Thursday, November 16, 2017

"Merry Christmas, George Bailey!" - An Anathan Theatre Review

In the November of 2014, a younger version of myself entered the Anathan Theatre at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and saw The Memo, a hilarious, moving, and visually fascinating performance directed by Dr. Monica Anderson. That was the third consecutive mainstage performance that I saw after moving to Steubenville, and it was also the performance that finally convinced me to audition for theatre practicum.

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Merry Christmas, George Bailey!, directed by Prof. John H. Walker, is the first mainstage performance that I have seen from the outside since then. I’ve found a way to be involved with every show between then and now, either as crew, a bit part, or a lead actor. While I’ve been able to witness some truly stunning senior-directed one-acts during that time, this week has returned to me the gift of an experience the scale of which makes it something entirely different.

The concept of this particular show also makes it a first, in a sense. Merry Christmas, George Bailey!, subtitled A Staged Radio Play, is an adapted version of the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Not only does the modernness of the source material make for an unusual production, but the particular twist of the adaptation makes it especially remarkable: the play is set in a radio studio, with each actor playing the part of a voice actor, who in turn plays the part of one or several characters from the classic film. As an added production element, the prop microphones double as real microphones, and send the audio, not only over the house speakers, but over the campus radio airwaves as well.

On a stage that is familiar with hosting the likes of Shakespeare and Shaw, a production of this kind raises a fair share of doubts, from those both outside of the production, and from within. Could this style of performance and acting, which is intended to limit natural dramatic movement, setting, and other trappings which go without saying in conventional shows, be a rewarding experience for our student actors? Could simply standing on a studio set and reading off a script in a mostly-uninterrupted delivery of the well-known story compare to the rollicking madcap comedy of Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing? And more importantly, could watching actors reading off of scripts for two hours hold an audience’s attention?

Despite my built-in doubts, I found myself in my seat on Thursday’s opening night, grinning like an idiot throughout the entire first act, my mouth wide open, absorbing every detail that I could.

If you’re a fan of the original film, you will find much that you’re familiar with. The adapted script is remarkably similar to the film, following it almost scene for scene and line for line. The similarities begin with the fervent intercessions from George Bailey’s friends and family, followed by the angelic dialogue which results in Bailey receiving the help of Clarence, Angel Second Class. All your favorite parts of the film are here, and those who see it may find themselves laughing with delight simply at the recognition of these classic moments. When the familiar piano riff of the Charleston contest starts up at Harry Bailey’s graduation, I couldn’t help but gasp with excitement as I watched my childhood come to life.

Bailey boasts a cast upwards of two dozen actors, consisting of both veteran Anathan Theatre players, and a refreshing handful of new bodies. Narrating the story is Jeremy Seal as a dulcet-toned Radio Announcer. Continuing to impress with his vocal performances, Seal will draw you straight into a cozy fireside armchair with a voice that flows like warm cocoa, and which accurately calls back to the announcing style of the golden age of radio. In an inspired detail, Seal doubles as George Bailey’s father, Peter Bailey (here credited simply as “Pop”). Whether the radio audience will pick up on this and other similar casting choices is hard to tell, but the in-house audience is treated to a subtle bit of extra context: the implication is that the story is told from the gentle perspective of George’s late, loving father.

In his first role on our stage, John F. Rice is stunning as a young George Bailey, providing Bailey's voice for the earliest chronological scenes (he also voices George’s young son, Tommy Bailey). Rice hits every note he is given, and during the scene when he begs the distraught and violent Mr. Gower to listen to reason, my eyes were consistently filled with tears at each performance.

Disappearing into his character is a perfectly cast Maximilian Crean as Clarence, the simple but resourceful angel novice. In a nice touch, Crean’s voice actor persona is made to look like an older man, with spectacles, bow tie, and gray hair. Crean portrays the beloved character that Henry Travers gave life to in It’s a Wonderful Life as a sweetly antiquated elderly man, effortlessly embodying the character as both intimidating and humble.

