Monday, January 31, 2011

Out of Shape Fiscally? Join a Bootcamp.

Between them, LearnVest.com and RealSimple.com offer four bootcamps designed to whip the finances into shape. Photos from http://www.learnvest.com.

IT is understandable that it would take a full month to recover from the Yuletide Season hangover, thus forgetting that a new month is dawning. Tomorrow, in case it has escaped notice until now, is 1 Feb.

Groundhog Day is in two days and few have made a start on those 2011 resolutions that were likely declared over one too many drinks. No worries, there are 11 months left to do/become better. Those with aspirations to improve in the area of money management can check themselves into one of four bootcamps from personal finance Web site, LearnVest and lifestyle portal Real Simple.

As good a place to start as any is the 17-day “Personal Finance Basics” bootcamp. Day 1’s exercise is all about getting organized. “Welcome to LV Bootcamp!,” reads the introduction from LearnVest, a site geared toward women but from which men can also benefit. “It’s time to get your financial life in order. We keep things short and simple, so when you get your daily To-Dos, we expect you to follow them ASAP.”

The daily “To-Dos” lists are for “On the Web” and “At Home.” The Web assignment for Day 1 is to set up Internet access for all accounts i.e., cable, credit cards, cell/mobile phones. As LearnVest points out, not only does it eliminate paperwork/paper build-up, it is good for the environment. Further, from a voice of experience, it makes life exceedingly more manageable.

There is no red tape involved in joining a bootcamp, and acceptance is guaranteed. All are free except one (15-day “Premium Investing”/$14.99). Potential recruits should hustle over to the site and select the desired bootcamp. (https://www.learnvest.com/mylv/pages/bootcamp/subscribe ) LearnVest sends a welcome via e-mail followed by one assignment each day over the course of the program.

In the "Personal Finance Basics" bootcamp, credit cards take a beating.

Paying for purchases with a credit card and not paying the balance in full each month is akin to taking out a loan – and very possibly one at a disadvantageous rate. Welcome to "Your Name, In Plastic" and Day 8 of the “Personal Finance Basics” bootcamp. Day 8 also marks the midway point of the bootcamp. As if for inspiration, LearnVest Founder/CEO Alexa von Tobel delivers a video pep talk. (http://www.learnvest.com/bootcamps/personal-finance-basics/day-8/)

A “key takaway,” from “Your Name, In Plastic” is a reminder of a point that bears repeating over and over again: Avoid department store credit cards because the fees are “outlandish” despite the promotion that is as enticing as the Louboutins in the shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue.

It is possible to have HBO and a reasonable cable bill, too, the "Cut Your Costs" bootcamp asserts.

Speaking of outlandish – the cable bill. Like everything else it is negotiable, according to the exercise, “In The Living Room: Negotiate Your Cable Bill In 5 Easy Steps,” on Day 5 of the “Cut Your Costs” bootcamp. Superintended by LearnVest in partnership with Real Simple, “Cut Your Costs” is a 15-day plan dedicated to saving money in every area of life and seemingly in every room in the house. (http://www.realsimple.com/work-life/money/planning/learnvest-bootcamp/index.html)

Viewers in the market/mood for a lower cable bill should not get on the phone with customer service, but with the cancellation department. “They’ll probably send you to the customer retention department,” the gurus advise in Step 2. “Say that you’re considering eliminating service altogether; this department has the best deals on hand to keep you as a customer.”

Pass the remote, please.

Visit https://www.learnvest.com/mylv/pages/bootcamp/subscribe to learn more about all four bootcamps.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

'Blood From a Stone' Gushes Family Dysfunction

Gordon Clapp, Ethan Hawke and Ann Dowd are members of an unhappy family in "Blood From a Stone." Photos by Monique Carboni.

BY TAMARA BECK

TOMMY Nohilly
picks up Eugene O’Neill’s mantle as the great American playwright of domestic dysfunction with “Blood from a Stone.”

It is his first play and it gets top-notch treatment by The New Group in its premiere at Theatre Row under Scott Elliott’s steady direction. The production is in a limited but extended run through 19 Feb.

The play opens on the disheveled main floor of a working-class Connecticut home with Travis (Ethan Hawke) and his mother, Margaret (Ann Dowd), folding laundry and grousing about Travis’ father, Bill (Gordon Clapp). Margaret points out the broken thermostat, among other things. Bill, she informs Travis, won’t fix the roof to prevent the leak in the kitchen. These oversights and the prevailing rage in this household can be very dangerous.

Daphne Rubin-Vega and Ethan Hawke as lovers in "Blood From a Stone."

Though his family is unawares, Travis has come home to say goodbye. His perpetual wanderlust is taking him West. EH, best known as a film actor, is phenomenal as the son who almost got away – the outsider drawn back into the maelstrom. Travis seems even-tempered and sensible, yet he has his issues. He pops his mother’s painkillers, is having an affair with a former girlfriend (Daphne Rubin-Vega), and can’t keep a job. On this trip he’s taking gifts of cash from his mother and younger sister, Sarah (Natasha Lyonne).

When Bill returns home from work he pours himself and Travis a glass of milk and reminisces about taking the kids to a diner in the Bronx when they were little. His son, though, resists this attempt at closeness. Travis is a mama’s boy and the oldest of three children.

The youngest Matt (Thomas Guiry) seems most scarred by the bitterness in the household. TG is at once cocky, smarmy and needy. Matt doesn’t just take from his family like his big brother, he steals. His mother doesn’t like him to be alone upstairs with her stuff, she says.

