.  Everyone meets Endgame on a different terrain based on their own individual life experiences, aesthetics, and needs.  Some will see it as the story of a master and slave and others as that of an overworked caretaker tied by some means to an ill or dying man.

The setting is minimalist.  A bare, partially underground room is inhabited by four characters—Hamm the master (Bill Irwin), Clov his servant (Nick Gabriel), and Hamm’s father, Nagg (Giles Havergal), and mother, Nell (Barbara Oliver).  Hamm is blind and can’t walk and is in a wheelchair that also might be a throne. He makes Clov, who cannot sit, move him around the room, fetch objects, and look out the window for signs of life, of which there are none. Nagg and Nell have no legs and reside in huge trash urns and are fed and watered daily by Clov.  Inside this bleak little world, staged wonderfully by Daniel Ostling, the characters pass their time waiting for an end that never comes.

Bill Irwin, who has acted in Waiting for Godot three times, brings a vibrant energy to Hamm.  Irwin delighted audiences with his perfect comedic timing and remarkably elastic body movements as the wily servant, Scapin, in Molière’s Scapin, which opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season.  In Endgame, even though Hamm is confined to a chair, Irwin manages to make him the life of the party, using his dancing eyes and sharp facial gestures to imbue him with human spirit, so much so that we pity him.

Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performing together with Beckett’s one-act Play at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There is a strong and palpable chemistry between Irwin and Nick Gabriel, who plays Clov. The two are well-synced in their sparse dialogue and numerous pauses but an almost comedic undertone locks into place between the two, overshadowing the necessary cruelty, abuse and anxiety that are part and parcel of the power-tripping relationship Beckett calls for.  When Clov delivers sadly powerful lines like “No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we,” we don’t understand the full extent of their perverted existence.  In this regard, A.C.T.’s enactment of Endgame falls short of its full dramatic potential. On the other hand, watching Nick Gabriel move about the stage, re-arranging a short step ladder so that he can peer out through the windows into one of two views of oblivion and report on it to Hamm, is slapstick brilliance.  So is Gabriel/Clov’s brief encounter with what he thinks is a flea in his trousers.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any two actors with more instinctive mastery of the physical gesture than Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel.

Beckett is frequently criticized for making people feel stupid because they don’t get it.  There’s plenty to ponder in this double bill—our human response to loneliness—but there’s a lot that’s laugh out loud funny too, even if Beckett’s characters are too exhausted to laugh themselves.

Run-time:  Play is 22 minutes long, followed by a 15 minute intermission and Endgame runs for 90 minutes

Cast Play: René Augesen (W1), Anthony Fusco (M), Annie Purcell (W2)

Cast Endgame: Bill Irwin (Hamm), Nick Gabriel (Clov), Giles Havergal (Nagg), Barbara Oliver (Nell)

Creative Team: Carey Perloff (Director), Daniel Ostling (Scenic Design), Candice Donnelly (Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Fabian Obispo (Sound Design), Michael Paller (Dramaturg), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting Director), Elisa Guthertz (Stage Manager, Megan Q. Sada (Assistant Stage Manager), Daniel Ostling’s staging

A.C.T. InterACT Events:

Audience Exchanges: May 22, 7 p.m., May 27, 2 p.m., June 3, 2 p.m.
After the show, stick around for a lively Q&A session with the actors, moderated by a member of the A.C.T. artistic staff.

Killing My Lobster Plays With Beckett: May 24, 8 p.m.
San Francisco’s premiere sketch comedy troupe offers an original, Beckett-inspired performance 15 minutes after the final curtain (approximately 10:15 p.m.). Possible sketches include “Hunger End Games,” “Cooking with Clov,” and a speed-dating sketch featuring Beckett characters.  Admission is free, but seating is limited. Ticketholders for the May 24 performance will receive priority seating but must RSVP—information will be emailed to you separately.  Non-ticketholders who wish to attend can add their names to the waitlist by sending an email to with their name and requested number of seats (limit two seats per person).

OUT with A.C.T: May 30, 8 p.m., The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty. Visit for information about how to subscribe to OUT nights throughout the season.

PlayTime New!:  June 2, 2 p.m.
Get hands-on with the art of theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive preshow workshop. Doors open at 12:45 p.m.; the workshop will begin promptly at 1 p.m.

Details: Endgame and Play end on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays, with several 2 p.m. matinee performances, including Wednesday May 30, 2012, Thursday, May 31, 2012, and all Saturdays and Sundays of the run.  Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

May 22, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Love old roses? This Sunday’s 32nd Celebration of Old Roses in El Cerrito will have hundreds and it’s free

Tuscany Superb, pre-1837, known in ancient times as “Old Velvet,” is well-named. Its flowers are deep crimson to maroon when they first open, taking on the appearance of crushed velvet, and take on black and purple tones as they age. Photo: Geneva Anderson

May belongs to old roses.  Whether they climb on a fence, or explode on their own with sprays of colorful and fragrant blooms, or flavor gourmet ice cream, they are a source of pure delight.  I’ll be in rose rhapsody this Sunday at El Cerrito’s 32nd annual Celebration of Old Roses.  This is a yearly trek to the I make along with a number of other old rose devotees from all over California where we can see, smell and talk old roses with other addicts.  The annual spring event is sponsored by the Heritage Roses Group and takes place at the El Cerrito Community Center from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Old roses, or antique roses, are varieties that date from 1860 or earlier.  Their attractiveness grows from their wonderful rich and varied fragrances and graceful growth habits which make them ideal for the garden and disease resistance.  The celebration in El Cerrito works a lot like an old-fashioned country fair.  The focal point is a 100-foot plus display of freshly picked old roses in old-fashioned mason jars, all in glorious states of bloom and organized by class—gallicas, centifolias, damasks, mosses, hybrid chinas, bourbons, portlands, chinas, teas, eglantines, floribundas and others.   There is ample opportunity to explore the nuances of each variety—fragrance, color, size, petal count, foliage and growth habit.  There are  educational rose books, light refreshments, and a proliferation of rosy knick-knacks—greeting cards, essential oils, jewelry, scarves, painted china, rose-flavored jam and honey.  And, of course, there are old rose vendors from all over (Vintage Gardens from Sonoma County) who will be selling rare old roses, most of which are own root roses.

Monsieur Tillier, a glorious tea rose that repeats several times and has a remarkable color—salmon and peachy shades of pink blended with deeper pinks that change over the course of its bloom. The result is an ever-changing spectrum of lush color. Photo: Geneva Anderson

I was seriously hooked on roses about 20 years ago, when I was working as a journalist in Bulgaria and wrote about rose attar and the world famous annual rose harvest festival in Kazanlik.  After encountering acres and acres of richly fragrant damask roses, I too wanted a piece of the action. From there, it’s been a joyous ride, that first required me to put down some roots of my own.  Now, settled in the country Sonoma County and growing about 100 old roses on two properties with differing microclimates, I am living out my rose dream…but there are NEVER enough roses.

