From the Book of Life to the Book of Lewis: Richard Lewis Returns to Philadelphia

This article is a sequel to a piece written by the author for The Philadelphia Jewish Voice in 2016.

After we have so recently been inscribed in the Book of Life during the High Holidays, some choice laughs are definitely in order. Fortunately, for the Philadelphia Jewish community, Richard Lewis is returning to Philadelphia, to perform his comedy, October 19 – 21, at the Helium Comedy Club. [Read more…]

A Tale of Two Readings: Lisa Grunberger to Read From Her Work

Philadelphia’s arts and culture life is, to use Ernest Hemingway’s felicitous phrase, “a moveable feast.” Writer and award-winning poet Lisa Grunberger has contributed to this life of art and culture since she moved to Philadelphia nine years ago.

Lisa Grunberger

Lisa Grunberger

Grunberger, the Arts & Culture editor of The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, is an assistant professor of English at Temple University. She has published two books: the poetry collection Born Knowing, and the modern Jewish folktale Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position. Grunberger will be presenting her works in Philadelphia at both a poetry reading (October 8) and a book reading (October 15). [Read more…]

Theater Review: ‘The Christians’ Has Little More Than Atmosphere

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Erika LaVonn and Paul Deboy in “The Christians.”

Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” directed by Timothy Bond, is a juvenile undramatic portrait of a mega church and its Pastor. Playing at the Wilma Theatre through May 29th, the play tells the story of Pastor Paul, the founder of a successful super church who delivers a sermon (perhaps not incidentally on the day the church, after 10 years, is debt-free) wherein he changes his theological belief on the existence of hell.

After telling a story about a young boy, not a Christian, who heroically saves his own sister by running into a burning building, Pastor Paul concludes from this parable, that this boy will live on in heaven. Hell, Pastor Paul teaches, from the original Greek, is a dumping ground, not an actual place of eternal damnation.

This sermon, delivered by actor Paul Deboy, to his chorus, his congregants (the audience), his wife, (Erika LaVonn) and assistant Pastor Joshua (Delance Minefee), catalyzes his downfall as church membership declines and Pastor Joshua starts his own successful church. The rest of the play vaguely explores this theological controversy in a decidedly dilettantish manner, throwing around biblical verses in a cursory way that does not reflect deeply on the issues Hnath raises.

During the play’s opening sequence, the audience is entertained by a chorus of 19 singers (all local Philadelphians under the direction of Michael Keck) who sing evangelical songs (indeed I saw one audience member sing along clearly comforted by the play so far) with lyrics such as “build your hopes on things eternal/hold his hand, God’s unchanging hand.” The set, artfully designed by Matt Saunders, reproduces the super church environment.

But Hnath’s investigation of the theological concepts of hell, heaven, belief and faith fall short, lacking much substance. There is little, if any genuine drama in the play – Pastor Paul knows exactly what he wants and seems fearless and even arrogant in his manner. His tone and voice are reminiscent of Garrison Keillor from the Lake Wobegon live radio show – a preternaturally calm tone with a sing-songy cadence that does not suggest any struggle with his new belief on sin and the after-life. Pastor Paul seems almost too sure of his theological beliefs and feels talk-show-hosty and condescending to his parishioners.

Hnath too easily settles for a high concept to the detriment of much substance in this undramatic portrayal of a minister and his church. When his wife leaves him at the end of the play, because she does indeed believe in hell and finds his beliefs anathema, there is no pathos, the characters remain hollow, not even rising to the level of ideological talking heads.

The play is more often than not manipulative in its use of music and religion and relies too heavily on them to achieve some higher emotional effect. Nothing seems to be at stake for Pastor Paul who seems at peace in his newfound theological convictions, willing to pay the price (his church, his family) for his beliefs. When he repeats the line “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable,” it sounds more like an advertising slogan or something easily blurbed by a reviewer than a deeply felt piece of writing.

“The Christians” is playing now through May 29 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street. Tickets are between $10 and $25. Information: 215-546-7824.

“Peter Rabbit Tales” Live in Philadelphia

IMG_7150_bannerHe is not as clever as Curious George, he is not besotted by honey like Winnie-the-Pooh, but like them both he is one of English children’s literature’s beloved characters. He is, of course, Peter Rabbit, wearing his famous blue housecoat. And he is on stage at the Arts Bank Theater thru January 3, 2016. , where the Enchantment Theatre Company website , in collaboration with Frederick Warne & Co. and Penguin Books UK, is performing the authorized theatrical version of Peter Rabbit Tales.

‘Tis the season to get acquainted with a now grown-up Peter Rabbit and his cousin Benjamin Bunny, as they escape from incensed Mr. McGregor, outfox the fox Mr. Tod and rescue the Flopsy Bunnies from conniving badger, Tommy Brock. When Benjamin’s children are bunny-napped by the devious (and very hungry!) Tommy Brock, Benjamin pleads with his cousin Peter to help him save the bunnies from becoming Tommy Brock’s gourmet dinner.

