Sunday, April 30, 2006

ENV: California Red-legged Frog

Calif. Frog at Center of Protection Debate
Celebrated by Twain, California Red-Legged Frog Jumps to Center of Debate on Species Protection
By JULIANA BARBASSA, The Associated Press

LIVERMORE, Calif. - The national debate over protecting fragile species comes to life here, where upscale housing developments push ever deeper into the rumpled blanket of grassy hills at the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay area

The threatened California red-legged frog breeds in the weedy creeks hidden in the hollows of this landscape, part of more than 4 million acres that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in 2001 to designate as essential for the frog's recovery.

In mid-April, following years of litigation and debate, the agency announced the designation of just 450,000 acres of critical habitat 11 percent of the original proposal.

It did not include a pastoral section of Livermore proposed for a 650-home development, or any part of the county commemorated in Mark Twain's short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which introduced the red-legged frog to the world.

Federal officials said the final decision was based on research that allowed them to zoom in on frog-friendly areas, sparing private landowners hundreds of millions of dollars in lost development opportunities. But environmentalists are protesting what they see one more example of the nation's weakening will to protect endangered wildlife.

"This decision is political, it's not scientific," said Carlos Davidson, director of the Environmental Studies Program at San Francisco State University.

The largest frog species in the West was once common across much of California, but it's now found on just 30 percent of its former habitat, Davidson said. It was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1996.

The federal law has been the target of recent attacks, from lawsuits filed by developers to a bill introduced by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., which would stop critical habitat designations in areas where it would stifle development.

"Property owners are a big part of the recovery equation and should not be victims of arbitrary and overzealous regulations," said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the House Resources Committee.

Of the 1,300 species listed as endangered or threatened since the law's enactment in 1973, only 17 have recovered a sign of ineffectiveness, critics like Pombo say.

Proponents say just nine of the 1,300 listed plants and animals have gone extinct, and they call that a measure of the law's success.

With its recent and contentious habitat designation, the red-legged frog has jumped into the middle of the debate.

"For better or worse, the frog has become a symbol of what's wrong with the act if you're on one side, and what's right if you're on the other," said Robert Stack, a biochemist with the Jumping Frog Research Institute, which works to ensure the survival of amphibians native to the Sierra Nevada.

As part of the endangered species designation, land is identified as critical habitat, limiting opportunities for development. That, in turn, could limit the availability of affordable housing in the state, said Paul Campos, general counsel for the Home Builders Association of Northern California.

"The environmentalists pushing this would like to see the entire state designated for one species or another," he said. "But you have to put this into a larger context. We need to provide housing for our future citizens."

His group sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over its initial proposal to set aside 4.1 million acres of red-legged frog habitat. The resulting court order required the agency to account for the cost of lost development opportunities and led to substantial cuts in acreage.

Federal officials defend the reduction, saying it's better to work with private landowners, who control most of the land where the frog, Rana aurora draytonii, is found, than to burden them with regulations.

For example, Fish and Wildlife is exempting ranchers from fines if they kill frogs during routine ranch work. Because both cows and frogs need open space and watering holes, work done to maintain ranches shouldn't be penalized, officials said.

In the past, ranchers had no incentive to help the frog survive on their land, said Al Donner, a Sacramento-based spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The old attitude was shoot, shovel and shut up," he said. "Now we hope landowners will come forward and work with us."

But conservation groups accuse the Bush administration of pandering to private interests at the expense of endangered and threatened species.

Of the 312 critical habitat proposals considered since Bush took office, 94 percent were cut, according to the environmental organization Center for Biological Diversity. The reductions averaged 79 percent from what was originally proposed, the group said. In contrast, 35 percent were reduced by the Clinton administration, and by an average of just 5 percent, it said.

"This administration is hostile to the idea of critical habitat," Davidson said.

In Livermore, the benefits of pastures over pavement are clear.

On the nearly 1,000-acre ranch that's been in Tim Koopman's family since 1918, tiger salamanders, red-legged frogs and other threatened species find refuge from the golf course, housing development and freeway that surround it.

Fencing and solar water pumps, paid for partly with government funding, allow cows and frogs to reach water without getting in each other's way.

Ranching is a low-return business, Koopman said. If helping to protect endangered species keeps his land out of the hands of developers, he's all for it.

"We're here for the long haul. We want to take care of the land, and take pride in providing habitat," said Koopman. "It just doesn't have to come as a burden."

But environmentalists don't want the future of the red-legged frog to depend on the goodwill of landowners, ranchers or developers.

"If it's voluntary, there are no teeth, no limits," said Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. "If someone wants to protect habitat, we're all for that. But why choose one or the other?"

On the Net:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Center for Biological Diversity:
Home Builders Association of Northern California:

ENV: Diamondback Terrapin Woes

Mission: Save the Turtles
One Woman Seeks to Save Maryland State Reptile from Overharvesting, Development
ABC News

April 30, 2006 — - Marguerite Whilden is on a mission: She's driving nearly 200 miles from her home in Annapolis, Md., to rescue turtles that were found in Albany, N.Y.

She wants to rescue diamondback terrapins, the state reptile of Maryland and the official mascot of the University of Maryland. To Whilden, they are the "iron men" of the animal kingdom.

"Turtles and tortoises have survived ice ages," she said. "If I can't go down to the lower Chesapeake and find nesting turtles or the remnants of a nest or whatever, then I feel as though my heritage has been robbed."

Buying and Tagging
Whilden is trying to save them by buying them. In the last three years, she's spent $25,000 in donations to buy 5,000 turtles that Chesapeake Bay fisherman accidentally caught in their nets.

Whilden uses a tag like a brand on a cow to mark turtles as her personal property.

"I have a stake throughout the bay because my private property is out there," she said.

She hopes the fisherman will honor the tags and either set turtles wearing them free or return them to her.

Soup and Subdivisions
Terrapins once were abundant in the Chesapeake Bay, but over-harvesting in the 19th century depleted their numbers.

Today, they're in demand again -- for soup, especially in Asia, where it's a cheap delicacy.

"They could be wiped out now -- and just by careless, $2.50 a head," she said. "That's not right."

State wildlife officials say the greater threat is closer to home -- coastal real estate developments that destroy the turtles' nesting grounds.

Whatever the cause, Whilden says saving the terrapin is a test of man's stewardship of nature. She will continue to buy up turtles so she can let them march back into the bay.

"If we can't take care of this miniscule little issue, then don't expect me to believe that you can save anything," she said.

ATH: Europe At A Loss

In With the New
The stage is set: The world's greatest sporting event returns to Europe, whose traditional dominance is fast being eroded.
By Mark Starr, Newsweek International

May 8, 2006 issue - None of the 32 countries that qualified to play in next month's World Cup can boast of an especially easy path there. But the one that received an automatic berth—host nation Germany—seemed to suffer the most controversy and consternation. Its youthful team has played uninspired football, most notably in a 4-1 thrashing by Italy early this year, and rookie manager Jürgen Klinsmann has taken a beating, too. Klinsmann, star of three German Cup teams in the '90s, has been vilified for his nontraditional methods, sins compounded by his insistence on living in southern California. When he flew home to America right after the loss to Italy, no less a persona than Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's greatest football icon, pleaded for him to spend more time with his team. Instead critics had to settle for whatever solace could be found in a 4-1 victory over an American "B" squad. Klinsmann termed it an important win, permitting the team to proceed with preparations "in a much quieter atmosphere."

But football experts, both inside and outside Germany, believe that any calm may be of the before-the-storm variety. Starting June 9, Germany will be the center of the sporting universe. By the time the World Cup final is played in Berlin a month later, the games will

have been watched by 3.4 million spectators in stadiums in 12 cities and—according to estimates by FIFA, the sport's governing body—a worldwide television audience of 40 billion cumulative viewers. Many will tune in fully expecting Germany, the 2002 runner-up and winner in 1974, the last time it played host, to have a giant leg up on its fourth World Cup championship. To the eyes of most experts however, the Germans appear at best a long shot to finish on top—for reasons that should concern other traditional European football powers as well.

Just as America discovered with basketball and the demise of its recent Dream Teams, there is a new global game afoot—one that's been kicking up warning signs for years. In football's last seven Under-20 world championships, 14 South American teams and seven African teams have reached the semifinals, while only five European teams (including Spain three times) have made it that far. The emerging parity in the football world was certainly evident at the 2002 World Cup held in South Korea and Japan. For a refresher course, take a glance at these scores: Senegal 1, France 0; United States 3, Portugal 2; South Korea 2, Italy 1; Japan 2, Belgium 2.

True, this World Cup will be staged back in Europe, where the powers that be have always defended their turf relentlessly. Out of nine previous Cup competitions held in Europe, European teams have won eight (with Italy, England, Germany and France all triumphing as hosts). Only Brazil, in 1958 with a 17-year-old Pele debuting, managed to break Europe's home-field advantage. Those successes were abetted by the difficulties non-European players had adjusting to a distant pitch. As European leagues have stocked up on international talent—hundreds of Brazilians and Argentines now play there—distance has ceased to be an impediment. Cup qualifiers from all regions are led by players—Brazil's Ronaldinho, Argentina's Juan Román Riquelme, Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, Ghana's Michael Essien, South Korea's Park Ji-Sung —who have excelled in European competition.

The very best Latin and African players appear to be both faster and more creative. They can maintain possession of the ball for longer spells and are capable of dazzling bursts which can puncture that cautious and rugged defensive style European squads tend to play in the biggest competitions. With Europe's five elite leagues increasingly dependent on foreigners to fill critical roles, particularly on attack, homegrown development of players with those same capabilities has been stifled, inevitably damaging the national teams there. All that helps explain why many experts dismiss Germany—Europe's longtime über-power with its three World Cup titles and three Europeans—as a team in serious decline; in a recent poll of German sports enthusiasts, only 5 percent believe their team will prevail in Cup competition. "Our tactics and tempo are very antiquated," says Pit Gottschalk, editor of the sports weekly Sport Bild.