AD’s Margaret is a loving mother but is extremely manipulative. She has succeeded in dividing her children’s loyalties much in the same way that she and Bill have divided their house.

Gordon Clapp and Ethan Hawke as a father and son who have a failure to communicate in "Blood From a Stone."

For his part, Bill is out of touch with his family and even his own feelings. He and Margaret live separate lives in the same house, separated by a long history of anger, distrust, and miscommunication. She curses him savagely even when he ineffectually tries to fix some of what is broken. GC, best known as a TV actor, subtly unveils the ordinary humanity under all of Bill's pent-up and intense brutality. “Blood from a Stone” is in part about this slow burn and the toll it takes on the whole family.

The growing squalor of the surroundings in “Blood from a Stone” mimics the family’s turmoil. The action moves at a deliberate pace. It rises to a crescendo of violence and threat, revealing its characters’ terrifying problems in small and intimate ways.

“Blood from a Stone” is a humble, eloquent and elegant work of art.

Visit http://www.thenewgroup.org/ to learn more about “Blood from a Stone.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

For Real, A Great Total Sensory Journey

Wine tasting can be a wonderful experience but it ain't a pretty sight. Photo by Christina Snyder.

BY TAMARA FISH

BE
a slob. That’s right. Truly tasting wine will have you making all sorts of noises, sticking your nose into a glass, slurping, almost gurgling, and basically looking like a pig.

Prissily sampling wine with pinkies up is pure affectation. Those in the know dispense with such airs. The more you get down and dirty with wine, the fuller your tasting will be.

Real tasting is a five-sense adventure. Wine is a total upper-body experience. (Perhaps getting up to find another bottle might require your entire body, but it would be a stretch to call that exercise.)

So, grab a glass of wine, preferably straight from a freshly opened bottle or box (yes, Virginia, there are good boxed wines), and be prepared for a great total sensory journey.

WINE SIGHT
Looking at a wine’s color will reveal a lot about the intensity of its flavor. The deeper the color, the heartier it tends to be. Take a look at a pinot grigio and then take a look at a chardonnay. Chardonnays tend to be heartier, richer in flavor. But a wide range of color exists within a grape varietal (such as a chardonnay). The clue of color becomes even more pronounced with red wines. Use a white napkin or paper towel as a backdrop to see the depth of color. If it’s a deep, almost blackish purple such as a cabernet sauvignon, buckle your seatbelt – it’s going to be quite a ride.

AH!, THE AROMA …
Now we’re almost ready to taste it. Stick your nose in the glass. That’s right. Don’t worry about looking silly. Just get your nose in there. Inhale deeply. Feel the intake of air along the back of the throat. That’s how deeply to inhale. Some people hold their breath for a second or two, some don’t.

What impressions do you get? Does the aroma – the wine’s bouquet or “nose”– suggest anything? If it simply smells like wine, OK. But if some other ideas come up just note them. Some people might be reminded of fruits or spices, but the goal is to find how you smell wines. They are your impressions of a wine, a tag for your brain to remember this particular grape or bottle (or box!). Have fun.

Fair warning: Be prepared to sneeze, wince, or even gasp upon smelling wine deeply for the first time. Don’t get discouraged, though. Stick your nose back in and try again. Or, if the wine’s nose is too intense, then pull back a bit, holding the glass about an inch away from your nose, and savor the bouquet without getting clubbed over the head.

Second fair warning:
Smelling a wine (or the cork) can also forestall a load of trouble later. Ever have a wine that just tasted “off”: a bit vinegary, moldy, or just plain old? No? Trust me: skip this experience. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Believe me. No need to start inventing schemes from the shock of it all, such as spitting wine into nearby plants. Rather, start by becoming familiar with various wine bouquets, and after time, a “bad one” will announce itself before directly insulting your tastebuds.

The color of a wine says more about it than what meets the eye. Photo by Benjamin Miller.

KEY TO GOOD TASTING: REGRESS TO SECOND GRADE
Now, here comes the fun part – the heart of the tasting. And when I mean fun, I mean you haven’t had this much raucous delight relishing a drink since blowing bubbles in lunchroom milk cartons!

To spit or not to spit? That is the question.
Yes, spitting is allowed in wine tasting. It’s best not to spit on other people, but there is spitting. Spitting is actually recommended when sampling several wines, or else everyone would be so blotto at the end of it all, no one would remember which wine is which. Spitting prevents tasters from getting drunk. Furthermore, if you don’t drink everything poured into your glass, your palate can distinguish between wines more clearly. That’s why buckets or cute little dolled up urns sit on the bar at vineyards. Make no mistake, they’re spittoons.

If there are no more than three or four wines are on the tasting menu (and you’ve passed the car keys on to your driving teenager), then feel free to refrain from spitting. For the record: I spit.

Tongue roll, please …
Remember in that long-ago biology class when the teacher gabbed about genetics and fruit flies? It’s true, fruit flies love wine, but let’s ignore that point. What I’m talking about is the tongue roll. A specific gene is the reason that some people can curl the edges of their tongues into a modified rigatoni. Without using any fingers, try to curl your tongue. If you can, you have a wonderful built-in wine-tasting tool. No lie.