But, at first, Peter thinks he has had quite enough of danger and adventure, remembering his (and his blue coat’s) near escapes from Mr. McGregor’s irresistible vegetable garden. Then the two cousins relive their past exploits, and, with encouragement from their friends and neighbors–Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-duck and Mrs. Tittlemouse, Peter is emboldened to venture on one more quest. Peter discovers he still has some hero in him—call it a little of Odysseus’s cunning, a little of Don Quixote’s chutzpah, and so, of course, he does go to the rescue.

Peter Rabbit discovers his courage by saving the Flopsy Bunnies

Peter Rabbit discovers his courage by saving the Flopsy Bunnies

This Enchantment Theatre production is in celebration of Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday. It uses a story-within-a-story approach and combines several of her stories with excellent and entertaining results. Intricately crafted masks, puppets, and scenery, all lovingly evocative of the original book illustrations, along with original music, combine to stimulate and satisfy the imaginations of children and adults alike.

Amidst the dubious proliferation of classic children’s literature made into formulaic movies and TV series, the Enchantment Theatre’s more literary, and intimate, personally crafted form of storytelling is a worthy companion to the original storybooks. This theatrical imagining and telling, with its love of and emphasis on Beatrix Potter’s words, is sure to entice children and adults to read, or to go back and re-read, the original storybooks. And, who knows, maybe to even act them out together.

Visit the Enchantment Theatre Company website for information about tickets and performance times.

The Big Apple Circus Grand Tour is Not to be Missed

bigapplecircus2010mar074The Big Apple Circus, founded in 1976 innovates within several distinct, but interrelated, circus traditions: the classic European one-ring circus, the legacy and influence of the Pickles Family Circus (itself related to the work of the San Francisco Mime Troupe), and some versions of the American travelling circus.

Each year, a new, different show; each year, audiences are given a kind of “grand tour” of what is state of the art in circus artistry by master performers in their métier from around the world. And all of it, in one, intimate ring, beneath a tent that feels like the private performance pavilion of King Solomon’s palace, wherein, without exaggeration, every seat is a great seat.

This year’s show, The Grand Tour, evokes “the roaring 20’s” and references the traditional tour of Europe formerly taken mainly by the upper class. But this is “The People’s” Grand Tour, one that knows no distinction of class, because it is made with an imagination that is universal and for all; of course, because it is taken in the company of clowns.

The Grand Tour is playing through January 10, 2016, at Lincoln Center Plaza in New York City. The show runs 1 hour and 50 minutes including a 20-minute intermission.

The show’s narrative tableau happens in a setting of ships, trains, automobiles, and airplanes; in this setting, the acts are performed to accompaniment by the seven-piece Big Apple Circus Band playing music composed especially for the show. The show features:

  • hula hooper Chiara Anastasini (ninth-generation circus artist from Italy),
  • juggler Alexander Koblikov (internationally recognized for his innovative work; this is his first appearance in the United States),
  • the acrobat “Energy Trio” (from China’s famous Flag Circus),
  • “Wheel of Wonder” artists, the Dominguez Brothers,
  • the Zuma Zuma African Acrobats,
  • the Dosov Troupe (teeterboard), and,
  • from Moscow, Sergei Akimov (specialist of the aerial straps).

The Grand Tour achieves its particular coherence and fluidity, in performance, due to its writing and direction, in concert with the tasteful simplicity and elegance of the costumes, and with the sound design. This coherence is due, as well, to the fact that Joel Jeske, the show’s writer and creator (also one its two clowns), and Mark Lonergan, the show’s director, along with Brent McBeth (the other clown), all work closely together as members of the physical comedy troupe . In collaboration, these three give the whole show a clown’s point of view.

Speaking of a clown’s point of view, it is said that Beroka Hoza’ah, one of the characters in the Talmud, was told by Elijah the Prophet that clowns have a choice portion in “the world to come” Why? “Because they make people laugh.” And, to paraphrase a maxim of Jewish tradition, the world is sustained by the laughter and joy of children at the circus.

Israeli Jazz Mixes Tradition and Chutzpah

Saxophonist, composer, and band leader Wayne Shorter once said, “Jazz means: do you have the guts to do it?”

What is “it”? Maybe the chutzpah not to be confined, constrained by conventions, or maybe to innovate in the guise of convention. Or maybe again, to have the good taste to play with style, but to have the even better taste to play beyond or against formal “good style.” [Read more…]

Israeli-Born Trombone Artist to Perform on Franklin Parkway

rtimeReut Regev has owned and made music with her trombone since she was 13 years old, when her parents gifted it to her.

Regev will perform with the R*Time trio Friday, August 8, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia (free after admission). The concert is a co-presentation of the Museum of Art’s “Art After Five” series and JazzPhest, sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.

The concert will be performed in two sets: 5:45-6:45 p.m. and 7:15-8:15 p.m.
[Read more…]

They’re Singing Midrash (But Not For Me)

At least there is the music, I tell myself.  Despite all of Christianity’s distortions and extreme misappropriations of Jewish concepts and traditions of mashiach (“messiah) — and we know with what often murderous consequences for Jews and Judaism, there is still (some of) the music inspired by the midrash. For, yes, Virginia, the ‘Story of the Birth of Jesus’ is a kind of midrash — certainly composed in midrashic style, its narrative components selected from the Torah and Nevi’im.
[Read more…]