Into the whimsy

Bucks County Playbook’s photographer, Bailey, visits one of my favorite places and makes some wonderful photos. Grounds for Sculpture is just over the Delaware River from Bucks County and shouldn’t be missed.

— JT

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Has there ever been a place you’ve driven by a hundred times and assured yourself you’d eventually visit?

With a son living in NYC, I’d travelled to and from the Hamilton train station in New Jersey more times than I could count. Along I-295, near the exit, enormous pieces of art would capture my eye and take my breath. More pieces surround the road by the station entrance.  I yearned to wander into the whimsy of their origin, but never had. Until last week.

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I finally explored the Grounds for Sculpture. But only just a bit of it, as the art park was offering a twilight special. And I think at least four hours are needed to really immerse yourself in this 47-acre wonder. But go, get a glimpse, because from now until September 3, the grounds will stay open late from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for just…

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Langhorne Players Presents 33 Variations

33 variations

Aaron Wexler, Patricia Bartlett and Tami Feist in 33 Variations.
Photo courtesy Langhorne Players.

This, this, THIS is why I’m grateful for Langhorne Players. Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations is an ambitious play woven with Ludwig van Beethoven’s passion for composing variations on Anton Diabelli’s waltz. Diabelli, a music publisher, created a marketing scheme that became an obsession for Beethoven.

The master’s mania inspires an academic fervor for the play’s Dr. Katherine Brandt, a compulsion that either contributes to an early death or adds depth to a death sentence of ALS. That is for you to decide.

What isn’t up for discussion is that Patricia Bartlett, as Brandt, is a concertmaster wielding a priceless Stradivarius of an instrument — her talent. To extend the metaphor, Maestro/Director Jack Bathke has arranged a symphony in which Bartlett’s voice soars. As Brandt contracts into ALS, Bartlett expands her character’s reach. With exquisite agony, you feel her pain, particularly as she undergoes an MRI, complete with strobe light and wracking sound effects.

Don’t be off-put. Despite deep poignancy, there is also grand humor. Bartlett and her cast mates have excellent comedic timing, nothing is forced. The organic laughter arising from the audience even drowns out some of the funniest lines. It nary matters. You can’t help but laugh. Human frailty and arrogance is hilarious. And this production reminds you of that often and well.

Little is as devastatingly humorous as the mother-daughter relationship. Central to the story is Brandt’s tenuous bond with daughter, Clara, played with virtuosity by Tami Feist. There isn’t a role in this play that doesn’t require courage, but Feist earns accolades among them. There is no diffidence in Feist’s Clara. Her character commits to her fear as well as her strength, coming to terms with her mother’s flaws and her brilliance. Clara, in Feist’s capable hands, discovers her own capacity to live as her mother is dying.

Aaron Wexler’s Mike Clark is a wonderful foil to Brandt’s academic snobbery. Mike bridges the mother-daughter divide with loving practicality. He is Brandt’s nurse — a personification of everything she finds mediocre — and her daughter’s savior. Wexler is as fearless as Feist. He adroitly handles Mike’s clumsiness. The couple’s first date, complete with verbalized interior monologues, is priceless.

Susan Blair, as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger is divine. At first a haughty archivist, Brandt’s fixation wins her over, making the two women the best of friends. Together they pore over Beethoven’s sketches of the variations, in an archeological dig of self-discovery.

The intricacy of this production is astounding. Dialogue overlaps between modern day and early 19th century. Every movement is absolute harmony. The set, designed by Feist, perfectly assists the transitions.

cast of 33 variations

The cast, left to right, Wexler, Feist, Susan Blair, Bartlett, Todd Gregoire, Rupert Hinton, (at piano) Susan den Outer, and (behind piano) Ross Druker.
Photo courtesy Langhorne Players.

Rupert Hinton portrays Beethoven, with a slight British accent that is easily overlooked considering the boisterousness he brings to the role. Physically, he commands the stage, yet also shares well with others, which is required of the part. He brings a vulnerability to the composer that is both comical (pianist Susan den Outer does her best not to laugh during one scene in which she has a particularly awkward vantage point), and tender.

Two men who equally exploit the master, Diabelli and Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s sycophant/manipulator/biographer, are portrayed by Ross Druker and Todd Gregoire, respectively. Both men are strong additions to the talented cast.

The sole remaining cast member is atypical. Pianist Susan den Outer is hardly a guest in this orchestra, nor a soloist, but instead the heartbeat of the production. With as much emotion as any actor on stage — she is always on stage — den Outer is magnificent. Her perfection is not just in the notes played, but the absolute synchronization with the action surrounding her. She is no accompanist; she is an actor with a most vital voice.

There is so much to say about the theme of this composition. But it is best experienced and shouldn’t be ruined with a spoiler of a review. Go see 33 Variations. There is really no reason every seat at each performance shouldn’t be filled. This is a fugue to experience. As Brandt says: “There is beauty in the minutiae.”

–Jodi Thompson

Newtown Arts Company Presents Grease

“The day the music died,” that day memorialized in Don McLean’s American Pie, happened that year. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, three rock ‘n’ roll icons, were lost in a tragic plane crash in 1959. It was also the year the U.S.S.R. launched Mechta into the first solar orbit and Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state. Oh, and Barbie was introduced. Can’t forget that.

Music didn’t die, our lives are managed and monitored via satellites, Alaska is no longer the newbie state, and Barbie, she’s still damaging the body image of little girls everywhere.

That last year of the fateful decade was the cusp of big changes, yet everything remains the same. It’s the setting for the enduring musical, Grease. Newtown Arts Company is presenting Grease August 8-14 at Newtown Theatre.

cast of grease

Photo provided by Newtown Arts Company.

Kathy Junkins is the director and spoke with me recently about her vision for the familiar musical. What those who know the story from the popular movie version forget is the musical opens at fictional Rydell High School for a class reunion.

“I do want the audience to know this is reminiscence. I think that’s often missed,” Junkins says. “That’s the entire premise of the show. We’re keeping to the script of the original Broadway musical.”

Mid-century — last century — is ripe for nostalgia, but Junkins cast is nearly all born at the very end of it. She has 16 cast members younger than 18. To prep, give some substance to the sometimes fluffy show, she had the cast research the era.

“We’re keeping it authentic to the 1950s and helping the cast understand what was going on and bring that to the audience,” she says. Junkins says she and the cast have done a lot of research in hopes of making the era more relatable to the young actors.

“This musical, although set in the 1950s, and the times, the technology, etc. were different, some of the issues concerning today’s youth are the same as they were in the ’50s.”

She’s right. Teenagers still worry about their grades in school, fitting in, standing out, getting in trouble, getting pregnant. They just have the added pressure of not being able to hide it. No gaff, goof or bad hair day goes unpublished.

“People have real concerns as teenagers,” Junkins adds, “and that carries through to today.”

Part of that perennial angst is being in the “chorus,” and not one of the leads, or even a named role. Junkins helps ease the sting by working with the ensemble on character development.

She’s assigned the roles of “nerd,” “student council president” and other archetypes roaming high school halls, to each of the eight members in the ensemble. These enhanced portrayals lend more depth to the story. And the actors get to do more than don a poodle skirt and do the “hand jive.”

Surely we don’t know who will be more successful — and happier — ten years from now, “Sandy” or the “nerd.” Hopefully, all equally so for having taken part in community theater, a summertime tradition.

As Junkins says about Rydell’s class of ’59, so goes for the cast of 2013, “This core group will always be friends. Through thick and thin, they’ll always be together and I think that’s a good message: You’ve got to stick with your friends and be there along the way.”

— Jodi Thompson

The Maine Attraction

A quick road trip to Maine with my best bud. Ahh, to return…even if it means leaving Bucks behind.

— JT

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Succulent lobster, sweet blueberries, cool water, and rocky shorelines  – that’s how I remember Maine. The Pine Tree State’s salty charm, untamed vastness and nonconforming nature have always held appeal.

So when asked to be a plus one for a good friend housesitting for her niece, I had my suitcase packed even before discussing it with my family.

“Did I mention the house is on the water, there are kayaks and….”she said.

”Oh, I’m in,” I told her.  “You had me at Maine.”

Aside from reveling in this much needed girl time, I’d hoped to explore, shoot some gorgeous scenery and maybe even capture a moose. In anticipation, I hung my camera around my neck en route. Playing with shutter speeds to photograph the passing pines, I merely stared, mouth agape, as a dog-like-creature leapt in front of us and soared across Interstate 95.

At least a moose would have been…

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The Unholy Sideshow

rev at rest

Quiet and unassuming over a morning cup of coffee, Rev is anything but on stage.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan, who describes Rev as a P.T. Barnum and Criss Angel fusion.

He hands a red staple gun — the kind you’d use to tack carpets down — to a guy in a bar — the kind of guy who might tack those carpets down — holding a dollar bill. The guy in the bar staples the dollar bill to his torso. The guy in the bar smiles, comes back with a five and staples it to his cheek.

Why? Why would you let a stranger staple filthy currency to your body?

“Because I can,” Rev says. (He prefers his stage name be used, although his birth name is no secret to Facebook users.)