When our local Sebastopol rose gurus, Gregg Lowery and Phillip Robinson, went exclusively mail order with their revered antique rose nursery Vintage Gardens, we lost one of the best hands-on rose education experiences to be had in Northern, CA.  With their very livelihood in jeopardy, they won’t be having their annual open garden this year which, for years, has showcased their fabulous collection of some 3,600 rare and old roses (all labeled).  Old rose events like the one in El Cerrito have to sustain those of us who are hungry to see rare roses and to road test the extensive knowledge we’ve gleaned from late-night reading and dog-earring of our rose books.

My bible is the Vintage Gardens Complete Catalogue of Antique and Extraordinary Roses. This must-have catalogue gives an utterly riveting blow by blow accounting of the properties of nearly 3000 old and very rare roses, the largest list of roses offered by any nursery in the world today. Consulting rosarians like Gregg Lowery will in be El Cerrito on Sunday, answering questions and identifying old roses.  His enthusiasm for old roses is legendary and if you have a chance, do stop by and let him know how much his efforts in bringing us rare roses are appreciated.

Have a rose that you can’t identify?   Just put a complete cutting (full bloom, bud and some foliage) in a jar and bring it to the event and the experts will try to identify your rose.

Another fabulous aspect of El Cerrito’s celebration is the chance to try and buy some very high quality rose products. Last year, I purchased some delightful “Rose Embrace” rose eau de toilette from Healdsburg perfumers Jan and Michael Tolmasoff who run the Russian River Rose Company. The Tolmasoffs are the real-deal–they grow hundreds of damask roses and harvest their own petals to make their own unique rose scents. They also offer hands-on perfume rose harvest tours at their Healdsburg rose ranch where they have over 650 varieties of roses.  I also bought some Green Rose Chakra Flower Essence by Luna Fina, laced with vodka, that promised to help align my chakras and am definitely getting more of those.

Summer Damask is an abundantly fragrant ancient rose from which rose attar is obtained. It blooms but once a year in massive pure pink sprays with very spiky thorns, loaded with blooms and with very soft, green gray leaves. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Rose shows require extensive planning, organization and support.  The Heritage Roses Group, formed in 1975, is a fellowship of those who care about old garden roses, species roses, old or unusual roses – particularly those roses introduced into commerce prior to the year 1867.  The group’s purposes are to preserve, enjoy, and share knowledge about the old roses.

Details: El Cerrito’s 32nd annual Celebration of Old Roses, Sunday May 20, 2012, El Cerrito Community Center, 7007 Moeser Lane, El Cerrito. 11 am to 3:30 p.m. There is no admission charge.  For information, call Kristina Osborn at The Heritage Roses Group (510) 527-3815, or visit

May 17, 2012 Posted by | Gardening | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Mary Gannon Graham talks about the art of singing badly for her new role as Florence Foster Jenkins in “Souvenir,” at 6th Street Playhouse through May 27, 2012

Award-winning actress Mary Gannon Graham, a Sebastopol resident, tackles the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the famous socialite opera singer who couldn’t hold a tune, in 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” May 12-27, 2012. Photo: Geneva Anderson

When Sebastopol actress and singer, Mary Gannon Graham, took on the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the famous tone-deaf diva, for 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Stephen Temperley’s  Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, she had to learn the art of vocally decimating opera’s most beautiful arias.  Doing this authentically—impersonating Jenkins without turning her into a mere caricature—wasn’t easy.   Revered by audiences and critics in throughout the Bay Area for her fluid performances in Always, Patsy Cline and Shirley Valentine, Gannon Graham agreed to talk about her fascinating new role as the spirited coloratura whose botched high notes, disastrous pitch and intonation, and crippled rhythm delighted her enthusiastic audiences.

Souvenir, which opened Friday night, at 6th Street’s Studio Theatre, is a poignant comedy, a fantasia of memories and experiences related by Jenkins’ witty accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, portrayed skillfully by John Shillington, who sings and plays piano throughout.  It’s also a story of personal fulfillment and victory.   The story starts in 1964, on the 20th anniversary of Jenkins’ death, and goes back to 1932 and moves forward through the 12 years of McMoon’s relationship with Jenkins.  Jenkins was born in 1868 in Pennsylvania and dreamed of becoming a great opera singer but her wealthy father refused to pay for voice lessons.  When he passed away in 1909, she inherited enough money to follow her bliss, took voice lessons, became very active in social clubs, and gradually began giving recitals for her friends.  She was renowned for her annual concert at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom where she performed famous arias in elaborate costumes she designed herself, raising loads of money for charity.  Tickets to her Carnegie Hall concert, on October 25, 1944, which she gave at age 76, sold out in two hours.  The audience, consisting largely of service men, busted their seams throughout, some stifling their laughs and others not.   Gannon Graham plays Jenkins with sweetness and vibrant off-the-mark singing.

Is it more difficult to sing properly or badly? 

Mary Gannon Graham is Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington (right) is Cosmé McMoon, Jenkins’ accompanist, in 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” May 12-27, 2012. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Mary Gannon Graham: Singing badly, and doing it well, is a lot harder than you think.  I had to learn to sing all these arias correctly first before I could go out and butcher them.  For that, I’ve had a wonderful vocal coach and opera teacher, Beth Freeman, who has been working with me a couple of times a week.  The concern was that I wouldn’t damage my own voice and that I’d sing in an authentic way.  Florence Foster Jenkins practiced non-stop—her barking wasn’t accidental, it was studied.  Our director, Michael Fontaine, has told me that I’m hitting too many right notes.  It’s strange to get feedback from your director that says ‘No, you’re singing it too right.’

What are the technical issues with her voice—intonation, rhythm, timbre?

Mary Gannon Graham:  It’s a little of everything.  When you listen to her recordings, and they are on YouTube, she was in the ball park a lot, but was basically a quarter note above or below.  One of her reviewers wrote that ‘she mastered the art of the quarter note,’ and he was trying to be kind.  Her rhythm was not always what was written.  The play is a fantasia, so a lot of it is made up.  She talks about obfuscating the tempi, how accuracy gets in the way of true singing, and how music comes from the heart and that the notes are simply guideposts left by the composer.   This is the gist of what she believed—she had her own musical interpretation and she practiced very hard to perfect it.

It’s interesting that she chose opera, an art form with such rigorous standards.

Mary Gannon Graham:  Oddly, she was also a piano teacher, so she knew something about music.  She left her father’s home after he disowned her and this was because she married against his wishes.  She married a man, Jenkins, who was about 15 years older than she was and he was a consummate cheater and he gave her syphilis.  So she left her father and then her husband and made her own way in the world teaching music.  She had this love of classical music and believed herself to be a true coloratura soprano and felt she could master the very high ranges.  I’m a mezzo and singing really high, and not using the meat and potatoes of my voice, is very difficult.  It’s awful to sing like a barky terrier, which is what we’re going for here.  This is a small intimate theatre too, so to sing lighter, and not use my full voice, is also challenging.

