Category Archives: Notes

Delectable Durang: A Collection of Six Unruly Comedies

My review of this show was originally published in the Montague Reporter on October 4, 2018. Performances at the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts, ran from September 27 through October 7, 2018. The Montague Reporter is a local, non-profit newspaper, published once a week in Turners Falls, Massachusetts.  All photography by Ellen Blanchette

“Nina in the Morning” with Kimberly Salditt-Poulin as Nina and Julian Findlay as Nina’s son, James, here showing his cruel side as he torments her about her appearance while she worries about growing older.

For today’s complex world, a little laughter provides relief. As luck would have it, here is Delectable Durang: A Collection of Six Unruly Comedies by Christopher Durang, the latest Silverthorne Theater Company production is now at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, providing just such an opportunity. Executive Producer Lucinda Kidder completes the company’s fifth season with this surprising comedy, providing lots of laughter thanks to this group of talented actors and the wild, free wheeling ideas of Christopher Durang, an American playwright who takes an unusual approach to the issues facing us, asking us to look at the things we fear and laugh.

Chris Devine plays Foote, a kind of butler who serves Nina loyally if somewhat cynically in “Nina in the Morning.”

These six one-act plays by Christopher Durang selected by the Silverthorne Theater Company have certain themes that run through them, even on occasion certain lines that repeat from one play to another, creating a flow that appears to connect them but may instead be meant to confound us. They seems to offer a cohesive, if complicated world view, but never choose one point of view over another. Instead Durang pits these ideas against each other, looking at dark sinister concepts along side the lighter, optimism view. So we see a cruel mother, (Nina in the Morning) or is it the son who is really cruel? Does he have good reason or is he just mean? No matter. Each view is presented in the most humorous manner, with so much physical comedy that one forgets to notice the underlying cruelty of the characters, or the tragic lonely desperation they may feel.

The one-act play, “Women in a Playground” by Durang with, left to right, Stephanie Carlson and Corinne Elisabeth.

Two mothers sit in a park, watching their children play (Women In A Playground). One sees all the dangers her child faces, and all the years of struggle ahead with misbehavior she may face, while the other sees only joy, certain of the goodness she can expect in life. Which is correct? Does it matter? The humor lies in the clash of the two points of view, as each undermines the other. Think life is so good? Wait, it will change.

Julian Findlay as Lawrence in “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” with Stephanie Carlson as Amanda.

The gloomy pessimism of some of the characters frequently bumps up against politically incorrect thoughts. People say shocking things while reacting in wildly melodramatic ways to small, ordinary events. A boy who is really a man, obsessed with his collection of things no one would every value, hysterical when one is broken. Sad, miserable, no – funny, because his reaction is so over the top and in some way we can all identify with it, as we all know we are silly sometimes, foolish in our love of our possessions. People collect dolls long after they are grown. I had a friend who collected door stops, far too many to be useful. Some collect comic books, baseball cards then years later have to figure out what to do with them. So we laugh at him when he looses his mind over a broken swizzle stick.

It doesn’t hurt that the actors are so very good, willing to act (or over-react) in such bizarre ways. The cast functions as a mini-repertory company, with everything happening onstage. The actors change the sets right in front of the audience, change costumes quickly, sometimes wearing a costume for the next play in the last one even if it’s inappropriate to the scene.

Dave (Thom Griffin) sits on a bench and Polly (Kimberly Salditt-Poulin) stops to chat and gets a lot more than she bargained for in “One Minute Play.”

Silverthorne makes a point of hiring local talent when they can. These cast members are: Stephanie Carlson (Easthampton), Chris Devine (Sunderland), Corinne Elizabeth (Sunderland), Julian Findlay (Warwick), Thom Griffin (Colrain), and Kimberly Salditt-Poulin (Amherst). Director John Reese lives in Greenfield and was Deerfield Academy’s Theater Program Director. Also behind the scenes, Joan Haley, Stage Manager (Conway), John Iverson, Technical Director and Designer (Bernardston), Reba-Jean Shaw Pichette and Piper Pichette, Costume Designers (Deerfield). Executive Producer Lucinda Kidder lives in Turners Falls.

