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Escape urban lights to see this sight

     Each August, as the kids head back to school, the galaxy is tilted  in such a way that the Milky Way stretches overhead in full glory. With Monday’s new moon, this may be the best week of summer to gaze on this river of stars. To fully appreciate it you’ll need dark skies away from any urban glow well after sunset. Give your eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the darkness, tilt your head back and get lost in the glow.
    From Perseus and Cassiopeia in the north-northeast, the Milky Way flows down through Cygnus the swan onto Aquila the eagle. From the eagle’s tail, the glow of stars splits, one section continuing to Sagittarius, the other to Scorpius in the southwest; the dark space in between is called the Great Rift. But this patch of the heavens is not bereft of stars. Our view of them is blocked by masses of interstellar gas and dust. Of course it isn’t just the flowing river of stars that make up the Milky Way but almost every star we see with the unaided eye, including our own sun. All are part of the same spiral galaxy. Our solar system is at the end of one of the spiral’s arms. When we look at the river of stars, we are looking toward the center of the galaxy, through layers of light that combined form the glowing band that we see on a beautiful dark night.
    As evening twilight gives way to darkness, Mars and Saturn appear in the southwest. Mars has been inching toward the ringed planet night by night and will pass below it over the weekend, coming within three degrees. The two planets appear equally bright, but you should have no trouble telling Mars’ reddish hue from Saturn’s golden glow. While you’re comparing colors, look a few degrees to the north of the two planets for the star Zubeneschimali in the constellation Libra. This is the only star with a greenish glow visible to the unaided eye — at least to some. What about you?
    Venus and Jupiter rise in the east-northeast before dawn. Jupiter is first to crest the horizon, but once Venus appears a few minutes later you’ll have no trouble telling the two apart, as the morning star is six times brighter than old Jove. The two planets are joined by the ever-so-thin waning crescent moon early Saturday morning.
    The last of the naked-eye planets returns to view late this week. Look for Mercury Wednesday the 27th immediately in the wake of the setting sun and just a couple degrees from newly emerged waxing crescent moon.

Theater al fresco at Reynolds Tavern, where the humor is bawdy, the medicine primitive and the fun timeless

     Annapolis Shakespeare Company keeps the comedy in the courtyard coming. After a successful run with Molière’s The Schemings of Scapin, now on tap outdoors at Reynolds Tavern is a lively and very funny Imaginary Invalid. Molière’s final play was written by the tuberculosis-wracked playwright/actor to star himself and reflect his disdain for the medical mores. He indeed played the lead to great acclaim before succumbing to his malady soon after the curtain went down on a show for King Louis XIV.
    Adapted by Tim Mooney and directed by Kristen Clippard, Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Imaginary Invalid is three riveting acts of fast-paced fun, with a stellar cast reveling in every rhyming couplet. But don’t let the three acts worry you about a long night ahead; the 7:30pm start gets you out just a bit after 9pm.
    The imaginary invalid is Argan (Kim Curtis), a well-to-do hypochondriac who wants to marry his daughter Angelique (Ashlyn Thompson) off to a soon-to-be-doctor (Zachary Roberts), son of Diafoirus (John Stange), already a doctor, so one will always be around. Meanwhile, his second wife Beline (Amber Gibson) wants both her stepdaughters, Angelique and Louison (Roberts again), put into a nunnery so she can claim Argan’s riches when he dies. But Angelique is in love with the handsome, romantic and oh so dim Cleante (Keegan Cassady). Argan’s maidservant Toinette (Briana Manente) has no qualms about setting Argan straight on why a forced marriage is a bad idea, as does his brother Beralde (Stange again), who also is getting a little fed up with the whole ­hypochondria thing.
    Got all that? Thanks to a cast of actors who know how to deliver lines with their bodies as well as their voices, the action is easy to follow. Which brings up a personal nitpick: How many times have you gone to the theater and missed lines because the actors weren’t speaking up? Nine times out of 10 it’s not the volume that’s the problem, it’s the diction. Other local theaters would do well to emulate Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s focus on enunciation because nary a line was lost, even in this outside setting. Speak the speech, I pray thee.
    The other thing that often gets between the actor and the audience’s ability to follow what’s happening is the blocking — the placement and movement of the actors — a challenge especially in a round setting such as the Reynolds courtyard. Again, director Clippard’s focus on the details pays off. Despite the small space, the action does not feel limited or cramped, and no back is turned to any of us for more than a few seconds.
    In the less-is-more category, this is all done with a single chair and one chair-side table with a few apothecary bottles. That’s because the top-notch acting and efficient use of space eliminate the need for anything more than the very clever costumes. So, reserve a Tuesday evening and watch some very talented actors pull you away from Annapolis 2014 and into 1600s’ France, where the humor is bawdy, the medicine primitive and the fun timeless.