The idea that Europe has grown too complacent to succeed is widespread. By contrast, the growing prominence of Latin American and African players in Europe in part reflects the game's deep roots in poverty. "Maybe the long-term problem in European football is that economically we are producing a generation that has never had it so good," says Bill Gerrard, professor of sports finance at Britain's Leeds University Business School. Soccer tends to flourish in places where there are few material distractions, where "kick the ball" is still a compelling mantra and where football remains the surest passport to riches.

There are, of course, places like that in Europe. But Germany in particular has been slow to invest in its youth teams and even slower to tap its immigrant communities. Though Germany's Turkish population offers a huge talent pool, its best players return home to compete. The inertia on the part of the German football establishment has led to a conspicuous decline in the level of Bundesliga play; this year no German club even reached the quarterfinals of Europe's prestigious Champions League. "Bad, slow soccer," says Rainer Holzschuh, editor of Kicker, Germany's leading football weekly.

Germany doesn't need to look farther than its own neighbors for some better models. France, in its run-up to the '98 World Cup that it hosted, successfully integrated its immigrant and minority communities onto the team. What was a revolution on the field proved more successful than anyone in that country could have imagined. Not only did the team jell and produce France's first Cup championship, it also generated a rallying cry—one nation, one France—that provided an antidote (though sadly, as recent events have demonstrated, a temporary one) to the angst and alienation that the nation called la crise. The Dutch, too, altered their youth-development and recruitment policies, yielding talented minority players at the heart of the national team lineup.

Change is coming to Germany, too, albeit slowly. The host team's humiliating exit—without a win—from the 2004 European championships led to the call to hire Klinsmann, once a hero of the Fatherland. Yet his efforts at reform with modern methods—selecting players based on performance criteria rather than seniority or reputation, blood tests to check fitness levels—have distressed the German soccer establishment. It's hard to imagine another country in which fitness tests for players would prove so controversial. But that decision appalled many veteran German players and coaches who believe fitness is no substitute for mental toughness and experience. "Whoever starts reforming in Germany is made out to be the bogeyman," says Sport Bild's Gottschalk.

Many of Germany's most fervent fans believe Klinsmann is unilaterally surrendering the team's not-so-secret weapon, its indomitable will. They point to the 2002 World Cup when Germany was often outplayed yet reached the finals and made a match of it against a far more talented Brazil. English football columnist Rob Hughes says that no matter how great the will, it is no longer enough to carry the day. "It has been overtaken," he says, "by athleticism, technique and imagination." Klinsmann had all those as a player and is trying to instill them in an inexperienced team, Germany's youngest in 40 years. That may prove too great a task for too short a time. The best hope for German soccer is that the World Cup—be it an embarrassment or a stunning success—doesn't blunt a transformation that is long overdue.

With Stefan Theil, Ginanne Brownell and Sam Register

Friday, April 28, 2006

ENV: Not Really A Cat Friday

White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

COM: Blogarithmic #124

First day today at a new job so blogging has been a bit slow. Will catch up soon. I hope this is the last slow part of the year!

I now work for the Hill Country Youth Ranch and the Big Springs Ranch for Children. I will be headquartered just down the road in Ingram. More to come.

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If you are able please donate to this worthy cause here

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

COM: Blogarithmic #123

I am leaving Rio Vista today and will be taking a new job in the next few days. Will let folks know when and where i get resettled.

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If you are able please donate to this worthy cause here

ENV: Next They'll Be Text-Messaging

Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar
New Research Suggests Songbirds May Be Able to Be Taught Simple Grammar
By SETH BORENSTEIN, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The simplest grammar, long thought to be one of the skills that separate man from beast, can be taught to a common songbird, new research suggests.

Starlings learned to differentiate between a regular birdsong "sentence" and one containing a clause or another sentence of warbling, according to a study in Thursday's journal Nature. It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize the most basic of grammar in their own bird language.

Yet what they learned may shake up the field of linguistics.

While many animals can roar, sing, grunt or otherwise make noise, linguists have contended for years that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our elementary school teachers and basic grammar. Sentences that contain an explanatory clause are something that humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.

Two years ago, a top research team tried to get tamarin monkeys to recognize such phrasing, but they failed. The results were seen as upholding famed linguist Noam Chomsky's theory that "recursive grammar" is uniquely human and key to the facility to acquire language.

But after training, nine out of Gentner's 11 songbirds picked out the bird song with inserted warbling or rattling bird phrases about 90 percent of the time. Two continued to flunk grammar.

"We were dumbfounded that they could do as well as they did," Gentner said. "It's clear that they can do it."

Gentner trained the birds using three buttons hanging from the wall. When the bird pecked the button it would play different versions of bird songs that Gentner generated, some with inserted clauses and some without. If the song followed a certain pattern, birds were supposed to hit the button again with their beaks; if it followed a different pattern they were supposed to do nothing. If the birds recognized the correct pattern, they were rewarded with food.

Gentner said he was so unprepared for the starlings' successful learning that he hadn't bothered to record the songs the starlings sang in response.

"They might have been singing them back," Gentner said.

To put the trained starlings' grammar skills in perspective, Gentner said they don't match up to either of his sons, ages 2 and 9 months.

What the experiment shows is that language and animal cognition is a lot more complicated than scientists once thought and that there is no "single magic bullet" that separates man from beast, said Jeffrey Elman, a professor of cognitive science at UCSD, who was not part of the Gentner research team.

Marc Hauser, director of Harvard University's Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, who conducted the tamarin monkey experiment, said Gentner's study was important and exciting, showing that "some of the cognitive sources that we deploy may be shared with other animals."

But Hauser said it still doesn't quite disprove a key paper he wrote in 2002 with Chomsky. The starlings are grasping a basic grammar, but not the necessary semantics to have the language ability that he and Chomsky wrote about.

Hauser said Gentner's study showed him he should have tried to train his monkeys instead of just letting them try to recognize recursive grammar instinctively. But starlings may be more apt vocalizers and have a better grasp of language than non-human primates. Monkeys may be trapped like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, a man metamorphosized into a bug and unable to communicate with the outside world, Hauser suggested.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

ENV: Kerr Co., 25 April 2006

Did some work today with some wonderful out-of-state folks, and we had a rather outstanding birding day in Kerr County. Among the highlights were 2 singing male Hutton's Vireos in our faces at Kerr WMA (photographed), a Crested Caracara and a Great Egret at Boneyard Draw, and a flock of Franklin's Gulls at Ingram Dam Lake. We had unforgivable looks at Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. And we also had a great raptor passage at Heart of the Hills Fisheries Research Center that included Peregrine, streaming Mississippi Kites, Zone-tail, Osprey, and Sharpie. Also at HOH were Yellow-headed Blackbirds and an Olive-sided Flycatcher. We had 8 raptors, 6 doves, and 6 vireos; and a total of 93 species for the day, which is the largest single day number i've had in Kerr County in a few years.

25 April 2006, TX: KERR COUNTY, including Kerr WMA (Bobcat Pasture, Kerr Springs, Main Road, Doe Pasture, Rock Pasture, North Owl Pasture, Headquarters), Lynxhaven, Ingram Dam Lake, Heart of the Hills Fisheries Research Center, Guadalupe River, North Fork, South Fork, Johnson Creek, Rio Vista, Ingram

Bert Filemyr, Art McMorris, Karl Lukens, Connie Goldman, Ann Scott, Tony Gallucci et al.

Some unusual, rare, or unexpected species for Kerr County, and special Hill Country species ARE IN ALL CAPS

Insects low because of nearly 100% overcast; some light drizzly rain for about 30 minutes; full sun for about 30 minutes

[ ] Exotic, Feral, Captive, Domestic; * photos tg; # filmed tg; (fos) = for tg in Kerr Co.

+Elimia comalensis comalensis

1 Pipevine Swallowtail
1 Orange Sulphur
2 Sleepy Orange
1 Reakirt’s Blue
1 Gulf Fritillary
1 Red Satyr (fos)
1 Question Mark (fos)
2 Horace’s Duskywing
1 Sachem

10 Common Green Darner
3 Blue Dasher (fos)
1 Eastern Pondhawk
1 Black Saddlebags
1 clubtail sp.
1 baskettail sp.
2 Violet Dancer (fos)
1 Aztec Dancer
1 Familiar Bluet


