What might we learn from a “conference of the birds”?


All bird photos by Kevin Lynch

You never know what might arise in the eye and mind when you sit and watch other species interact.

Yesterday on the Milwaukee River I saw these photographed scenes, what the 12th-century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar (Attar of Nishapur) might have described as The Conference of the Birds, the title of his famous epic poem. The poem also inspired the great jazz bassist and bandleader Dave Holland, who titled one of his first albums Conference of the Birds, released on ECM in 1973 with wind players Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers and percussionist Barry Altschul (see previous post about Holland).

The title tune (linked here), by the way, evokes birds in a fairly peaceful manner, with the two wind players playing flutes. But listen beyond that, in the ensuing YouTube tracks from the album, for a more complex jazz interpretation of the aviary conference.

An early edition of Attar’s Conference of the Birds

The river scene I photographed is a commingling of seagulls and geese who seem to interact and confer in a fairly harmonious way, even though any given bird — especially the smaller gulls — were free to express their sometimes raucous feelings as they came and went (see first photo, at top).

It also brings to mind a metaphor I have working my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. I argue for the historical underpinnings of that  titular concept in American culture and politics extensively in the book.
Here, I was primarily struck by the social harmony of the birds, even though there seems to be a Trump-like alpha-male honcho (self-designated?) — the big, fat goose standing on his big rock, at right.

Later, after the gulls dispersed peaceably, I saw several of the geese gathered at the water’s edge (below) then they proceeded upstream a ways in an orderly, fluid and harmonious fashion (final photo). This suggests earthly inhabitants (think of courageous stream-defying salmon) are not simply mere subjects to the forces of nature. The question is how well we employ our energy and resources to our own ends, without damaging those natural forces, ie. the ecosystem that benefits and sustains all of life.




Clearly this scene also suggests that there are tribes in the world of birds, just as there are in humanity, and that tribes tend to flock or stick together, and conform harmoniously with greater ease than do differing tribes in a conference.

But that first photograph suggests the noisy and messy democracy we try to maintain, just as birds maintain their multi-tribe conferences with a common value of enjoying and drawing proper value from our natural resources.

Oh, if human society were this seemingly coherent. But perhaps we can draw wisdom from the Sufi poet’s wide-ranging take on “the conference of the birds,” here translated as “Bird Parliament.”

The alpha goose might symbolize the god-like figure the birds do strive to follow in the poem’s beginning. However, this commentary by Nathan Suri is a reasonable interpretation of the epic poem, which suggests that Islam has something to teach us about our place in the universe. Suri posits the wisdom of a holistic humility: that the universe is “one of intrinsic value being in everyone.” Clearly this may not abide with the American notions of rugged individualism and exceptionalism, but it does not contradict the basic notion of democracy, with freedoms adhering to and enhancing a value system geared to the greater common good of the society and the planet.

Suri comments: “Throughout this entire work, Attar masterfully describes the nature of Islam in a metaphoric way through items easily visualized such as birds. Every anecdote and aspect of the story has its aspects in Islamic tradition. Most importantly, the very nature of the format and pictures presented are based in Attar’s Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam focusing on intrinsic value. The Way is the Sufi’s life, filled with trials and tribulations, in order to attain the realization to view and understanding the universe. The end of it being the annihilation of oneself into the universe merging one’s own energy with it returning your drop to the “ocean of Truth.” The end of the story is significantly profound with the birds realizing that the universe is not an external thing but one of intrinsic value being in everyone.”

Note that there is no earthly god or savior to lead us to a promised land, in this parable. Even American presidents have their limits, as well-intentioned, effective — or deluded — as they may be.

Note also how peaceful and striving for harmony this ancient Islam philosophy is and, I think, far more characteristic of the religion and culture than the extreme radicals we hear so much about.






Bassist/composer/bandleader Dave Holland wins NEA Jazz Master Award for 2017

Dave Holland Quintet

Dave Holland (left) has led a group of master improvisors and communicators in his quintet for years. Here is Robin Eubanks on trombone, Nate Smith on drums, and Chris Potter on soprano sax, performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2011.

Has there been any better jazz bandleader than Dave Holland over the last two decades? Has there been a better bassist?

