Category Archives: Reviews

Gallery offers exhibit to die for with ‘After Life” show

(This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle)

"His Light," by Fernando Orellana
“His Light,” by Fernando Orellana

Would you rather be buried in a coffin or have your ashes become part of a piece of art? If your spirit were to haunt an object, what would that be?

San Francisco is full of talented people and companies trying to hack the most vital design questions of life and living — but an art exhibit now open at the Incline Gallery is tackling the design challenges of the dead.

“After Life,” running through Aug. 8, combines the work of San Francisco artist Al Honig and Troy, N.Y., artist Fernando Orellana into a collection of sculptures that gently offer solutions to the design questions presented by death.

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Book review: ‘Bondage of the Mind’ sloppy in its methodology

Bondage of the Mind

(This review originally appeared in the J Weekly)

By the beginning of the 20th century, Western culture had produced so many great books by atheists that writing them started to look easy. The result, at the beginning of the 21st century, is an assumption that every atheist is an author.

Thought of 10 reasons God doesn’t exist? That’s a book. Got an fMRI scan of monks praying? Book. Clipped a few news articles about fundamentalists doing stupid things, such as believing in God? Book. And possibly a sequel.

The result is the publishing equivalent of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” doing a God episode: You get a lot of priests falling down; philosophy that begins and ends with a sound bite; science done badly; and a concluding monologue in which a lesson, taken out of context and probably not true, is given.

R. D. Gold’s book on why the Old Testament is wrong falls squarely into this categorical mess.

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Fun with Short Form reviews: a few plays I have hated

Tragedy and Comedy masksSan Francisco Theater writer Lily Janiak once called me “San Francisco’s most lacerating critic,” but in fact I try to keep my really, really, bad reviews few and far between.

But when I do get to use all my claws… oh it’s such fun.  And there’s nothing better than a short form review to force you to get to the essence of a problem.

Here are a few capsule reviews (250 words or less) written for the SF Weekly about shows I have loathed:

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Theater Review: ‘Blithe Spirit’ at the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley

blithe_spirit_1

(This review first appeared in “All Shook Down”)

Noel Coward does not haunt us from beyond the grave. Though once the toast of mid-20th century London and Broadway, most theatre-goers in the 21st century would be hard pressed to name even one of his plays. There is no surer sign that a once enormously influential dead artist has had a stake driven through his heart.

It’s not for any lack of genius on Cowards part: he was every bit as talented as near-contemporaries like Bernard Shaw and Ibsen, who remain marquee names. But where they represented social movements, Coward represented a sensibility. We can still turn to Shaw whenever we want to condemn the hypocrisy that pushes that mass of mankind to poverty – a problem still very much with us. We can still turn to Ibsen when we want to critique the stultifying claustrophobia of domestic life, an issue that is very up to date. But who’s going to turn to the Coward, the master of drawing room conversation, where we no longer have drawing rooms?

A Coward play like Blithe Spirit, playing through August 21 at the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, lacks everything that a socially conscious play requires. There’s nothing resembling a moral, or even a conscience. While good and evil are acknowledged, the only sin is to be dull. No one learns a relevant lesson. No pressing issue is examined: the audience does not have its awareness raised. Though Coward was once a pop-culture playwright, his scripts are in no way au courant: trying to make Coward contemporary would be like trying to tweet Heidegger.

What one immediately grasps, watching Blithe Spirit, is that these are not flaws: they are eternal virtues. A Coward play is a safe space from everything – from Airbender to Jersey Shore – that makes contemporary entertainment reprehensible. Blithe Spirits makes no promises, and keeps them all in the most interesting way possible.

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Theater Review: The Puppet Version of King Lear Is Surprisingly Awesome

Lear_0758(This review originally appeared in The Exhibitionist)

Talented people often do baffling things. Sometimes this turns them into aesthetic heroes; sometimes it leads them down extraordinary dead ends. As an ordinary mortal, I’m not sure the world really needed a production of King Lear featuring two live actors and over 30 puppets. I’m reasonably sure that this is not a direction theater as a whole will ever move in. It will not become the Next Big Thing.

But since it exists, I am very glad to have seen it. Brilliant dead ends are far more inspiring than mediocre successes, and The Independent Eye company’s version of King Lear, playing at The Emerald Tablet every weekend through April, is anything but mediocre.

Independent Eye theater principals Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller are, unquestionably, geniuses, which makes their art harder to pin down. In fact, it’s probably better not to think of this as “The Independent Eye performing King Lear” as The Independent Eye making King Lear the medium through which they perform their own art. In order to do this, they have to turn most of the fundamentals of King Lear on their head.

King Lear usually times out at a brutally long three-plus hours (“I always go to the bathroom before seeing Lear,” a woman ahead of us in the ticket line declared). The Independent Eye’s Lear is a tight 100 minutes – with long sections of text obviously pulled out and key plot points summarized. And King Lear is a sprawling play, but the set occupied by this Lear is miniscule: slightly larger than a big photo booth, with room enough for two actors to sit without getting cramped. Even in San Francisco, it could fit in your living room.

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Book Review: No good guys in outstanding ‘Hell’s Cartel’

Hell's Cartel(This review originally appeared in the J Weekly)

By today’s standards, Carl Bosch and Carl Duisberg were not good men. Even by the standards of their peers, early 20th-century German industrialists, they were ruthless.

