Switching Gears in Middle-age: The Roommate opens at Long Wharf

Preview of The Roommate, Long Wharf Theatre

Mike Donahue is a Yale School of Drama graduate back in New Haven to direct Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre, which begins its run tonight until November 4th. Donahue directed the premiere of the play at the Humana festival in Louisville in 2015. Last season he directed Silverman’s The Moors at Playwrights Realm in New York, and his acclaimed production of Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties recently closed at MCC, New York. So one could say he is familiar with Silverman’s work and her knack for, as he put it, “setting up expectations, then quietly, delicately subverting them.”

During his time at YSD, Donahue served as the artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret for two seasons, a good background for the diverse range of plays Donahue has directed. In style, The Roommate could be called a bit of a bait and switch. Sharon, a middle-aged woman, now divorced and living alone in Iowa, takes in a roommate, Robyn. You’re thinking maybe a female Odd Couple? Or maybe a plot with a mysterious man in it—like the late romance of last season’s Fireflies at Long Wharf? Donahue says the play “seems naturalistic” initially, but tends toward the absurdist style of theater he prefers. One thing that interested Donahue in the play is the fact that it’s about mature women and “not vis à vis men, the characters are not defined by relations to men.”

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The play was reworked for its run last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Donahue also directed. The goal each time, for the director, is to see the work anew, through the process of collaboration. “So much is about the particular chemistry of the two people playing the two characters, finding different layers of who they are.” In the Long Wharf production Tasha Lawrence plays Robyn, the role she originated at Humana, and Sharon is played by Long Wharf veteran Linda Powell (Our Town, A Doll’s House). For Donahue, the play is “about the power of transformation,” what happens when people not alike find something they can share, to find out “how another person sees you.”

While the play is “very, very funny, it goes to places,” Donahue said, “very sharp, with an edge.” Those viewers who saw Silverman’s The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 will remember the play’s surprising comedy, and its dark and rich irony as it subverted a Gothic tale with its wild sense of comic situations. For Donahue, Silverman’s plays have “real heart, and a strong sense of language that is tonally off-kilter,” a quality that attracts him to her work. She’s “incredibly funny and unbelievably talented” and he finds “thrills in the turns her plays take.”

Revisiting the play at Long Wharf’s mainstage takes the play closer to its earliest incarnation at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville where it was done completely in the round. Each staging “changes the dynamic,” Donahue says, but each new staging has to find the “kind of spark” that makes theater “transcendent and overwhelming.”

 Mike Donahue

Mike Donahue


The Roommate kicks off the Long Wharf 2018-19 season, described as “a comedy about what it takes to re-route your life—and what happens when the wheels come off.”

 

The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue

Long Wharf Theatre
October 10-November 4, 2018


Memory Plays Tricks

Review of El Huracán, Yale Repertory Theatre

The opening scene of Charise Castro Smith’s El Huracán, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, is literally magical. A young woman in an elegant dress performs magic tricks on a circular stage, aided by a male partner in a tux. The swankiness of the act—set in the celebrated Tropicana nightclub in pre-Castro Cuba—is abetted by the dance the couple, Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio) and Alonso (Arturo Soria), perform to Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.” It’s suave and nostalgic and at a remove from the realities of the play, and for a little while we get to bask in a rare kind of show-biz transcendence.

 Young Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio), Young Alonso (Arturo Soria) (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

Young Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio), Young Alonso (Arturo Soria) (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

Looking on with us is Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), now a woman in her eighties. We soon learn that her current world—Miami—is under threat by Andrew, the impending category 5 hurricane that caused death and major damage in 1992, and by advanced Alzheimer’s. Smith’s play dramatizes the way the past is made precarious by our memory and the playwright uses the cataclysms that repeatedly strike the region to signal the precariousness of its inhabitants’ present and future. (As I write this, Michael, a category 2 hurricane, is set to strike the gulf.)

Directed by Laurie Woolery, who showed a similarly useful grasp of the amorphous for Imogen Says Nothing at Yale Rep last year, El Huracán is a kind of dream or memory play. Its action takes place in different times, amplified by the memories that beset Valeria, and made lyrical by Yaara Bar’s beautiful projections, acts of legerdemain (Christopher Rose, Magic Designer), and a striking set by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez. The staging is consistently interesting, keeping us off-guard, never sure where the story is going or how events will be manifested.

 Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Valeria is barely aware of her surroundings most of the time and mistakes her granddaughter Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio) for an assistant, while her daughter Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras) has to play parent to both her own mother and her daughter. Miranda—a rather immature doctoral candidate who seems more like an undergrad—is back home in Miami to help defend the homestead from Andrew. She’s aided by Fernando, a local mensch helping out her abuela. A flirtatious scene between Fernando and Miranda helps to focus us on the action, which otherwise—but for effective special effects to signal the hurricane—tends to be elusive.

It’s clear that Valeria is more apt to be talking to her sister Alicia (Jennifer Paredes) on the beach, back when they were girls together and having their first flares of male interest, than to be conscious of what her daughter and granddaughter want of her. But the past barely congeals, despite some very diverting projections of Alicia swimming. The courtship between Alonso and Valeria is mostly pro-forma, whereas little moments, like Fernando appreciating Miranda’s butt when she’s on a ladder, or both Miranda and Valeria appreciating Fernando’s physique when he removes his shirt, help us experience the tactile qualities of the 1992 setting.

