Road Trip to Asheville: Day 2: Brews and Food

Cocktail Coaster at Grove Park Inn

Cocktail Coaster at Grove Park Inn

A tepid rainy Friday in Asheville, I begin my day with my customary puja of mediation and yoga before popping in to the Grove Park’s Executive Club Lounge for a light breakfast of yogurt, house made granola, fruit and tea with a side of smoked salmon, pickled onion and capers.  I adore good granola and have often mused over the prospect of investigating home/in-house granolas for a comparison story – may still do that someday- and found the Grove Park’s granola to be quite good.  Crunchy nuggets of oats and sweetener (possibly agave) accented with dried apricots, cherries and cranberries (I am guessing here as I neglected to speak to the chef about it) but overall a medium amount of crunch with enough flavor to be distinctive without being overloaded.  I liked it.  In fact, everything I ate in the Exec Lounge was wonderful and often better than the hotel’s restaurants.  Other breakfast offerings that morning (they switch it out daily) included an egg sandwich on an english muffin, a selection of cereals, bagels, pastries, croissants, juices, coffee and a stunning array of fresh fruits and berries. Oh and the tea,  I became practically addicted to the herbal chai and was practically moved to tears the following morning when the Blue Ridge Dining Room failed to offer it.

I met Tracy Johnston-Crum, the Grove Park Inn’s Marketing Director and Julia Akers for a tour of the property.  The Grove Park Inn has quite a history.  Its creator, Edwin Wiley Grove made his fortune concocting and selling a tasteless quinine tonic for warding off maleria and other diseases and seeing the potential of Asheville as a place of respite and recovery.  He purchased the property where the Grove Park and surrounding neighborhood now exists and began adding to his millions by selling real estate.  He saved the plum piece of property for his vision of an Inn and in 1912 commissioned his son-in-law to design and build the distinctive flagship stone structure depicted in post cards as the main building.  Grove demanded that the building be operational in one year so 450 workers where hired to work 10 hour days six days a week to complete the Inn on time.  They did it and the doors opened for guests 362 days later.

Among presidents and other luminaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed at the Inn while his wife, Zelda, convalessed at a sanitorium near by.  And of course there is a ghost (what cool old place would be complete without one?) known charmingly as “The Pink Lady”.  The legend goes that she was the unregistered “guest” of a politician who fell (or perhaps was pushed) to her death from a 5th floor balcony in the Atrium in the wee hours of a morning during the 1920’s.  Not wanting to draw attention to the situation, the management had her body rolled up in a blanket or something and disposed. The incident remained unmentioned until guests began to see a pink mist at times and some unexplained pranks happened around the hotel.  Makes a good story at any rate.

Following the brief tour of the Sammons and Vanderbult wings including glimpses into Horizons and the Blue Ridge Dining Room, we hopped on a Tour Trolley to see Asheville.  We stopped at the Mast General Store two levels of wood floored old fashioned hodge podge. A place where one can buy candy out of a barrel, find an unusual kitchen gadget or buy the hippy- inspired clothing that abounds in this relaxed, outdoorsy town.

For lunch we stopped at the Wicked Weed, Asheville’s latest micro-brew pub.  Asheville is known for beer, the perfect casual drink for such a laid back place.  It is also known for good food and a farm-to-table mindset. The restaurant was expecting us and designed a beer tasting with one of the brewmasters.  Sadly, for you beer enthusiasts out there I have little interest in micro-brewing and found the tastes of all their beers to be too pungent and raw. I failed to be enlightened as to the process or nuances of the Wicked Weeds signature beers because it grew so loud in the place that the brewmaster’s lecture became inaudible.  I do recall one very fruity beer that smacked of grapefruit. Anyway, everyone else seemed to be enjoying their tastes.  Appetizers were very good, particularly the onion dip with house made potato chips, the mussels and the calamari which is fried in cornmeal making us gluten free people very happy.  The bison burger I ordered was hard, dry and virtually flavorless.  It is easy to overcook bison because it is leaner than beef and the cook made this mistake. My lunch sat in my stomach like the rock it was and I was pretty miserable for the remainder of the afternoon.  The service could have been better as well.  I was never asked about side options and was automatically served fries where some of my dining mates were brought delicious grilled brussels sprouts.  It also took almost an hour for our food to come out of the kitchen once ordered.  We were there for almost three hours with beer tasting, lunch and a 15 minute tour of the brewery. Wicked Weed is only four months old and is possibly still working out the kinks.  My recommendation is to go for aps and a beer and stay away from the main courses which are mostly sandwiches and less than stellar by my experience.

On the flip side of my mood which was dampened by the arduous lunch and pouring rain, was a quick visit to my favorite place in Asheville and really, one of my favorite hang outs on the planet, Battery Park Book Exchange.  I love this place because it is a champagne/coffee bar packed floor almost to high ceiling with tidy shelves of books where one can lounge on tasteful leather furniture set on fine orientals  surrounded by Chinese red painted walls and nice art to (prepare for a shock) read a physical copy of a newspaper or an actual hard bound book.  It reminds of sitting in a sophisticated intellectual’s Park Ave apartment library at any time on a weekend day. A true literary conclave. Plus dogs are welcome – as they are almost everywhere in Asheville.