The iconically perfect Mary Hatch Bailey is here played by Maria Perez in her largest role on our stage to date. Those unfamiliar with the young actress will be blown away by her charm and charisma. From the pre-show sequence where she performs classic Christmas tunes torch-song style, Perez’s control of the stage is apparent. Her performance is incredibly different from Donna Reed’s, providing a youthful tone of bubbly excitement where Reed was cool and soft-spoken. With her strong acting style, she proves to be the intellectual match of George Bailey, and the emotional pillar that the show needs.

Perhaps most remarkable is newcomer Patrick Knight, showcasing an unexpectedly nuanced performance, double casted as both Uncle Billy and Mr. Potter. The stark difference between these two characters is testament to Knight’s talent, especially as the two characters repeatedly appear in scenes together, sometimes with back-to-back lines. While Knight borrows from the performances of Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore, respectively, he makes the characters his own. Knight’s gravelly delivery conjures an image of Potter as a cruel, bloated old toad, contrasting Barrymore’s crystal-clear performance as perhaps a younger version of Potter. In turn, Knight plays Uncle Billy as less eccentric and absent-minded than Mitchell does, and this added level of lucidity brings more to the tragedy when Billy inadvertently causes the dramatic crisis.

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Gregory Demary as George Bailey and Patrick Knight as Uncle Billy - Photo by Brian Sizemore

Of course, the largest shoes to fill are those of George Bailey himself, played in the film version in what may be one of the most iconic acting turns of all time by James Stewart. Gregory Demary, who proved his dramatic stamina as Frederick Treves in last semester’s The Elephant Man, is here to step into the title role. Those who are listening for a pitch-perfect imitation of the classic film may be put off by Demary’s naturalist rendition. You’ll find no “Jimmy Stewart voice,” or any kind of characterized accent beyond Demary’s own. This is no accident; in the Academic Night talkback, Demary revealed that he is a long-time fan of It’s a Wonderful Life, and had initially considered imitating Stewart’s unmistakable voice. With Walker’s direction, Demary left this idea behind, and chose to keep his performance as pure as possible. Just as Stewart famously portrayed the Everyman, Demary brings a new voice to the character.

I confess, I was one of those who didn’t immediately accept Demary as Bailey. Despite a fine performance, and especially because of the film-accuracy of so many other details, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be hearing Jimmy Stewart’s voice. Luckily, theatre is a living, changing animal, and I thank heaven for repeated viewings, because by the time the first weekend of shows had finished, Demary had won my heart. It’s no longer Greg I hear, but George Bailey.

The cast is fleshed out with Theatre majors in various multiple roles, notably Joshua Cash as Harry Bailey, Sean Denton as St. Joseph, and Jonathan Mesco as Ernie the Taxi Driver. Patricia Voigt is very funny as the nasally-voiced Cousin Tilly, as well as the overbearing Mrs. Hatch. Emily Flood provides a very effective dual performance as both George’s mother Mrs. Bailey, and the seductive but vapid Violet. Chris Haefner, Alicia Libetti, Emily Feldkamp, Hunter McDonnell, and Francis Héroux fill out the minor characters, adding to some very funny moments in bit parts.

Another standout is Amelia Becker as Zuzu Bailey, who manages the impressive trick of topping It’s a Wonderful Life’s Karolyn Grimes in cuteness, and this as an adult woman. Her performance may be the most heartwarming thing about this play, and I still can’t hear it without melting inside a little. Nicholas Larkins and Zoë Uhrich play Mr. and Mrs. Martini with flawless character accents, and Uhrich will have you in stitches with a gag involving a goat. Larkins also provides the voice for Nick, the other inhabitant of Martini’s bar, in a very well-executed bit of character work.

Connor Kleb is hilarious in everything he does, which is quite a bit, notably performing as the school Principal, and Eustace from the Building and Loan office. Matthew Walker (John Walker’s son) simply becomes his characters in a triple-performance in three minor but memorable parts: the Head Angel, Mr. Gower, and Bert the Cop. He shines during the honeymoon sequence, providing Bert's gentle crooning with a sly wink to the audience, and he has me laughing uncontrollably each time I hear it.

