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The National Mall, one day, six stops

By Elise Lundstrom

ArtsPost Staff Writer

Have a day to see the National Mall? It’s a daunting task. There are more than museums, four monument and three government buildings on or adjacent to the Mall. How do you choose what to see? Here is a guide to six must-see museums and their highlights. This tour is designed to take from 10 a.m. to late afternoon. It is fit for all ages and all group sizes. With this guide you will see much of the culture, science and art the institutions on the Mall have to offer. These museums are easily accessible by Metro. Get off at the Smithsonian stop on the Blue Line and walk across the Mall to the first stop.

National Museum of American History

14th Street and Constitution Avenue

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (check for extended summer hours)

Can’t Miss: “The Star Spangled Banner” (second floor)

The best place to start off your whirlwind Mall experience is the National Museum of American History, full of exhibits, permanent and temporary, that will appeal to every person in your group. Highlights include: “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian,” “Within, These Walls,” “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” and “National Treasures of Popular Culture.”

Can’t Miss: You literally can’t miss “The Star Spangled Banner” exhibit; it is right inside the entrance to the museum. Entering the exhibit, you will travel up a ramp, reading about the Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore while audio is played to further illustrate the information on the panels and the videos. The audio includes: “Washington burning,” “Sounds of a ship at anchor,” and “sounds of distant rockets and bombs.” When reading the descriptions of the sound bytes, they seem a little silly, but they are there to keep all of the senses working as you move through the exhibit.

Repeat visitors may remember the previous exhibit included the restoration process on display: women on scaffolding meticulously sewing and repairing the flag for its eventual permanent display. In the current exhibit, the flag is finally finished, behind glass, in a dimly lit, controlled environment room, almost glowing because of the lighting. The intrigue of the restoration is gone, and with it some of the appeal of the banner itself.

Following the actual viewing area for the flag, a large, touch animation table lets visitors interact with different parts of the flag, seeing the stitches up close and reading information about the restoration process (at least that aspect lives on in the exhibition.)

Finally, as you exit the exhibit, information about the creator of the actual flag, Mary Pickersgill, not Betsy Ross, its commissioner Maj. George Armistead, and Francis Scott Key, writer of the song that became the National Anthem, is displayed. This section is accompanied by “a medley of performances of The Star Spangled Banner” audio, easily recognizable and fun to hear spliced together.

There is a reason the “goSmithsonian” guide tells you to “begin here.” Family friendly in its length and interactive features, this exhibit gets you ready to experience all things “American” and showcases a part of American history that is as important today as when it was created during the Revolutionary War, the American flag.

The Kenneth E. Behring Center has undergone many renovations over the past four years, and while they have certainly made the interior space more visually appealing, it is clear that the aesthetics were more important than function in the process. For example, the “National Treasures of Popular Culture” exhibit is much too small to accommodate all those wishing to glimpse Dorothy’s red slippers. The format of the museum has remained generally the same, with escalators on each end of the building and exhibits scattered between and behind them. But don’t let the outside construction fool you: The museum is open.

National Museum of Natural History

10th Street and Constitution Avenue

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (check for extended summer hours)

Can’t Miss: the Harry Winston Gallery

After your immersion into American culture, continue your day on the mall by going next door; the National Museum of Natural History cannot be missed. This museum is chock full of science and fun with its diversity of exhibits, IMAX theater and “Live Butterfly Pavilion.” As you enter, you are greeted by the towering African elephant of the popular Washington phrase, “Meet you by the elephant.” It is easy to get your bearings in the rotunda, as all of the major exhibits are well marked and directions to everywhere you want to go are plentiful. There is something for every science lover here from dinosaurs to Egyptian mummies, to moon rocks.

Can’t Miss: “A Rare Encounter: Together” showcases two of the world’s most valuable blue diamonds: the Smithsonian’s Hope Diamond and the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond. The Harry Winston Gallery presents a timeline of each diamond, when and where it passed from owner to owner and how it came by its current cut and owner. The Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond is on display publicly for the first time in 50 years. Both diamonds originated in mines in India, some speculate the same mine, since they are so similar in color and size.

This exhibit is special not only because of the pairing of these gems but because for the first time, the Hope Diamond is displayed out of its original setting. To celebrate the anniversary of its entry into the Smithsonian collection, the Hope Diamond has been removed form the original setting, which is currently on display laying next to the diamond in its display case, and will be placed in a new setting in May. held a design contest and the winning design “Embracing Hope,” is being created by Harry Winston Inc., whose founder donated the gem to the Smithsonian, and for whom the gallery that houses the Hope Diamond is named.

