Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Montezinos: Role-ing with the punches

It's Friday afternoon. Adrienne Montezinos is on the phone. The Newburyport actress is getting ready for a weekend trip to Hatchling Studios, the Portsmouth animation studio owned by Marc Dole, to ... well, the details are still a little fuzzy. She won't know what she's going to do, exactly, until the evening, when her group, Team Pineapple, gets the phone call from the folks at the 48 Hour Film Project, which is kind of like Random Acts, the Newburyport play-in-a-day series launched by Leslie Powell and Hailey Klein six years ago, but designed for film rather than stage. The call will give the crew the first clues about what they'll actually be doing, usually revealing a genre, a prop, a character's name and a line of dialogue. Then all the crew have to do is write, cast, costume and film a short movie in two days. There would be about 75 people involved and, yes, the actress says, it's going to be a madhouse.

Montezinos, who has been building up stage, film and commercial credits since she "got the bug" about three years ago, got the nod to work, in some unspecified capacity, in the still-undefined project, in part, because of her performance in "Crooked Lane," the Chase Bailey directed short that won film of the year honors at this year's New Hampshire Film Festival. She plays Dr. Elena Leder, a psychologist treating a woman, played by Ann Cusack, whose daughter begins having visions of her murdered eight-year-old daughter in the paranormal thriller. She is in the
trailer and Bailey is planning on turning it into a full-length feature. The film, which also won best New England film honors at the this year's Rhode Island International Film Festival, although it is not, strictly speaking, a horror film, was edited by Dole. His Pineapple Pictures production "Tweet," a short about a crusty, old school cop, played by Bailey, who is getting left in the dust by a desk-bound computer nerd, won best directing honors and was runner-up for best film in last year's 48 Hour Film Project. And when Dole started building a team for tthis year's competition round, Montezinos was a known quantity. She would play a role. What that would be, she doesn't know. No one does. And, for now, it isn't even that important. "I love working in film, creating the inner life of a character on screen," she says. "I love the process of bringing a director or writer's artistic vision to fruition and collaborating with the team of creative people it takes to create a film. It's an endlessly fascinating process."

Originally from New York, Montezinos moved to the city thirteen years ago. She has a background in dance and choreography, training at Alvin Ailey and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and has worked with Exit Dance Theatre. ("Dance will always be a part of who I am," she says. "It's in my blood.") She began teaching pilates locally eight years ago, now running private classes through her own business. She got eyes for the theater about three years ago, and has performed at the New Works Festival and in Stacey Fix's Theater Workshop — including a role as the Sun, performed atop a ladder, in "Into the Act," a retelling of Aesop's Fables. Her most recent stage role was Christine Shoenwalder in last April's Actors Studio production of "Picnic." But increasingly, she has turned to film and commercial work — with increasing success in a variety of media. She's featured in recent commercials for Anton's Cleaners and Midas Muffler — not especially glamorous, but honest work, sort of, real work that pays the bills. On the big screen, in addition to “Crooked Lane,” Montezinos is in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and a comedy based on “A Christmas Carol” starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner (“very quickly,” she sasy, “about one second in the wedding scene.”) She plays a flight attendant in “Wichita,” the James Margoles action-comedy film featuring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz set for a summer 2010 release — another short scene for Montezinos, but one she shares with the stars. She’s also in “The Women,” the Diane English remake of the 1939 Joan Crawford film — a long shot in a health club with Montezinos sweating it up, sort of, on an elliptical trainer, right next to Annette Bening. And, no, the Pilates instructor slash actress isn’t all primed from a cardio-vascular workout. “It’s movie magic,” she says. “They gobbed us with glycerine to make us look dewy.” There’s lots of work, enough that the day-to-day grind of nine-to-five has started getting in the way of auditions and rehearsals, and the pace of the work has picked up enough to justify it, so she walked away from her job as assistant to the headmaster at Sparhawk School. "It can be a blur sometimes,” she says. “It takes lots of time, and organization skills. Sometimes there are several audition a week, sometimes not. There's a lot of fits and starts.” She'll be leaving for the mystery New Hampshire film project shortly. “It should be exciting," she says — "nerve-wracking but exciting. I imagine we'll all be pretty stressed out, but in a good way."

They get the call at 7 p.m. The theme is "the end of the world." It can take any form, natural disaster, nuclear annihilation — or the way the crew does it in what will become "The Bureau," a spoof of "The Office." They brainstorm ideas for a while, then the writing teams — there are two — get down to business. The rest of the cast goes home to rest a couple of hours before the real insanity begins. In the morning, everyone finds a copy of the script in his inbox — as well as pleas for wardrobe assistance. Montezinos, who landed the Michael Scott character, brings a black suit and pumps and Alice Cooper-like massacre strategies. Then back to Hatchling for 12 hours on Saturday and another eight on Sunday. "We just mobilized," says Montezinos. "It was amazing, it was intense.” The story looks at one of those bureaucratic shell games that comes back to bite you on the ass: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (that would be Death, War, Famine and Pestilence, for the Biblically challenged) get their assignment from headquarters — plan for the end of the universe. The job gets bogged down in red tape, which is fine, because folks in the office figure it's a gravy train that they'll ride to retirement, because it would ever happen, because, well, because it would be the end of the world and everything in it. Who would be crazy enough to do that? Then the financial crisis bankrupts the universe and the timetable for Armageddon is fast-tracked. The crew and cast won’t hear how Team Pineapple did until January. Either way, a party is planned.

Until then, Montezinos has plenty to do: She’s casting director for a new Web soap in pre-production out of Portsmouth called "Proper Manors." She’s also in a short film called "the Marriage Counselor" directed by Steve Day. She’s also working on a short short with local filmmaker and editor Brian Cassin. The working title is "The Shambling." She will play an undead woman, a role that could be informed by her work in The Bureau’s Department of Death. She's just auditioned as a model for a exercise machine commercial, done a voice-over for a Boston healthcare marketing firm and performed as a guerilla dancer in Boston in a campaign for Memorex and …

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sunchunck emerges ... "L8" again

Not to get all weird and paranoid about it, but sometimes, you know, it seems like people are just messing with me. Like Sunchunck, the Newburyport-based power trio that started turning heads about three years ago when they were named the region's best unsigned band at the Emergenza Festival. The band has been conspicuously missing-in-action lately. The last time we heard from them was a 9/11 gig at the Grog. Rumor had it that the boys — John Cantino, Brett Manoloff and Mike Bertolami — have been safely tucked away in the studio, putting the final touches on a new album, their third, a collection of tunes tentatively titled "Finally Here." Which probably should have been fair warning, given the band's unconsciously ironic — or prescient — album names in the past.

We're talking about "L8," which, of course, was famously late when it was finally released, months after the record release party. Then we see the gig poster at Andyman, our favorite Left Banke pastry purveyor. "Sunchunck," it says, "Finally Here." They're playing a Jan. 8 benefit concert for Amesbury High School Class of 2010 ... With a band suspiciously called The Closers opening. We decided to do some checking — just to be sure, you know? And it turns out "Finally Here" isn't and "won't be 100 percent done" for the show at the high school's fancy new 900-seat performance center, says Bertolami, the Plum Island bassist whose tenuous, maybe even fanciful relationship with chronological reality was the driving lyrical force behind "L8," the song.

The disc, when it's actually finally here, will include four new songs ("Wait," "Finally Here," "No Win Fantasy" and "Voodoo on the Brain," a reggae-flavored tune that has been a part of the band's live shows for over a year) and collects new versions of Sunchunckie faves, like "Living My Life Again," "Butterfly" and, of course, the fist-pumping, patriotic cover of "God Bless America," which put the spotlight on the band in the first place. "Finally Here" has been tentatively and, let's be honest here, ambiguously (re)scheduled for a "spring 2010" release. We'll see. But the show most definitely is on, and the band, which has a Beatles-meet-Weezer vibe, has been on something of a roll over the past couple of months, despite the fact that they've been missing in action, locally: Its recording of "God Bless America" got some serious airtime recently. During the Pats/Dolphins game at Gillette Stadium on Veterans Day. In front of 60,000-plus fans, after the National Anthem, accompanied by an Air Force flyover. They've also been asked to participate in a compilation CD project for the Kevin Youkilis foundation, “Youk’s Hits for Kids,” which will find the local rockers rubbing shoulders with some pretty impressive musical company, like Springsteen, Godsmack and the Dropkick Murphys, to name only a few.

