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Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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Class A Southern Comedy: Christmas Belles

Published in Miami News

Christmas Belles, a new production of a play celebrating its 10th year, is currently spreading holiday cheer at The City Theatre in Austin. To paraphrase a line in the play itself, this is a Class A Southern Comedy.

According to one character, "Laughter is the only medicine we can afford that doesn't come from Canada." The laughter created by the play is infectious, but since this is a Christmas play that is a good thing.

There are 11 members in this ensemble cast, each of whom portray their roles with aplomb. No easy matter, as the dialogue and plot are so outrageous. The play is opened by a real spitfire actress, Nikki Bora, whose character of Miss Geneva is the nexus around which the prime plotline revolves. A portrayal worthy of an award.

Her nemesis in the play is Honey Raye Futrelle, portrayed with endearing and vexatious qualities in equal measure by Christina Manley. As the lead photo shows, Honey Raye is none too happy with Miss Geneva, who eventually proves to be her saviour in the production of a Christmas play by the small Texas town's Tabernacle of the Lamb church. This play within a play serves as a foil for an unending sequence of disasters of Biblical proportions, thus giving the other members of the play the opportunity to shine: Cassidy Timms, Beau Paul, Dawn Erin, R. Michael Clinkscales, Giselle Marie Munoz, Robyn Gammill, Ty Wylie, Brent Rose and Danielle Bondurant. The second photo shows a silly moment as Brother Justin (Wylie), dressed as a reindeer, confides his Christmas wish to Santa (Clinkscales).

One member of the audience told me that having lived in Texas for several years, he clearly saw the resemblance between some of the characters and true life. The play (by the powerhouse trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten), is so unsophisticated it was enjoyable, but no so unsophisticated it became corny. A true delight, and one I highly recommend for a fine Austin Christmas.

Finally, kudos to Scout Gutzmerson for a fine job in her first stage costuming credit.

 

Performances run through Dec. 30, 2017. For more info visit the website: www.citytheatreaustin.org

Photo credit: Aleks Ortynski.

 

Christmas with Jane Austen

Published in Miami News

The most delightful Christmas confection of the season is not a gingerbread house but a play currently being performed at the Austin Playhouse.

 

Written by Lauren Gunderson (the most produced living playwright in America) and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley made its world premiere in 2016, and has already become a staple with theatre companies all over the country.

 

With a legion of Jane Austen fans to support it, that is not too surprising. Her book Pride and Prejudice is one of the most iconic bestsellers of all time. The play is an imagined sequel, set two years after the book in Mr. Darcy's home of Pemberley, featuring the gaggle of Bennett sisters in a whole new set of marital travails.

 

The year is 1815, and with a beautiful set consisting of a drawing room and library by designer Mike Toner, and period costumes by Buffy Manners, one feels very much in the moment.

 

The play centers around Mary Bennett (played by Jess Hughes), the only one of the sisters to remain unmarried, and her unexpected love interest, Arthur (Stephen Mercantel).

 

Jess Hughes and Stephen MercantelMy only quibble is with the visual portrayal of Mary. In the promotional photo Mary is shown wearing glasses, rightly making her appear very bookish. It would have been more in keeping with her character to have her wear glasses during the play.

 

Elizabeth, star of the book and wife of Mr. Darcy, is sensibly played by Jenny Lavery; Maria Latiolais as Lydia is given a cloyingly wonderful stage presence, and Marie Fahlgren brings to the pregnant Jane just the sort of empty-headed but lovable persona Austen fans expect. And of course sister Mary, who (as one sister says) casts of 'chill of inaccuracy' over every conversation. The cast is completed by Samuel Knowlton who gives us the quintessential Mr Darcy, his brother-in-law Charles (Zac Thomas) who seems blissfully happy with his wife Jane, and Katie Kohler as the control freak Anne, who has her own designs on Arthur.

 

As the title of the play suggests, the time is Christmas, and Elizabeth becomes a trend-setter by placing a tree in the drawing room. The myth is that Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert introduced this German tradition to England in the 1840s, but it was actually done by King George III's wife Queen Charlotte in 1800. Even so, very few people would have decorated their homes with a tree in 1815, so it is no wonder everyone who enters the drawing room remarks on why a tree is indoors.

 

Mary, who wails that she “still suffers from a lack of definition,” finds a kindred spirit in the socially challenged Arthur. Mercantel's portrayal of this character is eminently believable, which is critical to the success of the production as he is the pivotal character. Who he chooses to marry – Anne or Mary – is the angst-driven engine that powers this play to a conclusion that even its characters describe as “shock and wonder.”

 

Mercifully absent from the play are the moralistic tones that seem to characterise many of the plays set in this era. This is one of the most innocently enjoyable plays I have seen in a quite a while. A superb production with delightfully quirky characters portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast, this is a Christmas treat to be savoured by all theatre-lovers in Austin.

 

Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley is playing until Dec. 23. Visit the website for tickets:

www.austinplayhouse.com

 

 

 

Prokofiev: A Tribute to Man's Mighty Powers

Published in Art Scene

The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev has been in and out of fashion in Western musical circles for decades, but for now he is definitely IN. The Austin Symphony Orchestra is offering a rousing rendition of his famous Symphony No. 5 this weekend.

 

Prokofiev, who died in 1953, is being portrayed live on stage during the first half of the multimedia event, in a production created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Conceived in 2005, they have now created 30 so-called 'Beyond the Score' presentations that give the audience a cultural and musical background to some of the world's most iconic scores.

 

Here Yevgeniy Sharlat spoke the words of Prokofiev. He was joined on stage by Robert Faires as the narrator, Barbara Chisholm as the composer's wife, and David Long who represented several composers. The symphony joined in by performing brief excerpts of his major compositions, as a chronological survey of his life was shown on a big screen. His peripatetic life as a composer and pianist, from Russia to the United States, on to France , back to the U.S. and finally returning to Russia, is given as a welcome textural background to his work.

 

In the dialogue, Prokofiev describes his Symphony No. 5 as a tribute to man's mighty powers, and this Promethean inspiration is expressed in music that brings to mind roiling magma. Each burst of a lava bubble is marked by the clashing of cymbals in the first movement.

 

The second movement is quite different, redolent of a busy metropolis filled with streetcars and pedestrians. The frenetic pace of city life may not have been what the composer intended, but it would make a good soundtrack to a silent film about New York City in the 20s.

 

The third movement most closely conforms to what Soviet officialdom demanded from its composers in the 1940s. It has a searching quality to it, expressing lost innocence: not surprising as the Motherland was still battling Nazi forces as Prokofiev wrote this in the winter of 1943-44. It is not a plaintive melody so much as a soul-searching attempt at redemption which seems to be fulfilled in a sweet and tender ending.

 

The fourth and final movement has a sprightly, almost Carnivalesque exuberance. It reminds one of music from his 1921 opera The Love for Three Oranges with its “charming capriciousness” in the words of legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht.

 

One of the touchstone recordings of the 5th is by Leonard Bernstein. The tempo by the Austin Symphony was too fast in comparison, thus minimising the full dramatic effect Bernstein achieved, especially in the 3rd movement. Nonetheless an excellent introduction to this great symphony for the Austin scene.

 

The Austin Symphony will be giving Bernstein a great birthday present next year, to celebrate his centennial. His Mass will be performed June 29 and June 30, preceded by a suite of free events for the public who can learn about this extraordinary musical extravaganza. It begins with a 100th birthday bash at the Bullock Museum on Jan. 7, 2018. Visit the website for details:

http://www.bernstein100austin.org/calendar-of-events/

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