Dave Holland has just received the nation’s highest honor in jazz, a 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Award. Few musicians deserve the award more.

And it seems overdue, akin to Wayne Shorter finally winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this year, which might not be as high an award in jazz, but the Grammy is a bit glitzier and, of course, Shorter is deeply deserving.

Other 2017 Jazz Master Award winners recognized for their lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz include vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, critic and author Ira Gitler, keyboardist Dick Hyman and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Each will receive a $25,000 award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and will be honored at a tribute concert on Monday, April 3, 2017, produced in collaboration with the Kennedy Center.

Below is a bit more from the press release from Braithwaite & Katz Communications, an excellent promotional company for many independent jazz and creative musicians.

Then I will offer my own thoughts on and experience with Holland, by excerpting two passages from my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

The first passage from the book is a brief anecdote of my interacting with Holland between sets at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. The second is a longer critical assessment of Holland, from the books final Chapter, FREEDOM JAZZ: I GOT A WITNESS, CAN WE GET A CONSENSUS? Or, MEETING OF MANY MINDS, A CAUCUS OF SOULS .

From Braithwaite & Katz Communications:

The renowned bassist/composer and bandleader Dave Holland is also visiting artist-in-residence at the New England Conservatory.

Over the course of a nearly five-decade career, Holland has never stopped evolving, reinventing his concept and approach with each new project while constantly honing his instantly identifiable voice. From the electric whirlwind of Miles Davis’Bitches Brew-era band to the elegant flamenco of his collaboration with Spanish guitar legend Pepe Habichuela; accompanying the great vocalist Betty Carter in her last years to forging a new sound with the pioneering avant-garde quartet Circle alongside Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, and Barry Altschul; standing alongside legends like Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, and Sam Rivers to providing early opportunities to now-leading players like Chris Potter, Kevin and Robin Eubanks, or Steve Coleman; Dave Holland has been at the forefront of jazz in many of its forms since his earliest days.

holland w Miles

Bassist Dave Holland performs here with the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Jack DeJohnette the British jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. Miles encouraged Dave Holland to follow him to New York when he heard him at the Soho venue in 1968. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Outside the jazz world, he’s collaborated with Bonnie Raitt, flamenco master Pepe Habichuela, and bluegrass legend Vassar Clements. In 2013, the Wolverhampton, England native unveiled Prism, a visceral electric quartet featuring his longtime collaborator and Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks, along with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland. In addition, Holland continues to lead his Grammy-winning big band; his renowned quintet with saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and drummer Nate Smith; and the Overtone quartet, with Potter, Harland, and pianist Jason Moran.

— Ann Braitwaithe, Braithwaite & Katz Communications


Excerpts from Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy


Chuck LaPaglia, the owner of the Miwaukee Jazz Gallery in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is discussing the dynamics of his club, a central catalyst of the city’s surprisingly vital jazz scene at the time:

“I think there’s a different sort of rapport than happens between the audience and the musicians,” LaPaglia explained at the time. “It has happened here, I’ve seen it. The audience gets warmer and warmer as the night goes on, and I think the music improves.”

For that matter, it was the kind of place where, on a night I wasn’t working, I’d step up to hang in LaPaglia’s apartment between sets and find myself sharing a joint with the brilliant bassist Dave Holland (one night I wasn’t reviewing a Jazz Gallery event for The Milwaukee Journal). How could Holland play such demanding music under the influence? The answer, it appeared, was that he took small, calibrated hits.

From Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy,


I will examine two albums that demonstrate and signify how contemporary jazz correlates to the democratic process as an act of interactive consensual process, the Dave Holland Quintet and group of pianist Myra Melford who, like this book, sees the process as partaking in the inexorable power of rivers.

The Holland Quintet is a virtual consensus choice of critics and fans in recent years as the finest jazz group in the world.

Their acclaimed 2001 album directly declares that this music is Not for Nothin’, the CD’s title.

holland nothin


If it is for something, bandleader-bassist Holland begins to make it clear from the very first tune, which is titled “Global Citizen.”