As a performer, are you aware enough of the audience’s reaction to tell if something has gone South?  What are your thoughts about Jenkins’ awareness while performing?

Mary Gannon Graham: I try not to pay attention to that—if you’re worried that you’re hitting you’re mark, you’re not in the moment.  If I’m playing comedy, I do need to hear the reaction, but every audience is different.  As an actor you are aware—I call it the actor’s brain—and are focusing on a million things at once, one of which might be channeling the energy the audience is giving, but it’s mainly focusing on what is happening on stage.  Florence Foster Jenkins was completely under the spell of the music.  She was enamored with Verdi and Mozart and all the great composers and music was her drug, her religion, her bliss.  I don’t think anything meant as much to her as music and promoting music.   She was quite the philanthropist, and when she charged people their $2.40 to attend her concerts, she donated all that money to charity and never kept it for herself.   She wanted to share music with the world and she heard herself in a different way and was blind to what the audience was experiencing.

She must have had been part Teflon or maybe she just didn’t care what people thought—what type of character did she have?

Mary Gannon Graham: She had this indomitable spirit and didn’t let the opinions of others dictate how she felt about herself.  She had this almost childlike assurance that what she was doing was beautiful and perfect and right.  She also had quite an ego and could be manipulative when it came to getting people to attend her performances, but it wasn’t with mal-intent.   In the play, for example, she always says ‘It was proposed that we play here,” or ‘It was proposed that we move our recital.’  She had a lot of money and I suspect that she went out and shopped herself. After her father died, she inherited this huge chunk and that’s when she went to town.  She stopped teaching piano and really pursued music—she took voice lessons and morphed into this singer.  She had wanted to do this as a child but her father said no and when it came to her late in life, she went for it.

Describe her relationship with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon.

Mary Gannon Graham: Cosmé McMoon was not her only accompanist but he was her last accompanist, the one who played Carnegie Hall with her.   He is the only one in the play.   She actually went through several accompanists and fired them because they weren’t up to snuff.  She initially had her niece playing for her at the Ritz-Carlton.  The play starts with her interviewing Cosmé to play for one of her first public recitals.  In Stephen Temperley’s play, Cosmé’s very protective of her.  I’m not sure about this in real life.   I’d expect that anyone who played with her would have had to have been protective.  People would stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter whereas she thought they were so overcome with emotion, they were sobbing.  She saw what she wanted to see and believed that she wanted to believe.

When you played the role of Shirley Valentine, you mastered many personas.  Is this the role that most prepared you for Florence Foster Jenkins?

Mary Gannon Graham dons ostrich feathers, wings and tiaras as socialite opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” at 6th Street Playhouse through May 27, 2012. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Mary Gannon Graham: Every role an actor pays helps them towards the next one.  Singing Patsy Cline in Always Patsy Cline —doing so many performances—helped me find what I think is my voice, which is not Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice, and it gave me real confidence.  Shirley Valentine, as a character, goes through a transformation of courage—from being a doormat to her husband and children, to becoming this woman who has to go out on her own and make it.  Taking on characters is an act of osmosis and parts of them stay with you.  Acting is very much like fine tuning an instrument—sometimes you bring up one part and sometimes it’s another.   Aside from the singing, finding her age has been challenging—she was 25 years older than I am.  She started her singing career probably in her late 50’s and gave that Carnegie Hall Performance when she was 76.   It is not something that we, the director Michael and I, ever talked about but I suppose there is a part of me, the actor, that is aware of the passage of time.  I slowed her walk a bit and made a conscious effort to use the arms of the chairs to get up and down. I can’t explain her voice, it’s just what comes out.

How many costume changes do you make through-out the performance?

Mary Gannon Graham: I have 14 costume changes and most of them occur in the scene for the Carnegie Hall performance where Florence is singing different arias and serially dressing for each role she sings.  Florence designed her own costumes and had them custom made.  She was especially inspired by a painting called ‘Inspiration’ by Steven Foster of a winged angel and had a beautiful angel costume created for her Ave Maria aria.  Costume designer Pam Enz has really duplicated that very nicely.

Is Florence Foster Jenkins’ celebrity deserved?  

Mary Gannon Graham: She had incredible chutzpah  and did a lot to promote music.  This was the era of clubs and she was a club woman in New York, which meant she was on the boards of dozens of clubs.  She was the founder and president of the Verdi Club, a music club, and she was a celebrity within her own circle.  When she made those famous single aria recordings, she became even more popular and she believed she was popularizing really good music.  When she recorded the infamous aria “Queen of the Night,” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she got her friends together and she played recordings of famous singers doing that aria and hers would be in the mix too and she’d ask them which one they liked best.  Most of her friends could recognize her voice and would pick her, to her delight.  When someone didn’t select her as the best, she would accuse them of not having any sense of music.

Because she promoted music so much and was such a philanthropist, I think she earned her notoriety and her fame.  And  she is more popular today worldwide than she was in her day, which is really something.  Enrico Caruso, Arturo Tuscanini, Tallulah Bankhead, and Cole Porter went to see her, not so much the general public, but she was covered in the society pages and some of her recitals were reviewed.  She didn’t give two shakes what people thought about her.  One of the great lines in the play is ‘Art cannot be ruled by caution.’  I don’t know if she actually said that, but she lived it.  If we all were our authentic selves it would be so freeing.  That’s the great lesson of this play—have courage and believe in yourself.

Mary Gannon Graham is opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington (left) is Cosmé McMoon, Jenkins’ witty accompanist, in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” at 6th Street Playhouse through May 27, 2012. Photo: Eric Chazankin

 Did she have children or much of a family life?

Mary Gannon Graham: No, she devoted herself entirely to her career.  No one knows if she actually divorced her first husband, Mr. Jenkins.  He did give her syphilis and she lost all of her hair, was bald as an egg, and so she always wore wigs.  She was quite eccentric.  She would carry around all of her important documents, like her will, in her briefcase with her.  She didn’t trust it to be anywhere but near her and was secretive about who her voice teachers and clothing designers were.  She had a common-law husband, St. Claire Bayfield, who she married in a ceremony that wasn’t legally recognized, and they started out romantically but ended up very good friends.  They didn’t live together but wore wedding rings and, later on, he acted more like her manager than her husband.  He’s not mentioned in the play and I’m not sure why.   She promised him all kinds of money and ironically, when she died, no one could find her will, after all this carrying it around with her.  Consequently, her estate reverted to some cousins who came forward to claim her fortune.  Cosmé actually went to court and claimed that she was secretly in love with him too and had promised him this money.  He didn’t get any of it either.

In your research what are some other interesting things you’ve learned about her? 

Mary Gannon Graham: Well, the rumors about her are legend but this is what I’ve read or been told—

She collected chairs that famous dead people had sat in.  She would buy their chairs and would say that so and so sat here.

