Potpourri #3 for 2012 (12 cents)

Books:

The most interesting book I read is “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal. Highly recommended, de Waal, English potter, traces his family back through almost two centuries. His father’s mother, Elizabeth, was an Ephrussi. This name may mean as little to you as it did to me, but the Ephrussi family was one of Europe’s wealthiest Jewish families until the family and it’s wealth was destroyed during the Second World War. The earliest traced Ephrussi ancestor was born in Berdichev, one of the largest majority Jewish cities in the Russian pale of settlement, now in the Ukraine. He left Berdichev for Odessa, where he established what became the city’s largest grain shipping business, and his children (like the children of the original Rothschild) were sent to various parts of Europe to represent the company. They expanded the family business well beyond grain shipping, and into banking and other financial activities, eventually become major players amongst the many rich and highly cultivated Jewish families in such places as Paris and, especially Vienna.

The book traces the family’s history through a unique prism, by tracing a collection of over 200 Japanese netsuke, small sculpted pieces, including a hare with amber eyes, originally given to one of the Paris Ephrussis as a wedding present, coming into the possession of the very wealthy Viennese Ephrussis who lived in one of the largest homes on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, then to the author’s uncle, a man who never married and spent most of his career in Japan, and finally, through a gift of his uncle’s long time partner after his uncle’s death, to the author.

A fascinating family story, and an equally fascinating (and tragic) social history. As I said, highly recommended.

I read two other books, as well. The first, called “Address Unknown”, by Katherine Kressmann Taylor is a short book (hardly longer than a longish short story) in letter form, originally published in 1938. The letters are between two old friends and business partners, both German (one Jewish/one Gentile), who have moved their gallery from Germany to the United States. The gentile German decides to move back to Germany in the 1930s, at the time, of course, when the Nazis take over the country, and becomes colder and colder to his Jewish good friend and partner until he stops answering his letters altogether. As a literary work, I didn’t think that much of the book, and from the perspective of 2012, there wasn’t much new in it. In 1938, when first published, however, this series of fictional letters was more unique and quite prescient. Interesting to know that it existed (and was widely read and discussed); not that interesting to read it today (but it takes very little time to do so).

The other book, even less read today, is called “Serving Lithuania” by a Lithuanian/American named J.K. Valiunas. Valiunas, a refugee who was very successful in his American business career, became a leader of the Lithuanian movement in the United States (and to some extent world wide) during the period following World War II, when Lithuania was a constituent republic within the USSR (prior to regaining independence in the early 1990s). The book was privately printed, and therefore not widely circulated. The first part of the book provides a narrative history of Lithuania and the Lithuanian people from the conversion to Christianity, through their ties with Poland and, after the Polish partitions, with Russia, the tragedy of the First World War, the twenty year life of the inter-war independent Lithuanian state (which included its difficulties with Russia over sovereignty over Vilnius, and with Germany over the city now called Klaipeda and then called Memel), and the unthinkable tragedies of the Second World War and early Soviet occupation. I thought this section to be extremely clear and well written. The remainder of the book, about the attempts to keep the Lithuanian diaspora focused on the country’s eventual freedom, was less interesting to me, but would be of obvious interest to those for whom that movement was important. I no longer have my copy of this book; it is winging its way to Lithuania as I write.

Theater:

I really enjoyed the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”. Shakespeare’s earliest surviving play (I believe), the plot line here is rather thin. Boy loves girl and girl loves boy. Boy’s best friend meets another girl – other boy loves other girl, and other girl loves other boy. But boy meets other girl and loves other girl, consigning original girl to his past. But other girl still loves other boy, and doesn’t love boy, and original girl still loves boy. Mix this up with various family issues on all sides, and the decision by original boy to do whatever he can, at whatever cost to other boy and original girl, to win other girl, and you get a quite silly mess which, because this is a comedy after all, all gets resolved lickety split, where suddenly boy and girl get back together, other boy and other girl remain in love, and even the family issues disappear. Silly plot, but boy did this guy Shakespeare have a way with words, and this performance in wonderfully acted and timed, accompanied by a lot of music, and set in a timeless period, much later than the 16th century, but a period so timeless and a location to hard to locate that it is no stretch to imagine yourself in Verona and Milan.

Tomorrow night, we are going to see the rock opera based on Two Gentlemen of Verona, written by the composer who wrote the music for Hair. This is being performed for three days only.

Keeping to Shakespeare, we also saw a Commedia del Arte version of Romeo and Juliet, put on by the faction of fools theater company, an 80 minute abridgement of the play that holds onto everything important but plays it very physically and over the top for laughs. Not quite tragic, this failed romance. Basically, just a lot of fun.

We also saw The Religion Thing a Theater J, a story of two youngish couples, and how religion influences (and perhaps destroys) their relationships. One couple of Jewish boy/Catholic girl, who through the years of their marriage have gone out of their way to avoid talking about religion and (and this appears connected) avoid having children. The second couple (the women are old friends) are recently married; neither is Jewish, and both are “born again”, having met in their church and being determined to lead Christian lives, only to have their pasts catch up with them.

For the first act, I was with the play, but it lost me in the second act, when the reality scenes and dialogue were interrupted by several dream scenes (night time visits from the Jewish man’s grandfather; visions of another love interrupting the love scenes of the born again couple). I think local playwright Renee Colarco could have a very successful play on her hands, if she would rewrite the second act to eliminate the dreams, but……why should she listen to me (or to some other reviewers who have basically said the same thing)?

As a part of Theater J’s festival featuring local playwrights, we also attended a staged reading of Stephen Spotswood’s “Cold November Light” (dramaturged by daughter Hannah). A two person play – an impetuous artist who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and his model, who is paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a benign spinal tumor. It’s funny and touching, and opens up issues not often shown on stage. This is a work in process – I wish it the best.

Concert:

Only one to report. One of the Wednesday Happenings at Harman, the free lunchtime program run by the Shakespeare Theatre. A beautiful rendition of Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano, performed by Chelsey Green and Li-Tan Hsu. The piece, written in 1919, based on Asian inspirations, is highly complex. Appreciation of the piece was expanded by Ms. Green’s pre-performance explanations (although they did go on a little long). The musicians did a first class job – they are young and still learning. Their future should be bright.

Museum:

It’s a slow period at the National Gallery, with big shows closing and new shows in preparation. But a new exhibit of drawings by Picasso has just opened. Three rooms, perhaps 75 or so drawings, covering only the first half of his career. Do you want to see what he was drawing at age 9 (Hercules) or age 11 (bull fighting) or his portrait of his artist-father when he was a young teenager. You can see his hometown Spanish influences, and what he was sketching when he moved to Paris after the turn of the century. You can see the beginning of his classical period, and equally how he moved into cubism. Well signed, everything well spaced and displayed. I recommend you see it.

I also saw the photography exhibition of Harry Callahan for the second time. Photos that are designed as works of art, photos of his wife, black and white photos of the people of Detroit and Chicago, later beautiful color photos of scenes (largely architectural) of his trips to Portugal, and Hong Kong, as well as various American cities. Right next to the Picasso exhibit, not to be passed by.

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