wet earth

"Light Up the Sky" at MPC

Anyone who spends time in the company of art, whether making it or living with those who do, is no stranger to one of its central conflicts: to be engaged in producing art is to choose to be open to a certain kind of vulnerability, but to get your art in front of an audience requires a robust, untender ego.  The romantic myth about art, as a character puts it in Moss Hart’s 1948 play “Light Up the Sky,” currently showing at the refurbished MPC Main Stage Theatre, is that genuine artists “do something with their hearts, instead of their heads or their pocketbooks.”  The truth, especially for collaborative forms of art such as theater, is that the place is where art, commerce, self-interest, connection, and longing collide is far more interesting than any idealized notion of artistic purity, untainted by the baser human qualities.

“Light Up the Sky” is an entertaining backstage comedy that pokes fun at the pretensions of theater folk (who are given to pronounce the word thea-tuh) while subtly emphasizing their humanity.  Peter Sloan (Chris Deacon), a former truck driver, is about to see his first play produced, in a pre-Broadway Boston tryout.  The play’s director, Carleton Fitzgerald (Keith Decker), is a highly emotional man who expounds upon the play’s “nobility,” calling the production “shattering” and “beautiful.”  The glamorous star of the play, Irene Livingston (Kristin Brownstone), calls everyone “dahling” and is used to being the center of attention.  The play is being produced by Sidney Black (James Brady), a successful if insecure businessman, and his demanding wife Frances (Teresa Del Piero), an ice skater.  Joining this motley assemblage in the Boston hotel as they await the play’s premiere is Miss Lowell (Alexander Bristow), the writer-secretary Irene has hired to write her memoirs, Irene’s mother, Stella Livingston (Phyllis Davis), her husband, Tyler Rayburn (Clark Brown) and Owen Turner (Mitchell Davis), a veteran playwright.  There is also a parrot.

Gradually it is revealed that Peter Sloan’s play was written in a spirit of hopeful, “wide-eyed idealism,” a humanistic stance that serves as a barometer for the various characters’ shifting attitudes, depending on whether the play is perceived as a hit or a dud.

“Light Up the Sky” is a minor work, but MPC’s production, seamlessly directed by Gary Bolen, benefits from a handsome stage design and uniformly solid performances.  Hart gives his best lines to Frances and Stella, whose wisecracks are well served by Del Piero and Phyllis Davis.  (Sample: “I wouldn’t let him put on a girdle for me, let alone a play.”)  One delightful moment is when Stella describes posing as a cleaning woman, complete with mop and pail, in order to sneak into the theater to see the show (since the imperious Carleton Fitzgerald has forbidden anyone to watch rehearsals).  Her subsequent advice is to “see the show on an empty stomach.”  Later, Fitzgerald rhapsodizes about having seen an old, decrepit cleaning woman in the balcony, mesmerized by the play.  Davis’s expressions as she listens to the description of herself as a pathetically haggard, falling-apart creature are priceless.

Someone in the play says that theater is a “democracy of fear.”  When a work is a hit, there’s more than enough love to spread around, but when it’s a flop, everyone, from actor to writer, director to producer, suffers the sting of public humiliation, and everyone quickly looks for someone else to blame.  Yet despite the rampant cynicism and bad behavior on view, “Light Up the Sky” is at its heart a valentine to the unique, vibrant, (and increasingly threatened) world of live theater, a world that is affectionately portrayed by MPC’s talented cast and crew.

"Light Up the Sky" runs through Sunday, May 26.  For tickets and information, call 831-646-4213 or visit www.mpctheatreco.com.

Patrice Vecchione at Fandango's

In The Knot Untied (2013), a luminous new collection of poems by Patrice Vecchione, there is a poem entitled “Cabbage.”  I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that not many poems have likely been written about cabbage.  (If you know of any good cabbage poems, please share them in the comments section below.)  Yet amidst all the world’s poems about flowers and trees and berries and wine, why shouldn’t there be a poem about cabbage?  In fact, Vecchione’s poem is about memory: the poet’s eighty-three-year old aunt is incredulous that her niece has forgotten whether a dish prepared decades ago was made with red or green cabbage.  In life, as in literature, the details matter.  Remembering matters.  The poem reminds us of those still-bright sparks of memory that may persist in each of us, despite the passage of time and the inevitable forgetting it leaves in its wake.

“Cabbage” is also one of the poems in The Knot Untied that refers to food, an aspect of Vecchione’s book that will be celebrated at an upcoming event at Fandango restaurant, in Pacific Grove, with proceeds from the event benefiting the Food Bank of Monterey County.

“Poetry resides in the five senses,” Vecchione, who lives in Monterey, tells me in a recent phone interview.  “And hunger is of particular interest to me.  In a wealthy country such as ours, no one should ever have to be hungry.  I don’t like being hungry; it makes me scared.”

At Fandango, appetizers will be created using ingredients that are mentioned in Vecchione’s poems (some possibilities include tomato, basil and mozzarella; apricots and strawberries and peaches; honey and fennel; cake, soda crackers, salt).  The event represents just one of the several creative paths Vecchione has forged to promote her new book.

“I wanted to do events that connect poetry to the community in ways that are not typical,” she says.

That kind of community-based creativity also shaped how Vecchione published her book.  When her agent told her it could take a year or more to find a traditional publisher, Vecchione decided to find another way.  Using Indiegogo, a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter, Vecchione raised the money to publish her book in only three months.  She considers everyone who contributed, whether it was $25 or $1500, as equal publishers.

“It’s a new idea,” she says, “to form a collective of people to publish a book.  But the state of publishing is not a pretty picture.  I was glad to take my work out of the hands of New York.”