She loved Manhattans.

She loved jewelry and wore rings on several fingers at time.

She had autographed photos of famous people all over her hotel room.

She lived at the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York but, in the play, we have her living at the Ritz Carlton.

Her Carnegie Hall performance sold out and they turned 2,000 people away.  The only other two concerts that were so successful and sold out so quickly at Carnegie Hall were for Judy Garland and the Beatles.

John Shillington and Mary Gannon Graham after Friday’s opening night performance of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” at 6th Street Playhouse. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What we can all take away from Souvenir?

Mary Gannon Graham:  Constantin Stanislavski, the method acting teacher said, ‘Love the art within yourself, not yourself within the art.’   Florence Foster Jenkins did that.  It’s not about being good, it’s about being and trying to give the audience something that they didn’t come in the doors with.  In this case, it’s not letting other people tell you what you should and shouldn’t do and pursuing what you love with every fiber of your being.

Souvenir’s Team and Cast: Stephen Temperley’s  Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins is directed by Michael Fontaine and features Mary Gannon Graham as Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington as accompanist, Cosmé McMoon.

Special Event:  A post-show discussion following the Sunday, May 20, 2012, 2 p.m. performance.  San Francisco theatre writer and critic Richard Connema recalls attending the 1944 Carnegie Hall concert featuring Florence Foster Jenkins.

During the last week before he shipped out to the Pacific as an Air Force photographer during WWII, 18 year-old Richard Connema, and a few of his Air Force buddies, took the one hour train ride from Fort Dix in New Jersey to New York’s Penn Station and to the USO and got comp tickets (orchestra, no less) to see Jenkins perform at Carnegie Hall.  He recalls that the place was packed… “I’d sort of say she floated out to the stage…and she that earnestly faced the audience and began to sing.”  Hear him relate the full story at the post-show discussion.

Details:  Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins runs May 11 to May 27, 2012, at 6th Street Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa.  Performances are at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sundays; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 26, 2012.  Tickets: $15 to $25.  Order tickets by telephone at 707.523.4185, online here, or purchase at the door.  The Studio Theatre is small and advance purchase is highly recommended.  For more information:

May 13, 2012 Posted by | Opera, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Oakland Museum: Margaret de Patta closes this Sunday, see her revolutionary jewelry along with the new 1968 exhibit, featuring Janis Joplin’s feather boa and bell bottoms

If those Pants Could Talk! Janis Joplin’s bell bottoms are featured in “The 1968 Exhibit” at the Oakland Museum through August 19, 2012. Comprised of Indian block print with a patchwork flower power crotch, these are an artful sample of the period’s hippie fashion. Photo courtesy: Minnesota History Center

Exiting OCM this SundaySpace-Light Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta, a must-see retrospective celebrating revolutionary modernist jeweler Margaret De Patta’s creative legacy.  “Space-Light-Structure” features more than 60 jewelry pieces as well as ceramics, flatware, photographs, pictograms, and newly released archival material. Based in the Bay Area, studio jeweler Margaret De Patta (1903-1964), who studied with Bauahus sculptor Moholy-Nagy in Chicago, is credited with starting the American studio jewelry movement on the West Coast.  The Oakland Museum of California holds the largest collection of De Patta’s work, most of which was donated by her (third) husband Eugene Bielawski after the artist’s untimely death by suicide in 1964.  The exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

Ongoing—The 1968 Exhibit   Experience one of the most powerful years in recent history in this unforgettable exhibition exploring the social, political, and economic events of 1968. A turning point for a generation coming of age and a nation engaged in war, 1968 saw the peak of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention, Black Power demonstrations at the Summer Olympics, Feminist demonstrations at the Miss America pageant, and much more. The Bay Area was at the forefront with an emerging California counterculture.  Presented as an ongoing collective of historical and personal stories, the exhibition is for those who lived through it, those who’ve heard about it, and those who wonder why it matters.  This participatory exhibit uses art, audio clip, films, games and hang-out lounge and touches on all major changes and events in that pivotal year, 1968.

Details:  The Oakland Museum of California is located at 1000 Oak Street, Oakland.  Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission is $12 general, $9 seniors and students with valid ID.  For more information visit

May 9, 2012 Posted by | Art | , , , | Leave a comment

Carb-loading for a cause—the 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting is this Saturday, May 12, 2012, and it benefits Cinnabar Theatre’s Youth Programs

Save Saturday, May 13, 2012, for the 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Petaluma

Most of us don’t need an excuse to eat but this Saturday offers a great reason to indulge—it’s the 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting, an all-you-can-eat extravaganza— and all the proceeds fund Cinnabar Theatre’s wonderful youth programming.  The event runs from 1 to 5 p.m. at Herzog Hall at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.  This year, 55 teams of chili and salsa challengers and 14 Bay Area breweries are participating and there will be chili and salsa galore to sample and judge, and plenty of beer, including special microbrews, to quench your thirst.  The goal—to determine the best-of-the-best when it comes to meat chili, veggie chili, traditional salsa, fruit salsa.  Defending their 2011 title for best meat chili by individual will be Tree Huggin’ Hippies; best meat chili by restaurant/ Whole Foods; best vegetarian chili/ Tree Huggin’ Hippies; best traditional salsa/ Tree Huggin’ Hippies and best fruit salsa/Sonoma Salsa.  There’s also a People’s Choice award given in each of the categories.  Come early, eat plentifully, and see if you can spot the taste of victory.

The cook-off’s founder and organizer, Laura Sunday, deemed “Empress”—who also runs Taste of Petaluma every September—has fond memories of last year’s contest and high hopes for this one.  “Last year we had 15 young guys from Chicago who attended our Chili Cook-off for a Bachelor Party.  They drove up from SFO in a limousine and partied all day long with us.  I asked them how they heard about us. They said they wanted to go to a chili cook-off to celebrate and when they researched it, ours kept coming up as the best in the West, so they planned their entire trip around our event.”

Last year, the event was attended by 1,300 people and raised $50,000 for Cinnabar Theater’s youth programs which include a variety of classes in the performing arts for children of ages 4 through 18; Cinnabar’s Young Repertory Company, which produces 4 fully staged shows annually; and Cinnabar’s very popular Summer Camps, which provide an immersive 4 week training leading up to a staged performance or musical revue.  This year, there are three camps offered that will perform Musical Madness (Broadway hits revue), Rock ‘n’ Music Roll (rock opera) and Les Miserable.

“We’re heading into our 40th season for our Young Rep program and are proud to say that no child is turned away for lack of funds,” said Elly Lichenstein, Cinnabar’s Artistic Director.  “We have between 450 and 500 students coming from all over the North Bay every year and we offer a range of scholarships and the Chili tasting is our biggest fund raiser of the year—it’s vital to our survival.”    Lichenstein is proud that her program has launched several careers in the arts.  One Cinnabar alumnus is in Hollywood making movies and several students, now sprinkled across the country, are pursuing acting careers.