The double-or-more-casting can lead to some confusion for the in-house audience. At more than one point during my first and even second viewing, I had trouble knowing when one character ended and another began. However, these are rare moments and the casting goes a long way to adding to the fun and excitement of the show.

To Describe the actors and their vocal performances is only to mention half of the visual interest on stage. What makes the set truly memorable is the large table across the back from which the sound effects are created. On this table is a collection of visually delightful foley props, each designed by Giovanni Stroik. These props, while adding a whole new dimension to the sound of the show, are also captivating to look at when in use, from a crank-operating wind machine, to an old wicker cornucopia used for a crackling fire effect. A small prop door on the table provides opening and closing sounds, while an actual, life-size, old-fashioned prop car door mounted behind the table is used for car effects. One of my favorite effects is the sound of a rock being thrown through a glass window. This is accomplished by two operators, one moving a wooden rod quickly past the microphone creating a “whirring” effect, and the other clattering a set of wind chimes against a table to make the sound of falling glass. The show has other tricks up its sleeve that add to its soundscape. An on-set filtered microphone hidden inside an old-fashioned telephone prop provides the sound effect of any character speaking across the line, and actors use real space to create audio “dissolves” by slowly walking backwards away from a microphone.

JohnPaul Kleb is the lead foley operator, with Connor Kleb and Matthew Walker close by for most of the time. Martin Kelly, Hunter McDonnell, Autumn Phillips, and Gerard O’Rourke each also provide a number of the foley effects, while also doubling as voice actors for bit parts. The design and performances of Matthew and the Kleb brothers provide some of the most entertaining visuals of the show. JohnPaul, wearing a headset and sweater vest, confidently calls out the live-to-air countdowns, embodying the young technical producer character. Matthew’s powerful performances and easygoing swagger only add to the fun of his foley work, and what he manages to do with the simple gesture of removing or replacing his suit jacket is quite astonishing. Connor, with his suspenders and natural beard, gives off the air of a radio studio veteran, going from casual foley effect to high energy vocal performance with ease. The addition of the pipe which Kleb keeps close by is the perfect touch of character and atmosphere without becoming distracting.

Bailey definitely benefits from repeated viewings. For example, George’s speech to Potter and the Loan Board (a favorite of mine, and one that I’ve used for monologue practice myself), definitely gets richer after more than one viewing, partly due to Demary’s development of his delivery and my familiarity with it, and partly due to my own wrapping my mind around how it fits into his version of the character.

The visual side of the radio station setting only interrupts the flow of the audio at two memorable points, but these are key moments that really make all the difference. During the phone call scene at Mary Hatch’s home, George finally accepts that he is in love with Mary. In the film, this is conveyed visually by bringing the characters physically close to each other, sharing a single telephone call. Here it is alluded to by an even cleverer mechanism: Demary’s voice actor persona drops his script mid-scene, forcing him to share Perez’s script. At the talkback, it was revealed that Demary and Perez came up with this idea themselves. During my first viewing, this moment actually fooled me, and it took me a few beats to pick up on the conceit. The audience member sitting next to me was left wondering if the moment was real or staged, which I suppose is a pretty high compliment. The other similar moment, which comes around in the second act when Clarence announces that George has “never been born,” is too effective to spoil. This moment, which particularly highlights Emily Flood’s expertly calculated lighting design, brings what could (to an out-of-house listener) pass as simply an excellent radio drama sharply into the third and fourth dimensions.

These kinds of interjections may leave some of the audience scratching their heads about the stylistic intent of the performance. Are they entirely necessary, or do they take the viewer out of the story? Your mileage may vary as far as taste goes, but from where I’m sitting, the main conceit of the show is subverted just enough to keep it interesting.

Sitting in the audience, you can tell how well the production has gone over. On Sunday, I had the privilege of sitting nearby a row of religious sisters, who were obviously having an amazing time. Hearing and seeing them laugh and gasp with delight was truly satisfying. Occasionally, the novelty of watching voice actors at work distracts the audience from the story, though I don’t think this is the show’s fault. For instance, when George explodes at his children and they begin to cry, these tears are procured by three adult actors. Amusing, maybe, but is it really appropriate to laugh out loud at these moments?