I offer a few thoughts about the interpretation of wordless music. Yes, the following description is an interpretation open to debate. But we must concede that if the group titles the piece “Global Citizen” and that jazz musicians so often say they play music to “say” something, to speak their piece. (It’s significant that all of the pieces on this album are written by members of this group, a not common phenomenon in contemporary jazz and in interactive types of rock jam band music, which borrows heavily from the manner and spirit of jazz (Hip hop does as well with rhyming words added.).

The tune “Global Citizen” is open to meaningful interpretation. The band plays in a minor key but with a growing sense of excitement and purpose, articulating musical thoughts and feelings imbued with the hard questions and tough relativism of their time. Much of contemporary jazz plays in, or orients itself to, minor keys and dissonant-laden harmonies. Here, however, each rhetorical statement unfolds in a citizen-like manner, whether at the end of a solo, a chorus or in restating the theme in quickly ascending phrases that seem to say “What about you?,” or “Why not?” or “Whaddya think?”

The complex solos each encounter pithy interjections from the group, as if reminding the speaker of the theme or point at hand, and each time rising to a slightly higher level of discourse. Then all musicians fall silent to hear out the sage-sounding bass voice of leader Holland. The similarly quiet-tempered voice of the trombone ensues in a mature spirit of thoughtfulness.

The point is that effective, communicative form and interactive process leads to constructive inspiration – new ideas that no one may have imagined before, that everyone appears to agree on, at least conditionally.

This is true dialog. It is even more dramatic in the ensuing tunes “For All You Are” and especially “Lost and Found” which seem to be about losing one’s way and finding it again, through determination and open-mindedness. This is what happens in the democratic spirited discussion that allows free input from any voices, even the most fringe or eccentric.  In “Lost and Found” the group’s interaction becomes so animated, intense, and excited as to be palpable, to the last note which is a long held note by the alto saxophonist, which seems to say yes, we have reached a conclusion, the debate and discussion is resolved for now.

This is “free” jazz for the new millennium.

holland qint Montreux 2011

“Dave leaves everybody a great deal of freedom to express themselves,” the band’s vibist Steve Nelson (at left, above) told Down Beat’s Howard Mandel. Dec 2002 p 32 “The music is demanding because we have so much freedom. As in a lot of improvised music, there’s a blueprint but around that a million things can happen. I never know what direction Dave, Robin, Billy and Chris are going to go, so I have to keep listening.” (“Dave leaves everybody”: Howard Mandel, Down Beat, December, 2002. p. 32.)

Listening is the key to true dialog and achieving consensus, perhaps in achieving a nation, in the striking phrase of Malcolm X, known for the seemingly uncompromising slogan “by any means necessary,” revealed that one important means was listening closely to others, to get past bluster or rhetoric.

“There’s an art to listening well,” he told Alex Haley in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “I can listen closely to the sound of a man’s voice when he’s speaking. I can hear sincerity.” (“There’s an art to listening well”: Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. p. 460 Ballantine Books, 1965.)

Jazz listening, response and interaction are more a model and inspiration than an example, which more literal and literary art forms provide.

But the powerful collective human voice of jazz is unmistakable, throughout the Dave Holland Quintet’s recordings and countless other instances of jazz, be it serious or joyous, blues-laced or ecstatic, ironic or idealistic.

Copyright: Kevin E Lynch 2016


Dave Holland Quintet photos from allaboutjazz.com.

“Not for Nothin’ ” CD cover from allmusic.com.

Trump is an old figure, creepy and very dangerous, risen from Melville’s “Confidence-Man.”

Charles Pierce of Esquire magazine, now also frequent commentator on political cable talk shows, often gets things as right as a journalist can. He frequently does so with the delightfully snarky exasperation of a person who suffers fools as gladly as an passenger plane pilot would hand the controls to a Trumphead — drunk after a rally of cheering Donald’s “reality” fantasies and minority bashing — his rifles and pistols clanking under, or over, his clothes.

Here’s Pierce blogging Monday (June 13):

“And Trump’s back on campus, saying things like this (about Hillary Clinton):

“Her plan is to disarm law-abiding Americans, abolishing the Second Amendment, and leaving only the bad guys and terrorists with guns. No good. Not going to happen, folks. Not going to happen.”