“What I love about the chili cook-off is that it’s such a celebration,” said Lichenstein.  “Everyone’s having a great time, packed in this hall like sardines and eating away, and it brings out a whole different demographic than we see during our regular performance season—these are people who love chili and they don’t necessarily love theatre and it’s fabulous.”

How does the competition work?  Some chili contests adhere to purist rules about what chili is and isn’t and what it can and can’t be.  Some contests, for example, don’t allow beans in chili.  In Petaluma, things are flexible and Sunday doesn’t give entrants any rules about chili or salsa.   “I love beans! If you want to put beans in your chili, I will not say no.”

Because there are only 55 contestants, and entry is handled on a first-come, first-served basis, anybody with a hot recipe and the requisite $65 to $75 entry fee who entered before the March 15, 2012 deadline, made the cut.  Most of last year’s winners are back to defend their titles, including the mystifying Tree Huggin’ Hippies who won the meat chili, vegetarian chili and vegetarian chili by individuals divisions.

Each contestant has been asked to prepare a whopping 9 gallons of the recipe entered, enough for the panel of judges and community tasting.  Chili judging will be by a blind taste test and all chili and salsa will be served to the judges in 2 oz. plastic cups.  The judges will have no contact with the chili or salsa challengers.  Judging is on the basis of taste and personal preference of the V.I.P. judging panel—a team of 13 foodies and community members selected by Dick Kapash, the retired founder of Petaluma’s SOLA Optical.   “I can’t get enough of those fine chili dishes…the chili, salsa and beer just keep getting better every year,” said Kapash, who has worked with Laura Sunday for about 9 years planning the event.   Each judge tastes either chili or salsa and votes.  This year’s judges are Dick Kapash, David Glass, Ryan Williams, Yovanna Bierberich, Steve Jaxon, Jason Jenkins, Mike Harris, Geraldine Duncann, Mary McCusker, Jason Davies, Geneva Anderson, Joe Davis, Nick Grizzle.

When asked to judge again, I agreed immediately.  I love the competitive edge it brings out, the fun of people watching and the joy of eating.  I opted for salsa—refreshing, tart and spicy—I make it frequently and am always up for a new twist.  And, frankly, I am interested in seeing how others adjust their recipes to get that fresh flavor burst in non-tomato season.  When you’ve got juicy sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes at your fingertips, everything is already easier.

Awards: There will be 4 “People’s Choice” trophies given for Meat Chili, Veggie Chili, Salsa and Beer.  A panel of distinguished judges from the community will award “Judges’ Choice” trophies for Best Restaurant, Business, Service Organization, Individual, Salsa, and Vegetarian Chili, and an overall “Grand Champion Chili.”  Other awards will be given for best team costumes, best booth decorations, most spirited team, best salsa and chili display, and any other wacky contest that the organizers can come up.  Runners up will also be awarded.

Live Entertainment: Although the main event on Saturday will be the chili and salsa contest, in Behren’s Park, just next to Herzog Hall, there will be music by Soup Sandwich, an 8 piece local Ska band (1 PM to 1:45 PM), and Sonoma County favorites Stony Point, performing a crowd-pleasing mix of rock and blues plus some original tunes for dancing and listening pleasure (3 PM to 4:30 PM).  Local dance companies Raks Rosa Dance Company (belly dance, middle eastern)(1:45 to 2 PM) and FIERCE Dance Company (hip-hop) (2:45 PM to 3 PM) and are also on the docket.  The Amazing Caine will perform dazzling magic tricks and Fred Speer of Clark’s Pest Control will offer a Bug Zoo and promises a collection of very interesting insects.  (full entertainment schedule)

If you sign on for the beer tasting component of the event—an additional $15–you’ll have your fill of the offerings of 15 local micro-breweries producing the finest premium ales around.

More About Cinnabar Theater:
Cinnabar Theatre winds up its 39th  season with Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday,  playing May 25-June 10, 2012.  This 1946 hilarious tale features a not-so-dumb-blonde, her less-than-honest brute of a boyfriend, and the no-nonsense reporter who helps her uncover Washington’s dirty little secrets and life’s glorious possibilities.  Get your tickets here or call 707.763.8920.

Sing We & Chant It, Cinnabar Chamber Singers, Spring Concert, with Michael Shahani, Directing.  Cinnabar Chamber Singers is a thing of rare beauty: breathtaking music arranged for several parts, sung by people who find fulfillment and fellowship, offered up to the public in concert.  They teach us something about music, art and life, as the notes wrap themselves gently around our hearts.  The Spring Concert features Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata #131, Mark Kratz soloist (Don Ottavio in this Spring’s Don Giovanni), as well as a set of beloved madrigals and exciting new works.  (May 27, 2 PM, Petaluma’s United Church of Christ, 825 Middlefield Drive, Petaluma) Get your tickets here or call 707.763.8920.

Details: 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting is Saturday, May 12, 2012, from 1 to 5 p.m., at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Herzog Hall, Petaluma (located at East Washington and Payran Streets in Petaluma) Chili, salsa and beer tasting $40, Chili and salsa Tasting $25, Kids under 12 $10, under 5 free.  ID necessary for beer.  Tickets can be purchased in advance online, or the day of the event.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | Food, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Hidden Treasures of the Romanov Dynasty”— Dr. Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, Curator of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, will speak this Thursday, May 10, 2012 at the Sonoma County Museum

Charger, cup and saucer and bowl from the Kremlin Service, commissioned by Nicholas I in 1837. Intended for 500 people, the service included 2,000 dinner plates, 1,000 soup plates and 1,000 dessert plates and was the first time artists drew upon Old Russian motifs from the 17th Century for inspiration. The set took 10 years to complete. Select dishes are on display at the Sonoma County Museum as part of “The Tzar’s Cabinet,” through May 27, 2012. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

There’s something endlessly fascinating about antique tableware, especially intricately painted porcelain.  A zeal for the best, combined with the nearly limitless resources of Imperial Russia, fueled a craze for porcelain in Peter the Great who first saw this luxury item in 1718 when he visited the Dresden Court at Saxony.  The formula for the internationally coveted  “white gold” though proved illusive and it took Russian chemists several years to get it right.   It was Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1709-1762), who ascended to the crown in 1741 and established the most glittering court in Russian history, who founded the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory in 1744 in the town of Oranienbaum (Lomonosov) and ordered it to produce porcelain wares exclusively for the Romanov family.  She promptly began to test the factory’s creative capacity with orders for royal items of porcelain that grew more lavish and refined as time passed.  During her rule, porcelain never left her palaces and attracted less attention from its practical use as by its rarity, its aura of inaccessibility and the mystique of its creation. The Imperial Porcelain Factory produced tableware exclusively for the Imperial Romanov family for nearly 200 years, reaching its zenith under the “Golden Age” of Catherine II (the Great) (1762-1796), whose hunger for exquisitely painted porcelain was insatiable.  Dr. Ekaterina Khmelnitskaya, Curator of Porcelain at the Hermitage Museum, one of Russia’s foremost authorities on porcelain, will speak on the founding of the Imperial Porcelain Factory and select rare pieces from the exhibition The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts Under the Romanovs, currently on view at the Sonoma County Museum through May 27, 2012.  Her talk “Hidden Treasures of the Romanov Dynasty” will be presented on Thursday, May 10, 2012, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the musem.