Asheville also has a designated Arts district, a place that evolved as most art districts do, industry went bust and warehouse rentals became cheap encouraging artists to move in and oh, you know the rest… the next thing you know there is a restaurant opening and tourists coming in droves.  The Asheville arts district is situated along the river and is on its way to becoming a true commercial destination as Sierra Nevada plans to open a brewery there with a restaurant.  One cool thing about it is that people will paddle in canoes and kayaks from above and below the district, pull their boats out at a designated boat landing and then walk around the area and grab a bite to eat.

I got back to the Grove Park just in time to get down to the spa and take the cold plunge, an experience much needed to wake me up for dinner.  In a designated women’s area of the spa, next to the eucalyptus room, sauna and steam room lies a “C” -shaped hot tub nestled by an in ground cylinder of a cold water about four feet in diameter and maybe six feet deep.  One soaks in the hot tub with or without jets running until they are quite warm then quickly plunge feet first into the cold pool. It was just the exhilerating stimulous I needed for the second long reasonably unsatisfying dining experience of the day at the Inn’s Horizons restaurant.

But Cocktails in the Great Hall with the General Manager first. The Grove Park Inn has created several specialty cocktails in honor of its 100th birthday that come in glasses you can take home.  Having a penchant for ghost stories, I tried the Pink Lady which was tasty yet sweet then switched to a Corset (a glorified Margarita).  Below is a list of all the Centennial Cocktails:

Sunset Terrace Caipirinha

11⁄2 OZ 10 CANE RUM

1 OZ GINGER LIME SIMPLE SYRUP 1⁄4 CUP BLUEBERRIES

CLUB SODA

SPLASH OF SPRITE

2 LIME WEDGES

Muddle lime, simple syrup & blueberries. Add rum, ice & add soda, top with Sprite. Garnish with blueberries & lime wedge.

Grove Park Inn is nestled on the western- facing slope of the Sunset Mountain within the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Bootlegger

1 OZ TROY & SONS’

PLATINUM MOONSHINE

6 OZ CRAFT KÖLSCH BEER

1 OZ STAR ANISE &

CLEMENTINE HONEY SYRUP

Build in glass over ice. Garnish with an orange wheel.

Bootleggers & Moonshiners worked hand in hand producing & distributing alcohol during Prohibition.

Grove’s Tasty Chill Tonic

11⁄2 OZ BULLEIT BOURBON 1 OZ SIMPLE SYRUP

1 ORANGE WHEEL

1 LEMON WHEEL

CLUB SODA

Muddle fruit & simple syrup. Add ice, bourbon & club soda.

Dr. E.W. Grove was made famous for his “Tasteless” Chill Tonic, sold as a preventative for malaria. Grove touted “It’ll cure what ails you!”

The Corset

11⁄2 OZ DON JULIO BLANCO 1⁄2 OZ GRAND MARNIER

1 OZ FRESH LIME JUICE

1⁄2 OZ AGAVE SYRUP

Shake vigorously with ice, strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lime wedge. Sea salted rim optional.

The Corset gave women the hourglass figure they were looking for. Our version may not enhance your figure, but it won’t add to it either.

Love Potion No. 13

11⁄2 OZ CAPTAIN MORGAN BLACK SPICED RUM

1⁄2 OZ COINTREAU

2 DROPS GRAPEFRUIT BITTERS 2 OZ BEET SIMPLE SYRUP CLUB SODA

Combine, pour over ice & top with soda. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Dr. Grove’s tonics could have cured what ails you, our Love Potion No. 13 may just “beet” the ailments of love.

Perfect “Inn” Manhatten

2 OZ BULLEIT BOURBON 1⁄2 OZ BRANDIED

CHERRY RESERVE

5 DROPS BLOOD ORANGE- VANILLA BITTERS

EQUAL PARTS SWEET &

DRY VERMOUTH

Combine over ice, shake throughly, and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with brandied cherries.

The Grove Park Inn was built in 1913. Completed in less than a year, opening on July 12, 1913.

The Pink Lady

11⁄2 OZ KETEL ONE VODKA

1⁄2 OZ GRAND MARNIER

1⁄2 OZ PISTACHIO SIMPLE SYRUP 11⁄2 OZ AC,AI & POMEGRANATE JUICE

Combine, shake well & strain into glass. Top with Grand Marnier. Serve with a pistachio biscotti on the side.

It is belived that a ghost of a young woman surrounded by a mist of pink haunts the Palm Court, where she fell to her death in the 1920’s.

Donald Ross “Tee”

11⁄2 OZ HENDRICK’S GIN

1⁄2 OZ EARL GREY AND BAY

LEAF SIMPLE SYRUP

2 DROPS CELERY BITTERS

CLUB SODA

Combine and serve over ice. Garnish with an orange wheel.

The Grove Park Inn’s famed 18 hole golf course was designed by legendary course designer Donald Ross in 1926.

Seely’s Craftsman

1 OZ BULLEIT BOURBON 6 OZ CRAFT BROWN ALE 1⁄2 OZ MAPLE SYRUP

Build in a glass over ice. Garnish with brown sugar crusted black pepper bacon.

Fred Loring Seely was Edwin Wiley Grove’s son-in-law. He oversaw the construction of the Grove Park & managed it for 27 years.