Take a tiny taste in your mouth. Roll the wine forward so that it touches the tip of your tongue. Notice anything? Any impressions? Maybe, maybe not. Then do the tongue – rigatoni roll and slurp. That’s right. Slurp. Open your mouth a wee bit, suck in some air, and listen. Correct, that’s a slurping sound. (Even better than blowing bubbles in milk.) Sure, it looks absolutely ridiculous but this is how wine is aerated. The oxygen reacts with the wine and opens its flavor. The tongue becomes a built-in decanter-for-one, of sorts. After slurping, roll the wine gently to the back of your mouth. Back there the tongue detects different flavors than in the front of the mouth. Spit or don’t. Whatever suits you. But empty your mouth for now.

Allow a few seconds for the tastebuds to connect with the neurons in your brain (yes, more bio). What impressions bubble up now, if any?

What? That’s it? Not quite.

Mega Swish
Take a rather large sip of wine. Now pretend it’s mouthwash. Swish it around, flit it between your teeth, and basically get the entire mouth and a lot of saliva involved. A wine-tongue tango? Anyway, after about five seconds empty your mouth. Wait a few more seconds and allow a few more impressions to surface.

Terms such as light, full-bodied and finish that describe the character of wines become familiar after a few tastings. File photo.

Does the wine taste differently than it did before? Does it seem rather sweet and fruity? Is it not sweet at all (dry) or spicy? Is it something that would toss down easily (light in flavor), or does it seem to stand up and demand attention (hearty, full)? Is there a distinct aftertaste (finish), and is it fleeting or does it stay with you (linger)? These are some of the things that indicate the character of the wine.

These are some of the terms that pop up in wine-tasting notes. With time and several tastings, the terms will become less foreign, possibly even friendly.

Back to Normal
After using most or all of these techniques, the five senses will be completely saturated with this particular wine: looking at it, obliterating the olfactory glands with it, feeling it playfully along the palate, hearing it tumble and slurp, and savoring the distinctive flavors. Now, with all these sensations running around, enjoy a nice simple taste.

HOW TO DO IT THIS TIME?
Just sip the damned thing. One good sip. The same type of sip people take all the time without thinking about it. So don’t think. Just enjoy.

There’s only one thing left to do: ask yourself if you like it. Like it a lot? Then kick back and smile. Not so much? Truly, you’ve given this particular wine a fair chance.

And at the very least, finding out was as much fun as blowing bubbles in milk.

Next time: A Tale of Two Vineyards/Sonoma, CA.

NYC Restaurant Week: More Beef/Less Dough

Scenes from Strand, An American Bistro. The eatery is participating in a NYC Restaurant Week for the first time. Photos from http://strandrestaurantnyc.com/.

TASTEBUDS that tend toward Crisp Duck Leg Confit and Ginger Marinaded Tofu (aka Roasted Japanese Eggplant Baby Bok Choy Portobello Mushrooms) might consider Strand, An American Bistro for dinner.

Depending on its mood, the sweet tooth might crave dessert. When it’s all said and done, the three courses will set the wallet back $35. This dinner deal and lunch deals for $24.07 are available not just at Strand, but all over New York. Here's the deal, of course, because it is NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2011, one of the best in a town that also loves to wheel and save a buck in the doing.

This latest winter edition has attracted the most restaurants – more than 300 – in the history of the promotion. Along with Tamarind Tribeca, Strand is one of the newbies. They join old hands like Le Cirque and Dos Caminos.

Sponsors American Express and Travelocity are offering promotions to sweeten the pot for their members/users.

As is customary during NYC & Company's biannual event, excluded are Saturdays, beverage, tax and gratuity. Barring an extension, the last meals will be served on 6 Feb.

Learn more about NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2011, including menus, reservation policies and sponsor deals at http://www.nycgo.com/restaurantweek/.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mystery and Estrangement Stoke 'A Small Fire'

Victor Williams and Michele Pawk as trusted foreman and boss, above, in "A Small Fire." Photos by Joan Marcus.

BY TAMARA BECK

“YOU
have to live a little bigger,” Billy Fontaine tells his boss’ husband, John Bridges when Emily Bridges suffers a mind-boggling incapacity.

Adam Bock’s “A Small Fire” has its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater and has been extended through 30 Jan.

The play opens at a construction site where Emily (Michele Pawk) is in command. She is a tough-minded, plainspoken woman and runs her construction company with an iron fist. But she and foreman, Billy (Victor Williams), enjoy a comfortable and familiar camaraderie. (See video at http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/video3.asp?eventid=34)

Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and John (Reed Birney), center and right, trying to include a disengaged Emily (Michele Pawk) in a bonding ritual in "A Small Fire."

Emily’s domestic relationships, however, are distinctly more strained. When she is with her husband John (Reed Birney), she clearly misses the work site. Her prickly directness, it is revealed as the story unfolds, has cost Emily her daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Jenny believes her father is put-upon and dismisses his assurance that her parents are bound by a mutual devotion. It is John who helps her with wedding arrangements, cheerfully deciding on where to seat guests.

In a truly superior cast, MP as Emily holds centerstage with a raucous, unexpected joy even as her character is gripped by an increasingly horrendous and mysterious malady. RB’s understated, natural performance is remarkable and simple. John’s senses heighten as Emily’s decline, and RB makes evident the delight John takes in the miracles of all he sees and smells.

Emily (Michele Pawk) isolates herself from husband John (Reed Birney) and daughter Celia (Celia Keenan-Bolger) in "A Small Fire."

Cloaked in a realism as solid as the metaphor of construction work can offer, the story for the most part seems more parable than reality. Emily’s loss of her senses is an isolating impairment that leaves a domineering woman powerless and dependent; medical tests are inconclusive; a costly and debilitating disease is inexplicable and unexplained.

