The New (Karen) Black

Karen Black“Time eez vaiting in de vings!” a stentorian voice booms through the telephone receiver.

This is what happens if one reveals the least bit of incredulity to critically-lauded cult actress Karen Black when told she performs David Bowie’s “Time” as a German torch singer. The moment – though awkward – convinces, and stands as a preview of sorts to the myriad other characters and tunes Black performs in her one-woman show, A View of the Heart, at Mill Valley’s 142 Throckmorton Theatre.

Black made her name in such seminal 60s and 70s films Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces (which garnered an Oscar nod for “best supporting actress”). Sometime in the midst of her career, however, Black became anointed with the mantle “cult actress” thanks, in part, to the stream of art-house and horror flicks that dot her resume like so many droplets of fake blood. Her cult-status was sanctified when a goth band adopted the cheeky name The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black in tribute to the actress.

Try Netflix for Free!Throughout her career, however, Black has remained sanguine about the choices she’s made and only very rarely permits doubt, let alone fear, enter her consciousness – unless she is about to go onstage.

“I think it’s the pretty much the scariest thing I’m involved with in my life,” says Black about her show during a recent phone interview. “In fact, I don’t experience fear that much, but it certainly is scary doing a one-woman show. I have a great time once I get onstage. It’s really a wonderful and amazing experience.”

In A View of the Heart, Black portrays several characters, running the gamut from a poor African-American woman from the Mississippi Delta to a would-be wealthy divorcee. Interspersed are “stand-up” readings from American literary luminaries such as Catherine Ann Porter and William Faulkner.

Black shaped the production over a decade ago with director Toni Basil, who sought to harness the actress’s versatility as a singer. The duo sifted through 500 songs before alighting on what would become the production’s soundtrack, culled from the songbooks of, among others, Rodgers & Hart, Bessie Smith and Kris Kristofferson. Black also performs her own original material as a well as, of course, a David Bowie tune.

Black first brought her show to the Bay Area in 1995 as part of San Francisco’s Solo Mio Festival. Reviews were generally positive (Chronicle critic Steven Winn wrote in 1995, “It’s compelling and a little scary to hear Black go for broke over and over in her hourlong show.”) and the show was remounted a year later at the Plush Room.

“It’s changed. I think there’s a little bit more contiguity, a re-viewing of certain concepts of loneliness or isolation,” says Black of the show’s intervening evolution. “In the end, it looks into lives of these people. There is a kind of camaraderie with the audience, it’s almost as if they are onstage with me. It’s just these little glimpses into these lives. They’re real people who are in their lives and sing a song for you. It’s a good theatrical piece in many ways.”

Her forays onto the floorboards notwithstanding, Black remains busy as a film actress and has appeared in a slew of independent films in recent years (including San Francisco director Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s Technolust with Tilda Swinton) and she still occasionally turns up in studio-produced fright-fare like rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses. Black also has been developing her own projects as a writer-director and is currently rehearsing a play in Los Angeles that she wrote herself.

“What is being communicated is very different onstage from the screen,” says Black about her present career paths. “The emphasis of the words, the sound of the words, the emotion and interaction is all. Whereas on film, it’s so visual, that could never be all.”

Though Black says she doesn’t prefer the stage over the screen, she does allow that the immediacy of a theatrical audience provides emotional opportunities for the performer that films often do not.

“Onstage, the audience has more of a personality and you feel a real emotional attraction. In the past, there were some songs in the show where we wept together. There were women eating their fantail shrimp at a table underneath my foot and we were kind of crying together. On the other hand, I guess I always feel softly in communication with everyone.”

When it is suggested that the need to communicate might be the impetus for one to become a performer, Black finds the observation facile and says plainly “I don’t think anyone knows why they’re doing it. But I think communication is the most important single concept in our lives.”

Black takes a moment to weigh her words.

“Do I think that?” she asks herself rhetorically. “No. I think affinity is the most important – I’m for affinity. I think that’s central. Affinity, empathy, I think that’s really central. I think that devoting your life to an aspect of communication is, to me, the most honorable and finest thing you can do with your life.”

