Category: Arts

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

‘Lettice and Lovage” opens at Westport Playhouse

Peter Schaffer’s 1987 comedy, “Lettice and Lovage” opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse to a rapturous audience reception.  Directed by Mark Lamos, the play is about Lettice (actually her name is Laetetia) played by Kandis Chappell, who makes up fascinating and hilarious, but outrageously fictional “facts” about the stately British home where she gives house tours. Eventually her supervisor Lotte Schoen (Mia Dillon) finds out and sacks her.

Feeling guilty about firing her, Lotte comes to see Lettice with a recommendation for a new job she might like narrating a tour boat. They share an aperitif Lettice has made of vodka, brandy and lovage, (an aromatic herb with seeds that are similar to fennel seeds) and begin a tipsy friendship despite the huge difference in their personalities.  Lotte is straight-laced and bureaucratic, while Lettice is flamboyant and theatrical.

The comic virtue of Shaffer’s work lies in Lettice’s bizarre historical reimaginings as well as his elegant and beautiful language.

5_WCP_Lettice&Lovage_PaxtonWhitehead_MiaDillon_KandisChappell_byCRosegg_334aFollowing the development of their friendship as well their cleverly barbed exchanges make up much of the fun of this piece, but following intermission we meet the lawyer Mr Bardolph, played by the redoubtable Paxton Whitehead, who tried to tell Lettice this she is in a great deal of trouble and could end up in prison if she doesn’t cooperate with him and preparing her defense.  How this turn of events came about and the hilarious way it is resolved make up the highly entertaining finale to this delightful evening.

In playing Lettice, Kandis Chappell is very funny, very theatrical and extremely entertaining, and dominates the stage throughout. The role, originally written for Maggie Smith, is a challenge to any actress, bringing out the characters over-the-top theatricality without herself going over the top. In this, Chappell succeeds admirably, and the audience more than demonstrated their affection for her performance.

Mia Dillon as Lotte, plays sensibility against Chappell’s theatricality and is quite affecting when she finally reveals her history and the reasons for her hatred of terrible architecture.

Sarah Manton plays Lotte’s secretary with great aplomb against the stormy forces of Lettice and Lotte’s first confrontation.

Sometimes, theater has its own internal theatricality and Patricia Connolly who was supposed to play Lettice was taken ill just a week before the show’s opening and Kandis Chappel flew in from San Diego to take over the role on very short notice, arriving Tuesday, when previews normally begin. The Tuesday and Wednesday previews were cancelled and the first preview was Thursday, and the official opening just last Saturday.

In the opening scene, we see Lettice giving several versions of her fantasy version of history to a group of tourists, portrayed by local actors  Kara Hankard of Glastonbury, Travis James of Weston, Richard Mancini of Stratford, Michele S. Mueller of Rocky Hill, Robert Peterpaul of Darien, Hermon Telyan of Wilton, and Danielle Anna White of Ridgefield.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the sets created by John Arnone are stunning. The first British house scene is a huge wall of portraits and heraldry, and Lotte’s office is a small unit set that rolls on as the wall is flown out. But the major piece of the set is Lettice’s basement flat, which is cluttered and elaborate, and is  enhance by an entire brick building flat behind it and a stairway down to her flat’s entrance level.

“Lettice and Lovage” runs through June 17, and you won’t find a more entertaining evening than this.

 

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Allegiance- George Takei’s musical in HD

Allegiance- George Takei’s musical in HD

The short-lived Broadway musical Allegiance was screened in HD in some 600 theaters throughout the country yesterday. The show, inspired by Takei’s experiences in a Japanese-American internment camp had music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and a book by Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. It follows the experiences of the fictional Kimura family who were forcibly relocated to internment camps far from their west coast homes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, along with about 120,000 other Japanese-Americans.

Generally, HD rebroadcasts of plays, and musical works come with at least a single sheet program listing all the actors and production credits, but the neither Fathom Events organization nor the Trumbull Conn Post 14 theaters bothered with this nicety. Having only a brief glance at the closing credits, most of the cast information came from online sources.

George Takei, the beloved actor who started his career as Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, and has become an activist and comic commentator led the bill, playing the avuncular grandfather of the Kimura clan, and in a present-day scene the aged version of young Sam from that clan.

