Month: January 2018

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Anyone who’s been to Bourbon Street knows: the Big Easy contains its share of unique and interesting characters. It didn’t surprise the John Kennedy’s Toole’s fictitious account of the area would do the same. A Confederacy of Dunces introduced to literature the most eccentric and entertaining character I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. He took the form of Ignatius J. Reilly: one time college professor turned hot dog vendor. And how best to craft a story regarding the most original character ever devised? Why with a host of characters each distinctive in their own rights. A comic masterpiece resulted.

Aside from providing him a quirky personality that set a new standard for peculiarity, Mr. Toole ensured his protagonist showed his originality. Upon introducing Ignatius on page one, he cleverly combined how the character’s outer appearance reflected his personality.

…Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar. The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life. (Location 71)

Keep in mind this description occurred on the first page. Upon taking on the dual roles of hot dog vendor by day and political agitator by night, Ignatius modified his wardrobe. He switched to a veritable pirate costume. This one included a plastic cutlass and an earring. He wore them to both jobs. Now that’s unconventional.

In addition to his unusual attire, Ignatius had interesting philosophical leanings.

As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethus, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. (Loc 497)

Ignatius held a very high opinion of himself; believing all of society inferior. That’s remarkable for a 30 year old unemployed man living with his widowed mother. He engaged in hobbies that reflected his grandiose view of his genius. They included watching television programs while complaining about their degeneracy. He would frequent movies often and do the same. For some reason, he participated in these activities alone. Ignatius noted, “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” (Location 1064)

Ignatius had a penchant for fibbing. On one occasion he commented:

When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every night, no matter what way Fortuna was spinning. (Loc 863)

Ignatius convinced himself that he was working on a “lengthy indictment against our century.” (Loc 146) The reality of what he completed often didn’t correspond with what he convinced himself he completed. His mother (finally) pressured him to get a job. She required financial assistance to pay someone whose car she damaged. Ignatius responded:

“Anyway it is inconceivable that I should get a job. I am very busy with my work at the moment, and I feel that I am entering a very fecund stage. Perhaps the accident jarred and loosened my thought. At any rate, I accomplished a great deal today.” (Loc 776)

The writing session he referenced produced one paragraph in a Big Chief writing tablet.

To accompany Ignatius on his fictitious quests, the author surrounded him with a series of characters each eccentric in his/her own way. His erstwhile college sweetheart, Myrna Minkoff, sent him letters imploring him to get his life in order. Patrolman Mancuso performed stakeouts in some very odd places. And, perhaps, Ignatius’ mother, Irene, served as the strangest of all. No matter how disrespectful, she tolerated Ignatius’ behavior.

John Kennedy Toole crafted a comic tour de force with A Confederacy of Dunces. It contained an even wittier corps of characters than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That’s quite an achievement. Unfortunately, Fortuna’s wheel did not bode well for the author. He passed away eleven years before the book’s publication. Shortly, thereafter she spun it once again. This time it landed more favorably. This book, his first novel, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters

With so many focused on upcoming sporting events, it didn’t surprise that Burlington County Footlighters would host theatre’s answer to one. The opponents in their contest featured the “shirts against the skins.” In this case, it was more the “stuffed shirts” in conflict with the “barefoots” through the vehicle of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. To show just how special this event, they brought in the Ho Chi Minh University of the Arts’ most famous graduate, Tim Sagges, to direct this run. I attended the opening night performance on January 26th.

Mr. Sagges displayed his unique brand of creativity even before the show began. In his playbill bio, he described himself as having graduated Hakuna Matada with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Trapeze performance while minoring in Merkin Mastery. This director chose an excellent comedy with which to exercise his talent for wit and inventiveness.

As the NFL All-Pro game will be played during this show’s run, I thought the casting very appropriate. The performers who took the stage played like South Jersey community theatre’s version of an all-star team. It featured three-time Irene Ryan nominee, Bailey Shaw in the lead as Corie Bratter. The newest member of the royal family of South Jersey community theatre, AJ Krier, played her husband Paul Bratter. One of the most versatile performers ever to grace the stage, Phyllis Josephson, played Corie’s mother. Gifted singer, dancer and actor, Rick Williams took on the role of eccentric free-spirit, Victor Velasco. Footlighters veteran Kevin Pavon returned to the Footlighters’ stage as Harry Pepper.

Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park premiered in 1963; two years before the playwright crafted The Odd Couple. The former contained a similar premise as a nonconformist young woman, Corie (Bailey Shaw), just moved into an apartment with her conservative husband of six days, Paul (AJ Krier). The show began with the two very much in love, but various issues with their new living accommodations began straining the marriage; a flamboyant free-loader living above them, Victor Velasco (Rick Williams) being one of them.

A visit from Corie’s mother, Ethel, (Phyllis Josephson) helped clarify the conflict. Ethel described her daughter’s “impulsive” personality as the opposite of hers and Paul’s. She also reluctantly acknowledged her loneliness. With the introduction of Victor Velasco, Corie came up with a scheme to set her mother up on a blind date. The two couples ended up dining at an establishment featuring Albanian fare. Then the battle between the “stuffed shirts” and “barefoots” kicked off.

Bailey Shaw treated theatregoers to an effervescent performance. As in the farcical The Fox on the Fairway, Ms. Shaw took on the role of an emotional personality. In Barefoot in the Park, the character contained more realistic traits. The performer deftly brought them to life. She played the bubbly aspects of Corie extraordinarily well while also giving Paul a compelling “silent treatment.” While doing so she managed to keep the role funny.

AJ Krier met the challenge of getting laughs while playing an ostensibly dull character. The son of Al Krier and brother of Lindsey, AJ brought his own distinct comedy style to the role. He displayed great skill bringing out Paul’s humorous metamorphosis into a personality with Corie’s qualities. I’m sure the latest heir to the Krier family acting dynasty made Dad and Sis proud with this performance.

Phyllis Josephson possesses a gift for performing unconventional characters. Some of her most memorable include Grandma in The Addams Family, Kimberly Akimbo and a Rapping Nun. She brought the same skill to the more orthodox Ethel.

I also witnessed Ms. Josephson perform a chilling Mama in ‘night Mother. The mom in this show didn’t possess the same intensity; which I welcomed. Ms. Josephson played a convincing and entertaining Ethel. She executed the most memorable entrance I’ve ever seen. She amused through the witty way she gasped while staggering through the door.

Rick Williams took on the part of smooth-talking gourmet Victor Velasco. For such a character, Mr. Williams showed great taste and delicacy in selecting the perfect voice. His choice of accent perfectly suited both the role and his warm baritone.

I’d also acknowledge the show’s other performers. Kevin Pavon brought an authentic New York accent to the role of Harry Pepper. Valerie Brothers and Torben Christensen played members of the most memorable moving company I’ve seen.

I’d also credit Amanda Cogdell for the authentic 1960s costuming and Jim Frazer for another phenomenal set design.

One action in the play seemed a bit odd. After returning from work while wearing his business suit, Mr. Krier changed ties prior to a dinner party. I could understand Paul being a “stuffed shirt”, but this still struck me as a strange thing to do.

Neil Simon crafted several of his plays so they built towards a crucial confrontation scene. Barefoot in the Park’s consisted of a fight between Ms. Shaw’s and Mr. Krier’s characters. They delivered the conflict I would’ve expected from the two. Mr. Krier expressed his lines with the formality one would expect from a lawyer. In the heat of the disagreement, he went to his briefcase, removed some papers and soullessly outlined the business aspects of a divorce. Ms. Shaw brought out Corie’s emotional personality through her dramatic crying. She impressed with her comical use of sobbing to get laughs from the audience.

Conveniently, Footlighters’ theatre borders Wood Park in Cinnaminson. After listening to Ms. Shaw’s character express the joys of walking barefoot in the park during the winter, I thought that maybe I should give it a try. Then a cold wind blew. I decided that task best left to either theatrical professionals or fictitious characters.

For those interested in watching the “stuffed shirts” take on the “barefoot” crowd, the show runs through February 10th. The outcome of the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics are unknown at the time of this writing. One thing is for certain about the conflict in Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters: the audience will always end up the winner.

 

Book Review – Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Those starving for good fiction should feast upon this offering by Knut Hamsun. It’s a veritable banquet of savory literary techniques that will leave readers returning for seconds. The author’s first book whet readers’ appetites for more of his work. They certainly weren’t fed-up with this one. I’d read Hunger before and just had to return for seconds. It certainly left me feeling satisfied.

When reading Hamsun I find myself recalling a line spoke by Antony in Julius Caesar.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones. (Act III Scene Two)

Hamsun’s life challenged that expression a bit. To be clear: there’s no excuse for Hamsun’s reprehensible conduct during the Second World War. His support of Adolf Hitler mystifies the mind. A native Norwegian, the Nazis occupied the country from April 9, 1940 until the cessation of European hostilities on May 8, 1945. He had no excuse for not knowing better.

