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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 22, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Iron Hen, St. Aggie's, BelVita

We all talk about how rich Mitt Romney is, but even his funds aren't inexhaustible. His wealth allowed him to field an excellent organization right from the start, but he's as dependent now on contributions as any candidate -- especially since he's had to spend so much campaigning against Republicans.

One thing that's plain about Mitt Romney is that he's an introvert. This is why he started out in politics so utterly stiff, and why he remains an uncomfortable speaker.

Even introverts who have become comfortable with crowds usually remain awkward and unhappy trying to make small talk with strangers. They aren't in control of the situation; they have nothing to say, and yet feel the obligation to say something.

This is why Romney's latest fundraising gimmick left me gobsmacked. It's called "Grab a Bite with Mitt," and it consists of an invitation to join Mitt and Ann Romney for lunch while they're campaigning in California.

Well, not so much an invitation as a raffle: You pay five bucks for a chance to win a lunch with the candidate and his wife. Here's the invitation I received from Ann Romney:

"The deadline to enter is just over 24 hours away, so make sure you enter today. Donate $5 to be automatically entered to join Mitt and me for lunch in California: https://www.mittromney.com/donate/grab-a-bite-march . Hope to see you soon! Ann."

I had no idea Mrs. Romney and I were on a first-name basis. Especially considering that I'm a Democrat and a most reluctant Romney supporter.

My wife was miffed that she, a Republican, got no such invitation. But considering that in addition to the five bucks there would be the little matter of a plane ticket to California, I decided not to enter the raffle.

*

That doesn't mean that I don't get hungry at lunchtime. Fortunately, a waiter at Amelie French Bakery in Charlotte, who once lived in Greensboro, alerted me to the existence of a little restaurant specializing in local, healthy, and vegetarian dishes, called The Iron Hen Cafe.

They're not exclusively vegetarian -- there are a few meat dishes on the menu, and they're very good. But so are the vegetarian (and even vegan) options. (Look at the menu at http://www.ironhen.com/ .)

The style is informal -- you go up to the counter to order, and then they bring you your food. During crowded times there aren't enough tables, but people are generally considerate and don't linger to chat,  freeing tables fairly quickly.

Fancy it ain't. In fact, there's a home-cookin' style that I found quite engaging. Everybody is nice; they all care about the food they serve and it seems they even care about their customers' health.

In fact, it took me a little while to convince the counter clerk that I really wasn't going to die from the fact that I usually don't eat breakfast. (Apparently some people haven't got the memo about everybody's metabolism being different.) But she remained cheerful and I think of this as one of the friendliest places in town.

They open for breakfast at seven a.m. -- and their food gives new meaning to the word "hearty." Their buckwheat pancakes are filling, and the others in our party enjoyed their french toast, their granola, and a thing they call "morning salad."

Lunch and dinner are just as good. And there are rumors they're preparing to expand to provide seating for fifty more people. But don't wait till the renovations are done -- you want to get the Iron Hen habit now.

The location is close to downtown -- they're at 908 Cridland, just a half-block south of Wendover. I find it easier, though, to get there on Bessemer. Where Bessemer turns south to become Eugene, you turn right instead, and then pull into their parking lot as the road starts to curve up toward Wendover.

*

I'm always on the alert for healthy snacks -- especially now that I'm getting serious about losing weight and keeping it off (something about wanting to reduce my risk of a second stroke).

Because of a newly discovered allergy to peanuts, a lot of snacks are off the table for me -- you'd be surprised how often peanut oil pops up. Since I also try to avoid Bad Oils, I spend a lot of time reading the tiny print on the ingredients list.

So I'm happy to report that Nabisco, perhaps noticing that they have very few products that don't have Bad Oils, huge doses of high fructose corn syrup (which, even if it's chemically indistinguishable from any other sugar, makes everything too icky-sweet), have come out with new BelVita "breakfast biscuits."

These are "biscuits" in the British sense -- to Americans, they're cookies, plain and simple. But healthy cookies. (You can't find them yet on Nabisco's American website, but you can read about them on the British site: http://www.belvitabreakfast.co.uk/ )

I saw them on the shelves at Harris-Teeter and brought home a box of each of the three flavors currently offered in the U.S.: Golden Oat, Blueberry, and Apple Cinnamon. Each box contains five packets of four cookies each. At less than 60 calories a biscuit, they're practically free -- but don't kid yourself if you think you're going to be content with one cooky.

I tried them out on the high school kids who come to our house at 6:15 a.m. every school day for a scripture study class. The verdict? All the packets were gone the first day.

The nice thing about having a new product come from one of the big companies is that it's everywhere.

The not-so-nice thing is that if they don't catch on in a big way, new products are also just as likely to be jettisoned. Smaller companies are often content with smaller sales. So I'm hoping that enough other people like these that they remain on the market for a long time.

*

You have to give the drama program at Weaver Academy credit for boldness. Nearly two years ago, they sponsored a trip to The Fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. There they attended a short musical based on Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.

The music was good; the play was fun; and so Weaver drama director Keith Taylor entered into negotiations with Chris Wynters, the author and composer of the play, to debut the full-length version at Weaver Academy.

So beginning tonight, March 22nd, and continuing this weekend and next (22-24 and 29-31 March) at 7:00 p.m. at Weaver Academy, you can attend the world premiere of St. Aggies '84.