Horizons is known for its view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasts spectacular sunset sightings.  The view is indeed splendid and we were graced with a decent sunset which added to the pleasant ambiance. Under the leadership of chef Duane Fernandes, obviously this is considered a pretty special place as one couple was having a romantic dinner marked by the three dozen long stem roses set on their table and several other patrons were rather well dressed.  I was thrilled by the three mini gluten free biscuits presented to me in place of regular bread and the prospect of eating something other than red meat for dinner.  To be fair, the menu looked good but almost every dish featured something with gluten in it. I opted for a potato, leek, celery soup to start and roasted chicken with vegetables which was offered with pasta but adapted to gluten free with mashed potatoes.

The soup was so salty it was almost inedible.  It tasted very much like Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup from a can to me but with a rougher texture (an improvement). I ate less than half the bowl, unable to tolerate it even for politeness sake.  The chicken dish was dull. Perhaps the substitution made it more bland than it would normally be but it was simply boring,  The chicken itself was perfectly cooked, however, juicy and tender.  Dessert was the highlight. A sharp lemon custard served with a blackberry sorbet balanced by a glass of ice wine.  I could have eaten a gallon of this mouth-puckering concoction it was so light yet sharply flavorful.

Service was slow though the staff were all very pleasant and accommodating.

Dinner which began at 7:00 finished at 9:50.

I was in bed by 10:30 in order to be well rested for zip lining at Navitat the next morning.

VMFA Film Noir Program at Second Street Gallery

This workshop is geared towards educators but is open to anyone interested.

 

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Piedmont Council of the Arts News from PCA
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
Arts Education Workshop

Cast in a Darker Shadow: Walker Evans, Edward Hopper, and Film Noir
Wednesday, May 1, 4:30-7:00pm
at Second Street Gallery

PCA and Second Street Gallery in collaboration with the Office of Statewide Partnerships of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts present Cast in a Darker Shadow: Walker Evans, Edward Hopper, and Film Noir on Wednesday, May 1 from 4:30 to 7:00pm at Second Street Gallery.

Attendees can expect a combination of entertaining stories, discussion, and hands-on exercises. Educators will receive a CD of images courtesy of the VMFA, posters, lesson plans to take back to their classroom, and will be eligible for re-certification points.

Join Jeffrey Allison, Paul Mellon Collection Educator of the VMFA, as he explores these artists who celebrated America without filter, focusing on common people in common lives and places. The photographer Walker Evans and painter Edward Hopper were part of the generation of American artists who tore themselves away from European ideals at the start of the 20th century. Within those scenes lies a powerful silence in which directness creates a visual anxiety as we wonder what has just happened and what will happen next. Participants will discuss the emotional power of space and shadow in Walker Evans’ photographs and explore Edward Hopper’s love of and direct influence on classic Film Noir from The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep to modern reinterpretations including works by Quentin Tarantino and Wim Wenders.

This workshop is intended for teachers, educators, and all those interested in art! Refreshments will be provided.

This event is FREE for PCA and Second Street Gallery members ($5 for non-members). Advance registration required. To register for this workshop, please email info@charlottesvillearts.org by April 30. Questions? Please call (434)977-7284.

Second Street Gallery is located at 115 Second Street SE, Charlottesville, VA 22903.

Piedmont Council for the ArtsP.O. Box 2426, Charlottesville, VA 22902 | 434.971.2787 | info@charlottesvillearts.org | www.charlottesvillearts.org

Road Trip: Asheville, North Carolina- Day 1: Aaahhhh, The Spa

 

The front entrance to The Grove Park Inn

The front entrance to The Grove Park Inn

 

I have been to Asheville a couple of times and frankly it is so similar to my home in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia (both towns are associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains) that I am a little jaded in my personal feelings towards the place in terms of the fluid like mountain scenery which most people find quite stunning. Both towns are Mecca to outdoorsy types who enjoy hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing etc as well as mindfulness junkies, farm-to-table foodies and liberal thinking, craftsy/ artsy types.  The towns differ enough to make a visit to Asheville a must on any Mountain or Southern tour one might be inclined to indulge.  Charlottesville has the Jefferson legacy featured prominently in Monticello and The University of Virginia peppered with a hint of “Old Money” attitude, wine and horses.  Asheville is a destination for relaxation and rejuvenation washed down with a locally crafted beer particularly marked by the fabulous Vanderbilt vacation home Biltmore and the poshly rustic, Grove Park Inn.

 

On a previous visit, I had the pleasure of staying at the Biltmore Inn.  This time I have the good fortune to be a guest at the Grove Park Inn, invited to check out their Centennial music festival activities and the spectacular spa. Built in 1913, The Grove Park Inn is celebrating its centennial year while experiencing significant changes instigated by its new owner KLS corp.  Some of the updates have already been made like new Arts and Crafts casings for the massive columns in the grand hall and the restoration of one of the massive fireplaces that flank the grand hall to working order. Other changes are still to come  such as the extension of the sunset terrace by paving over the kitchen gardens and reworking the restaurants’ menus.