+ Carpenter Bee
+ Honeybee
+ Red Harvester Ant

4 Guadalupe Bass
2 Koi

1 Red-eared Slider
10 Texas Slider

2 Bullfrog
20 Blanchard’s Cricket Frog
1 dor Gulf Coast Toad

2 Mallard
9 Wood Duck
3 Wild Turkey
[1 Blue Peafowl]
[1 Golden Pheasant]
[2 Northern Bobwhite]
[10 Olde English Bantam Chicken (Black, Red Pyle, Black-breasted Red, Porcelain D’Uccle)]
5 Great Blue Heron
2 Green Heron (fos)
20 Cattle Egret (fos)
40 Turkey Vulture
120 Black Vulture
2 Osprey
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
2 Red-tailed Hawk
3 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 CRESTED CARACARA (about 10th County Record)
1 Killdeer
1 Spotted Sandpiper
6 FRANKLIN’S GULL (long time since last record)
[1 Amboina King Parrot]
2 COMMON GROUND-DOVE (scarce in county)
2 Inca Dove
80 White-winged Dove
20 Mourning Dove
[2 Rock Pigeon]
[6 Eurasian Collared Dove]
[6 Ringed Turtle-Dove]
1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
2 Chimney Swift
5 Black-chinned Hummingbird
8 Golden-fronted Woodpecker
3 Ladder-backed Woodpecker
8 Ash-throated Flycatcher
1 Great Crested Flycatcher
2 Easten Wood-Pewee (fos)
5 Vermilion Flycatcher
20 Western Kingbird (fos)
30 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
10 Eastern Phoebe
2 Red-eyed Vireo
4 Yellow-throated Vireo
2m HUTTON’S VIREO* (about 8th County Record)
30 White-eyed Vireo
2 Bell’s Vireo (isolated population) (fos)
5 Western Scrub-Jay
12 Common Raven
40 Purple Martin
50 Barn Swallow
400 Cliff Swallow
10 Tree Swallow (fos)
2 Northern Rough-winged Swallow (fos)
15 Carolina Chickadee
20 Black-crested Titmouse
6 Carolina Wren
30 Bewick’s Wren
2 Canyon Wren
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
30 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
4 Eastern Bluebird
3 Northern Mockingbird
8 American Pipit* (scarce here) (fos)
[20 European Starling]
2 Orange-crowned Warbler
12 Nashville Warbler
6 Black-and-White Warbler
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
1 NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH* (scarce migrant) (fos)
5 Yellow-beasted Chat (fos)
20 Summer Tanager
30 Field Sparrow
10 Chipping Sparrow
25 Clay-colored Sparrow (fos)
1 Rufous-crowned Sparrow
40 Lark Sparrow
2 Vesper Sparrow
3 Savannah Sparrow
30 Northern Cardinal
4 Blue Grosbeak
20 Painted Bunting (fos)
6 Indigo Bunting
50 Great-tailed Grackle
1 Common Grackle
4 Red-winged Blackbird
6 YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (irregular migrant) (fos)
12 Brown-headed Cowbird
3 Orchard Oriole
30 House Finch
3 Lesser Goldfinch
[20 House Sparrow]
[1 Orange Weaver]
[1 African Silverbill]
[1 Paradise Whydah]

[1 Red Kangaroo]
20 Edwards Plateau Fox Squirrel
1 Rock Squirrel
[40 Axis Deer]
7 White-tailed Deer
[8 Blackbuck]
[Cattle (Limousin, Charolais, Red Brangus, Hereford, Simmental, Gelbvieh, Black Angus, Texas
[Goat (Boer, Spanish, Angora)]
[15 Mouflon]
[Sheep (Medium Wool)]
[Horse (Quarterhorse, Overo, Tobiano, Thoroughbred, Arabian)]
[Sicilian Donkey]

[possibles: Yellow Warbler, Canyon Towhee]

Late additions in attempt to get 100 bird species
TX: Kerr County, Rio Vista
+ Corbicula fluminea

6 American Rubyspot
20 Smoky Rubyspot

10 Turkey Vulture
1 Red-shouldered Hawk
20 White-winged Dove
1 Mourning Dove
1 Eastern Phoebe
2 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Blue Jay (94)
1 Common Raven
30 Barn Swallow
1 Bewick’s Wren
1 Carolina Wren
3 Carolina Chickadee
[4 European Starling]
2 Yellow-throated Warbler
2 Northern Cardinal
7 Lark Sparrow
2 Bronzed Cowbird (95)
18 Great-tailed Grackle
12 [cf. Eastern] House Finch
[4 House Sparrow]

TX: Kerr County, Cade Loop
[Sheep (50 Painted Desert Sheep)]
[9 Blackbuck]
20 White-tailed Deer
[Horse (1 Overo)]

TX: Kerr County, Bear Creek, Indian Creek, Freedom Trail
[14 Emu]
1 Pied-billed Grebe (96)
[4 Mute Swan]
[1 Giant Canada Goose]
2 Wood Duck
2 Spotted Sandpiper
4 Red-winged Blackbird

4 Fox Squirrel
[1 Feral Cat]
[26 Addax]
[16 Gemsbok]
[2 Dama Gazelle]
]80 Blackbuck]
]2 Sika Deer]
40 White-tailed Deer
]30 Axis Deer]
[Sheep (4 Barbados Sheep)]
[Goat (30 Boer)]
[2 American Bison]
[Cattle )20 Black Baldy)]
[Horse (2 Palomino; 4 Overo; 1 Shetland; 1 Welsh Pony; 1 Arabian, 2 Quarterhorse]

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Monday, April 24, 2006

REV: The History Boys

Rivals for Young Hearts and Minds in Alan Bennett's 'History Boys'
By BEN BRANTLEY, The New York Times

The seats in the Broadhurst Theater are no softer or wider than the ones in most Broadway houses, where the penalty for playgoing is almost always fanny fatigue. Yet for the entire, substantial length of the "The History Boys," the madly enjoyable play by Alan Bennett that opened last night, you somehow feel nestled in a plump armchair that has been custom made for your body — a perch that you are reluctant to leave, even after more than two and a half hours of sitting.

The components that induce such unexpected comfort are not ergonomic but theatrical, and of a seductive polish that New York audiences have seldom experienced of late. Granted, the themes and situations of this comic drama, imported with its original cast from the National Theater in London, about a battle for the hearts and minds of schoolboys preparing for their university entrance exams are not of a kind to put American theatergoers at instant ease.

This is a work in which the most likable and, by the play's standards, most moral figure is an obese English teacher who regularly swats his students in class and fiddles (to use the euphemism of choice) with the more attractive of them after school. The play's central theme is the essence of that looming abstraction, history, and how it should be taught. Specifically British educational terms, slang and place names abound, as do quotations from Auden, Larkin, Hardy and Shakespeare. Why, there's even a long classroom scene conducted entirely in French.

Yet none of this is likely to occasion head-scratching for anyone who falls prey to the charm of "The History Boys," and that should be pretty much everyone. As staged by Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National, this production moves with a breezy narrative swagger that transcends cultural barriers.

Mr. Bennett may have serious things on his mind, but he and Mr. Hytner take a cue from the classic entertainers of the music hall: variety and timing are what hold a restless audience's attention. Musical numbers, video sequences, scholarly debates, the acting-out of vintage movie scenes, moments of shocking emotional nakedness and wry internal monologues travel cheek by jowl here, with a cast in which every member stands out as an individual worthy of attention. Then there is the lure of Mr. Bennett's dialogue, as shimmering and warming as a fine Cognac. As befits a play about precocious, irreverent students — a category to which the 71-year-old Mr. Bennett still seems, on some level, to belong — "The History Boys" is a bright brooder with a strong streak of the showoff.

A beloved and ubiquitous figure in Britain, where playwrights enjoy a celebrity unknown to their American counterparts, Mr. Bennett has never developed an equivalent following stateside. He is probably best known as a member of the pioneer satiric troupe Beyond the Fringe from the 1960's and more recently for his droll, sad "Talking Heads" monologues — portraits of the Eleanor Rigbys of the world venting obsessions and grievances. Much of his work, including the sex farce "Habeas Corpus," a West End hit that sputtered on Broadway in 1975, has been perceived here as obstructively English, in the manner of culinary concoctions like toad-in-the-hole.

"The History Boys" could well change that perception. Though its speech and immediate frame of reference are as local as ever, its appeal is far more elastic. There is, of course, the universally irresistible and frightening energy of adolescence, so expertly harnessed here. But the Western world has, for better or worse (and I know on which side Mr. Bennett would come down), become so much more homogeneous in the last several decades, with broad cultural concerns that translate into any language.

The big issue in "The History Boys" is the emphasis on presentation over substance — on the ascendancy of spin. At the play's center are two schoolmasters at a grammar school in the mid-1980's (read: age of Thatcher) in Northern England. Hector (Richard Griffiths), a 60-ish man of expansive size and eccentricities, believes in learning for its own sake, a defense against man's inevitable solitude.

The young, iconoclastic newcomer Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) — brought in to coach the brightest of the students on how to impress the examiners at Oxford and Cambridge — insists that in interpreting so-called facts, truth is beside the point. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction," he says. "It's a performance." Guess which of these men winds up working in government?

This opposition of sensibilities sets up the broad framework of "The History Boys." It also does not shy from embracing the conventional sentimentality of inspirational schoolteacher tales, sweet and somber, like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Browning Version" and the film "Dead Poets' Society." And as the boys' intellectual allegiances shift from Hector to Irwin, Mr. Bennett doesn't avoid excessive thematic tidiness or heartstring-pulling.

It's the idiosyncratic life that teems within this framework that makes "The History Boys" so captivating. This quirky, ineffably human vitality shows up most obviously in the classes presided over by Hector, where performing Rodgers and Hart and Piaf songs and improvising a rowdy dialogue in French set in a brothel are regular fare. But in these scenes, and in their mind-shaping counterparts led by Irwin, you're always aware of the complex emotional currents of doubt, perplexity and eroticism that throbs among practically everyone onstage.

The actors playing the students are, to a boy, superb, though you are especially likely to remember Dominic Cooper (as the cocky school Lothario) and Samuel Barnett (who plays the sensitive misfit and who naturally has a devastating crush on Mr. Cooper's character). Frances de la Tour, of the papyrus-dry delivery, is a withering joy as the most fact-bound of the teachers, even if the speeches Mr. Bennett has given her on the feminine perspective are a bit forced. As the narrow-minded, ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison comes closest to caricature. But in the context of a world in which authority figures are dartboards, the exaggeration works.

Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Campbell Moore brilliantly subvert the stereotypes their characters might fall into. They both affectingly channel the unease with life and essential loneliness that Mr. Bennett, in works from "Talking Heads" to "Single Spies" and "The Madness of George III," maps better than anyone these days. And each has a one-on-one scene with a student — Mr. Griffiths with Mr. Barnett and Mr. Campbell Moore with Mr. Cooper — that is as resonant with levels of meaning and ambivalence as anything Mr. Bennett has written.