“A Small Fire” comes to a surprising and life-affirming conclusion. Thanks to a wonderful cast and excellent production it is riveting and dramatic.

Visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/mainstage.asp to learn more about “A Small Fire.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

'No Strings Attached,' That's the Arrangement

Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, above, are more than friends in "No Strings Attached." Photos from Paramount Pictures.

AT first glance, “No Strings Attached” looks very much like a by-the-numbers romantic comedy. Look again, though, because it has a bit more going for itself than that.

Starring Natalie Portman as Emma and Ashton Kutcher as Adam, “No Strings Attached” – opening nationwide today – explores the new frontier of the male-female friendship that has the added component of a non-exclusive sexual relationship – in other words, no strings attached. This late 20th-century phenomenon is also known as “friends with benefits” and some coarser terms that won’t be disclosed here.

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) presents Emma (Natalie Portman) with a gift after their first time in "No Strings Attached."

Emma and Adam first meet at summer camp when the two oddballs are around 12 or 13. The next time they run into each other is at a “students gone wild” fraternity pajama party at the University of Michigan. Emma has returned from MIT to her hometown of Ann Arbor for her father’s funeral. Adam is studying at Michigan and is a member of the frat throwing the party. Some years later and in the present day, Emma and Adam meet again at a farmer’s market in Los Angeles. Adam has been working there since graduation, and Emma has recently arrived for a medical residency at a local hospital. Adam, with his girlfriend in tow, suggests that he and Emma hang out. She’s game and puts her telephone number into his mobile phone.

Fast forward several weeks when Adam discovers that his actor father, Alvin – Kevin Kline hamming it up, “Great Scott!,” in one of several strong supporting roles – is shagging his ex-girlfriend. The former goes on a bender. In his drunken state, he phones Emma. The next morning he wakes up naked on the sofa in Emma’s apartment.

Ashton Kutcher, Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman, Greta Gerwig and a "period piece" CD in "No Strings Attached."

Initially, it is not apparent that he is at her place because she does not appear until later. First, he meets Emma’s three roommates who have a little bit of fun at his expense in one of the funniest scenes in “No Strings Attached.” Once Adam discovers where he is and where his clothes are – in Emma’s room – he goes with her to retrieve them. One thing leads to another, and thus is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

After they have had sex after the first time or so, overworked/emotionally detached Emma makes an indecent proposal: “Do you want to do this … Use each other for sex at all hours of the day and night – nothing else?” Adam clearly thinks he is dreaming. The glee he is trying to suppress is palpable. He demures, “Yeah, I can do that.”

Ashton Kutcher and Lake Bell as the klutzy production assistant in love with him in "No Strings Attached."

The men in the audience howl their approval. Throughout the film the audience was clearly divided along gender lines. “No Strings Attached” is not a chick flick or a guy flick. It’s a chick-guy flick and one that will be the source of much debate over the coming weeks.

Out of the indecent accord comes a fair amount of middlebrow comedy. There are a few throwaway moments, too, such as when the now ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond), of both Adam and Alvin suddenly finds herself in the elevator with a bunch of senior citizens. “Old people scare me,” she’d informed Adam the night she abandons his father in an hour of need.

Among the supporting players, only Ludacris (credited in the film as Chris Ludacris Bridges) as the bar-owner friend of Adam squanders his role. Because he comes across as a ‘hood rat’ it is implausible that he would be the proprietor of a bar in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ludacris has been in the business long enough to now tackle roles that take him beyond his rapper persona. In “No Strings Attached,” he could be playing himself. He is uncomfortable to watch. Doing so is akin to fingernails on a blackboard.

Jake Johnson, Chris Ludacris Bridges and Abby Elliott are friends of Ashton Kutcher in "No Strings Attached."

On the whole though, “No Strings Attached” is not only responsible for a lot of laughs without offending the intelligence and sense of decency. It also engages and entertains. On a surprising note, Natalie Portman is an executive producer. Ashton Kutcher seems a more likely candidate for this role since professionally he is known as much for his producing as his acting. He is most popularly associated with the TV series, “Punk’d.” He long ago shed his image as a model and as Demi Moore’s boytoy.

In any case, it is NP who is wearing the producer hat. She has been a serious actor pretty much since her start. One of her best performances is in “The Professional” opposite Jean Reno. Some actors – Ben Kingsley, Kim Elise and Laurence Fishburne, for instance – have such a serious face that one can’t imagine them in a comedy. NP is in this group. With “The Black Swan,” for which she won a best actress Golden Globe fresh in the collective memory, it is doubly difficult to imagine her taking on material so light. She will likely never do slapstick; hers is cerebral comedy along the lines of Steven Wright. Not only is she funny as Emma, she is brilliant, beautiful and tortured. In fact, the latter are responsible for most of the audiences's smirks and laughs

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) feeds soup to an under-the-weather Emma (Natalie Portman) in "No Strings Attached."

No doubt as an executive producer she expressly requested AK, who does have experience in these corners, as recently as with last year’s “Killers” on which he is a producer. Though NP and AK seem an odd match, they have great chemistry in “No Strings Attached.” The two are utterly believable as friends/lovers. AK’s is a surprising good performance for how he handles the serious moments. He has a way of pursing his lips that evokes just the right emotion, whether it be sadness, earnestness, love or genuine hurt – underneath them all is a raw vulnerability.

It would come as no surprise if NP and AK do another film together. Perhaps, their chemistry will spawn a sequel if “No Strings Attached” does well at the box office. And there is reason to believe it will. The casting is a studio chief’s dream, hitting just about every important demographic: age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality – including “out and proud” and “on the DL.”

