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Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Real Story of Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr.

                                            Stay Tuned: The 'Real' story of Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr.

   The media’s embrace of the plight of a homeless ex Marine EMT firefighter from North Carolina
who struck public relations pay dirt when he came to the aid of a driver who ran out of gas near his I-95
exit panhandling station had all the elements of a Walt Disney After School Special. Pretty girl runs out of gas, attempts to leave her vehicle after sunset in an area as bleak as it is dark; sees a shadowy figure emerge in front of her. Is it an alien from Whitely Strieber’s Communion? No, it’s Johnny S. Bobbitt, Jr. a transplant to Philadelphia some 10 months ago who wound up homeless on the streets of the city through a series of “bad choices.”

     The “bad choices” part is what the media has chosen to ignore now that the full story of this nocturnal meeting has gone viral.

   Most people are probably unaware that the 95 exist ramp near Richmond Street where Johnny met the woman Kate was a relatively new panhandling spot for Johnny.  A few months prior to the meeting Johnny was stationed outside the Dollar Tree store in the Port Richmond Shopping Center. He would sit like yogi-like on a slat of cardboard near the entrance way of the store so that shoppers had a good view of him. A sign propped up beside him read: Homeless ex-Vet trying to go home, anything helps. He would change the sign periodically, as most homeless do. Upgrading your sign is essential if you want to grab the attention of the public.

    Johnny’s method of asking for money in front of Dollar Tree was never intrusive. He often had his nose in a book and only rarely looked at people entering the store. There’d usually be a small stack of books beside him as well as a large plastic WAWA cup for donations. The fact that he was reading books stood out. When other homeless people sit on the ground they usually stare into space. During Johnny’s Dollar Tree days about a year ago, other homeless would stand outside stores like WAWA where they would make it a point to hold open the doors for customers. Some of the homeless asked for money outright but aggressive asking often got many of the homeless banned from various businesses.  The fact that Johnny never asked for money outright but seemed earnestly engrossed in his books sparked the interest of many people, myself included.

  Many Dollar Tree customers engaged Johnny in conversation and wound up asking him the same questions: How did you wind up homeless? Johnny’s story was that he came to Philadelphia to start a job but then the job fell through and because of that he was not able to rent an apartment.

   But if Johnny’s homelessness was just a matter of a job falling through, why didn’t he return to North Carolina? There had to be another reason for his homelessness, and of course there was.   

    Some background information: Most heroin addicts lie about their addiction. This is especially the case when you first meet them. I’ve talked to many homeless men in the Riverwards and very few of them will tell you upfront that they are panhandling for drug money. Ask them how they became homeless and the vast majority will blame it on everything but drugs: the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, getting kicked out of their homes by upset parents. When they do mention drugs they will often mention prescription drugs. A heroin confession usually comes later after a bit of probing by the questioner. While Johnny never admitted that he was a heroin addict (we would argue about that later), he did tell me that when he came to Philadelphia he was on prescription meds for depression but when he was unable to renew his prescription, he was forced to buy drugs on the street.  

                                  To be continued...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

ICON Magazine City Theater December 2017

Barrymore Awards. Whether it’s the Academy Awards or Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards, the adulation that actors receive can sometimes rival 4th of July fireworks. At this year’s Barrymores the Award for Outstanding Production of a Play went to Ego Po’s The Seagull. Jered McLenigan won Best Lead Actor in The Wilma’sConstellations. The Wilma’s Blanka Zizka walked away with Best Director award for When the Rain Stops Falling. Winner for Outstanding New play went to Will Snider’s How to Use a Knife (InterAct Theatre Company), an extraordinary gem directed by Seth Rozin. Outstanding Leading Actress Award went to Patrese D. McCain of People’s Light in Malvern for Mountaintop. Unfortunately Malvern’s twenty plus miles distance from Center City kept McCain’s talents hidden from city theater goers.

 Blood Wedding. Famed Hungarian director-choreographer Csaba Horvath transformed Frederico Lorca’s seminal work into a hybrid mix of dance, poetry and hypnotic mantra making. A weak willed bride (Sarah Gliko) is conned into leaving her marriage celebration by a former lover, Leonardo (Lindsay Smiling), a sexy man without a future. Harsh reality intrudes when Leonardo kills the groom (Jered McLenigan) in a madcap fight. Lorca’s prose poetry isn’t easily translated into English so the beginning of the play was more an alphabet soup of poetic phrases than anything resembling narrative. Horvath’s choreography had its beautiful moments, such as when the cast picked up sections of the floor and used them as shrouds or cloaks, suggesting a human metamorphosis into mushrooms. But watching these same dancer-actors form human pyramids to scale a giant on-stage wall seemed more like a distraction. Acrobatics as dialogue may work for BalletX, but it rarely takes the place of language when the idea is to tell a story. 

Broken Stones. Playwright Fin Kennedy is a noted teacher of playwriting in London’s East End. He also writes plays for young adults and children. In this play Kennedy seems lost between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. Rand Guerrero plays Ramirez/Romano, an Iraq war vet who’s Marine Company was involved in the looting of antiquities from an Iraq museum. A writer (Charlotte Northeast) convinces Romano to tell his story. The result is a best selling book and war hero status for Romano. But here the story devolves quickly. Did the theft really happen? Did Romano really lose his wife on 9/11 in one of the Twin Towers? Is his story about the antiquities theft really real? The only certain thing here is the fact that The Writer plays God while flaunting her ability top reinvent Romano or even erase him from the script altogether. During the post-play talk-back, director Seth Rozin confessed that he had initial concerns that Kennedy pulled the rug out from the audience too many times. Rozin was right: Kennedy wiped out the play with too many rugs.