With that legacy, the continued popularity of his work bewilders as well. That is, until one reads it. Isaac Bashevis Singer observed that “The whole modern school of fiction stems from Hamsun.” Writings from an author this gifted just couldn’t become interred with his bones.

It amazes me that a book written in 1890 could possess such relevance today. Hunger contained the most intense character study I’ve ever read. It told the tale of a freelance writer living in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway. The character found himself in financial difficulties while struggling to make a living through his craft. As any writer reading this can guess: this is not a story set to end well.

The author presented the narrative in the first person point-of-view. This gave readers unique insight into the character’s mind. I found it extraordinarily clever how the Narrator utilized every opportunity to avoid giving his name. The following passage shows his most clever evasion.

“I would like to see Mr. Christie,” I said.

“That’s me!” replied the man.

“Indeed!” Well my name was so-and-so. I had taken the liberty of sending him an application. I did not know if it had been of any use.

He repeated my name a couple of times and commenced to laugh. (Page 30)

The quality of writing here impressed me. It showed great talent on the author’s part to craft this passage without giving the character’s name. (By my count the Narrator slipped twice in the story and did reveal it.)

The use of an unreliable narrator is my favorite literary technique. Hamsun kept me guessing with this one. The man lied chronically. While starving to death, he used the following ruse to beg for food.

All at once it enters my head to go to one of the meat bazaars underneath me, and beg a piece of raw meat. I go straight along the balustrade to the other side of the bazaar buildings, and descend the steps. When I had nearly reached the stalls on the lower floor, I called up the archway leading to the stairs, and made a threatening backward gesture, as if I were talking to a dog up there, and boldly addressed the first butcher I met.

“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone. There needen’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat. I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement. (Page 91)

The most memorable passages in the book concerned the subject of hunger. The one that has haunted my nightmares for years follows:

At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there—a stark mad motion.

Supposing I were to take a bite? And without a moment’s reflection, I shut my eyes, and clenched my teeth on it.

I sprang up. At last I was thoroughly awake. A little blood trickled from it, and I licked it as it came. It didn’t hurt very much, neither was the wound large, but I was brought at one bound to my senses. (Page 72 – 73)

I think of Hunger as the literary equivalent to a multi-course meal. This review provides samples from the delicious masterpiece Hamsun cooked up. I think it appropriate to conclude with one of the book’s passages regarding writing. Perhaps it describes the author’s own experience while crafting Hunger:

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired. (Page 20)

Hamsun’s inspired writing has gone on to inspire many others.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Through her approach to oral history, Svetlana Alexievich crafted a unique portrayal of the Second World War. While interviews with Soviet combatants brought a human face to the conflict, the author chose an original method of elucidation. Ms. Alexievich focused her narrative on one group of combatants: women. She also opted to approach the topic as an “historian of feelings.” An enlightening and at times unsettling portrayal of USSR during the “Great Patriotic War” resulted.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Ms. Alexievich with the Literature prize in 2015. After the announcement, I read her work on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan: Zinky Boys. I found The Unwomanly Face of War a similar style of narrative. As the author explained, “It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.” (Location 210) “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” (Location 213) For emphasis, she later added: “-True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.” (Location 476)

The author delivered a trenchant observation on the subtleties one can discern from a face-to-face interview. She wrote:

The tape recorder records the words, preserves the intonation. The pauses. The weeping and embarrassment. I realize that, when a person speaks, something more takes place than what remains on paper. I keep regretting that I cannot “record” eyes, hands. Their life during the conversation, their own life. Their “texts.” (Location 2008)

Of course, the actual interviews comprised the most memorable portions of this work. The most harrowing tale described both the horrors of war with its awful aftermath under Stalin’s regime.

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there…And what do I hear there?…They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground. The two of us. He was a brave, honest man. I realized that someone had denounced him…Slander…”No,” I say, “my husband can’t be a traitor. I believe him. He’s a true Communist.” His interrogator…He started yelling at me, “Silence, you French prostitute! Silence!” He had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp—it all was suspicious. One question: Why did he stay alive? Why didn’t he die? Even the dead were under suspicion…Even them…And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, we sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won…The people won! But Stalin still didn’t trust the people. That was how our Motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood…” (Location 5025)

The woman quoted (Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina) fought with the underground. After the Germans captured her she served time at the Croisette concentration camp in France.