The nature of the performance, which relies on house speakers to make sure the in-house audience hears the actors rather than merely the projecting voices of the actors alone, calls for a deeper involvement of the behind-the-scenes tech crew, and draws great attention to their work. The audio mixing is a delicate dance, and any misstep is very noticeable and could potentially ruin an actor’s delivery, but when done right the effect is fabulous.

There are some things that just can’t be done justice to by radio. The memorable running sight gag from the film involving a banister knob is referenced here, once, but barely registers (in a further puzzling detail, there is no foley sound effect to accompany the loose knob). I can’t help but feel it would have been more effective if it were omitted entirely. However, moments like these aren’t the norm. The back of the playbill describes art as that which “makes the invisible visible.” That phrase applies to this production with surprising aptitude, with its ability to conjure images of settings, costumes, and props, without ever showing them.

There are some unexpected problems with blending mediums; for instance, occasional bits of visual comedy come up that have nothing to do with the story. Take the moment when Knight as Potter berates George Bailey over the phone, hangs up, walks five feet downstage, and then continues the scene right beside Bailey as Uncle Billy. The audience rightly finds it delightfully funny, but the radio listeners will surely be puzzled as to why such a tense moment is getting a laugh.

Perhaps the most detrimental problem with the production is that it lacks visual pacing. This is a common issue with productions designed for radio, but the visual performance makes it especially apparent. For instance, take a scene from the film: George Bailey has just agreed to consider Mr. Potter’s job offer. They shake hands, and a five or ten second pause follows. George’s face drops. He stares at his hand, bewildered. He wipes his hand on his jacket. We can tell exactly what he’s thinking based on his expression and gestures. A silent pause of ten or even five seconds is a big no-no in radio programming, but sometimes I wish it weren’t. Because we never have a moment to breathe and look around, these moments of nuance end up rushed and lacking. The prayer in Martini’s bar, perhaps the most overtly religious moment of the film, is lost here. Without the slow camera push to a close up, and the time that the luxury of film can give it, it passes at an almost blink-and-you-miss-it pace. Similarly, when George meets the Pottersville version of Mary Hatch, the impact is gone. In the film this encounter is driven by the visuals. We see Mary Hatch, the old maid librarian, all the passion and joy drained out of her, her expression of fear as George calls out to her, the uneasy chase through the streets, the heartbreaking embrace George tries to close her in as she pulls away. None of this comes across in Bailey, though I suspect the script did the scene no favors.

But these moments are passing; Bailey hits the mark far more often than it misses it. Your heart too will be won when the cast begins the triumphant closing songs, and Feldkamp delivers the final line (hint: it’s the title of the play). Perhaps the most comprehensive comment that can be said about the performance is that it makes you want to watch the film. I’m watching the film now, as I write this article. Bailey is faithful to the source material enough to bring back the lump-in-the-throat nostalgia, but different enough to encourage one to check back in on the film that inspired it. Refreshingly, watching the film has made me look forward to seeing the performance again. Though I had gone into it doubtful, I am now very glad that a recorded audio copy of the play will exist. I hope I get to listen to it at the Christmas season every year.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Two Years Later ...

A lot has changed over two years. It's been about that long since I've been active here. Even then, a quick glance over my post history has made me realize that I had posted almost nothing of real value for a long time. A song review from March 2015 is the closest thing to the content I'd like to be producing that I've posted since then. Pretty much everything else has been a series of reposted academic papers, or some images of mediocre concept art with a bit of fleeting description.

Why have I chosen my last undergrad year to start posting again? How do I have time? For one thing, a couple of months ago my projected schedule opened up in a big way. I may get to writing about that.