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While Takei headed the playbill, the real stars were Lea Salonga, playing Sam’s older sister Kei, and Telly Leung ,a fantastic actor with a gorgeous tenor voice who plays Sam Kimura as a young man. Salonga began her Broadway career in  Miss Saigon and played roles in Les Miz and voiced the lead in the cartoon Mulan.

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Equally important are the excellent Michael K Lee, playing Frankie Suzuki, a young man who becomes Kei’s suitor and eventually husband, and the charming Katie Rose Clark who plays the (white) camp nurse Hannah Campbell and Sam’s love interest.

This show provided an excellent opportunity for a nearly all-Asian cast to shine and they proved themselves incredibly talented again and again in song and dance numbers, where the entire cast performed beautifully.

With such a talented cast, it is a shame that Allegiance never caught hold, running only about 4 months, and the fear that this was a just a history lesson about a shameful period of U.S. history might have kept audiences away.  Much of the show, however, is quite entertaining, with the developing relationships and family conflicts making up much of the story.

The central crisis of the first act is the idea that the Japanese-American men should be allowed to enlist to fight the enemy if they would swear allegiance to the U.S. and renounce and allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. This led to principled conflicts both ways, with Sam signing the paper and enlisting, while Frankie refuses and is imprisoned until the end of the war. The second act seems longer than the first and has fewer compelling scenes to keep it moving. The show ran 2:15 without intermission.

Jay Kuo’s music might have been part of the problem, with much of it the sort of full-throated poperetta ballads full of quarter-note triplets that infested much of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music as well as much of Les Miz. On the other hand the upbeat songs, written in a 1940s swing style are utterly charming, beginning with Sam and Hannah’s duet, “I Oughta Go,” which you can hear on the Amazon site. Unfortunately, all of Lea Salonga’s songs (and there are too many) are in that overblown poperetta style and basically all sound alike. The award-winning orchestrations by Lynne Shankel for a 13-piece orchestra, is wind-instrument heavy with only 3 strings and the wind harmonies are lush and lovely.

Interestingly, the only character based on a real person is the controversial Mike Masauoka (played by Greg Watanabe), a Japanese American functionary in Washington, who became the face of the JACL (Japanese American Citizen’s League) and worked to try to improve life in the camps, primarily by cooperating. He is shown as somewhat of a wheeler-dealer and was not well liked.

This is an important piece of Broadway history that was worth seeing even with its flaws, and it is a shame it never found much of an audience. Now that the HD showing is over, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a DVD version some time in the future. Look for it.

Camelot at Westport Playhouse: a chamber version

Lusty Month of May
“Lusty Month of May,” Guenevere and Knights. Patrick Andrews, Michael De Souza, Britney Coleman, Mike Evariste, and Jon-Michael Reese. Photo by Carole Rosegg

Camelot opened Saturday night at the Westport Country Playhouse, in a new pared-down “reimagined”version with a cast of only 8 (plus young Tom) and an orchestra of the same size. While Camelot has a reputation of being overly long and swampy, this “chamber” version runs a fairly brisk 2:15 with one intermission.

The newly adapted book by David Lee features the 4 main characters: Guenevere (Britney Coleman),  Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lucas)and Mordred (Patrick Andrews), and 4 men who are remarkable singers and dancers: Michael de Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen, and Jon-Michael Reese. Young Tom of Warwick is played by Sana Sarr.

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Britney Coleman and Robert Sean Leonard

Britney Coleman as Guenevere is simply spectacular and steals every scene with her gorgeous bell-like voice and smoothly glamorous acting. She alone makes it worth your while to see this interesting adaptation.

As Arthur, Robert Sean Leonard, is an excellent actor who gives you Arthur’s early immaturity and his later commanding persona with great skill and magnetism. Unfortunately, he is not a singer and talks his way through most of the music, often coming in late, to its detriment. He does sing in ”What Do the Simple Folk Do?” showing that he can sing a little.

Patrick Andrews as Mordred is everything you want in an evil, snarky, oily villain who also happens to be Arthur’s illegitimate son. He sings, he dances, and his two numbers with the 4 men: “The Seven Deadly Virtues” and “Fie on Goodness” show off his excellent dancing and Connor Gallagher’s imaginative choreography.