Ms. Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As one woman she interviewed told her: “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.” (Location 2294) The Unwomanly Face of War proves it.

 

Shrek the Musical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When I found out the NFL scheduled the first Eagles playoff game during the late afternoon of January 13th I knew I had a decision to make. Did I want to witness a serious tragedy or light-hearted musical comedy on that evening? I opted for the latter. I’m sure glad that I did. The Collingswood Community Theatre treated me to a fantastic performance of Shrek the Musical.

When I read the program I discovered David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the book and lyrics. After attending a performance of Rabbit Hole, his play regarding a family struggling to cope with the death of their four year old son, I thought I may be attending yet another serious tragedy. Fortunately, the playwright changed tack while Director Mary Baldwin and Musical Director Brian Kain kept it lighthearted.

Over the years I’ve watched Ryan Adams play a variety of supporting roles at Collingswood Community Theatre. I’ve been a long-time fan of this King of the F Clef’s baritone vocals. Mr. Adams showed he’s just as adept with tenor based material through his performance in the title role. It thrilled me to hear him sing some fantastic duets with his co-stars. He complimented Jeff McGrail on “Travel Song” and April Lindley on “I Think I Got You Beat.”

Mr. Adams delivered a moving rendition of the ballad “When Words Fail.” His delivery captured both the awkwardness and emotional challenge of expressing one’s feelings to a love interest. He brought profound pathos into this performance.

I credit his voice selection for the Shrek character. He used an accent that sounded Scottish with a tinge of Swedish. I didn’t hear an instance of him wavering from it the entire evening. That’s quite impressive with the amount of dialog and quantity of musical numbers he performed. That shows how hard he prepared for the role.

Jeff McGrail complimented Mr. Adams as his wise-cracking sidekick, the Donkey. There aren’t many ‘sassy donkey’ roles in musical theatre, or in any medium, for that matter. Mr. McGrail displayed immense imagination in bringing this role to the stage. I found his character very entertaining and enjoyable to watch. He also displayed fabulous vocals on tracks such as his solo number “Don’t Let Me Go.”

April Lindley did masterful work in her role as Princess Fiona. She delivered operatic vocals, danced and played each of the character’s (many) mood changes with equal skill while still getting laughs from the audience. Somehow, she fused all three of these traits together to open Act Two in her performance of “Morning Person.”

Ms. Lindley excelled at non-verbal communication. Her facial expressions always reflected the dialog and lyrics. I should add that I sat in the ‘nose bleed’ section of the Scottish Rite Theatre. I’m also nearsighted, but I did wear my glasses. (I was so far away from everyone else in the building that my vanity didn’t inhibit me from doing so.) Even under those conditions, I could still read Ms. Lindley’s expressions perfectly.

There’s an old saw that, “there are no small roles, just small actors.” Patrick Waldron gave a whole new interpretation of that expression in his performance as the diminutive Lord Farquaad. The role presented an interesting physical challenge. Mr. Waldron spent the evening on his knees. His appearance on stage first reminded me a bit of characters Tim Conway used to play. Mr. Conway didn’t possess Mr. Waldron’s dexterity, however. Mr. Waldron danced during one of the numbers while kneeling.

One of the most challenging roles for an actor is what I call that of the ‘comic relief in a comedy.’ In Shrek, the villain, Lord Farquaad, served as that character. Mr. Waldron performed spectacularly. Even though he played an unlikable and hyper-sarcastic personality, he managed his delivery to make his dialog sound funny. Through his skill as a performer, he found ways to make what could’ve been an annoying role into a most amusing one.

Many refer to Aretha Franklin as the undisputed “The Queen of Soul.” I’m a fan of Ms. Franklin’s, as well. But I have to admit that Stefanie Bucholski’s rendition of “Forever” made Ms. Franklin into a distant cousin of the royal family. Ms. Bucholski turned in some astounding soulful vocals in her role as the Dragon. She didn’t have to ask me to “respect” her talent: she earned it with that singing.

Choreographer Kate Scharff and Assistant Choreographer Kate Thomas Arter coordinated some extraordinary dance sequences. I found the ones featuring the Duloc Performers, the Three Blind Mice and the Pied Piper’s mice the most memorable. The superb costuming by Ellen Geigel enhanced the visual spectacle.