See and be Scene.. PTC Producing Artistic Director Paige Price moderated a preview of possible new plays to be staged at the Suzanne Roberts Theater. Choices included R. Eric Thomas’ The Folks at Home, an interracial political comedy; The Anatomy of Love by Ted Malawer, a story about the gender transition of a couple’s toddler daughter; If I Forget by Steven Levenson, about the life and times of a Jewish Studies Professor; A Small Fire by Adam Block, about illness and unconditional love. What struck me about all these offerings was the preponderance of female themes. Does this mean that male themes and stories about men have been relegated to the back of the bus at PTC?


The Craftsman. Playwright Bruce Graham scores another hit with this Lantern Theater Company Production which takes place immediately after WWII when the Dutch Provisional Government in Amsterdam becomes as power hungry as the Nazi siege that it succeeded. Anthony Lawton excels as the artist Han van Meegeren who goes on trial for suspected treason and collaboration with the Germans. Directed by M. Craig Getting, the play is a triumphal study of hatred and the hazy boundary between revenge and forgiveness. A fascinating two hours and fifteen minutes. (Till December 10).  





Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Unpleasant Coffee with Sister Vassa

I've decided to title this entry, 'My Unpleasant Coffee with Sister Vassa.' Why such a title? I'll get to that in a minute. First let me say that I've always felt admiration for Sister Vassa, mostly because of her earlier Coffee with Sister Vassa YouTube shows, which are usually taped in Vienna, Austria, where I visited once several years ago (and loved). As an Orthodox Christian (from Roman Catholic) I jumped at the chance to hear a lecture by Sister Vassa at a local Orthodox Philadelphia parish. But shortly after the lecture began I felt a growing sense of disappointment. I found Sister Vassa a little too sassy and snarky and too much 'in love' with her own celebrity.

 I even detected more than a flair of arrogance in her, especially when I asked a question during the post lecture Q and A. My question that had to do with the growth of Islam in western Europe. I wanted her unique perspective as an Orthodox nun but what I got was a cryptic wink and a nod. Then she told a joke which seemed to suggest that I had committed a small offense by asking such a question. I approached Sister Vassa at the reception after her talk and asked why she had answered my question in such a strange, hostile manner. Fortunately, she was slightly more agreeable (reception food and drink work wonders), or at least her snarkiness was gone. Then she mentioned something about having to "be careful about saying certain things" in public and at that moment I thought, "Oh, it's all about perceived Islamophobia, EU rules and so called 'hate' crimes." She lives in Vienna, after all.

In late November 2017, I spotted a Facebook post of hers in which she appeared without her religious habit. Apparently she was in Boston for a liturgical/theological conference of some sort (in conjunction with the respected Eastern Catholic Jesuit priest, Fr, Robert Taft). The Facebook photo showed Sister Vassa in long flowing locks looking very much like a sexy coed holding a purple umbrella in the rain. The photo's caption read something like this:, "Here I am in my civies." What's this, I thought, a Novus Ordo Russian Orthodox nun? I know that many Catholic nuns have gone the way of all flesh and now dress in skirts, hoop earrings and makeup, and I said as much on Sister's Facebook page and even took it a step further when I said, "What's next for you, dating?" I was just returning snarky for snarky, after all. Then I suggested that perhaps she was walking around in public in her "civies" because she was hanging out with a Jesuit. Later, to my dismay (but not complete surprise), Sister Vassa 'unfriended' me on Facebook. I am now no longer on her coffee train and will have to take my brew with priests who don't take 'selfies' under purple umbrellas.
  I came upon a wonderful paragraph about Sister Vassa in the Saint Euphrosynos Cafe Discussion Forum:

 "Whereas, despite Sister Vassa's attempt to post uncontroversial themes, her emphasis is entirely upon herself ! This should tipoff everyone that she is not a fit leader for a 'ministry'. There are too many sociopaths and narcissists already in various Protestant, evangelical and other 'ministries' who are using the adulation of the congregation to do much harm to the souls of their flocks. It has almost become commonplace to find out that so and so preacher or popular local minister has actually been living an undercover life of darkness all the while the pastor was loudly proclaiming his belief with thundering preaching."

 Oh my! Perhaps that quote is a bit extreme, but it's my prediction that Sister Vassa's journey into the mesh of Novus Ordo is far from over. 
My new book, publication date March 19, 2018. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

guest blogger


George E. Thomas’s Book First Modern Extols PAFA’s Architectural Importance:  A Review  

  (By) Marita Krivda Poxon

George E. Thomas has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for over thirty years in the Historic Preservation Program. Since 2002 he commutes from Philadelphia to Harvard University where he also lectures in architecture. His title at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is Co-Director of Critical Conservation Program.  He refuses to move to Cambridge since he has not been a fan of the derivative colonial housing stock nearby Harvard’s campus. Since he was a young historian he has loved Philadelphia and has been the number one champion of Frank Furness. He even lives in a Frank Furness carriage house in Chestnut Hill. 