 

I arrived on a breezy, partly sunny, Thursday afternoon in mid-April at the great stone structure originally built to attract the masses to the mountains for a little turn of the last century R&R.  The Great Hall was vacuous and dark, the design intention was that the natural characteristics of the environment contain healing properties so the lighting is purposefully dim, the fireplaces generate warmth and the stone structure purportedly emits positive energy. Whatever the reason, it was dark but most relaxing.  I checked in to the Executive Club floor which is located on the 11th floor in the Vanderbilt wing, a nice perk as I probably would not have otherwise chosen it due to expense.  The room was large and decorated with tan and brown earth tones and a high ceiling painted light blue to possibly indicate the sky.   Semi-arts and crafts furniture, (I say “semi” because the king-sized bed rested on a ’70’s like polished gold base which was supposed to be disguised with an ill -fitting rust colored fabric) accented by an electric fireplace decorated the room.  The bathroom was a showstopper though, all stone with a jacuzzi tub, white porcelain sink bowls and a shower built for two with four different options for showering including two types of rain showers and a four head wall shower choice.  Sumptuously  scented Grove Park Spa featured bath products are featured.

 

The two main attractions at the Grove Park Inn are the underground spa and the golf course with very few options for families so leave the kids at home or venture up to The Grove Park’s sister property, The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia which is mostly family oriented.  Since I don’t know anything about golf, I would be a disservice for me to attempt to describe  the course or how wonderful it is.  All I know is that lots of golfers from Charlotte, Charleston and Atlanta like to golf there.  The Spa however is a different story.

 

A self-proclaimed spa junky, I will say that the Spa at the Grove Park Inn Resort (its proper name) is truly unique and quite spectacular.  It is 43,000 square feet of treatment rooms, rock caverns water features and fire places centered lounge areas. Oh and then there is the Spa Cafe  which has the best food on the property for the health conscious. AND the ubiquitous spa boutique where this writer fawned over the high quality very soft workout and lounge clothing, even purchasing (gasp) a reversible Speedo swimsuit.

 

There are two ways to get to the spa entrance.  One is by walking down the cascade of stone stairs from the main building.  The other is via rock lined tunnels that connect the Sammons and Vanderbilt wings to the spa foyer.  Guests are provided green or white robes in their rooms that may be worn to the spa. From Monday through Thursday non-hotel guests are welcome to make spa appointments or just come to hang out for a fee.  Friday through Sunday the Spa is only open to paying guests.  White robed club floor guests are allowed unlimited access to the spa and its many water features at no extra charge but the green robed regular guests must pay to visit this cave of calmness.

 

The entire space is designed to emphasize the healing properties of the elements and appeal the all five senses.  The first thing I noticed about the facility was the glorious smell.  Custom made essential oils are automatized throughout. Dim lighting and earthy tones accentuate the call to release tension and chill for a while as soothing music laced with bird songs is piped all over. Lockers are provided in a comfortable sized locker room with adjacent dressing rooms for the more modest. Green and Orange Ginger tea or infused water is available at a few different stations and little snacks of dried fruit, nuts and chocolate chips.

 

The spa boasts both indoor and outdoor water features.  All water is purified with saline which is gentler on the senses than chlorinated pools.  There is a heated, indoor lap pool with underwater speakers that pump music into submerged swimmer’s ears, a multitude of fiber optic lights set in the dome above to simulate stars.  Also indoors are two heated water fall pools that dump massaging running wanter on the shoulders and backs of people who venture underneath, a cold plunge pool set off in its own little grotto, a pool for lingering and a heated outdoor pool with a stone fireplace nearby.

 

The Spa's lap pool.

The Spa’s lap pool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wanted to try something indigenous to the place itself so I choose to experience the Fire, Rock, Water and LIght treatment.  Here is the spa brochure description of that service:

 

FIRE, ROCK, WATER AND LIGHT

The crème de la crème of The Spa! Our signature treatment blends the natural elements of The Spa — Fire, Rock, Water and Light — into one luxurious experience. Treatment includes indulgences such as a full body exfoliation, Vichy waterfall massage, softening soak, healing body masque and a relaxing massage. Feels like an entire day at The Spa!

 

Sounds wonderful, right?

 

After checking in, I was escorted to the Women’s Locker Room where a sumptuous spa robe was provided along with special spa flip flops and a locker assigned.  Once de-clothed and robed, a staffer led me to the waiting area in the silent retreat room, a space dedicated to quiet appointed with comfy leather chairs, a big stone fireplace and large windows that were open to allow the evening mountain breeze and natural light into the room. Shortly, my treatment provider, Jason, a nice looking, gentle young man, greeted me with a soft warm cupping my hand in both of his. Every member of the staff I encountered used a reassuring, mesmerizing sotto voce further emphasizing the designation of this place for respite.  Jason led me to a special treatment room for this, the spa’s signature service.  The room is round in shape to soften sound.  A Vichy shower table set in the middle, a soaking tub and a shower.

 

I settled face up on the table and prepared for 80 minutes of exposure to the elements.  I was jelly after the first 10 minutes and enjoyed a world class, professional treatment.  Grove Park, as it is set in the middle of conservative North Carolina, adhere’s to the modesty rules common in more rural parts of North America of the strategic placement of towels over the breasts (women), buttocks and frontal private parts unlike European spas – just so you conservative spa goers out there know you would be perfectly comfortable as I could care less about such things.  The entire treatment was expertly executed and at the end my skin was delightfully soft,  all my travel angst  had been washed and stone massaged away and I felt fabulous.  To top it off, Jason brought me a glass of champagne and a pair of large juicy chocolate covered strawberries.  Yep, I felt quite spoiled.