I feel like I've done most of my growing in the past two years or so. As a result, I've learned quite a bit, especially about myself. I would like to share my stories and experiences with my readers, and maybe some of the knowledge and wisdom I've picked up along the way. Secondly, I'd like to review and analyze some of my favorite stuff, whether film, television, theatre, music, or any other kind of art or entertainment. And finally, if I can find topics worthy of public interest, I'd like to share some of my more academic writing, on philosophy, theology, literature, history, science, and more. I'll be happiest when I can smoothly combine all of these goals into a cohesive whole.

Coming back to my blog, I've changed a few things. No more is the comic-book background; instead you can now see some of my own scribbles. I've also added to the right a trail of photographs from the past couple of years to chronicle how I've grown.

Perhaps the most melancholy thing I noticed when revisiting my blog is my humorous little poll on the bottom right hand corner. When I created it, I had it set to end on what would be over three years later, almost as a joke. It closed January 1st, 2016, without anyone even noticing.

That was almost two years ago as it is, but it still makes me think about endings, and also beginnings. Here's to, hopefully, a more consistent run of more meaningful content to come.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Doctor Who Review - "The Magician's Apprentice"

The premiere episode of Doctor Who this year, despite ending on a sharp cliffhanger, was better than any of its series finales in recent memory. This is a very good sign.

I've been more excited for series 9 than any other Doctor Who series I've lived through, and last weekend's episode only confirmed my hopes. We may be looking at the best-written, best-conceived set of episodes since the show's revival over ten years ago.

I'd like to start reviewing episodes of this show as they come out, but I'm afraid I can't do that without MAXIMUM SPOILERS. So beware. Also, if you haven't yet, take advantage of the BBC's (perhaps only temporary) generosity and watch the episode online legally for free. No joke.

The tone that this first episode sets for the series is lighter than that of last year's, with strong emphasis on the brilliant chemistry between the three leads: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), and Missy (Michelle Gomez). At the same time, it has a realism and melancholia about it that makes it more effective than most of last year's "dark" series. The episode also does something that characterizes the best Doctor Who stories in that it gracefully balances character, plot, and environment, with spectacular results.

When I was trying to figure out what made this episode seem so fresh and different, I realized that we never see the Doctor inside of the Tardis; in fact, we only get a fleeting glimpse of the Tardis interior at all. For that matter, aside from the cold open, we don't see the titular character until half way through the episode.

These choices do not detract from the episode, rather they are carefully calculated to bring the focus to where it matters: the absence of the Doctor from the lives of his friends (Clara and Missy) who are genuinely worried for his safety.

Clara, who has been promised to live out her golden years this season, is in rare form, managing to remain cold and confident while still being warm and cuddly when necessary. In another departure from last season, we see very little of her life at school—this episode doesn't have time for B stories.

And then there's Missy. She arguably stole the show in series 8, and it looks like she might do the same again. Besides being an absolute pleasure to watch, she gets some of the funniest lines (one of my favorites is when she exasperatedly repeats the word "anachronisms" after hearing an electric guitar in 1138 A.D. Essex). But she isn't just comic relief; she delivers as a positively despicable villain as well. When she and Clara come face-to-face, there is a delightfully Mission: Impossible vibe to the music and mise-en-scène, and an unexpected bit of cruel menace will remind you why Missy is feared across the universe.

Now about that guitar. That particular anachronism comes in during what may be Capaldi's most iconic shot as the Doctor, so far at least, if not for the rest of his run. The reveal is set up so perfectly that I remember having my breath slightly taken away, and thinking: "is that a tank?" Capaldi's performance of his metal rendition of the Doctor Who theme is a nice nod to his own punk-rocker status, and you can't help but smile when he begins to play Oh, Pretty Woman when he spots Missy and Clara from afar (I don't know what I like better about this moment: Clara's reaction, or the fact that you don't know which woman the reference is meant for, if not both).

All this, and I've barely said a word about the plot. I guess it's hard to analyze when I've only seen the first of two parts. At its simplest, the plot has to do with the Doctor's death, or at least what he foresees as his own death, and what it has to do with another one of his oldest enemies.