The buildings of Frank Furness are his passion ever since he rolled up his sleeves to spearhead the amazing restoration of PAFA during the Bicentennial.   He advised architects on every inch of the building’s restoration to make whole again the glories of its basic bones.  Years of work were spent in the study of surviving original architectural drawings and historic photographs of the building. 

                  PAFA Exterior 

                                                                                 (F. Gutekunst’s photo of PAFA in 1876)

Thomas is also a prolific, fine writer whose books include: William L. Price: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Design (2000) and Building America’s First University:  An Architectural and Historical Guides to the University of Pennsylvania (2000) and many others.  In 1990 Thomas along with Bryn Mawr College’s Jeffrey A. Cohen wrote Frank Furness: The Complete Works. This book documents over 640 buildings that Furness designed that continue to inspire what today is called the Philadelphia School of Architecture.

George E. Thomas’s new book is: First Modern: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA Distributed by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). No other architectural historian could have written the book just published with such obvious love of and appreciation for Frank Furness as Thomas. In the book’s Foreword, David Brigham, PAFA’s President and CEO praises the author since his book will enable its readers “to understand the innovative nature of the building and appreciate its value today at the heart of PAFA’s mission.” Also its publication serves as a lynchpin in the current Capital Campaign for the 21st Century preservation of the Furness masterpiece. 

  What makes the PAFA building the first modern is the way Furness connected his design to the machine culture that took over Philadelphia during its 19th Century industrial expansion.   Mechanics, industrialists and inventors thrived in Philadelphia. It was the leader in global innovation with businesses like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baldwin Locomotive Works.   The impact of the city’s industrial growth extended into all areas as engineers and inventors served on the boards of cultural centers like PAFA. Many members of the 1870 PAFA Board came from this industrial culture.  They selected Furness and his partner Hewitt to construct a new museum which would use iron and steel as they themselves had used in building their own commercial enterprises.  The Board wanted to create an industrial caliber “capacious fire-proof” art museum and school. The chapters on the intrigue and battle among these board members to select Furness & Hewitt as competition winner are riveting.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was important to Frank Furness.  At an early age, he learned about Emerson’s forward thinking, American-centered philosophy from his father, the Reverend William Henry Furness who was the head of the city’s First Unitarian Church.  Emerson called for Americans “to represent in their culture the opportunities of their own time.” This Emersonian emphasis on the future not the past dominated Furness throughout his life.

              PAFA Trusses

The new technologies that make PAFA modern include: the use of iron beams to span smaller interior rooms as well as wider interior galleries. The use of steel trusses on the Cherry Street exterior fa├žade and above the long gallery was revolutionary.  Building materials of the industrial age were exposed and visible including iron columns that carried wrought-iron beams.  Massive steel girders with exposed rivets span the auditorium. Modern industrial machinery created the floral and linear ornament on the stone work of the main entrance hallway.  Industrial iron beams and steel columns - truly modern!

Thomas includes stunning old and new photographs.  Those from PAFA’s archives are amazing since they bring the reader back to another century. The modern photographs highlight the continued integrity of Furness’s structure.  The book itself is a treasure through its visually stunning pictorial representations and its splendid organization.  Kudos to the author for writing a book whose meticulous scholarship proves, celebrates and christens PAFA as “the first modern” building in the world.

  My Tonsure as a Reader in the Russian Orthodox Church at Saint Michael the Archangel Church in Philadelphia. With Bishop John before the start of the Hierarchial Divine Liturgy. The full occasion was the celebration of Fr. Vincent 41 years as pastor of the parish. Sunday, November 12, 2017.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ICON Magazine Theater Reviews

