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Theatre of Youth, Talking Leaves launch kid-friendly book club

We normally think of book clubs as resolutely adult affairs, the sort of activity that seems to go hand-in-hand with wine, cheese, and sophisticated conversation. But a new collaboration (or, maybe more accurately, cross-promotion) between Theatre of Youth and Buffalo indy bookstore Talking Leaves shows that the concept can apply just as much to kids.

The book club will hold its first meeting in Talking Leaves (3158 Main St.) at 1 p.m. March 12, when young members will discuss "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," Judy Blume's classic story about fourth-grader Peter Warren Hatcher and his pesky little brother, known to all as "Fudge." A Theatre of Youth production of a play adapted from Blume's book opens on March 25 in the Allendale Theatre.

Next up in the series is "How I Became a Pirate," slated for May. (TOY"s prodcution of "How I Became A Pirate" opens May 13.)

--Colin Dabkowski

Merrolla wins Just Buffalo Writing Contest

Juliette Merrolla, a relatively new voice on the Buffalo area literary scene, is the winner of Just Buffalo Literary Center's 3rd Annual Members Writing Contest.   She received the  award in this year's designated genre of poetry for her five stanza, sixty-nine line long  poem "Landings," a reconfiguration of the Greek myth involving Daedalus and his son Icarus--the classic story of an ambitious father and his doomed son--in a contemporary family setting.

Twenty-four of the of the thirty-four entrants in the competition attended and read from their work before a standing room only crowd at the annual Just Buffalo Members Reading and award announcement last Thursday night at the Western New York Book Arts Center on Washington Street.

The contest was judged by Ansie Baird, one of the Buffalo area's most widely-published poets, a co-editor of Earth's Daughters magazine and the author of "In Advance of All Parting," winner of the 2009 White Pine Press Poetry Prize. In her introductory remarks to the announcement of the award, Ms. Baird noted that it was "a difficult decision" that involved "several re-readings" of the principal contenders.  "I felt that as many as seven of the poems submitted were quite good," Baird noted, "In the end, I chose the poem that I felt was most successful at engaging the reader on many levels of meaning."

In addition to the annual Judge's Prize, Just Buffalo also awards an annual Audience Prize to the contest entrant whose poem is judged best by a ballot of those attending the reading.  For the second straight year, that balloting resulted in a tie, and the Audience Award was presented jointly to John Lazer Okrent for his "New Year's Poem" and to Richard K. Olson for his anti-war poem "A Chance of Rain."

Ms. Merrolla, a Buffalo area native, attended and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Eastern Washington, before returning to this area.  She currents works for Praxair, Inc.  Mr. Okrent is a medical student at the University at Buffalo.  Mr. Olson, Vietnam War veteran and retired Williamsville School System employee, is the author of several chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which is titled "Large Bowls of Water."

--R.D. Pohl

The Thursday Theater Roundup

Before next week's spate of openings arrives, there are plenty of worthy shows still playing in local theaters. Here's our glimpse at what's hot on the theater scene this weekend:

"4:48 Psychosis," through March 13 in Subversive Theatre's Manny Fried Playhouse. From the review: "[Sarah Kane's] one-act play is a surreal stream of consciousness whose malleability mimics that of a handful of Jell-O. It is a dream-scape of thought and words, and nothing more." --Ben Siegel

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"Shrek the Musical," through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center. From the review: "The creators of this smartly conceived show, which like the film upon which it is based is more of a manic pastiche than an actual story, have wisely avoided the pitfalls of so many recent screen-to-stage adaptations. In translating the story of Shrek into music and dance, the show’s producers embraced the conventions of theater to create something fresh and freshly funny." --Colin Dabkowski

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Michele Marie Roberts, Marc Sacco, Steve Copps and Lisa Ludwig in "[title of show]" in MusicalFare Theatre.

"[title of show]," through March 6 in MusicalFare Theatre. From the review: "The layers of self-awareness here are at 'Inception' levels, sometimes nauseatingly so. But all is tempered by a heavy dose of humor ripped from the mouths of today's self-mocking, fake-accent-speaking, ironic youth. And it's hilarious." --Ben Siegel

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Cassie Gorniewicz and David Oliver in "Fall of the House of Usher."