“No String Attached” is rated R is for sexual content, language and some drug material.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

At Trussardi, 100 Looks Mighty, Mighty Fine

The Fall-Winter 2011-2012 Trussardi 1911 men's collection is all leather, right down to the T-shirts, but not the greyhound. Photos from www.trussardi.it

'TIS not everyday that a brand reaches the century mark. When it does, however, it must celebrate the occasion in style.

Last week, the venerable leather goods brand, Trussardi, threw a big to-do in Florence and streamed the whole thing live for the world to see.

Part of the festivities included the introduction of creative director/designer Milan Vukmirovic’s Fall-Winter 2011-12 Trussardi 1911 men’s line. In honor of the brand’s origins as a glovemaker, the fall-winter collection of garments and accessories is ALL leather.

Yes. All. Leather. No, scratch that. There is one nonleather item: a monogram featuring the brand’s symbol – the greyhound – on a playing card. The insignia is the first in the history of the House of Trussardi and was created as part of the 100-year celebration.

What is impressive about the new Trussardi 1911 is how MV molded leather/beat it into submission so that it mimics other, more pliable fabrics. The T-shirts ARE NOT fabricated from silk or cotton-lycra, but featherlight chamois leather. In printed leather are the oversized camouflage windbreakers that really can pass for parachute silk or, closer to earth, umbrella silk. Some totes are in camouflage leather; sneakers are turned out in suede.

The blouson jacket is done in ribbed suede, not corduroy. Defy anyone to deny that the lapels on the tuxedo jacket are not satin. Yet, they are made from the same leather used on the rest of the jacket. Hides that inform the collection include lamb and deer.

“Each garment and style is the result of amazing technical skill that combines tradition and innovation,” according to Trussardi pr.

‘Tis true. Watch the fashion show: http://http//show.trussardi.it.

Learn more about Trussardi and the Fall-Winter Trussardi 1911 men’s line at http://www.trussardi.it/.

A Kiss Is More Than What Meets the Eye



A kiss, that very basic manifestation of love/passion/lust, is explored in Stylecaster’s, “The Kiss.” The French short (with subtitles) from the online women’s lifestyle portal (http://www.stylecaster.com/) stars Katie Gallagher, Juan Heredia, Dan Keyes, Lyle Lodwick, Taylor Warren and Coco Young. See the film above.

In the film below, “The First Kiss,” cast members of “The Kiss” chat about their very first time.

Kiss and Tell About the Very First One

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ordinary and Quite Extraordinary 'Superheroes'

"Wonderwoman’s Unraveling," above, reveals the many facets of the superheroine. Drawing by Tania Marmolejo.

WITH the official Broadway opening of the beleaguered “Spider-Man, Turn Off The Dark” pushed back to 15 March, “Superheroes” comes to the rescue.

The group exhibit at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education (http://http://www.casita.us//) is on view from 21 January through 2 March.

Most superheroes and superheroines are normal people who are powerless in the face of injustice, but through happenstance, a chemical reaction in the brain or freak accident are transformed into unrecognizable – and in some cases – frightening figures.

“Superheroes,” curated by Wirth Art Advisory, offers 10 very different viewpoints on the notion – a number of them rather surprising.

Tania Marmolejo’s "Wonderwoman’s Unraveling" is no fully-formed Lynda Carter, who portrayed the heroine in a popular '70s TV series. In the hands of the Dominican animator and painter, the superheroine – utterly undone – is a sum of many parts and moods. Inlaid on what appears to be a mass of hair are charcoal-like drawings of a female figure situated in various positions wearing red thigh-highs or thigh-high boots and myriad facial expressions. She is a work in progress. One drawing depicts her got up in the signature Wonder Woman uniform sans rope. “The drawing represents a birth of some sort, a moment unraveling that lets us know her destiny will be different, that she is unique,” TM says in the press notes.

“My Brother Before Third Deployment.” Photo by James Seward.

Very democratic is one of two meditations on another familiar super hero figure. “Batman and Batman” travels solo – without Robin. “Batman and Batman represents a level multiplicity where ideas can flow freely without inherent structure,” the artist duo of the same name explains. “The work comes out of our conversation so is always already based on language.” The language, presented in brightly colored squares a la a triptych, have power: "Zlott! Whap!! Kapow! oOOFF! Bam!”

On the one hand more accessible and on the other less so is “My Brother Before Third Deployment.” The way the light hits points on the face of Brooklyn-based photographer James Seward’s sibling gives him an otherworldly quality – almost as if he is a digital cartoon. This soldier, photographed in uniform before his third deployment – to where it is not disclosed, is looking ahead, away from the camera. He is focused and resolute, a world away. What is he thinking? About unspeakable horrors of war? In carrying out his duty has he comported himself like a super villain? Or a super hero, freeing the world of oppressive forces? It is as JS explains: An encounter that is “both intimate and remote.” And full of mystery.

Haunting portrait of a Chinese woman in "Tiananmen." Painting by Ruth Ava Lyons.

Mysterious, too, is “Tiananmen.” The Chinese woman in the painting has sad eyes. Her mouth is slightly ajar. She may be crying out for justice or crying out against injustice. Whether she is hopeful or happy is up to the viewer. “I did this painting in 1989 after the Tiananmen Massacre," reveals Ruth Ava Lyons, currently of Charlotte. "It is dedicated to the people that I feel are heroes for standing up for their human rights.”

