FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In 1987 I saw a play at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City that stayed with me for over 30 years. It affected me so deeply that when it returned to Broadway this year, I felt compelled to see it again. It was called Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was written by Terrance McNally and in 1987 it starred Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham.

Add for the original production I saw in 1987

The current production on Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon and it lived up to my glorified memories. It’s an artfully written character piece involving a waitress, Frankie, on a one-night stand/first date with Johnny, the new short-order cook at her low-end restaurant.

Headshots of the two stars today

Everything about the play is simple and sparse – just two people in Frankie’s small, shabby and depressing apartment in New York City. The costumes are also minimal – a nondescript robe, a plain white shirt.

The play is a study of contrasts. The characters begin the play physically exposed but emotionally unconnected and end the play clothed but emotionally exposed and beginning to connect. The actors are magnificent in their portrayal of these lonely people and their gradual movement toward each other.

Scenes from the play

Frankie starts out closed off and defensive, pathologically afraid of commitment and forcefully pushing Johnny away. Yet McDonald manages to make you understand her and even like her, despite the walls she puts up to protect herself. Johnny is a bull in a china shop, openly expressing his need for closeness, crashing into her emotional barriers in his clumsy but persistent and sincere attempts to break them down.

He wears his neediness on his sleeve and she is all resistance and rejection. He desperately and poignantly wants to connect with her and she is terrified, fighting tooth and nail against opening up to him.

Scene from the play

The piece is beautifully constructed as a will she or won’t she mystery – will she eventually let him in? The first act ends with the audience wondering, along with Frankie, whether or not Johnny is a deranged stalker. By the end of the play, Johnny’s acknowledgment of loneliness and his desire not to be, seem more ‘normal’ than Frankie’s insistence that she’s not lonely and doesn’t need people in her life.

A scene from the play

The emotional dance is accompanied by a well-timed, musical dance of words, often laugh out loud funny. At one point, my husband whispered to me that he didn’t realize that this was a comedy. McNally writes so skillfully that even while the audience is laughing, it is also emotionally engaged. It’s one of the few plays I’ve seen that I also want to read so I can savor the language and the verbal sparring.

Everything about this production meshed beautifully. It was one of the most all-around enjoyable and gratifying experiences I’ve had in the theater in a long time.

KARIN LAINE MCMILLEN AND SUMMERTIME – Marilyn Armstrong

Absolutely Not Cacophony

She has swans. She has a beloved dog and a pond for her swans. And she has a voice.

Cacophony is noise. This is a joyful noise.

Karin Laine McMillen and a song to go with the heat, humidity … and summertime.

PORTLAND STREET ART – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I recently spent two days with friends in Portland, Oregon, the Vermont of the West. Pot is legal and the arts are thriving, all over town.

Our friends drove us and walked with us all around town so we got a good overview of the city.

Beautiful design on a billboard in town
This design covered two buildings next to each other

Artwork on the side of a building
The side of another building. I love the whimsy of this one!
Another cool scene on the side of a building
Courtyard entrance to a shop

On our drive through town, I took a picture of an interesting sculpture I saw on the porch of a house. Later that night, our friends drove us to a local tourist attraction – a psychedelic light show that a local resident projects every night. I realized that this was the house with the interesting ‘sculpture’ – much more interesting with the lights!

LEWIS CAROLL – THE WALRUS AND THE CARPENTER

Of all the poetry from Lewis Carroll, this is my favorite. It is here because I like it. It serves no higher good and contains no hidden meaning. It is a poem that always makes me smile. Hope it brings you a smile, too.

BY LEWIS CARROLL

“The sun was shining on the sea,
      Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
      The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
      The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
      Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
      After the day was done —
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
      “To come and spoil the fun.”
The sea was wet as wet could be,
      The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
      No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
      There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
      Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,’
      They said, it would be grand!’
If seven maids with seven mops
      Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
      That they could get it clear?’
I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
      And shed a bitter tear.
O Oysters, come and walk with us!’
      The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
      Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
      To give a hand to each.’
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
      But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
      And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
      To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
      All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
      Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
      They hadn’t any feet.
Four other Oysters followed them,
      And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
      And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
      And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
      Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
      And waited in a row.
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.’
But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!’
No hurry!’ said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.
A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
      Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed.’
But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
      Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
      A dismal thing to do!’
The night is fine,’ the Walrus said.
      Do you admire the view?
It was so kind of you to come!
      And you are very nice!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
      Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
      I’ve had to ask you twice!’
It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
      To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
      The butter’s spread too thick!’
I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.
O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
      You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They’d eaten every one.”