 Fernando (Arturo Soria), Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio)

Fernando (Arturo Soria), Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio)

With the past in Cuba vague—as presented in a simultaneous English and Spanish rendering by Valeria and Alonso (Jonathan Nichols) respectively—the main action takes shape around the youngsters, until an unfortunate occurrence brings home the perils of the present. We’ve barely had time to digest that before Smith’s plot flings the action into 2019 in the aftermath of a category 6 storm that devastates Miami. By then, Ximena is elderly and Miranda middle-aged. Indeed, the years are imposed upon them by a costume-change, complete with padding, that occurs onstage about midway through the play.

In 2019, Miranda is back in Miami to help Ximena, now suffering from the same memory-devastating malady that beset her own mother, and to seek forgiveness for an awful “accident” that happened in 1992. Again, a young male is on hand to help (Arturo Soria, engaging in each incarnation), though Theo is a relative and a Cubano trying to learn English, to be matched with Val (Jennifer Paredes), Ximena’s granddaughter, who speaks Spanish straight out of a school primer. The scenes of Miranda, a bit professorial now, trying to take care of Ximena, who is even less sympathetic toward her daughter than when both were much younger, don’t do much for either character, though Ximena gets a poetic speech about the mother she’s trying to remember.

 Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

There’s a strange disconnect at the heart of the play as it tries to find a way to evince both the devastation of the hurricane, where special effects can help, and the elusiveness of memory, where a deliberate porousness between eras and identities, decorated with a smattering of Shakespearean references, can only do so much. Smith’s play is highly suggestive in its setting and staging, but not quite convincing in terms of the particular characters who live through its changes.

As the aged Valeria, Adriana Sevahn Nichols is charming and somewhat mysterious, playing well the youthfulness of Valeria in her own mind. As Ximena, who we see go from fretful caretaker of Valeria and castigator of Miranda to fretful elder and castigator of Miranda, Maria-Christina Oliveras registers the changes in the family dynamic gracefully. As Miranda, Irene Sofia Lucio is best when flirtatious and youthful—chastened and regretful seems not to become her. As Young Valeria, her prestidigitation is impressive. Jennifer Paredes is brightly active as Alicia, and she brings the right note of earnest maturity to Val, the college student of 2019. As the aged Arturo, Jonathan Nichols handles well the best scene between Arturo and Valeria, where we learn how things ended up. And, as Young Alonso, Fernando, and Theo, Arturo Soria gets to show off his moves, his smile, his bod, his Spanish and to be an asset in every scene he’s in.

El Huracán can best be seen as an intergenerational love story, where the love is for family, Cuba, Florida, and other threatened areas, and where the generations are formulated as: a past long gone, a fitful present apt to fail its elders, and a future where, if there’s any hope, it’s in the young. It’s also a revisiting of the Tempest where the magician Valeria, unlike Prospero, can’t control the storms to come, nor when the book of the brain will be drowned.

 

El Huracán
By Charise Castro Smith
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Choreographer: Angharad Davies; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Projection Designer: Yaara Bar; Magic Designer: Christopher Rose; Puppet Designer: James Ortiz; Production Dramaturg: Amauta M. Firmino; Technical Director: Alex Worthington; Dialect Coach: Cynthia DeCure; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

 Cast: Irene Sofia Lucio, Jonathan Nichols, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jennifer Paredes, Adriana Sevahn Nichols, Arturo Soria

Yale Repertory Theatre
In collaboration with The Sol Project
September 29-October 20, 2018

A Hero of Our Time

Review of Man of La Mancha, Westport Country Playhouse

A revival of a popular crowd-pleaser has to make you wonder: is it to have on the schedule something everyone knows and loves, or is it to make a difference with a well-known war horse? The Westport Country Playhouse’s Man of La Mancha, directed by Mark Lamos, is having it both ways. It’s packing them in, as the saying goes, but it’s also spinning the show with an eye to our times.

Take that opening. Sure, the show always begins with Miguel de Cervantes (Philip Hernandez), the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, arriving at a prison that houses those who have run afoul of the agents of the Inquisition. That historical fact of Christianity, once persecuted and oppressed, become persecutor and oppressor is key to the setting, the background to Cervantes’ flights of fancy and the madness of his knight-errant. Here, Cervantes is escorted by officers who look like they work for ICE. And those bars at the edge of the stage remain in place until the dramatic shift into Cervantes’ tale. When the bars return, if they don’t make you think of a concentration camp and those cages for the children of immigrants, then you must be as great a fantasist as Don Alonso Quixano, the man whose imagination creates the world of Don Quixote.

 Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha (photos by Carol Rosegg)

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha (photos by Carol Rosegg)

The story, following Quixote’s adventures, tends to be tongue-in-cheek, as those he encounters know he’s mad, but find a certain amusement in humoring him. None sets that tone better than Michael Mendez, who plays the Innkeeper who is willing to dub Quixote a knight. Others, such as Aldonza (Gisela Adisa), a prostitute and serving girl, find playing along too strange, at least at first. Meanwhile, Quixano’s sister Antonia (Paola Hernandez) and his housekeeper (Lulu Picart) want him to come to his senses before something bad happens to his fortune—as they make clear in the witty number “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

 Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), Padre (Carlos Encinas), Antonia (Paola Hernandez)

Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), Padre (Carlos Encinas), Antonia (Paola Hernandez)

Gauging the point at which cynicism enters into the indulgence of Quixano/Quixote has always been part of the paradoxical story: we know Quixote’s vision is foolish but we indulge it because it’s more interesting than reality. But, here, when Quixote thunders that “facts get in the way of the truth” and nods at the audience’s reaction, we can begin to wonder why we are so willing to indulge a fantasist who believes that a gold-colored shaving dish is a helmet of real gold or that a prostitute is an elegant lady. In other words, this version of Man of La Mancha gets closer to Cervantes’ novel than, I expect, many a production of the musical ever has. And that aligns it well with our time in which—call it what you like—a sow’s ear remains a sow’s ear.

 Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez)

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez)

Granted, when the show won all those Tonys back in 1965, “The Impossible Dream,”—the show-stopping song that became ubiquitous in that period—might give backbone to a “glorious quest” to “march into hell” for the “heavenly cause” of stopping the spread of communism in southeast Asia. Once one entertains that notion, it’s easy to see how vainglorious are Don Quixote’s noble dreams.

And if that point needs more punch, there’s the rape of Aldonza by a pack of muleteers that Quixote and his friends—Aldonza and the ever-loyal Sancho Panza (Tony Manna)—had earlier dispatched in quite a busy fight scene (Michael Rossmy, fight director and intimacy coach). Quixote, foolishly, lets Aldonza “minister” to his fallen enemies. The rape, which Lamos handles as tastefully as one can, becomes uncomfortable sooner in the #MeToo era, particularly after the unsavory accusations that have been leveled at the most recent Republican Supreme Court nominee. To watch the scene was always to think about what it says about the nature of the reality Aldonza lives (despite Quixote’s romantic fantasy), but now it must make one think about the reality that even well-born and educated and successful women face, in all walks of life.

Certainly, when this show was decided on to fill this slot in Westport’s season, no one could know that Brett Kavanagh would be in the hotseat as the show opened, but it’s where we are now. Made all the more telling by that huge mirrored shield enacting Hamlet’s idea of the purpose of playing.

 Aldonza (Gisela Adisa) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha

Aldonza (Gisela Adisa) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha

As far as crowd-pleasing aspects of the show: start with the evocative stage design by Wilson Chin, which broods enough for a prison but has elements of sanctity as well, with that cathedral-like clerestory. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes are sumptuous when needed—such as the cape and armor of Quixote’s get-up or the threads that drape Antonia—and feature a range of homespun ensembles, and on Lulu Picart exciting color combos. As Aldonza, Gisela Adisa is perfectly outfitted, and she’s a tour de force of reactions and glances aside. Her movement and singing put much of the fire into the show, with “What Does He Want of Me” a high point in Act 1.

As our hero—a chastened Cervantes, a doddering Quixano, and, especially, a fully assertive Quixote—Philip Hernandez is perfect. He looks the part, tall and a little craggy, and he gives “The Impossible Dream” all the gusto it requires, letting the audience exult in its inspiring uplift. He’s abetted by Tony Manna’s Sancho, who shines best when we can see the wily peasant only too eager to serve whatever pays. He’s a little flat at times, not quite the colorful bon vivant one expects.

 Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez), Aldonza (Gisela Adisa)

Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez), Aldonza (Gisela Adisa)

The rest of the cast play a number of roles, as prisoners and as the persons in Quixote’s story. Particular mention goes to Esteban Suero’s great turn as the Barber (I wanted more of him!), Mendez’s canny Innkeeper, and Ceasar F. Barajas (Pedro) and Ian Paget (Anselmo), the prisoners/muleteers who lead “Little Bird,” and much of the action, which is eye-catching and well-choreographed throughout.

In the end, the “impossible dream” is likely what it always was: a glimmer of hope for those who are trying to make a sad reality better and more bearable. And while Mark Lamos’ Man of La Mancha perhaps needs a little more stirring to become the wonderful dish it could be, all the ingredients are there. And that’s no fantasy.