Jesus H. Christ on a firing range, how many times is he going to say this before someone hits him with a polo mallet for being such an absurd man? Presidents cannot abolish constitutional amendments. Only the people, acting through their elected representatives, can do that, and the process can take years before it finally fails. (The folks who used to be pushing for the ERA can give him some tips about how that can go.)

Yes, those are American flag socks / Photo by Charles P. Pierce

I’m looking at the political landscape and, quite honestly, I don’t see three-fourths of the states agreeing to touch the Sacred Second…

He is a ridiculous man running a ridiculous campaign and any dispatch from that campaign that doesn’t make that basic point is committing journalistic malpractice…”

Pierce notes one way Trump tries to “distinguishes himself” with business savvy from the Democratic presidential nominee.

“He accused HRC’s immigration proposal of costing too much money that could have been better spent fixing our roads and bridges. Of course, this was after proposing a vetting process that would cost billions of dollars, proposing  to fight wars all over the world, and proposing to increase the workload of  the intelligence community. Unless, of course, he figures that, as president, he can get them to do the work and then stiff them on their bills. I don’t think the usual business plan will fly with, say, the Marines.

“This, once again, was the Presidential Trump. (Look! A teleprompter!)  It was silly in January. It’s sillier now, but infinitely more dangerous. How in the hell did we get here? Our lines are open.” 1

For some, Donald Trump may seem to be self-destructing in a haze of helpless narcissism and conspiracy-mongering. But you never know what will happen in this crazy year. He is “infinitely more dangerous now” because he theoretically could be president. And the combustible unpredictability of the world shows there’s always potential for Republicans to exploit fear in their Gothic and perverse ways. And for this theoretical president to react as erratically as any unknown threat from anywhere on the globe or from a natural disaster.

Trump seems to embody many of those twisted motives and behavioral traits in one man. Yet he’s “persuasive” because some people want to buy his “product” on his terms, which to them smells like Trump steak on the grill. Why are supporters like those above pictured smiling? They don’t seem interested in much more than the sizzle teasing their nostrils. They, like Trump, don’t appear interested in the facts of our domestic politics or international relations, or our fight with radical groups like ISIS, which prey on fear and the mental illnesses of America, such as this vast collective obsession with guns. Another horrible mass murder — of 49 gay people — and gun fanatics stumble over each other to buy the same assault weapon in a chilling mimicry of the killer’s recent purchase. They fear possible restrictions on their “right” to buy and shoot these war weapons — regardless of whether they constitute any imaginable “well-regulated militia,” as the Constitution specifies for the right to bear arms.

Yes, that’s a base hunger the gun-slobberers — not honest, decent hunters — want to satisfy, and then all will be well, America will be “great again.” Yet how much “greater” can we get when it remains business as usual for a kow-towed Congress, the gun industry and the NRA. How does no change on common-sense gun safety make us “greater” than we are now?

And we also know that groups like ISIS prey upon clinically mentally damaged individuals like the Florida killer, who are easily swayed emotionally and psychologically — even if ideologically confused “lone wolves” like him — through social media. It is like our worse angels flitting from shoulder to shoulder through their seemingly empty heads. And what would that first great Republican president, who gave the notion of “our better angels” timeless resonance, think of these small Republican politicians, lining up behind such a man, even if they are oh, so quietly kicking and screaming?

Would grandly melancholic Lincoln imagine that Jesus Christ, were he alive today, would be pumping clip-after-clip of AR-15 bullets into a bull’s eye-adorned bale of hay, while fantasizing over a dirty fed or an Islamic radical?

One only hopes that intelligence prevails among those merchants and small-business people and working men seemingly wooed by Trump’s bar room-talk cons. A bar’s a great place for a roll-up-your-sleeves political debate but we need more than a bar boaster in this big, complicated world of many languages, cultures, beliefs and presumptions. And many, if not most, foreign leaders, aside from those in North Korea and maybe Russia,  think that with such a candidate America is flirting with madness — thus the increasing danger.

Melville's the-confidence-man

The honest business person or worker might draw wisdom from this merchant who pauses from the pleasures of intoxication to reflect on truth in The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville’s extraordinary parable about a riverboat (another vessel-as-America metaphor, like Ahab’s The Pequod,) teeming with the hydra-headed monster of the con-man impulse run amok:

“At intervals, they slowly quaff several glasses in silence and thoughtfulness. At last the merchant’s expressive face flushed, his eyes moistly beamed, his lips trembled with an imaginative, feminine sensibility. Without sending a single fume to his head, the wine seemed to shoot to his heart, and begin soothsaying there. “Ah,” he cried, pushing his glass from him, “Ah, wine is good, and confidence is good; but can wine or confidence percolate down through all the stony strata of hard considerations, and drop warmly and mortally into the cold cave of truth? Truth will not be comforted. Led by dear charity, lured by sweet hope, fond fancy essays; but in vain; mere dreams and ideals, they explode in your hand, leaving not, but the scorching behind!” – The Confidence Man, Herman Melville. 2

Note how Melville valued the imagination of the “feminine sensibility,” that which produces by creating (or pro-creating) A far cry from Trump’s deeply sexist, testosterone-filled candidacy.

Not simply a satire, Melville’s book is a meditation on the nature of trust in a capitalist society. Here’s a fine essay on that theme, as it plays out in the book. 

Melville, one of the first original American thinkers, ultimately had confidence in the nation’s authentic merchants, and in any American who works honestly for a living, unlike Trump, for whom “livelihood” and “honesty” are an oxymoron, which, again, he embodies.

Let us hope and pray than those who might pause in the voting booth in November have their better angels guiding them.


  1. Charles W. Pierce quotes and photo from.
  2. Melville knew too well the tragic connection between guns and suicide. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of his family life was when his 18-year-old son Malcolm died in his bedroom from an apparent suicide or accident, with a gun. Here’s a plethora of facts about America’s gun “problems.”

An ode to some of America’s most courageous and unsung workers

roof 1

Once, many years ago, I took a bus trip up North Avenue in Milwaukee to apply for a window-washing job, partly because I really enjoy heights, and was a mountain climber of sorts in those days, having scaled a number of mountains in the Tetons.

I never made it to the window washing job, because instead of getting off at 30th and North, I mistakenly, or perhaps subconsciously, got off at 3rd and North, where the Radio Doctors Soul Shop was located.

I said, “dang,” and then “oh, well,” and walked up to Radio Docs and saw a sign for “help wanted.” I went in and got a job there that day as an album buyer and store clerk, which helped determine my future in music and the arts, as a journalist.

But yesterday, when I returned home — after hearing Steve Cohen and Li’l Rev play some down-home blues for lunch hour at Anodyne Coffee on S. Kinnickinnick Ave. — I came face-to-face with people working in high, vertically-challenging places where ordinary humans rarely tread. I found a small mountain of detritus from an old roof being torn up and tossed down on the sidewalk of the side-door entrance to my upper flat, in Riverwest.

I was immediately struck and a bit fascinated by the tough, daring work of these roofers. The roofers carry each of the large plywood panels up a wobbly, two-and-a-half-story-tall ladder, while hanging on to the heavy, cumbersome wood panel with one hand and to the ladder with the other hand (see below).


Notice that on a roof this steep the workers need belay ropes to secure them. But there’s still plenty of danger. These appear to be primarily Latino roofers, who work hard and didn’t stop until it grew too dark to see your next step. They’re at it again this morning. You get a sense of some of the rest of the job, I hope, in these photos.

I shot these roof views from my second-floor flat and balcony, so they are up fairly high..

So I offer this little photo essay as a tribute to roofers. They help to beautify and protect our homes. Yet this is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Here’s an article on that http://hubpages.com/living/Roofing-is-on-the-top-10-list-of-most-dangerous-jobs-in-the-world.

The risks and skills of roofers hold much less glamour than, say, skyscraper construction workers. But they are, in their own way, the sort of workers who have made America great, for a long time — house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town, city by city.

As I crane my neck to watch them, my hat falls off to them.

roof 2


Rooftop tightrope


roof 3


roof 4

Here a roofer measures the size of a top corner which will need on odd-shaped slab of plywood, the base material for the roof, beneath the shingles to come.

roof 6


roof 5


roof 9



roof 12

Stripping the old roof (previous three photos).

roof 7

The walkway to the entrance to my upper flat, on the right.

Stone Soup Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” employs a “simple” recipe, seasoned with brilliance


Antipholus (Ken Miller, center) and his servant Dromio (Nicole Goeden, right) are befuddled enough by encountering their estranged identical twins. Here, they also have to deal with a courtesan played by Ian Muenther, in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” at the Shorewood Public Library. All photos by Ed Valent unless otherrwise indicated.

Stone Soup Shakespeare concludes its season in IL this weekend


After a Sunday Sheboygan performance, in which the company played through a huge cloudburst, their summer tour of Comedy will conclude with dates in Nelson Park in Decatur, IL on June 10; Mineral Springs Park in Pekin IL on Saturday, June 11, and Senior Citizens Memorial Park in Chicago on Sunday June 12. , IL. See information on Stone Soup Shakespeare and their remaining tour dates here.


“I to the world am like a drop of water that, in the ocean seeks another drop that falling there to find his fellow forth, unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.”

 — Antipholus, “Comedy of Errors”

The timeless magic and the madness of live theatrical performance — in a virtual reality-removed world – felt palpably alive when Stone Soup Shakespeare performed its gloriously low-tech version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors at the Shorewood Public Library Saturday.

The “madness” is the company bucking the seemingly inexorable technological zeitgeist by doing Shakespeare in free performances that bend and stretch dramatic principles but reach for the sky, in both their fairly strong textual fidelity and effort to touch ordinary people who might never otherwise go to a Shakespeare production.

The magic came in how they theatrically conjured an entertainment so witty, dynamic and ingenious with only their bodies and a few hand-crafted props that you sat in wonder when you weren’t giggling or laughing. That experience seemed evident in an audience ranging from toddlers to folks in their 90s.

ed comedy 3

The physical comedy comes fast and furious in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.” Here Adriana (Julia Stemper, top) faints on her sister Luciana (Jen Pommerenke), who is falling for Adriana’s husband Antipholus.

“I don’t like Shakespeare, but that was fabulous,” enthused playgoer Frank Pipp, a middle-aged man from Fox Point, who later declared that he might now take a class in Shakespeare. Such a genius is always worthy of study. But Stone Soup proved that you don’t need to, and even if you didn’t quite follow some of the play’s fast action and mistaken-identity mind bending, you got plenty of the play’s comic genius, especially with the smart, energized elan of this Chicago-based company.

comedy errors poster

A poster from an 1879 production on Broadway, featuring Stuart Robson and William Crane. Courtesy wikipedia.org.

Indeed these young Shakespeareans have mastered their stage craft to approach the ease of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton defying physical limitations to broaden the possibilities of comic art. And yet, as far as I know those comic greats never attempted Shakespeare. 1

So, as a fine mist fell over the library green space in a cool June dusk, this company entranced and delighted an audience by doing Shakespeare on their terms, which brings his work to vivid life in a way that I think even he might’ve delighted in.

Comedy of Errors does have a story line, being a “family reunion” story, of sorts. But it is constantly subverted, twisted and goosed by Shakespeare’s devious string-pulling, based primarily on an improbable but not impossible circumstance of doppelganger goofiness flirting with tragedy. The company’s online synopsis posed the situation thusly: “What do you get when one pair of estranged twin brothers (both named Antipholus) and one pair of twin servants (both named Dromio) all wind up in the same city for the first time ever, completely ignorant of the others’ existence?”

As David Newell has commented, “This unlikely expansion of a classical formula is fun for the audience, but a nightmare for its victims. But the bewildering dream experiences of the visiting Antipholus convince him that  Ephesus (an ancient Greek city in present-day Turkey) is a hotbed of sorcery and deception.” The social germ of the chaos is that “there is nothing like the natural mimicry of twins to pull the plug on solemnity and dignity.” 2

A young man named Antipholus comes to Ephesus in a long search for his long-lost twin brother. Things quickly turn both weird and capitvating for him.

The backdrop is that the Antipholus twins’ father, the merchant named Aegeon from the ancient Sicilian city of Syracuse (Ian Muentener) is condemned to death for violating a travel ban between the two cities. This dramatic circumstance resonates in our current times of public concern and policy, both rightfully fearful and paranoid, over immigration and terrorism.

Without a formal set to evoke the mise en scene totality of a city, or an abbey late in the play, the company treads lightly on the play’s dramatic aspects.

But that works because Shakespeare created a play that is seemingly magical and absurdist centuries before The Theater of the Absurd. For that matter, The Bard’s play anticipates by centuries The Marx Brothers, the modern masters of comic chaos in, for example, the way several characters toy with their own identities and presences with full length mirrors (made here of large cardboard and tin foil) with which they spin, self-regard and hide behind. Think of Groucho’s famous routine with his “mirrored” self in Duck Soup. Shakespeare probably knew intimately the farcical potency inherent in doubled identities, being the father of twins.

Stone Soup’s DIY theatrical dynamics make the production hang together like a great gyrating amoeba rolling through time. They even ride that dynamic at times, with a wonderfully evoked ship on the high seas. No wonder Antipolous feels like a drop in the ocean searching for his fraternal drop.

At other times, they ingeniously employ audience members as props, without dragging anyone out of their seat. One viewer suddenly became, in effect, a tree stump to hide behind, and his personal existential reality might have shifted slightly in that moment.

Quazar and Julia

Adriana (Julia Stemper) hides behind an audience member/tree stump in a madcap moment in “Comedy of Errors.” 

The madcap spontaneity of Stone Soup makes one think many of their physical gags are developed in improv sessions.

Still, conflicted emotions do transmit amid this show’s slapstick cavalcade. Among the sufferings endured is by bedeviled Antipholus, a bit of a lost soul despite his strong presence, and his wife Adriana, who grows quickly suspicious of her mate’s amorous intentions amid his travels. Company artistic director Julia Stemper plays out Adriana’s resentments and jealousies with a pulsing power that is by turns real, surreal and sensual. She shoots sparks in all directions that trigger anyone’s funny bone, because such physical comedy transmits wordlessly, even as it is accompanied by the world’s greatest dramatic poet. Stemper makes Adriana a sort of anti-heroine who manages to be lovable for being so human and insecure yet fearlessly “out there” about her feelings.

Ken Miller as Antipholous (as both twin bothers, actually) is tall, dark and handsome — the sort of husband a wife might be jealous of, regardless of the relative truth of her specific suspicions. He’s so utterly flummoxed that he’s deemed insane. Yet in fact, he is falling in love with his wife’s fetching sister Luciana (Jen Pommerenke).

Ed comedy 2

Antipholus is bewitched, bothered and bewildered in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.” Part of his dilemma is that he’s falling for his wife’s sister Luciana (below)

ed comedy 4

Among the show’s most remarkable performers is Nicole Goeden, who plays Dromio, the twin (and same-named) servants belonging to the twin bothers, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Epheus. Goeden flops around the stage like a living, breathing rag doll in a myriad of zany, hilarious bodily and facial contortions, which suggest an Olympic sport is needed called Slapstick Gymnastics. And she funnels plenty of emotion through her zig-zagging expression.

And Muentener, a sturdily-built man, steals several scenes strutting about as a courtesan, done up deliciously in makeup, high heels, a tight black-and-white print shift and black feather boa. The actor slyly steals another scene as an arresting police officer in cutoff long underwear, twitching a giant fake handlebar mustache, back and forth, sort of like the fickle scales of justice in a world gone slightly mad, where common assumptions, identities, facts and social and political institutions seem topsy-turvy. Syracusians, such as Aegeon, are accused of fomenting seditious revolution against Greece. Does that sound familiar, by the way?

Thank the theater gods that this is not real life, only a “comedy of errors.” And hang onto such consolation for dear life.

The company is aptly named for “stone soup,” the name of an old folk story in which hungry strangers manipulate the local people of a town into sharing their food, by offering them soup made of stones. Yet this company, in a variation of the starving artists story, offers a goulash full of Shakespeare bottomless riches, in the hopes of wooing a few dollars into their donation bucket at the play’s end.

The non-profit organization gets funding for its annual spring-summer tours anyway they can and though this is its third visit to Shorewood, it needs funding to return here and other places.

They’re worthy of such support, for Comedy exemplified how — as well as any artistic group I can think of — Stone Soup attempts to joust with a windmill, with heroic integrity and ingenuity. If what they’re doing seems quixotic, the world needs more of this type of impossible dreaming. It shows how you can make even visions of Shakespeare come to life along a city street,  even for people who “don’t like Shakespeare,” or thought they didn’t.


  1. In a 1923 Buster Keaton short, his girlfriend briefly imagines him playing Hamlet.
  2. David Newell, introduction to “The Comedy of Errors,” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Alexander Text, introduced by Peter Ackroyd, HarperCollins, 2006, 124



Rapper Rob Dz learns, rekindles a dream, and pays it forward, as Madison wins a national award

Rob Michelle

Hip-Hop artist and historian Rob Dz accepts a 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from first lady Michelle Obama on June 1 on behalf of the Madison Public Library, for his own career advancement and educational work in a library outreach program in music production and promotion.

“The library is so much more than just books, baby!”

That’s the take away of Rob Franklin, a.k. a. Rob Dz, a Madison-based hip-hop artist and historian, and one of my favorite Wisconsin artists.

How much more is the library? The Madison Public Library has transformed this talented man’s financially-strapped career.

“All my dreams of sharing my gifts to the world were fading.” he recalls. Rob was at crossroads, maybe the kind where the devil lurked, grinning right in his face, as the “Crossroads” myth went for bluesman Robert Johnson.

Rob no longer had the finances to make any recordings of his art. But he didn’t have to sell his soul to the devil to get what his dreams requested.

The Madison Library was attuned to his talents and his value to the community. They stepped into the path of uncertainty and darkness and set him up in the library’s Bubbler program and Media Lab services. This provided him access to and instruction in their full production facilities, for visual and graphic design, sound engineering, photoshop and other production services.

The upshot was that Rob dug in and learned how to use these tools, and brought his career back to life. His production work for himself and other financially and socially disenfranchised young people led to a great honor. On June 1, Rob Dz accepted a 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. First lady Michelle Obama, a strong proponent of youth literacy, presented the award to Rob, on the library’s behalf.

What a trip! And for sure it was a journey to learn, create and teach in the light of creative life. Rob explains his trip in a video in the story I have linked here.

Bering among this year’s award recipients was a thrill for Rob, and here is First Lady Michelle Obama’s awards speech and presentations.

The Library’s Bubbler program has replenished Rob Dz and, he hopes, will help transform his career. And once he learned this and got back up to speed in terms of DIY technical creativity and career advancement, he realized it was time to “pay it forward” with his knowledge. “I was able to teach not only production, but personal branding and development classes as well,” he explains

I take personal pleasure in this for several reasons. I was aware of Rob’s talents and knowledge when I covered the arts for The Capital Times in Madison for nearly 20 years. I also had a sense of how is talents translated into education. So I hired him as a guest lecturer for the cultural journalism class that I taught at Edgewood College in Madison in 2007-8.
He presented a concise, but incisive and lively history of hip-hop to my aspiring journalists, and it was one of the most rewarding classes I’ve ever presented.

Next he popped up as a member of the Chicago Yestet, a vibrant and socially and politically conscious jazz band led by trombonist and composer Joel Adams, a former Madison musician now based in Chicago. A highlight of their debut album was the brilliantly droll Rob Dz commentary on George W. Bush titled “The Decider.” Then came several thought-provoking and empowering songs on the band’s latest album Just Say Yes, including Rob’s lyrics ingeniously updating Lennon and McCartney’s “The  Long and Winding Road.” Here’s the adaptation, performed at Chicago’s Green Mill jazz club.

The greatest part of Rob’s library project was the chance he had to teach kids at risk at the city’s juvenile detention center.

“These are kids who have had some pretty harsh lives,” he explains. “To be able to give joy to some of those kids’ lives has probably given me more satisfaction than any recording I’ve done for my self. To be able to pay it forward and let other people express themselves is awe-inspiring. The library is so much more than books, baby!”

Rob’s long and winding road led to the library door. Kudos and high fives to Rob Dz and the Madison Library!