ICON Theater Sept. 2017
Tommy and Me. This football sports play by former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ray Didinger played to packed audiences at the Fringe Arts Building on Columbus Blvd. Theatre Exile’s production about Philadelphia Eagles legend Tommy McDonald and Didinger’s long struggle to get McDonald into the NFL Football Hall of Fame brightened up a ‘theater-zero’ August. Tommy and Me audiences applauded wildly as if the Fringe Arts stage had been transformed into Franklin Field. Directed by Joe Canuso with script input by playwright Bruce Graham (Minor Demons, Coyote on a Fence, Desperate Affections), Didinger’s play captured McDonald’s (Tom Teti) elfin quirks. Ned Pryce as Young Tommy (in football gear) had the right macho ambience, and Matt Pfeiffer was believable as the ‘always sensible, eternally patient Didinger who never lost faith in his childhood sports hero. Seventh grader Simon Kiley as the young Didinger—children don’t always come across well on stage—had a maturity that made you forget that he was a child except when he leapt into the air to give or return a ‘high five.’ The post-play panel discussion erupted into howls of laughter when the moderator told an inordinate number of politically incorrect jokes. One was a monologue on midgets and how their small hands and feet evokes images of Philly sports legend, Howard Eskin, who stands at 5’4”.  
Fishtown – A Hipster Noir.  Do hipsters consume ‘cool,’ rather than create it, as one writer quipped. Here we have obscure music, a blinding blast of social media, stuffed ‘turkey’ backpacks, detached discontent and pumpkin spice lattes. Tribe of Fools presents this virtual reality conspiracy when “a new app allows you to live out your wildest fantasies.” The play’s pop up question is: What really constitutes reality?  Director Peter Smith says, "We wanted to tell a story about social media and how statuses, tweets and photos make the internet a stage for the world to see us; but you can't tell the story of tech and social media without grappling with Sexism.” You be the judge. Caitlin Weigel’s play is a Fringe Festival offering at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, Sept. 8-23.
Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes. Diner en le blanc meets Cirque du Soleil at the Painted Bride Arts Center when weirdo acrobats dressed all in white sit on a sofa and attempt to be “exceptional in every moment.” Sometimes the forced comedy of slapstick and barb trading can loose the most attentive observer. I hope that’s not the case with these zany couch potatoes when they sit and fantasize about sailing on the high seas. Don’t forget to bring Dramamine. Presented by the Almanac Dance Circus Theater and directed by Annie Wilson, Sept. 6-23.  
The Bald Soprano.  Called an anti-play, this Eugene Ionesco work was first produced in 1950. Unlike Ionesco’s Exit the King, this absurdist work does not call for humans to put off lusts and desires in order to be free. What it does do is begin all over again as soon as it ends, making one think of the endless circles of Ravel’s Bolero. It’s a conversation between two couples, a maid and the maid’s fire chief lover. Ionesco wrote the play when he was leaning English. In the best tradition of the French Avant-garde, it’s full of non-sequiturs and mutilated aphorisms. Ionesco hated strict realism in theatre (he had a special contempt for Berdolt Brecht). The production stars Tina Brock, co-founder/Producing Artistic Director of The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Sept. 5-25, Bethany Mission Gallery, 1527 Brandywine Street, 215-285-0472) 
Cabaret. The stage of the Arden Theater will be transformed into Berlin’s notorious Kit Kat Club that novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote about in his 1945 book, Goodbye to Berlin. The 1972 film, described as “gay and gender bending,” starred Michael York as the bisexual Brian Roberts who has an affair with Sally Bowles while dating men on the side.  How will the Arden ever duplicate Joel Grey’s majestic performance while wearing a corset, fishnets and stiletto heels? Directed by Matthew Decker and written by Joe Masteroff, Cabaret will usher in the Arden’s 30thanniversary season.  Sept. 21-Oct. 22.    

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Icon Theater August 2017

                                      ICON THEATER AUGUST 2017

Saturday Night Fever.  When this musical drama hit the big screen in 1977 audiences were mesmerized by John Travolta’s dance moves. The Bee Gees soundtrack went on to become the best selling soundtrack of all time. This Walnut Street Theater production starring Jacob Tischler as Tony Manero, a Brooklyn teen in a dead end job with a talent for disco dancing, has packed the house since May.

 The dancing is as good as anything you might see at BalletX.  Tischler, like Travolta, glides across the stage like an undulating rubber man on crack, spinning out moves with Annette (Nicole Colon) while simultaneously holding her romantic overtures at bay. Enter sultry Stephanie Mangano (Alexandra Matteo), hard to get and even harder to please but with Tony’s persistence (and wiggles), who can resist? Annette’s whinny clamor for Tony’s attention is the blueprint for the death of one of Tony’s friends on the Brooklyn Bridge even if the tragedy is blithely danced away. Richard Stafford is responsible for the engaging and beautiful choreography. It’s no wonder that SNF was designated “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.

The Humans. The Walnut’s 2017-18 season will include Stephen Karam’s Tony Award winning play about family tensions over the Thanksgiving holiday. Originally an off Broadway production, The Humans went on to win six Tonys. Walnut President and Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard announced that the Walnut is the first theater to acquire the rights to produce this play.

 BalletX, Summer Series.  In the first dance piece, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s, Castrati, presents elongated human forms reminiscent of the alien beings in Whitely Strieber’s Communion. The dancers portray the last seven living castrati in the 16th-18th centuries.

Ochoa has the dancers move in such a way that we can actually feel the castrati’s pain of being locked in a genderless world despite their beautiful voices.   Castrati was easily the best segment of the production. In the second set, Matthew Neenan’s Let Mortal Tongues Awake, explores the relationship of individuals to authority through militarized movements of ‘The Citizen’ as dancer. The Kraftwork- style soundtrack evolves into patriotic songs as the dancers, in ironic opposition to the lyrics, appear with tape over their mouths, a not so subtle reference to imprisoned or silenced citizens in a fascist state.  The subliminal reference to Trump’s America is obvious although this reviewer saw it more as the face of fascism in the academic world where the silencing of Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter has become common. BalletX is now off to the Breckenridge Music Festival in Breckenridge, Colorado and then the International Dance Festival in Vail, Colorado.       

Tommy and Me. The world premier of sportswriter Ray Didinger’s autobiographical account of his push to have his football player boyhood hero, Tommy McDonald, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Certain to be the chief draw of Fringe Arts 2017. The play was read to a sold out audience at Plays and Players in 2015. Didinger, the author of 11 books, excavated the myth of “the dumb football player” on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2014.