  

Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Musical Staging: Marcos Santana & Mark Lamos; Choreographer: Marcos Santana; Music Director: Andrew David Sotomayor; Music Supervisor: Wayne Baker; Fight Director/Intimacy Coach: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Samantha Shoffner; Production Stage Manager: Ryan Gohsman

Cast: Gisela Adisa, Ceasar F. Barajas, Carlos Encinias, Michael Scott Gomez, Philip Hernandez, Paola Hernandez, Tony Manna, Michael Mendez, Ian Paget, Lulu Picart, Jermaine Rowe, David Sattler, Clay Singer, Esteban Suero

Musicians: Ben Clymer, trombone; Nicholas DiFabbio, guitar; Daniel Louis Duncan, trumpet; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Joseph Russo, string bass; Marshall Sealy, French horn; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Westport Country Playhouse
September 25-October 13, 2018

Consider the Nutria of the Swamps

Preview of Rodents of Unusual Size, film screening at Real Art Ways, Hartford

Yo, dude. Got an urge to hunt and kill in large numbers? Then grab your arms and your ammo and get down to the Louisiana bayou where the scourge known locally as “nutria,” from the Spanish for “otter,” but more formally, myocastor coypus, and sometimes “coypu,” is eating its way through any and all vegetation that might give the coastal swampland a chance for survival. These “rodents of unusual size,” as the surprisingly amusing and enheartening documentary by Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer calls them (with a nod to The Princess Bride), can weigh as much as 20 lbs. and are generally 24 inches long, with a tail of a foot or more. They breed like rabbits and they are never dormant. As one spokesman for the local taskforce assigned with exterminating the critters puts it, “they are an invasive species that needs to be deleted.”

How did they get there? Do they have any advocates? Can they be acculturated? What’s the price on nutria tails? How long does it take to skin one? What do they taste like?  All these questions and more are answered in this gritty documentary that—like the local Cajuns, we’re told—is not afraid to get its hands dirty.

The documentary, from Tilapia films, followed by Q & A with Jeff Springer on opening night, will be featured at Real Art Ways, Hartford, from October 5th to 11th.

 Thomas Gonzales walks the decimated wetlands of southern Louisiana. (Still photos courtesy of Tilapia Film)

Thomas Gonzales walks the decimated wetlands of southern Louisiana. (Still photos courtesy of Tilapia Film)

In a nifty animated sequence, the film gives background on the phenomena. Apparently the same family that brought you Tabasco sauce, decided, during the Depression, that these “swamp rats,” imported from Argentina, could sustain a poor-man’s fur industry. With muskrats more scarce and too dear, nutria pelts did become a thing and Louisiana was in the forefront of our national fur industry for decades. But—as the locals tell it—when, in the 1980s and 1990s, animal activists came down on the fur industry, many trappers found their yields much less lucrative and decamped to other resources. And that left the prolific nutria without a predator.

As the film opens, the nutria are fair game and we see the work of local hunters who get $5 per tail through the “bounty incentive.” The tail is the proof of a kill; the Coastwide Nutria Control Program (in place since 2002) doesn’t want the animal carcass. And that leaves the question of whether or not there’s a market for other aspects of nutria.

 Thomas Gonzales defending Delacroix Island, Louisiana, from the invasion of nutria.

Thomas Gonzales defending Delacroix Island, Louisiana, from the invasion of nutria.

Through the film, we mostly follow the fortunes of Thomas Gonzales, descendant of the original Spanish-speaking peoples who settled on Delcroix Island, a shrinking landmass way down the bayou. He’s been working the waterways since age 13—crabbing, fishing, trapping, hunting alligators and nutria. Now, more than half-a-century later, he has survived major hurricanes, though his house and property haven’t. He, with his wife and son, are our main guides to the world the nutria has invaded, already a perilous environment. As his wife says, the water is your livelihood, but it’s also your enemy.

 Musician Kermit Ruffins frequently BBQs nutria before his shows.

Musician Kermit Ruffins frequently BBQs nutria before his shows.

Folk wisdom is on warm display in this film about people who have been formed by an environment and whose fierce identification with the land and water of the place gives them each a unique character. We also meet jazz musician Kermit Ruffins who tells us “cooking is improvisation, just like jazz,” as he tries to make nutria meat palatable to his community at block parties outside a club. The advocates of nutria-based cuisine say it’s “like” rabbit or maybe dark turkey meat, is very lean and, because nutria are vegetarians, very clean. Award-winning chef Susan Spicer says she does what she can to make the meat a treat, likening it to zucchini in its versatility. She also points out, sensibly, that people object to eating rabbit because bunnies are too cute. “No one will ever say that about nutria.” Indeed, most people can’t abide the notion of eating rodent, no matter how cheap its meat.

Then there are those who are trying to bring back the fur industry’s use of nutria. Calling her company Righteous Furs, designer Cree McCree thinks that the opprobrium placed on fur will be lifted when people realize that killing nutria is necessary for conservation, and that harvesting only the tails is a waste of very fine fur. We also meet Tab Pitre, whose family worked in the fur trade when it was an industry in Louisiana and, as a fur dealer, he is one of a dying breed. He knows that the harvesting of pelts won’t happen unless there’s a monetary incentive. Otherwise, the carcasses are left to rot in the marsh.

 Cree McCree designs new fashion for Righeous Fur, her organization that is promoting nutria fur as a stylish way to save the wetlands.

Cree McCree designs new fashion for Righeous Fur, her organization that is promoting nutria fur as a stylish way to save the wetlands.

There’s lots more—like an interesting discussion of how nutria tear up golf courses in the area, and the way that trappers must negotiate the sensitivities of “the rich folk” who consider exterminating the creatures shameful. There are some who have domesticated nutria—mostly, it seems, for the oddity of it—and others who seem quite willing to adopt the furry critters, with their prominent orange, beaver-like teeth, as mascots and local fauna. As one person says, the nutria have been in the bayou long enough to become honorary Cajuns.

The film saves the most fitting tribute to the last, as Thomas Gonzales admits that, when other forms of sustenance are scarce, you can always count on harvesting nutria. The nutria has been “a good friend” and fellow survivor in this unique environment. “I’m not going anywhere, and neither are they.”

 Filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer

Filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer

Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer specialize in interesting subcultural documentaries. Rodents of Unusual Size, like Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, their study of the Salton Sea area of California, a vast salt-flat where once were resorts, and the oddballs who still make it their home, captures the unique feel of a place and its people. Everyday Sunshine, their documentary of the fortunes of the band Fishbone and its fans is celebrated for its grasp of the many facets of show-business life. Rodents of Unusual Size has won documentary awards in a variety of festival venues from Nevada to Alabama, from Mississippi to California. The film’s pacing is exemplary, giving us just enough of each perspective on the nutria situation, and finding lots of quotable moments. My favorite was from a prayer written especially for the bayou community: “Spare us from the tragedies to come.” Amen.

 

Rodents of Unusual Size
From Tilapia Film
Chris Metzler, co-director, producer
Jeff Springer, co-director, cinematographer
Quinn Costello, co-director, editor
Wendell Pierce, narrator
Music by the Lost Bayou Ramblers

Real Art Ways Cinema
56 Arbor Street
Hartford, CT

October 5-11, 2018

Seek Hyde

Review of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Music Theatre of Connecticut

MTC opens its 32nd season with a real winner. ‘Tis the season to get scary and this production of Jekyll & Hyde fits right in, a dramatic adaptation of the hoary Robert Louis Stevenson classic about a man of science who experiments on himself and releases the demon within. As adapted to musical theater by Leslie Bricusse (Book and Lyrics) and Frank Wildhorn (music) and conceived for the stage by Wildhorn and Steven Cuden, Jekyll & Hyde isn’t a toe-tapper so much as a riveting foray into the darkness we may each harbor, in one form or another.

 Andrew Foote (Hyde), Elissa DeMaria (Lucy Harris) in the Music Theatre of Connecticut production of Jekyll & Hyde

Andrew Foote (Hyde), Elissa DeMaria (Lucy Harris) in the Music Theatre of Connecticut production of Jekyll & Hyde

As a popular show that was first staged in the 1990s, it’s likely that audiences have had a chance to see Jekyll & Hyde by now. Whether you have or not, be sure to take it in at the intimate space of MTC. Here, you’re thrust into the heart of the action as this very talented and intense cast delivers this show with a power that could easily fill a much larger theater. Director Kevin Connors has assembled a great troupe to put this tale through its paces and everyone is splendid.

The set is simplicity itself, a long riser stretching into shadowy offstage areas, with a crackerjack band led by David Wolfson behind an arras. Nothing distracts from the action, which is abetted by Diane Vanderkroef’s costumes—jackets, vests, flounces, bustles, hats, hair, whiskers, it’s all well realized. The mic sets can be obtrusive, here and there, but Will Atkins’ sound design is sharp and clear, and all the voices—whether commanding majestic arias or remarking sotto voce—are compellingly present.

 foreground: Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), Gabriel John Utterson (Sean Hayden), and the cast of Jekyll & Hyde

foreground: Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), Gabriel John Utterson (Sean Hayden), and the cast of Jekyll & Hyde

Despite the fact that our hero is also our villain and gets to own the stage, this is very much an ensemble piece in the sense that all the attendant figures help create this tale of a man at odds with his society, trying to prove something he believes will be of benefit to mankind but managing to ruin himself and nearly everyone else in the process. And, without getting too morbid, it might be fun to imagine some choice hypocritical leaders of our day falling into the hands of the ruthless Mr. Hyde, the way the board of governors does here. The song “Façade” felt only too relevant last week.

 Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote)

Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote)

In Henry Jekyll (Andrew Foote) we see a driven man, trying to convince a board of naysayers—Lady Beaconsfield (Kirsti Carnahan), Sir Archibald Proops (Peter McClung), the Bishop of Basingstoke (Lou Ursone), General Lord Glossop (Bill Nabel), and Sir Danvers Carew (Donald E. Birely—a welcome return), father of Jekyll’s betrothed—that he has developed a serum that will isolate the two aspects of humanity, the good and the evil. Rightfully skeptical, the board also fear what will become of the evil part, once isolated. Good question!

In fact, after Jekyll proceeds to experiment with himself as guinea pig, the evil part runs amok in the form of Edward Hyde, a more hirsute version of Jekyll with none of the latter’s kindness. We see Jekyll’s kindness when he, alone among those of his social class, takes pity on a prostitute named Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria). To her, he becomes a hero, and to his fiancée, Emma Carew (Carissa Massaro), he is a man without peer, even if he does seem to be treading into deep waters. Elissa DeMaria and Carissa Massaro have done much fine work in a variety of shows at MTC and it’s a treat to see them together here perform the affecting duet about their shared object, “In His Eyes.” Massaro’s Emma is a paragon of the Victorian virtues, a seemingly flawless Angel in the House, while DeMaria’s Lucy is both frisky—“Bring on the Men”—and increasingly vulnerable, “Sympathy, Tenderness.” As with the two sides of the hero, the two main female characters gesture at a dichotomy that our social norms never quite seem to bridge.

 Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria)

Lucy Harris (Elissa DeMaria)

Having to be both good and evil, alternately, falls to Andrew Foote’s very vulnerable—if somewhat overbearing—Jekyll and his monstrously vicious Hyde. Flinging a lengthy hairpiece over his visage for the latter and snarling, Foote’s performance is all the more fascinating for taking place so close to the audience. His singing voice is electrifying, and his energy as an actor is both scary and inspiring.

 Edward Hyde (Andrew Foote)

Edward Hyde (Andrew Foote)

And that’s the word, I’d use for the entire cast and production—inspiring. And that includes notable support by Sean Hayden as Gabriel John Utterson (Horatio to Jekyll’s Hamlet), Jeff Gurner, in a trio of roles, all impeccable, Christian Cardozo as a fussy Simon Stride, and Alexandra Imbrosci-Viera and Carolyn Savoia shape-shifting between courtesans and denizens of St. James.

In Kevin Connors’ capable hands, MTC’s Jekyll & Hyde shows what a small, regional theater can do when it sinks its teeth into a show it is able to realize fully. In its humble surroundings, this show bests some bigger houses we could name. This is a Jekyll & Hyde worth seeking.

 

Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Conceived for the stage by Steve Duden & Frank Wildhorn
Orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg
Arrangements by Jason Howland

Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by David Wolfson

Scenic Design: Michael Blagys and Kelly Burr Nelsen; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelsen; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Fight Choreography: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Donald E. Birely; Christian Cardozo; Kirsti Carnahan; Elissa DeMaria; Andrew Foote; Jeff Gurner; Sean Hayden; Alexandra Imbrosci-Viera; Carissa Massaro; Peter McClung; Bill Nabel; Carolyn Savoia; Lou Ursone

Music Theatre of Connecticut
September 28-October 14, 2018

Don't Open the Door!

Review of The Light Fantastic, Yale Cabaret

If you follow films, you know that the horror movie genre has certain set tropes and one that has become fairly prevalent is the spoof version—it retains the genre’s love of “gotcha” moments and the necessary feel of dread and suspense, but it also references beloved gotcha moments from earlier films, and retreads, affectionately or ironically, much of the familiar gobbeldy-gook that passes for the meaning/context of the dire events. Nice-guy psycho, pact with the devil, ancient burial grounds, evil rituals of the mundane (don’t watch that tape, turn on your set, answer the phone, or stay at that cabin!), and, of course, demonic possession. In The Light Fantastic, Windham-Campbell award-winning playwright Ike Holter revisits many of those genre expectations and re-tunes them to suit a contemporary tale of one woman’s path to redemption—or not.

Directed by Molly FitzMaurice at the Yale Cabaret, the play provides a few standout “gotchas” and, amazingly, in such a small space, manages to maintain a feeling of dread—despite the general air of hilarity that the audience might well bring to the proceedings. You know how people laugh when they’re scared? Yeah, like that.

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What’s to be scared of? Well, for starters there’s our main protagonist named—meaningfully—Grace (Moses Ingram). She’s more sinning than sinned-against, and tends to be bad news to anyone around her, not least the cop, Harriet (Anula Navlekar), a former schoolmate with a grudge, who shows up in answer to a call. It’s a great opening: we’re so distracted by the back-and-forth of these two antagonists we (and they) forget all about the reason the cop was called in the first place. Something evil could be happening, even though Harriet searched the premises and found nothing but some hellacious housekeeping. There follows one of those “before the titles” scenes (titles to be provided by an overhead projector) we’re all familiar with (think The Sixth Sense) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still pack a wallop.

Now we move forward into the present where Grace is back and trying to mend her ways. There’s a fairly feeble welcome-home party; not that many people are happy to see Grace, but a few can be counted on: her fuck-buddy Eddie (a very amusing Gregory Saint Georges), her bristly Mom (Adrienne Wells, spot on), and her mom’s therapist-buddy Adam (Noah Diaz, show-stealingly nerdy). A strange, uninvited guest (Doireann Mac Mahon) appears, a spooky girl with a face like a zombie and a mysterious present. As things develop we find out that the girl, Katrina, visited Grace before and she’s got some bad news about Grace’s current condition.

Suffice to say it involves a shaking set, sound effects, lights that flash and a door to utter blackness that we soon begin to fear seeing opened. There are stories of slaughtered sheep—this is somewhere in Indiana—and people disappearing or being sucked through the air, and it appears that Grace’s second-chance is on borrowed time. Holter combines the deadly and mostly offstage carnage with, onstage, Grace trying to come to terms with her mother, who has an affliction of her own, and even trying to make up with Harriet. The latter’s showboat speech late in the play riffs on many self-assertive ploys to arrive at a kind of revivalist vibe. Navlekar is perfectly cast as she has a special way of making a comic persona feel completely believable. Eventually, we meet an eerie demon who calls himself Rufus (played with satanic-slacker charm by Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) and it’s anyone’s guess how the story will end. Snatched screaming to hell like Faustus, or pull a switch and get a reprieve?