The band, if you've never heard them, plays straight-ahead rock. There’s no hip, intriguing back story to the band. There’s no trend-riding. It’s a power trio playing solid, original rock music because ... well, because they like to, and the concerts have an almost communal feel. There's a real sense of family. Maybe it's a Port thing.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Sunchunck will perform an all-ages show at 8 p.m. Jan. 8 at Amesbury High School. The Closers open. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 the day of the show. Advance tickets are available by emailing Proceeds benefit the Amesbury High School Class of 2010. For tickets, call 978.388.4800 or check out the band online. www.
We're talking about "L8," which, of course, was famously late when it was finally released, months after the record release party. Then we see the gig poster at Andyman, our favorite Left Banke pastry purveyor. "Sunchunck," it says, "Finally Here." They're playing a Jan. 8 benefit concert for Amesbury High School Class of 2010 ... With a band suspiciously called The Closers opening. We decided to do some checking — just to be sure, you know? And it turns out "Finally Here" isn't and "won't be 100 percent done" for the show at the high school's fancy new 900-seat performance center, says Bertolami, the Plum Island bassist whose tenuous, maybe even fanciful relationship with chronological reality was the driving lyrical force behind "L8," the song.

The disc, when it's actually finally here, will include four new songs ("Wait," "Finally Here," "No Win Fantasy" and "Voodoo on the Brain," a reggae-flavored tune that has been a part of the band's live shows for over a year) and collects new versions of Sunchunckie faves, like "Living My Life Again," "Butterfly" and, of course, the fist-pumping, patriotic cover of "God Bless America," which put the spotlight on the band in the first place. "Finally Here" has been tentatively and, let's be honest here, ambiguously (re)scheduled for a "spring 2010" release. We'll see. But the show most definitely is on, and the band, which has a Beatles-meet-Weezer vibe, has been on something of a roll over the past couple of months, despite the fact that they've been missing in action, locally: Its recording of "God Bless America" got some serious airtime recently. During the Pats/Dolphins game at Gillette Stadium on Veterans Day. In front of 60,000-plus fans, after the National Anthem, accompanied by an Air Force flyover. They've also been asked to participate in a compilation CD project for the Kevin Youkilis foundation, “Youk’s Hits for Kids,” which will find the local rockers rubbing shoulders with some pretty impressive musical company, like Springsteen, Godsmack and the Dropkick Murphys, to name only a few.

The band, if you've never heard them, plays straight-ahead rock. There’s no hip, intriguing back story to the band. There’s no trend-riding. It’s a power trio playing solid, original rock music because ... well, because they like to, and the concerts have an almost communal feel. There's a real sense of family. Maybe it's a Port thing.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Sunchunck will perform an all-ages show at 8 p.m. Jan. 8 at Amesbury High School. The Closers open. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 the day of the show. Advance tickets are available by emailing Proceeds benefit the Amesbury High School Class of 2010. For tickets, call 978.388.4800 or check out the band online.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Winter arrives early in Salisbury

The rap on Johnny Winter has always been "brilliant blues guitarist who lost his way, who, ultimately, turned his back on the true faith, seduced, sadly, by the bright lights and big paydays as a rock gunslinger." Unless, of course, you were one of those rockers who grew up, musically, with the swagger of albums like "Johnny Winter And Live" and who still gets a little shiver up his spine when he hears brother Edgar's now-iconic introduction ("A lot of people keep asking me, uh, 'where's your brother?'") on the "Roadworks" album. Then the Texas-born axeman is a blues-rock shredder of the first order, even if, from the distance of three decades (yikes!) the work, the flash, however cherished, seems just a tad predictable. For Winter, in town for a weekend concert at Tupelo Music Hall in Salisbury, the rock thing is just a speck in the rearview. No hard feelings, mind you. And stories that he has completely abandoned rock are overstated. The 65-year-old guitarist still usually closes shows with his scorching cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," for example. But truth is that the thrill is long gone.

"I'm tired of rock," Winter says in a recent telephone interview from Connecticut, where he recently moved after a quarter-century in New York (he hasn’t lived in Texas since the '60s and doesn’t miss it, despite the mean season now enveloping us). He's a true believer, always has been, coming up listening to B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Bobby Blue Bland, and Lightening Hopkins, to name a few. “Anything blues and I wanted in," he says. Of course, we always knew that, deep down in our hearts, and he made it quite plain years ago, not long after “Roadworks,” after dealing with his heroin addiction (“the worst mistake I ever made,” he says), when he collaborated with Muddy Waters, who Winter had long dreamed about working with, producing four albums, including three Grammy-winners, with the legendary bluesman — a partnership that also led Winter to record the self-explanatory “Nothing But the Blues” album, which found the Texas guitarist leading the old Muddy Waters band. Fact is that the rock thing, which began with "Second Winter," his second album (third, if you count “The Progressive Blues Experiment," which came out on a small label before getting picked up by Columbia after signing Winter in 1969, not long before Woodstock).

The move to rock, a style that, for many, still stubbornly defines him, was deliberate, but the choice was not his. His manager at the time thought blues ”was going out of style," and that Winter needed to think more Chuck Berry than Elmore James. Of course, this is the same manager who convinced Winter to distance himself from Woodstock, which, when the papers were being signed, looked like it was going to be a massive bust, the result being Winter did not get a song in the movie and, in fact, until recently, few people even knew he played at the era-defining festival. That particular historic wrong was finally righted early this year with the release of “Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience” earlier this year, which includes his complete eight-song performance. And, for the record, he doesn’t remember much about the festival — if you do, you weren’t there — other than being exhausted, waking up at midnight “on a bag of garbage in a press trailer” and stumbling out onto the stage to perform. The Woodstock album is the latest of what has been a virtual avalanche of Winter material over the past couple of years, from the release of a “lost”1968 Live at the Filmore session of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, featuring Winter playing B. B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault,” which became a staple of his shows for years. This was the performance that made the hearts of the Columbia A&R guys in the audience go thumpa-thumpa and set up Winter with a then-staggering $600,000 deal — which was not as impressive as sounds (it was a 10-year deal) and, looking back at it, not necessarily a good thing (“It put a lot of pressure on me,” says Winter. “I just wanted to play the blues.”). Over the past two years, Winter has also released five titles in his Live Bootleg series, which collects rare musical moments from his four-decade career. Volume 6 in the series is scheduled to be released next month. It will include covers of Ray Charles’ “Blackjack,” Freddie King’s “Sen-Sa-Shun,” Texas bluesman Frankie Lee Sims’ “She likes to Boogie Real Low,” and B.B. King’s classic “It’s My Own Fault,” an extended “bonus” track that clocks in at nearly 15 minutes of pure blues ecstasy.The disc will also include two of Winter’s classic originals: the slide guitar-infused “White Line Blues” and the jump blues rocker “Johnny Guitar.”

He’s also the subject of a biography. “Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Life of Johnny Winter” by Mary Lou Sullivan will hit the shelves in late spring. Just how wild, just how raucous is it? Winter has read the book and is a fan. “It's got all the stuff,” he says. “All the good stuff and the bad stuff.” He’s put in 40 years on the road, and he has no interest in selling the tour bus and settling down. "I love it,” he says. “I don't ever want to stop.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Johnny Winter will perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 18 at Tupelo Music Hall, 4 Ocean Front North, Salisbury. Tickets are $45. For more information, call 603.437.5100 or log onto the venue's web. For more info on the artist, click here. Check out Amazon to reserve a copy of "Raisin Cain," the new Winter biography.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Enter Exit: A new view of holidays past

Nostalgia may be death, culturally, but it is also one of the things that, for better or worse, connects us, and there is probably no better example of this than the predictable, theatrical free-fall during the “holiday season,” when everything comes to a complete standstill and we relive our childhoods, and pass them on to the next generation, with the tiresome, but irresistibly uplifting classics of the season — the seemingly endless productions, for example, of ”A Christmas Carol” (which we read somewhere is being staged by a half-dozen companies within a sleigh ride of Newburyport) and “The Nutcracker,” the irresistible 800-pound gorilla of the season. Complaining only makes you look like a Grinch, an association we have finally come to terms with. And, besides, this is what people really want — something warm, comfortable, familiar. But one company has managed to find a way to, so to speak, eat the fruitcake and have it, too — combining the warm, fuzzy nostalgic core of the holiday zeitgeist with a hip, modern outlook. That would be Exit Dance Theatre, a modern dance company founded more than two decades ago, whose style is deeply rooted in theater techniques, improvisation and collaboration.