Along with these two priceless diamonds, the gallery has four large mineral samples, quartz, sandstone and others. The gallery is not crowded, and since the Hope Diamond is displayed on a rotating pedestal, there is no need to jockey for position. Everyone can appreciate the value and beauty of these diamonds; however the gallery, and adjacent “National Gem Collection” and “Gems and Minerals” exhibit seemed to be largely occupied by mothers and daughters. All of the visitors were enjoying themselves, and like “meet me by the elephant,” a common joking statement was “I’ll take that one.”

If you are in need of a snack before you venture on down the mall, stop by the Fossil Café on the first floor at the end of the dinosaur hall, or the Ice Cream and Coffee Bar located outside the Atrium Café on the ground floor. They have sustainable treats.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden:

Independence Avenue at Seventh Street

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Sculpture Garden open 24/7)

Can’t Miss: the Sculpture Garden

Tired of being inside? Cross the Mall and walk down toward the Capitol Building until you see a large red jumble of iron beams. That’s Mark di Suvero’s “Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore) and you have reached the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. This is a great break from reading, and allows your group to enjoy sculpture from some of the greatest artists of the modern era. Start with the silver “Kiepenkerl,” peddler, by Jeff Koons and walk down the stairs to your left as you start your relaxing tour of Hirshhorn sculpture.

As you wind your way along the paths, contemplating the meaning behind each work, and the connection between the titles and the works themselves, take a minute to enjoy the overall atmosphere of the sculpture garden. After the inevitable crowds at the first two museums, this should be a nice break.

At the center of the garden is a reflecting pool and one of the most intriguing works, “For Gordon Bunshaft” by Dan Graham created in 2006. The structure, made from two-way mirror, wood and steel, is a favorite for kids and adults. You look at the glass, expecting your reflection, but you see someone else! You look around to see who this reflection belongs to and it is a person further down the path, undoubtedly looking at a reflection of you. You can walk around the structure, open the door and go inside for a unique experience, or just sit on a bench and watch the laughter and fun. Everyone experiencing this work has a smile on their face.

(Make sure you walk down every path, or you might miss something wonderful.)

Other artists on display in the garden include: Auguste Rodin, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti. The final work as you complete your winding tour of the garden is “Wish Tree for Washington D.C.” by Yoko Ono. During all seasons, current spring budding excluded because of the delicate status of the tree at that time, visitors are encouraged to attach pieces of paper with their wishes written on them to the tree. This iconic sculpture is a must see and experience for all visitors to the sculpture garden.

As you walk up the stairs and out of the official garden, look across the street at Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brushstroke” in front of the Hishhorn itself. The sculpture collection continues around the museum, with plenty of opportunities to sit and enjoy, including in the courtyard around the asymmetrical fountain, and ends with Claes Oldenburg’s “Geometric Mouse” at the entrance of the museum. If your art bug isn’t satisfied, head inside for galleries filled with modern art, otherwise, exit the museum grounds toward Independence Avenue and walk to your left to the next destination.

(Note: please do not touch the sculpture. That includes children and adults.)

National Air and Space Museum:

Independence Avenue at Sixth Street

Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (most days March 28 – September 5)

Can’t Miss: “Visions of Earth”

As you enter The National Air and Space Museum, you are confronted with huge hallways filled with aircraft, crowds of people and the feeling of utter chaos. The first floor of the museum is basically divided in two: on the east side, space and rockets, on the west, airplanes and aviation. The second floor is a mixture of the two and including the Albert Einstein Planetarium, the Wright Brothers gallery and many others.

If you don’t enjoy throngs of children screaming at their parents to let them have dehydrated ice cream and let them ride the simulator, this may be a difficult museum for you to enjoy. That said, there is no better place in Washington to experience the history of flight and space exploration.

The Air and Space Museum is trapped in a collision of the 1970s and the 2000s. The Can’t Miss of this museum is a great example of that: “Looking at Earth” on the ground floor on the east side of the building. Need to escape the announcements about how many minutes you have to buy your IMAX tickets before the next show? Duck into this exhibit on how humans have viewed the Earth from the air, and from space.

At the start of the exhibit, “A Bird’s Eye View” shows us the first camera strapped to a pigeon (to take images in flight) as well as cartoons of photographers hanging out of hot air balloons. The exhibit progresses through time to show how we have taken and used images from the air for social, military and scientific research. Satellites are given a large portion of the exhibit, and on display are the TIROS, GOES and ITOS satellites themselves. Finally the “What’s New” section shows new ways scientists are using space imagery.

The exhibit is a mix of 1970s scientist and pilot mannequins and current video and weather technology. A station where you can view satellite images of anywhere on the planet is across from a dusty spy pilot seated on the wing of his jet. Enjoyable and informative, this quirky exhibit embodies the spirit of flight and the spirit of the National Air and Space Museum, without the dehydrated food and mass of people.