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Britney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas

Stephen Mark Lukas is a dazzling Lancelot, tall, ridiculously handsome and suitably arrogant, with a lovely, rich baritone voice. His “If Ever I Would Leave You” is quite lovely and satisfying, although he was really working on those low notes.

This is really a chamber version of Camelot, cut down in size and length, and emphasizing the four main characters over any real ensemble work: there is no women’s chorus. The only female voice belongs to the fabulous Ms Coleman. The story is a little simplified, but almost all the great songs are there and Ms Coleman sings in eight of them.

What do we lose in this version? We lose Nimue and the lovely “Follow Me,” as well as Merlin, King Pellinore and Morgan Le Fay. And with the serviceable 8-player orchestra we miss Robert Russell Bennett’s and Phillip J Lang’s lush orchestrations. And of course, we miss the Overture and the opening Camelot March.

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The Revelers

 

While Camelot was always about spectacle, we don’t find that here. There is an opening dance, accompanied mostly by drumming that has the entire cast in colorful capes and grotesque masks that is quite stunning, but we have no idea what it was there for, except, perhaps to replace that opening march. The sets are fairly simple. Much of the action is played against floor to ceiling wooden panels, with a few pieces, like Arthur and Guenevere’s bed wheeled in. The wooden panels open to reveal a distant castle painted on a drop behind a scrim. From time to time banners are lowered and a huge circle, rather like a roulette wheel is lowered. I finally realized that this represented the Round Table.

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Robert Sean Leonard and Sana Sarr

The script called for Young Tom of Warwick to appear at the end of the show to tell Arthur he wants to become a Knight of the Round Table, after many of the original knights were defeated in the final battle. The director or adaptors have expanded that role. Tom appears in the opening number, barefoot and in pajamas playing with models of knights on horses. And he appears again during the jousting tournament, with his toys representing the actual jousting.

This adaptation does nothing to clarify the climactic, but baffling song “Guenevere,” where apparently an entire battle between Lancelot’s and Mordred’s forces seems to have taken place offstage. Arthur explains it afterwards. But the quiet ending with Arthur and Young Tom is as effective as ever.

If you go expecting to dread the original Camelot’s length and bloatedness, you will be pleasantly surprised at this compact version. If you are looking for spectacle, that is really only there by proxy. But the singing actors and orchestra put on a thoroughly professional and entertaining version of the story of Camelot.

The show runs through November 7, with performances on Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday ant 3 and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available on the theater’s website or by callng 203-227-4177.

 

Troupers Light Opera to present Northeastern Premiere of ‘Thespis’

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Jupiter, grown old

Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration, “Thespis” was for years considered lost because while the dialog was known, the music has not been found. However, thanks to a skillful reconstruction by opera designer Anthony Baker and conductor/composer Timothy Henty, a truly entertaining version of Thespis has been created.

Troupers will present the Northeastern Premiere of  this Thespis on November 5th and 6th in Norwalk, CT at All Saints School at 139 West Rocks Rd. The 20 member cast, under the direction of Marian Shulman and Jim Cooper will present the full comic operetta as created by Gilbert and Sullivan as a special Christmas entertainment for the company of London’s Gaiety Theater.

Troupers has been performing Gilbert and Sullivan in Fairfield County for 72 years and is delighted to premiere this Baker-Henty version of Thespis to Northeast US audiences. Each year Troupers welcomes new members to our company: this year we are delighted to welcome soprano leads Anne Collin and Jennifer Wallace. New members are always welcome!

In the ridiculous story, the gods on Olympus have become old and tired (except Mercury) and would like a vacation. They happen on a theater company picnicking on the side of the mountain and quickly reach an agreement that the actors will play the parts of the gods fo a year, while they go down to Earth. Of course, this doesn’t work very well, as Mercury sings “Olympus is in a terrible muddle” in the second act.

The famous chorus number “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” first appeared in Thespis, and it was so successful that Sullivan reused it in “Pirates of Penzance.”  Some musicians believe that a lot more of the music from Pirates originated in Thespis, and Baker and Henty have included several references to Pirates in their reconstruction, as well as using music from several other familiar and less familiar Sullivan works. You will also hear a bit of Offenbach in Thespis, because early reviews suggested that Sullivan had borrowed some, perhaps as a jest.