There’s a showdown where (to me anyway) the terms of the struggle are a bit murky, and one of those aftermath endings in which things seem to be better, though that might just be wishful thinking. The set, by Stephanie Bahniuk boasts a creepy door and creepy wallpaper and areas out of sight, the Lighting and other effects come by means of Emma Deane (lighting), Andrew Rovner (sound & music), with Rajiv Shah as technical director, and Olivia Plath in the booth as stage manager, while the creepy makeup for Katrina and Rufus is by Yunzhu Zeng.

The Light Fantastic (as in “tripping the”) lives up to its name. It’s playful and out-there. It toys with the genre and gives us, in Grace, a heroine who, in Ingram’s performance, seems way more likeable than her hellion backstory sketches her as, so that it’s not really clear why forces of evil have gotten involved. The characters are all articulate and engaging—as so rarely happens in horror movies—and that makes this something of a kitchen-sink meets occult phenomena play. It’s fun, it’s dark, and it’s got an edge.

Three winners in a row for Cabaret 51, which will be dark this week, then return with a devised piece in interaction with music star Kesha called Untitled Ke$ha Project by Latiana “LT” Gourzong, October 11-13.

 

The Light Fantastic
By Ike Holter
Directed by Molly FitzMaurice

Producer: Rebecca Adelsheim; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Set Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Makeup Designer: Yunzhu Zeng; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer & Composer: Andrew Rovner; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Noah Diaz, Gregory Saint Georges, Moses Ingram, Doireann Mac Mahon, Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells


Yale Cabaret
September 28-29, 2018

Office Politics

Review of Fade, Yale Cabaret

What is a community? Is it people who live in the same place, people who work in the same place or have the same job or pursue the same activities? Is it anyone of the same ethnicity, or who speaks the same language or worships the same God or values the same things? The term can apply to a number of situations, not all of which are commensurate. And the question of who belongs to the community and who doesn’t can be a contested matter.

In Fade, a play by Tanya Saracho at the Yale Cabaret, directed by Kat Yen, the question of whether or not the two characters belong to a community is key to the drama. Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martínez) is a new “token hire” on a team of writers developing a television show. Everyone else is white and male, and Lucia, as a female of color, feels both excitement at the opportunity and dismay at the racist perceptions of her colleagues. She reaches out to Abel (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a custodian, because they “look the same” as nonwhite workers.

 Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel knows all-too-well that, whether or not he and Lucia share a community—through Mexican heritage, the Spanish language, or by being nonwhite in a white man’s world—they are not colleagues. Her job station is well above his, and yet she’s willing to use a range of appeals—helpless female to capable male, companionable co-worker, fellow underappreciated employee of color, and possibly even sympathetic friend—to win him over. We see Abel, played quite effectively by Sánchez with wary charm, overcome his misgivings and resentment to be on Lucia’s side. While not a romantic comedy, there are certain elements that suggest we could be headed that way. In an earlier era, a story about a woman on her way up would find a possible love interest/nemesis in a man, manly in a traditional way, who makes her question why she puts her job before her heart. This isn’t that era.

In this era, a woman such as Lucia never has a thought that isn’t all about herself. She is a nonstop font of information about what’s happening in her world. A published novelist who should be working on her second novel, she has taken a job that she feels is beneath her—hence, perhaps, the ease with which she claims kinship with Abel—and is trying to cope. The play works so well at the Cabaret because of Martínez’s wonderful performance, mercurial and various while always seeming to be utterly genuine. Abel, who shows up every night to clean the offices, never knows what he’ll find—Lucia working late on an assignment, or brooding over slights at a meeting, or waiting to take a late night call from her boss in another time-zone, or going into deep angst after finally besting her main rival on the team. Each time, playful, distressed, or beseeching, she manages to draw him into her situation.

 Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Along the way, Abel parcels out bits of information about himself, but he’s not the kind to openly confide. When he finally does render a very dramatic evocation of an event from his past, he worries that he has given away too much. He has cause for concern.

What makes the play more than simply a drama of how difficult mismatched friendship can be is the context of the world Saracho is presenting. It’s a world where something that might unite people—a shared cultural background, a first-language in common—can also be divisive if such markers, often used to ghettoize people, are feared as efforts to pigeonhole or label. Lucia and Abel did not originate in the same neighborhoods, and the differences play not only into what they can assume about each other culturally but who they are at work. No one, we might believe, is wholly defined by their occupation, but neither can a workplace friendship ever lose sight of what it means to be on the job. Saracho applies such pressure points usefully throughout without ever making the story feel too manipulated.

Set in an office space that looks like an open cage, Fade knowingly evokes the workplace as both a source of security and a place of anxious efforts to be oneself and to better oneself. The only real risk for Abel is to be caught slacking off (though he does have a secret he shouldn’t divulge); the risk for Lucia is that her attempts to assert herself creatively may backfire. In that she shares her precarious position with other communities—women in the workplace, persons of color expected to be “representative” of a poorly understood demographic—and as such we’re on her side, up to a point. That point is reached, dramatically, in a way that any member of yet another community—writers—might well recognize, with different views. Does anyone own the copyright on their own experience?