 Playpenn, new play development 2017. Here’s where true theater lovers gather. Free and open to the public the scripts of six new plays were read in July: Terence Anthony’s The House of the Negro Insane; Brent Askari’s Hard Cell; Christine Evans’, Galilee; C.A. Johnson’s Thirst; Carter W. Lewis’ With and Jonathan Norton’s Penny Candy. The Conference included an online workshop with playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger and a class called Writing the Issue-Based Play (IBP). Playpenn’s Artistic Director, Paul Meshejian, wrote: “PlayPenn was founded because of what I considered a paucity of new play production in Philadelphia. The impulse was a local one. Since our founding, and by no means only because of PlayPenn, Philadelphia has experienced an explosion in the production of new work. That PlayPenn has supported work that has gone on to have a more prolific national presence is a welcome added benefit. “  

ICON Theater July 2017


  The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy. Theology in five easy
pieces is the subject of this comedy by Scott Carter, which means a lot of back and forth about religion and
 Jesus Christ. These three willful men from history, stuck in a room in the after life
 (like the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit), have all written their own version of the New Testament minus
the “superstitious parts” they’ve rejected. 

They argue with one another but nobody emerges as winner of the debate.
 Carter’s script has the snappy, irreverence of his work as writer for
 Real Time with Bill Maher. Andrew Criss as Tolstoy is powerful and peasant-like while Gregory Issac lends
 the right ‘aristocratic touch’ to his portrayal of Jefferson. Brian McCann as Charles Dickens has
 the zany wild writer thing down pat so that Dickens comes across as the most contemporary-seeming
 man on stage. Unfortunately the play ends with a

preachy condemnation of Jefferson’s having owned slaves while “hypocritically” writing so eloquently
 about human rights and equality. Carter’s script obsesses on Jefferson’s sins despite the fact that in the
 18th Century the notion of equality did not apply to slaves. The tiresome practice of judging famous
people of the past based on contemporary standards and values should die a quick death.
  (The Lantern Theater, until July 2)  

Red Velvet. Not the cake, mind you, but Lolita Chakrabarti’s drama of intrigue and riots on the streets of London
 protesting the Slavery
 Abolition Act as the first black man to portray Othello takes to the stage. This September 7- October 8, 2017
 Lantern production will set the tone for the fall season which will include two additional politically oriented
dramas, the WW II Nazi-German play, The Craftsman by Bruce Graham and Copenhagen
 by Michael Frayn. Lantern’s spring 2018 program brings some fresh air into the house with its production
 of the delightful French comedy, Don’t Dress for Dinner.

Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins.  Don’t believe it when they say that
 money can’t buy everything or that persistence can’t win out over talent. A big Cash Cow certainly
 opened doors for the highly untalented but charismatic socialite, Florence Jenkins, who achieved international
 fame as a coloratura soprano.  The productions at Walnut Street Theater’s Independence Studio on 3 just keep
 getting better and better. (September 12-October 15, 2017). 

American Canvas. Whatever happened to this potentially marvelous play about Philadelphia painter
Thomas Eakins? Philadelphia Theater Company had it all planned out but then substituted
 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
 at the last minute. Will there even be a Thomas Eakins play on a Center City stage?

HIR. This disturbing play, directed by Jarrod Markman, shows what can happen when an abused wife, Paige
(Marcia Saunders) becomes an abuser herself after her husband’s debilitating stroke. She feeds husband
 Arnold (John Morrison) mind altering tranquilizers, spanks him, dresses him in a woman’s nightgown
 and then hoses him down like an animal when it’s time to give him his shower.  Her life of domestic
 revenge borders on the diabolical as she systematically destroys the lives of her two children, Max (Eppchez!),
 a transgender male and her normal, ex-Marine son Issac (Kevin Meehan), just home from a war zone. Playwright 
Taylor Mac, who describes himself
as “genderqueer, or a little bit of everything,” casts a satirically hard look at the ‘revolutionary’ world
 of gender identity with its 52 genders and ‘anything goes’ philosophy. He does this with as much harshness
 as he critiques the rabid All in the Family roots that once defined Paige’s family life. Eppchez! is charming
 as Max and Saunders is so convincingly horrible as Paige that this reviewer had to fight fantasies about dousing her
 with eggs or containers of potato salad. Mac, in commenting about HIR, wrote that “there’s this whole
 generation of older, white men who are filled with rage right now, because
 they watch Fox News all day long and they feel like they’re not part of the culture…” But in HIR it is the men,
albeit their faults, who are the sane ones.



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

  The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy. Theology in five easy
pieces is the subject of this comedy by Scott Carter, which means a lot of back and forth about religion and
 Jesus Christ. These three willful men from history, stuck in a room in the after life
 (like the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit), have all written their own version 
of the New Testament minusthe “superstitious parts” they’ve rejected. They argue with one another but nobody 
emerges as winner of the debate. Carter’s script has the snappy, irreverence of his work as writer for
 Real Time with Bill Maher. Andrew Criss as Tolstoy is powerful and peasant-like 
while Gregory Issac lends the right ‘aristocratic touch’ to his portrayal of Jefferson. Brian McCann as Charles
 Dickens has the zany wild writer thing down pat so that Dickens comes across as the most 
contemporary-seeming man on stage. Unfortunately the play ends with a preachy condemnation of 
Jefferson’s having owned slaves while “hypocritically” writing so eloquently about human rights
and equality. Carter’s script obsesses on Jefferson’s sins despite the fact that in the
 18th Century the notion of equality did not apply to slaves. The tiresome practice of judging famous
people of the past based on contemporary standards and values should die a quick death.
  (The Lantern Theater, until July 2)  