The Troupers cast of Thespis stars Brett Kroeger as Mercury and Greg Suss as Thespis along with Anne Collin as Nicemis and David Richy as Sparkeion. Rounding out the gods: Bob Scrofani plays Jupiter,  Wendy Falconer is seen as Diana, John Matilaine as Apollo, and Rob Strom plays Mars.

Among the mortals, Deborah Connelly plays the flirt Daphne, and Jennifer Wallace plays Pretteia. Other cast members include Ty Goff playing Sillimon, the stage manager,  John Hoover as Timidon, Guy Stretton as Tipseion and Tammy Strom as Cymon, or Father Time. Also appearing will be Rebecca Kovacs, Rosa Parrotta, Ruth-Anne Ring, Bill Abbott, and Neil Flores. The accompanist will be Troupers 35-year veteran, Dorothy Kolinsky.

Tickets are available on Troupers’ web site: TroupersLightOpera.org.  Don’t miss a chance to see this rarely performed gem!

 

 

‘The Invisible Hand” opens at Westport Country Playhouse

3_WCP_InvisibleHand_RajeshBose_FajerKaisi_EricBryant_JamealAli_byCRosegg314“The Invisible Hand,” by award-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar opened last night at the Westport Country Playhouse. The phrase “the invisible hand” refers to Adam Smith’s theory that the market adjusts itself automatically when irregularities occur because of the self-interest of all the other investors.

In this unusual thriller, financial trader Nick Bright (the excellent Eric Bryant) is kidnapped by a group of Pakistanis who mistook him for his boss, and wanted a $10 million ransom which they planned to use to help their people. Bryant carries off the role of a genial financial tutor and contrasts it with his growing terror and frustration that he’ll never see his family again.

At the outset the set (by Adam Rigg) seems to be the outer edges of a gray cube, but during the blackout that precedes each act, the featureless gray walls slide aside to reveal a dingy prison room where Bryant is being kept. The set is just two chairs, a table, a bed, a slop bucket and a steel cage that provides a secure exit from the room.

While Bright is nominally handcuffed, he has befriended the guard Dar (Jameal Ali) and persuaded him to remove the cuffs when the supervisors are absent. He also explains to Dar how to manipulate the market to do better selling potatoes than he had been doing. You get the idea, but the accent Dar uses makes this a little hard to follow.

We then meet Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the real captor, and Dar’s boss who is the one demanding the $10 million ransom. Nick explains that he isn’t worth that much to his employers, but that he might be able to make a few million dollars through financial trading if they give him access to information such as Lexis/Nexis and the internet. Bashir is urbane and apparently Western educated and mentions that he had spent time in Trenton, near where Nick went to school (at Princeton). He even has downloaded Nick’s senior thesis on the Bretton Woods agreement. Kaisi as Bashir balances beautifully the hint of a growing friendship with Nick with his essentially terrorist objectives as a kidnapper.

Nick and Bashir work cooperatively to make money, but Bashir’s supervisor, the Imam is skeptical and has a cruel and violent streak that keeps us on edge. Rajesh Bose as the Imam gives a powerful  and menacing performance that keeps you glued to him whenever he is on stage.

By now, you realize that Akhtar has actually written a suspense thriller, with both financial and violent aspects to keep us guessing. The play takes place in short scenes separated by blackouts with the four characters sparring and trying to gain the advantage.  By the end of the longish first act, Nick’s life has been threatened and he has attempted an escape.

The shorter second act moves like wildfire, with new complexities and problems in every scene. The question in our minds is whether Nick will survive and escape and whether they will raise the money they want for humanitarian purposes.  That, you will have to see the play to find out. The ending is quite surprising, but the playwright has subtly prepared us for it if you think back through the story.

“The Invisible Hand” had an Off Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop, where Akhtar won and Obie and an Outer Critics Circle award as best playwright.  Jameal Ali is repeating his role as Dar from that production.

The audience was thoroughly engaged in the story, and gave the four excellent actors a standing ovation. “The Invisible Hand” continues through August 6 at the Westport Country Playhouse.

This review was written a week ago for Onstage Blog but somehow never appeared. Sorry. You still have a week to see the show.