Costume coordinator: Maggie Cason. Stage manager: Sara K. Smith. Assistant stage management intern: Shannon McGovern.

Playing thru October 7 Tu at 7:30pm at Reynolds Tavern. 7 Church Circle, Annapolis. $20 w/advance discounts:
410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

Grandpa, tell me about the good old days

    In the bygone era of 1980s’ movies, a hero’s worth was determined by the circumference of his biceps, the length of his cigars and the heft of his gun. It was a simple time of bloody shootouts, car chases and cheesy lines.
    Three decades later, these pumped-up monosyllabic heroes are well past their prime but determined to relive their glory days in the Expendables series. Most of the stars are too old for this stuff, but even action heroes have house payments. So every few years Sylvester Stallone (Grudge Match) writes a new Expendables script and trots out his buddies for a quick paycheck and a trip down memory lane.
    In the third geri-action installment, we follow Barney Ross (Stallone) and his mercenary team, the Expendables, on a seemingly routine interruption of an arms deal. The mission goes spectacularly wrong when Barney catches the arms dealer in the crosshairs. The dealer is Expendables’ co-founder Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson: Machete Kills), who Barney believed he’d killed decades ago.
    Stonebanks catches Barney and the rest of the Expendables off guard, wounding them and making off with the money. Obsessed with killing Stonebanks and terrified that his aging mercenaries will die on the mission, Barney fires his team to seek a new, younger crew.
    Young audiences may miss the appeal of seeing wrinkled men mutter lame jokes, hit on women 20 years younger and beat each other bloody. But for audiences who grew up watching Cobra, Commando and Masters of the Universe, there is a certain nostalgic fun to these mindless action throwbacks.
    Filled with hokey lines, a ridiculous plot and low-budget action sequences, The Expendables 3 rises with its cast. Or falls, as Stallone’s new team of young pretty boys are pretty dull.
    When the veterans get their chance, each delivers. Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Sabotage) are old hands at charming their way through terrible material. Dolph Lundgren (SAF3) entertains by vacillating between imposing psychotic and goofy weirdo. Wesley Snipes (Gallowwalkers) proves that he still has a magnetic screen presence. Jason Statham (Homefront), who deserves so much better than this dreck, is the odd man out, too young to fit in with the old guard, too grizzled to join the boys.
    The only acting tragedy among the old guys is the villain. Gibson’s legal and PR troubles have made him an ideal bad guy for movies, but his wild-eyed performance shows that this once-great star has fallen.
    With a horrid plot, spotty acting and odd casting, The Expendables 3 is a bad movie. Yet I enjoyed it. Seeing these stars pick up their guns and get back to work is a little like touring Jurassic Park. There’s something magical about watching these dinosaurs in their natural element.


Fair Action • PG-13 • 126 mins.
 

Disquise and foul odor protect this butterfly

    Caterpillar Survival Rule No. 1: Be disagreeable.
    Eurytides Marcellus, the Zebra Swallowtail, a striking butterfly in classic black and white, is Calvert County’s official butterfly. Whether chosen for its instantly recognizable good looks, for its clever defensive tactics or both, the Zebra’s admirers must decide; details of the mascotorial appointment are lost to history.
    Moving across the landscape in aerial scout fashion, the Zebra seldom settles for long. It lights near edges of puddles or ponds and favors zinnias, summer phlox and butterfly weed.
    The larva feed on foliage of the pawpaw, the American banana, a shrub or small tree once plentiful in the understory of hardwood forests. Smooth and light-green, the larva’s bulbous head and oversized eyespots imitate a snake. If disguise isn’t sufficient, when disturbed it flashes a bright orange, forked apparent tongue that emits a foul odor. This cunning caterpillar has Rule No. 1 covered.
    There is no chasing a scout on the wing, so I was pleased to snap this photo of the Zebra in refueling mode.
    Does anyone besides me see Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar? Or a dark-coifed fairy in zebra-striped wings?
 