"Fall of the House of Usher," through March 6 in Torn Space Theatre. From the review: "Stylistically, this production has all the visual beauty and careful presentation for which Torn Space has become known, and on that basis alone is worth a visit. There are moments when you wish you could hit pause — as when Gorniewicz stands illuminated in the tomb above a fog-filled stage — just to squeeze every last bit of visual pleasure out of the tableaux director Vincent O’Neill and the show’s design team have created." --Colin Dabkowski

Rahm Emanuel on the arts in Chicago

APTOPIX Chicago Mayor
Rahm Emanuel after winning the Chicago mayoral election on Feb. 22. AP Photo / Charles Rex Arbogast

The Chicago Tribune has a piece today about newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his approach to the arts in that city. The whole piece is worth a read for the lessons embedded in it, but this particular quote should have a special resonance for Buffalonians:

"While the city no doubt faces critical fiscal challenges," Emanuel told the Tribune, "the arts are no less essential to the growth of a great city."

Did you catch that, Byron and Chris?

This passage, in which Emanuel details the need for a city-wide cultural plan, is liable to make local arts supporters (of which there are hundreds of thousands, few of whom have made their way into city or county government) green with envy:

A healthy arts and cultural community is vital to the overall economic climate in Chicago. Our Department of Cultural Affairs needs a renewed mission and new investment. As mayor, my first action in this area will be to order the creation of a new cultural plan for Chicago. The planning process should include an assessment of our cultural resources, and a discussion with artists in every neighborhood and in all arts and cultural disciplines about our collective needs, opportunities, and priorities. From this process the Department of Cultural Affairs can create new strategies that promote vibrant arts and cultural hubs in every community and help to anchor economic growth on every side of the city.

--Colin Dabkowski

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Shaw Festival begins rehearsals

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Shaw Festival veteran Deborah Hay stars in its production of "My Fair Lady"

Here's a hopeful sign for everyone who's sick and tired of winter and still waiting for Punxsutawney Phil's prediction to come true: The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake's massive summerly theater outfit, has already entered rehearsals.

Actors are currently running lines and warming up their singing voices for the Shaw's production of "My Fair Lady," Lerner and Loewe's beloved musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." (MusicalFare Theatre did a charming revival of that show last year.)

Here's the rest of the Shaw's summer lineup:

Festival Theatre

"My Fair Lady," based on ‘Pygmalion’ by Bernard Shaw. Adaptation and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. April 9 to Oct. 31.

"Heartbreak House," by Bernard Shaw. May 10 to October 7.

"The Admirable Crichton," by J. M. Barrie. June 22 to Oct. 29.

Royal George Theatre

"Candida," by Bernard Shaw. April 7 to October 30.

"Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," by Tennessee Williams. May 3 to Oct. 23.

"The President," by Ferenc Molnár, adapted by Morwyn Brebner. June 3 to Oct. 9

Court House Theatre

"Drama At Inish: A Comedy," by Lennox Robinson. May 6 to Oct. 1.

"On The Rocks," by Bernard Shaw, in a new version by Michael Healey. June 14 to Oct. 8.

"Maria Severa," book, music and lyrics by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli. July 19 to Sept. 23.

Studio Theatre

"Topdog/Underdog," by Suzan-Lori Parks. July 19 to Aug. 27.

"When The Rain Stops Falling," by Andrew Bovell. Aug. 11 to Sept. 17.

--Colin Dabkowski

Phish sets June date at Darien Lake

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Trey Anastasio and Phish are headed back to Darien Lake. File photo from 2009 by John Hickey / Buffalo News

Another big summer concert is officially on the calendar, as Phish today announced a stop on their at 7 p.m. June 8 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. Free Darien Lake Theme Park admission for the day of the concert is included with every concert ticket -- courtesy of Phish, according to a release from concert promoter Live Nation. Tickets are $65 reserved seating and $45 for the lawn and go on sale at noon March 12 through LiveNation.com and Ticketmaster.

Poet Kazim Ali returns for BIG NIGHT tribute to Millie Niss

Tonight's Just Buffalo Literary Center BIG NIGHT event features a celebration of the life and work of Millie Niss, the Buffalo-area-based poet, writer, digital artist and web-based installation designer, who died of complications of Behcet's Disease and the H1N1 virus at the age of 36 in November of 2009.  It begins at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.) in Buffalo.  Admission is $5, free to students with valid ID and members of Just Buffalo and its affiliate organizations.

Ms. Niss, one of only a few people we've ever met for whom the description "savant" might accurately apply, was an award-winning, Columbia University-trained mathematician who saw her very promising academic and professional career foreshortened by the early onset of a rare vascular autoimmune disorder -- later diagnosed as Behcet's Disease -- that would eventually take her life.

With an indomitable intelligence and a fiercely competitive spirit, she approached her progressively worsening condition with courage, wit and a highly focused agenda of things she hoped to accomplish. Over the last decade and a half of her life, she turned to writing, digital art forms and a variety of web-based media forms to express the full gamut of ideas and emotions that still roiled inside her.