Heading two of the world’s largest chemical companies — BASF and Bayer, respectively — they were part of the industrial coalition that pushed for Germany to start World War I because it would be good for business.

When the war took a turn for the worse, their companies were the first in history to manufacture chemical weapons. When labor was at a premium, they even tried using slaves at their factories — though when the captured soldiers and civilians of other nations refused to work, Bosch and Duisberg declined to execute them.

When the war ended, German industry was at the mercy of hungry foreign conquerors. Bosch and Duisberg combined forces with the other giants of German chemical manufacturing to form a cartel called IG Farben, a hungry conqueror in its own right — and the subject of “Hell’s Cartel,” Diarmuid Jeffreys’ extraordinary history of the German chemical industry’s collusion with the Nazis.

What’s most fascinating about Bosch and Duisberg, who
respected virtually no ethical lines, is that they alone among all of Germany’s leading Aryan industrialists wanted nothing to do with the Nazis after they took power.

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Book Review: Sociologist Philip Rieff haunts us from the grave

Philip-Rieff

(This review originally appeared in J Weekly)

“Authority cannot die.” This is the message Jewish intellectual titan Philip Rieff leaves from beyond the grave.

It is a culminating insight for the pioneering sociologist, who died in 2006. His last books, the “Sacred Order/Social Order” trilogy, were published posthumously, and the final volume was released in April.

From the 1950s to the ’70s, Rieff was the premier interpreter of Sigmund Freud and cultural change in a time defined by psychology and cultural change. He coined the term “therapeutic culture” to describe our society, and posited that we were losing the ability to believe in anything — even when we wanted to.

He believed once identity becomes therapeutic — a role that you play when it feels good and put down when it feels bad — discipline becomes just another psychological tic for therapy to cure. Authority vanishes, from morality to truth to God — Jewish or otherwise.

Rieff, whose teaching career included stops at U.C. Berkeley and Brandeis University, quit publishing new works in the ’70s. As America’s preoccupations changed, he became an increasingly anachronistic figure, eventually remembered only as Susan Sontag’s first husband. But he kept taking notes, and what he noted surprised him.

We tore down religion but began venerating art as something transcendent. We tore down morality, but asked sociology to tell us how to live. We went from faith in an infinite God through whom anything is possible to faith in an infinite technology through which anything is possible, looking to it for existential answers the way our ancestors prayed to idols for a good harvest.

We replaced everything that once limited our behavior with something toothless, but still we begged it to tell us what to do.

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Book review: The right stuff?: Rabbi not wrong in defense of human spirit

You don't have to be wrong cover

(This review originally appeared in the J Weekly)

There are already dozens of ways to say “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right,” starting with “Judge not lest ye be judged,” “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” and “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Of them, “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right” may be the clumsiest and least aphoristic. It’s also the title of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield’s new book about tolerance. Someone should have told him that any book that sets out to prove a cliché is pretty much doomed from the start.

If you have ever thought, “Hey, religion can be pretty good” and “fanaticism can be pretty bad” in close proximity, you already understand his message. But fortunately for Hirschfield’s readers, this book is not really about what it purports to be about.

Hirschfield, it turns out, is a fascinating guy. Born into an Illinois home of what we would now call “cultural Jews,” he forced his family into a series of ethical dilemmas when he announced in the seventh grade that he was now Orthodox. He wore a yarmulke in spite of his grandmother’s open scorn and asked his mother to keep a kosher house despite the fact that his favorite food — until weeks before — was shrimp cocktail.

Instead of going to college, Hirschfield became a settler in Hebron at 19, packing an automatic weapon with his teffilin when he went to pray at the Temple Mount. He danced joyously in the streets, shot out the sides of buses and thought no sacrifice would be too much for Greater Israel.

But when three settlers he knew opened fire into a Palestinian school and killed two children in 1983, he realized he was wrong.

Hirschfield’s journey from Jewish fanaticism to scholarly Judaism and back to the Orthodox rabbinate is an extraordinary one. But that’s just part of what makes this book a gripping read.

Although he never quite says it outright, Hirschfield is a passionate defender of the human spirit against the idea that a religion is best when it is cookie-cutter. His religious journey made him more idiosyncratic and individualistic, not less, and he fights vigorously against the idea that believers have to be clones of each other.

Hirschfield takes an infectious joy in human individuality, and whether he’s discussing religiously inspired tattoos or the idea that maybe there should be a blessing for shrimp cocktail (even if he never ate it again), his digressions and anecdotes read like a triumph of the human spirit. “The uniformity that we so often fight for as lovers, parents, nations, and religious traditions is the opposite of the infinite unity that inspires us most,” he says in an aside that ought to be on the first page.

It’s only when he gets back “on point” about “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right” that you roll your eyes and think, “Yeah, this occurred to me in fifth grade and seemed really radical — then.”

The philosophical half of this book may be a clichéd failure, but the other half is a rip-roaring page-turner. In the spirit of tolerance, I am willing to accept the first part in order to be delighted by the second. My mother taught me to do that. And so, it turns out, did Hirschfield. But he has a much better story about it.

“You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right” by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (271 pages, Harmony Books, $24.95)