National Museum of the American Indian:

Independence Avenue at Fourth Street

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Can’t Miss: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort”

Continue down Independence Avenue to the next building and you have reached the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum’s exterior immediately informs you that this is not an ordinary museum, its curving and organic stone face keep your eye moving as you walk around to the main entrance courtyard. You are greeted with a natural landscape, pond and sculpture by Native American artists. The large glass doors of the entry seem heavy but swing easily when you pull them open. The interior is bright and airy; the rotunda is open from floor level to the oculus in the ceiling letting in a beam of light.

The American Indian museum features many exhibits on current and past traditions, art and cultures of different groups of native American peoples, including “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,” “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories” and others. The exhibits are comprehensive and engaging, if a little heavy on text. But we have so much to learn, we know so little, that the museum feels like it must tell you as much as it can while it has your attention.

Can’t Miss: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort” is an exhibit of the Swiss-Canadian Native American installation artist’s works. Jungen is half Native American of the Dunne-Za First Nations and uses found objects to create his environmentally and socially conscious works. In the rotunda, a mobile of his work “Crux (As seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky)” is off to the side, a preview of the exhibit on the third floor. The exhibit is set up like an art gallery, not like the rest of the museum that has more of a scientific and social feel. The six rooms contain many different examples of his work.

Jungen’s work deals with Native American identity, especially related to sports and environmental issues. His environmental works are mainly in plastic, including his “Shapeshifter,” what looks like a whale skeleton made from white plastic chair pieces, and “Carapace,” an igloo-like structure based on Asian temples, created from trash bins. His more socially conscious works deal with the role of Native American mascots in the sports world.

His totem pole-like structures made from golf bags and titled after their years, are particularly striking for their height and their geometric aesthetics. Jungen creates faces out of sports gear and you can’t help but smile initially when you see these works. However, his work deals with issues that are under the surface, just like his meaning is under the surface of his art.

By now you are probably famished. If you made it past the food court trap in the National Air and Space Museum (really, do you want McDonalds?), then eat at the Mitsitam Café. Delicious native inspired dishes abound. Tip: order a few side dishes instead of an entrée to get a taste of all the cultural foods offered.

United States Botanic Garden:

100 Maryland Ave. SW (adjacent to the U.S. Capitol)

Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Can’t Miss: The Conservatory

Now that you’ve been tuned in to more natural aspects of life, walk across the street toward the Capitol to the Botanic Garden. Here’s the reward at the end of your National Mall tour. If it’s been a long, hot day, take some refuge in the cool Garden Court; if it’s been rainy and cold, warm up in the Jungle or the Tropical Gardens. The U.S. Botanic Garden complex includes the indoor Conservatory, the exterior National Garden and Bartholdi Park across Independence Avenue.

The Botanic Garden has many different gardens for all of the different ecosystems found in the country from desert to primeval plants to Hawaii and tropical jungle, and rare and endangered plants. Visitors enjoy wandering through the gardens, stopping to take pictures of the many flowers, especially orchids, and just relaxing in the atmosphere. The walkways can be quite narrow however, so be wary of strollers and large groups. If you get stuck behind a tour group, the best option is to back-track and come back to that area later. Professionals are at stations to provide detailed information about plants and gardening, as well as give tours of the conservatory.

The West Gallery has an exhibit called “Plants and Culture” that allows visitors to smell fragrances that come from flowers and plants, products that come from plants and plants in our everyday lives. The huge metal flower sculptures are fun for all ages, with videos in their centers showing live plants growing as well as other clips.

The conservatory is a wonderful final stop for a tour of the Mall, relaxing, but fun and informative.

“Repo Men” an Empty Sci-Fi Thriller

By Charlie Carroll

ArtsPost staff writer

For Jude Law, the dramatic and thought-provoking sci-fi genre is old news.  That’s not to say that Law has moved beyond the genre, but rather that most would assume that at this point he knows how to do it well.  Law excelled in his past performances in “Gattaca” and “Artificial Intelligence,” but his latest sci-fi endeavor “Repo Men” falls much shorter than its expectations and hype generated by the movie’s promoters.  The director merely threw two talented actors, Forest Whitaker and Jude Law, into a disjointed story that never seems to quite understand its intended tone.

Released around the time of intense political debate over healthcare reform, what might seem “timely” for some is nothing more than empty social commentary (unlike the clear success of “Daybreakers” released only a few months earlier).  The best part about the movie is the chemistry between Whitaker and Law’s characters as they laugh and slice their way through a futuristic dystopia based on sexual and violent excess.