Designed by Bob Crowley, with lighting by Mark Henderson, the show's physical production matches the fluency of its dialogue. There's never a patch of dead air. When you think about the show afterward, you may judge it occasionally guilty of some of the sins ascribed to Irwin, especially glibness at the expense of authenticity.

But while you are watching Mr. Bennett's boys of all ages, you're too enthralled to keep such critical notes in your head. That's because he so successfully adapts another dictum from Irwin. No matter what you do, Irwin counsels his exam-bound students, remember that history must be entertainment. Mr. Bennett, with less cynicism and more heart, applies the same rule to the teaching of history, with compellingly watchable results.

The History Boys
By Alan Bennett; directed by Nicholas Hytner; designer, Bob Crowley; lighting by Mark Henderson; music by Richard Sisson; video director, Ben Taylor; sound by Colin Pink; general management, 101 Productions Ltd.; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro; technical supervisor, David Benken. The National Theater of Great Britain. Presented by Boyett Ostar Productions, Roger Berlind, Debra Black, Eric Falkenstein, Roy Furman, Jam Theatricals, Stephanie P. McClelland, Judith Resnick, Scott Rudin, Jon Avnet/Ralph Guild and Dede Harris/Mort Swinsky. At the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, (212) 239-6200. Through Sept. 20. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

WITH: Sacha Dhawan (Akthar), Rudi Dharmalingam (Crowther), Dominic Cooper (Dakin), Andrew Knott (Lockwood), Samuel Barnett (Posner), Russell Tovey (Rudge), Jamie Parker (Scripps), James Corden (Timms), Clive Merrison (Headmaster), Frances de la Tour (Mrs. Lintott), Richard Griffiths (Hector), Stephen Campbell Moore (Irwin), Colin Haigh (TV Director) and Pamela Merrick (Makeup Lady).

Sunday, April 23, 2006

ATH: The Bigger Story

What Happened at Duke?
Sex. Race. A raucous party. A rape charge. And a prosecutor up for re-election. Inside the mystery that has roiled a campus and riveted the country.
By Susannah Meadows and Evan Thomas, Newsweek , May 1, 2006

Racial tension, class conflict and allegations of sexual violence are perfect ingredients for a media circus. On eBay last week, you could buy T shirts decorated with a cartoonish "South Park" character, posing as a Duke lacrosse player, crudely taunting the prosecutor: MIKE NIFONG S---- A--. On talk radio, Rush Limbaugh was speculating whether the Rev. Al Sharpton would arrive on the scene to play the Tawana Brawley card after, as Limbaugh put it, "the lacrosse team supposedly, you know, raped some, uh, hos." (Limbaugh later apologized for a "terrible slip of the tongue.") On cable TV, Jon Stewart was making fun of Geraldo Rivera for gravely and fatuously intoning, "It is not always the nuns that get raped. Sometimes it's the strippers that get raped."

Some people may find it funny. Except, of course, the case is no laughing matter to the young woman who suffered injuries that appear to be caused by a sexual assault. And to the family of Reade Seligmann, one of the two players indicted last week, the whole affair must seem like a grotesque nightmare. The 20-year-old Seligmann turned himself in to police at dawn to be handcuffed and charged with first-degree forcible rape, sexual offense and kidnapping. Less than 48 hours later, his lawyer was able to produce evidence that would seem to indicate it was virtually impossible that Seligmann committed the crime. Photos taken by a partygoer and viewed by NEWSWEEK show the alleged victim, an exotic dancer, ending a brief performance for the team at 12:03 a.m. Between 12:05 and 12:24 a.m., Seligmann dialed at least eight separate calls on his cell phone. A taxi driver said that he had picked up Seligmann and another friend, who were laughing and joking, at about 12:19, and took them to an ATM (where Seligmann swiped his card), to a fast-food restaurant and then to his dorm, where Seligmann swiped in at 12:46 a.m. In other words, it would seem Seligmann must have committed a sex crime in less than two minutes or while he was on the phone. Defense lawyers were broadly hinting that the second defendant, Collin Finnerty, had left the party before the dance even began. Both men's lawyers maintain their clients are innocent.

Nifong, the prosecutor, has indicated that he may still charge a third alleged rapist from among the 40-odd players who attended the party. Earlier DNA tests did not implicate any of the 46 members of the team (the one black player was not tested; the alleged victim, who is black, said her attackers were white men). But results from a second round of DNA tests are expected back this week, and defense lawyer Bill Thomas told NEWSWEEK that in the first round some DNA showed up under the woman's fingernails, though tests were inconclusive about identity. When the case first broke in the press, Nifong, a white man who is running for election in a racially mixed county, hinted to NEWSWEEK that blood and urine tests of the woman would reveal the presence of a date-rape drug. It appears from medical records that the woman was sexually abused, though the precise timing is unclear. The woman apparently told Nifong that she is "100 percent" sure of the identity of her assailants. But the aggressive lawyers defending the team were quick to point out that she was identifying them only from photos of the team, not from the usual police lineup including suspects as well as people unconnected to the case.

From the beginning, the case has provided a tawdry real-world blend of true crime, high life and low manners, for the likes of novelists John Grisham and Tom Wolfe. Raunchy rich kids. Town-gown conflict. Raw racial politics. A bedeviling forensic puzzle. But the denouement may be tragic for everyone involved, and the only sure outcome is the iron law of unintended consequences. The story has freakish turns, but it is also the product of a widespread college-age culture that proud parents do not wish to examine too closely: future Masters of the Universe who sometimes behave like thugs.

With its soaring Gothic chapel tower (the gift of a tobacco heir), Duke was the physical model for Dupont University in Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons"—an elite school vying with the Ivies for prestige and the best and brightest students. For decades those students were white and privileged, though in recent years Duke, like its competitors, has become more diverse.

Traditionally, the men's fraternities occupied choice dormitories fronting West Campus. Underage drinking was winked at. The frats held keggers on the lawn not far from the chapel. But beginning in the mid-'90s, the university administration began pushing the partying off campus, in part because of worries about legal liability.

The fun just moved to quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods near East Campus. The frats and athletic teams began renting houses. Neighbors were not thrilled to be awakened at 2 a.m. by loud rock music and drunken students throwing up in their yards. The Durham police, who do not look fondly on wealthy children's behaving like louts, began citing Duke students for minor nuisance crimes, such as holding open beer cans and public urination. In the winter of 2005, police arrived to break up a party of some 200 kids, and found girls in bikinis, inspired by the movie "Old School," wrestling in a tub filled with baby oil. Town-gown tension ratcheted up, so much so that the university recently bought up 12 houses that had been used for student parties, with the intention of selling them to professors and quieter homeowners.

One of those houses, at 610 North Buchanan Boulevard, was rented by three of the four captains of the Duke lacrosse team. Lacrosse players at Duke have generally excellent grades, almost always graduate and often find jobs waiting for them on Wall Street. But they have a reputation for swagger and rowdiness, according to The Chronicle, the student newspaper, which wrote last week, "Players frequently walk around with girls—sometimes called 'lacrosstitutes' by their peers—in tow," and have been known to kick in doors and urinate out windows. History professor Peter Wood, who often has lacrosse players in his course on Native Americans (who invented the game), complained that team members sometimes signed in to class and then walked out, without bothering to sit down.

Strutting lacrosse players are a distinctive and familiar breed on elite campuses along the Eastern Seaboard. Because the game until recently was played mostly at prep schools and in upper-middle-class communities on New York's Long Island and outside Baltimore, the players tend to be at once macho and entitled, a sometimes unfortunate combination. They can often be seen driving in SUVs with LAX decals, their dirty-white college ball caps turned around, a pinch of Skoal in their mouths.

The two players arrested last week fit the rich-kid stereotype, though they were praised by neighbors and teachers as exemplary young men. Seligmann's father works in finance; the family lives in a stately brick Georgian in Essex Fells, N.J., assessed at $1.35 million in 2005. Seligmann, who was recruited by Harvard and Princeton as well as Duke, was described by Essex Fells Mayor Ed Abbot as "in many ways a role model to all the boys." Finnerty's father is a Wall Street financier with a $2 million Dutch colonial next to the Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club and a $4.3 million summer home in West Hampton Beach, complete with motorboat and tennis court. Finnerty is said to be soft-spoken, a team player, reserved, even passive, though a bit of a wise guy. Last November, he and two high-school teammates were arrested for jumping and punching a pair of recent college grads on a street in Washington, D.C.'s preppy Georgetown, well after midnight. Finnerty and his mates had taunted their victims by calling them "gay." (Finnerty agreed to perform community service to avoid being formally charged. It is unclear if the rape arrest will affect that case.)

The antics of the lacrosse team had attracted the notice of administrators at Duke, both for raucous tailgating parties before football games and a high rate of campus misdemeanors, like public underage drinking (15 of the 47 players on the roster have been cited by police at some point in the last three years). The players on Duke's high-profile basketball team have tutors and minders and must attend study halls. The lacrosse players, like most other athletes at Duke, are by and large left alone. Still, university officials told the Duke lacrosse team's coach, Mike Pressler, that he needed to keep an eye on the off-field activities of his players. On the other hand, Pressler, who took his team to the finals of the national championships last year, was given a three-year contract. (Pressler, who declined to comment, resigned three weeks ago.)

The Duke lacrosse team was off to a good start this spring, ranked No. 2 in the nation, when the players decided to have a special evening on the night of March 13. The captains renting 610 North Buchanan hired a pair of strippers for $400 apiece from a local escort service. According to a Durham police affidavit, the lacrosse players misled the "exotic dancers," saying the party was for just a few track and baseball players. (One Durham escort service told news-week it does not like to provide dancers to student parties because they can get out of hand.) About 40 lacrosse players showed up; a photo taken at around 11 p.m. shows them happily partying.

According to a timeline put out by defense lawyers, one exotic dancer, Kim Roberts, 31, appeared on time, but another dancer, who was dropped off by a car, arrived a half hour late. (The woman is a 27-year-old single mother of two; NEWSWEEK, like most news organizations, does not identify alleged rape victims.) According to Roberts, who was interviewed last week by NEWSWEEK, the boys gave each of them mixed drinks. Roberts says she did not drink hers, but the other dancer did, knocking her cup over after finishing half her drink, then imbibing Roberts's.

Roberts said that she thought the other woman arrived sober. But when the two began their strip show around midnight, the other woman began having trouble. "She started stumbling," recalled Roberts. "When I think back on it, she had a glassy look in her eyes." Roberts says she "gave her a look that said, 'C'mon, girl, what's going on?' "—but got no response. The dance lasted about 10 minutes, according to Roberts; the defense lawyers say it lasted only about three minutes. (The women, who did not know each other, were supposed to put on a roughly two-hour show for the $800.)

All sides agree that one of the partygoers called out to the women asking if they had brought any sex toys. According to defense lawyers, there was some anatomically crude banter between one of the women and the audience, but then one of the boys, holding a broom handle, yelled out, "Use this!" That was enough for Roberts; she and the other woman ended the show. A photo taken at 12:03 shows the dancers turning away; the boys no longer look happy.

According to the defense timeline, the two women went into the bathroom—alone—and locked the door. For about 20 minutes, the defense lawyers say, the boys cajoled and pleaded with the women to come out, at one point slipping money under the door. Finally, the women emerged and went out to Roberts's car. In a photo taken at 12:30, the other woman is standing on the back stoop, carrying what looks like a purse and a makeup bag. She appears to be smiling. At 12:37, she can be seen lying on her side on the stoop; her ankle is bleeding, her elbow is scraped and two drops of blood appear on her thigh. At 12:41, a final photo shows the woman in the front seat of Roberts's car; one of the guys appears to be helping her in.

At some point, a next-door neighbor intermittently watching this scene unfold heard the woman say she forgot her shoe, and saw her walk back toward the house. The neighbor also heard heated words about money, possibly a dispute over pay. He also heard several boys milling around, saying, "Let's go."

The evening ended in recriminations. The defense lawyers say that Roberts mocked the boys' manhood; Roberts says the boys called her a "n-----." The neighbor heard one of the boys yell, "Hey b----, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt." Roberts called 911 and complained to police that some students at 610 North Buchanan were taunting her and her friend with racial epithets. She told NEWSWEEK that she yelled out at the boys, "I called the cops, you dumbasses."

The transcript of the 911 call makes it sound as though she and the other dancer were just passersby being racially insulted by students. "I was angry and I had to tell somebody," says Roberts. "I didn't want everyone to know I'm a dancer." During her interview with NEWSWEEK, she disputed the defense timeline, but she would not go on the record to be specific about the discrepancies.

At first, Roberts says she did not think the other dancer had been raped. She was mad at the other stripper, who was almost passed out in the car and not talking. Roberts said she had not collected all the money owed them for the dance, and she wondered if the other dancer was somehow hustling her. She drove to a local Kroger supermarket and told the security guard there that she had a woman in her car who could barely move. The police arrived and radioed back to the dispatcher that the woman was "passed-out drunk" but otherwise appeared unharmed.

Police logs show that the woman was taken to the Duke hospital at 2:31 a.m., after a stop at a substance-abuse center, and that she claimed she had been raped. She was examined by a sexual-assault nurse and likely given a battery of blood and urine tests. According to Nifong, a hospital report later showed that her injuries and emotional state were consistent with having been raped. According to a police affidavit, she later claimed she had been held down, beaten, strangled, and raped vaginally, anally and orally. She identified the first names of three men at the lacrosse party, but said the players were using different names at different times (none of the first names in the police affidavit match the first names of the two players indicted last week).

Police also questioned Roberts. It is not clear what she told them, or whether her statement to police matches her later statements to NEWSWEEK and other media outlets. Roberts did say that, within several days of the incident, she went to James D. (Butch) Williams, a prominent local attorney, to ask his advice. She says that from the outset Williams told her that he already represented one of the Duke players. Williams asked if she believed there had been a rape, and Roberts answered no. But when Williams tried to get her to sign an affidavit, she balked. She said she later became livid when she heard that Williams had shared her story with other attorneys. Seeing Williams's face appear on a TV during her interview with NEWSWEEK, she stood up and began punching the air in anger at him. "I feel like he preyed on my naiveté," she told NEWSWEEK. "I don't want someone to play me like I'm stupid."

Roberts says she changed her mind about whether the other woman had been raped. (She is careful to say that her version of events has not changed—just her opinion of what might have happened when the woman was out of her sight.) She was affected by news of the medical report. She had not noticed any swelling in the face of the other woman, but her lawyer told her that facial swelling often takes a couple of hours to show.

Roberts, who dropped out of UNC after she became pregnant and began exotic dancing only last year, may have had other motives to change her conclusion. On April 19, she e-mailed 5W Public Relations in New York, which represents the rapper Lil' Kim (the dancer says she is a huge fan of Lil' Kim's). The e-mail begins, "Hi! My name is Kim and I am involved in the Duke Lacrosse scandal." She goes on, "Although I am no celebrity and just an average citizen, I've found myself at the center of one of the biggest stories in the country. I'm worried about letting this opportunity pass me by without making the best of it and was wondering if you had any advice as to how to spin this to my advantage."

The PR agency released the e-mail to the press. According to the Associated Press, which interviewed Roberts, she "took umbrage at the notion that she should not try to make something out of her experience. She's worried that once her name and criminal record are public, no one will want to hire her. 'Why shouldn't I profit from it?' she asked. 'I didn't ask to be in this position ... I would like to feed my daughter'."

Court records obtained by AP and by NEWSWEEK show that Kim Roberts was on probation from a 2001 conviction for embezzling $25,000 from a photofinishing company where she worked, helping to keep payroll records. On March 22, eight days after the alleged rape, Kim spent two hours in jail for breaking the terms of her probation (she had left the state, her attorney says, to visit her sick father). She posted $25,000 bond and on March 30 found a lawyer, Mark Simeon.

Simeon is not a big-time lawyer. He handles mostly traffic violations and routine criminal matters in the Durham courts. But he is politically active—in 2002 he ran for district attorney and lost. He sees Roberts's case as an opportunity for him, too. "I will be there for her if and when she decides to pursue legal remedies on her own behalf," he says. And he wants to put together a team to represent the alleged rape victim in another civil suit, in order to, he says, "help make her whole." He has asked an associate to contact Willie E. Gary, a well-known Florida lawyer. Simeon told NEWSWEEK, "[My mother's] proud of seeing me on TV but she'd like to see that translated into something tangible. It's not so I can dress like a powerful lawyer. I've struggled since that last election."

Simeon has a relationship with prosecutor Nifong that may shed light on the D.A.'s handling of the case. Nifong was the protégé of Simeon's rival in the 2002 race for D.A. Simeon and Nifong did not get along, according to Simeon. But last year, Nifong's boss, Jim Hardin, was appointed to a judgeship, and Nifong was appointed to fill his place. Nifong's term is almost up, and in Durham, district attorney is an elected post. The voters go to the polls in one week, on May 2. One of Nifong's opponents is a lawyer named Freda Black, who was passed over for the D.A. job. Black is—or was, until the Duke case—better known around town than Nifong, largely because she won a conviction in a celebrated murder case. Nifong's other opponent is a lawyer with no prosecutorial experience named Keith Bishop. Nifong and Black are white; Bishop is African-American. Durham voters are about 40 percent black, so Nifong almost surely needs to win black votes to keep his job.

Shortly after Nifong decided to run, he began reaching out to Simeon. He went to an NAACP banquet and crossed the room to extend his hand in peace to Simeon. On March 28—the day after Nifong first spoke out in the Duke case, publicly chastising the players for not coming forward to volunteer information about the alleged rape—Simeon told Nifong he would support him. He invited Nifong to speak at his church, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist, and introduced him to the African-American congregation as a man who had always been a "good prosecutor," but who, Simeon said he had recently learned, was also a "good man."

That was on April 9. A week later Simeon asked Nifong to go to court to relieve Kim of the obligation of paying the bail-bond fees, arguing that she was no longer a "flight risk." Nifong agreed, as did the judge. Simeon told NEWSWEEK he went before the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a very influential group, and urged them to vote for Nifong. Simeon says he has also been giving Nifong fashion advice, telling him to lose the plaid shirts and to start wearing black suits, light shirts and power ties. Women like power, Simeon says he told Nifong.

After giving about 70 interviews when the case first broke in the press a month ago, Nifong is no longer saying much to reporters. Nor, it appears, is he doing much talking to lawyers for the defense. On April 13, Nifong met with three defense lawyers, Bill Thomas, Butch Williams and Wade Smith. According to Williams, when the lawyers got into exculpatory evidence, like the photos, Nifong essentially cut them off, saying that he knew much more about the case than they would ever know, and that he intended to indict two players.

On April 18, when the two players were arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping and more vaguely defined sexual offenses, Seligmann's lawyer, Kirk Osborn, went to Nifong's office to try to speak to him. "I thought, 'Surely he'll talk to me'," said Osborn, who has known Nifong for 25 years. But after Osborn had waited for 20 minutes, Nifong's assistant emerged with a message, according to Osborn: "Mr. Nifong says that he saw you on TV declaring your client totally innocent, so what is there to talk about?"