This weekend, the troupe doing all that — and more — in its show “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a monster collaboration that brings together members of Exit and Joppa Jazz Dance Company, as well as unaffiliated dance students who answered an open audition call, as well as local singer-songwriter Kate Redgate, who will emcee the show — a total of over 60 performers in all. The show grew out of Exit's “Nutbuster,” an original, modern and amped-up version of “The Nutcracker,” which played to rave reviews for the past two years. In “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the idea is the same, but the choreography by Fontaine Dubus, Erin Foley, Sarah George, Pam Smith, Jen Steeves and Cheryl Schwind is new. Each “day” is told through movement, bringing a new approach to the traditional song. And it’s “a mixed bag of styles,” says Dubus, one of Exit's founding members — and not necessarily your idea of traditional Christmas atmospherics, with music by Rusted Root, which manages to mix Dead-like psychedelia with African and Middle Eastern rhythms, and Gilbert Bacaud, known as “Monsieur 100000 Volts” for his energetic performances (for the French hens a-laying day, natch). But the company, while presenting new approaches to the original song, has connected it to the past — to the nostalgia and the magic of our collective youth with Redgate, who will sing the original song and — be forewarned — lead the audience in a sing-along between dance pieces.

Of course, the philosophical question becomes, what happens if Exit's “Twelve Days” becomes an ingrained part of the holiday fabric in Newburyport? Will future generations of blogging Grinches gripe about it?

Let's call it a question for another generation.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Exit Dance Theatre presents “The Twelve Days of Christmas” through Dec. 6.The show features choreography by Fontaine Dubus, Erin Foley, Sarah George, Pam Smith, Jen Steeves and Cheryl Schwind. Kate Redgate will emcee. Tickets are $16, $15 for members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities, and $12 for students and seniors. For more information, call 978-462-7336 or log onto the Firehouse web. Photo is courtesy of Brent Mitchell.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Late breaking news from the North Pole

Okay, so we ran into this horizontally challenged guy wearing a red suit with white trim. He pulled this bit of news out of his bag of tricks, saying he would consider us good little boys and girls if we passed it along. To be honest, the guy looked a little sketchy, but you don't want to take chances, not when it comes to the jovial fellow making lists and checking them twice, not around Christmas, no sir, so we'll pass it along: The Players Ring has added a matinee performance of the Michael Kimball comedy “Santa Come Home.” The matinee will be at 4 p.m. Dec. 5. It may be your best chance for getting into the show (although we heard there are still a few seats available for the Dec. 7 closer.) The show tells the story of newly retired children’s celebrity Captain Zeus and his long-suffering wife, whose daughters come home for the holidays with two unexpected, uninvited guests that will test this already, um, complex family to its dysfunctional limits. The story takes place on Christmas Eve, the second most wonderful day of the year, just in time for the family’s annual Christmas performance at the local grange hall — a show that will be simulcast in Taiwan. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors. The Players Ring is located at 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth, N.H. For reservations, call 603.436.8123 To buy tickets online, click log onto

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Adventurous program for Cantemus

The Brahms may well be the centerpiece of Cantemus’ upcoming winter concert in Newburyport, but, despite its rich, Romantic harmonies and dynamic variations, "Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen/ Why then has the light been given?" is not the most interesting or challenging piece on the North Shore choral group's ambitious, stylistically diverse "Winter Lights" program. That would undoubtedly be “Snowforms,” a six-minute piece by contemporary Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer that is as strange as it is magical and alluring in style, structure and presentation. It's a composition that doesn't look or sound like traditional choral, and, it is said, a piece that requires a leap of faith to be successfully performed, requiring singers to trust their own instincts and imaginations as well as those of the composer and conductor. Written in 1982 and inspired by the winter view outside the composer's Ontario farmhouse, the piece is meant to evoke physically and musically the diversity of snowflakes. The music is presented graphically. There is no staff paper, no traditional notation, but unlined paper that is divided vertically at five-second intervals. Letters indicate notes. The curving lines connecting them indicating treatment — thickening lines mark crescendo, thinning lines diminuendo, rising and falling lines indicating pitch. The piece is is written for female voices only. Singers are expected not to "hit" notes, but to glide between them in a continuous portamento, like the bending pitches of a synthesizer.

The text is sparse, consisting of Inuit words for various kinds of snow, like akelrorak, meaning drifting snow, or pokaktok, meaning snow like salt. With the exception of these Inuit interjections, the "vocals" are hummed throughout. The score also provides additional insight from the composer. For example, at 1:35, calling for the chorus to be divided into two or three groups, overlapping gently and continuously, as the word "apingaut/first snowfall" is sung. Or, at 1:55, calling for a "a sudden burst of energy, then tapering away" as the first two syllables word "mauyak/soft snow" are sung. But, in his notes, Schafer indicates that conductors should not feel "enslaved" by his stage direction. Challenges for the singers include imprecisely defined notes, sudden breakaways into unconventional harmonies and non-traditional chord structures. The challenge for the conductor is leading without smothering a piece that, as seemingly precise as it is, leaves room for individual expression. The conductor’s work is as much conjuring a performance as it is shaping it.

"It’s a tough piece," says Cantemus Music Director Gary Wood. "It takes lots of work, many, many rehearsals, before the environment, what you might call the sonic landscape, begins to sound natural."

But, as “out-there” and “non-traditional” as the Schafer seems at first blush, it actually fits in quite snugly in a seasonal — and, here, seasonal means just that, not necessarily a euphemism for Christmas — program that is designed to reveal “the varied moods and energies of winter – the light, the snow, the shorter days, and the human response to it all," says Wood. "This season draws comparisons to light conquering darkness, and so perhaps it makes sense that light became a symbol of hope, redemption and victory in many faiths.” “Winter Light,” which the 31-voice choral group will perform Dec. 5 in Hamilton and Dec. 6 in Newburyport, is a big-tent program of contrasting periods and styles, from the Romantic perspectives of Brahms and Elgar to the modern views of late 20th- century composers like Schafer, Eric Whitacre and Stephen Chatman. Pieces sung in Inuit, German and Latin, taking their textural clues from the Book of Job, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare and even Robert Frost.

Sung in German, the Brahms motet man, is based on Biblical texts (Job, Lamentations and James) with a final musical “chorale” from a Martin Luther text. Elgar is represented by three works from“The Light of Life,” an early extended work that Wood describes as “ highly engaging and beautiful.” The singers will divide for Charles Wood’s harmonic, resonant “Hail, Gladdening Light,” a lush work for double chorus. In “Lux Aurumque/Golden Light,” Whitacre uses Latin words to create a choral soundscape that aims to “shimmer and glow,” Wood says. And “O Nata Lux,” a movement from the often-performed five-movement work “Lux Aeterna” by American composer Morten Lauridsen is an introspective meditation on the one “born light of light.” Canadian composer Stephen Chatman’s “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” is based on the classic and well-known “song” from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

The men of Cantemus will perform “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from the larger Frostiana song cycle — an evocative Robert Frost poem set to music by one of America’s most celebrated choral composers, Randall Thompson, who uses a “slow sustained tempo to paint a picture of snow, darkness and duty,” says Wood.

The concert will close out with traditional carols.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN — Cantemus will perform "Winter Light" at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Church, 149 Asbury St., Hamilton, and at 4 p.m. Dec. 6 at 4:00 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 166 High St., Newburyport. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors. Admission is free for students under 21. Save $2 by purchasing advance tickets at at The Newburyport Printmaker, Nazir’s of Wenham, Norris Gallery and Frame Shop in Ipswich, the Book Shop of Beverly Farms, Toad Hall in Rockport and Gloucester Music. For more information, call check out the Cantemus web.