Remy (Law) works in this morally questionable world as a repo man for The Union, a large, greedy corporation that produces artificial organs and body parts at a very high price to its customers.  While the company hands out the empty promise of improving and extending life for those suffering from debilitating health problems, there is a small catch.  If you can’t afford to make the payments on your organ, or “artiforg,” The Union sends its highly-skilled personnel out to recollect the organ, giving little thought to the victim’s survival post-operation.

Remy and his partner Jake (Whitaker) are the best repo men that The Union has to offer, but Remy’s wife disapproves of his job, forcing the former military man to resign for his family.  However, on his last job a faulty defibrillator severely damages Remy’s heart, requiring the company to give him an artiforg that he inevitably has to pay for.  Remy literally has “a change of heart,” and after the operation can no longer cut into the chests of innocent men and women.  His debt piles higher and higher and eventually the young outcast goes on the run with Beth (Alice Braga), a beautiful, young nightclub singer whose body is made up different black market artiforgs.  Together the two fugitives embark on a mission to escape from and take down the system, evading the tireless pursuit of The Union, led by Jack.

What “Repo Men” has in a top notch cast, it severely lacks in direction, tone and character.  In his major directorial debut, Miguel Sapochnik fails at guiding a coherent storyline.  Essentially, Sapochnik cannot seem to figure out whether or not the movie is supposed to be more of a drama or big-budget action comedy.  Law has said that the movie is intended to mix comedic delivery with explicit, bloody sequences as a way to parody or comment on the gore and violence of modern action movies and pop culture.

The story’s progression hardly makes sense at times and becomes a joke itself.  The balance between comedy and gore feels more awkward than anything else.  Particularly misguided is one scene between Barga and Law that uncomfortably mixes sensual eroticism with graphic gore, leaving the viewer even more confused about Sapochnik’s intentions.  Ethan Hawke’s “Daybreakers” attacked the healthcare and resource preservation angle much more successfully with a clear goal and style that was severely lacking in “Repo Men.”

The movie is centered on Law and Whitaker’s perception of duty and service, which comes from both characters’ backgrounds as military men.  The movie attempts to determine whether “a job is just a job,” but falls flat in engaging the audience and making them think.  The only exception to this rule lies in Whitaker’s character, whose senseless love of violence and duty to maintaining order works alongside a personality that is surprisingly funny.

The film amounts to nothing more than a “Blade Runner” wanna-be interrupted with moments of cringe-inducing “bad-assery.”  While the violence feels a bit excessive at time, the shock of this strategy creates fight sequences characteristic of your classic “guy movie.”  In essence, this is the movie’s only appeal, and a weak one at that.

Scoring Redgate: Is it remarkable?

Redgate's par-5 14th hole

By Jeremy Walsh
ArtsPost staff writer

Redgate Municipal Golf Course is a challenging par-71, public course managed by the City of Rockville, Md., designed by local golf course architect Therman Donovan. Since its opening in 1974, Redgate has become a well-known opportunity for local golfers to test their skills.

But is the course really worth your 4 1/2 hours and $50?

Let’s evaluate the Redgate experience, scoring each hole individually, to see whether each part of the course is truly exceptional.

(The scoring system: decently designed holes, challenging and fair will be given a par.  Poor or below-average holes will get a bogey, and beautiful, exceptional holes will get a birdie. So, a good, worthwhile course would finish with a score right at par.)

1. Par-4, 376 yards

This uphill, dogleg-left hole is a good starting hole and sets the tone for the rest of the course.  There’s change in elevation, fairway bunkers and trees surrounding the green, all of which are constants at Redgate.  The hole requires two good shots to a manageable green, a solid test for a first hole.  Par

2.  Par-3, 168 yards

Players must hit over a small creek on this challenging par-3 that drops downhill significantly to a difficult, sloping green. The green looks beautiful from the tee, though the trees between there and the green are kind of an eyesore.  Par

3.  Par-4, 324 yards

Easily the most beautiful hole on the front nine.  The view from the tee box is simply magnificent, as some 100 yards of lake must be cleared before finding the fairway this short, uphill par-4.  Assuming you avoid the fairway bunkers and the trees, the second shot should settle nicely on an easy green.  Fun hole for golfers to all levels. Birdie

4. Par-5, 560 yards

A long hole featuring a lake between the fairway and a creek just in front of the green.  The approach shot is fun, as the fairway drops some 40 yards to the green.  The green is difficult, so try to stay below the hole to avoid a three-putt.  Par

5.  Par-4, 350 yards

Really nothing special.  The tee shot is blind and severely uphill with trees on either side.  The hole turns slightly to the left for the approach shot to a huge green.  Don’t miss the green to the right because the ground is hard and the grass is poor.   Par