About the speaker: Dr. Ekaterina (Tina) Khmelnitskaya is a curator of the Russian Porcelain and Ceramics collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  She spent the first two months of 2012 as a Fulbright Scholar at the Library of Congress and has continued her Fulbright studies as a Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Center on Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

A 2001 graduate of St. Petersburg State University, she defended her doctoral dissertation in 2007 on the styles of the interiors of the palace of the Romanov Grand Duke Vladimir.  Since 2001, she has worked at the State Hermitage Museum, and since 2003 she has been a curator of Russian porcelain.  She has received research support for work in Germany from the German Chancellor Fellowship and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and from the Max-Planck-Institut for research in Italy—Florence in 2010 and Rome in 2011.

Dr. Khmelnitskaya is the author of more than 40 scholarly publications, including guidebooks as well as scholarly articles and books on the porcelain collection of the State Hermitage Museum.  She participated in organizing over twenty Hermitage exhibitions, including exhibitions in Japan, Germany, and Scotland as well as Russia.  She was in charge of two porcelain exhibitions: “Under the Imperial Monogram: Porcelain from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum” (with Irina Bagdasarova) at the Kremlin in Moscow, 2007; and “Heraldry on Russian Porcelain” (with Irina Bagdasarova) at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2008.

Khmelnitskaya’s current research devoted to the Russian sculptors who were affiliated with the work of the Imperial Porcelain Factory and who immigrated after 1917 and continued their work in Europe and elsewhere.

An early porcelain plate from Her Majesty’s Own Service, the first dessert service completed by the Imperial Porcelain Factory, St. Petersburg, circa 1756, under Elizabeth (1741-1761), is on display in “The Tsar’s Cabinet” exhibition at the Sonoma County Museum through May 27, 2012. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

The Tsars’ Cabinet exhibition: Porcelain of Royalty, each piece an artwork:  The Sonoma County Museum is marking the bicentennial of Fort Ross with the splendid exhibition, The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts Under the Romanovs, on view through May 27, 2012.  Most of the porcelain comes from the relatively new private collection of Kathleen Durdin an east coast collector, who gifted a portion of her collection to the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary.  The Tzar’s Cabinet is a travelling exhibition organized by the Washington, D.C.-based International Arts & Artists in cooperation with the Muscarelle Museum of Art.   The historic Sonoma County Museum is its third stop and only Northern California venue.   The show, which takes up the first and second floors of the museum, presents a rich portrait of the Russian Romanovs through the ornate plates they dined on and other luxury objects they either owned or gave as royal gifts.  Just two years away from the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty, this comes as a festive pre-celebration of their rich role in Russian history.

The exhibition is laid out chronologically, starting with early examples of gifted porcelain and attempts to produce porcelain in Russia which culminated in the 1756 dessert service created for Elizabeth—Majesty’s Own Service (Sobstvennyi)—a lovely spiraling basket weave design initiated in small pink flowers connected by a molded gold gilt trellis rope on hard paste porcelain.

One of the most interesting sections is devoted to Catherine II (the Great) (1762-1796), who had a great appetite for fine art and luxury items from all over the world and had the political savvy to use them to enhance her fame and claim to the throne.  She lavished attention on developing the Russian porcelain industry so that it could supply her with services for personal and state use.  The scholarship on the wall and cabinet texts at the Sonoma County Museum paints a fascinating picture of this young, enigmatic and enterprising woman who ruled Russia for 34 years, championing the ideas of the Enlightenments throughout her reign.  She had a passion for collecting, which did not stop with porcelain— with the help of sophisticated advisors, Catherine assembled the core of today’s State Hermitage Museum.

Jennifer Bethke, Curator of Art for the Sonoma County Museum commented on Catherine’s shrewd use of porcelain in a walk-through lecture she gave to museum guests in March, “Catherine, of course is known for her love of beautiful objects, but she used porcelain as a palette to honor those loyal to her, to call attention to her accomplishments and to her progressive beliefs.  She was especially fond of the neoclassical style and commissioned the “Arabesque Service” with design elements from the newly-discovered cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  She had herself inserted in each piece as a goddess in classical dress on a pedestal with allegorical figures at her sides depicting Crimea and Georgia, calling out her own wisdom and sovereignty and Russia’s strength under her rule.  And it was no coincidence that her banquet tables had figurines of exotic Russian peoples—Cossacks and Tartars—these served as talking points about her vast territories.”

Various hard paste porcelain figurines of Russian ethnic groups in tribal costumes, from 8 to 8.75 inches tall, Imperial Porcelain Factory, 1785-1800. Catherine the Great used these figurines at state dinners as centerpieces to remind visiting dignitaries of the extent of her empire and to recognize her victory over the Turks. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

One of Catherine’s more famous and endearing services was a commission completed for her by the Sevres Factory in France, and inspired by her love of cameos—the Cameo Service.  This service is represented by a cup in the exhbition.  The complete service was for 60 and consisted of 700 pieces executed in a stunning turquoise with scrolling gold gilding, delicate garlands of flowers, and decorated with representations of cameos on themes from Greek and Roman history and mythology.  Catherine’s cypher EII was put on the center of each plate n the service.  The E stands for Ekaterina as Catherine was called in Russia.  The service exemplifies the most elaborate techniques in porcelain manufacture and design at the time.  In some of the pieces, cameos were inserted into the porcelain and secured by gilt-copper filets.  Some of the cameo medallions were applied with a transfer decal process that Sevres did not use again unto the 19th century.  The service was made of soft-paste porcelain, the secret of which was known only to the fabricators and painters of Sevres.  Why Catherine, certainly the richest woman in Europe at the time, took 13 years to pay for it is a question I hope Dr. Khmelnitskaya will address in her lecture.

(Robert Massie’s new book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is highly recommended as a companion read—suspenseful and full of rich period detail.  Click here to listen to Massie interviewed by Charlie Rose about his new book.)