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN — Here’s the Cantemus Who’s Who, by community: Manchester-by-the-Sea: Music Director Gary Wood and singers David McCue and Anne Wood. Haverhill: Accompanist Frances Burmeister. Beverly: Scott Hufford, Richard Salandrea. Bradford: Alison Garner. Byfield: Doug Guy. Essex: Betsy Vicksell. Gloucester: Pat Lowery-Collins. South Hamilton: Donna Gale, Marcy Homer. Ipswich: Bill Effner, Gary Freeman, Hugh McCall, Anne Maguire, Dorothy Monnelly, Nat Pulsifer, Sr. Pat Rollinger, Debby Twining. Lynnfield: Priscilla March. Medford: Bill Dowdall. Newburyport: Gary Lubarsky, Norm Stein. Rockport: Marcia Siegel. Wakefield: Mark Pierce. Wenham: Jamie Cabot, David Geikie, Bill Holloway, Conrad Willeman. West Newbury: Michael Fosburg, Susan Nash. Dover, NH: Sydney van Asselt.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Surprise! Faigen's "Porch/Dusk" live, online

Port playwright Joshua Faigen's "Porch/Dusk" didn't start out as a radio play. It morphed into the form after Jack Welch, the former chief editor of Baker’s Plays, got his hands on the script. Thinking it was lacking that always-difficult-to-define "something," Welch, who directed the play at the 2008 New Works Festival, coaxed a new character, a narrator, from the elaborate, almost novelistic stage directions for the 10-minute piece about a Marine bereavement specialist whose job is to deliver the worst news possible — telling families that their mothers, fathers and children made the ultimate sacrifice. This, says Faigen, turned out to be an elegant way of clarifying issues, building mental images and setting atmosphere in the play, crucial in a work like this, in which a small physical space and timeframe is flooded with emotion, unresolved anger, grief and confusion. And, while it wasn't exactly a radio play, seeing how it was playing live, in front of people, on the Firehouse stage, "Porch/Dusk" had the feel and emotional texture of an on-air drama.

The form, of course, is fairly Wobegon, if not quite moribund. No one does radio plays anymore. There's not a whole lot of people even listening to what the cool kids call terrestrial radio, aside from, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, talk radio and NPR junkies. So, last year’s production was a theatrical dead-end for the piece, right?

Well, no. It turns out that there's at least one group still doing radio plays — the Shoestring Radio Theatre in San Francisco.

Faigen, who built two typography companies (talk about old-school) before turning his attention to the stage, sent off the script earlier this year. Shoestring looked at it, liked it and accepted it for production. And the Merrimac Street playwright promptly put it out of his mind, moving on to other projects — like "A Very Simple Play," a new piece that falls somewhere between theater and recital ("I'm not sure what it is, exactly," says the playwright.) and looks at the life, loves and music of Robert Schumann, using the composer's 18-part "Davidsbundlertanze" as a roadmap.

Then, last week, Faigen thought, whatever happened with Shoestring's production, have they even scheduled it? He’e logged onto the company's homepage and, surprise, there it was: A full-fledged old-timey radio-drama production, up and ready to go, complete with sound effects and melodramatic atmospherics. It was a bit of a surprise: Nobody told him, not even an email.

How did they do?

"I thought they did a great job," says the playwright.

Coolest thing about it?

The Foley artists. "You just can't argue with the sound effects," says Faigen. And the ease of "attending" a production. "Sometimes it’s nice to be able to go to the theater without actually moving from your chair, isn’t it?" says Faigen.

And problems?

Only philosophical: "I'm not certain you can call a radio play 'radio' if it's on the internet, but .... whatever," he says — a question better left for another day.

"Porch/Dusk" is paired with Linda Ann Loschiavo's "A Worthie Woman All Hir Live," which looks at the aftermath of a break-in at a woman's house. Both are directed by Russ Hickman. But if you want to hear the show, you better move quickly because it's only up for one week.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: You can listen to the Shoestring Radio Theatre production of Joshua Faigen's "Porch/Dusk" here. Look for the second bullet point (“Shoestring Radio Theatre”) click on “Listen Now." Faigen's "A Very Simple Play" will be staged in February at the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative and whose comedy "The Agawam," in which eight characters in search of faith (and a decent meatloaf), will be presented at the Actors Studio in April.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kimball's Santa: Christmas with a twist

Despite the name, which invokes the guy who, for better or worse, is the symbol of what we obliquely call "the season," not wanting to offend anyone, you know that “Santa Come Home” is not going to be the kind of warm-and-fuzzy and uplifting holiday schmaltz usually served up at this time of year — not with a guy named Captain Zeus as a main character and definitely not when a guy named Michael Kimball is the playwright. Kimball, of course, is the guy responsible for "I Fall for You," a collection of seven, comedic shorts — including a three-parter about a disembodied penis named Richard — that played the Firehouse not long ago. No, it won't be one of those overly sweet theatrical fruitcakes that some of us crave as soon as the leaves fall off the trees, with those subtle flavors of nostalgia and Christmases past. It will be — it is — a "typical Michael Kimball comedy," says Newburyport director Tim Diering, Which means "absolute madness, with a difficult-to-summarize and, ultimately dizzying plot, with seven actors on stage, mostly at the same time, each one with his own agenda, each one trying to steamroll over everyone else ("Making it pretty much like life," says Diering.) with just enough naughty bits to keep it interesting.

It's about ... well, it's a difficult play to summarize, like trying to summarize the weird stuff in anybody's family — love, resentment, strained relationships that color everything that happens, traps that are sprung whenever the family comes together. Not that most families are like this one: Father Philip is an (unhappily) retired children's television star who doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's no longer Captain Zeus. Mother Joan, who had to do it all because old Zeus was always on the road and now, with the daughters on their own, she's finally getting something together for herself, when a suddenly unemployed Zeus is hanging around the house, cluttering up a life that is finally starting to make sense. Two daughters, Susanna, a psychiatric nurse with a marriage on the ropes and locked wardful of unresolved anger, with Mom and with Sister Athena, who, within the family dynamic, is sweetness and light. It's Christmas Eve. The family is coming together to stage a Christmas show that will be broadcast live to Taiwan. No one is especially happy about doing the show, except for Philip/Zeus, who is jonesing bigtime. He needs a fame fix. Both the "girls" bring news and uninvited dinner guests (Athena, a guy old enough to be her father, and Susanna a younger mysterious, hyperactive ... what, psychiatric patient?) will test the family to its dysfunctional limits.

The show is about people "casting off their assumed roles in life," says Diering, who directed Kimball's "I Fall for You" at the Firehouse this summer and took it on a short tour that ended at this year's Fringe Festival. Which is true enough, but not quite tough enough, says the playwright. “It’s about people throwing off roles that have been hammered into them, that have pigeoneholed them and given them a false sense of security,”says Kimball, who wrote several successful novels and screenplays before turning his sights to the stage. “Santa” is actually Kimball's first play. (“Submit,” a historical drama about the founding of York, Maine, was co-written with Jennifer Saunders.) He wrote it in 2004 — and has been rewriting it ever since. (It's "mostly done" now. It's gotten to the point where, in this production, there was an animated discussion with an actor about the use of the article "a" in one of his lines. "It really made a difference," says Kimball, who teaches creative writing in the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program. He originally wanted to cast Diering in the lead role. Diering, who the with the Playwrights Intensive play development series at the Actors Studio, said he was more interesting in directing ("Either way I was going to do the play," he says.). The playwright signed off. "I like his style," says Kimball, whose drama "Ghosts of Ocean House" was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2007 and was recently banned from the Utah State Theatre for its themes of incest, madness and religious domination. "He's very positive, very reflective and incredibly knowledgeable."