Each cast member brings a special quality to their various characters. Julian Findlay is especially good at physical comedy, with quick changes in mood and posture, throwing himself, literally, into the parts he plays. He can be gentle, frightened, cringing (For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls) at the suggestion he socialize with a woman. Or he can be horrible, cruel to his mother as he smiles with evil pleasure at torturing her (Nina in the Morning). Kimberly Salditt-Poulin shows a range of emotions as Nina in the same play, reacting to her son with pathos drenched in self pity. How obsessed she is with her fading beauty comes through in the melodrama of pure selfishness. No one would ever actually live like this, and so it is a caricature of reality; awful and yet to watch it, so very funny. Timing is everything and these actors under the clever guidance of director John Reese have got it.

Kimberly also plays a heartless friend who makes the mistake of stopping to chat with the very depressed Dave, played by Thom Griffin. His body posture reflects the careless resignation to a total failure of his life. Their momentary encounter brings out a theme that occurs throughout, the reality that death is out there, as a choice, or inevitable end. Where Kimberly as Nina says, “Lunch, or death,” and Thom as Dave says, with cheerful resignation, “Tomorrow, death.” That these lines can sound so morbid and yet fill the room with laughter shows the value of humor in facing realities we all do our best to avoid.

In Medea, the Greek classic re-imagined in Durang’s mind, Stephanie Carlson reaches deep inside herself to portray a woman wronged and filled with desire for violent revenge. Drama could not be more bold as she threatens everyone, supported by a Greek chorus made up of Kimberly, Thom and Corinne Elizabeth. Chris Devine comes in on a horse, making very believable horsey sounds, smiling through it all as he ignores Medea’s threats and they all manage to bring about the happy ending (assisted by an angel played by Julian, on a ladder, with wings) and joyous music to the tune of “Camp Town Races.”

The saving grace at the end of the six plays comes when Medea (Stephanie Carlson) distraught about her husband leaving her, is visited by an angel (Julian Findlay).

There is no way to fully describe the juxtaposition of music, words, concepts, references, complex feelings, issues of sexuality prejudice and vanity so the best thing to do would be to just say, this is a rare opportunity to see a group of professional actors performing in a series of one act plays by and exceptional playwright directed by the brilliant actor/director John Reese with an gift for comic timing all of whom we are lucky enough to have here in the Pioneer Valley.

 

Being An Artist

An exquisite Hydrangea was in full bloom when we visited Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, PA on  June 14, 2015.

It took me a long time to get to where I considered myself an artist. Perhaps it’s because I stepped away from it when I left art school in the 1960’s and mostly gave up my creative endeavors for many years.  Art school was tough for me.  I suffered from two major health crisis while I was there, plus super fights with my parents during my freshman year.  Hard to imagine now, in retrospect, what could have been in my brain, thinking it was a good idea to continue to live at home with my parents while attending college. I suppose I’m not the only one to do this, and I’m guessing my parents were the ones pushing it.  Mom always seemed to want to keep me close to home.  And probably the money was no small matter. They were both professionals, both with what looked like good jobs but not exactly rich.  Money was always tight.  Mom worrying over the bills each month.  Smart ass kid, I used to try to understand it, thought I could help.  By getting a job maybe.

When I left art school I moved to New York City.  I had big dreams. I wanted to sing.  I wanted to perform on the musical stage.  I got accepted to a small show being put on by a choreographer named Phil Black.  I was used to high school performances, big shows with lots of performers, no expense spared.  Beyond that all I knew was Broadway.  I didn’t have any understanding of the way things worked.  I stuck with the show until I saw the public school in Queens where we were going to perform.  I was disappointed and totally creeped out.  I thought, “What am I doing here?” and quit.