Teapot from the Gothic Service, Imperial Porcelain Factory, circa 1833, 6 x 9 x 5 ½ inches. The handle is formed as a neoclassical woman emerging from a leafy cornucopia and the lid filial has a helmeted female warrior. Both are finished in matte gold gilding. The sides and lid are decorated in red, blue, green and black to resemble a Gothic stained glass window. Photo: Giovanni Lundardi Photography

The exhibition continues with sections addressing how porcelain embodied Russian nationalism under Alexander I and Nicholas I and shows several regal examples of services drawing upon Russian culture for inspiration.   One of the most attractive pieces in this section is a teapot, circa 1833, from the Gothic Service commissioned by Nicholas I, a great champion of porcelain who elaborately gifted his sons and daughter with porcelain services for dowries and weddings and began the practice of commissioning additions of many of the earlier major services he fancied whether Russian or foreign.  The teapot’s sides and lid are decorated in red, blue, green and black to resemble a Gothic stained glass window.  The handle is designed as a neoclassical woman emerging from a leafy cornucopia and the lid filial has a helmeted female warrior.  Both are finished in matte gold gilding.  The Gothic Service itself was used often during imperial parties and ceremonial banquets up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Several items, obtained locally from Andrew Romanoff, the grandnephew of the last Tsar Nicholas II, have been added to the exhibition and include a calling-card case and family photographs. Romanoff’s grandmother and parents escaped to England and were offered asylum at Windsor Castle, where Andrew grew up.  Now 89 and an artist, he lives in Inverness with his wife, Inez Storer, who has a companion exhibition of her artworks, “Inez Storer: Recent Works,” in the museum’s first floor.

Dessert Plate, Two Dinner Plates, Soup Plate, Butter Plate, Cup and Saucer from the Raphael Service, 1884-1903, Period of Nicholas II, Imperial Porcelain Factory, Russia, on display at the Sonoma County Museum as part of “The Tzar’s Cabinet,” through May 27, 2012.

Russian Porcelain at auction:  On May 28, 2012, Christies, London, will auction several pieces of Russian porcelain, including two important dinner plates from the Raphael Service from the period of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, estimated to fetch from £12,000 – £18,000 ($19,416-$29,124) each.  Several plates in this pattern are currently on display at the Sonoma County Museum.  The detail is breathtaking—the centre of each plate is decorated with a classical figure painted en grisaille on a red ground in a hexagonal frame, on white ground, surrounded by a border of classical-style friezes with three red ground roundels, cream ground interjections and six stylized panels, at intervals, within gilt banding, the panels with raised beading, decorated with monochrome mythical figures, gilt rim and foot, marked under base with gilt crowned monogram of Alexander III.  

Details: “Hidden Treasures of the Romanov Dynasty” will be presented on Thursday, May 10, 2012, from 6-7:30 p.m. at Santa Rosa’s Glaser Center at 547 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $8 SCM members and $10 non-members and are available for advance purchase online here  and will be available at the door of the Glaser Center beginning at 5:30 pm on May 10, 2012.  Note seating is limited and advance purchase is highly recommended.

May 7, 2012 Posted by | Art, Sonoma County Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2012 Petaluma Film Fest, three programs of award-winning shorts, this Saturday, at Petaluma’s historic Mystic Theatre

Petaluma’s historic Mystic Theatre hosts the 4th annual Film Fest Petaluma, this Saturday, May 5, 2012, featuring 3 programs of entertaining and award-winning shorts from international and local filmmakers. Photo: Petaluma Film Alliance

The 4th Annual Film Fest Petaluma is Saturday May 5, 2012 and will showcase three diverse programs of shorts by international award-winning filmmakers and local students at Petaluma’s historic Mystic Theatre, 23 Petaluma Blvd. North, in downtown Petaluma.

The day long festival is the brainchild of festival director, Mike Traina, who runs the popular Petaluma Cinema Series program at SRJC’s Petaluma campus.  This year’s programming features a mix of animated, live action and short films, as well as comedy and drama, with more than a dozen filmmakers from five countries in attendance to participate in post-film discussions.  Film programs, featuring 8 to 10 shorts each, are at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., with an edgier program at midnight.   The program also includes Sonoma County student filmmakers too—Fiona Becker (The Pulsera Project screens in the program at 2:30 p.m.), Amy West and Jacob Bellochio (Mud screens in the 7:30 p.m. program) and NickNuebel (Ancient Alien Ice Road Trucker Wars screens in the midnight show.  Click here for a full schedule.

Highlights include this year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, USA 16 minutes)  Inspired in equal measures, by Hurricane Katrina, Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz, and a love for books, Morris Lessmore is a story of people who devote their lives to books and books who return the favor. The film is a poignant, humorous allegory about the curative powers of story that uses a variety of techniques (miniatures, computer animation, 2D animation) and presents a hybrid style of animation that harkens back to silent films and M-G-M Technicolor musicals.  Screens in 2:30 p.m. program.

Turning (Karni and Saul, UK, 10 min, 2009)  On his sixth birthday, Robert receives three beautiful old ladies in his mother’s sitting room. Through his eyes, we visit the memory of this afternoon, visualized with the free spirited imagination of childhood, naive yet wonderfully dark.  Ladies appear like birds, a gift scuttles across the floor, blue icing is nibbled from a magical cake, tea is sipped, lacy slips shifted, and between knobbly knees strange visions appear.  The ladies weave an extraordinary tale of an emperor with no skin, and the boy himself, older and wiser, adds the finale… with a tail. (Screens as part of the 2:30 program.)

Dog Sitting (Yannick Privat and Sara Verhagen, France, 2011, 8 minutes)  A young English dog sitter in Paris finds that man’s best friend can sometimes be an unexpected burden. (Screens as part of the 7:30 p.m. program.)

Nowhere Road (Bejnjamin Dynice, USA, 14 min) When three innocuous college kids find themselves stranded on an empty desert highway, their only hope of salvation comes in the form of two inane hillbillies and their disgusting RV. But when they take them up on their offer, the group soon discovers that there is no such thing as a free ride. View Trailer   (Screens as part of the midnight program.)

Details:  2012 Petaluma Film Fest is Saturday, May 5, 2012 and has programs at 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and midnight.  Individual program are $10 and all day passes are $25.  For more information and to pre-purchase tickets, go to

May 5, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In My Mother’s Arms”—a powerful Iraqi documentary tells of one man’s courageous attempts to shelter Iraq’s abandoned war orphans

In My Mother’s Arms (2011) 82 min, Directed by Atea Al Daradji, Mohamed Al Daradji

This compelling documentary, up for the Golden Gate Award for a documentary feature at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF 55) , follows Husham Al Thabe, a caring and courageous Iraqi man who runs his own orphanage  in Baghdad’s most dangerous district, Sadr City.  He works tirelessly to build the hopes, dreams and prospects of the 32 traumatized children of war under his care in the modest two bedroom house he rents.  Many of these children used to reside in state-run orphanages where they were abused or neglected.  Under Husham’s care, they have slowly started to come out of their shells, but most have peristent trust issues and behavioral problems and are starved for affection and individual attention.  They dream of being held in the loving arms of a nurturing female.  Husham is consistently denied financial support from the Iraqi government which insists that the children would fare better in a state run orphanage and in orphan schools.  Husham just manages to survive through the donations of concerned individuals.   The situation is crowded but functional–the boys are well fed, well clothed, do well in school and pursue extracurrcular activities, like diving.  It takes time to build trust but slowly the boys learn to trust and confide some in each other and in Husham.  When the landlord gives Husham and the boys just two weeks to vacate, a desperate search for a new home ensues.  This film reflects the bitter reality of life for an entire generation of young Iraqis growing up in a war-torn society and the tremendous difference that a single caring dedicated and tenacious individual like Husham Al Thabe can make.  (Screens at Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 9 PM)