Rev is a lanky guy with a mesmerizing presence. Piercings, dreads, tattoos, along with a handlebar moustache, bow tie and a bowler. He prides himself in his dichotomy, down to his carefully planned ink — right arm bedecked with religious icons, left with more “sinister” imagery.

fox trap on arm

Rev’s right arm, in a fox trap, is inked wih sacred iconography. Here is St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


This part-Steampunk-part-rock-‘n-roll charisma comes to life on stage. The Reverend First Minister (a.k.a. Rev) is a showman. My guess is that he could talk his way out of, or into, any situation. My fear is the circumstances he willingly puts himself in. I’m the squeamish type. Evidently, his best audience, the kind that watches through our fingers, wincing.

The Upper Black Eddy resident and four fellow entertainers form The Unholy Sideshow, a name that says it all. They perform wickedly irreverent feats of daring. Much of which I can’t watch. Some of which children shouldn’t, although the troupe can tone down their more risqué acts, and be quite entertaining for kids.

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Rev lets a 9-year-old and a mousetrap loose on his tongue.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


Joining Rev on stage are Davey Danger (few real names are used here – I’m setting aside good journalistic practices for today), a Pilates instructor also from Upper Black Eddy; Catalina Askew, an artist and burlesque dancer from Allentown; fellow Allentown resident Jay Sin Aces, a machinist who once raced BMX professionally; and Philadelphia’s Atlas Drugged, a former Navy nuclear engineer.

Danger’s marquee act is hanging from his ankles while escaping from a straight jacket. Askew is a “human dart board,” contortionist and fire breather. Aces excels at the bed of nails, often paired with breaking cinder blocks on his body. Drugged (yes, I just wrote that) is a strongman, trained in the traditional arts since age 12.

As Rev talks about eating light bulbs, sticking hairpins through his face and walking on swords, I worry that it’s all an illusion, that I’m more gullible than I’d imagined. No one could do that to themselves and not faint or bleed out on stage. He assures me it’s all real.

“When I’m on stage, I’m not lying,” Rev says. He is an expert on anatomy and physics. And pain tolerance. Years of piercings and tats have inured him to pain. “You get so used to it, it’s nothing. You know how it feels. When you know how something feels you turn off that pain response.”

Could be an explanation for Michelle Duggar. Just a thought.

When he opens his box of props, I’m nervous. Aw, geesh, don’t do it. But he grabs a screwdriver from the prop box and a hammer from his pickup (he’s a contractor by day) and hammers the screwdriver up his nose. I have nightmares about such things. Truly.

screwdriver up nose

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


“On stage I use the microphone,” he says. “It makes a nice ‘thunk, thunk, thunk.'”

I’m dumbstruck. Do you thunk about what you’re doing to your body? I think.

“If you do it wrong, you hurt yourself,” Rev says. “People have died doing this.”

Rev specializes in what he calls torture routines. His props include regulation mousetraps and fox traps. Needles and swords, all sharp. Light bulbs still in the packaging and an anchor purchased at a boat supply. That anchor? He hangs it from his tongue. The swords? He walks on them, blade up, of course.

For him, it’s pushing the boundaries of what he can do. It’s a challenge. He seems ever ready to take on an exploit, saying he could walk on glass and swords just about any time, although during our early morning meeting, he does confess, “I’m not sure I want to eat a light bulb this morning.” Understood.

There are some stunts, however, that he can only do while on stage. The adrenaline helps spur him on. And the crowd. He’s a natural showman, at ease with a crowd of sophisticate-wanna-bes at a sweet sixteen party, families at a state fair or a rowdy bunch at a tattoo convention.

Not only is Rev the “pain-proof man” but he is the “talker.” He keeps the audience engaged. His innate ability to connect is how he got started in the sideshow biz. A friend was performing, but didn’t have the knack for addressing the crowd. Rev stepped in, to great success. It isn’t just banter that sets him apart. He can open a beer bottle with his throat, climbs a ladder of sharp swords 4 feet in the air and leaps off into broken glass. And his “face of pain,” involving needles and that anchor hooked through his tongue, is his signature act. No one else does it.

There’s a reason. It would hurt.

deathproof man

Rev has appeared on Science Channel’s Oddities and WMMR’s Preston and Steve show. Last weekend The Unholy Sideshow appeared at Jersey Shore Music Festival. August 3 they will perform on the new stage at Fran’s Pub in New Hope.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.


“The things he does and the way he does them really aren’t extremely painful,” Rebecca Gittings, Rev’s mother, says. “Except the stapling.”

Yes, the stapling. It worries her, especially the risk of infection.

“I’m a nurse, so I’m not terribly squeamish,” she says, yet still worries about the stapling. “There are a few spots I’m not fond of at all, like the head.” (For $20, Rev lets you take the tool to his head. I think he should raise his prices.)

She assures me he felt pain as a child. “He didn’t do anything dangerous, really, when he was growing up,” Rev’s mother says. “I never had to worry about him getting into trouble, never had any problems with him. All in all he’s a nice guy. He’s his own person, no doubt about it.”

Gittings just wants for Rev, his brother and his sister what all mothers want for their children. “I always wanted my kids to be happy with what they do.”

That guy in the bar, the one stapling a $5 to Rev’s cheek — he isn’t the only one smiling.

quiet rev

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

— Jodi Thompson

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour

Sometimes the best places aren’t in Bucks County. My wonderful photog, Bailey, took this pic on a recent roadtrip. Enchanting.

— JT

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Weekly Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour

My entry in the Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour taken on McGrath Pond in Maine as we were eating dinner and waiting for the sun to go down. A serene and special place in deed.

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Artist Profile: Miriam Carpenter

feather in hand

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

The anatomy of the feather is delicate. Each barb delineated as together they form both striated vanes radiating from the center. She grasps its fragile splendor by the calamus to avoid crushing the downy barbs. A single gust, a gentle breeze, seems capable of launching it skyward. Yet, however airy it appears, if her hold loosened, the feather would drop to the ground. It is wooden.

Artist Miriam Carpenter has carved the feather from white oak. Yes, she’s heard the jokes: her name is carpenter and she works with wood — Meta Miriam. This rather young and wholly exquisite artisan creates such beauty from wood, that she was hired by George Nakashima Studio more than six years ago, only a year out from her studies of Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design.

At George Nakashima Woodworker, Carpenter is assistant designer to Mira Nakashima. Already, the Carpenter Coffee Table will debut, among 25 other Nakashima works, September 20 at Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia. The eponymous piece is the first named for her, but she has signed other pieces for which she has had a strong input.

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Miriam Carpenter shows some intricate dovetailing work she has done.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Beyond the work she does at the prominent design studio, she is constantly exploring wood on her own. Even if that exploration involves a chainsaw, which she recently took to a 6-foot sassafras limb brought down by Hurricane Sandy. “The chainsaw was too slow. It wasn’t as aggressive as I thought it would be.”

Yes, this is the same long-limbed beauty who sings in a motet group with her parents and practices yoga complaining that a chainsaw isn’t aggressive enough. The same woodworker who double-turns bowls so flowing one is reminded of the sea. The same artist, who with Zen-based calmness, carves delicate feathers from blocks of wood.

feathers in box

Wooden feathers carved by Miriam Carpenter.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Yet, surprisingly, Carpenter only carved her first feather in June of last year. Except for a block print, she had never even carved before. Her paternal grandfather, known for carving decoys from wood, (Yes, even Grandpa Carpenter was meta.) passed away in 2012. The family bestowed the young Carpenter with his workbench and carving tools.

miriam at workbench

The woodworker sits in front of the workbench and carving tools that once belonged to her paternal grandfather.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Carpenter was invited to show at the 2012 EMMA International Collaboration in Canada, a biennial event bringing together 100 artists from around the world. The show theme was “Decoy.” Her grandfather had carved decoys.

miriam with decoy

Miriam Carpenter admires a decoy carved by her late grandfather.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

“I was thinking decoy, duck, duck, decoy,” Carpenter says. “Maybe I’ll just carve a feather.” She used a mallard feather for muse and a block of white oak with well demarcated medullary rays. She explains how the pattern between the late and early growth act like the warp and weft of woven fabric.

“The structure of each piece of wood is more fascinating to me than the subject,” says Carpenter. And she rushes to get a piece of white oak to pencil out how she’d find the feather in it.

pencil and block

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

She says people often ask why she carves the curve of the feather and doesn’t steam-bend it. “That would defeat the whole purpose,” she exclaims. “Exposing the pores and the structure is the whole process.”

Perhaps born under an auspicious star, her initial attempt worked. “I was lucky because I did everything right,” she says of her first feather effort. “The second one took me a lot longer.” She positioned it wrong, causing tear out.

She also struggled with a piece of pine, a soft wood that didn’t lend itself to the lovely filigree effect of oak. Lacewood did work, however.

It’s somehow soothing to hear she has struggled. She seems so successful for such a young person. And yet she hasn’t made any effort to market her accomplishment. She has absolutely no online presence. Still she succeeds.

miriam in thought

Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

She has scored herself a two-month residency at Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia in the summer of 2014. “I’m ecstatic,” she says with authenticity. “I feel unworthy.”

Her modesty is almost annoying, considering her substantial talent — not to mention youth and attractiveness — but she is able to dismiss any irritation with her slightly geeky zeal for new technology. She slides into a description of quantum dots and nanocrystals with ease. She launches into a mini-tirade about permaculture, which she has studied, and why it isn’t being done more when the research is there.

Permaculture design, music, yoga, quantum dots and nanacrystals! She admits her interests are varied. “I’m all over the place with what I’m doing,” Carpenter adds. But it is wood that ultimately woos her.

“I just love wood,” Carpenter says. “There are so many layers, so no matter how long you work with it, you discover something new.”

— Jodi Thompson