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Hindsight Is 20/20

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In 2004, when Aaron Lansky's thrilling book was published, the final chapters of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books heralded the dawn of a new era. Lansky described how a new technology (electronic scanning) had allowed him to republish many works by Yiddish writers that had been taken from Polish libraries and destroyed by the Nazis. Not only could he reprint many works, he was able to restore collections of Yiddish literature to those Polish libraries.

Today, many of us take the Internet (and the cloud) for granted. But there was a time -- not so very long ago -- when knowledge was much more difficult to access.

  • Some secrets were buried in local historical records that no one had looked at for years.
  • Some silent films had been left in a box in a barn or attic.
  • Some fossils that had been hidden underneath a lake for many years were exposed by drought.
  • Any number of fascinating facts were out of sight and out of mind, just waiting to be discovered.

But inquiring minds always want to know more.

  • More about what makes people tick.
  • More about what makes the sky blue.
  • More about what makes water wet.
  • More about what happened in the past.

One of the blessings of modern science is that it has given us better tools with which to analyze and comprehend the world in which we live. From mapping the human genome to predicting trends in climate change, from predicting earthquakes and tsunamis to exploring the universe, we know more today thanks to science than to our previous (and primitive) reliance on religion and superstition.

Depending on the topic at hand, the results of our queries may allow us to look back and wonder or, conversely, look back in anger. Two new productions offer an excellent demonstration of how this phenomenon plays out in the arts.

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Just as one struggles to determine which came first, the chicken or the egg, art lovers often wonder which came first: inspiration or experimentation. For those who relish a forensic approach to the techniques of great artists, a new documentary entitled Tim's Vermeer demonstrates how science can inspire art (or vice versa).

Produced by Penn Gillette (of Penn & Teller) and directed by Teller, the documentary traces the work of video engineer/inventor Tim Jenison to prove his hypothesis about how Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) could have created paintings whose lighting was so realistic as to almost appear photographic in nature, even though the daguerrotype camera would not come into use until 1839.

Knowing that x-rays of Vermeer's paintings had failed to reveal any tracing marks beneath the oil, Jenison theorized that the 17th-century artist from Delft could have used a camera obscura (Vermeer might well have learned about optics from one of his neighbors, a master maker of microscopes).

Jenison's personal wealth (he invented one of the first video digitizers for computers as well as the Video Toaster) helped to bankroll his "spare-no-expense" approach to proving his hypothesis. Working in a warehouse in Texas, Jenison's attempt to replicate Vermeer's The Music Lesson took 130 days of devilishly detailed painting using a combination of a camera obscura and two mirrors.


Poster art for Tim's Vermeer

David Hockney (who appears in this documentary) is quick to point to one of the cultural differences between life in the 17th and 21st centuries. In Vermeer's time, art and science may have been more delicately intertwined than in today's world, where photography is seen as a separate and legitimate art form. Although some purists within the art world might opine that the use of a camera obscura should diminish Vermeer's artistic achievements, their argument eventually boils down to whether or not the ends justify the means.

For a painter, factors like composition, placement, color, and light are among the key ingredients that help to create a work of art. If one technique delivers better results than another, why not experiment with it?

In an intriguing and extremely well-funded way, Tim's Vermeer becomes an exploration of whether or not the artistic process and the scientific process are compatible, mutually exclusive, or occasionally overlap. Here's the trailer:

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It's no secret that the prolific poet/playwright, Marcus Gardley, has a way with words. Those who attended the Bay area premieres of This World in a Woman's Hands (2009 at Shotgun Players) as well as And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (2010 at Cutting Ball Theater) recall Gardley's ability to fuse magical realism with music and poetry, to create provocative (and often stunning) moments of intense theatricality. What an operatic composer might accomplish with notes, Gardley creates with words and meter. He is masterful at creating dramatically solid sounds of defiance and despair for actors.

Commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The House That Will Not Stand was nurtured at The Ground Floor (Berkeley Rep's Center for the Creation and Development of New Work). The play recently received its world premiere in a handsome co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre on a unit set (designed by Antje Ellermann) representing a wealthy home in old New Orleans. Directed by Patricia McGregor -- with some magnificent costume work by Katherine O'Neill -- Gardley's new play takes audiences back to a curious moment in American history which has long since been forgotten.

Gardley's play is set in antebellum New Orleans at a time when women of color often lived as concubines to wealthy white men of European descent who, for whatever reason, had grown tired of or disinterested in their wives. Such left-handed marriages often featured a woman of African, Caribbean, or Native American descent who, under normal circumstances, would never have been considered a social equal to her white partner. In Gardley's play, the house that will not stand is home to the following residents:

  • Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), a wealthy white geezer with no interest in his wife, whose heart has belonged to Beartrice for many years.
  • Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) is Lazare's lover. A fierce and domineering matriarch who has given Lazare three quadroon daughters, Beartrice may not be Lazare's equal in society, but she's a whole lot smarter and shrewder than him. Her ultimate goal is to relocate her daughters to Paris, where their freedom would be guaranteed for life. But when complications arise, a taste of her deadly "sweet potato pie" swiftly leads to Lazare's demise (as it did with her first husband). If need be, Beartrice is willing to give a taste of the sweet pie between her thighs to Lazare's legal widow, knowing that her death would leave Beartrice with a sizable inheritance.


Lazare (Ray Reinhardt) and Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) in
The House That Will Not Stand (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

  • Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) is the eldest daughter of Lazare and Beartrice. Spoiled, narcissistic, and worried that time may be passing her by, Agnès rebels against her mother's insistence that she not attend the Quadroon Ball and sneaks out of the house with the assistance of her younger sister, Odette.
  • Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is Beartrice's second child. Because her skin is darker than her older sister's -- and her personality far more appealing -- Odette's feminine charms are quicker to attract upper class white gentlemen. When the man Agnès had planned to ensnare becomes infatuated with Odette, complications quickly ensue.
  • Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez) is the youngest of Gardley's three sisters. Naive and hyperreligious, she is saving herself for Jesus and is eager for her older sisters to save their souls.


Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, and
Flor De Liz Perez in The House That Will Not Stand
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

  • Marie Josephine (Petronia Paley) is Beartrice's demented sister, who remains eager to be reunited with the ghost of the man she once loved.
  • Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) is Lazare and Beartrice's wily servant, who has helped to raise their three girls. Beartrice has promised Makeda that, upon Lazare's death, she will purchase her slave's freedom for her. Like the character of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that's the only thing Makeda really wants. She will do anything to get it.


Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) and Odette (Joniece
Abbott-Pratt) in The House That Will Not Stand
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With choreography by Paloma McGregor, The House that Will Not Stand is the kind of magical theatrical experience that seems wonderfully old-fashioned. Combined with its generous use of sexual imagery, magical spells, French vocabulary, messages from the dead, African chants, and a mulatta version of Cinderella at the Prince's Ball, it lures the audience into the meticulous details of how to secure a lucrative placement (benefitting both mother and daughter) for a young and pretty quadroon.

Gardley's drama also allows audiences to revisit a time when social class and racism worked very differently in the United States, and colored women could become millionaires if they played their cards well. This drama is very much about women playing to their strengths.

Although Lizan Mitchell's Beartrice dominates the evening with a leonine ferocity reminiscent of Eartha Kitt, her scenes with La Veuve (a rival concubine, played by Petronia Paley, who tries to steal the rings from Lazare's dead body) are deliciously catty while serving as model lessons in how to wield social and economic power. Harriett D. Foy is especially moving as Makeda.


Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), and
Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) in The House That Will Not Stand
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape