Thursday, February 28, 2008

Man of La Mancha at KGHS

I’ve loved the soundtrack of Man of La Mancha since I was a little girl, but until last night, I had never seen a stage production. As for last night’s performance at King George High School, I loved it. To start with, the set design was very innovative: most of the action took place on angled platforms designed to look like ancient stone. Scene changes were indicated by the use of simple props, as well as images that were projected onto three rustic scrims at the rear of the set. The director intended the set to look “challenging” and “intimidating,” and apparently it was especially so for the precariously perched actors.

The production featured a small pit orchestra that did an excellent job. The borrowed audio system worked like a charm (I guess high tech audio is the norm at high school productions these days). The costuming was first-rate. But the heart of the production for me was the young man who played Cervantes/Don Quixote. His voice and stage presence were outstanding. Other strong voices included Aldonza/Dulcinea and the priest, and the cast of over 60 students brought a lot of energy to the performance.

The play runs tonight, tomorrow and Saturday night. Tickets are $8. Start time is apparently a moving target. When we got there 15 minutes before the publicized 7:30 curtain, a short, unrelated “lobby scene” was already in progress (what is it with the pre-show show?). Today's FLS Weekender now says the lobby scene starts at 6:30, and the play starts at 7.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

UMW Chorus Concert

On Sunday night, we opted for a college chorus concert over the Oscars on TV, and headed to Mary Washington with friends for the “Lighter Side” concert. The program, which lasted less than an hour, featured the UMW Chorus (where were the men?), the UMW Women’s Chamber Choir, and the Fredericksburg Singers, which includes college students and members of the community. The concert was scheduled to start at 7:30, but the unadvertised “pre-concert selections” started at 7. Why does the Music Dept. do that? If I knew there would be a pre-concert concert, I would have been there at 7. Is that concert just for college insiders? Luckily (or I would have pitched a fit) we got there in time to hear one of my favorite local singers, Daryl Ott. Daryl is a talented pianist, but it’s his resounding baritone and wonderful stage presence that I love. He sang “Mister Cellophane” from Chicago, to close the pre-show show. The choruses took the stage next, all directed by Jane Tavernier, and they did a fine job, as always. No vocal fireworks (I guess I have to wait for the “Heavy Side” for that), but a pleasant evening out all around.

The UMW Music Dept. has a full slate of spring concerts, and for about the tenth time, click here for the schedule.

And just because I feel compelled to take a photo for every post, here's a blurry shot of the Chamber Choir:

The photo at the top is of the college's new bell tower, which I only seem to pass in the dark. One of these days, I'll get there during the day for a decent shot.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Spotsylvania Court House Historic District

A dreary February weekend with nothing in particular to do led us to explore another historic attraction in our own backyard: the Spotsylvania Court House Historic District. We started with our first visit to the Spotsylvania County Museum, housed in the converted Old Berea Christian Church, built in 1856. The museum is home to a large collection of artifacts, mostly from the 1800’s, with the usual Civil War relics mixed in with lots of household items, donated by local residents. The one-room museum has an antique shop quality to it, with each item identified and dated, but without much description. The collection would benefit from the services of a curator, who could edit the collection and create more logical groupings, with easy-to-read panels describing the items and their significance in relation to local history. I wish there had been more context provided to all of the items, more explanation of their place in history...their story. But curators cost money, and that's not in the cards yet for this little, home-grown museum (and as a county taxpayer, I guess I can't really complain). On the plus side, the museum is free, had a friendly guide on hand to answer questions, and can be part of a pleasant walk around the courthouse area. And it’s right next door to the Spotsy Spot, where you can get an ice cream cone after your museum tour.

A display case with assorted 19th century artifacts:

Here is my favorite piece from the museum: this "Edison recorder and reproducer" which is his version of the early phonograph (no date or details are given):

At the museum, the guide suggested we check out the historic jail across the street. In order to get into the jail, you need to stop in at the Visitor Center first. Here you can see a short video, which starts out describing the county’s significance in the Civil War (as the site of three major battles: Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville and The Wilderness), and then abruptly shifts into promotional travelogue mode, extolling Spotsy as a tourism destination, with its antebellum homes and natural wonders. Kind of filled me with a bit of pro-Spotsy fervor, I must admit. After the video, the Visitor Center staffer took us across the street to the jail, built in 1855, for a short tour. It looks exactly how you’d expect a mid-19th century jail to look:

This looks downright medieval:

Here are the toilet facilities. Fill the bucket, then dump it out the hole in the brick:

And here's another historic building, next to the jail--Christ Episcopal Church, which dates back to 1841:

We hadn’t been to the Court House area in a few months, not since the new, multi-laned bypass opened up. It’s kind of funny that a tiny crossroads in the country needs such a huge bypass, but its construction was motivated not just by the irritating traffic backup you can experience on Courthouse Road, but by plans to expand the Courthouse area with the construction of the new Spotsylvania Courthouse Village, a planned “neotraditional town style community” with residential and commercial areas. Another attempt to recreate a quaint town center that never existed in real life, to be built on the location of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House's initial staging in 1864. Nothing like replacing real history with faux history.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Stone's Throw

George Washington is a big deal in Fredericksburg. He was born at Popes Creek Plantation on the Potomac River east of Fredericksburg, but spent most of his youth at Ferry Farm (just over the Chatham Bridge in Stafford), where his family moved when he was six. And his mother and his sister continued to live in Fredericksburg long after George moved away (check out Kenmore and the Mary Washington House). So his birthday is probably celebrated with a little more gusto in Fredericksburg than almost anywhere else. Three days of events last weekend included breakfast with George at Ferry Farm on Saturday morning, tea with George and his sister Betty at Kenmore on Sunday, and an open house with children’s activities at Ferry Farm on Monday. But the one event we managed to get to was the “Stone Throw Challenge” at City Dock on Saturday afternoon.

Although the story about George chopping down a cherry tree is just a figment of an imaginative biographer, the story that he could throw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock (not the much wider Potomac) is more plausible. So in commemoration of the possibility that he had a good arm, kids (and a few adults, too) lined up at the dock on Saturday with the hope of duplicating his deed. Anyone 18 or under who succeeded would get a $100 savings bond, and bragging rights for the rest of their lives, I’d imagine. Last year’s event was cancelled due to bad weather, but the year before, 16-year old Sam Griebel, a James Monroe High School baseball player, was a winner. This year, no such luck. But George himself showed up (accompanied by his colonial entourage), many respectable throws made it more than halfway across the river, and a fine time was had by all.

Despite the fact that you might have had this past Monday off, oldsters like me remember when we used to celebrate Washington’s birthday on the actual date, February 22. So tomorrow, tip your hat to old George in honor of his 276th birthday.

The scene:

The ammunition:

The warm-up:

George throws out the first pitch:

A good effort:

George's posse:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Iconic Eateries of Fredericksburg, Part 2: Carl’s

It doesn’t really matter to me if the groundhog sees his shadow. The real first harbinger of spring in Fredericksburg is the annual re-opening of Carl’s ice cream on President’s Day weekend. This year, Carl’s opened on Friday, Feb. 15, and we went to check out the scene the next day. There was a healthy crowd there at around 1:00 on Saturday, despite the fact that it wasn’t really ice cream weather.

Newcomers to Fredericksburg sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about. They claim that Carl’s ice cream isn’t “the best soft ice cream ever.” I understand that feeling. I grew up with Carvel and Mister Softee, and I know that every town of any size across America has a special place for ice cream. A trip to visit family in South Glens Falls often includes a trip to Martha’s, and the ice cream there is every bit as good as Carl’s. But what newcomers might miss is that it’s as much about the cultural experience as it is about the ice cream. On any busy Saturday night, it’s almost a sure thing that I will see familiar faces in line. Carl’s has been around since 1947, and even as Fredericksburg grows in an ever-widening circle of suburban development, a trip to Carl’s is still a throwback to a simpler time. So don’t worry about comparing it to other ice cream stands, just go on a warm summer night (or a cold February day) and soak up a little local flavor.

The menu is pretty simple: Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry. Cones, sundaes, shakes, slush floats. No sprinkles, no whipped cream, no chocolate dipped cones.

The hardworking Carl's staff. These kids are fast.

Carl's has been featured on the Food Network and PBS, and is a Virginia Historic Landmark.

The object of our affection.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Far Away

On Saturday night, we went to see the Caryl Churchill play, Far Away, at Mary Washington’s Klein Theatre. As usual, the college students put on an excellent production. There was only one problem with this performance: the play was incomprehensible. Oh, I get that it’s a nightmarish vision of the apocalypse. I get that it’s all very avant garde, and absurdist, and surreal. I get that it’s supposed to be a chilling look at fear and violence, and I get that it’s supposed to be unsettling and uncomfortable and inaccessible. I just can’t say that I enjoy that kind of theatre. I guess I’m just a traditionalist...I like plot progression, and character development, and a recognizable conflict, and some semblance of a resolution. Far Away was just a bit too abstract for my tastes. And while I appreciate abstract art, I find that often I don't actually enjoy it.

There were two things that the play did have going for it: 1. Hats. An incredible array of outlandish, dramatic, sculptural, fanciful hats. There had to be 50 or 60 of them in this play. Bravo to the hats. I think I would have enjoyed seeing more of the hats, and less of the play. And 2. The play was a mere 50 minutes long. When the actors took their bows, my reaction was, “Huh?” Not that I was sad to see it end, it’s just that there wasn’t even the slightest whiff of a denouement.

Having said all that, if you are a theater buff who loves edgy, modernist, abstract plays, or are an aficionado of hats, give it a whirl. There are performances on Feb. 21, 22 and 23 at 8 pm, and a 2 pm performance on Feb. 24.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Valentine's Dinner at Renato's

My husband and I have been going to Renato's Italian restaurant for special occasions for years. In fact, the restaurant first opened in 1978, the year we got married and moved to Fredericksburg. Back then, it was on Rt. 1, where Roberson’s Music is now (and yes, I’ve been around long enough to know the restaurant’s current building on William St. used to be the Happy Clam seafood restaurant). There’s nothing new or hip about Renato’s. There is absolutely no buzz about this to Fredericksburgers about their favorite restaurants, and I bet no one mentions Renato’s. Yet on a Friday night (yes, technically Valentine’s Day was Thursday, but good luck getting a reservation anywhere), the place was full. The Renato’s experience is old school dining all the way, but old school done well. The dining room is elegantly set with linen tablecloths, fresh flowers and candlelight, the service is impeccable, and the quality of the food is consistent. Of course, the fact that the menu has barely changed over the years makes consistency a lot easier to come by. Now generally speaking, we like chef-owned restaurants, where the chef flexes his or her creative muscles nightly, using the freshest seasonal ingredients, and yes, we like the kinds of dishes that have 27 different elements artfully arranged on the plate. That’s not Renato’s style. Renato’s does classic Italian cooking, mostly northern: homemade pastas, veal piccata, chicken Marsala, eggplant rollatini, scampi, lasagna and ravioli and gnocchi. No olive oil on a plate for bread...that’s too trendy. In fact, I imagine the dining experience here is not far from what it would have been like to go to a nice restaurant in any city in America in about 1960.

We shared an appetizer of tiny clams casino (an old fashioned recipe if there ever was one—but tasty!), then had soup and salad (nothing earth shaking there). My entree was gnocchi stuffed with crabmeat in a heavy white sauce. I really didn’t get how gnocchi could be stuffed, since they’re usually pretty small, but Renato’s does a giant gnocchi...more like an oversized ravioli out of gnocchi dough. Very rich. My husband had veal with green onions and mushrooms in a creamy tomato sauce...that’s more like it. In fact, you can’t really go wrong ordering any of the veal dishes here, all with super thin and tender meat. For dessert, his cannoli was a disappointment, but my white chocolate raspberry cheesecake with raspberry puree made up for it (yes, it was as good as it sounds).

To be honest, I suspect that what we like about this place has less to do with the food and more to do with our memories of all the romantic evenings spent here, starting back in our newlywed days, when the fancy restaurants in town were few, and our nights out in them rare. Still, I recommend that the next time you plan to go to Carrabba's (one of the better chain restaurants around, I have to admit), or the Olive Garden (perish the thought), consider a trip down William Street instead.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

National Cemetery

My husband and I took advantage of some warm weather recently, and took a walk around the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where 15,300 are buried at the top of a terraced hillside. Most of the dead are Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House and other nearby campaigns, or who died of illness in camp. Only a fraction of the soldiers are identified, and their graves are marked with small upright stones. The graves of the unknown are indicated by flat, numbered stone markers in the ground. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place, and especially quiet in the wintertime.

There are a number of these signs, each with a sad quatrain that add up to the most depressing poem about the war dead (click on the image for a closer look). Just in case you didn't find the sight of 15,000 gravestones depressing enough.

The monument to Gen. Humphreys and his division, Battle of Fredericksburg.

The hillside, taken in the summer.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Fredericksburg’s Iconic Eateries, Part 1: Allman’s

Fredericksburg is home to quite a few upscale, gourmet restaurants, as well as just about every plastic-menu chain restaurant you can think of. My husband and I eat out frequently, and have been to just about all of them. But recently, I noticed that we had been neglecting some of the town’s oldest restaurants—the ones still serving classic homestyle cooking in, well, let’s just call them unpretentious surroundings. Places like the 2400 Diner, or Anne’s Grill, or the Battlefield Family Restaurant, or Mr. Dee’s. Of course, there’s a reason for that—we’re trying to keep from expanding like balloons in our old age, and these classic restaurants pack a highly caloric punch, with nary a healthy entree in sight. Nonetheless, as a service to my readers, we decided it would be fun to give these old-timey icons of Fredericksburg a visit. Last night, we started with what has often been called a Fredericksburg landmark: Allman’s Bar-B-Que.

Route 1 runs right through Fredericksburg, and was the major north-south route through the state until I-95 was constructed in the 1960’s. You can still see the remnants of restaurants all along that route, built to serve the newly mobile post-war generation of travelers (“See the USA in your Chevrolet!”), but most of the original buildings have long since been demolished or renovated into more modern facilities. Allman’s, opened in 1954, is an original, still going strong over 5 decades later. It’s one of those old-time barbeque places that you see featured on Food Network shows about classic local specialties. I’m sure the menu and the recipes haven’t changed in the last 50+ years. The pork barbeque is served minced or sliced, in a sandwich or on a platter, and comes unadorned with sauce. Allman’s signature sweet and vinegary barbeque sauce is provided in squeeze bottles at your table to drench the meat just the way you like it. We got the most popular combo: the barbeque sandwich platter with old-fashioned southern cole slaw and fries. I forced my husband to order a shake so that we could have the complete Allman’s experience, and despite the fact that it’s probably a thousand calories, he obliged (that’s taking one for the team, hon). The shake is so thick (more like slightly softened ice cream) that you have to eat it with a spoon, and the tall metal canister that the shake was made in is delivered to the table with enough of the ice cream concoction to easily serve two (which ultimately, I admit, it did). The food is cheap and tasty and the surroundings are a blast from the past, so if you’re looking for a nostalgic Fredericksburg dining experience, this place fits the bill perfectly.

The meal:

The menu:

The building:

Friday, February 8, 2008

Great Lives: Frank Lloyd Wright

Tonight I went to Mary Washington to attend the lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright, part of the “Great Lives” series. The speaker was Meryle Secrest, author of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography. I’m familiar with Wright’s work, and have toured his home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, and visited both the Unity Temple (the church Wright designed for his own Unitarian congregation) and the Guggenheim in New York. The presentation was pretty straightforward, not unlike a typical college lecture. I was surprised at how large a crowd this event attracted—I don’t know if all of the lectures are so well-attended, or if Wright is a particularly popular subject, but the auditorium was filled. The lecture was an overview of Wright’s work, including his family background, early influences and major projects, with plenty of attention paid to his at times scandalous private life. The lecture wasn’t particularly dynamic—the speaker read her presentation, the audio equipment (or maybe the room's acoustics?) didn't produce a very crisp sound, and that combined with the speaker's British accent made it a bit hard to understand her at times. And while there was a screen set up for a slide presentation, the number of slides she showed was relatively small. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity to hear a respected author speak on a topic of interest, and it was a pleasant evening out.

If you’re interested, the next presentation will be on Ella Fitzgerald, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Dodd Auditorium. If you want a seat near the front, I suggest you get there early. For the complete schedule of Great Lives lectures, check here.

Here are a few of Wright’s most influential works:

Wright's home and studio in Oak Park, IL (1889), where he lived with his wife and 6 kids...until he left them.

The Robie House in Chicago (1908-1910), one of the best known examples of the Prairie style of architecture.

Taliesin, Wright's home in Spring Green, WI (1911)

Everyone's favorite Wright design, Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania (1934-37). This is definitely on my list of places I want to see.

The Guggenheim Museum in NYC (1959), designed by Wright when he was 91 years old.

For more information, visit the website of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How's the Weather?

Fredericksburg has relatively mild winters. The average winter temperature is about 36 degrees (average high of 45 in January), with average snowfall of less than 18 inches. And most of that melts within a couple of days. Of course, the smallest amount of accumulation cripples the area, and even the threat of snow can be enough to close the schools. But compared to my friends and relations in the frozen north country, we have it very easy. The winters are short, the sun shines all year round, and every once in a rare while, we get a day like today.

Yep, the thermometer hit 77 degrees just in time for my midday walk. We'll be back to the 40's by the weekend, but it sure was sweet while it lasted.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Collectibles at the Expo Center

This afternoon I went to an event billed as a “Big Flea Market” at the Fredericksburg Expo Center. So far, the relatively new (and way too pink) Expo Center has hosted the usual trade and consumer shows: home and garden, RVs and boats, motorcycles and guns, crafts and more crafts. Today’s show was devoted largely to antiques and collectibles. I wasn’t particularly interested in either category, but with nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon and the blog material lagging, I thought it would be worth a visit.

Downtown Fredericksburg happens to be known for its many antiques and collectibles shops, so I didn’t think this show offered much that was new. Nonetheless, the parking lot was full, and the venue was packed with people. Rows and rows of booths offered similar vintage merchandise: clothing, jewelry, linens, dishes and glassware, dolls and toys, comics and magazines, sports memorabilia, old books, and every imaginable type of kitsch and collectible. It was a real walk down memory lane, with just about every booth displaying something that reminded me of my childhood. My mom would have loved it. My husband would have thought it was all a bunch of junk, and will be thanking his lucky stars he had other plans.

A few pieces jumped out at me: the Steiff tiger just like the one I grew up with, selling for $187, but without a “Knopf im Ohr” like our tiger had; Barbie and Ken in Star Trek uniforms (original series, of course); the collection of plastic swizzle sticks just like the ones my parents had when I was a kid. I discovered that my small collection of mostly reproduction salt & pepper shakers isn’t going to grow, since real vintage salt & pepper shakers are, by and large, pretty damn ugly. I found decades-old misshapen kitchen strainers for $5, exactly like the one I just threw away (no loss). And my collection of pop culture buttons from the 1960’s are worth a buck or two each, at most.

I tried to buy something, I really did, but in the end, I left the clutter at the Expo Center and came home empty handed.

Vintage linens and quilts.

Vintage fur coats (someone tell me please, who is going to wear these?)

The only place I ever saw more Hummel figurines was in the Hummel shop at Busch Gardens.

Hideously ugly dolls.

Mostly reproduction vintage lampshades.

Stuff and more stuff.

Expo Center footnote: According to the site's calendar of events, St. Mary's Catholic Church will be having 3 masses here on Easter Sunday. Now that's a big congregation!