The Players Ring production will feature a core of Kimball veterans. Gregg Trzaskowski (Philip) and Lisa Stathoplos (Joan) both performed in Portsmouth theater's production of Kimball's "The Secret of Comedy." Stathoplos has also directed his "Best Enemies." Christine Penney played in Kimball’s "Hideaway" at The Ring last fall. Newburyport actress Tracy Bickel plays the troubled Morgan, a character who "has to be crazy and impish in a troubled way," says Diering. "It's difficult, but she got the character exactly, but way way more." Alan Huisman, fresh from an Act One production of “Over the River and Through the Woods” at the Firehouse, plays Gordon. CJ Lewis plays Tom, Susanna's husband; Caitlin Kelty-Huber plays Athena, the "good" daughter.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: New York Theatre Company will stage Michael Kimball's "Santa Come Home" Nov. 27 to 29 and Dec. 4-6 at the Players Ring, 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth, N.H. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors. For reservations, call 603.436.8123 To buy tickets online, click here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Production doesn't fall short

You know that old saw about the predictable mutability of New England climate? Well, first, it’s true, of course. And, second, the same thing could could be said about "Fall Shorts," the collection of short plays currently being staged at the Actors Studio: If you don't like what you see, just wait a couple of minutes and the production team(s) will throw something completely different at you. The six pieces differ in mood, style and temperament — from “The Object,” Ron Pullin’s strangely fascinating take on obsession during what was supposed to be an all-systems-go hookup gone very, very wrong, to Michael Kimball’s hilarious, straight-outta-Podunk “The Brownwater Legend,” in which an on-the-career-make reporter thinks she’s found the next Jesse James, but ends up with a dope, not a desperado (and a corpse nearly steals the show).

And like New England, the program itself, a collaboration of three regional theater companies — Players’ Ring, Blackburn Performing Arts and Actors Studio — is itself in flux and won’t be repeated. Not exactly, anyhow. All performances will have two plays staged at the Blackburn as part of its Fall Shorts Festival: "But for The Grace of God," the Laura Crook play that looks at the joys and frustrations of moms who meet at a park, never "really" knowing each other, but knowing a lot actually, and Elinor Teele’s “The Baby,” a surreal scene in which a group of strange warriors discover a baby on a soon-to-be post-apocalyptic battlefield.

And this whole “in flux” thing means that second-weekers won’t get to see "The Mediator" and "Coming Clean," written by Ray Arsenault, who shares writing credits with Thacher Freund on the former — two edgy, sexually charged comedies that won Fringe Festival faves honors earlier this year and were clearly crowd favorites at the Actors Studio during their Nov. 13-16 run at the Tannery. Oh, well. You snooze, you lose.

For the closing weekend, they’ll be breaking out two new shorts — "Men are From Milwuakee-Women are from Phoenix" by Lynda Robinson and "Outside the Box" by Nancy Brewka-Clark.

But, now come to think of it, the weather comparison is probably a bit off. It’s easy not to like it too hot or too cold or too wet or whatever. It’s difficult not to like this show: “Fall Shorts” is an ambitious project that does not fall short.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "Fall Shorts" will be staged Nov. 20-22 at the Actors Studio. Reservations may be made by calling the Actors Studio at 978.465.1229. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 and $12 for students and seniors.

Name of the game is DiPietro

Remember that old commercial — what was it, shilling sauce or salad dressing or something — with the slogan “Now, that's Italian?” Well, it’s not quite the immediate impression you get looking at names like Anne Rehner, Alan Huisman, Josh Bresette, Meaghan Willis, Carol Davenport and Danny Gerstein, the cast list for “Over the River and Through the Woods,” the Joe DiPietro comedy about an extended Italian family being forced to deal with unwelcome change, right? “Yeah, we’ve thought about changing the names,” says Stephanie Voss Nugent, executive director of Artists Collaborative Theatre of New England, which is bringing the family comedy to the Firehouse this week — and a woman whose name indicates she might herself be, well, ethnically challenged, at least from an Italian perspective. “They’re all over the board, and there’s not a single Italian in the group.” But Nugent, who will direct “Over the River,” says the heart of the story, the thing that accounts for its staying power, is not the idea of ethnicity, but the concept of family. “It’s about an Italian family, but it could be any nationality,” she says. The fact that the company grabbed four Seacoast Spotlight nominations for the show — with the current, decidedly non-Italian cast — demonstrates that you don’t necessarily have to be a paisan to be la famiglia.

Nugent is taking a quick break from the load-in for “Over the River,” which runs Nov. 20-22 at the Firehouse. “I think the show will sit pretty nice on this stage,” she says. The Arakalian Theater stage is roughly the same size as her home base, the West End Theater in Portsmouth, N.H., but the seating capacity of the Islington Street theater is much smaller, comparable to the Actors Studio. It’s her first show at the Market Square venue since 2004, when Act One staged two productions, “Noises Off” and “Forever Plaid,” in a three-way co-production with the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities and Hackmatack Theater Company. Act One, although founded in 1997, really started taking off during its five-year residency at the massive Winnacunnet Performing Arts Center, located in Winnacunnet Regional High School in Hampton, N.H. Nugent put the company on hold in 2004 after scheduling issues with the school district came up. When the West End — a “magical” space, she says — opened up in 2006, Nugent revived the company, which has mounted three short-run productions of “Over the River” over the past two years. It has been a consistent draw because it’s a nice play and a warm story about ordinary people. “These are realistic people you can identify with right away,” Nugent says.

In the play, written by DiPietro, author of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” in 1996, Nick Cristano has been offered the job of his dreams, far far away. Now he has to deal with the nightmare — telling the family — the grands especially, that the Sunday dinner that has been a family ritual for close to three decades will soon be coming to an end, that their precious little boy(and they always think of you like that, no matter how old you get) is going away. And, nope, they don’t take it well. They become increasingly desperate as they try to hold on. “At first you laugh until you cry,” says Nugent, “then you end up just sobbing. It’s so filled with love that you get a lump in your throat. It's about loving and letting go, or trying to let go. It about trying to figure out how to say thank you for for loving me so much. It’s a beautiful story.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Act One will stage Joe DiPietro's "Over the River and Through the Woods" Nov. 20-22 at the Firehouse. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, or $18 for students and members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities. For more information, call 978.462.7336 or log onto the Firehouse web.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Turning the Red Planet green

They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and humans, being the frustrating perverse and clever creatures that they are, may be able to take it a step further, harnessing the thing scientists say is the greatest danger to our survival on this planet and actually putting it to good use — assuming we can get our act together, enviornmentally and politically. It’s called terraforming — intentionally altering the climate to turn Mars, our galactic neighbor, into a living planet with forests, lakes, and (eventually) breathable air. And it means, in essense, finally getting serious about global warming, but in exactly the opposite way that we're thinking about it now. It’s about first, getting to Mars, which has been bleak and barren for billions of years, and setting up shop old-school, churning out those greenhouse gasses until we turn the Red Planet green.

Pipe dreams? Sounds it. Colonizing Mars (or, conversely, avoiding being colonized by “them”) has been science fiction boilerplate for the entirety of the modern era. But the forces behind terraforming are not pale white boys talking sci-fi trash during rare excursions from their basement lairs. These are serious people, like NASA astrobiologist Dr. Chris McKay, who has spent three decades researching extreme environments on earth, places where the bare necessities of life are met, as a prologue to planetary engineering. It is also the subject of “Mars: Making the New Earth,” the latest documentary by Newburyport filmmaker Mark Davis, who won an Emmy for Outstanding Science, Technology and Nature Programming last October for "Five Years on Mars," his film about Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars rovers that defied everyone’s expectations by surviving five-plus years — and delivering a mountain of data that will keep scientists busy for years. The new film debuts Nov. 19 on the National Geographic Channel.

But don't pack your bags yet. It will take 100,000 years, give or take a thousand or two, to turn Mars habitable, with a (minimum requirement) breathable atmosphere, for humans, let alone a cosmic vacation destination. But, scientists say, it could be “warm, wet and ready for (primitive) life” in about a century. "Mars: Making the New Earth," a part of NatGeo's Expedition Week series, is a step-by-step guide on how to reanimate a foul, nasty planet with an average temperature of -80 degrees and an atmosphere made up of deadly ultraviolet and cosmic radiation, a place that has been dead as a cosmic doornail and frozen solid for 3.5 billion years.