(Let me say right now that as a copy editor and proofreader, I was horrified at the punctuation of that title. It should be: St. Aggie's '84. But all the publicity and the programs show it without the possessive on the name of the school and with an open single quote instead of an apostrophe on the year '84. I shudder and faithfully reproduce the errors, pretending that they're part of the humor ...)

Love's Labour's Lost is one of Shakespeare's less-performed plays, but that's because the play is so dependent on witty dialogue. The trouble with wit is that it is highly susceptible to changes in language and culture -- most audiences would not get the vast majority of the jokes, and the plot is so slight that there's really not much else there to please a modern audience.

St. Aggie's '84 solves the problem very neatly by setting the story in a Canadian all-girls academy in the first school year in which boys were admitted.

The plot of Love's Labour's Lost revolves around a group of men who take a pact to abjure the company of women and devote themselves to study. Naturally, they all promptly fall in love and break the oath, while trying to conceal the fact from each other.

The change to high school students in a newly co-educational academy works very nicely -- especially since Wynters swaps the genders of the leading characters, so that it's the girls -- led by Head Girl Hattie Navarre (played by Katie Sessoms) -- who make the pact not to associate with persons of the opposite gender.

Midway through the show, a "genius" among the boys, Holofernes (Caleb Taylor) realizes that they are in a play; the scene of discovery is funny.

Unfortunately, Wynters tries to use this bit of absurdity as his ending, as well. If you want to see that ending, you'd better come to the Weaver production, because my guess is that it will be cut from all future productions. Why? Because this is a comedy, and the existential angst just takes too long.

But that's just the sort of thing that happens with early versions of a play -- all plays are works in progress, and there is so much that's delightful in St. Aggie's '84 that it's easy to forgive an ending in which ten minutes could better have been replaced by three quick lines of dialogue.

Wynters is a very talented songwriter, with a gift for tag lines and melodies that work very well. The solos are well performed, but where this production really shines is in the singing of the chorus -- the harmonies are wonderful, and the ensemble is a first-rate pop choir.

Bonnie Flannery is a standout as the character Berowne -- you can hear every word she sings or says, and she brings great energy and flair to the role. Isaac Powell, already known and loved by those who attend Weaver plays, does a great job in the male lead, as well as everything else they ask him to do.

I also especially admired the performances of Cara Farlow, Kyle Kite, Nick Relos, DJ Gayles, and my daughter Zina Card (in her last play at Weaver before she graduates) -- but in truth the whole company is very good. If, as high school actors, they sometimes talk too fast or swallow their words, one can chalk it up to not having yet acquired the habits of old pro actors.

Besides, the dress rehearsal I watched was the kind of thing that makes directors turn prematurely gray. Leading actress Katie Sessoms was recovering from an appendectomy only a few days before -- just try supporting your singing voice with a healing abdominal incision! -- and one of the leading actors was on crutches from an injured foot.

Add to that the fact that the playwright's flight had been canceled, so he was missing the rehearsal in which he was expected to make any last-minute changes, and the miracle was that the performance I saw was so very good!

I have hopes that the lighting design will have been revised by the time you see the show -- the lighting constantly calls attention to itself, and leaves the actors' faces nearly invisible during most of the show, as they are backlit and the stage is kept almost entirely dark.

It's the lighting style you'd expect for King Lear, not a comedy -- comedies usually need to be flooded with light in order to keep the bright, energetic spirit that entertains the audience.

But that's educational theatre: Weaver uses the talents of students wherever possible, and you let the students learn by trying things and seeing whether they work!

Good music, clever writing, energetic acting, and very good singing combine to make this a wonderful evening's entertainment. Tickets cost $12 at the door, and they only accept cash, so come prepared.

*

It's sad to see a good TV show collapse on itself, but White Collar's latest season was more than slightly awful. Every episode seemed to show that the writers have run out of ideas and started to pander to, and lean on, the cast.

It's nice that actress Tiffany Thiessen is back from childbirth, but apparently somebody decided to get her character "more involved." The result was some ridiculous story lines in which she -- a completely untrained wife of an FBI agent -- gets involved in escapades better suited for Lucy Ricardo.

Add to this the time-wasting digressions that are there just to show the writers' political correctness, and plots that have gaping holes in logic and plausibility, and you can only conclude that the writers have decided to let the wonderful actors carry the show on charm alone.

Alas, as Moonlighting proved many years ago, that doesn't work. I'll probably give White Collar a couple of episodes next season, but my expectations are low. This is a show that has apparently decided to die.

*

Two recent mystery novels by long-established writers are well worth your time.

North Carolina's own Margaret Maron takes Judge Deborah Knott and her husband to New York City on vacation -- where they are caught up in a murder in the apartment building where they're staying. Three-Day Town is a clever, entertaining account of one of the worst Manhattan holidays you can imagine.

Jonathan Kellerman brings us his latest Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis mystery, Victims, and it's one of his best. Gay police detective Milo Sturgis has become a character just as deep and delightful as child psychologist Alex Delaware -- indeed, he regularly steals the show.

And with the brilliant John Rubinstein once again bringing the audiobook to life, it's even more fun to listen to the book than to read it.

What sets this mystery apart, however, is the murderer. Kellerman shines best when he deals with child psychology -- and this serial killer is turned into a fascinating, pitiable, yet terrifying figure as Delaware works his way backward into the killer's childhood and long imprisonment.

And when we get the adventurous climax, Kellerman plays fair -- he doesn't have superhuman heroes, and they don't try ridiculously brave-and-bold stunts. But the tension is all the more compelling because it's believable. If you've never read a Kellerman mystery, this is as good a place to start as any.


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