"A Tribute to Millie Niss" coincides with the release of “City Bird: Selected Poems (1991-2009),” a collection of her writings published this month by BlazeVox Books, and will feature readings of selections from the book by members of the Western New York literary community, and a special appearance by award-winning poet, essayist and Oberlin College professor Kazim Ali--a former Buffalo-area resident and high school classmate of Niss who maintained a lifelong correspondance and friendship with her.  

In many respects, Ali is the quintessential poet to celebrate the life of a polymath like Niss.  His focus on breath, somatic intelligence, spirituality, and the prerogatives of the body is the substantial complement to her edgy, rhetorical propulsiveness and hyper-rationality born of the near-certain knowledge that her time on this world was limited. Here, for instance, is a passage from an essay Ali contributed to the literary blog The Millions for National Poetry Month in April of 2009: 

Poetry, to me, is an art that lives in the body – in its cavities of breath and mechanisms of propelling breath, in the vibrating cords of voice, deep in the skin and blood, and flashing across the axons and dendrites deep in the brain’s neural networks. If it seems political in the extreme it is because throughout what we call human civilization, but at no time more intense than at the present moment, the individual body has been under attack by collective bodies – the body politic, the corporation, various strains of organized religion that all at least agree on one thing: salvation requires the individual to submit his body to the law.

Ali—who was born in London, England to Indian parents of Muslim heritage, and spent a significant portion of his youth and teen years in the Buffalo area, where much of his family continues to reside--is the author of the poetry collections “The Far Mosque” (Alice James Books, 2005) and “The Fortieth Day” (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2008), the novels “Quinn’s Passage” (BlazeVox, 2004) and “The Disappearance of Seth” (Etruscan Press, 2009), and a memoir “Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities” (Wesleyan University Press, 2009).

Over the past decade, he has quietly emerged as one of the indispensable voices of our aesthetic and geo-political moment.  No writer now working within the constraints of postmodern poetics is more adept at articulating a mystical, beatific spirituality equally rooted in his Islamic faith and the concreteness of the secular world.

Ali's two most recent books, "Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence" (University of Michigan Press, 2010), and "Fasting for Ramadan," a collection of writings on culture, philosophy, and spiritual practice forthcoming in April from Tupelo Press, demonstrate what a subtle and original reading he has of American popular and media culture, and the disembodiment of our personal and political lives it produces. 

In "Write Something on My Wall: Body, Identity and Poetry," a tour-de-force of an essay originally published in American Poetry Review that was republished in "Orange Alert," Ali constructs a hopscotch-like non-linear narrative on the idea of interiority in language and American literature, and its seeming obverse, the commodification of the body and depersonalization of a culture that fetishizes "reality" and obliterates personal space.

 He sorts through Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe, and Anne Carson, Melville and The Matrix, Paris Hilton and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to consider the alternatives American culture seems to offer us--"mindless body" or "bodiless mind"--and proposes a third way: 

Where we once thought of the mind in terms of metaphors of the body—which is to say the understanding of corpus was the grounding experience, the anima a poetical (or “astronomical”) consideration—we are now moving in the other direction, that is to say, considering the body in terms of metaphors of the mind...[We] may find our best spiritual, intellectual and emotional nourishment in the spaces between bodies and their existences, in the conflicted, confused, and vexed spaces of the oral and ecstatic, the profaned and profound, the queer and the difficult. Our very language of the intellect has assumed qualities of the body, and with perhaps our chance to become ourselves, to become human, has increased a thousandfold.

"Poetry is the smallest way – it is a small, small way, but it is a way indeed – that the individual body can express its own personhood and value in the face of faceless systems," writes Ali in another of the volume's essays.  "In poetry, in community action in solidarity with the disempowered, unhomed, dehumanized, in the trust of a human expression in a human mouth, we might start moving towards a consciousness beyond the individual that is grounded in selfless action and not selfishness, greed, and acquisition...We need to construct a new value system, one that prizes the individual and human, that eschews needless desire and has a view of interconnectedness of all living things, not based on the flow of money, but based on mutual interest and yes, kindness." 

--R.D. Pohl

A closer look at Albright-Knox's 'Surveyor'

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"Untiled, Flood," 2007, a painting by Barnaby Furnas recently acquired by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"Surveyor," a unique exhibition combining work by regional artists and pieces from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, opens today. Here's a slideshow that provides a closer look at some of the paintings and sculptures on view in the show:

--Colin Dabkowski

Review chat with News Pop Music Jeff Miers

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