 

A light dinner followed in the Spa Cafe where Head Chef, David Mulder, served a refreshing tasting menu of spa favorites.  This was by far my favorite meal of the weekend because it was well thought out with a variety of flavors, the ingredients all looked and tasted super fresh and the presentation was artful.  The first course was a medley of two goat cheeses and a sheep’s cheese with some berries little toasts and a house made pear butter to balance the tartness of the cheeses.  Next Chilled Melon Soup (watermelon,feta cheese and mint oil), an Asheville Artisan salad of baby lettuce, cherry tomatoes, english cucumbers, herbed artichoke hearts, greek olives, house basil vinaigrette, and a Grilled Vegetable and Hummus Wrap (grilled portabello, zucchini, squash, and roasted red peppers with hummus- mine was wrapped in cucumber strips) and Pecan and Caramel Creme Brûlée were all served on the same plate in charming little servings. The flavors in all of these dishes were balanced and interesting without being overpowering. The Melon Soup was a particular favorite, the feta provided some texture and saltiness to balance the sweet melon and  the mint oil added a warmth and lusciousness to the texture of a usually watery type concoction. Light, healthy and tasty- what more could one want for spa food?

 

The next day I returned to the spa to sample the specially made  by La Belge Chocolatier house chocolates (which are given out following manicures and pedicures) and for an Aura Imaging, a service I have never seen in another spa.

 

Four chocolate discs, one white, one dark and two milk were carefully packaged in a light green round box tied with a gold bow. The presentation was lovely and is sure to make the receiver feel appreciated.  The chocolate was of excellent smooth melt-to the-touch consistency but a bit too sweet for my palate.

 

I did not get the actual Color light treatment described below (from the online spa brochure), but I did have a picture of my aura taken with a special camera.

 

Actual treatment description:

COLOR & LIGHT WRAP WITH AURA IMAGING

We begin with our special light-sensitive photography, identifying your particular aura. That’s followed by soothing exfoliation and a detoxifying clay body wrap, during which music, light, heat and aromatherapies work to achieve balance and harmony. Once complete, we take a second aura photo to show you the results. The before and after images are yours to keep.

 

I thought this was totally cool and now that I am beginning to deepen my study of Ayurveda and how your mood and health are affected by the stimulus encountered by all five senses I think this would be a worthy spa experience to try.  The colors that radiate from us in the form of an aura reflect what is going on with out seven Chakras or Energy Centers.  Each color and where it manifests in your aura has a meaning.  In order to photograph one’s aura, a special polaroid camera is used and somehow connected to two hand shaped pads on which the subjects hands rest.

 

Mine had lots or yellow, orange and red with a little violet and green.  Basically, I was told by the interpreter, that I am creative, wise, self sufficient, direct, passionate, ambitious, warm, confident, artistic, expressive and desire success and fullness of experience.

 

Who knew, right?

 

I adored my visit to The Spa at the Grove Park Inn Resort and have already recommended it to friends.  I loved the spaciousness of it, the integration of the elements and the options for use.  It is definitely worth a visit.

 

Stay tuned for Day 2 where it is raining and I seem to eat all day.  Plus a review of Broo Shampoo.

 

Just released: Virginia Film Festival Dates

2013 VIRGINIA FILM FESTIVAL SET FOR NOVEMBER 7-10

Charlottesville, VA – April 16, 2013 – The Virginia Film Festival announced today that it will be returning to Charlottesville for its 26th year from November 7-10, 2013.

The Virginia Film Festival is presented by the University of Virginia.

The 25th Anniversary year of the Festival shattered all previous records in box office, sales, attendance, and sold-out screenings. Ticket sales came in at $108, 043, topping the previous record by 20%. The Festival drew 27,299 attendances, more than 3,000 more than its 2011 record, and the 42 sold-out screenings were up from 27 the previous year.

Highlights from the 25th Anniversary Virginia Film Festival included a special conversation with legendary Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein around a screening of the classic All the President’s Men. The event kicked off the new Presidency in Film Series, presented in partnership with The Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Once again, audiences were treated to a dynamic mix of films that included some of the hottest titles on the festival circuit, including Silver Linings Playbook, The Sessions and Amour, among many others; plus acclaimed indies, cutting-edge documentaries, compelling short films, and an engaging and robust community outreach program. All in all, seven of the films screened at the Festival were nominated for Academy Awards® in 2013. The guest list for the 25th Anniversary VFF, in addition to Woodward and Bernstein, included actor/director Matthew Lillard, actor and Albemarle County native Billy Campbell, actor Keith Carradine (with the locally-produced and directed horror film House Hunting), and musician and filmmaker Boyd Tinsley.

University of Virginia Vice Provost for the Arts and VFF Director Jody Kielbasa and his team are hard at work planning for 2013. “We look forward to building on the remarkable enthusiasm that surrounded our anniversary year,” he said. “We continue to be challenged and inspired by our growing audience and by this remarkable community, and look forward to another outstanding year.”

 

For more information on the Virginia Film Festival, visit www.virginiafilmfestival.org.