As with any big project, you start with baby steps. First, get there, necessarily with a small, expeditionary force. Then start cooking the atmosphere, setting up little factories, which, of course, would have to be built from scratch, and make use of super greenhouse gasses like sulfur and florine, thousands of times more potent from a planetary warming point of view, than fossil fuels and both present on the planet. Slightly warmer temperatures would set off natural processes that would get the greenhouse ball rolling. After 100 years, liquid water would exist. The atmosphere would thicken, turning the Martian sky blue. Although much of the planet would remain icy, like above the Arctic Circle, life would be possible. Lichen and mosses would be introduced. The primitive life forms would break rock down into soil, paving the way, so to speak, for grass and shrubs. Then high-altitude fir trees, possibly genetically engineered, would be introduced. This would improve the soil and atmosphere, making it possible for more complex life forms — humans — to exist, if we don't wipe out the species by ourselves.

Terraforming represents "planetary engineering on an almost inconceivable scale," the documenary admits. "It sounds crazy, but it's a scientifically credible idea," says Davis, 59, whose previous documentaries include “The Curse of T-Rex” in 1996, and “Mars Dead or Alive” in 2005, and who is currently chasing an American Experience deadline for his documentary on the so-called “bone wars,” a knock-down/drag-out battle between paleontologists Charles Marsh and Edward Cope. But why do it, other than to show off how clever we are? Our survival may depend of it. In the distant future, our sun will grow larger and burn hotter, a process that cannot be stopped; the closest planets will burn first. The only future, long long term, will be to escape to the farther reaches of the galaxy. To do that, we, if we exist, will have to know how to build a better planet. But, in the here and now, the reason to do this, beyond the fact that it is in our nature to explore, is knowledge: how planets work, how to keep them alive.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN — "Mars: The New Earth" airs at 9 p.m. Nov. 19 on the National Georgraphic Channel. Check your local listings.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Diary of a band ... and community

After a decade on the road, you should have learned all the tricks, so there's no worries about Tiger Saw being shoved aside by the non-human acts on the bill, a fate that famously befell Spinal Tap in 1982 when its troubled Smell the Glove tour pulled into Themeland Amusement Park and its hapless interim manager discovered that a puppet show took top billing for the gig. Nope, when Dylan Metrano, the Newburyport-born but for the past couple of years Portland-based musician pulls into Jabberwocky this weekend to promote “All My Friends Are Right Here with Me: A Decade in the Indie Rock Underground” (a book, of all things for a musician to be peddling!) the puppets will be incorporated into the gig — er, reading.

Published by Burst & Bloom in Portsmouth, “All My Friends” follows Tiger Saw’s zig-zag musical history, from the pretty, melodic minimalism of its early years to the community-building choruses and singalongs of the middle years and, ulitmately, the controversial about-face of its basement soul — a decade-long run of some 800 shows in a dozen countries. In clubs, galleries, even in the branches of an oceanside fir tree, the anecdote that the book opens with — or, as author, and Tiger Saw founder Dylan Metrano says, “any place people will gather to listen to music,” it is the story of a restless, constantly evolving band, and like-minded colleagues and road dogs who have since become friends — and a look at the scene, a way of life with rewards that do not translate into bottom line. The book comes with a 13-track CD featuring new takes on old TS tracks performed by the musicians who have been part the story, from Jason Anderson and Moons of Jupiter to Picastro and Quiet Bears.

And the hand puppets? Form follows function. The book, part tour diary and part oral history, which would make for a confusing reading if you did it straight and an awkward and, not to put too fine a point on it, silly reading if you attempted to do voices. Odd as it may sound, a puppet show seemed “a more natural way” of presenting such material, says Metrano, during a recent telephone interview. He’s in Annapolis, between shows on a two-week tour with Tiny Fires, a new band featuring Metrano, Guy Capecelatro III, Jeremy Robinson and Jerusha Robinson, which has been tramping through the Midwest and up the East Coast, playing every night, without travel dates, to support their self-titled debut album. Metrano’s Nov. 13 reading at Jabberwocky represents the last date on the current tour and the start of a brief break before the next, in which Tiger Saw will add two notches to its country total as it stomps across Australia and New Zealand with Castanets and Alps. It's a crazy schedule, but "if you're not playing, you're paying,” Metrano says. “You do what you can, try to get in as much as you can. Lots of places to be, lots of people to see. It's good to keep moving, I guess. It feels right.” They’ve done the puppet-thing at a couple of the quieter venues on the tour. “People have been receptive,” Metrano says. “but it’s definitely a work in progress.”

Diary of a band

Working with handwritten tour diaries he's kept since putting together Tiger Saw at the turn of the century, Metrano took his first shot at getting together some kind of history about Tiger Saw’s first decade about a year and a half ago, but, first impression, it just didn’t sing. “It was tedious and boring stuff ... that no one in his right mind would be interested in if he wasn't in the band.” On the other hand, as he pushed forward, the road stories started to look “like something.” A book? He wasn’t sure. He passed on what he had to Greg Moss, his old bandmate from the Port proto-punk band Hamlet Idiot in the late 1980s and now a professional playwright. He agreed: There was something there. He suggested that Metrano flesh out the story with first-person accounts, something along the lines of “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. The project started jelling after that.

It's a small, in some ways unremarkable, story, without the kind of big-splash sex-and-drugs-and-rehab-n-roll in “All My Friends” that dresses up Behind the Music bios. There's none, actually. And no groupies or hotel rampages. What makes it work is the fact that, despite its lack of excess, the story is so rock and roll — though definitely not the rock fantasy that usually springs to mind. It could be the story of any band coming up, trying to make it — and doing it on its own terms, without corporate bankrolls. It’s about hard work and hustle and DIY necessities, being jammed into a vehicle with all your gear and your bandmates and crashing on someone's couch and staggering weary-eyed to the next gig. It's about community.

“Few oppornuties are just handed to you. You make it on hard work and with the help of your friends," Metrano writes. "I think I’ve learned something about myself doing it. We play what we want — and that feels good.” It is an honest, unblinking account, not only of the work it takes, but also of the conflicts within the band, which led, first, to the departure of original member Juliet Nelson, the cellist and vocalist who was, in large measure, responsible for the Tiger Saw sound — and even Kimchee Records executive Bob Dubrow's stinging dismissal ("I don't like R&B dance kockoffs done by white boys and girls that sounds like it's being done by white boys and girls.") of late Tiger Saw's party vibe. "It would be silly to exclude it," he says. "There will always be conflict within a group" — especially, he says, when you have to deal with someone like him, who is "very particular about what I'm trying to create."

Metrano, who hasn't performed in Newburyport since the 2007 show with Scary Mansion at the Firehouse. (“I don’t know know if there's much of an audience there anymore, or if there’s even a scene,” he says. “I’m not as connected as I used to be.”) says the book, of course, is also his story. “I was in my early 20s when I started the band," he says. "Now I'm in my early 30s. I grew up with this band. I don't know if I wanted it to be this, I don't know what I wanted it to be. I was interested in playing music, but also in writing and acting. Music ended up taking over. I don’t know where I'll be in another 10 years. I could have a different life, but it's not important to figure it out. I know what I want to do now.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Dylan Metrano will read from “All My Friends Are Right Here With Me, A Decade in the Indie Rock Underground,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 at Jabberwocky, located at the Tannery, 50 Water St., Newburyport. The event is free. For more information about the reading, call 978-465-9359. For more information about the band, look here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fujit Fiat Vox: Latin, sort of, for eclectic choral

Fujit Fiat Vox's concert next week at the First Religious Society will be the debut for the chamber choir and a homecoming, of sorts, wrapped into one, and we're going to talk about that, we really are, but, first, what's the deal with the name, Music Director Joshua Anand Slater? Like how do you pronounce "Fujit," which looks like a first declension Czech verb or something vaguely Japanese, and what does it mean? Well, bit of a story here: Slater pronounces it "foo-jeht," but leaves the pronunciation up to individuals. There's no correct way to say it since it's not a real word. He made it up or, rather, adapted it from Tempus Fugit, Latin for "time flies," the name of a colleague's ensemble several years ago, back when he was teaching at the Sparkhawk School. He changed Fugit to Fujit ("for the profound reason that I think it’s prettier spelled that way") and tacked on Fiat Vox ("my hubristic Latin motto") lifted from the Vulgate Old Testament: the let-there-be-light business being transformed into 'let there be voices,' more or less — "silly, probably," Slater says, "but I think it's fun."