Lots of auditions followed but the process was not easy and the boys and the beach called out to me.  In no time I was dating and having a great time.  I got married, had a baby. Life got to be more about family.  I still liked to paint, draw, but there was a baby around now, and making a mess was not possible. So over time, my art form became photography.  For years it was just a distraction, something to entertain myself.  Not serious.

I do take it more seriously now but still, what is it that makes it art?  Is it when it’s beautiful, like some of the flower photos I take? Or is it when it reflects the human condition in some way?  Or is it just some innate quality that make some think, “Wow, that’s incredible,” while others think, “Boy is that weird!”  That’s kind of how I feel when I look at the choices for museums and award winners for arts grants and such. So I don’t know what makes something art in the wider sense, but I do know, today, that I am an artist and do say that with pride.Whether others think my work is art or just pretty, or interesting, informative, I’m happy if it pleases me.  I am my first and most important audience.

 

A Musical Gift for the Holidays

Shelburne Falls, MA

Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts

These two songs sung by Ellen Blanchette and recorded on December 25, 2009, offered here  as a gift to friends and loved ones.  I hope you enjoy them. For those of you who like me were in the class of ’61, these songs should bring back fond memories. The love songs of our youth, when love was new and very romantic. Click on the link to play the song.

Mr. Wonderful

Loving You

I tried late last night (which was actually very early this morning) to post these songs on my facebook page.  It seems facebook doesn’t let you do that.  I even sent off an email around 2:30 a.m. to my friend Adam Bergeron to ask him how he posted his music to a facebook fan page.  Not that I expected an answer right then but it was a last bit of desperation before I let myself go to sleep. ÂThen this morning, as I lay listening to NPR and doing my lazy wake-up slowly thing I like to do when there’s nothing important to get up for, the answer suddenly occurred to me.  Isn’t it interesting how the mind continues to work on a problem while we sleep?  The solution, which I do hope works, is to post it here and then post the link to this page on facebook.

I was inspired to record this song as a gift to my fellow Overbrook High School classmates and my former high school sweetheart who said something very kind about my singing voice when we first reconnected. Music was the very most important thing in my life when I was a young girl. I sang all the time. It was in many ways the only thing that made me happy, and kept me going to school.  I didn’t like school, wasn’t smart like most of my classmates.  It was hard for me to learn things and I spent many hours doing homework and studying in order to maintain a generally B and C grade level. The rare A occurred only if there was a teacher or a subject in which I was actually interested.  That didn’t happen often. Mr. Loper’s chorus, which met every day at lunch hour, and brought us out to perform during this holiday season to places like Ocean City, NJ as well as our own school auditorium, and All City Chorus competition, gave me something in my life that truly mattered. What I learned there enriched my life and gave me skills that I have continued to use throughout my adult life.

I doubt many of my classmates, or even my closest childhood friends, knew that I was an unhappy child with many stresses at home.  Singing was what I did then to lift my spirits.  Singing these songs last night woke me up and kept me up because when I sing it fills me with energy and joy.

Until recently I hadn’t thought much about my former classmates, many of whom who went all through school with me.  We never saw each other after graduation.  We went off to college or other lives in other places.  We didn’t live close together, our parents didn’t know each other except for those in my own little neighborhood.  I am surprised at how much their presence in my life has comforted me in these my elder years. It brought back happy memories and let me view that part of my life in a much more positive way than I had before.  I am grateful for their return to my life and so I offer this gift of music to them and to all of my friends and loved ones.