 

“Or” Such a Big Play for Such A Small Space

Claire Chandler, Chris Patrick and Jen Downey

Claire Chandler, Chris Patrick and Jen Downey

I feel that I must openly admit that I had a predisposition to like, “Or”, Liz Duffy Adams’ play that opened at Live Arts Upstage Theatre last weekend because I am enamoured of its subject, Aphra Behn.  Behn who lived from 1640 to 1689 had an amazing life as a spy and possibly mistress to King Charles II of England also holding the distinction of being the first woman recorded in Western civilization as supporting herself as a writer. Accused of being a libertine, Behn’s works are rife with sexual explicity  and Adams sets out to create a play about Behn that Behn might have written herself. There is comedy in the form of running jokes, rapid costume changes, cross dressing and whack-a-mole like entrances and exits. There is also tragedy as Aphra is torn between saving her lover and her loyalty to the king.

The story is about Behn’s release by Charles II form debtor’s prison, where she landed due to his tardiness in paying her for her work as a spy. The play then focuses on one crazy night in which Aphra must write a stellar play while juggling lovers and thwarting a plot to kill the king.  Adams opens it with rhyming prose. At one juncture the Jailer (hilariously played by Claire Chandler) begs Aphra(Jen Downey) not to rhyme during their conversation about ink while Aphra persists. The bit recalls the scene in The Princess Bride where  Vizzini tells Fezik and Inigo to stop rhyming. (You know the one:

Inigo Montoya: Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?

Fezzik: If there are, we all be dead.

Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it.

Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?

Vizzini: DYEEAAHHHHHH.

Thanks for indulging me with that.)

Adams soon moves her characters into verse laced with humor and often foul language particularly from Nell Gwynne (also portrayed by Chandler) then ties it up neatly with rhyme at the end.

What worked in this production was wonderful and what didn’t work was rather “meh” making for a total score of 8 out of a possible 10 on the Greatness scale.

The actors were directed with care by Christina Courtenay who masterfully blocked  and built relationships with her actors on a tiny stage.  Courtenay obviously loves this play and she commands all the production elements to deliver that message.  The pacing is brisk and informed and each character is fleshed out to the fullest.

Jen Downey makes a bold post-women’s liberation, Aphra, robust and sure of herself, delivering lines with precision timing and kissing her fellow actors with great zeal. She stomps about the small stage with the gusto of a pirate captain capturing her lovers then swooping in for the kill except when (typical or writers) she is writing and all else is unimportant. There might have been an iota more respect for the customary restraint of movement of the period in her performance but we are led to believe during the preamble that the 17th and 21st centuries might criss cross a bit so the error is absolved.

Chris Patrick who gleefully attacks three roles in the show, King Charles II, double spy William Scott, and theater owner, Lady Davenant, displays his gift for comedic line delivery from the get go extracting loud laughter from the audience at key points.  He demonstrates versatility via distinct interpretation of each character (as does Chandler in her three roles) but falters into an indeterminate accent as Scott. (Though his Lady Davenant accent was appropriately hysterical as she was deftly played over-the-top.) Then there was the chest hair revealed as Charles II comes out clothed in a robe at the end of the second act, that was supposedly  purposely shaved to form a rectangular shape.  The oddity of the geometric shape was so disturbing and distracting that I fail to recall the lines delivered as the V in the robe revealed it. I was not alone in irksomeness as it was quite the topic of conversation amongst patrons upon departure from the theatre.

The shining star of the production, however, is Claire Chandler as Aphra’s jailer, Aprha’s crotchety maid, Maria and actress, Nell Gwynne. Part of her appeal is how she amps up the characters but plays properly to the small space -there is depth and variety in her performance without the overblown volume.  She especially glows as Nell, the bi-sexual, cross-dressing actress who becomes mistress to Charles II.  Chandler’s Gwynne is a good mix of masculine and feminine energy making her convincing and well-rounded as a character. She oozes universal sensuality mixed with impish charm.

Also deserving comment are the beautiful costumes designed by Stepahanie Connock, which are often changed within seconds (three cheers to Assistant Stage Manager and Dresser, Barbara Roberts!).  They were all pretty and correct for the time but Aphra’s green overlay which was too large to begin with kept coming unhooked at the top  causing a constant annoyance.

Overall “Or” is quite funny and well worth seeing.

Catch it at Live Arts on select dates from now until May 4.

Get out there and get cultured.

The Culture Maven

PS:  If you know of something interesting in terms of art and/or culture coming up in the Valley aka Lexington to Harrisonburg, shoot me an email at mgburruss@me.com and let me know. Put “culture nuts” in the subject bar.  Thanks. M

 

Post Publication Note:

This morning someone suggested that the rectangle shaped chest hair Chris Patrick was sporting as Charles II was a nod to Austin Powers.  It has been such a long time since I have seen an Austin Powers movie coupled with the lack of a coherent link between the film to the play other than they are about Brits, I failed (as did everyone else I spoke with) to catch the reference (if indeed there was that connection).

Call for Plastic Water Bottles to Build Inhabitable Hut

I had quite a surprise the other day when I was recycling clear plastic bottles at the McIntyre Recycling Center and I heard a voice from within the recycling bin.  UVA architecture student Josh Hadley-Goggin was physically inside the bin scavenging specific types of water bottles to build a hut he would live in for a school project.  I was so impressed with the creative nature of the task that I decided to blog about it and ask for your help, on behalf of Josh and his team in collecting enough  Deer Park, Nestle, or Poland Springs 16.9 ounce water bottles to build something really fabulous.