Red Velvet. Not the cake, mind you, but Lolita Chakrabarti’s drama of intrigue and riots on the streets of London
 protesting the Slavery Abolition Act as the first black man to portray Othello takes to the stage. This 
September 7- October 8, 2017
 Lantern production will set the tone for the fall season which will include two additional politically oriented
dramas, the WW II Nazi-German play, The Craftsman by Bruce Graham and Copenhagen
 by Michael Frayn. Lantern’s spring 2018 program brings some fresh air into the house with its production
 of the delightful French comedy, Don’t Dress for Dinner.
Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins.  Don’t believe it when they say that
 money can’t buy everything or that persistence can’t win out over talent. A big Cash Cow certainly
 opened doors for the highly untalented but charismatic socialite, Florence Jenkins, who achieved international
 fame as a coloratura soprano.  The productions at Walnut Street Theater’s Independence Studio on 3 just keep
 getting better and better. (September 12-October 15, 2017). 
American Canvas. Whatever happened to this potentially marvelous play about Philadelphia painter
Thomas Eakins? Philadelphia Theater Company had it all planned out but then substituted
 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
 at the last minute. Will there even be a Thomas Eakins play on a Center City stage?
HIR. This disturbing play, directed by Jarrod Markman, shows what can happen when an abused wife, Paige
(Marcia Saunders) becomes an abuser herself after her husband’s debilitating stroke. 
She feeds husband Arnold (John Morrison) mind altering tranquilizers, spanks him, dresses
 him in a woman’s nightgown and then hoses him down like an animal when it’s time to give
 him his shower.  Her life of domestic revenge borders on the diabolical as she systematically 
destroys the lives of her two children, Max (Eppchez!), a transgender male and her normal, ex-Marine
 son Issac  (Kevin Meehan), just home from a war zone.

 Playwright Taylor Mac, who describes himself as “genderqueer, or a little bit of everything,” casts a satirically
 hard look at the ‘revolutionary’ world of gender identity with its 52 genders and ‘anything goes’ philosophy. 
He does this with as much harshness as he critiques the rabid All in the Family roots that once 
defined Paige’s family life. Eppchez! is charming as Max and Saunders is so convincingly horrible as 
Paige that this reviewer had to fight fantasies about dousing her with eggs or containers of potato salad. Mac, 
in commenting about HIR, wrote that “there’s this whole generation of older, white men who are filled
 with rage right now, because they watch Fox News all day long and they feel like they’re not part 
of the culture…” But in HIR it is the men,albeit their faults, who are the sane ones.


Sunday, June 18, 2017




 What about writers’ conferences? Are they valuable for people who want to write?
    I felt very privileged to be included in the 69th annual Philadelphia Writers’ 
Conference. My participation included a three day workshop on writing newspaper
columns. Although I also write fiction and history the newspaper column for me
 has always been a staple like devoting time each morning to yoga, meditation 
or writing a journal (which I’ve been doing since the late 1970s.)
   Overall, writers’ conferences can be a little daunting. Writers, generally, 
work in private and the process requires a lot of solitude and self discipline. 
The profession is not for those who cannot sit still or hate being alone for very
 long periods of time. You work everyday, you put in your hours and then you 
close up shop and do other things like get on with the “mundane” things of life.
   Of course, if you are a writer or want to be a writer you have to be a reader. 
You have to keep reading. Read. Read. Read. The two things go together like
 grilled cheese and tomato soup.
   All this solitude—alone in your room banging at the computer—takes its toll. 
When you emerge for a breath of fresh air, you feel freed and sometimes a sense 
of exuberance takes over. You relish your first human contact on the street whether
 that contact is a neighbor or friend.  Going to a writers’ conference where you 
suddenly meet scores of other writers, most of whom may also be emerging from
 cocoons of solitude, can be a little daunting. When you write everyday what
 often creeps in is a sense of isolation that can sometimes give you the impression 
that you are the only writer on the planet. I call this the Robinson Crusoe effect,
 and it’s real.

   While the obvious benefits of a writers’ conference (networking, for instance)
 far outweigh the downside, there is a slight downside to it all. From my perspective
 that downside might include a thematic emphasis at many writer’s conferences on
 writing a best seller and getting your memoir or how to do book on The New York
 Times bestseller list. Statically speaking, writing a best seller only happens to a very
 small number of people. While writers’ conferences such as PWC offer amazing
 practical advice and wisdom, they also can tap into the Great Myth that even you 
can write a best seller if you follow certain guidelines, the most important guideline
 being getting a literary agent and then following that agent’s advice to the letter.

    One of the most galvanizing events at PWC was the featured panel of literary 
agents, all of them women and the majority of them in their late twenties.

    The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took
 place earlier in the day. These were 5 minute talk exchanges in which the writer
 was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up
 in advance to have your 5 minutes with this or that agent and then, like speed
 dating, when your time came you went to the table where the agent was and you 
started talking. It’s much like a job interview in which you promoted your
 resume—“I am the best candidate,” etc.—and then did your best to convince 
the agent that you had the manuscript of the century.