Another super hero is the venue for “Superheroes.” Situated near the troubled Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, the Casita Maria Center is considered a safe space that brings art of all forms to the neighborhood.

Learn more about “Superheroes” at http://wirthartadvisory.com/.

“Existential Emptiness” or, Female in Chinese Society
Cui Xiuwen "Existential Emptiness No. 5, 2009."

Is it possible that the folks at Eli Klein Fine Arts gallery knew about Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States this week?

Is there a correlation between the opening of “Existential Emptiness” tomorrow and the first day of President Hu’s state visit today in Washington, where he will talk currency valuation, trade imbalances and other prickly issues with President Barack Obama?

Unlikely. No doubt it’s lucky coincidence/dumb luck that the gallery is hosting prominent Chinese photographer Cui Xiuwen in her first solo show in New York while the chief executive of her country is working a few hours away.

CX often explores the id of girls in Chinese society. In “Existential Emptiness,” she contemplates the woman as an individual. In the main, she uses digital monochromatic photos, lending them a painting-like quality. The photos are also austere and torpid, which doesn’t bode well for the meaning of individual woman in Chinese society, the country’s Industrial-Technological revolutions notwithstanding.

Cui Xiuwen, “ Emptiness No. 18, 2009.”

Here, CX reveals a pessimism that is almost absent from her previous work. Gone is the insouciance of youth, replaced by the discontentedness of adulthood. Some pictures bring to mind the film, Ethan Frome – a star of which is the dreary, gray backdrop of a northern New England winter.

CX considers various matters – abandonment of perceived self and attempts at self-actualization, amongst them. Duality is another area of exploration in “Existential Emptiness.” The most obvious visual representation of this is the girl that is ubiquitous in CX’s work, accompanied by her older self represented as a doll. It as though they hold mirrors up to each other.

On view until 27 Feb., “Existential Emptiness” is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog (continuing the duality, no? ) that includes an essay by art critic and film maker Michel Nuridsany.

Learn more about “Existential Emptiness” at http://www.ekfineart.com/html/home.asp.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Down Memory Lane w/'Million Dollar Quartet'

“Million Dollar Quartet,” plus one, above. From left: Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis on the microphone; Robert Britton Lyons standing behind bass as Carl Perkins; Corey Kaiser as Carl’s brother, Jay, on bass; Eddie Clendening (kneeling) as Elvis Presley, and Lance Guest as Johnny Cash. Photos by Joan Marcus

BY TAMARA BECK

‘MILLION Dollar Quarter,”
at the Nederlander Theatre for an open run, isn’t going platinum anytime soon, nor is it the gold standard for musicals. It is, though, a rollicking vignette based on an actual rock ‘n’ roll event.

Carl Perkins (Jared Mason understudying for Robert Britton Lyons), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) gather in December 1956 at Sun Records studios in Memphis for a recording session with producer Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster). Elvis Presley (Eddie Clendening), a freshly-minted Hollywood star, and a lady friend, Dyanne (Elizabeth Stanley), show up and an evening of toasts and music ensues. (See a videos at http://www.milliondollarquartetlive.com/broadway-videos.html)

The backup musicians, Carl’s brother, Jay Perkins on bass (Corey Kaiser) and Fluke, the drummer (Larry Lelli) complete the tableau, performing with verve and imagination. “Million Dollar Quartet” is a treasure trove of rock ‘n’ roll memories.

ES’s Dyanne does a terrifically heated “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.” But this jam session belongs to the boys. LK deserved the Tony he won for his superb portrayal of a young and already randy Jerry Lee. His “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” are wild and worthy of the genuine article. EC has Elvis’ lip twitch and hip swivel down pat and offers a nice range of his songs from “Memories are Made of This” to “Hound Dog.” LG delivers “Folsam Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” to make him a definitive Johnny Cash.

Producer Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster), left, is watching the magic performed by Jerry Lee (Levi Kreis), Carl (Robert Britton Lyons), Elvis (Eddie Clendening) and Johnny (Lance Guest).

As drama, Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet” lacks real tension. A version of the musical is currently playing at Chicago’s Apollo Theatre thru 29 May.

It appears Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee might come to blows. Their sparring is entertaining but it’s more bluster than real spectacle. The uncertainty at the core of “Million Dollar Quartet” is in whether HF’s Sam Phillips will sell out to RCA in New York and whether LG’s Johnny Cash will extend his contract at Sun Records.

On the other hand, as a re-enactment of a legendary moment in ‘50s rock, “Million Dollar Quartet” is an excellent way to pass an hour and fifty-five minutes in a theater.

Visit http://www.milliondollarquartetlive.com/index.html to learn more about “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Abi Ferrin & Off the Field Do Good Well

The "Nikki" five-way romper, left, from Abi Ferrin. Photo by Bode Helm.

CALL it the show before the show. It’s all “off the field,” and it’s all good.

The occasion for a select few is a fashion show/cocktail party hosted by Off the Field (OTF) Players’ Wives Association. (http://www.offthefieldpwa.com/)

This very evening (6-9) at Dallas It spot, Azure. For all who have eyes to see will be "Nikki" and other eye-catching affairs from the Donna Karan of Dallas – Abi Ferrin. AF’s is a real Hollywood story. It is there that the erstwhile sales rep became a fashion designer. “I am a designer,” she declared to an entertainment journalist who was coveting the blouse she was wearing.