6.  Par-3, 137 yards

Another picturesque hole.  This magnificent, short par-3 requires a simple shot in between three green-side bunkers.  Be careful with a green that slopes pretty significantly toward the front.  Birdie

7.  Par-4, 362 yards

This hole begins a short stretch of holes that straddle the line between average and poor.  The seventh hole squeaks by in the former, barely because it’s challenging and the fairway and green are in good shape.  The one knock is that it runs parallel to the parking lot, and average golfers don’t need the added stress of financial repercussions for their tee shot to the left.  Par

8.  Par-4, 423 yards

Again, here’s another hole that barely makes the grade.  Players can’t see the fairway from the tee on this long par-4 (not being able to see the fairway or green really takes away from a hole’s quality).  Once you reach that fairway though, the view of the green is exceptional, featuring an elevated putting surface surrounded by bunkers on three sides.  Par

9.  Par-4, 456 yards

The most challenging hole for the average golfer is also the least attractive.  The view to the green is what brings it down.  The fairway slopes awkwardly to the side on the left side and has a big, drooping tree blocking the right side.  The green is also needlessly big.  Overall, a poor way to finish a good-looking front nine.  Bogey

After nine holes, Redgate’s course design is pretty exceptional, and is sitting at 1-under-par.  Considering that par is a good score for all courses using this system, being better than that is awesome.  The two beautiful holes are much more memorable than the poor finishing holes.

10.  Par-4, 412 yards

This is the last in the aforementioned stretch of mediocre holes and like the others, is another long par-4 that demands two quality shots, though this green is the most challenging on the course so far.  The green is a slick beast, slanting drastically from right to left.  Here’s a case where challenge balances out unremarkable design.  Par

11.  Par-4, 309 yards

Just a remarkable, short par-4.  There are hazards on either side, but the tee box is some 20 yards above the green, tempting everyone to bring out the driver when a lay-up tee shot is the smart play.  For years, this green has had irrigation and disease problems but is finally in good shape.  Play smart and you’ll get the same score:  Birdie

12.  Par-4, 383 yards

Clearly the eyesore of the back nine.  The tee shot must carry up a slope of some 50 or 60 yards just to make to a part of the fairway.  The view to the green, surrounded by trees and out-of-bounds, is unspectacular, like the rest of the hole.  Bogey

13.  Par-4, 415 yards

This features yet another blind tee shot, with the green nowhere in sight.  From the fairway, you face another severe drop to the green.  Though blind tee shots are frustrating, there’s something beautiful about the view from above a well-manicured, bunker-surrounded green.  Par

14. Par-5, 507 yards

The 14th hole is the most spectacular on the course.  It’s a medium-length par-5 that plays downhill from the tee to a challenging green surrounded by long, deep bunkers.  The view from the tee box is simply stunning, with the nuances of the hole clearly visible.  Golfers know exactly the test before them; it’s a matter or being able to conquer.  Birdie

15.  Par-3, 138 yards

Here’s an average-looking, short par-3.  The shadows from the huge trees on either side disguise the green, throwing off one’s depth perception.  It’s tough to judge tee shot distance and the green is huge, making it a fun little hole.  Par

16.  Par-5, 498 yards

The most difficult hole on the course to judge.  On the one hand, it’s a short par-5 that presents the possibility for good scores.  On the other hand, there are awkwardly sloped areas of rough between patches of fairway and hazard that can make the hole unpleasant to play.  Still, everyone enjoys a short par-5; just keep it in play.  Par

17.  Par-3, 200 yards

The 17th is a difficult, uphill par-3 that is anything but scenic.  On the right is an area of ugly, dry trees and shrubs; and on the left is out-of-bounds and netting that guards an office building.  Not pretty, but it’s challenging and the green is in good shape.  Par

18.  Par-4, 437 yards

Probably the flattest hole on the course, tee-to-green.  Two long, precise shots are necessary for this slight dogleg hole.  The view from the tee is good; the view to the green is great.  The green is guarded by a man-made lake on the left and bunkers on the right.  In all respects, it’s a great way to complete the course.  Birdie

For the round, the design of Redgate scores a 3-under-par, which is remarkable.  Though the course hits a slight snag on the quality-meter between holes seven and 10, the course is excellent overall.

Many of the holes have elevation changes and well-kept, lush fairways and greens, which any golfer should love.  If you haven’t been out there, it’s time to grab your sticks and experience Redgate.

A new generation of family ties

by Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

'Parenthood' photo provided by NBC.

There’s something to be said for sticking with your gut when you’ve got a winning formula on your hands. There’s something completely different to be said for stabbing your competition in the gut, stealing his winning formula and running for the hills.