 

Consumed the Movie: a misinformed anti-GMO thriller

Consumed the Movie: a misinformed anti-GMO thriller

Consumed, a film by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones stars Lister-Jones as a single mom barely holding it together as she tries find out why her son has developed mysterious symptoms. Needless to say, the cause turns out to be “GMOs” even though not a single verifiable instance of any human or animal reaction to transgenic crops has ever been reported. The film contains every single anti-GMO trope you have ever heard, all of them wrong.

The film begins in the dark at Danny Glover’s organic vegetable farm, as he sees people, cars and lights surrounding his fields. The story eventually develops that he is being investigated by Clonestra, the film’s transparent stand-in for Monsanto for planting unlicensed GMO seeds. This is hard to believe because Glover has been an organic farmer for years and has had his “organic certification” for 30 years. This is amusing, because the National Organic Program didn’t start until the year 2000.

The scene shifts to Sophie (Lister-Jones) waiting for her son outside his school, where she meets the hunky and charming Eddie (Taylor Kinney) who has a son about the same age, and who also appears to be a single parent. Sophie’s son Garrett (Nick Bonn) comes out looking and feeling droopy, and Sophie rushes him home to the house she shares with her mother Kristin (Beth Grant). Garrett gets worse and vomits in the night.

The scene shifts to India where Dan Conway (Victor Garber), the silver haired head of Clonestra is giving Indian farmers seeds to a new drought-tolerant variety of corn, along with “discount coupons” to purchase seed in future years. He and his entourage are chased off by some protesting farmers.

Concerned that Garrett may have developed a new virulent strain of the flu, Sophie rushes him to the doctor who reassures her, but strangely makes no mention of the advisability of flu shots, a typical prejudice of anti-GMO activists.

However, Garrett soon develops a red itchy rash all over his arms and torso, and neither her pediatrician nor a dermatologist can diagnose it. This leads to the rest of the story where Sophie desperately tries to find a cause and is involved in one crushing problem after another.

Sophie somehow gets the idea (this plot is really complicated) that her son may be allergic to “GMOs” and spend some time researching this possibility. Her mother works as a secretary to the head of the university’s “science department,” (apparently they only do one science there) and she arranges to talk with him about her fears. He is quite reassuring and tells of transgenic crop successes in preventing starvation.

In the anteroom, which also appears to be a small biotech lab, Sophie also meets Jacob (Anthony Edwards) and Serge Negani (Kunal Nayyar), his Indian colleague. Lurking in the background is Peter (Griffin Dunne) who overhears Sophie’s worries about her son and meets her secretively in the parking lot, saying that he is a scientist and there must be files somewhere showing the bad effects that Sophie thinks her son is experiencing. Sophie leaves her son with Eddie one afternoon and she and Peter sneak into the university science department (where it now seems to be night) using her mom’s keys. The files are missing and they are caught. It turns out that Peter is not a scientist, but the janitor. Sophie finds old news articles showing that Peter once was a scientist there, but had a nervous breakdown while “researching GMOs.” This whole episode seems pretty pointless and could have been excised.

Cut to the university biotech lab, where Connelly is giving what seem to be cash rewards to Jacob and Serge for their research on biotech chickens. It seems that all the biotech research Clonestra uses has been done under contract by the university science department rather than within the company. They said they used to get their funding from the FDA (really?) but now they get it all from Clonestra (not believable).

He later tells them their grant is terminated, their job is done and thank you very much, and that Clonestra owns all the patents. (What university development office would have agreed to this?)  Jacob goes home, asking Negani to see that the chicken cages are clean before he leaves so that they can turn them over to Clonestra in good shape.

Negani finds that all the chickens are dead, and begins searching Jacob’s computer for any information. He finds a great deal of incriminating information about the dangers of this project, duplicates it and carries it out to his car. He calls Sophie, realizing that this may be the answer to her concerns, although how development of unreleased biotech chickens has anything to do with GM corn is not explained. Sophie, fearing retribution, refuses to talk to him.

Determined to get the information to Sophie he sets out to drive it to her house. However, Eddie is shown drinking longnecks outside a bar with a couple of construction workers. Eddie goes inside and the two workers leave and chase Negani, bumping into his car and trying to force him off the road. In an accident, he is killed.