Here’s the 411:

The 1st Year Studio Class at the School of Architecture at UVA, ARCH 1030 is participating in a totally cool project in which teams design and construct a hut that they will inhabit for 24 hours.  The purpose of the project is for students to problem -solve how materials work to form joints between one another and how to use maximize the functionality of various materials. Each team had to use recycled materials so that the resources because they are readily available and can then be returned to be recycled when the students are finished with the project. It is a public service project to show the creativity in which recycled materials can be utilized for the  purpose of learning and design.

Students will live in their hut “village” (there will be about 60 of these “huts”) on the North Terrace of the School of Architecture, Campbell Hall, on the University of Virginia Grounds from noon on May 3rd  until  noon on May 4th. 

The constraints for this project are
> must use recycled materials
> may not spend more than $50
> interior volume of no more than 96 cubic feet
> structures must weigh less than 60 pounds.

Josh and his teammate, Caroline Kraska, have decided to use Deer Park, Nestle, or Poland Springs 16.9 ounce water bottles with which to construct their  because  when the bottom of the bottles are cut off, they can be snapped into the top of another bottle because of the specific design of the ribbing of the bottles.

In order to make this work, they need as many bottles as possible. At the moment they have roughly 200 and estimate a need for at least 1000 or more for our structure, the more they have, the more creative they can get with the design.

Please contact Josh if you have bottles that you could donate.

Josh Hadley-Goggin
1st Year School of Architecture, UVA
jrh2fd@virginia.edu
804-239-8454

A Few Words About Jessye Norman at the Paramount

It is a true treat to see a living legend like Jessye Norman perform live.  At age 67, perhaps she fails to hit the high notes with the power that she did in Europe when she skyrocketed to opera stardom in the early ’70’s but she is still larger than life (both literally and figuratively) and much more entrancing as a performer than most people performing today.  At 6’1″ built like a tanks with hands that would make a professional quarterback envious, Norman is an instant presence from her first footstep out of the wings. Masculine in her size and bold facial features, with a dramatic manner, it is easy to see why she is a darling of the drag set.  Her voice and her four page program bio are equally impressive. But you can read about her accomplishments and honors elsewhere.

Norma and her accompanist, Mark Markham, presented a delightful program in tribute of American artists titled, “American Masters”.  A bit shaky with her opening number, “Falling in Love” by Rogers and Hart, I was worried that it would be a night of horror as sometimes happens when a great takes a last gasp at a career.  But Norman warmed up and woke up so that by the fourth number, Gershwin’s, “I Got Rhythm” she was “ON” and her hallmark uncategorizable style shown along with her scintilating personality.  Norman simply brings a one-of-a-kind depth and breadth to her singing.  Soft fuzzy warm tones tempered with strong decorated high notes with a dash of Southern comfort thrown in. “Cimb Ev’ry Mountain” was emotionally spectacular, a message to all to overcome obstacles and live life to the fullest.  She absolutely beamed during the chorus though I failed to perceive this, a local musical production expert in the audience claimed it was off key.  But the highlight of the first act was her closing number, “My Man’s Gone Now” from Gershwin’s, Porgy and Bess.  The showtunes and standards were great but here Norman showed us her opera chops and boy, was she good!

Following a long intermission, the second act was more a tribute to some of Norman’s favorite American musical artists.  Songs sung by Lena Horn, Odetta, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald plus several selections by Duke Ellington. Highlights were “Stormy Weather” , the best rendition of this song I have ever heard, “I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good”  and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”, in which she encouraged the audience to sing the “Do-whop” chorus part.

I loved that Markham was taller than Norman, which became apparent during a bow and mused that the audition notice for the gig must have called for pianist over 6’3″.

But what cam post bow was the reason for coming.  The two best numbers of the evening were the encores, “Summertime” , (Duh, it is opera from one of her signature roles) and a musical memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was murdered 45 years ago to the day, “Steel Away to Jesus”. The crowd was entranced by both offerings, a few tears  even fell during the final number in remembrance of Dr. King.

Norman and Markham received a standing ovation and several minutes of deserved enthusiastic applause.  As they stepped off stage, I felt grateful for having spent a wonderful evening with one of the great artists and citizens of our time.

 

Claude Wampler Teaches Audience to Play

Wampler plays with the way viewers react to art

Wampler plays with the way viewers react to art

Last Tuesday night artist, Claude Wampler, did what she does best- she messed with her audience.  During a lecture in grounds primarily directed at UVA art students about her work, Wampler played an IMP worthy trick as she called on attendees who had seen her work to come to the front and describe the pieces.  “Rather than talk about my work, I prefer other people to do it,” she explained at the beginning of her talk.  Unbeknownst to the crowd of about 60 students, teachers and guests, the people who went up to talk were plants who had been previously prepared by the artist.  I know because I was one of them.

Wampler, who spurns the term “performance art” for her work, enjoys toying with the ways in which people view art.  “I like to disrupt the usual pattens of visual consumption,” she said during her brief introduction. “Artwork is an excuse for the interaction to happen.”  Her work is a convergence of performance and visual art that allows the viewer to experience her pieces in a unique whole-istic way.  In essence she turned her talk into an experiential artwork by having actors discuss installations they had never seen as if they had been present, often embellishing their descriptions with details like who they were with and what they did afterwards.