Life Takes It’s Own Path

 

The last of the spring iris blooming in Turner Falls- June 25, 2009

The last of the spring iris blooming in Turner Falls- June 25, 2009

I’ve been neglecting this blog for most of the year. I got busy doing other things. Living life. I signed up for a class last fall without planning to. I met Margery Heins in Fosters Market in Greenfield, Mass. which is where I go for most things because there’s not much in Turners Falls. Somehow she managed to talk me into joining the Greenfield Community College chorus. She’s the director/professor. She told me she needed sopranos and I should come sing with them. It’s a little confusing because this is a class but functions as a regular choir. She has us perform all over the place and does twice as much as would normally be required of a class. I belonged back in 2005 and it was a lot of fun but they changed some rules and I couldn’t get a “senior waiver” for tuition so I didn’t go back. I turned her down at first. Then it played on my mind. The draw of music. How I love to sing. So I joined. I’d forgotten how much work it was. I was exhausted. I got sick. I kept going, kept singing, almost died of fatigue but still showed up. Something in me drives me to work and do my best no matter what the obstacles. That’s good and bad. It’s how I destroyed my health years ago, working in the city, taking the train back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan, ignoring the pain in my body. Everyone does it. I thought when I moved to the country it would be easier but my health was too compromised by then. So I retired early and thought I’d just stop. Apparently I don’t know how to stop.

I didn’t go back to chorus this spring but when I saw a seminar being taught by the well respected photographer, Tom Young, I ran in and signed up. It was quite a challenge and I’ll talk more about it in the future, but it gave me a new way to look at my photography. I think I was getting bored with photographing the same things all the time. However much other people liked my work, I was beginning to lose interest. Tom got me to look at things differently and now I go out with a new attitude. I’m noticing things I never saw before and even finding old work that I ignored because it wasn’t what I thought I wanted. Now I see it differently.

So the question isn’t anymore about whether it’s business or art. Art is all there is. The question seems to be is it commercial art, or is it fine art. And what is the difference? And can it be both?

That is the question that the work itself will answer.

WAITING

Falls behind the Montague Book Mill

Falls behind the Montague Book Mill, December 22, 2008

On Monday I went to the Book Mill in Montague to photograph a lovely young women who at 17 years old is in her senior year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She began the program at the university when she was 14.  David Detmold of “The Montague Reporter” asked me to take the photo for the paper. Someone else had already written the article so all I had to do was meet her and take the picture and leave but I chose not to rush.  I like to take my time with portraits.  It helps me get a better picture if I can get the person to relax and quit paying attention to the camera. It gave me an opportunity to talk with her and she turned out to be totally charming.  She said in public school her 4th grade teacher made her sit off by herself because she didn’t know what to do with her. I thought that was awful.  What a wasted opportunity on the part of the teacher.  After that her mother home-schooled her, and then the university brought her into a program they had for exceptionally bright young people.

That morning I drove very slowly on roughly plowed streets to get to the mostly frozen bookstore/restaurant. Today the roads are clear of snow although it’s still piled up on lawns and open spaces.  The ice has been melted by warmer temperatures. What’s left behind is sand and gravel that makes the road crackle under my tires.  In the higher elevation there is still ice along the side of the road, and slush that makes the ride up and down the hills quite a challenge. As I drove through the forest Saturday night on my way to Wendell, it was the fog that made the trip heart-stopping.  I surely held my breath through most of the 30 minute drive with no cars on the road ahead of me to follow and no visibility beyond the range of my headlights.  Putting on the brights only made the lights bounce back at me off the fog. The party, however, was totally worth it with a live band to die for and fun people to share the night.  It was a 60th birthday party for an old friend who danced the night away with the energy of a teenager. Hooray for Deva!

While we party and celebrate family events and the long awaited end of 2008, we also wait for the world to change. We are holding our breath waiting for our new President to take office.  We are waiting for signs that the economy will improve before we go out and buy that sweater or new pair of boots.  Truth be told, if we just wait a little bit longer we won’t need those sweaters or boots because spring will be just over the horizon and we’ll be thinking of summer clothes. Sometimes waiting brings change that makes new opportunity possible.  If I were in the garment business, I’d be thinking about really great summer dresses. When’s the last time anybody had a nice summer dress for us to buy?