If this spring’s new family drama “Parenthood” (NBC Tuesdays at 10/9c) feels altogether familiar in more than one way, that’s because, well, it is. Inspired directly by Ron Howard’s 1989 movie, “Parenthood” has also drawn heavy comparisons to ABC’s Sunday primetime standby “Brothers and Sisters,” now in it’s fourth season. While the Walker family of California notoriety looks to a sassy Sally Field for its dose of unwanted motherly influence, the new “Parent” on the block is a bull-headed but well-meaning patriarch played by the Coach himself, Craig T. Nelson.

The endearing combination of family togetherness and sibling rivalry that has earned “Brothers” seven Emmy nominations, including one “Best Actress” win for Field, seems to be missing from the new drama, which focuses more on the second generation children than their thirty-something parents. Lauren Graham makes a sudden return to the small screen as Sarah after Maura Tierney, who was originally cast in the slot, pulled herself out of the show to battle breast cancer. Tierney’s unexpected diagnosis caused network execs to pull the show from their fall lineup and re-shoot several episodes with Graham (who enjoyed much better writers in her “Gilmore Girls” days) stepping in place.

Now nine episodes into their opening run, “Parenthood” has already dragged the viewers along through the discovery of a new son, grown daughter Sarah (Graham) moving back in with her parents and fistfuls of teenage angst as three grandchildren enter the high school ring. Often the only saving grace in this show appears in the form of Max (Max Burkholder), one of the youngest members of the Braverman clan who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in the show’s pilot. Despite the embarrassment of this older sister Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and the chagrin of his parents Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter), Max wants nothing more than to wear his pirate costume to school every day and play baseball with his cousin Drew (Miles Heizer) at night. Max’s socially inept nature makes him so refreshingly unaware of his own eccentricities that the rest of his family comes off as flat and guarded.

Another point of frustration in this parenting nightmare is the fact that it’s impossible to keep the relationships straight. While the siblings on  “Brothers and Sisters” have an established rapport with one another that distinguishes them from their spouses, viewers of “Parenthood” need a certified road map to recall whether in fact it’s Adam or Kristina who is related to the clan as well as which interchangeable child belongs to which branch of the family tree.

For all its positive attributes, however, “Brothers and Sisters” still has not reclaimed the holding power it enjoyed three seasons ago. Calista Flockhart, Rachel Griffiths, Matthew Rhys and Dave Annable still bring a believable and enjoyable presence to the show each week as four of the Walker siblings. Though they fight like cats and dogs for forty-five minutes at a time, the family invariably ends up sitting around their mother’s dining room table at the end of the night, sharing a glass of wine from the family vineyard to toast averting another crisis. The first season or two of this robust drama provided the plot twists of a telenovela but delivered them in a polished, witty and (generally) logical way. The latest episodes, however, have shown us a magical cure for cancer, a green card that arrives just in the nick of time and job offer for Senator McCallister (Rob Lowe) just vague enough for writers to give Lowe an easy exit when plans for him to join the cast of “Parks and Recreation” become final.

If all of this heavy drama is weighing viewers down, have no fear: at least there’s one “Modern Family” (ABC, Wednesdays 9/8c) in town. Or, as the show’s tagline says, “one big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family.” Perhaps hoping to spice up its midweek lineup, ABC has essentially taken “Brothers and Sisters” and broken it down to a snappier, spicier, showier version. Instead of an aloof, gay, lawyer for a brother, we have Cam (Eric Stonestreet), who makes Liberace’s costume designer look reserved. Instead of an upstanding senator for a brother-in-law, we have Phil (Ty Burrell), who has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old and recently spent the entire half-hour slot playing with his trendy new iPad.

Standing at the head of this comedy of errors is retiree Jay (Ed O’Neill) who recently married trophy wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and took on her chipmunk-cheeked, preteen son as his second shot at being a father.

The thing that makes “Modern Family” a show worth returning to next week is not the star power of O’Neill as was originally anticipated, but the continually surprising and genuinely funny performances of supporting cast members. In a move that’s got even “Glee” starlets thinking twice about pre-written acceptance speeches, the entire cast of “Modern Family” (including O’Neill) has just announced their plans to enter the Emmy race in supporting categories.

The truly ensemble spirit of the show shines through in a way that makes even the most degenerate cousin consider attending his family reunion after all.

Dancing its way to something special

By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer

Photo courtesy of Paul Emerson

Rarely do we experience artistic productions with historical weight, but CityDance Ensemble may have achieved such leaping heights at its “Catalyst” concert at the Lansburgh Theatre last week.

Still a teenager in age, CityDance has struggled with staying accessible and consistent in the D.C. arts landscape. Maybe this is because it is the one of the only modern dance companies in the District. Maybe they have had trouble establishing legitimacy. Maybe it is simply impossible to market modern dance. But after last week’s performance, CityDance may have found its foothold on the American modern dance stage.