  While the opportunity of meeting with New York literary agents was a 
great thing, (thank you, PWC) the process struck me as a little depressing, 
much like watching a job line of the desperately unemployed competing for
 a small number of job openings. After all, the vast majority of writers at the 
conference had never published a book so they’re goal was to accomplish
 this at some point.  

   During the Agent Q and A it was never specifically mentioned that writing 
a best seller is really a fluke and the result of chance. Few writers set out to 
write a best seller since there is no way that anyone can gage what the public
 will want or even find desirable at any point in time. The public is a terrifically
 fickle mistress, whimsical, unpredictable and untrustworthy.  Jack Kerouac 
wrote because he was an artist and because he had something to say not 
because he wanted to get on a best seller list. Dostoevsky wrote because
 he had a message to impart not because he wanted to be the 19th century 
Russian equivalent to sexy women’s fiction romance writers like Jackie Collins.

  This is not to say that most writers wouldn’t like a best seller but when your 
whole goal as a writer is to write a best seller, something is lost.  The agents 
were asked over and over again: What do you want? How will you pay 
attention to my manuscript? How can I get your attention? I will write
 anything you tell me to write. O powerful goddess!

    As I heard these questions I imagined Tolstoy in the room taking
 notes—“She wants some inclusion of popular culture,” “She doesn’t
 want any mention of the paranormal,” “She wants a commercially viable topic.”
    Put Mark Twain into this room and have him ask: “Ms. Agent, how can
I even be more of a Mark Twain?” Imagine a question by an unpublished 
Thomas Merton: “Do you think a book about my conversion from atheism 
to Catholicism would ever be a best seller?”  (Answer: “Not on my watch, Tom.”)
    At times I felt that some of the writers in the room were willing to bypass 
what they intuitively felt called to write if one of the agents had a better idea, a
more commercially viable idea. 
    At the Q and A somebody asked the agents why there didn’t seem to be
 any male literary agents.  “Men don’t read,” one of the agents said. Then it
 was surmised that men don’t like the comparatively low salaries that agents
 receive, but is this true? How can these women survive in Manhattan and pay
 rent if agent salaries are so low? Do they have Hedge Fund husbands? And if
men don’t read is it  because the educational culture in this country—the reading
 assignments in middle school and high schools, for instance-—have literally
 stopped assigning books to students that are about men. As a fellow newspaper
 columnist told me at the conference: “I have three kids. They are all in middle
 school and all the books they are assigned all have women central characters. 
There are no male central characters at all.”

  If I could do one thing to make PWC better it would be to try and put a halt
 to creeping PC ideology from infecting workshop material.  At one workshop
a woman presenter/ author came down hard on Hemingway, inferring that
 because he was a sexist and a big game hunter he was no longer relevant. 
The not so subliminal suggestion was that Hemingway should be booted 
from the literary canon.” Some people in the workshop agreed—“Yes, he’s
 an awful sexist pig!”—while others insisted that moral judgments like this
 belong in a Left Progressive burn out at UC Berkeley, not at a literary conference.   




My Talk as the Featured Speaker at Walt Whitman's 198th Birthday Party, the Whitman House, Camden

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York and died on March 26, 1892 in the Mickel Street house. Walt called this house a “shack.”

 He went to a
Brooklyn public school but dropped out at age 11, a common thing in those one-room schoolhouse days. He didn’t write very much about his school experiences although he did manage to write a short story "Death in the School Room (A Fact).” The story detailed the frequent use of corporal punishment by teachers in those days. You might say that public school life then was the reverse of what it is today: tyranny by students.

As a young writer, Walt liked to concentrate on themes like cruel or apathetic parents and their depressed, angst-ridden sons. One of the poet’s first jobs was in the printing office of Samuel E. Clements, a Quaker who wore an enormous broad-brimmed loghorn hat in the summer months. According to one of my favorite Whitman biographers, Jerome Loving, young Walt learned how to "parse and spell” at Clements’ composing table, the same way that Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain learned to write.

The first newspapers in
America were simple operations where the reporter was also the printer. That later changed when the printing was done separately.

Young Walt worked for a variety of printers. Later, he became a school teacher but returned to printing when he started his own newspaper, The Long Islander. The best part of having your own newspaper, Walt recalled, was delivering the papers on horseback.  Walt’s earliest published poem was "Our Future Lot,” about the one common denominator that unites humankind: death. Walt also wrote essays about the evils of smoking, flogging, fashion, materialism and the stupidity of quarreling.

Walt was outside political parties and in many ways he was antagonistic towards them. He was also a poor man at least judged by modern standards. He had an immense sympathy for the lives of the poor but he enjoyed the company of the wealthy too. He was no fool. There are both mansions and shacks along the Open Road.   

As a young man he was too much of a poet to be a good newspaper or editorial writer. One has only to read Democratic Vistas (1871) to see how much of a rambling prose writer he could be. 