Gardening in bales of straw

     As I prepare my fall garden, I’m walking in the footsteps of an Ohio gardener with poor soil who planted in bales of straw rather than install raised beds. He found his solution in a British gardening magazine on growing vegetables. Now I’m trying it, starting with four bales of straw that I placed in full sun along the edge of my vegetable garden.
    To minimize weed problems, use straw rather than hay. Straw is the residue after the grain has been harvested. Select bales tied with plastic string and not sessile. Both sessile and jute string will decompose and the bales of straw will fall apart. Those tied with plastic string will remain whole because plastic does not decompose. Place the bales of straw on either black plastic or non-woven geotextile ground cloth.  
    Before planting, prime each bale to initiate the composting process. Spread two and a half cups of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer — not mixed with herbicide — over each bale. For organic preparation, spread three pounds of organic fertilizer over each bale. Next wet the bales thoroughly and insert a long-shank thermometer to monitor temperature changes within the bales. The fertilizers will initiate composting in the center of each bale, raising the temperature. Sprinkle the bales with water daily to keep them moist so composting will take place. When temperatures again equal ambient air, the bales are ready to be planted.
    Within five days after I applied the fertilizer on each bale, temperatures within the bales fertilized with Holly Tone Organic reached 120 degrees. The bales treated with 10-6-4 fertilizer increased to only 100 degrees. It took nearly three weeks for these bales of straw to achieve the Holly Tone temperatures.
    By the end of the third week of priming, the bales treated with Holly Tone Organic started producing inky-cap mushrooms; the bales treated with chemical fertilizer followed one week later.
    At the end of the fourth week of priming, temperatures dropped to between 95 degrees and 100 degrees in all of the bales of straw.
    When the internal temperatures are the same as the ambient air, I will plant the bales with broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards. My Ohio model claims to obtain at least two years of growth, sometimes three, from each bale.
    Regardless of the results, I will write about this new method of growing vegetables and share my results and photos. I write now in hopes that you will also try so that we can compare results.
    As my dad always said, “You will never know until you try.”

Outmaneuvering Stem Borers in Zucchini
    Every year, readers complain that stem borers have killed their zucchini plants only after a few weeks of production. I have had the same problem. To enjoy zucchini for most of the summer, I make repeated plantings.
    I’ve tried with no success spreading wood ashes around each hill as recommended by organic gardening magazines. I’ve had moderate success spraying under the foliage with the insecticide Sevin starting as soon as the leaves appeared and repeating weekly.
    This year I sprayed only the stems — not the leaves or petioles — with a jet stream of Sevin, starting under the flower bud farthest away from the roots. I am still harvesting zucchini squash from the original planting with no sign of borer injury. Protecting the stem with Sevin keeps the borer from gaining entry.  
    This year’s succession of plantings resulted in a surplus harvest, which I take to the SCAN food bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2.

The popular back-to-school cocktail doesn’t suit quite every taste
 


“Cooler evenings with earlier sunsets adjust our biological clocks ever so slightly as we sense newness in the air,” writes educator and student Kathleen Murphy, introducing Bay Weekly’s August 21 album of back-to-school reflections.
    You feel it too, don’t you?
    Our animal senses revive, making us as alert as dogs or rabbits, our ears and noses twitching. As well as earlier sunsets and cool evenings, we smell afternoon’s baked sugar rising from field and flower and hear the cricket chorus.
    Were Rip van Winkle to wake about now, he’d know the month if not the year. Awakening with him, perhaps, would be the sense of possibility linked in so many of our minds to a new school year.
    Or maybe not.
    Maybe Rip was the Huck Finn of his era, as my son Nathaniel was of his.
    My older son — Alex, the one who runs Bay Weekly — was the schoolboy parents and teachers love. He went to school eagerly, did most of his homework, got in only manageable trouble and now and again caught the passion for ideas a good teacher inspired.
    The younger, Nathaniel, was the schoolboy who brought parents to tears and teachers to prayer.
    It was Miss Manders, his kindly first-grade teacher, who prayed every night over the challenge of teaching Nat to read. As a supplement to prayer, she tried masking tape. At least that’s the story told by Alex, who found his little brother taped to his little chair at the end of one school day. Some parents might be put out by Miss Manders’ last-resort strategy. Knowing Nat, I thought masking tape was a pretty good idea.
    Had Nat ever read The Adventures of Huck Finn, he’d have understood Huck’s final words: I reckon I got to light out for the territory … because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.
    Schooling and sivilization went against Nat’s nature. His family learned that lesson long before he arrived in Miss Manders’ classroom at Blackhawk Elementary School in in Springfield, Illinois.
    Nat made his first escape in his second week in daycare, scaling the wall of his crib and up and out the screened window above it. The climb down the outer wall of Cookie Monster Cooperative Day Care must have been a long one for a 22-month-old who stood under 30 inches tall and was still wearing diapers. But he looked none the worse for the experience when I next saw him in the arms of the policeman who’d found him strolling down the sidewalk of the city’s major southbound artery.
    Escape was harder in his next daycare, run by a firm but loving director who set watch and locks on all the doors and windows. Getting him there was harder, too. Most mornings he’d cling like a starfish to bed, toy chest, doorframe, car door. No sooner would I pry his fingers and toes off one hold than he’d attach them to another. He was far too young to stay home alone the morning I left for work without him. Once I was gone, he climbed out of the toy chest, fixed himself a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, poured a glass of milk and settled down with toys and television. He still remembers that day as bliss.
    Elementary, middle and high school for him were 12 years of resistance. He even got asked to leave a do-your-own-thing free school. Somehow, he learned to spell better than Huck and to write a good story, though not quite as good as Mark Twain’s. He grudgingly made it through high school, then lit out for the territories.
    Lots of us feel hope and nostalgia in this back-to-school season. But not all of us. Here’s to the exceptions: the kids (including, it seems, Alex’s son Jack), their parents and their teachers.
 

An Indian family spices up French haute cuisine

     Kadam family life is built around food. In India, young Hassan learns how to taste and create unique flavors from his mother, an intuitive cook. When a riot leads to her death and the destruction of their restaurant, the family decides to try their luck in Europe.
    When the family car breaks down in a remote French village, Fearless Patriarch (Om Puri: Welcome Back) sees not tragedy but fate. He spends the family’s savings on a broken-down building that he deems perfect for an Indian restaurant. The family is confident that their gifted Hassan (Manish Dayal: California Scheming) can convert French villagers to Indian cuisine.
    Their enterprise stands only a hundred feet from a famed restaurant with a coveted Michelin star. Its proprietor, Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren: Red 2), doesn’t like competition.
    She bristles at the Kadam family’s music, gripes at their colorful decorations and sneers at what she deems “ethnic food.” Soon the Kadams and Mme. Mallory are locked in culinary war.
    The Hundred-Foot Journey is a cinematic meringue: Light, sweet and without much substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this serving doesn’t make for a very memorable cinema experience. Director Lasse Hallstrom (Safe Haven) has made a name directing fluffy romances and family dramas. This sweetly predictable fish-out-of-water tale stays close to what he knows. You know immediately how the story will end and which characters will be paired up before the credits roll. Issues like racism, death and classism are touched only briefly. This is a movie about pretty people making attractive food and finding equally comely life partners.
    On the plus side, Hallstrom’s cinematography is beyond compare. He lovingly captures the creamy peaks of a perfect hollandaise sauce and the bright colors of a chicken tikka, making food a sumptuous, nearly sensual, experience. A bag of popcorn and a soda will be a disappointment during this two hours of exotic, delectable cooking.
    Though there’s not much flavor to the story, actors work hard to imbue their characters with charm and charisma. Mirren does an excellent Maggie Smith impression as a stuffy patrician who learns to open her heart. Veteran Bollywood actor Puri gives dignity and kindness to what could be a horribly stereotypical role.
    The real find is Manish Dayal. His Hassan is naïve yet confident in his own abilities, a sympathetic character you hope succeeds.
Fair Drama/Great Cooking • PG • 122 mins.

 

The very thirsty Silvery Checkerspot

     After being tethered and tightly wrapped since last autumn, checkerspots in the garden are like tiki bar openers, brightly dressed and very thirsty.
    I see the silvery checkerspot,  Charidryas nycteis, feeding in groups at everything: bee balm, summer phlox, Shasta daisies — blooming or not, even experimenting with the artificial woodgrain of vinyl siding on our house.
    Larvae feed on turtlehead, both Chelone glabra (white) and lyonii (pink). Turtlehead requires constant moisture, so populations of checkerspots tend to wet meadows.
    Checkers feed summer and fall, then lay eggs in clusters. The eggs hatch and partially develop as pupae, then hang suspended, literally and figuratively, in brown-speckled white cases over the winter. This period of suspended growth is called diapause, a useful tactic to survive inhospitable seasons whether cold or long and dry. Warm weather triggers full development and liberation.
    Silvery’s larger cousin is the ­Baltimore Checkerspot, Maryland’s official state butterfly, a rarer sight.

Always look on the bright si-ide of life …
 

     There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who get Monty Python, and those who don’t. The dividing chasm is willingness to accept silliness. Python’s humor is physical (Google Silly Walk), yet it has an underlying winking, silly intelligence that the don’t-gets … well, don’t get.
    Fortunately for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, the opening night audience for Monty Python’s Spamalot was filled mostly with gets. Based largely on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail — but borrowing from plenty of other Python hits — the Mike Nichols-directed Spamalot premiered on Broadway in 2005 and won three Tonys, including Best Musical. Some of the humor that is directly aimed at a Broadway audience full of Python fanatics fell a little flat in Annapolis (case in point: the Mel Brooks-ish “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway … if you don’t have any Jews”). Some noticeable opening night tentativeness between orchestra and chorus will tighten up over the five-week run. But this is already a delightful production creatively directed by Jeffrey Lesniak and highlighted by stellar individual performances.
    Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and by all means, do, it’s timeless!), you’re in for a silly good time.
    As some Broadway musicals use a thin plot to string together strong songs, Spamalot uses its thin plot — Arthur and his knights searching for the Holy Grail — to string together classic Python comedy bits and a few songs. The songs are meant as much to skewer Broadway musicals as to push along said plot. Python founder and writer Eric Idle wrote the lyrics and book. A parody of Arthurian times, Spamalot revolves around King Arthur (a droll Ruben Vellekoop) and his knights of the “very round” table. The knights are the stars of this show.
    Each plays several roles with comic timing and delivery — not to mention the various speaking and singing voices — all spot on. Standing out in the voice department is David Merrill, whose Sir (Dennis) Galahad gets things moving with a hilarious diatribe about the woes of the working class. He then joins the Lady of the Lake (Alice Goldberg) for a satirical yet lyrical jab at formulaic Broadway called “The Song That Goes Like This.” Merrill’s tenor is a treat. Later he shines as the famed Black Knight, insisting “it’s just a flesh wound” after losing his limbs to his challenger. He reappears as Prince Herbert’s overbearing father, getting into a hilarious back and forth with two guards who can’t quite grasp the concept of “stay here.”
    The other knights — Sir Robin (Fred Fletcher-Jackson), Sir Lancelot (Joshua Mooney) and Sir Bedevere (DJ Wojciehowski) — each contribute several comedic turns. Notable is Mooney as the French Taunter (“I fart in your general direction!”), the Knight of Ni and, of course, Lancelot, whose sexuality is confirmed for him by the singers of “His Name Is Lancelot’ (“he likes to dance a lot; he wears tight pants a lot”). Other standouts: a very funny Steven Baird as Patsy, the king’s dedicated coconut-clopping sound effects toadie; and Austin Heemstra, who narrates things as the historian and gets his own laughs as Not Dead Fred, the Minstrel and Prince Herbert.
    In addition to the very effective duet with Merrill on “The Song That Goes Like This,” Goldberg’s Lady of the Lake takes another shot at Broadway tunes when she returns to the stage in “The Diva’s Lament” (“whatever happened to my part? It was exciting at the start …”).
    Perhaps the most famous Python song of them all, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” opens Act II (and returns very effectively after the curtain call) exclaiming “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle.” Originally sung in Life of Brian by a chorus of the crucified, it works, very well, here.
    Also working very well is the multi-level castle set by Dan Lavanga and the wide variety of colorful costumes by Linda Swann. Only God and Eric Idle (one and the same in this show) know what was going on behind the scenes during those quick changes.
    Don’t think that because Spamalot runs through August 31 you can just gallop on over and secure a seat. Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has a hit in this one, so the Holy Grail around Annapolis this month may be securing two tickets, not one chalice.


Music director: Steve Przybyiski. Choreographer: Rikki Howie Lacewell. Stage manager: John Nunemaker. Lighting designer: Matt Tillett. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. About 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission.

Playing thru Aug. 31: Th-Su 8:30pm at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. $20; rsvp: 410-268-9212;
www.summergarden.com.

How to stop the Japanese beetles that cause the problem

     If you have brown patches in your lawn, I expect the cause is Japanese beetle grubs eating the roots of the grasses. Japanese beetles are out in full force, feasting on roses, linden trees and other favorite ornamentals, as well as puncturing and eating peaches, raspberries, blackberries and plums. Soon those same beetles will be landing on your lawn and depositing eggs in the earth. When those eggs hatch, hungry young larvae will begin feeding until fall when the soil cools and they burrow deeper in to survive the winter. Next spring those same larvae will crawl up closer to the roots of your lawn and resume feeding until they pupate and emerge as adults. The larvae are light gray with brown heads and curl into the letter C when disturbed.
    The brown patches you are now seeing are from last year’s larvae that survived the winter.
    Back when we lived in College Park, we did not have Japanese beetles. That’s because College Park was ground zero for the research that resulted in the development of the milky spore system of Japanese grub control. The developer was Dr. George Langford, chairman of the Department of Entomology. To test the effectiveness of the system, in the mid-1950s he treated all of the lawns within the city limits. A single treatment was highly effective.
    When Clara and I moved to Deale in 1990, the lawn was full of mole tunnels. Moles love to feast on. Realizing the mole problem was due to a large infestation of Japanese beetle grubs, I treated the entire lawn with milky spore powder the summer of 1991. It took three years before I had 100 percent control. I have never had to repeat the treatment. Japanese beetles are flying around and feasting on our little leaf linden, and they are laying eggs in my lawn, but the milky spore is digesting the larvae as they hatch. The milky spore system of control is self-supporting once it becomes well established. It has now been almost a quarter century since I first used milky spore, and I no longer have moles tunneling nor dead brown spots in my lawn.
    True, there are insecticides you can spread on your lawn that will kill the grub, but these insecticides have to be redone yearly. The use of them on lawns can also contribute to the pollution of the Bay. If you live near the Bay or its tributaries, do not use these insecticides; to be effective, they must be applied over the entire lawn.
    Milky spore is available in two forms, powder or granular. The powdered form is measured using one-quarter teaspoon at three-foot intervals. The granular form is applied using a spreader. One bag of granular milky spore will cover approximately 7,000 square feet. Milky spore must be thoroughly and promptly soaked into the soil soon after being applied. Applying it just before a predicted heavy rain is best unless you have an in-ground sprinkler system that covers the entire lawn.
    Milky spore can be used in the spring, summer or fall, but now is the best time because this is when the Japanese beetles are laying their eggs.
    Milky spore is a good, safe and effective grub control system, but it cannot be used in conjunction with any of the other harsh insecticides recommended for grub control. Having Japanese beetles laying eggs in your lawn every year keeps the milky spore population alive and well.