Barack Obama said during the campaign that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  The meaning of this was unclear to a lot of people (and frequently made fun of by the press) but his supporters seemed to get it.  Did they?  Or did they just like the sound of it?

I took it to mean that we are the ones that will solve the problems of this nation. We wait, and wait, for a leader or a saviour but in fact we are the ones that have to save ourselves.

Take the matter of clothing.  Of all the reasons out there for the disappointing holiday sales, the one most overlooked is the total lack of invention and creative thinking in the garment industry. Having made the decision to outsource most of the production of clothing to third world nations like Vietnam and Hondorus, a choice promptly followed by a dumbing down of the clothing designs to accommodate the less experienced employee pool, what is found in most clothing stores is just plain boring.  I say, if clothing manufacturers want to improve their sales, and really this is true for all categories of products, they need to bring their production back home to the good, well educated, experienced, American workers who have produced quality goods for over 50 years and were once considered to be the backbone of this society.  You cannot have a strong consumer economy without two things – good paying jobs and good quality products. If we start making things here at home, we build the quantity and quality of the goods we have to sell overseas. That helps solve our trade imbalance and improves the lives of Americans by giving them good paying jobs.  Which obviously gives them money to spend.  That is the way the economy used to work, before somebody decided that Americans could make less money and still spend lots of it on products that were made more and more overseas.

I never could understand how the economic policies of the conservatives, starting with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, were supposed to work.  It just didn’t make sense to me.  If they sent all our jobs overseas, who was it they expected to buy all those products when they brought them back to the U.S.?  The concept of outsourcing our jobs while still expecting the American people to keep shopping in order to support an economy built on American consumerism seemed bizarre. And yet, it worked for a really long time.  I finally got it after the entire system imploded a few months ago.  The answer was simply to provide a whole lot of credit to everyone and encourage Americans to borrow beyond their means and go into debt to purchase foreign made goods.  This house of cards was doomed to ultimately fail.  There have been warnings. The tech bubble. The Wall St. collapse in 1987, the recession at the end of the first Bush administration.  Sadly, the failings that caused that recession were overlooked and attributed to “bad actors” instead of the failure of supply-side economics.  Then we had trickle-down misery, with the rich mostly protected from the consequences of their bad behavior.  This time it just crashed down on everyone.

So why am I writing this – to depress everyone even more? No.  To say that we are the ones who can save this economy.  If the world depends on us buying their goods, then we should, prudently, return to buying what we need, and even a little of what we want, with an eye to saving some money in an actual bank so the banks won’t have to always have their hands out to the feds to give them money to lend.  If we continue to wait, and wait, and wait, then we are waiting for something that cannot come without us.  It is in fact our inaction that is at least in part responsible for the economic downturn that, ironically, is causing us to not shop. So, shopping is good as long as we have the money to pay for what we buy.  Spending is a necessary part of the process of living in this modern society.  Saving is very good and we should do more of it.  And cash is better than credit when you’ve got it but credit is good too, to get you through a time when you have less money than you need, as long as you can feel secure that in the future you’ll be able to pay it back. Digging yourself into a hole you can never get out of, that’s the part that’s bad.  And living like there’s no tomorrow is bad because tomorrow always comes and sometimes that can be a big surprise if you’ve been living in denial.  Reality.  That’s what this is.  In the end, we will all be better off living in reality.  Maybe then we can all stop taking all those anti-anxiety medications and we can get a night’s sleep without sleeping pills.  That would be a good thing.

Hello world!

Welcome to my new blog! I am so looking forward to sharing my photos and thoughts with you. I hope you’ll feel free to exchange ideas with me and say what you think in a frank and courteous manner. I’ll be sharing a variety of photos and some stories to go with them. And I’ll occasionally get into writing about things I care about in the world, life, and yes, politics. I will try to be objective and informative about what I say. Thoughtful reflection on the issues of the day is something I think is lacking in our public dialogue, so I hope to find a way to encourage that here. Thanks.

— Ellen Blanchette