He opposed capital punishment and for a time was an advocate of the temperance movement, writing a novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. The book was published in 1842 as a small novel and its author listed as Walter Whitman. The story was a sensationalistic screed against the evils of alcohol. Walt later disavowed the temperance movement. In his bohemian years when he lived in Manhattan, he would frequent Pfaff’s cellar restaurant and saloon, a carousing, boisterous ”arty” place that attracted artists of all types. Even then it is said that the poet would sit back and nurse a lager or two for the longest time while his friends drank themselves under the table. After he turned 60, on the advice of his doctor, Walt began to drink native American wines and champagne.

 When he lived on Mickle Street he was plagued by the appearance of an imposter, an artist who dressed as he dressed and who looked very much like him. The artist was the opposite of a teetotaler and could be seen wobbling around town. This wasn’t good for Walt’s reputation.  People talked and gossip filled the Open Road.

Walt was, as his biographers note, a big giver of gifts because to love is to both give and receive.

In 1857, The Brooklyn Daily Times described Walt as "a tall, well-built man [who] wore high boots over his pants, a jacket of heavy dark blue cloth, always left open to show a woolen undershirt, and a red handkerchief tied around his brawny neck.” Once when Walt spoke at an upscale
Center City literary club the organizer, writer Agnes Repplier, feared that his talk would be as roughhewn as his farmer’s clothes but it turned out that he spoke like a prophet and a mystic. Clothes don’t make the man—or the woman—on the Open Road

This Mickle Street house was known as a quiet and grassy place in the 1890s but Walt was not a good housekeeper. Some at that time described the interior of the house as “filled with undesirable confusion.”  Walt liked to scatter his papers on the floor, sometimes mixing them with the wood that he used for his stove. The Open Road was sometimes messy but when friends tried to clean it up, Walt got annoyed. Walt did manage to have fresh flowers on the first floor window sill, however, and of course his canary was not endlessly rocking but endlessly singing.

 So many visitors came and went. The Mickle Street house became a place of pilgrimage.

  A Japanese journalist, once visited him in the garden where we are gathered here today. They talked and feasted on canned lobster and California wine. Walt talked about the American West and especially of Denver, the queen of Western cities.

His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was very controversial during his lifetime, in some cases ending friendships and even getting him fired from his job in
Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Critics either loved or hated his work. His book was banned in Boston but his champions included many literary greats like Oscar Wilde, George Elliot and (to some degree), the cantankerous Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Walt had his literary biases. He had a distaste for so called gloomy writers like Edgar Allan Poe.

It should be noted that when Walt moved into the Mickle Street house he became a home owner for the first time in his life at age 65.

Walt gave a number of
Lincoln lectures in Philadelphia and Boston after the president’s assassination. During the Civil War he worked for a number of years as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War hospitals of Washington DC where he looked after dying and wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. Walt favored the Union but he would not take sides when it came to his hospital work. His most intimate friend, Peter Doyle, for instance, was an ex-Confederate soldier who was present in Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was assassinated.

Walt always believed that the nation’s capital would be moved from
Washington to one of the cities of the west. "Why be content to have the Government lop-sided over on the Atlantic, far, far from itself—the trunk [west], the genuine America?” he wrote.

Before moving to Mickle Street, the poet stayed with friends at 1929 North Twenty-Second Street where in the summer he would sit with his host family on the stoop or doorstep.

Whitman’s voice, according to one friend, was "full-toned, rather high [and] baritone.” This same friend said that when Whitman read books "he would tear it to pieces—literally shed it leaves…”

One of the poet’s favorite pastimes was "keeping track of his fame in the press.”

Walt was obsessed with personal cleanliness but wherever he lived he created immense disorder with papers stacked on the floor and the curtains of his room twisted in the style of ropes to let in more sunlight.

Walt also spent a lot of time in
Germantown and on the banks of the Wissahickon. He would ride the ferries on the Delaware in all kinds of weather, leaning over the boat like an old ship captain. He claimed that he once hobbled halfway across the frozen Delaware but then turned back when he sensed that the ice was getting thin. He observed, and commented on, the view of Philadelphia City Hall during its construction. He liked to hang out at the base of Market Street where he would converse with workers, roughnecks and tramps, but when evening came he would head to the opera. Before his death on March 26, 1892, he was able to purchase a wheelchair on credit from Wanamaker’s Department store.

And who knew that Bram Stoker used Walt as his character study for Dracula?

Walt grew cranky in his old age but since he had a lot of aches and pains, he can be excused for his bad moods. The Open Road is not a bed of roses. It comes with thorns, closed gas stations and occasional road blocks. Bad weather is to be expected. The thing is to keep moving and wait for the sunshine despite the road’s many irritations. Walt’s temper could be a terrible thing, but as fast as it went up, it went down. And he was always ready to forgive people. Good lesson for all Open Road travelers, I’d say.

If age 40 is the new 20, and age 60 is the new 40, then age 70 must be the new 45 or 50. But Walt at 70 was really an old man --- people did not age well in the 1890s. Walt was often sleepless and suffering…from 1888 to 1889 he was totally house bound, trapped in his Mickle Street shack, anchored to the big chair in the front room. Many critics surmise that he survived on his Open Road memories. Thinking back and remembering again.   

At the time of Walt’s death in his bed on
Mickle Street (an autopsy was preformed on the first floor of the house where there was also a viewing), he was the most famous poet in America.

The Open Road appeared to be over but in reality it was just beginning. Our Open Road graybeard is more alive today than ever.