Nifong did not respond to NEWSWEEK's requests for comment. Durham lawyers interviewed by NEWSWEEK describe him as an experienced prosecutor who has tried more than 300 felony cases, including rape and murder. He is usually well prepared, not flashy, and he was regarded as forthcoming by defense lawyers. "There were no surprises with Mike," says Brian Aus, who has known Nifong for 21 years and tried murder cases against him.

Some lawyers wonder if Nifong did not get in a little over his head when the TV trucks began arriving in Durham. "There's some feeling that he jumped out too far and too fast with his public exposure about the case and his involvement," said Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University (where the alleged rape victim is enrolled). "He was vouching for how strong the case was, and he was obviously wounded when the DNA tests came back."

At the time, Nifong appeared defensive and made remarks that seemed outrageous to defense lawyers, like his suggestion "I would not be surprised if condoms were used." Nifong is up against a formidable defense team, a network of a dozen or so lawyers representing the lacrosse players. The families of the players can afford top legal talent, and the lawyers have moved quickly and shrewdly in the inevitable media wars. The latest example is a flap over the accuser's photo identifications.

Last week someone leaked a 15-page prosecutor's report detailing the way the accuser had identified her alleged assailants. She had been shown a PowerPoint presentation of the photos of 46 team members. According to numerous news accounts, the report says the woman was 100 percent certain that Reade Seligmann forced her to perform oral sex on him and that she was equally certain that Collin Finnerty raped and sodomized her. She was reported to be 90 percent certain that a third man, not named, was also involved in some unspecified way. (A source familiar with the prosecution's case told NEWSWEEK that the woman broke down and cried when she identified one of the two players indicted last week.)

The defense lawyers immediately seized on the fact that the prosecutor's lineup procedure was unorthodox, and argued that they would move to get it thrown out of court. Normally, rape victims choose from a lineup of a large number of photos, with the suspect mixed in with people known to be uninvolved. With no other option than lacrosse players, the lawyers are arguing, the alleged victim had no choice but to pick two or three of the players, or appear uncertain.

The intricate legal dance—and the media jamboree—is likely to drag on. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has predictably entered the fray, offering to pray with the victim and pay her college tuition. On the Internet, sports-equipment producers are reporting a sudden surge in sales of Duke lacrosse jerseys. At the university, some soul searching is underway. At a "Conversation on Campus Culture" inside the cavernous chapel, a Duke administrator, reading from a student blog, asked whether Duke is intentionally or unintentionally promoting "a culture of crassness at the expense of a culture of character." But attendance seemed sparse, with maybe 250 people present, relatively few of them students. "The median age of the audience as I look out is older than I'd hoped it would be," said Duke's president, Richard Brodhead. It is hard to know just how deep the culture of crassness runs at Duke, but one wonders after reading an e-mail sent from one of the lacrosse players' address an hour or so after the party. The author of the e-mail told his buddies he wanted to hire some strippers and skin them and kill them while he ejaculated in his "Duke-issue spandex." The e-mail was said by team members to be a joking reference to the movie "American Psycho."

Across town, at NCCU, the mostly black college where the alleged victim is enrolled, students seemed bitterly resigned to the players' beating the rap. "This is a race issue," said Candice Shaw, 20. "People at Duke have a lot of money on their side." Chan Hall, 22, said, "It's the same old story. Duke up, Central down." Hall said he wanted to see the Duke students prosecuted "whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past." (On a bulletin board in the student lounge was a long list of students with grades high enough to qualify for the Golden Key International Honour Society. On the list was the name of the alleged rape victim.)

At the Church of Apostolic Revival International, Bishop John Bennett worried about civil unrest "if people don't think the victim is treated fairly." He gestured outside his East Durham church to the hardscrabble neighborhood outside. "This area is the area they need to be praying about." As town and gown collide, this much is certain: amid the confusion, there is plenty of cause for prayer, from the fringes of Durham to the heart of Duke.

With Andrew Murr and Daren Briscoe in Durham, and Arian Campo-Flores, Andrew Romano and Steve Tuttle

Friday, April 21, 2006

COM: Blogarithmic #122

Some news from Cirque du Soleil:

More than a year ago, we proudly announced that Cirque du Soleil joined forces with Apple Corps Ltd. (The Beatles company) to create a show that would celebrate the musical legacy of The Beatles. Today, we are happy to announce that the show is called Love and tickets are now on sale! Preview performances begin June 2 at The Mirage in Las Vegas. The Gala Premiere will be held on June 30. The show evokes the love and exuberance that The Beatles inspired during their astonishing adventure together. The creators, cast and crew are hard at work in the theatre, in the final weeks of rehearsals. There is tremendous energy and excitement in the air! Click here to learn more.

Bird and butterfly lists from the latest El Cielo Biosphere Festival are here (birds) and here (leps). My great-grandfather and grandparents once own this place. The list includes a rather stunning record of a Solitary Eagle. More info on the festivals is here.

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If you are able please donate to this worthy cause here

ENV: Sick Beluga

Hopes high sick beluga gets well soon
Aquarium takes Gasper off exhibit for topflight treatment
By Peggy Mihelich,

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Each day, thousands of visitors press up against the acrylic glass at the Georgia Aquarium to watch a playful beluga whale named Gasper. Gasper takes center-stage at the viewing window, blowing bubbles and making faces at wide-eyed children who coo and laugh at him and his tank mates -- Nico, Natasha, Maris and Marina.

But for the past week the front of the window has been noticeably empty.

The 17-year-old male beluga whale is being held in a tank next to the main beluga whale exhibit, out of public view, so veterinary staff can attend to his suppressed appetite, raspy breathing and chronic skin disorder.

On Tuesday he showed signs of returning to his normal self. He'd had a good afternoon feeding and was up to his old "bubble trick."

"He's starting to feel better. So we're pleased about that, but cautiously optimistic -- the healing process takes a long time," said Eric Gaglione, the aquarium's husbandry manager, shortly after feeding Gasper.

Gasper has not been especially healthy since arriving at the aquarium in October 2005. He came to Georgia from Mexico underweight and with skin lesions on his fin, tail and body. Gasper and Nico were on display at the LeFeria de Chapultepec amusement park in Mexico City, in a tank surrounded by a rollercoaster.

'Canary of the sea'
Beluga whales are warm-blooded mammals that live in Arctic waters -- swimming among icebergs and ice floes and eating a wide variety of fish. They are called the "canaries of the sea" because of their vocalizing -- in belches, squeaks and whistles.

Estimates put the world's beluga population between 50,000 to 70,000 animals, according to, an online volunteer organization of marine students and biologists. Belugas are not endangered but overhunting and pollution has reduced their populations -- most notably in Canada's St. Lawrence Estuary.

The average beluga can grow to 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters) and weigh around 3,330 pounds (1,500 kilograms).

Their characteristic white skin, bulbous melon head and playful antics make them a top draw for aquariums.

Seven aquariums across the nation house over 30 belugas, according to the Georgia Aquarium's director of husbandry, Tim Binder.

Belugas are very curious and can be trained to perform simple tricks -- for example, the belugas in Atlanta spin around, tail walk and vocalize when prompted by a whistle or hand gesture.

Belugas often make facial expressions at people -- but it's not clear whether they do this for our amusement or their own.

The staff describes Gasper as playful and easy-going -- a very different disposition from his behavior at the amusement park.

In Mexico, "he did not interact with people at all. He did not show any interest in his caregivers except for at feeding time. Since he's been here, and we've been able to work with him . . . we're seeing him come out of his shell," Binder said.

For Josh Ford, an aquarium docent who conducts informational sessions in front of the beluga exhibit, Gasper is the star of the show.

"No animal connects so personally with children than Gasper," he said.

"Gasper always stays right near the window. He'll occasionally bump the glass with his melon, the big part of his head, right where children are," said Ford. "Kids show a lot of concern for him because they can see from the other whales he's not doing so well."

Mysterious skin condition
Although experts don't know for sure what is causing Gasper's skin to blister, the staff thinks the stress in Mexico of having a rollercoaster pounding overhead may have suppressed his immune system, allowing a pathogen to enter his body.

"Where did he get the lesions? That's the question . . . we're tying to figure out," said Dr. Howard Krum, the aquarium's manager of veterinary services.

For treatment, a special waterproof ointment has had great results. Made from vitamin E and with antibiotic capabilities, "Tricide" was initially developed by the University of Georgia to treat burns.

With regular application "we noticed, early on, rapid healing on his pectoral flipper," Binder said.

Since his arrival in October of 2005, Gasper has packed on more than 200 pounds.

"A beluga whale Gasper's age and size should be consuming around 24,000 to 30,000 calories a day. He's been eating 38,000 to 40,000 calories a day. That's in a effort to overcome the weight deficit when he arrived," Binder explained.

But last week he stopped eating and dropped about 20 pounds.

"We thought at first he just wasn't hungry," he said. But the lack of appetite compounded by his skin condition was reason enough to take him off exhibit for closer observation. A medical checkup detected a possible respiratory problem.

Get well soon
"We started hearing some sounds in his lungs, some raspiness in his breathing and that's something we typically don't hear in animals of this nature. We're not quite sure what it means at this point -- it's not severe but it's there," Binder said.

A two-hour medical exam on Tuesday included a blood test, blowhole swab, lesion treatment, and the use of ultrasound to probe his heart and lungs.

"We got a very clear picture of the heart today, which looked very clean."

Jeff Swanagan, executive director of the Georgia Aquarium, gets daily updates on his condition and is making sure the staff has all the resources they need.

"We've reached out to Mystic, Baltimore, Shedd and SeaWorld, facilities that have beluga whales, to talk to their medical staff to seek their advice," Swanagan said.

Gasper's condition remains guarded and there are no plans as yet to place him back in the main tank.

"We'll want to see Gasper eating a stable diet for a number of days in a row before we put him back on exhibit," Binder said.