The pronouncement comes, as Black explains after a moment, “in response to all this doggerel, that artists are weird or strange,” she says. “Artists are smart. They enjoy their lives, they love what they do and they’re devoted to tomorrow. I don’t know if the plumber is, I don’t know if the lady in the bank is.”

We can assume Karen Black is.

A View of the Heart plays at 8 p.m., November 30 and December 7 – 10 and at 5 p.m. December 11. Receptions follow some shows. Tickets: Preview Show $35 General $60 Show & Reception, Other Shows $25 General $20 Students/Seniors, A limited number of $60 reception tickets are available for selected nights.

For more information, go to or call (415) 383-9600.

Ledson Hotel

“Dining-out is a vice, a dissipation of spirit punished by remorse,” British critic Cyril Connolly once wrote.

Sadly, the man never had the opportunity to dine at the Ledson Hotel where his fellow countryman chef Darren Robey has created a splendid wintry menu that evades the facile gags about English cooking by borrowing heavily from the Italian. Squisito!

Consider this – for an appetizer I had a plate that looked as if it were the greatest hits of an Italian delicatessen: proscuitto, coppa, salami, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, gorgonzola dolce, olives and delicate, thin herbed breadsticks that at first glance looked like chopsticks. Now, if you’re anything like me, a born picker who was inclined as a child to wear olives on my fingertips and preferred the savory contents of gift baskets to proper meals, you will be very pleased. My only issue was that I had to fight the compulsion to eat the appetizer with my hands as if I was trawling some order of personal buffet. This restraint was lost on my companion whose reach toward my plate was met with breadstick rapped against her knuckles. When not poaching coppa, my companion enjoyed what she described as a “fresh and vibrant” seafood appetizer comprised of “sushi grade” ahi with ponzu and seaweed salad, wild king salmon with dijon mustard and cornichons, red snapper with chili, lime and cilantro

Interestingly, Robey continues a trend I’ve recently noted: the resuscitation of butter lettuce as a viable salad base. To coin a phrase, the reign of romaine has waned. The Ledson gussies up the waxy leaves with pears, Pt. Reyes bleu cheese and candied walnuts under a faint drizzle of d’Anjou pear vinaigrette.

Entrees culled from a winter menu of the “cuddle up by the fire” variety, perhaps atop a sheepskin rug and likely with someone you love in the midst of one of those “those were the days” conversations. An example is the pumpkin gnocchi, pillows of gourd-infused pasta floating in a roiling sea of red wine shallot broth, strewn with kale and a snowdrift of parmesan reggiano. The dish was presented as a sort of hearty, post-autumnal soup, which did well to invoke the season. Likewise, the ribeye steak, served boneless and bedecked by gratin of potatoes and five lilies (admittedly, I never figured out the lily part), Bloomsdale spinach, and a brawny three-peppercorn sauce makes for a soul-warming entrée. The sauce was especially savory — a rich reduction stoked by red, black and white peppers that I continued lapping up long after I had devoured the steak. That said, it was summarily trumped by the sumptuous osso buco, a veal shank marvelously braised and served with the marrowbone intact. The beef was as tender as a kiss from your Nonna and the accompanying cassoulet (a side that has become rather vogue this season) was like donning one’s favorite pajamas. The dish is completed with broccoli rabe and gremolata (minced parsley, lemon peel and garlic). On rainy days, I recommend the Ledson serve the osso bucco to its hotel guests in bed. They would never want to leave.

Despite its opulent trappings (the décor matches the tableware), the Ledson was moderately priced for such high caliber of dining (entrees were $20 to $30) and portions were quite filling: the apple raisin spice cake (served with cinnamon gelato and apple caramel sauce) may finish you before you finish it.

Wings and Thighs

Lara Phillips in The AviaryAh, Thanksgiving. If your bird lacks a few Michelin stars, put your tray in the upright and locked position and proceed to The Aviary, pals Abe Levy and Silver Tree’s film about flight attendants, which I had the pleasure of co-producing last year. The flick, available on DVD, received a four-star review from Boho colleague David Templeton on today’s edition of Kudos to all! Happy Thanksgiving indeed!