I should also add that there is an inherent warning in this cute little poem to not be careless about who you decide to trust. Those with the smoothest lines may be the ones about to rip you off. A lesson I have painfully learned more than once.

It’s bad to fail to trust. It’s also bad to trust too easily and often!

DISHES AS DECOR, PART 2 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I love to use all kinds of dishes and serving pieces as part of the decor in my home. I find it’s an inexpensive way to fill the walls and the shelves all over the house.

In Part 1, I showed you the kitchen area, where you would be most likely to find dishes as part of the decor. Now we’re moving into my family room, my dining room, and my foyer, where I also use decorative plates and other dishes, such as candy dishes.

These plates are in the wall cabinet in my dining room. I use the other dishes from these sets when I have company.
One of my favorite mid-century candy dishes used in the hanging shelves in the dining room
These two mid-century candy dishes are in the large, decorative bookcase in the family room
Red and blue mid-century candy dishes accent my artwork in the family room
This Crate and Barrel platter works beautifully with my art deco decanter and a modern glass box in my foyer. They sit on a 1906 stove with a glass top over the burners.

DISHES AS DECOR, PART 1 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Growing up, we had some beautiful sets of China that we actually used to eat on. My mother also displayed pieces of her china sets whenever possible. So I love dishware and always try to buy interesting and beautiful pieces for meals, but also to use as part of the decor. It is an inexpensive way to add interesting chatchkas to your home – and my home is full of chatchkas, often arranged into decorative vignettes.

Here are some of the dishes I’ve used in my kitchen, eating area and sun porch, on shelves, on tables, and on the walls.

This cabinet is mostly decorative and I rarely use those items.
This cabinet is totally functional and houses my everyday dishes and cups.

I also use plates as wall decor.

The same fish plates used on top of the cabinets above the stove area in the kitchen

I still have many of my mother’s and my old china sets that are too country or too formal for my homey but modern house today. They also don’t fit in with my mostly aqua and turquoise color scheme. But I still love them and want to share them with you.

Formal dessert set I got for my first wedding in 1974
The charming and less formal set I bought for my first home in New York City in 1974 (from Italy)
My favorite of all my mother’s china sets which we used in our summer, country style house in CT

A UNIQUE PRODUCTION – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I recently had a unique, rich and rewarding experience. I wrote and helped put together a multimedia theatrical production about a horrific pogrom in 1919 that wiped out over half of the 1200 inhabitants of a Ukrainian town called Felshtin. We performed it on April 14, 2019, in New York City to a very appreciative audience. Let me describe the long road that led to that wonderful afternoon.

I’ve been working for over a year on this project for my audio theater group, Voicescapes Audio Theater. Usually, Tom and I write a short script, either comedy or drama, and then we edit it, cast it and rehearse it. Recorded sound effects and music are added and in a few months, we have a new piece in our repertoire.

This time we were commissioned to write an hour-long dramatic presentation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1919 pogrom. A pogrom is an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, usually Jews in eastern Europe and Russia. However, the word massacre is too polite and sanitary to convey the havoc, destruction, brutality, and butchery visited on the towns subjected to pogroms.

Script for the show

The group that hired us, The Felshtin Society, is an American organization made up of descendants of people who lived in Felshtin throughout its history (it disappeared after World War II). Many of these descendants are related to survivors of the 1919 pogrom so this piece would have personal meaning for them.

In 1937, the society got many of the survivors to write personal accounts of their and their family’s experiences in the pogrom. These stories were turned into a book in Yiddish, Russian and other local dialects. This was translated into English painstakingly, over nineteen years.

My script was based on the survivor’s words in this book.

Handout at the performance

There were the stories of people who hid in attics and basements, pigsties. and haystacks to avoid the clutches of the Russian marauders. Many Felshtiners escaped into the neighboring fields where they huddled together for days, freezing and starving, without shoes or coats. Many were lucky and could bribe the Russian soldiers to let them live. But many more witnessed family members and friends being tortured and sadistically butchered.

Even the survivors were shells of their former selves when this nightmare was over.

In the book, the survivors wrote about the thriving town that existed before 1919, including a synagogue with a treasury of rare books and a rabbi who attracted scholars from all over the region. The survivors then talked about the husk of a town that limped back into a meager existence after the pogrom.

There were organized efforts, locally and in the United States, to raise money, food. and clothing for the bereft, impoverished and frequently homeless inhabitants. Money also went to establishing an orphanage for the more than 50 orphans in the town.