Until then, the children have a message for him: Get well soon.

"I had yesterday, a school group present me with a big card with signatures, " Swanagan said. "And they all gathered around me and said a prayer for Gasper."

LIT: Not Losing Language

Two Literary Festivals Will Highlight Endangered Languages
By DINITIA SMITH, The New York Times

SOME 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. And, according to the 2000 census, you can hear at least 92 of them on the streets of New York. You can probably hear more; the census lumps some of them together simply as "other."

But by the end of the century, linguists predict, half of the world's languages will be dead, victims of globalization. English is the major culprit, slowly extinguishing the other tongues that lie in its path. Esther Allen, a professor of modern languages at Seton Hall University, calls English "the most invasive linguistic species in the world." Spanish and Hindi are also spreading, subsuming the dialects of South American Indians, and of the Indian subcontinent.

In the next two weeks, however, some of these endangered idioms can be heard at two international literary festivals that celebrate languages big and small, as well as the power and resilience of words themselves. The festivals are taking place all over town, in places as diverse as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New York Public Library, the Bowery Poetry Club and the United Nations.

The PEN American Center is holding its second World Voices Festival of International Literature, beginning Tuesday and running through April 30. Ms. Allen is the curator of the gathering, and the novelist Salman Rushdie is its chairman as well as a participant in a discussion at Town Hall on Wednesday night called "Faith and Reason" — the festival theme — with 134 writers from 41 countries around the world.

Among the 58 events is a panel, "Writers on Their Languages," with the novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga, who writes in the endangered language of Euskera, or Basque, and Dubravka Ugresic, whose most recent novel is "The Ministry of Pain," and who writes in Croatian. Other writers scheduled to participate include Orhan Pamuk, from Turkey, E. L. Doctorow and Martin Amis.

Then there is the People's Poetry Gathering, from May 3 through May 7, sponsored by City Lore and the Bowery Poetry Club. There will be some 60 poets reading their work in English and in their native tongues. Among the highlights is a performance of poetry and music by Kewulay Kamara, whom City Lore commissioned to return to his boyhood home in Dankawali, Sierra Leone, in 2004 to recreate an epic poem destroyed during the recent civil war. The story goes back to before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and incorporates slavery and colonialism in West Africa.

There will also be a reading by Robert Bly of some of his translations and his own poetry, and a program on endangered languages at the United Nations, co-sponsored by the United Nations SRC Society of Writers, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

American publishers have one of the lowest translation rates in the Western world, according to Andrew Grabois, a consultant for Bowker, which tracks the publishing business. Only 3 percent of books published in the United States are translations (4,114 in 2005), Mr. Grabois said, compared with, for example, 27 percent in Italy. As a result, linguists contend, much of the English-speaking world knows little of other countries and cultures.

English may be eating up other languages, but paradoxically translation into English is vital for their survival, Mr. Rushdie said. "People are not going to learn Serbian," he said. "If Serbian writers are going to survive in the world, they will have to be translated into English."

Ms. Allen said, "The whole point of this festival is inviting these people from outside English into the conversation, and making a place for them in English."

Among those invited to the Poetry Gathering is Mr. Kamara, of Sierra Leone. Mr. Kamara's native language is Kuranko, part of the Manden language group in West Africa. Mr. Kamara's father, Assan Fina Kamara, was a farmer and teacher of Koranic studies. The Kamaras are members of the Fina caste: orators, or M.C.'s, who recite at ceremonies like weddings and funerals. The younger Mr. Kamara came to the United States when he was 18. Now 52, he teaches in the African-American Studies department at John Jay College. His epic poem "Voices of Kings" tells of the origins of the Fina caste. One part relates the story of how the Prophet Muhammad rewarded an old couple for feeding him when he was hungry:

The old man returned to manhood

The old woman returned to womanhood

The child they bore

They called Fisana

Muhammad names Fisana and his Fina descendants, "the voices of faith."

The epic has many parts, and recitation can continue for hours, even days, Mr. Kamara said. He has also interwoven it with his own story.

"It's not linear, you can start anywhere," he said. So far he has written down about 100 pages. Mr. Kamara and Abdoulaye Diabate will sing and recite "Voices of Kings" at the Poetry Gathering accompanied by African instruments, the bala (a precursor to the xylophone), tama (talking drum), flute and horn.

Another endangered language being highlighted in both the Poetry Gathering and the PEN festival is Euskera, or Basque. Mr. Atxaga, the Basque writer, wrote in an e-mail message from Spain that he is fighting to preserve Euskera because it is "a language we know well, it helps us to live."

And, he said, there are the layers of subtleties and precisions that are lost when a language dies.

In the Basque language, for instance, gender exists only in the second person. "If you're speaking to a woman to ask her, for example, whether she has a book, you say 'Ba dun libururik,' " Mr. Atxaga said. "Whereas, to a man you'd say 'Ba duk libururik.' That nuance of 'n' or 'k' can be important in telling a story. Details are always important in literature."

Yet Mr. Atxaga said he disagrees with the idea that language gives insights into a people's consciousness and culture. "Presumably, a national epic can be translated," he said.

"All you need to do is read the thinking of the Nazis," he said. To them, "the German language was unique and carried with it a singular concept of the world and life, revealing the essence of the German people," he said. "This quickly reached absurd extremes."

Ms. Ugresic noted that the same thing has occurred in the former Yugoslavia, where language has become intensely politicized. Serbo-Croatian has broken up into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, all of them very similar but with speakers of each language claiming — sometimes violently — the supremacy of their own. Beatings and book burnings have occurred when one group objected to the language of the author. "Crazy linguists are ready to project many things into languages," she said by phone from Amsterdam, where she lives. She added that languages are always in a continuous state of transformation, and that to try and get in the way is useless.

"Some languages are dying and some are appearing," she said. "That is a much deeper and more interesting dynamic."

Maybe, Ms. Ugresic said, the new language of globalization will be "Smurfentaal," a kind of slang with bits of Dutch and other languages, among them Moroccan, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish, spoken by young people on the streets of Amsterdam.

"Every honest linguist will tell you the preservation of language is a lost battle," Ms. Ugresic said, "because you can't deal with language dogmatically. Language is a living thing.

"So let it go."

REV: Earnest Importance

'Importance of Being Earnest': Cucumber Sandwiches and Polite Society on a Skewer

A cordial acquaintance with Oscar Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest" should probably be a prerequisite for participation in polite society. It is, perhaps, an even greater cultural asset for those seeking entree into the impolite kind.

New Yorkers who have not yet had the pleasure should therefore pay a visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where a perfectly respectable production of Wilde's masterwork from 1895, directed by the venerable Peter Hall and featuring Lynn Redgrave as the peerlessly imperious Lady Bracknell, opened Wednesday night at the Harvey Theater.

On the other hand, for those whose familiarity with the play already extends to the friendly, or even the intimate, respectability may not be a sufficient inducement. In the subversive comic universe created by Wilde, after all, an imputation of propriety — perfect or otherwise — is not really the highest praise.

Which is all a strenuously Wildean way of saying that Sir Peter's new staging of this decorously radical comedy is satisfactory, but something short of brilliant. A production of the Theater Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company, it was first presented in January in Los Angeles and has toured to several other American cities. Blandly, if prettily designed by Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon, it seems intended to function in a variety of milieus, with fine detail sometimes sacrificed in favor of the broad stroke. As a result the play works effectively here as a romantic farce but more erratically as a vehicle for Wilde's paradox-perfumed wit.

The first act must be borne aloft on language alone, as the tracks are laid for the advancement of the deliciously ornate plot. At the Harvey these early passages remain stubbornly earthbound, while Robert Petkoff, as the splendidly idle Algernon Moncrieff, and James Waterston, as the equally unoccupied Jack Worthing, exchange baroque banter over cucumber sandwiches. Even the arrival of Ms. Redgrave's unusually vigorous Lady Bracknell, accompanied by Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Bianca Amato), Jack's beloved, causes little more than a blip on the play's comic barometer.

The actors tend to treat the language more casually than is ideal, as if the substance of Wilde's humor and the style of its delivery were not intimately related. The paradoxical jokes are imparted clearly enough, but often without the dry delicacy that gilds them so pleasingly. These are priceless morsels being served on everyday china.

The slight strain in some of the performances may derive in part from the production's awkward fit in the Harvey Theater. It has obviously been designed for proscenium stages, and the Harvey's proscenium is divided from the front-row seats by a semicircular space usually used for performing. Some lawn-chair-style seating has been deployed to fill in the gap, but there is still an unhappy distance between the actors and most of the audience.

Things improve considerably in the second and third acts, as the story of assumed names, mistaken lovers, resurrected brothers and the secret history of a handbag begins to assert its preposterous enchantment. The perfection of Wilde's plotting comfortably cushions any infelicities in the performances.

Mr. Petkoff comes into his own in the love scene between Algernon and Cecily Cardew (a charming Charlotte Parry), Jack's innocently sophisticated ward. This duet is played at the right pitch of puffed-up emotionalism, the melodramatic ardor softened by the characters' implacable refinement.

The dainty hostilities between Cecily and Gwendolen, who purr like kittens before baring claws when they mistakenly assume they have become engaged to the same young man, is played with a crowd-pleasing ripeness.

Maneuvering her stout form like a miniature battleship, Miriam Margolyes is formidable and robustly funny as Cecily's gently censorious governess, the fatefully forgetful Miss Prism. And by the time Jack arrives, resplendent in mourning for an imaginary brother whom he will soon be facing in the flesh, the production is on firm comic ground, prepared to roll briskly to its blissful conclusion.