55th S.F. International Film Festival

When: Thursday, April 19, 2012 through Thursday, May 3, 2012

5 Venues: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post Street, San Francisco, S.F. Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, San Francisco, SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
Tickets: $11 to $13 for most films with a variety of multiple screening passes. Special events generally start at $20
More info: (415) 561-5000,

May 1, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “In Paris”—Mikhail Baryshnikov is smoldering as a downtrodden general in a May-December romance, at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Last Wednesday’s opening night performance of In Paris at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre began an uncharacteristic 17 minutes late.  No one was more keenly aware of this than Mikhail Baryshnikov, who stood waiting quietly in darkness at the back of the stage for the action to begin. And when it did begin, none of us were exactly sure what was happening because we had been thrown a kilter by the time…but a slight woman in a hat appeared in the front rows, where the audience was seated, and she made her way to the left wall of the theatre and began to move a blown-up postcard through the tightly seated audience, bumping a few people in the process. She foisted it up onto to the stage where she then dragged and rotated it towards a stationary Baryshnikov, who was dressed in a trench coat, staring downwards. The black and white image was an old photo of Notre Dame and, as tentative and drawn out as the gesture was, we had all just made the symbolic journey to Paris.  That’s just one of the vehicles that Russian director Dmitry Krymov uses to engage his audiences in this very poetic staging of Baryshnikov’s new show which tells its story through music, song, video projections, props that are suggestive of moving collage or puzzle pieces, dramatic lighting by Damir Ismagilov, and a palette of black, white and gray hues in Maria Tregubova’s set and costume design.

Director Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris” opens with Anna Sinyakina dramatically dragging a huge postcard of the Notre Dame onto the stage of Berkeley’s Rep’s Roda Theatre and plopping it down it by Mikhail Baryshnikov (right). Photo: Maria Baranova

The story itself is set in Paris in the 1930’s and has been adapted from a short story written in 1940 by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, who himself lived in exile in Paris and never returned to Russia.  Baryshnikov is Nikolai Platonitch, a retired general of White Russian army who was thrown out of Russia by the Bolshevik army, is living in Paris, and by chance meets a beautiful young Russian émigré, Olga, a waitress, played by the compelling young Russian actress Anna Sinyakina.  The two lonely souls fall in love but, alas, their tender journey is bittersweet.  Rounding out the ensemble are actors from Russia and Finland, members of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, who don’t have defined roles but serve as a chorus, accompanying the drama at the moment by moving props and singing.

Legendary performer Mikhail Baryshnikov is a retired general of the White Russian army living in exile Paris who is in a May-December romance with Anna Sinyakina in “In Paris,” at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Baryshnikov, now 64, is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century but he has also enjoyed an extensive acting career.  He made his first film debut in the 1977 film The Turning Point, and was last seen on Sex and the City, playing the man dumped by Carrie Bradshaw. His most recent theatrical performance was in Beckett Shorts, a collection off four short Beckett plays, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis for Samuel Beckett’s centenary in 2007.  In In Paris, he first appears in shadows, not moving much at all, yet gesturing the girl with an inner movement.  Instead of physically gliding towards her like he did so dramatically in numerous ballets, he practices a form of expression that relies on calling forth his bearing as a general who has shed his uniform but still wears it invisibly.  The girl responds.

Dmitry Krymov, the influential Russian artist, director, and set designer has given Bunin’s story new resonance. His small experimental Moscow theater company, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the past 7 years for its repertoire of staged works called “painters theatre” with a very dominant and engaging visual aesthetic. In the first few minutes of In Paris, the word “loneliness” is projected across the stage in several languages, evoking a connection to the world’s displaced peoples and the collective loneliness that underpins Bunin’s story. Video projections of texts—dialogue translations and poetry—are projected creatively across the stage and actors throughout, making a dynamic visual impression.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

The drama is organized around a circle which symbolically reinforces the characters’ situations in a fairly typical Russian love story.  The aged Baryshnikov/Nikolai Platonitch has lived his life and he’s not leaving his destiny.  Sinyakina/Olga is a simple soul who has been endowed with beauty.  She has a small world and doesn’t dream outside of it.  She has a moment with him and then it ends and that’s it.  Her crest comes in a brief scene of preparation and anticipation, as she dresses for her first date with Platonitch.  She stands before the audience and does something akin to Salome’s dance of the seven veils with her dress, a magnificently stretchy and utilitarian creation which she transforms into dozens of fashion statements before settling on the right one. Other props evoke a subtly humorous association with handicrafts—there’s the tilted table at the restaurant, that serves as foil for a delightful small talk about soup, and later a car—a large cut-out—that transports them on their first date.

There are relatively few spoken words but hearing Baryshnikov and Sinyakina communicate tenderly in their native Russian is soothing, lyrical—especially their precious small talk about soup.

Baryshnikov sustains our interest keenly throughout as a presence not dependent on movement at all—it isn’t until the end that he dances briefly.  He collapses and then there’s a dream sequence, a kind of resurrection, where he’s a matador dominating a bull against the musical backdrop of Bizet’s Carmen.  His dance is elegant, refined, brief— the perfect ending to this dynamic collage that paints a rich portrait of two lost souls and the illusive nature of love.

It’s been a very strong season for Berkeley Rep which prepped us for this melancholy Russian story with Chekov’s Three Sisters  in April 2011, a Russian classic steeped in loss whose characters’ sufferings are not too distant from those of In Paris.

Run time is 80 minutes with no intermission

Performed in Russian and French with English subtitles

Adapted from the short story by Ivan Bunin; Direction and adaptation by Dmitry Krymov; Set and costume design by Maria Tregubova; Music by Dmitry Volkov

Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Sinyakina, Maxim Maminov, Maria Gulik, Dmitry Volkov, and Polina Butko with Ossi Makkonen and Lasse Lindberg

Featuring the work of Damir Ismagilov (lighting designer), Andrey Shchukin (movement coach), Alexei Ratmansky (choreographer), and Tei Blow (audio and video designer)

A production of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, and the AG Foundation in association with the Korjaamo Culture Factory of Helsinki, Finland.

Free tastings:  Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

  • Friday, May      4: Peterson Winery / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 5: Calstar Cellars / 7pm
  • Friday, May      11: Cater Too / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 12: Via Pacifica Selections/ 7pm

Details: In Paris runs for three weeks only and ends May 13, 2012.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are $22.50 -$125, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30.  For tickets and info:  or phone 510.647.2949

May 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment