"...Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion." ~Madonna

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Frugal Gambler AND More Frugal Gambling

Now that Pennsylvania has opened table games in its casinos, it is time to talk about my third vice.

If you combine my number one vice with my number three vice you get books on gambling. The number of books on how to win in a casino is astronomical. Texas Hold-em has become extremely popular and I feel that more money is being made on publications than is being made at the tables.

What players like me need to know is how to stay in the casino for long periods of time without spending a lot of money. In other words, I enjoy casinos but am very cheap. Jean Scott has come to my rescue with her books, THE FRUGAL GAMBLER and MORE FRUGAL GAMBLING. Believe me, she speaks with authority.

If you follow the Travel Channel, you may recognize her name. She is also known as the "Queen of Comps” and the "Gambling Grandma”.  Her books are packed with information on how to get in on the casinos’ "give aways“.  This is advice for frugal, recreational gamblers who want to cash in on the freebies that the high rollers enjoy--- on a more realistic level. You may not eat at the up-scale restaurants or stay in the penthouse suite, but you will get the occasional free room and meal.

Jean tells the low-level player how to make use of slot clubs, cash-backs, bounce-backs, and comps. To translate -- cash-back is the money the casino will pay you back for gambling, not par with what you spend but it helps. Bounce-backs are the offers that the promotion office sends to you to get you to return to their location. Comps are the complimentary offers that should keep you from going to the casino across the street. These vary greatly from casino to casino and require some research.

Slot clubs are the secret to it all. Think of it as joining Sam’s Club except with no fee. (I recommend joining even if you are walking through the casino to catch a bus and not spending a dime.) The membership card then tracks your play and tells them how important you are to them. Believe me, the small gambler is important.

In MORE FRUGAL GAMBLING, Jean’s daughter speaks for the beginner or casual player. I found the second book to be very informative. It covers tipping, how to ask for your comps, and how to pick a casino. Most people know when they are in a place that feels out of their financial league, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

So far my experiences in Pennsylvania have been so -so.  Hollywood Casino, at Penn National, charges for things that out of state places provide for free. I also avoid the big flashy casinos. I figure somebody has to be paying for all the electricity to keep those light going and I do not want it to be me.

My husband and I have played from coast to coast and met some interesting people, had some fantastic meals, stayed in some very nice rooms, and generally have had some great times. Authors like Jean Scott have helped make this a “frugal” vice.

Monday, July 26, 2010

VOLUNTEER: Retired & Senior Volunteer Program Pen Pals

It is getting close to the start of the new year for school students and therefore time to put a call out for the RSVP Pen Pal Program. This is something that I am very opinionated about.

If you are not familiar with the program, allow me to explain.  RSVP,  the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program, sponsors a letter writing project between an elementary student and a senior citizen. The term “senior citizen” is taken very loosely here, younger adults may apply.

The students work on reading, writing, and social skills while building a relationship with an adult outside of their family. The adult gains the experience of mentoring and helping a student improve his/her communication skills.

Last year was my first time as a Pen Pal and I loved it. I had forgotten how delightful a fifth grader can be. If you want more information call Brenda Reeve at 814-355-6816 or e-mail Brenda here. Because there is a required “meet and greet” date at the end of the school year, it is probably helpful to live in the central part of the state.

Friday, July 23, 2010

THEATRE REVIEW: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Millbrook Playhouse is having a terrific season. Last night we saw A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and it had to be one of the best shows that I have seen there. All of the big musical talent in residence this summer is on the arena stage, but I will get to the actors later.

A special standing ovation goes to Dax Valdes, who was both director and choreographer. All seats in the house had a chance to see the dances, action and facial expressions of everyone on stage. In an arena stage that does not always happen. Believe me, you want to see faces. (Michael Bradshaw Flynn as Hysterium deciding that he really is “ Lovely” is priceless.) Watch for Dax’s name. He may be our next Gower Champion. He dance, sings, acts, directs, and shines as a choreographer.

Most of my favorite actors at Millbrook are in this show and they do not disappoint. The true “stop the show” number has to be “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” with Tim Dietrick, Marc de la Concha, Michael Bradshaw Flynn, and Ted Cockley as Senex, Pseudolus, Hysternium, and Marcus Lycus, respectively. Their body language should have received at least an “R” rating.

Speaking of “R” rated body language, the courtesans have no speaking lines, but you notice them. Although all of the costumes in the show are out-standing, these girls really “ stood out”! They prove the old theater truism that there are no small parts only small actors. You will notice that some of these girls did not have “small parts” at all.

If you are anywhere near Mill Hall in the next two weeks, go see …FORUM. You will see all of the musical talent that I have been exclaiming over this summer and have yourself a very good evening.

P.S. I am going back on Sunday!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: House Rules

For several years I eagerly awaited each new Jodi Picoult novel. The first one that I read was Keeping Faith and I was hooked. The last was My Sister’s Keeper.  If you have read it - and seeing the movie does not count - you understand why I did not pick her up for awhile. It is a very intense book. HOUSE RULES is Ms. Picoult’s latest and for personal reasons I felt that I had to read it.

HOUSE RULES tells the story of Jacob Hunt, his family, his lawyer, and the police detective involved in the disappearance of a young woman who had been Jacob’s social skills instructor. Told in alternating first person chapters we see the same scene through various eyes, giving us an inside look at the different emotions involved.

Jacob is a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. Typically with AS, though very intelligent, a person has great difficulty with making any type of social connection, but becomes very obsessed with one subject. In Jacob’s case, this focus is forensic analysis. He sometimes shows up at a death scene offering valuable help for the police.

Now Jacob is being questioned about the murder of someone close to him. This time though, it is not for his expert ability to analyze the crime scene, but for his involvement. He admits that he was there and what is normal behavior for someone with Asperger’s can look like guilt to the police.

Because the story is told from different points of view, we see how Jacob’s condition affects the people around him. While other people interpret Jacob’s actions, we see how his thought process works. As a result, our sympathies are engaged by many of the characters.

Emma, his mother, has spent years devoted to finding ways to make life a little easier for him and to prevent emotional meltdowns. His younger brother, Theo, is torn between love and resentment. Oliver, the inexperienced lawyer is way over his head with a losing case and Rich, the detective, feels sympathy for Jacob and Emma, but sees the signs of a guilty young murderer.

The story moves well. I found myself really caring what happened to each member of this family. Knowing that the author is famous for her unexpected endings, I could not wait to see what her twist would be. The ending was not a big surprise. You can see it coming but in this case that was not a really bad thing.

HOUSE RULES left me with the felling that I had read an entertaining book that also taught me about a little known subject. Jodi Picoult stays on my list of favorite authors.

Friday, July 16, 2010

THEATRE REVIEW: Eleemosynary

Every summer theater season needs at least one drama on its schedule. Millbrook Playhouse choose well with ELEEMOSYNARY, a warm poignant story of three generations of remarkable women.

Echo is a young, intelligent girl who has been left in her grandmother’s care. She loves her grandmother, Dorothea, but needs her mother’s love as well. Echo attempts to gain the affection of her absent mother, Artie, by winning the National Spelling Bee.

The play is introduced by Echo and in flashbacks we learn so much about these three women. Dorothea had been an intelligent young woman who wanted to go to college. The times and a dominating father force her into a marriage and thus into a boring existence. At a party someone suggests that eccentricity is fun and she adopts it with great enthusiasm. As she says, “ Eccentricity saved my life.”

Dorothea’s projects and a personal tragedy end up driving a teen-aged Artie away, but when Artie finds herself with a child of her own, Dorothea is there to take over. Artie still has to find a life of her own and Echo is left in Dorothea’s care.

What I found fascinating about the play was how three generations of women of extraordinary intelligence had to handle life. Dorothea had no chance for an education. Artie fought for hers and it seemed taken for granted that Echo would have her chance.

It is hard to get across the power of this show. The director did an excellent job of making use of limited space that once was a milk barn. The set was minimal and in no way distracted from the action and the costuming was perfect for each character.

I am one of those people who does an audience check now and then during a play. This audience was caught up in the story. The woman sitting next to me paid the ultimate compliment, “ I forgot that they were actors.” Eileen Glen played the eccentric Dorothea with just the right touch of warmth. Shana Wiersum was the torn daughter Artie. She quietly made us feel her confusion about her love for her daughter.

Most of the weight of the show fell on Erin Long’s young shoulders. Erin is another actor who has been a regular at Millbrook for several years. Her future in the theater seems assured.

Go see ELEEMOSYNARY. By the end of the evening you will know how to pronounce the word (and lots of others) and you will have had a good time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Historian

With all of the interest in vampires today, it might be time to go back five years and have another look at THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova. This is not a book written for young, romantic readers, but rather a well researched novel exploring the history of Vlad the Impaler. Mixing fact and legend, the story covers 30 years during Cold War Europe and the search for Prince Vad’s burial place.

Late one night in 1972. A sixteen-year-old girl discovers a box of letters and a mysterious book in her father’s library. These letters lead her to the story of her father’s search for a missing friend and the story of the mother that she never knew.

The quest takes us on a search for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Prince Vlad.

The combination of fascinating historical facts and a moving suspense story hold us captive. We learn much about the Ottomans and the Christians and their war for Istanbul. We travel from dusty Ivy League libraries to Istanbul, Budapest, and the depths of Cold War Eastern Europe.

There is good proof that Vlad the Impaler did exist during Medieval times. The ironic fact seems to be that this man who has come down through history as the ultimate evil, was a fierce warrior for Christianity. Now the question addressed in this book is whether he still lives and how hard will his followers go to protect him.

It is probably no surprise to those who know me, but the temptation offered in this story would have made me think at least twice. Vlad has had centuries to build his personal library. If I had been the one offered the job as his librarian, well that would have been a tough decision. It gave me more sympathy for Doctor Faustus and his deal with Mephistopheles.

Be prepared to make a time commitment for this book. It is long. Bram Stoker may be responsible for starting our fascination with vampires, but Elizabeth Kostova has helped keep the legend alive.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

THEATRE REVIEW: Triumph of Love

It is very tempting to review the play TRIUMPH OF LOVE at Millbrook Playhouse with, “Loved the cast, didn’t care much for the play”. It deserves more.

Think AS YOU LIKE IT meets PRINCESS BRIDE with an interesting score and you have the play. It almost worked.

Ah, but the cast! Each member of this well balanced group was excellent. The energy alone made up for the weak book, but then the voices, choreography, sets, and costumes were added.

The first thing that jumps at the audience was the set, a formal garden and elegant country manor. The fact that the “trees” were movable gave a hint to what was coming later. The costumes were an attempt at “fairy tale” medieval and were perfect for each character… the wristwatches and other anachronisms were also a sign not to take the action too seriously. Edward K. Ross was the set designer and Jonathan Southwell was head of costumes and they deserve special recognition.

I hope that I have left room for the outstanding cast. Each demands space of his/her own. Believe me there were no small parts. Marc de la Concha as the gardener and Ali Kresh as the servant with an active libido were as great as I expected. These two have become two of my reasons for going to Millbrook.

Michael Bradshaw Flynn and Elizabeth Hake as the romantic leads and Rachel Flynn, the rather prim aunt, have terrific voices. Both of the women had impressive ranges and should be able to carry a variety of roles in the future.

Young Johnny Haussener (Harlequin) and Kyleigh Barler (a servant) should have been small parts, but they were noticed. It has been fun to watch these two actors mature at Millbrook. Both voices are turning out to be impressive.

Now to my favorite part of the evening - Dax Valdes. The name was familiar because Dax has played some small roles and been choreographer for several shows in the past. His choreography is always great; his acting, O.K. What a surprise he turned out to be. He can sing. He can do broad comedy. And, of course, he can do pratfalls with the best of them. He should make a name for himself in one of these areas.

It will be fun to watch these talented actors go on with their careers. Most of them will be in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM later this season. I can not wait!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Footprints of God

The name Greg Iles will be appearing often in this space. He is very prolific and always surprising. So many popular authors seem to get a formula and stick with it. I have read at least six books by Iles and never know what to expect. THE FOOTPRINTS OF GOD is his walk through a tech/nerd/ science fiction/thriller---to put it simply.

“My name is David Tennant, M. D. I’m a professor of ethics at the University of Virginia Medical School, and if you are watching this tape, I’m dead.” Thus the book takes off running and never slows down.

Dr. Tennant’s co-worker on a highly secretive project has been found dead. The evidence says that he died of natural causes, but Tennant has reason to believe that the head of the program had him killed. On learning that his own life is in danger, he takes off with his psychiatrist, Rachel Weiss. Rachel had been treating him for unusual dreams, dreams in which he seems to be living the life of Jesus Christ only with more detail. She believes that his explanation for running is delusional and that he is mentally unstable.

The project goes by the code name Trinity and, having the potential to be a true form of artificial intelligence, will be able to control all other computers. As a professor of ethics, Dr. Tennant can see the opportunities for someone to control the finances as well as the military power of the world. In other words, to play God.

Each person on the inner team has gone through a type of MRI that has affected his or her psyche. Dr. Tennant has been able to see what is going to happen in real time as part of his bizarre dreams. Unfortunately, it also allows the bad guys to stay a step ahead of him.

This was the weakest of the books that I have read by Iles. The ending is fairly predictable and the characters are a little “cardboard cutouts” at times. Still, as I said, it is a ride that never slows down. He is a fantastic story teller and even a weak attempt by him is hands down better than most action books. I have several more books by Greg Iles on my nightstand so you may hear more of him in the future.

Friday, July 2, 2010

THEATRE REVIEW: Fully Committed

Any one man show is difficult; a show where one actor does all of the characters should be impossible. Tim Dietrich made it look fairly easy at Millbrook Playhouse tonight in Fully Committed.

Tim plays Sam Peliczowski, an out-of-work actor who works at a posh restaurant. He spends his time dealing with customers impatient to get the best table, each trying for VIP treatment. Tim plays each character to perfection. My favorite was the little old lady who did not get her AARP discount and had a few things to say about the food as well.

While trying to juggle the customers, a loud and obnoxious boss, the rest of the staff, and various friends, Sam is waiting to hear about a call-back from his audition for Lincoln Center and to get time off to spend Christmas with his recently widowed father. The scenes with his father were particularly touching.

Tim Dietrich is an exceptionally talented actor. His body language, facial expressions, voice changes were right on. Last year Tim played the title character in The Nerd to the delight of sold out audiences. It turns out that he is much better looking than we realized from that show. One of the best things about a playhouse like Millbrook is watching good actors playing a variety of roles. Tim falls into this group.

My problem came from the script. For example, I found it very hard to believe that someone so busy with an important part of running a successful restaurant would be expected to leave the phones to clean a restroom. Several times the hectic pace of the show slowed, the phones stopped ringing, etc. It caused an uncomfortable break in the timing of the show. Since we go to opening nights in most cases, I am not sure how things are “tweeked” for future shows. It is still a good way to spend an evening.

I hope to see you in Mill Hall this summer.