"The Doctor is dying" has become an all-too-familiar trope (and that's not even counting regeneration drama), and one which I dislike because it never truly delivers. This time, however, the use of it isn't insufferable, because the story never relies on it for its tension.

The focus of the death conceit is meant to reveal how the Doctor would respond to his upcoming demise. Missy describes the way a Time Lord is supposed to die as full of "meditation, repentance, and acceptance ... contemplation of the absolute." This, of course, is exactly what the Doctor cannot achieve. We see his hyper-intelligent ADHD on display in the prequel shorts "Prologue" and "The Doctor's Meditation," in which his constant worrying and procrastination leads him to abandon repentance, and throw an explosive three-week party (Clara aptly references Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night). This party is comparable to the two-hundred year "farewell tour" of series 6, but, despite being on a much smaller scale, I find the former much more effective. The Doctor's eccentricity ("it's my party, and all of me is invited") doesn't alienate us him, it only brings us closer to his humanity, if such a term could be applied to him. When Clara and the Doctor are reunited, it feels real. There's a great shot during their hug of the Doctor's tortured eyes glancing over his sunglasses—if you watch it enough times, it will start to haunt you. When he meets Missy, she too seems like an old friend, despite the fact that he's supposed to think she's dead. The ease into which they slide into buddy banter is perfectly captured.

But the plot must be pushed forward, here by a new monster called Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell), who more evokes Star Wars Sith Lords and Harry Potter Death Eaters than a Doctor Who alien. He leads our trio to his employer, who, as I'm sure you know, is Davros. The events of the cold open, the Doctor's assumed death, and the words of the Fourth Doctor in "Genesis of the Daleks" that we hear again in "The Magician's Apprentice," all of these things are connected, though only implicitly. This ambiguity, this refusal to face the elephant in the room is what creates the tension of the episode. This is what makes the Doctor's shame compelling. We really don't know how bad his "bad thing" was.

Bringing back the Tom Baker-era reference to the question of whether or not the means justifies the end and giving it immediate relevance is a bit of thematic brilliance, even if the coincidence of the cold open is hard to swallow. It's actually rather interesting when you consider the implication that, even if the Doctor avoided such opportunities (killing evil dictators before they become powerful), he would eventually stumble across one, if only by accident, where he would be forced to make a decision. We don't get to find out his decision in this episode, but it will inevitably be the focus of the next.

The second half of the episode has some great nostalgia triggers. Besides the Doctor interacting with Davros (Julian Bleach), and several references to their past dialogues, we get multiple Dalek models, and we revisit their home planet, Skaro (the reveal of the planet involves one of my new favorite bits of technobabble: "syncing with the spectrum"). We get a great idea of the iconic good versus evil relationship of the Doctor and Davros, of the conflict that "survived the time war." Davros gets some deliciously evil, yet still character-rich lines ("Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?" "Let this be my final victory, let me hear you say it, just once: compassion is wrong.")

I should admit that Missy and Clara's "deaths" had no emotional effect on me, nor, while being emotionally effective, did the Doctor's begging for Clara's life convince me she was actually about to die. No one questions (or so I thought) that these characters will be back for the next episode. I understand that, again, the episode doesn't rely on this tension, but this fake-out trope, similar to the one I mentioned earlier, is tiresome, manipulative, and, honestly, not necessary, given the other great sources of drama in the show. While this is the biggest flaw of "The Magician's Apprentice," I thought the episode was a fantastic start to the series ... though perhaps I'll need to see part two before I can judge it truly.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On Pilgrimage

Nowadays, it is rare to hear the word “pilgrimage.” Even more rare is when someone should invite you to participate in a pilgrimage. Somehow, though, when this very thing happened to me a few months ago, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. My time with Gioventù Studentesca hasn’t been long, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it isn’t, it’s predictable.

It wasn’t until well after the pilgrimage that I realized what a senseless thing to do it would seem to someone not led by my motivations. To walk ten miles from one church to another, across an unfriendly landscape, carrying a statue on a litter on my shoulders, no less. Many would call this absurd.