The long-awaited return of Lady Bracknell in the third act always kicks the play into a higher gear, and it is higher than usual here because of Ms. Redgrave's energetic presence. Actresses undertaking this celebrated role often labor in vain to escape the influence of Dame Edith Evans, whose fluting splendor in the 1952 movie by Anthony Asquith is perilously close to definitive.

To her credit Ms. Redgrave molds her Lady Bracknell along entirely different lines, presenting her not as a monstrous abstraction of a respectable English gentlewoman but as a distinctly earthy figure, a woman constructed not just of rococo syntax and ironclad attitudes but of flesh and bones too.

Storming the stage with her skirts in a lather, sharply peering through her eyeglasses and flinging her cape about for emphasis when necessary, Ms. Redgrave's Lady Bracknell exudes determined energy as she manipulates young Gwendolen out of Jack's arms, and Algernon out of Cecily's, before restoring the couples' happy equilibrium when the last of the play's complications has been uncomplicated.

Ms. Redgrave's Lady Bracknell is, in short, slightly tinged with vulgarity. (Gasp!) This is indeed a radical departure for a character who is, on paper, genteel to the point of absurdity, if not insanity. But in Ms. Redgrave's capable hands it brings its own comic rewards.

The Importance of Being Earnest

By Oscar Wilde; directed by Sir Peter Hall; Theater Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company. Producer, Danny Moar for Theater Royal Bath; associate director and producer, Trish Rigdon; production design by Kevin Rigdon and Ms. Rigdon; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, John McNamara; company manager and assistant stage manager, Brian J. L'Ecuyer. Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; William I. Campbell, vice chairman; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, (718) 636-4100. Through May 14. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

WITH: Lynn Redgrave (Lady Bracknell), James A. Stephens (Lane), Robert Petkoff (Algernon Moncrieff), James Waterston (Jack Worthing), Bianca Amato (Gwendolen Fairfax), Miriam Margolyes (Miss Prism), Charlotte Parry (Cecily Cardew), Terence Rigby (the Rev. Canon Chasuble), Geddeth Smith (Merriman) and Greg Felden (Footman).

REV: ThreepenNY Opera

'Threepenny Opera' Brings Renewed Decadence to Studio 54
By BEN BRANTLEY, The New York Times

AND you thought those crazy, hazy nights when Studio 54 sizzled were strictly a thing of the past. Think again, disco boys and girls. Why right now — on the very spot where Halston, Liza, Bianca and Andy once held sybaritic court — you can watch the same kinds of revels they might have witnessed in the 1970's, thanks to the shrill, numbing revival of "The Threepenny Opera" that opened at the theater at Studio 54 last night.

Cross-dressed men and women in writhing sexual pretzels; leather boys and glitter queens vacuuming up piles of snow with their nostrils; strobe lights, neon lights and, yes, disco-ball lights. There's even a bare-chested hunk in a gold lamé bathing suit who arrives on a flying golden horse, summoning sweet memories of that fab birthday party for Bianca. (Or was it Liz?) All of this is once again on tap via the Roundabout Theater Company.

There's one big difference: nobody in the current incarnation of those days of swine and poses seems to be having any fun. This is one party where the hangover begins almost as soon as the evening does.

Almost two and a half years after the Roundabout's canny cash cow of a revival of "Cabaret" closed at Studio 54 (after more than five years in residence), the company is again inviting theatergoers to come to the cabaret, old chum. This time the occasion is Scott Elliott's production of the 1928 show that made musicals like "Cabaret" and "Chicago" possible: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera" is the granddaddy of all the singing, stinging portraits of fat societies on their eves of destruction.

Mr. Elliott has even recruited one of the stars of the Roundabout "Cabaret," Alan Cumming, who won a Tony playing the ghoulish M.C. in the Kander-Ebb musical and who here portrays the murdering, whoring, stealing Macheath (Mac the Knife), the prince of thieves in stinking, corrupt London. But while it raises the kink quotient even higher than "Cabaret" did, this production has nothing like the same sustained point of view that might hook and hypnotize audiences. With Mr. Elliott overseeing a cast jam-packed with misused talent (including the pop stars Cyndi Lauper and Nellie McKay), this "Threepenny" takes Brecht's notion of the theater of alienation to new self-defeating extremes.

Created in the era in which "Cabaret" was set, "The Threepenny Opera" remains the most famous and popular example of what Brecht called "epic theater." Inspired by John Gay's rollicking "Beggar's Opera" (1728), "Threepenny" translated the tale of the villainous but irresistible Macheath and his marauders into the age of Queen Victoria. But the show's real satiric targets were the middle classes of poverty-crippled, rudderless Germany in the 1920's.

Using deliberately artificial techniques — painted signs, scene-setting titles, spoken asides and musical-hall songs that often had little to do with the immediate plot — the play was designed to sustain an intellectual distance, to allow audiences to see their own reflections in vicious thugs, whores, beggars and policemen motivated by the same primal needs and instincts as themselves. The music, Brecht wrote, was meant to become "an active collaborator in the stripping bare of the middle-class corpus of ideas."

An immediate, scandalous hit in Europe, "Threepenny" failed to generate the same frissons when it first arrived in New York in 1933. Writing of its Broadway premiere in The New York Times, Lewis Nichols described it as "a gently mad evening in the theater for those who like their spades in the usual nomenclature of the earnest." It wasn't until the fabled Off Broadway revival at the Theater de Lys in 1954 — with Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, as the prostitute Jenny — that "Threepenny" achieved popular success in Manhattan.

That production used a translation by Marc Blitzstein that is probably still the best-known English version but is regarded by purists as a softened and sanitized interpretation. Certainly no such complaints can be lodged against the new translation by the playwright Wallace Shawn, whose rendering is both more densely lyrical (with some cumbersome poetic tropes in the songs) and explicitly obscene than any I know. This is a show that doesn't hesitate to call sexual organs and acts by their most common names, loudly and repeatedly.

In the same spirit Mr. Elliott has chosen to make full use of a freedom from censorship that Brecht could only have envied. So in this version Macheath's love interests include not only the usual component of female whores (most notably Ms. Lauper as Jenny), but also their male counterparts.

Macheath again finds himself torn between two brides: the demi-virginal Polly Peachum (Ms. McKay) and Lucy Brown (Brian Charles Rooney). But in this case Lucy is a man, who makes a point of showing the audience exactly what lies beneath his skirt. Macheath's friendship with Tiger Brown (Christopher Innvar), Lucy's father and the chief of police, is of the crotch-grabbing, kissing kind. And for a copulatory free-for-all brothel sequence, the participants' underwear glows luridly beneath a black light. (Jason Lyons did the lighting, which allows for Brechtian signage to be writ in neon and L.C.D. supertitles.)

Isaac Mizrahi created the costumes here, in a smorgasbord of salacious styles, from a cleavage-flashing Chanel-style suit to the "Blue Angel"-style chanteuse get-ups worn by Ms. Lauper. Most of the clothes, plucked from racks on Derek McLane's naked it's-only-a-play set, suggest that their wearers have just come from frolicking in the back room of a leather bar. This includes Mr. Cumming's Macheath, who trades in the character's usual gentlemanly suit and bowler for a punkish ensemble and a Mohawk.

The performances are just as widely varied and as bereft of character-defining purpose. Everything seems done for isolated shock effect, without any regard to how one stylistic component might relate to another, so it's impossible to intuit exactly what society is being skewered.

Looking like Dietrich and sounding like a Brooklyn Piaf, Ms. Lauper delivers Jenny's ballads with teary, soulful intensity. She also leads, in Lenya-like style, the show's famous prologue, "Song of the Extraordinary Crimes of Mac the Knife." That marvelous trouper Jim Dale plays Mr. Peachum, Polly's father and the head of a vast network of beggars, in the seedy music-hall style of Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer." As his wife, Ana Gasteyer talks like a shrill Scarsdale matron and sings penetratingly in a voice of a hundred trumpets.

Mr. Cumming brings much conviction and agony to Macheath's songs of the oppressed in the prison and hanging scenes. But there's little sense of the menacing charisma that keeps all of London atremble.

Ms. McKay, the inventive and seriously talented young singer-songwriter ("Get Away From Me"), comes closest to achieving a Brechtian effect. Clad in trailing pre-Raphaelite bridal white, her Polly speaks and sings with a flat, deadpan sincerity that suggests sugary blandness can accommodate a multitude of sins. It's a brave, carefully thought-out performance, though its willful affectlessness means that songs like "Pirate Jenny" (restored to Polly here, as in the original version) have no chance of being showstoppers.

The only songs delivered at full throttle are those that tell the audience members how rotten they are: "Certain Things Make Our Life Impossible," "How Do Humans Live?," "Cry From the Grave." But in presenting Brecht's lowlifes as exotic, feckless party animals instead of as pseudo-bourgeois materialists, Mr. Elliott keeps these characters at more of a distance from us than Brecht surely ever intended. Their censoriousness registers as just a random dip in a pharmaceutically induced roller coaster of moods. Another line of cocaine or two, and these hedonists will forget all about the poor and hungry.

The Threepenny Opera

By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In a new translation by Wallace Shawn, based on Elisabeth Hauptmann's German translation of John Gay's "Beggar's Opera." Directed by Scott Elliott; music director, Kevin Stites; choreographed by Aszure Barton. Sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Isaac Mizrahi; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Ken Travis; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; original orchestrations, Mr. Weill; music coordinator, John Miller; production stage manger, Peter Hanson; technical supervisor, Steve Beers; general manager, Sydney Beers; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, (212) 719-1300. Through June 18. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

WITH: Alan Cumming (Macheath), Jim Dale (Mr. Peachum), Ana Gasteyer (Mrs. Peachum), Cyndi Lauper (Jenny), Nellie McKay (Polly Peachum), Christopher Innvar (Tiger Brown), Carlos Leon (Filch) and Brian Charles Rooney (Lucy Brown).