I’ve attended summer performances of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sweeney Todd presented by the Collingswood Community Theatre. They enacted those shows in the Main Ballroom at the Scottish Rite building. The sets combined with the lighting made for a mesmerizing theatrical experience. I didn’t think it possible that they’d be able to do anything comparable in the actual Scottish Rite Theatre.

Shrek proved me wrong. The show featured a very professional set. The performance’s high-tech nature included images projected on a movie screen. I especially liked the starlit backdrop they used for the night scenes.

I’d also like to compliment the other performers who made Shrek the Musical such a fun show: Caelan Gaines, Millie Griffin, Suzi Cook, Kate Schell, Caitlin Halligan, Emily Jackson, Ryann Burke, Karen McShane, Tom Geigel, Henry Kain, Jenni Maienza, Matt Griffin, Maria Leonen, Marcy Smith, Julia Maia, Anne Marie Dunn, John Dunn, Patty Nigro, Grace Janco, Cara Davis, Mike Smith, Pauli Bucholsky, Tracy Levy, Patty Walsh, Jen Laksh, Dave Routzahn, Kaitlyn Woolford, Dylan McGowan, Chris Geigel, Ernest Neal, Matt Griffin, Dylan McGowan, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Erica Paolucci, Shannon Ewing, Alicia Smartt, Erin Daly, and Mallory Beach.

As things turned out on January 13th, the Eagles game didn’t become the tragedy I expected. They won and will advance to the NFC Championship game. I thought it clever how the Collingswood Community Theatre cleverly interpolated the Birds’ fight song into the finale. I have to say I found the performance of Shrek more entertaining than any of their games this season. Anyone familiar with the team knows: that’s saying something. The show runs through January 21st.

The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat

The Farming of Bones presented in human terms the most violent act of genocide that occurred in the Western Hemisphere. The author chose the 1937 Parsley Massacre as the backdrop of this masterful work of historical fiction. A moving and disturbing work resulted.

The book told the tale of Amabelle Desir, a Haitian servant girl living in the Dominican Republic. The author chose to present the story from her protagonist’s point-of-view. Knowing her thoughts and feelings gave the narrative much more impact. My favorite passage included a unique combination of beauty and sorrow:

Playing with my shadow made me, an only child, feel less alone. Whenever I had playmates, they were never quite real or present for me. I considered them only replacements for my shadow. There were many shadows, too, in the life I had beyond childhood. At times Sebastian Onus (Amabelle’s love interest) guarded me from the shadows. At other times he was one of them. (Location 111)

Ms. Danticat included the most gripping death passage I’ve encountered. The following dialog occurred between Amabelle and Sebastian. The imagery made the section difficult to read. It did so while concretizing the scene very effectively.

“How did the hurricane find your father?” I end up saying. It is not the gentlest or most deft way to ask, but I believe it will help him speak.

He opens his mouth a few more times and moans.

“If you let yourself,” he says finally, “you can see it before your eyes, a boy carrying his dead father from the road, wobbling, swaying, stumbling under the weight. The boy with the wind in his ears and pieces of the tin roofs that opened the father’s throat blowing around him. The boy trying not to drop the father, not crying or screaming like you’d think, but praying that more of the father’s blood will stay in the father’s throat and not go into the muddy flood, going no one knows where. If you let yourself, you can see it before your eyes.” (Location 550)

More exceptional imagery animated another unpleasant event. It also showed great attention to historical detail.

…On the wall was pasted a seven-year-old calendar, from the year of the great hurricane that had plundered the whole island, a time when so many houses were flattened and so many people were killed that the Generalissimo himself had marched through the windswept streets of the Dominican capital and ordered that the corpses he encountered during his inspection be brought to the Plaza Columbina and torched in public bonfires that burned for days, filling the air with so much ash that everyone walked with their eyes streaming, their handkerchiefs pressed against their noses, and their parasols held close to their heads. (Location 704)

In addition to a gift for imagery, Ms. Danticat crafted a brilliant use of foreshadowing. Knowing what occurred later in the story made it even more impactful. After serving as a midwife at the birth of her employer’s daughter, Amabelle’s boss asked her a very troubling question.

“Amabelle do you think my daughter will always be the color she is now? Senora Valencia asked. “My poor love, what if she’s mistaken for one of your people?” (Location 238)

The Farming of Bones presented a difficult story to read. I applaud the author for drawing attention to an event unfamiliar to many people. I appreciated her articulate means of doing so. For works like this one, Ms. Danticat earned the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.