Yeah, he's a down-to-earth guy with a quirky sense of humor who thinks classical musicians are a little too full of themselves sometimes, the kind of guy who leaves possibly embarrassing tidbits in his online bio, like the reference to his nickname, Butterfingers. That came when Slater — a singer, an organist and conductor — got "roped into" filling in on bass drums for a performance of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." He figured, how hard could it be? Just whomp the drum, right? Famous last words: Stick went flying, face went deepest shade of scarlet possible and then he got "the Indiana Jones look," the one from the final scenes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," when faces melt. And then there was the egg ocarina incident at Sparhawk, where Slater taught from 2004 to 2007: "They break pretty easily," he says. That was the end of his percussion career ("probably best for everyone involved," he says), and right about the time that Tempus Fugit timed out. Slater, who had been talking about starting a chorus for years, picked up the musical ball and ran with it, but the project stalled without ever getting to the point of performance. Then this spring, when Slater was "running my notoriously large mouth" about choral music, a friend called his bluff, told him, essentially, that he should put up or shut up. He started collecting singers from around Boston "who can sing anything, any time and sound fantastic doing it" and rehearsing through the summer.

The program for the Newburyport debut will be eclectic, from the medieval (Antoine Busnoys’ "Missa L’homme Armé," French sacred music from the 15th century) to the Baroque ( Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Lobet den Herrn") to the modern (Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Mass in G minor" and Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bendita Sabedoria"). "Maybe in that order," says Slater. There is, plainly, no overarching theme — a deliberate choice. "Sometimes themed shows work too hard to be cohesive," he says. He selected the material because the music is worth doing for its own sake. There will be 15 voices in the Port program, which will be repeated the next day in Boston, but the number is not fixed and will number 12 to 24 people, depending on the program. Slater chose Newburyport, in part, because his wife has family in the city — "guaranteeing," he says, "that we'll sell at least 10 tickets."

As long as they're not expecting comps.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Fujit Fiat Vox performs at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at First Religious Society, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport. The program features Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Lobet den Herrn," Antoine Busnoys’ "Missa L’homme Armé," Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Mass in G minor" and Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bendita Sabedoria." Suggested donation is $20 adults, $15 students/seniors. The ensemble will also perform at 3 p.m. Nov. 15 at Church of Our Savior, 25 Monmouth St., Brookline. There's more information on Fujit here.

Building the future on Plum Island

Newburyport architect Andrew Sidford's Sea View House, a unique, striking home on the dunes of Plum Island, is currently the front-runner in The House Vote, a daily thumbs-up/thumbs-down ballot on architecture and residential design created by Michael Cannell, former editor of the House & Home section of The New York Times. But the images on The House Vote, or even the extensive collection on Sidford's own web, do not begin to capture the experience of the P Street property, which combines modern, almost futuristic, design elements with the kind of traditional, windswept New England beach feel you would expect, incorporating economic and ecological efficiencies to create something that goes way beyond drab, de rigueur Green, with the architect working with a palette of philosophical and aesthetic colors that makes a statement about twenty-first century practicalities and our changing relationship with the land and the planet.

The somewhat misleadingly named Sea View House is located away from the oceanfront, on the surprisingly serene, and often overlooked, bayside section of Plum Island, close to the northern tip of the island, wrapped tight by the Merrimack River. There are no direct ocean views, but, with four strategically placed decks, there are stunning vistas in every direction. The building, which employs a number of Green strategies, from basic scaling-down to passive cooling and radiant heating strategies, seems to hover over the land, but conjures the mental image of a ship. It is dominated by a glass-enclosed central tower, which feeds light through the structure. The tower is flanked by steep-sloped aluminum roofs that reflect heat and light. It stands on pilings that have been conceived and incorporated as part of the design, not as the necessity that they are. The space unfurls, cascades upwards, reaching a crescendo with an upper deck with a brilliant view of the Merrimack as it snakes around the island. In a sense, the interior and exterior spaces of Sea View House mirror the river — flowing gracefully, but offering plenty of intriguing eddies.

The footprint is just 2,200 square feet, snug even by PI standards, which is significant only on paper: The building has a big feel because of the creative distribution of space within the open design. Living spaces (they do not correspond to traditional four-walls-and-a-couple-of-windows ideas of rooms) radiate from the tower. Rooms are small by traditional standards — some of them "ridiculouly small," Sidford says, especially in the case of the dining area, which is roughly eight-by-eight, but works within the context of the design and the geometry of the space. Rooms are interconnected and "share" space. For example, the kitchen — placed on the upper level of the house, allowing the owner, Dr. David Sorenson, to take advantage of the views — is on a separate level, but just a couple of steps above the dining area, connecting the two spaces and, essentially, enlarging both. The bedrooms and work areas are on the lower levels. The decks, too, are also small, but versatile, looking in different directions, allowing the occupant to enjoy the sun or shade, views of the river or the oceanside, the breeze, or shelter from it: different views, different light, different experiences.

"The house is a machine," says Sidford, whose past projects include restoration of the 1850 Carriage House of the Lord Timothy Dexter House. "It has to work. I hope to inspire more than that, but first it has to work."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Look: Whos at the Nock

Oh my. No, this is not good, this is not good at all. Horton hears a rumbly in his tumbly, to mix children's classics metaphors. He's down in the dumps, under the weather. Horton hears a flu, or a stomach bug, or something seasonally nasty. So does his son. And several other Whos. But, for now, anyhow, there's no fear of a pandemic striking Whoville and taking down next week's production of "Seussical The Musical" with it. "Nothing to worry about," says John Budzyna, the former Firehouse executive director who plays Horton, the persistent, put-upon pachyderm in his first trans-species role since he played Owl in "Winnie the Pooh" a few years ago: He's on the mend, the health hit hasn't been as bad as it could be when you have a stageful of school-aged actors and, all things considered, if you've got to deal with illness in the cast, now is the time to get it out of the way: The lines have been learned, the show has been blocked out. Right now, it's a matter of showing up and hitting marks for lighting and Seussical-musical cues — and staying healthy.

No worries about letting the Cat out of the Hat, er, bag with "Seussical." First staged in 2000, it's a monster of a musical and a tough puppy to summarize, mashing together a library of Seuss stories. The story centers about Horton the Elephant, who famously hears a Who (yes, the very same Whos who made the Grinch's heart grow so precipitously ) one of a whole world of Whos living on a speck of dust — a precarious existence, indeed — who seeks Horton's protection. He's up to the task and tries to enlist the citizens of his world. They think he's completely bonkers, of course, and ridicule and torment him. Which is just the beginning of Horton's tuneful travails.

There's a big happy ending, of course — for Horton and all those Whos and, hopefully, for the Rupert A. Nock Middle School, the venue for the show. The production will help pay for improvements at the long-in-the-tooth Nock theater, which, bottom line, will run an estimated $100,000. Not that anyone thinks that bill will be paid any time soon, "but it starts the conversation," says Budzyna. Short-term goals will be to buy new mikes or replace the grid of non-functioning pulleys. "We’re hoping to create an opportunity for students and adults to come together to put on a great show and raise some money to help update the theater," says Michael Pirollo, a language arts teacher at the Nock and head of its after-school theater department.