From there, a star was in gestation as she gained a reputation for utterly feminine and wearable clothing: bodacious colors, transportive prints, fine fabrics. Onboard from the beginning was a small, loyal celebrity following. Smart girl that she is, AF decided she’d prefer to be a big fish in the small pond of Dallas – not that anything in Texas is small. But in fashion, Dallas is no L.A.

"Amy" print cover-up from Abi Ferrin can be a swimsuit cover, poncho or a top. Photo from http://www.abiferrin.com/.

Anywho, AF has been doing very well, thank you very much – even garnering good notices and standing ovations in NEW YORK. Somewhere in the narrative, OTF got wind of AB, and thus began a beautiful relationship.

The fashion presentation/mixer is not soley about charmeuse and Champagne. (Incidentally, not everyone can attend but everyone who desires can purchase some AF.) Proceeds from AF frocks sold during the “Off the Field Cocktail Party” will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. (http://www.stjude.org/) And it is only the beginning.

On 4 Feb., two days before Super Bowl XLV at the brand-new Cowboys Stadium, is OTF’s, “Super Bowl Awards Banquet and Fashion Show” featuring the designs of guess who. More on that in a future Fashion Scrapbook, but Yours Truly can disclose that it is a mini-extravaganza; models won’t be the only mannequins on the runway, and St. Jude will benefit from that bit of largesse, too.

Abi Ferrin "D'Andra" full sleeve jacket (with pleating on the sleeves and jacket back. Photo from http://www.abiferrin.com/.

Like OTF, AB has do-gooder tendencies. Hers is helping women and girls emancipated from the slave trade in Nepal. In fact, elements in her designs – buttons, for instance – have come from (at fair market prices, AF asserts) the very people she has helped. So, they are in turn helping her.

Meanwhile, tonight's jollification will serve as a good pre-game show brought to the Big D – not by the NFL, but the OTF. The nonprofit was founded nearly five years ago as a way for wives of active and retired footballers to do some good in their respective communities.

Footballer wives may have a reputation for looking pretty and casting ugly looks at actual and perceived homewreckers, but that is obviously a mono-simplistic characterization and possibly unfair. No doubt, some among these ladies realized that they have a platform and decided to use it in the name of good. To date, OTF has raised more than $400,000 for various and sundry worthy causes.

For that, the group deserves a Super Bowl ring, no?

Shop Abi Ferrin at http://www.abiferrin.com/shop.html or find a store that carries the line at http://www.abiferrin.com/stores.html.

At DQ, “ … the Sale of the f@$%ing Century
Image from www.duncanquinn.com

THE DEAL: Duncan Quinn (http://www.duncanquinn.com/) is offering venture capitalist types and others with plenty of swagger and money to burn 30 to 50 percent off “most” ready to wear items through 24 Jan.

“... If you don’t get on it sharpish," though, "we may just change our minds,” the promotion (above) threatens. DQ is hawking a deal of a lifetime, alterations not included. Must be in Los Angeles and/or New York to get in on the hustle.

Meanwhile, Semi Annual Blow Out Sale at AS
The looks are among those on sale at Aysha Saeed. Photo from www.ayshasaeed.com.

THE DEAL: Aysha Saeed (http://www.ayshasaeed.com/). In New York only. Once upon a time it was to be 19 Jan only. Demand is responsible for the new one day only - Wednesday, 2 Feb. On offer is at least one glass of Champagne. After whistles are whetted/wetted, shoppers can get down to the business of shopping at 70 percent off ($50-$139). Styles are limited.

Bring a friend and net an extra 5 percent off. 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m./109 W. 38th Street Suite 301(b/w 6th Avenue and Broadway). RSVP: events@ayshasaeed.com.

Monday, January 10, 2011

One Year Later, Truly Remembering Haiti

Evidence, A Dance Company, in performance above, is one of the acts on the bill for the “Hope and A Future” benefit concert for Haiti Wednesday night at the Apollo Theater. Photo from www.evidencedance.com.

“THIRTY-FIVE seconds for 300,000 lives lost and more than 1.3 million people: mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, who are still struggling to find hope in a sea of despair," reads the "Bells for Haiti!" flier (above)created by Konbit-MN/Haiti.

The Minnesota group is doing everything possible to ensure that at 3:53 p.m. CST (4:53 p.m. Haitian time) for 35 seconds on Wednesday, 12 Jan., bells will be tolling across its state to remember the time, duration and date of the earthquake that devastated parts of Haiti one year earlier, leaving thousands dead and thousands upon thousands homeless.

The group, which has no political or fundraising agenda, was spawned from an informal gathering of Minnesota organizations with an earnest desire to keep the conversation going about the Caribbean nation and to offer help that makes sense.

Those inside or outside Minnesota interested in participating in Bells for Haiti! can sign up to join Konbit-MN/Haiti on its Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/event.php?eid=148430801873475.

Konbit-MN/Haiti’s Bells for Haiti! is but one of myriad events around the world and country – prayer/candlelight vigils, silence, concerts, panel discussions, etc. – commemorating the Haiti earthquake.

The Konbit-MN Haiti "Bells for Haiti! flier.

Also on Facebook is the “Haiti Earthquake Anniversary Commemoration.” Interested parties can sign on/sign up as a commitment to pause to remember and to invite friends to do so, too. “Our resolve remains undiminished, our hope to rebuild ever so strong. May we never forget..., reads the commemoration text. (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Haiti-Earthquake-Anniversary-Commemoration/181801198497321#!/pages/Haiti-Earthquake-Anniversary Commemoration/181801198497321#!/pages/Haiti-Earthquake-Anniversary-Commemoration/181801198497321?v=app_2373072738)

Partners In Health is staging “Stand With Haiti: One-Year Anniversary Candlelight Vigil” (6 p.m- 7 p.m. EST). The group is using the event, on the campus of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, as a fundraiser for its Stand With Haiti Campaign. (http://act.pih.org/page/event/detail/haiticommemoration/wqb)

A tent colony in Port-au-Prince. Photo from http://whatiffoundation.org/.