The Knot Untied explores the variety of ways we are bound to and unbound from one another, how we can become tied up in a relationship or an idea, how it all can come apart.  At the collection’s heart are several poems about the poet’s troubled bond with her mother.  In “My Gordion Knot,” the angry outbursts of the poet’s mother “[spins] the dust of a thousand years,” clotting the child’s throat and robbing her of her voice.

Yet even in the suffering, there is the solace of nature, of the imagination, of language.  In “Land of Sorrow,” there are types of sadness, including a light, present-day kind of sadness that is “bald as a hatchling before feathers.”  And here, in its entirety, is “The Astonishment of Spring”:


Though my life is in tatters

and I am afraid, the young deer

shakes the dew from her coat

before slowly crossing the road

and in the field of blackbirds

there is singing.


Fandango’s will serve appetizers inspired by The Knot Untied on Thursday, May 9, from 5:30-7:00 p.m.  Vecchione will be there to read from her book and sign copies.  Cost: $40; for reservations, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/event/5527167908#.  For information about Vecchione’s additional upcoming appearances in the Monterey Bay area and beyond, visit her website.

Britten concerts in Carmel

This weekend offers local music-lovers a rare Benjamin Britten mini-festival, with the Enso Quartet performing the English composer’s String Quartet No. 2 on Friday, April 26, and Ensemble Monterey presenting his powerful War Requiem the following evening, Saturday, April 27.  (Both concerts are at Sunset Center, in Carmel.)  Britten (1913-1976) was an ardent, lifelong pacifist, and a conscientious objector during World War II.  His passion for peace is inseparable from the themes and forms he explored in his music.  An openly gay man in an era when most homosexuals hid their true nature, Britten created a musical world that, over the span of his brilliant career, conveys a deep love of and concern for all of humanity, especially children and adults who, as outcasts or misunderstood outsiders, do not feel welcome in society.

His String Quartet No. 2 in C, Op. 36 (1945), was written just four months after the triumphal premiere of his opera Peter Grimes, a musical debut that firmly established his reputation as a major international composer.  The quartet was commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, one of the few English composers whose music influenced Britten, who looked more to Europe (Mahler, Berg, Stravinsky) and America (Copland) for inspiration.

The first movement opens with the four string instruments singing in unison, a reminder that, like Bach, Britten was primarily a vocal composer who always thought about the vocal line whether or not he was writing for the voice.  At the end of the first theme, the united vocal line of the four strings opens up to a world of rhythm and harmony, as the music becomes choral, tensions developing, overlapping and resolving.

After a short second scherzo movement evocative of the driving urgency of some of Shostakovich’s string quartet writing, the quartet settles into a long third movement, longer in fact than the first two movements combined.  It is here where Britten’s debt to Purcell is heard, in the form of a passacaglia, a series of solo cadenzas and variations.  This movement also recalls the striking use of intervals, especially fourths and fifths, heard in Peter Grimes; as in that opera, the cascading intervals magnificently evoke an atmosphere of sea-swells, of tremulous, open space.  The quartet concludes grandly, emphatically with a series of C-major chords that feel celebratory and almost architectural.

I have wanted to hear the Enso Quartet for many years, since first encountering their highly acclaimed recording of Ginastera’s string quartets.  It is also interesting to think about how chamber groups choose their name.  According to the group’s website, the word enso refers to “the Japanese zen painting of the circle which represents many things; perfection and imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.”  Britten was drawn to Asian musical modes and instruments (especially the gamelan) later in his career; this young quartet from New York City seems like the perfect ensemble to carry the message of Britten’s gorgeous music to Carmel.  (This concert will also feature works by Mozart and Beethoven.)

Britten’s War Requiem is one of those staggering works of art that can almost feel like too much to experience in one sitting.  Well, it should be too much, because its subject is the grotesque savagery of war and the heartbreaking loss it causes.  I will never forget a performance I heard at Carnegie Hall some twenty years ago.  My friend and I were still in our seats, unable to speak, unable to move after the performance had concluded,  after the musicians had left the stage, after the seats around us had emptied.  Even then, every particle of air around us in that great hall still vibrated with the power of this music, which Britten wrote for the 1962 consecration of the newly reconstructed Coventry Cathedral (which had been destroyed by German bombs in World War II).

The War Requiem is a massive work, a true contemporary masterpiece, in which the Latin mass for the dead is interspersed with poetry by the slain World War I poet Wilfred Owen (who, like Britten, was gay).  For their season-concluding performance in Carmel, the Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra, directed by John Anderson, is joining forces with the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, Cantiamo!, the Cabrillo Chorale, and the Cabrillo Youth Chorus.  It is an ambitious work for a community group to take on and I admire these musicians’ courage.  Britten’s message of peace, grief, and the joy found in human connection shall never go out of style and is welcome in every community.  Strong music like Britten’s has a way of cutting through our confusion and laying bare what is in our hearts.  It has not been explained to me, for instance, why a bomb that kills three people is a terrorist weapon of mass destruction but a high-powered rifle that kills twenty children and six adults is a personal possession that is protected by the Second Amendment.  Music like the War Requiem helps us get past the political obfuscations of our time to the deeper, more painful, more tender truth, which is that every life matters.

The Enso Quartet performs Mozart, Britten and Beethoven at Sunset Center, in Carmel, Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m.  For information call 625-2212 or visit the Chamber Music Monterey Bay website.  There will be a free pre-concert lecture at 7:00 p.m.

Ensemble Monterey presents Britten’s War Requiem, Saturday, April 27, at Sunset Center, in Carmel, at 8:00 p.m.  For tickets or information call 333-1283 or visit Ensemble Monterey’s website.