“Catalyst” was the company’s final performance before its tour to Bahrain, where CityDance’s choreography and partnerships will serve as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. Furthermore, the concert served as a catalyst for the careers of two powerhouse choreographers and for the preservation of a modern dance legend.

With Artistic Director Paul Gordon Emerson, it was about curating more detail-oriented experiences, providing small yet exquisite snapshots of style. This is somewhat of a breakthrough for Emerson. I have always appreciated his visual ideas but found that he rarely knew how to challenge, adopt, adapt and exude true artistic style. The first act opened with “Little Adorations,” Emerson’s three-person web of hip-hop pops and locks, as well of rounds of funky, intertwined movement to the freshness of Radiohead. It was the pre-dinner mint, full of quirky, thorough design. Surely this couldn’t be Emerson — so polished, so well rounded? Surely, it was.

Emerson also appended his politically poignant “Entangled” to the end of the first act in a last-minute decision. The original iteration of the piece was inspired by the controversies of Guantanamo Bay, but had since morphed into commercialized filler, leaving the bubbly, personable, beat-boxing stylings of D.C.’s Christylez Bacon un-highlighted. Despite this morph or even the last-minute feel of it, it was a delightful break for the overworked brain, letting us enjoy the charmingly casual love dance reminiscent of old-time Gene Kelly movies. Was it commercial? Yes. Was it accessible? Yes. Did it make the audience smile? Definitely.

Nestled between these two differing yet appreciated Emerson dances was the anchor of the first act — and possibly the anchor of the whole show: “+1/-1” by Choreographer-in-Residence Christopher K. Morgan.

Morgan is what you might call an epic choreographer. His works are usually long, drawn-out and completely over my head. They involve politics, poetry, props and costumes (that sometimes serve as props). He is a true creative, but he has yet to rein in his creativity to produce something everlastingly remarkable. However, Morgan’s “+1/-1” is a stunningly brilliant example of “less is more when you know what you already have,” especially when what you have are superb dancers. It is a piece inspired by relationships:

Dancing with and without a partner…a look at the challenges, beauty and inherent metaphors involved when adding or subtracting a dancer from movement. +1/-1 asks several questions: What happens when another person is added to a situation? What happens in the void left by an absent partner? How does one fill the void, or is it simply left empty?

“+1/-1” begins with claps of thunder, followed by a looming, chromatic cello. Kathryn Pilkington opens in a single spotlight, introducing the arachnid movement as well as the backless blue-black leotards that seem to add strength, length and agility to the dancers’ dance. Soon the entire company enters with these eerie moves, only adding more intrigue. It is the kind of crooked choreography where the simple quiver of fingertips is enough to spark goose bumps.

This style soon transforms into a balletic foundation, the crux of the piece. Alice Wylie and Maleek present us with the emptiness and completeness of the ballet partner, only to be followed by the exquisitely athletic pas de deux of Elizabeth Gahl and William Smith. These attitudes, jetés and pirouettes allow us to finally see the talents of the dancers. This was the first time every CityDance dancer pulled something challenging out of his or her technical hat in order to shine. I have never seen them so stylistically and physically strong.

Ballet began with structure, only to later abandon specificity and structure in the face of modern dance. In one way, Morgan’s choreography pays homage to ballet as a catalyst for his work. In another way, “+1/-1” serves as a mirrored catalyst into the future — placing the vastness and exhilaration of modern dance as an inspiration for future styles.

As one audience member said, “That will be performed for decades to come.” How fitting, then, that it premiered in the same production with Paul Taylor’s choreography: the revolutionary definition of modern dance.

Paul Taylor, 77, is a pioneer of avant-garde modern dance. His works are rarely performed outside of his own company, but he allowed CityDance to present two of his lesser-known classics, a never-seen-before occasion.

“Last Look” opened the second act with various mirrors and a colorful heap of bodies on the floor. The dancers suddenly trashed all of their technique in the name of uncanny modernism to “convulse,” “shake,” “flail” and “flop.” It is an apocalyptic world, where the characters are incapable of fully communicating with one another, using sexual, flimsy and awkward jabs. It is outwardly unattractive and strange, sometimes causing discomfort, confusion and pure emotional exhaustion.  But the significance of this piece is not so outward as it is intrinsic. The audience may have squirmed and scowled, especially at William Smith’s disturbing facial expressions, but this was how Paul Taylor meant for us to react. It still feels innovative so many years later, but the real question is if it translates to audiences today.

Based on the rave applause and cheers from the audience, I would say it does. More so, it explains why Emerson is so intent on preserving Paul Taylor’s works, especially the ones that have never been outsourced before.