This realization has caused me to question myself: Why should I want to go on a pilgrimage? Perhaps suffer discomfort and inconvenience? And most importantly, does this pilgrimage change anything in any substantial and meaningful way? I certainly was far from a fully realized person before this pilgrimage, so if it didn’t get me closer, was it worth it?

One reason to go on a pilgrimage is one that made itself present to me more than I expected, indeed, more than had ever even crossed my mind. We go on pilgrimage to bear witness to others. How strange it must be to see ordinary people walking along a trail where no one was meant to walk (seriously, I don’t remember crossing someone else’s path a single time). There was something definitely joyful about jarring people who seemed to have no business being jarred during their daily routine. But miraculously, people looked at us, people smiled, they honked their horns in approval. Some even asked "what on earth are you doing, and what’s that you’re carrying?" I almost wouldn’t know how to answer them, I’m just now figuring it out myself.

I, like many, have a very distracting life. And as most young people are, I’m exceedingly preoccupied with my future. I’m always trying to avoid the bad outcomes of life, and working to make the best one possible happen. But this whirlwind can make it hard to think about anything else. Now, I don’t think you should give up on your life plans, just consider why you have them.

While going on a ten-mile pilgrimage may seem like a pointless trip to nowhere, I think it was just what was needed. All my plans for what I want to be in the future mean nothing if I can’t find worth in what I am now. I was able to slow down and just walk, not for the sake of getting somewhere, but for the sake of being someone. And not just being someone, but encountering someone. I believe that God loves to meet us during events that are paradoxically both everyday, and bizarre. It’s His way of saying "Look! This could happen all the time, if you let it."

This pilgrimage opened up a new way of looking at the relationship between God and reality precisely because it took me somewhere I didn’t know I wanted to go. I saw with fresh eyes the nature of grace in the same way that a long absence from a familiar place brings back memories you forgot you had. It was a way of bringing my life back to the origin, finding a meaning to my plans that I couldn’t find while looking at them from the inside. Sometimes you just need that one crazy person to bring you outside of yourself. It’s better out there.

This article was originally written in response to the August 15th, 2014 Youngstown Marian Pilgrimage. All editing and formatting liberties are taken to reproduce this article.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Musicians in the Orchestra

This oil painting by Edgar Degas was made in 1872, and gives us a worm’s eye view of a stage on which ballerinas dance, and places us directly behind three musicians in the orchestra pit.

The musicians that have their backs to us play, from left to right,  a violin, a cello, and an oboe, respectively. Along with their instruments, their differing hair colors (brown, black, and white) give these men character: they aren’t just standard extras in the performance, they are humans contributing their passion to it.

Beyond layers of sheet music and violin bow tips, we see the edge of the stage. A line of flowery-dressed dancers trails off into the background, while one stands apart from them, gazing forward open-armed. Though she smiles toward the audience, the position that we are in makes it seem that she is looking towards the pit, and by extension, at us.

The backdrop that the ballerinas are set against is abstract and impenetrable. Wide brush strokes of silver, blue, and green only just define a tree and sky. The crude and scattered markings become smoother around the figures of the ballerinas. It is obvious that Degas wants us to be paying attention to the musicians in the foreground—the little people whom he has made big.

The image is split down the middle horizontally by the stage, defining two separate worlds. The ballerinas are adored by the audience, floating beatifically across the stage, while the musicians below them often go unnoticed. The top of the image is also somewhat divided, but vertically, subtly pointing out the greater admiration given to the leading role than to the background characters. Upon close inspection, one can see contempt on each one of the secondary ballerinas faces. It’s hard to believe that this is an accident, given the expression of the lead dancer.

It’s likely that Degas was inspired to paint this image after witnessing a performance similar to it, and realizing the important roles the musicians and minor dancers play. In creating Musicians in the Orchestra, he lets us into his mind; we enter into a realization of the profound within the forgotten details.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Stoning of Saint Stephen

This oil painting from 1625 is the first work of the Dutch Golden Age master, Rembrandt van Rijn. It tells the biblical story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, who was stoned until dead by the Jewish citizens for his Christian faith.