The Boston chapter of PIH has planned “Remember, Reflect, Respond Haiti One Year Later” for Friday, 14 Jan. at John Hancock Hall (6 p.m.). It will be streamed live on the Web and will serve as an occasion to honor those who died, to acknowledge those who have been working to rebuild the country, as well as a time to prepare for challenges ahead. (http://www.pih.org/jan14)

Also Friday in Greater Boston (Somerville) is the Haitian Earthquake Anniversary Commemorative Event at Somerville High School. It was postponed from 12 Jan. because of a snowstorm forecast for the metropolitan area. Weather permitting, the evening (5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.) has in store memorials (of course) but also through song, prayer and poetry, a celebration of what it perceives to be Haiti’s bright future. (http://www.haitian-coalition.org/)

The City of Orlando (Florida) in partnership with Global Haitian Advancement Through Education and Sports is sponsoring “Remembering Haiti - the Earthquake on Wednesday (5 p.m.-7:30 p.m.). In addition to marking the anniversary of the quake and bringing attention to the ongoing needs of the people, it celebrates Haitian culture. School supplies and sports gear will be collected. (http://www.cityoforlando.net/elected/council/district06/haiti.htm
)

Many Haitians who occupy CHF International add embellishments, such as a porch, to make them their own. Photo from http://www.chfinternational.org/.

Though much has been done to ease the misery in Haiti, there is great consensus that much work lies ahead to return the nation to anything resembling normalcy - whatever that means in the context of Haiti. One year later, more than one million people are homeless. One organization, CHF International (http://www.chfinternational.org/), has been building rectangular, inclement weather-resistant structures that is calls shelters - some (timber frame) can last several years, others (newer light gauge steel) up to 40 years - but most displaced Haitians live in desperate conditions. "Home" is tents away from their actual homes. They lack the very basic in sanitation facilities. Rape of women in the tent colonies is reaching epidemic proportions. (See: http://www.americares.org/assets/downloads/pdf/haiti-one-year-report-pdf-0111.pdf,
http://www.redcross.org/haiti,
http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2011/January/20110107171207su0.7870404.html?CP.rss=true,
http://www.redcross.org/haiti,
http://www.unicef.org/media/media_57361.html)

Only a very small percentage of the rubble from the earthquake has been cleared; millions donated to relief efforts have not been put to use. Charges of mismanagement, tepid response and general incompetence have been leveled at Haitian authorities, the U.S. government and some non-governmental organizations, among others. Further complicating the recovery, Haiti has been hit by a hurricane (Tomas), ongoing cholera epidemic, and widely criticized November elections.

The interior of a light gauge steel CHF International shelter. The owner made several changes, including building an indoor toilet and bathroom. Photo from http://www.chfinternational.org/.

Oxfam International has been one of the few organizations in the forefront of Haiti earthquake relief, and has stuck around after the news cameras left. In a report last week, it criticized both the Haitian government and former President Bill Clinton, who along with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, chairs the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). The report specifically cited an inadequate response to recovery efforts (http://www.oxfam.org/en/policy/relief-recovery).

On Tuesday, Oxfam hosts one of two discussions in Washington and New York, respectively, that look back and forward. Oxfam America serves as host of the panel, “Haiti, One Year On: Realizing Country Ownership in a Fragile State” ( 3 p.m.-5 p.m.). The discussion among development experts will focus on how well aid has been used to promote country ownership – that is the Haitian people controlling and benefitting from the economic destiny of their country. Also up for discussion is the situation on the ground now and ways to better promote country ownership in future. A reception follows. Space is limited. The venue is Room B-340, Rayburn House Office Building, Capitol Hill.Those wishing to attend should RSVP to http://gcharles@oxfamamerica.org.

Gloria Gaynor, whose signature song ("I Will Survive") could also be an anthem for Haiti, is the headliner for “Hope and A Future” benefit concert at the Apollo Theater. Photo from www.fanpix.net.

At the same hour in New York a discussion, “Haiti’s Children One Year Later Challenges and Opportunities,” will be underway at the United Nations. On the agenda is the response by, as well as challenges facing the international community as it works to promote the welfare of children during the reconstruction. Representatives from World Vision International, Save the Children International and Plan International participate in the conversation. The venue for the talk, sponsored by The Permanent Mission of Canada, is U.N. ECOSOC Chamber. Those interested in attending should RSVP by today to http://http://ingrid_dyk@wvi.org.

Gloria Gaynor gets top billing for one of New York’s most high-profile programs. “Hope and a Future Benefit Concert for Haiti: An Uplifting Celebration of Haiti’s Survival Spirit” is a variety show organized by Community2Community (C2C) (http://www.community2community.info/). The fledging and ambitious Brooklyn-based nonprofit chose the Apollo Theater for its extravaganza. In store for the audience Wednesday (8 p.m.) are vignettes highlighting Haitian culture and history.

Also part of the entertainment is dance (Evidence, A Dance Company), spoken word and various genres of music, as well as “I Will Survive,” which deserves a genre of its own.

Call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com/ for tickets to “Hope and a Future Benefit Concert for Haiti.”
 
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