Monday, March 31, 2008


(Cherry Simmons viewing one of this year’s Town and Country Entries)
photo by Jim De Young

Cherry Simmons, longtime art teacher at West Central High School, will be speaking to the members of OFTA (Old Friends Talk Arts) on Wednesday, April 9th at 10:00 a.m. at the Buchanan Center for the Arts in downtown Monmouth. Her topic is “The Importance of Art Instruction in the Schools.”

Ms. Simmons is a graduate of Monmouth College, an artist in her own right, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Buchanan Center. Her presentation is keyed to support and discuss the fortieth annual BCA Town and Country Art Show which will be running from April 5-May 3 in the main gallery.

It is a given that people who have seen the walls of the Buchanan Center covered from floor to ceiling with over 500 art works by students from area schools are exhilarated by the sight. Art provides many benefits to young and old, but the thrill of seeing your work on display in a real art gallery is one that is very special to children and young people. Ms. Simmons will draw on her years of teaching experience to look at why this might be so and why art training is so important in the overall scheme of quality education.

OFTA was founded to provide stimulating arts related programming for senior citizens, but it is always free of charge to anyone of any age with an interest in the fine or performing arts. Programs occur regularly on the second Wednesday of each month at 10:00 a.m. Refreshments are always served. OFTA is partially supported by grants from the Buchanan Center for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Easter from Blenheim Palace!

As the picture above indicates, Easter was mighty early this year. What's a body to do if your new bonnet does not have earflaps? My choice was to spend some time yesterday curled up indoors with Death at Blenheim Palace by Robin Paige.

A little bit of history makes the mystery go down, might be the watchword here as a Victorian couple, Lord Charles and Lady Kate Sheridan take their talents to a country weekend at Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough. There is just enough evoked ambiance of the grounds and the great rambling pile of a house to keep you interested, while intrigue above and below stairs progresses from robbery and missing persons to murder. Another hook is that some of the story is based on fact and real characters like Winston Churchill, TE Lawrence, the Duke and his wife, and the Duke's mistress are front and center along with our Holmsian sleuth's, Lord and Lady Sheridan.

The writing is not lush, overly detailed, or complex. You get what you pay for--a light read, no tears, and no permanent impression. I'd take it to the beach if the snow weren't still covering it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paul Scofield Dies

As a theatre historian by trade, I feel obligated to note the passing of one of the 20th century's greatest actors, Paul Scofield. Check the link on his name for a fuller obituary. Or read an entire history of Tudor costume dramas on film and television in the excellent NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE.
I have long been an admirer of his great performance as Sir Thomas More in the 1966 film of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, but I remember him most for his performance in Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS at the Royal National Theatre in London. I was in the front row center of the Olivier Theatre occupying one of those uncomfortable but very cheap day seats. At the close of the play Scofield as Salieri knelt down not four feet from me and spoke those haunting lines, "Now I go to become a ghost myself. I will stand in the shadows when you come here to this earth in your turns. And when you feel the dreadful bite of your failures . . . I will whisper my name to you, 'Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities!' And in the depth of your downcastness you can pray to me. And I will forgive you." Then he ran a knife across his throat and fell backward to the floor. I can still see that rivulet of stage blood and feel the emotion of that moment. Salieri may have been the patron saint of mediocrity, but Paul Scofield was not a worshipper there. There was not an ounce of the mediocre in his body. His artistry was a match to any competitor and his star blazes equally bright with those of Alec Guiness, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier.

"Good night sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Monmouth College Does Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT

Monmouth College Crimson Masque production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Feb. 28 to Mar. 1, 2008

A few weeks ago I had the chance to catch a PBS American Masters program on the life of Pete Seeger. It was a glorious trip down memory lane, but one item from the TV show stuck in my mind as I watched the Monmouth College Production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic, Waiting for Godot, on Thursday, Feb. 28th. Seeger was asked, “What’s the most important place in the world?” and he answered, “Where you are!” He continued his thought by saying that you can think globally, but you always act locally.

The now archetypal baggy pants “Godot” tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, are absolute exemplars of this idea. Their existential situation on this sterile disk goes to the heart of all meaning, but their daily local routine comes down to “passing the time” while waiting for Godot to come. Since the play for me is about “waiting” not the character or existence of the “awaited”, trying to identify Godot is not a fruitful activity. Beckett’s point is we all wait for something and especially on the big issues little or no verification or even recognition of our waiting is going to be forthcoming. For some faith may be sufficient to bridge the gap; for others faith is a false promise and the only antidote other than despair is to evince Camus like courage. I believe he called it "the courage to be" in spite of being aware of your position in a pointless, random universe. The characters in Waiting for Godot choose to take their minds off their existential position by engaging in a series of repetitive diversionary games.

The gameboard or playground you see when you enter the auditorium of the Wells Theatre is a dusty, tilted disk backed by a fragment of a pier overlooking a frightening sea. That is backed by a row of on-stage seats, which take on an important dimension toward the end of the play when Vladimir senses that “At me too someone is looking.” There is also a subtle hint here of the barren landscape of Beckett’s Endgame, where the room has two windows one looking out on a desert and the other on a sea.

The only real scenic elements on the disk are a coffin like mound on stage right and a giant tree trunk left center. The tree sounds a slightly false note for me. Beckett calls for a lone tree and most productions have settled on some kind of spindly growth or abstract construction. The characters on looking at it wonder whether it is a shrub or bush, but this massive unit is clearly neither. It seems to have been transported from some far more fertile and non-Beckettian environment. Although having this large trunk rise mysteriously at the beginning of each act does improve the sight lines for the folks sitting around the back of the stage, I am unsure that making the tree a part of the game of “Is it real?” is quite worth the effort of constructing it.

Director Janeve West committed herself to a boiling, movement oriented production rather than a quiet angst ridden one. As the show proceeds the characters spend more and more time lower and lower to the ground until toward the end everyone is stretched out on the dusty hardpan waiting for burial. This works most of the time and it results in an energetic production that never flags. Occasionally however, the frenetic movement and pounding footfalls obscured some of Beckett’s finest language. The sound synced passages just after the opening of the second act that start with “All the dead voices make a noise like wings” would be one example of a section that I would have liked to have heard more clearly simply for the poetic beauty of its language.

The very nature of the “act of waiting for something more significant to happen” was hammered home by a member of the audience sitting two rows in front of me. In a patterned counterpoint to the onstage characters’ diversions, this young man flipped open his cell phone to check his messages--even occasionally showing one of them to the girl beside him. I was irritated as my eyes were pulled from the stage by the bright glow of his phone each time he opened it, but fascinated by its comment on the play. A 21st century habit, that is as great a deadener as any I can think of, was playing out before my eyes. While watching the time of the play pass, he was indulging in a fully modern time passing game to divert himself from thinking about the significance of what was happening. I could easily envision a post-post modern production of Waiting For Godot in which the tramps would be continuously responding to their own text or cell phone beeps announcing the arrival of yet another insipid message or advert for Viagra. Meanwhile the audience’s Blackberrys would be sparkling like flashbulbs throughout the the house. Everyone could continue their frenzied multi-tasking as the night progresses and then descends into "im-mobile" darkness. At the final light fade no one will notice whether Godot came or not.

This brings me to voice a clear bravo for the coordination of sound and light. Strangely dissonant music from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was melded seamlessly into dynamic lighting changes. Hot desert yellows (see picture above) and pink backglows gave way to icy blues and brilliant white in a cogent day night pattern and the music was hauntingly appropriate. As I told the play's outstanding designer, Doug Rankin, after the show, I had only one picky suggestion for the lighting. It would have been nice to put a couple of specials on the hat and the shoes at the very end and let them lag just a moment or two after the rest of the lights faded.

In the acting realm director West gave us a gender neutral cast with Vladimir, Estragon, and Pozzo played as men by women and Lucky and the Boy played as men by men. Tiela Halpin’s Vladamir was a standout in raw flexible physicality, complex gesture, facial mobility, and vocal control. Whether haltingly trying to enter the stage or trying to keep from falling off, there was a Harold Lloyd like quality about her movements combined with the innocent surprised and bemused look of a Stan Laurel. Noelle Templeton as Estragon was a noble foil to Halprin’s Vladamir and matched her every step of the way except for facial mobility. Jenny Erbes as Pozzo was compelling visually and her change from sighted to blind was convincing. Her one area of difficulty came in the vocal area where her softer female timbre betrayed her attempts to capture the strident arrogance of Pozzo. Her commands of “Back,” “Basket,” or “pig” just didn’t have enough edge to sound truly vicious. Brandon Landon as Lucky had the appropriate hang-dog demeanor and exploded mightily into his signature speech. Andrew Farraher, as the boy, carried the right winsome quality and was definitely helped by an extraordinary entrance from high on the light bridge.

Overall this was an energetic, intelligent, and smoothly acted performance of a major modern classic by a group of clearly dedicated and hard working young actors. Director West showed a mastery of stage movement for an arena production and brought a dynamic physical ambiance to the show. She also had a definite concept (movement does nothing to guarantee that you get anywhere), which seemed more than appropriate for a frenetic modern multitasking audience. This is the kind of show an educational theatre ought to be doing and it is the kind of show that serious students of the liberal arts should be seeing. The only shame was the small crowd present on opening night.

Jim De Young

Monday, March 10, 2008

Twomey Welcomed to BCA Post

Over 100 people attended the reception open house that welcomed Ms. Susan Twomey as the new Executive Director of the Buchanan Center for the Arts in Monmouth, IL. Reva Schoenwetter, a harpist from Knoxville, added just the right touch of musical class to the event and the cake was delicious. All in all it was a pleasant afternoon, with finally just a touch of spring in the air. Inside we were surrounded by lovely art and a large number of fine friends. What more could you ask for?

Perhaps even prouder than the new Executive Director was her dad, John Twomey.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Mary Schuytema, the proprietor of the Chickenscatch Pottery will speak on the topic “The Potter’s Vision” at the March 19, 2008 gathering of OFTA (Old Friends Talk Arts) at 10:00 a.m. in the main gallery of the Buchanan Center for the Arts in downtown Monmouth.

Ms. Schuytema is a long time Monmouth resident and graduated from Monmouth High School (now Monmouth-Roseville). She currently has an exhibit of her handthrown stoneware on display at the Buchanan Center and it can be seen without charge during the BCA’s regular opening hours of 9-5 T-F and 10-2 Sat. Her OFTA talk will comment on some of the pieces in the show and will also discuss how her work has changed through the years.

OFTA is now in its sixth year of operation and features talks or performances by a variety of artists and arts appreciators. The group meets in the mornings on the second Wednesday of each month at the Buchanan Center. It caters primarily to active seniors with arts interests, but invites anyone in the community to participate. Meetings are always free and refreshments are served. If you would like to talk to OFTA or suggest a possible topic, call Jim De Young at 734-5529 or drop him an e-mail at OFTA is partially supported by grants from the Buchanan Center for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Book Review John Grisham's "The Appeal"

“I was early on the list for the new John Grisham novel, The Appeal, at the Warren County Library and can report that he is back in his familiar small town Mississippi territory, but only marginally on track.

A predatory chemical company has poisoned an entire town for years and two idealistic attorneys take on the big business bad guys and win a huge judgment. The Machiavellian president of the chemical company angles to win the appeal by fixing the composition of the state's supreme court.

There's a grim contemporary reality here as the crooked businessmen and their political stooges seem primed to win, but there is little emotional depth on display. None of the characters are developed beyond the stereotypical. The victim is a cipher who cries, the crusading attorneys lose everything but seem to carry on without a single doubt, the stooge candidate chosen to run against the sitting judge seems like a Mitt Romney clone, and the villain, is given not one human trait other than greed. The most interesting character in the book is the third person in the supreme court race, a legal maverick, who campaigns from casino to casino in a drunken stupor. Unfortunately he drops out of the race and disappears.

These are all people you might want to know more deeply, but Grisham keeps you at arm's length with a kind of matter of fact reportorial style that tells you what’s happening without exploring anything other than the most basic of motives. Nobody's second thoughts are given enough development to give their character's real internal dramatic tension and the exterior tension is also unsatisfying because the central protagonists never really meet and do battle. To be fair, though, this may be the real point. In today's world the manipulators are so completely removed from the battleground that the little people on the front lines just get ground down and discarded without ever becoming conscious of what or who hit them. I give it a 3 out of 5.”