The audience seemed completely oblivious to the performances as I can attest from a first hand viewpoint.  Seated on a stool next to Wampler, in a rectangular white walled studio space in Ruffin Hall, I described an installation which I never saw called Painting, the movie which wowed spectators at the Postmasters Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2000.  I explained Wampler’s playful manipulation of the gallery going crowd who tend to treat viewing art as a check-list item- walking through several exhibits in a day taking only passing glances at most of what they see.  In Painting, the movie, she cleverly uses motion sensors to trigger LCD boxes that encase macabre (read temptation of the gross) sculptures to become opaque as the viewer approaches thus hiding the object displayed much to the frustration of the crowd. The sculptures are influenced by Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a take on Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Conversely, on the back wall is what looks like a modern painting which is reality a clouded LCD glass.  As one approaches, the glass clears to reveal what appears to be a film of an elaborately dressed woman who moves in and out of the light similar to a moment in Kurosawa’s film. The “film” is actually Wampler, live, in the next room, dressed as the main female character from Throne of Blood standing on a moving platform that runs on a track to facilitate accuracy.  She was at the installation every day and every hour that the gallery was open dressed in that costume, waiting for people to trigger that screen.  Crazy, right?

What fun to frustrate the viewing public by hiding the art from site then to observe as they try to beat the fogging of the encasements!

To add believability to my story, I explained that I had been in New York for the opening of another artist’s show and that we were gallery hopping to see what else was out there.  I also rambled about how amused I was with the other people who came to see the show and their reactions and attempts to see the art. Another plant who I recognized was Wampler’s husband, Director of UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center, John Campbell, who waxed poetic about a fictitious visit to a strip club after experiencing one of Wampler’s exhibits and how it related to her art much to her chagrin.

As a plant it was enlivened by the rapt attention of the audience and being privy to the joke being played on them. I was even toyed with myself when post lecture I wondered if the art we plants described had indeed been produced or was it part of the ruse.

Wampler says they were all real but that some of the students guessed that the viewers were frauds and also began to question the actuality of the described work. “I like to create a layered experience,” she said.

In reality I have yet to see a full scale Wampler installation but now I really want to see one.

Claude Wampler is a recent transplant to Charlottesville and has been a Guest Artist at UVA this yea

Jessye Norman Pays Tribute to American Masters Tonight in C-ville

Devine Diva, Jessye Norman sings in Charlottesville tonight

Devine Diva, Jessye Norman sings in Charlottesville tonight

 

Opera singers hold a special interest for me. As a singer, it brings me endless pleasure to experience the sheer power of the operatic trained voice but as a person, it is doubly wonderful when the being that emits that glorious sound is equally dynamic. Jessye Norman is one of those singers. Having catepolted to stardom in Europe in 1969 making her operatic début at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s Tannhaeuser, Norman has made her life as limitless as her voice which over the years has defied categorization. She likes it that way. “Pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons,” she perportedly once resoponded to an German reporter who asked her at age 23 to define her type of singing. “I like so many different kinds of music that I’ve never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range,” she explained in a New York Times article by John Gruen.

She has performed opera all over Europe and the United States and has always chosen work which she felt maximized her vocal talents and personal style regardless of genre. “I sing what I love.” Norman reflected in a recent interview on her love for the American Masters, from American musical theatre, spirituals, blues and jazz. “I sing what I would enjoy hearing. I sing music that speaks to my spirit,” noted the four-time Grammy winner.

Tonight at 8:00pm, the tall statured Diva, appears at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville in a show sponsored by Virginia and Edwin Barber, and John and Harriet Gardner aptly titled “A Tribute to the American Masters”. The performance features long-beloved standards including Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm and But Not For Me, as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Climb Ev’ry Mountain and Harold Arlen’s tear jerker, A Sleepin’ Bee. Norman also pays homage to some of her favorite singers like Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, and Ella Fitzgerald. Her closing set is pure Ellington, including Don’t Get Around Much Anymore and Summertime.

This will be my first time seeing Norman in person and I can barely wait to hear her unique talent up close and personal.

Artist Claude Wampler’s kooky performance art at UVA tonight

Claude Wampler is an artist/ lecturer who likes to create memories with her art.  In an interview with the New York Times from January of this year, Wampler said of her art, “I manipulate an audience in the best way possible, which is to assist them in the act of looking, of observing.” But the viewpoint that won my heart is contained in the next segment of the story where she is discussing her inspiration for the project she produced at The Kitchen in NYC, a piece titled, “N’a Pas un Gramme de Charisme” (“There Is Not One Gram of Charisma”), a work who’s moniker  is taken from a French magazine’s review of Katie Holmes’s performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in the 2011 television mini-series “The Kennedys.”:

“I think it’s quite an achievement to not have one gram of charisma. How does she do it? And then I watched it, and it’s true. She’s like Keanu Reeves in that way — she’s a very attractive placeholder for the character. I love Keanu because of that. Somebody who could have such a career and be completely and utterly free of talent is so awesome.”

With such a power of observation (of course I have thought much the same of Keanu and said many times that he must give the best, um, let’s just say he must be very talented in ways that might be better demonstrated in a gay porn film) she must be a fabulous artist.

A marriage of theatre and realism, Wampler offers an example of her offbeat style tonight at  at 5pm  at UVA’s Ruffin Hall Room 206. Free and open to the public.

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