Learning of the accident, Sophie goes to see Negani’s wife, who tells Sophie that Negani’s father was a farmer in India who was growing GM corn, which gradually became less productive and too expensive, and he and a group of farmers committed suicide by drinking insecticide. While there are many things wrong with the thesis of this movie, this one is particularly offensive, because while there were Indian farmer suicides related to debt, they began taking place long before Bt cotton was introduced and decreased as they began to profit from the significant increase in productivity of the Bt cotton. There is no GM corn grown in India yet.

Sophie retrieves the incriminating papers from Nagani’s car just as it is about to be crushed, and crashes a press conference with Eddie’s help (did we mention he secretly works for Clonestra?), confronts Conway with the evidence, which had been kept from him. The biotech chickens are announced, but Conway resigns from Clonestra right after the press conference.

Our review

The movie ends with a somewhat heavy handed insistence that GM crops be labeled. No kidding. All that expense and all of Sophie’s misery and the death of both Danny Glover (heart attack) and Negani (car accident) for that? Oh, and Sophie’s mother spent several days in the hospital in a diabetic coma because she had ice cream with Garrett. Come on! Enough misery!

Wein describes his film as a “political thriller,” but “science fiction” might be a better label. The trouble is that good science fiction starts with actual science and extends it plausibly. This movie starts with bad science fears and continually hits you over the head with them. There has never been any reported evidence of any ill effect on humans or animals by any biotech crop.

The idea that ”GMOs” are an ingredient rather than a breeding technique pervades the movie. And the mantra that there have “never been any human tests” repeats several times. Foods are never tested on humans, (as Katiraee explains) because you cannot control a human diet the way you can control lab animals’ diets. The films also claims that there are only 90 day studies done and no long term studies have been done.  This contradicts the well-known study by Snell and Bernheim, which did review many long term studies and concluded the 90-day studies were indeed sufficient. And, of course, van Eenenaam and Young’s billion animal retrospective feeding study clearly show that there are no long term effects on using GM versus non-GM animals feeds.

Probably the most implausible part of the movie’s thesis is that only one child is affected with whatever this rash is (at the last moment Eddie’s boy gets it too). If this were a real problem we would expect hundreds of thousands of such cases, not just two. The rash is never diagnosed nor cured: that plot point which launches the story is left hanging. Probably because it has nothing to do with GM chickens, which haven’t been released yet anyway.

The idea that a company would knowingly be releasing products that would kill their customers is preposterous, and a bad business model. Now in the original Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson Batman, the Joker did release a product that killed customers, but he was a homicidal maniac, not a biotech company seeking to make a profit by selling better seeds. (Here’s a clip from that great Batman movie.)

In a peculiar analogy, Sophie mentions that tobacco was known to cause cancer in the 1950s but warning labels didn’t appear for 50 years. Drawing analogies to biotech, she supposes it will be 2040 before biotech foods are labeled. We discussed this crazy theory before, but the difference is that biotech crops are not known to have ill effects and in fact are the most heavily tested foodstuffs on the planet, with each new crop undergoing 10-11 years of testing before receiving approval.

While Danny Glover dies of a heart attack after learning that Clonestra will be suing him for growing unlicensed crops because of pollen drift, this has never happened and the real Clonestra, Monsanto has sworn in court that they will never do this. And such drift does not affect organic certification in any case.

While the film is gripping in many ways, it is essentially a fraud because it is based on popular misinformation that the writers have done nothing to fact check. This may be why the film has never found a  distributor: it is shown in various theaters around the US in presold private screenings to already convinced activists, who for the most part probably have not looked into the science either.

As reported by Klumper and Qaim, GM crops have increased crop yields by 21%, decreased pesticide use by 37% and increased profits by 69%. This is the real news the filmmakers should have pointed out. Labeling foods bred by one technique but nutritionally identical makes even less sense than this movie.

National  Geographic confuses science and religion

National  Geographic confuses science and religion

cover imageTo the dismay of many long time fans of National Geographic, its December issue featured a cover story called “Mary, the most powerful woman in the world.” This is distressing in that in a magazine devoted to science and geography, this article is neither. It is an article about a fictional woman important in many Christian sects who most likely never existed.  Scholars who have studied writings from 1-35 CE (there was no Year Zero) have found no mention at all of Jesus, let alone of Mary.

Jesus and Mary first appear in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which were written about 70 CE by men who were not even alive when Jesus was supposed to have lived. The fact that Jesus and Mary are legends in no way reduces their power among the faithful, but the stories and the morals they draw from them are drawn from legends rather than historical facts.