This is also the case with “Images,” the starkly opposite, futuristically tribal number of the third act. It featured selections from various Claude Debussy piano works paired with stoic yet fluttering dance positions. The multicolored skirts and Egyptian-like poses elicit genuine smiles, while the simplicity and statuesque images are readily understandable. All eight vignettes made me thankful that this work exists and established Paul Taylor as a diversely moving, preservation-worthy entity in the history of modern dance.

This production was the beginning of something momentous. The concert may have had one too many pauses and intermissions; it may even have been 10 minutes too long; and it may not have presented works that directly relate to one another. Yet in its entirety, the program represented stellar choreographical muscle, making us excited for the future of CityDance and the further preservation of historical work. Audience education has never looked so good.

Last Train Home brings down the Barns

Last train home

Eric Brace on acoustic guitar. (photo courtesy Wolf Trap)

By Anna Sebourn

ArtsPost staff writer

Last Train Home with Eric Brace, left, dubbed “one of the country’s most formidable roots-rock bands” by the Tennessean, returned to its first home — the Washington area — to perform to a sold-out crowd Feb. 27 at the Barns at Wolf Trap.  Fans of all ages, many of them  long-time supporters, also cheered the opening act, singer/songwriter Peter Cooper, who performed alongside his friend Brace in several numbers in the set.

Brace’s ties to the District run deep, starting with his 10 years as a music critic for The Washington Post while moonlighting in local bands before creating LTH in 1996.  The group’s success has progressed from performing in area venues to  earning the 2003 “Artist of the Year” award by the Washington Area Music Association.  The band has since moved to Nashville and released an astouding 11 albums.

The atmosphere at The Barns at Wolf Trap is a relaxed, lodge-like setting, perfect for what Cooper had in store for eager fans.  Cooper is a journalist as was Brace; he’s the music critic at the Tennessean. Though he only has one full-length solo album under his belt, his writing skills were apparent in his thoughtful, fluid lyrics.  He’s an exceptional performer who crafts his songs  with a storyline and a plot (which seems almost a lost art with today’s billboard toppers).  He moved effortlessly from light strumming on his guitar to adding humorous or touching words, and finally incorporating the music and story together into harmonious tales that filled the auditorium.  I caught myself closing my eyes and soaking in the musical stories, and it became an experience more than a concert.  The highlight of his set, “715 (For Hank Aaron),” told the struggle of race relations and Hank Aaron.  The lines, “Young man rising from the hard hot South, speaking his mind with a bat and not his mouth.  Holdin’ it inside, striding to the ball, turn of the wrists.  Crack, jog and touch’em all,” carry so much weight, yet he has such an innate sense of rhythm in the lyrics and composition that the listener is drawn in, waiting to hear the next story unfold.

Brace and his posse of musicians (including several top area musicians just for this performance) then took the stage amid wild applause and shouting from the crowd.  The timing seemed a little off, the energy low, before band members looked comfortable with each other onstage.  Brace managed to corral them into a cohesive unit, and the energy level rose considerably after playing an audience favorite, “Can’t Come Undone.”  The real turning point in their set, though, was “Last Good Kiss,” during which the balcony began shaking with all the toe-tapping, which continued through the set.  The audience cried out song names in the hopes of hearing personal favorites, and Brace apologized for their inability to play certain high-energy songs — no standing and dancing allowed in the Barns.

Vocals and acoustic guitar were tended to by Brace. Michael Webb was on the keyboard and accordion; Scott McKnight (dressed in a suit as if he just came from the office) performed on the electric guitar; David Coleman was also on electric guitar; Jim Gray played bass; and Paul Griffith was on the drums.  All played solos at some point, but steel guitarist Dave Van Allen, referred to as the “hillbilly scientist” by Cooper, added most of the flavor to this folk/country/bluegrass/jam band’s sound.   McKnight also showed his ability to rock despite the suit with a stellar solo on “Last Good Kiss.”

Cooper performed several songs from his duet album with Brace, “You Don’t Have to Like Them Both.”  Fortunately, I did happen to like them both, including their cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and their original song, “I Know a Bird.”  Brace was more successful in this small venue with Cooper than with his own band.  There wasn’t a moment onstage together when I didn’t sense their strong connection with both each other and the audience.

“Play all night, Eric!” yelled a fan from the back.  But after almost three hours the show had to end, and it did so on a good note with some of my favorites: a tribute to Neil Armstrong in “Tranquility Base,” the soulful “I Know a Bird,” and “Soul Parking,” named for an old sign on 14th Street in the District.  Cooper, Brace and Last Train Home met with a standing ovation, the open arms of welcoming the Tennesseans back home to the District.