Read the bon mots here:

The Aviary Film Threat Review

Attention Bay Area readers!

The Aviary screens at 9:15 p.m., Tuesday, November 29 at the Parkway Theater, 1834 Park Blvd, Oakland. Tickets are $5.00. Pizza and beer available on premises. Click for more information.

Winemaker Profile: Sam Whitmore of Whitmore Wines Co.

Sam Whitmore is the 32 year-old producer behind Whitmore Wine Co., a new Sonoma-based venture whose irreverent marketing advocates “social consciousness through social drinking.” An eight-year veteran in the wine trade, Whitmore released his first vintage (a viognier and a syrah) this Fall and comments on current wine trends and how to survive a densely populated market as a newbie without getting crushed.

Q: Screw cap or cork?

A: The screw cap is the best closure for wines that are not intended to be aged. Truly, most Americans don’t age their wines. I think the majority of wines are ultimately going to be bottled under screw cap. There are some benefits to the screw cap to me as a producer of wines, the first being that I don’t have to worry about corked wines. Another benefit is environmental – to produce a cork they have to strip the cork of a cork oak, process it and their typically using chemicals. It takes 90 years for the bark to re-grow. Being primarily made in Portugal where there’s not the same kind of EPA regulations, they’re also polluting ground water.

Q: Clearly you think caps are cooler then?

A: Caps are cooler. They’re easier. The only downside as a producer is that there is a small segment of people that don’t get it – and it’s probably bigger than I care to believe. There are people who won’t buy a wine because it’s in a screw cap, but I think that’s been changing over the last few years and continues to change. For me, I think it says, ‘We’re smarter, we get it.’

Q: Can one judge a wine by its label?

A: I think a lot of people do judge a wine by its label and make decisions about what they’re going to purchase based on the look of a label. People buy wine, typically, in three ways: First one is personal experience, which you can’t really get in the store. The second is a recommendation, whether it’s a magazine, or a friend, or a wine buyer or employee in the wine department at a grocery store. The third is by the look of the label. It’s really that simple. I think that third way is really the most common and it’s the way most wines move… As much as people hate to think about it, marketing is key – and part of that is having a good-looking label.

Q: When famously pitching wine for Almaden, filmmaker Orson Welles famously said for Almaden “We shall sell no wine before its time.” When is the best time to sell wine?

A: For wholesale, I would say August because that’s when a lot of the buyers are lining up their fall or winter lineups for the holidays. Most of the wine is sold in that last quarter of the year. The downside for me, producing wine as well as selling it, is that I couldn’t get out until the end of August for this new vintage that I had, because that’s when the syrah was ready to sell, so I released both wines at the same time. I’m out trying to sell a couple days a week but then I’m also in the cellar checking out grapes and crush and fermentation… It’s a tough place to be as producer and salesperson… So, I missed a few key opportunities because I was too late for them. There are a lot of people out there who are like me, who aren’t working six months out, they’re working just a couple months out.

Q: What can you tell about a person by the kind of wine that they drink?

A: I don’t know – I’ve definitely judged people based on what they’re drinking, how they’re drinking it and the kind of conversation they have. The more they drink, the more I like them. I have my thoughts on that but I don’t want to pass judgment. There’s a commercial on TV about ‘boxers versus briefs’ kind of people – the briefs people being the more conservative or not as wild. If you were to relate my wines to that, I’m definitely the boxer type. Jeans and flip flops versus khakis and dress shoes.

Q: If a grape falls in a vineyard and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

A: That’s a deep and esoteric question that we can spend many hours on. I would have to say no.

Q: Can wine improve one’s love life?

A: Yes, absolutely. I think it can improve many areas of one’s life.

Q: Is the market in Sonoma competitive or supportive?

A: I’ve found the market is pretty supportive. There are so many brands out there that if you’re competitive to the point of kind of getting nasty – you don’t want to develop a bad name. I try to be supportive of other wineries, big and small, and look for the good in all of it because wine sales are very relational. You can have the best product, but if you don’t have the right relationships or if you’re not able to get out there and build those right relationships, you’re out of luck.