The image strongly uses light and dark, or chiaroscuro, in its layout. We see a rear view of a man on the back of a horse, as well as one of Stephen’s executioners, both in relative darkness. In contrast, Stephen, surrounded by a group of men holding stones, is in direct, almost heavenly light. You can even make out the very line that separates the light from the darkness, as if it were a spotlight on the action.

Strangely, Stephen wears a bright red robe with tassels and intricate design, while the men around him wear simple white or dull colored tunics. Though this may be historically unlikely, it certainly draws the eye towards the Saint, who is the focal point of the painting. The man on the horse is also in scarlet, though, and wears a feathered turban. Behind him and to the left, even deeper into the darkness, is a similarly dressed man, and in the background, on a hill, stand a huddle of officials watching the stoning, and talking among themselves. All of their clothing seems to be inspired by Southern European Renaissance garb.

Even farther into the background stands an aged castle, beautifully designed and overgrown with foliage. It stands against a foreboding grey sky, one that looks like it may at any time open up to witness the tragic and transcendent event below.

We find Stephen himself on his knees, one hand stretched up towards the heavens, the other opening up towards the ground. The line of motion of his arms gives his figure a sense of urgency and dynamism. In his face we see fear, but also acceptance of his fate. His eyes squint in anticipation, his lips purse.

Directly above him, a bearded man stands ready to crush his head with a stone. His arms are raised above his head dramatically, forming that familiar triangle shape. The other men’s faces generally display either hatred or agony, but this man is collected, exhibiting only a stern pity. Next to him, we see a man who has just released his stone. Catching Stephen in the small of the back, the stone is shown in midair just beyond the edge of his side.

This painting uses prominent contrast of light and color to illustrate religious persecution, and the humanity of the players, which often gets muddled up in the process. Though our sympathy lies with Stephen, the design of his murderers leads us to think about their emotions and motivations, as if made clear by the same divine light that illuminates their bodies.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Resurrection of Jesus

This 1424 image is by Master Francke, a German Gothic painter. It shows Christ emerging from His stone tomb, surrounded by drowsy guardsmen.

The style of the painting is idealistic, but with a sense of caricature, especially of the guards around the tomb. Heads are made large for their bodies, and the faces are grotesque and distorted.

In the center of the painting, we see a tomb that looks more like a standard coffin than the traditional cave-like structure we’re familiar with. Christ has His back to the viewers, one leg over the edge of the tomb. He’s draped in a triumphant red cloak, and holds a scepter bearing a red banner and capped with a gold cross. His halo is nothing but a thin circle around His head; it uses the golden morning light in the background as its coloring. Though we can only see the top half of Christ’s face, His eye and eyebrow convey a sense of strength and determination.

Against the horizon stand brown rocky cliffs and evergreen trees. They are simply crafted, and are designed to lead the eye back to the main action.

In the foreground we see about ten of the grotesque guards, all dressed in bright and diverse clothing, and completely surrounding the tomb. Many of them carry spears or swords. While some of their faces are hidden in their sleep, others seem just about to open their eyes and catch sight of the escaping figure of Christ.

The image lacks realistic perspective, and seems to crawl up rather than back into space. The general composition of the image presses flat against the viewing plane, and uses the triangular shape of the guards, the tomb, and Christ Himself to point directly to Christ’s face.

What is the artist trying to show us with this image? Jesus isn’t here to just stare back at us: He has places to go. Whether it’s over the hills we see in the background, or past the edge of the painting, He is headed out to complete His mission. His stare also seems to fall on the sleeping and inattentive men around Him, too distracted to notice the glorious event they might have been a part of. Whatever we do, we certainly should not be like the passive soldiers in this painting. I think they are representative of, not those who are purely evil, but those who simply take no notice of the Christian life, like in the parable when the seed falls upon the path.

This painting can be seen as a call to action: to get behind Christ and follow Him into eternity. We’ve witnessed His triumph over death, and now we can walk away from those who are spiritually asleep, and wake up to new life.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.