The show is being staged by Newburyport Summer Stock, a performance-based vacation program for middle and high school students. Pirollo will direct. Evelyn Mann is musical director. Deirdre Budzyna, co-owner of Acting Out Productions at the Tannery, is assistant director.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "Seussical the Musical" will be staged at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 to 9 at Nock Middle School, 70 Low Street. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 7. Tickets are $18, or $8 for students and seniors for evening performances. Tickets for the matinee are $8, or $6 for students and seniors. More more information, email

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN: The cast of 72 of "Seussical the Musical" includes Caroline Acquaviva, Tom Adams, Olivia Anderholm, Kate Anderson-Song, Alison Balentine, Charlotte Balentine, Daniel Balentine, Georgia Balentine, Molly Balentine, Caroline Beauparlant, Katelyn Brannelly, Colin Budzyna, John Budzyna, Maggie Budzyna, Colleen Byron, Fedja Celebic, Haley Collins, Seamus Cummings, Gordon Cummings, Nicole Davis, Megan DesAutels, Anna Durning, Grace Eramo, Lucy Eramo, Sophie Fagerquist, Haley Gendell, Cricket Good, Lily Griffin, Annie Kate Gross, Meghan Healey, Grace Kelleher, Emily Rose Kelleher, Katherine Kjaer, Olivia Lemelin, Sam Losh, Julia Marcheterre, Anna Marcheterre, Bryan Marden, Audrey McCarthy, DJ McCarthy, Macie McGee, Ashley McIntire, Kyle McIntire, Melissa Moore, Abi Moore, Anna Moore, Anna Moreland, Karina O'Donnell, Jesse O'Neill, Emma O'Rourke, Katie O'Rourke, Berit Palma, Mika Phipps, Hannah Rikeman, Meaghan Robichaud, Hannah Rowe, Abby Seabrook, Rachel Serebnik, Sydney Skaff, Ricky Smith, Linsey Smith, Emily Smith, Vicki Smith, Mackenzie Tatro, Claire Thibeault, Meghan Timony, Emily Tradd, Madelyn Vining, Demi Wack, Dylan Wack, Adam Woo, and Julia Yameen. Mike Pirollo directs.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A super-duper low-key anniversary

It sounds way more impressive than it actually is. That's Andrew Mungo's thinking, anyway. "Lots of couples have done it, probably without ever realizing it," says the co-owner of The Screening Room. After all, it's just a click past silver on the anniversary scale. Which is pretty impressive. Chances are that you're not going to get smacked upside the head with a frying pan or, worse, the open-ended cold shoulder, for forgetting your twenty-seven-and-a-half, more or less, anniversary. But if the missus knew that you had let the occasion of your 10,000th day of wedded bless pass without an appropriate fuss? Big trouble? Maybe not. Right, dear?

And that, in a nutshell, is what's going on with Newburyport's long-running, hip-but-homespun alt-cinema: The theater marked a big anniversary not that long ago — its 25th or 30th, depending on how you count (30 years since Mungo and Nancy Langsam showed their first film, 25 since they got run off Plum Island (long story, that) and set up shop on State Street) — without a whole lotta hoopla. A story in the formerly cool alternative weekly, a mention on their Internet pages and mailers, lots of private congrats from the regulars. Then it was time to fire up the popcorn machine, run the evening's film ("La Vie En Rose," a portrait of French singer Edith Piaf, if we remember correctly) and then, after the hard-core filmies finish reading the credits, cleaning up all the spilled popcorn. A similar blowout celebration is in the works for the Screening Room's 10,000th night at the movies, which will also feature,by coincidence, a French-themed film: "Julie and Julia."

Now for the math — and we're taking Mungo's word on this, so let's hope he did well in school — the cinema began its run (on State Street) on June 12,1982, so October 28, 2009 marks 10,000 Nights at the movies for us. The tricky part is remembering to add seven nights for seven leap years. Mungo estimates they've served up one million pounds of popcorn. If that is true, and we have no way of verifying that number, exactly, we estimate that he has swept or vacuumed up 25,000 pounds of popcorn. Or maybe people don't spill as much we do.

Credits roll, curtain closes, congratulations.

You can always find out what's going on at The Screening Room on their Web.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cathy McLaurin: Letting go, remembering

There's still a couple of hours before the bread people show up to talk, but sourdough is not the topic of our conversation with Cathy McLaurin — not exactly, anyhow. But there are strong connections between "where the arms connect to the body," the bread exhibit, a continuing participatory series that explores memory and the concept of what remains when the people in our lives are are no longer in our lives, through the dispersal of bread made from her grandmother's starter, an almost ritualistic, communion-like exploration, and "daily diminishings," a continuing online exhibit in which McLaurin, a card-carrying pack rat, weeds through the "junk" that she's been carting around with her for years, meditates on the reason she's still hanging on to it, and, every single day, posts a picture of a piece and writes about its meaning, its importance to her, and offers to give it away to anyone in exchange for an explanation of why they want it. If nobody is interested, the physical piece faces oblivion, the memory, presumably, living on as long as the artists draws breath and her synapses fire properly. Both exhibits are ongoing. Both are about memory, which ultimately connects and divides us. Both are nebulous, having no immediately obvious antecedent or application. For now, the work itself is the point. "It's very much about the process, not what comes out of it," McLaurin says.

The project is wrapped up with McLaurin's move from Amesbury, where she lived for more than a decade, to the surprisingly cut-off wilds of southern New Hampshire, and from the 5,000-square-foot Lawrence studio she shared with fellow Carriagetown artists Kai Vlahos, John Schultz and Terese Zemlin. Moves, of course, assume progress, new physical and emotional vistas, and possibilities. But, short of victim relocation, they also require dragging much of the past along with you — a process that becomes increasingly difficult as the years, and their corresponding accumulations, pile up. Every day for more than three months, a little piece of the artist's emotional or actual life is posted in what could be described as a virtual emotional yard sale. Some of the postings are obvious, innocuous — like the Smiths poster from her days at Meredith College, the small private all-girls Baptist college in Raleigh, N.C. Like what self-respecting arty student wasn't into the Smiths and Joy Division back in the day? Some are intimate and moving, like the piece of red satin fabric — a remnant of a dress McLaurin's sourdough-baking granny made for her in 1968, when she was 3 years old, for the wedding of Aunt Shelia and Uncle Buck, her high school sweetie, who was drafted a couple of weeks later and died in combat not long after that. Many of the objects have no value at all, like Day 37's offering: the pieces of the stem of a wine glass, broken in a studio in Paris, and fashioned intoan earring, using a broken shoe lace. "It doesn’t look like much to anyone but the handful of people who were present when the events leading up to its forming took place," she says. But taken together, especially over a long period of time, they begin to reveal something (a lot, actually) about the person, a portrait of the artist. Which is creating just a little bit of discomfort. Which, she says, is the point. A lot of the work is about putting herself into a vulnerarble position, to work outside her comfort zone. "That's part of what I'm doing," she says. "It's also a chance to reflect on why these things are so important to me — and then to let go."

It's Day 103. The piece/memory on "daily diminishing" is a hanging lantern McLaurin the artist acquired during a 2003 residency in Sisters, Oregon — a place, she writes, where "everything seems to be quietly on the edge of something, but there is no fear in what that something might be. For me, this was possibly the most peaceful place I’ve ever been and when I need to escape from life’s challenging moments, I go to Sisters in my head." How long will it continue? McLaurin doesn't know. It's open-ended. She didn't expect it to go on this long, but she never constrained it with a time frame. It's become something of a "daily ordeal" — sorting through things, remembering, deciding and posting, with daily deadlines, no matter how informal and self-imposed they are.

There have been a few takers. Mostly friends. One stranger expressed an interest in the Smiths poster. She mailed it off. It was lost in the mail. The first box of stuff is packed, ready for oblivion. What happens if someone stumbles onto the blog and expresses an interest in something at some point in the future, before "daily diminishings" goes the way of the physical manifestations of the memories, secrets, they contain? "One of the fears I have," she says. "And something I don't have an answer for." She's not worried about losing something precious, her memories, when she no longer has the physical touchstones to remind her by having them. Just the opposite, actually. Most of the stuff has been packed away in boxes for years, decades. They may hold memories, but, packed away like that they are, in essence, repressed. By examining the objects, reflecting on their meaning, the memories become more vivid. Not that, from time to time, she doesn't have one of those "Oh, my God, what have I done?" moments. "That's part of what the challenge is," she says. "The fear of not having them and forgetting is more than balanced by the fear of constrantly having to think about them."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Check out Cathy McLaurin here. Check out the daily diminishing blog here.