Photo of Felshtin Rabbi projected behind actors rehearsing

The Felshtin Relief Committee was the American organization founded to help the town recover. It was a subcommittee of the Felshtin Society. This committee managed to help numerous survivors emigrate to other countries, especially to America, where relatives welcomed them. This was fortunate because the people left in Felshtin in 1941 were wiped out by the Nazis.

I spent several months reading through these searing and heart-rending accounts. This was difficult and depressing for me. I had to then turn these random stories into a short, theatrical script.

I picked out the most well-written and poignant accounts. I put these segments into an order which would make them roughly chronological.

I divided the script into sections like “Before the Pogrom,” “Accounts of the Pogrom,” and “Aftermath of the Pogrom.” This last section included burying hundreds of bodies, treatment of the wounded, feeding the starving population. and rehabilitating the town and people.

Sande and Robin working on the script with me.

The Pogrom section was further divided into the different types of experiences people had. One group was about those who hid in the fields or town, those who went to local gentiles for help, those who successfully bribed their tormentors, and those who lived through grenades or fires set throughout the town.

To tie everything together, I added narration to the words of the survivors.

My original script was two hours long, but we were limited to one hour. I had to cut the script in half. This was painful. I had grown attached to the people and the stories I’d chosen.

It was heartbreaking to edit them down and in some cases, to cut them entirely. I went through seven edits to finally get a tight, dramatic script. It was important to do these stories justice, to give them the emotional gravitas they deserved.

Tom said when he first read it that it took him days to shake the sense of horror and tragedy.

List of characters whose words we used in the script

Once we had a script, we hired a musician to compose music to accompany parts of the script, a Jewish man who was well versed in the Klezmer music of Ukraine. We hired a young, local violinist to play the music live on stage.

We usually record music for our pieces, but we felt a living musician would add a level of intimacy and intensity to the piece. We also recorded sound effects to use when needed.

Fitting the music into the script with the violinist at Sande’s house in NYC

We collected photos from before and after the Felshtin pogrom. We found photos of memorials to the pogrom and created a power point presentation to be projected on a large screen behind the actors on stage.

The melding of actors, sound effects, violinist and photos created a powerful piece of theater.

It took a lot of time and effort to coördinate these elements into a cohesive whole. We rehearsed each element separately, then together. I was worried that with so many moving parts, we wouldn’t have enough time to seamlessly pull everything together.

I was wrong.

Rehearsal at the venue

I was onstage for the performance, turning the pages of the script for the violinist so he could see when to play and pause. I’m usually in the audience for our performances so this was a new experience for me.

On the other hand, Tom is usually onstage acting for an ordinary Voicescapes show, but this time he was in the audience with the director. He ran the power point presentation as well as being in charge of the many technical aspects of the show. Tom and I switched places and it worked.

It was amazing to feel the positive energy on stage from the actors and the audience. You can actually feel the rapt attention and involvement of the audience.

From the audience perspective, Tom said this was a fantastic experience.

The performance

When we took our bows, I saw people getting up from their seats and assumed they were getting ready to leave. But, no!

They were giving us a standing ovation!

A hundred people were standing up and applauding for our show! It was exhilarating. Tom says the smile that spread across my face was priceless.

After the show, there was a wine and cheese reception which gave us the chance to mingle with the members of the audience. People came up to us and raved about our beautiful production and complimented us on how magnificently it was all put together.

We were told we had to perform this piece in other venues and that it should be seen by a wider audience.

The beautiful venue for the performance

Most moving, descendants of people we quoted told us how meaningful and emotional it was for them to hear their ancestor’s words in this context. This added another level to our experience of the afternoon.

The next day, we got an email from one of the pogrom descendants who was in the audience. What she wrote made us all so proud and happy. She said that in the pogrom, her family had to watch as her great-grandfather was slaughtered. She thanked us for the care, kindness, and talent with which we distilled and recreated what her ancestors had suffered. She said that we captured the hearts of the audience and that  there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She went on to say that bringing the victims’ voices to life was a priceless gift and she thanked us for this gift.

Program for the Felshtin Society event

The 25-year-old violinist said that he was honored to be part of our production. This job was special to him because it hit him in a really deep place. The technician from the Center for Jewish History, where we performed, said he was deeply moved by our show and was thrilled to be even a small part of our production.

All heady stuff! I went home floating on a cloud of praise and gratification. But mixed in with this elation was a sense of sadness and loss.

Felshtin had been part of my life for over a year and I would miss it. The last few months were filled with feverish work, including rehearsals, meetings, and endless phone calls. The camaraderie was invaluable and I will miss being part of such a significant enterprise. Everyday life will seem a bit more ordinary.

It will be a long time before I have something like this in my life again. But for now, thanks for the memories!