But it really seems excessive to call a fictional person “the most powerful woman in the world,” especially since the author of this first person account, Maureen Orth, is clearly a Christian believer who is not able to distinguish between fact and legend, and who seems to take all of these early stories quite literally.

Given that Mary herself has but a few lines in the Bible itself, most of the stories that have grown up around her are centered around “sightings” of Mary by believers.

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National Geographic’s map of sightings of Mary

In other words, the article is really about mass hallucinations, and it does not really question the reports of sightings at the various shrines the author visited. Sightings seem to be pretty much world wide as shown in a map created by the NGM staff based on data provided by Michael O’Neill, who calls himself a Miracle Hunter. He also has a brief video clip on the article page.

Now, an article about the pervasiveness of some religious myths would be interesting in some magazines, but surely not in National Geographic, who has mostly tended to deal with hard science. Could this be because of a change of ownership?

As you may have read, in order to save itself, National Geographic sold itself to Rupert Murdoch, of Fox fame in September. He took over in November and proceeded to lay off most of the magazine’s award winning staff.  Well, if it was that recently, surely Murdoch had little to do with this story which appeared in the December issue.  It might be possible, however, that this new ownership influenced the choice of this article for the cover of the magazine, but the article was clearly being written for some time, as the author (or some photographers) travelled to Mexico, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Poland, Rwanda, Haiti (which provides the obligatory NGM boob shot), Egypt, and Lourdes, where the author herself bathed in the legendary baths.

Has National Geographic ever written such a blatantly religious piece before? Well, sort of. In 2012, they produced a piece on The Apostles, but it had a much more scholarly tone. And this August, they published a more factual piece on the new Pope, and his interactions with the Vatican. Are they going to keep this up? Yes indeed. There is a TV program called The Cult of Mary scheduled for the National Geographic Channel, using much the same photographs. It seems a shame.

When is ‘The Daily Show’ going to be good again?

Trevor Noah by Peter Yang
Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show on September 29, and has had four weeks of shows to get into the stride of things. And now he’s taken a week off. This may be because of the World Series and the Republican debates, but this is an awfully short first act to begin to really see where Noah and his producers want to go with the show.

He’s hired several new correspondents: Roy Wood, Jr, who seems to have a great deal of experience and knows what a Daily Show “correspondent” needs to do to be funny. Wood has appeared several times and has done a fine job. Also announced but barely showing are Desi Lydic who showed up once, and Australian comedian Ronny Chieng, who’s also made just one appearance.

Stalwart Jordan Klepper has been a regular and has really hit his stride as an excellent comedian and faux interviewer in the Daily Show mold. But we’ve seen Jessica Williams, one of the show’s undoubted stars only twice, and Hasan Minhaj is doing a Broadway show for the next few weeks. Aasif Mandvi is nominally on the staff, but we’ve not seen him at all that we can remember. And while Al Madrigal is still listed, we’ve seen him but once.

So while Klepper and Woods have been helping out, a lot of the Daily Show has just been Noah. And how is he doing? He’s…just…not…very…funny.

Perhaps it is his odd, halting delivery in a South African accent that’s at fault, or maybe the fact that despite the fact that the Daily Show is an American comedy show, Noah is really new to the U.S. and seems unfamiliar with so many things. He does not really come across as very warm or as very interesting: there’s something distant about him, and a bit too cool. He doesn’t get particularly riled up about the absurdities he is reporting and he doesn’t involve you very much in his delivery.

In fact, when you hear him reading jokes written by the same Daily Show writers as Stewart had, they just don’t land very well: he seems awkward with them.

While The Daily Show has in the past used cable news as a foil to make fun of politics, they’ve pretty much dropped the easy jokes you can make about Fox News, and made few about CNN or other networks either. This is supposed to make the show more easily transportable to other electronic media, but what really gives that a boost are great comic bits that show up on YouTube, and there just have not been very many of those.

OK, it’s only been a month and Noah will surely get better with more experience. The question is whether people will stay with him long enough. When Jon Stewart left, we knew there would be a big problem filling his chair because he’d had 16 years of practice making this show look easy. It’s not easy, and bringing in a foreign standup comedian with little American comedy experience has not made this an easy transition.