Well-paced by director Kat Yen, Fade lets tension and entertainment support one another as we learn more about these characters on their paths of support and exposure. In the end, Saracho leaves us with the realization that betrayal may simply be part of a writer’s job.

 

Fade
By Tanya Saracho
Directed by Kat Yen
Proposed by Juliana Aiden Martínez

Producer: Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer: Kat Yen; Technical Director: Yara Yarashevich

Cast: Juliana Aiden Martínez, Dario Ladani Sánchez

Yale Cabaret
September 20-22, 2018

Child's Play

Review of Make Believe, Hartford Stage

Bess Wohl and Jackson Gay, the author and director, respectively, of Make Believe, the opening play of the 2018-19 season at Hartford Stage, worked together early in their careers, collaborating at the Yale Cabaret while students in the Yale School of Drama. That fact seemed significant to me while watching Make Believe, which might work best as a one act (such as one sees at the Cabaret). Here, the play is in two parts without intermission, and it’s the second part, which has to make believe it depicts the present day of the kids we meet in the first part, that suffers from cuteness and an uncertain tone. The first part, played by actors under age 12, is dynamite.

Four kids, ranging from the eldest, Chris (Roman Malenda), to Kate (Sloane Wolfe) to Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) to the youngest, Carl (RJ Vercellone), who is about five but doesn’t talk, occupy themselves in a huge playroom in a house where the adults are absent. Certainly, that’s meant to make the helicopter-parents among us feel freaked out, and it doesn’t help that we have to keep hearing Mom’s chipper voice on the answering machine (still a relatively novel device in the 1980s when the first part is set) as a series of callers leave messages about missed appointments and, from a distraught husband, a garble of bitterness. Mom’s MIA, in short, and the kids aren’t quite alright.

 Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

To amuse themselves, the kids—who, we expect, take care of themselves quite a lot—tend to play house, with Chris a funnily morbid pater who likes to let his family know that, eventually, we all get to either rot or get burnt up, we have no other choices. Kate, as the mom, is able to take a right to the jaw and get right back to work on whatever dinner might be. Addie, who has her own baby in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll, is apt to be off in her own world, and Carl is perfectly happy playing the dog, pantomimed pissing included.

The version of life the children get up to is darkly entertaining. We never forget (that damned phone won’t let us!) that they’re on their own for what starts to feel a distressing length of time. A letter Kate writes to the late Princess Grace (not knowing the celebrity has just died) lets us know not only that Kate may be the unknown offspring of the Princess of Monaco (compare the bone structure) but that the kids have eaten most of the food in the house, including the frozen stuff.

 Chris (Roman Malenda)

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Wohl’s dialogue is wonderfully sharp and zestfully foul-mouthed as only children—for whom each expletive is a gem—can be. As Chris, Roman Malenda gets several chances to shine: first in an under the sheet-tent tale about a boy he dislikes, then in a call to school—as a British nanny—to excuse the children from attending. At times he has an odd quirk of raising his voice mid-sentence for emphasis, as though a suppressed passion is ready to burst forth. As Kate, Sloane Wolfe is studiedly adult as precocious children often are, and she’s ready to defect. The younger kids are wonderfully physical in their ability to romp as if they aren’t in fact onstage. Playing a young girl at play is something Alexa Skye Swinton does remarkably well.

If the play ended when the child’s portion does, we would have to connect the dots and, who knows, might even have to allegorize a bit what the adults are doing to this insular world we’ve come to know and love. Instead, what a falling-off is there! Enter adult versions of the children, played with a kind of tense familiarity while speaking lines meant to connect things from then to now.

 Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

As Kate, Megan Byrne is still trying to cope with everything that doesn’t add up. As Addie, Molly Ward is a mom herself (remember that Cabbage Patch doll?) and still trying to be a free spirit. Brad Heberlee’s Carl is at first MIA himself, then arrives to give a speech he was meant to deliver earlier. His extended crying jag that morphs into the howl he exulted in as family pet is a good example of the earnestness of the dot-connecting and underlining going on. Chris (a different one) played by the always presentable Chris Ghaffari is on hand to earn jokes about Millennials, be the object of MILF desire, and, yes, even a lover in mourning. Ghaffari handles it all by being sweet, as his namesake would never be. Thus we lose much of the acid that the irrepressible playacting master of the house interjected into the proceedings. Pity. Meanwhile, there are jokes at the expense of Scandinavians, a demographic (I guess) it’s still okay to otherize.

 Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Wohl, not content with the dysfunction among the adults in this family, has to give us an explanatory moment that adds more distress, from other adults in the past. Kate objects to the way that bit of backstory gets dropped into the scene, and I have to agree with her.

If you ever needed, in the course of one evening, evidence about how sad it is we grow up, find it here. Jackson Gay is to be commended on how seamlessly this show runs, and for having the guts and heart to direct this play on the big stage, with great help from a set both spacious and cluttered by Antje Ellerman, effective but unobtrusive lighting cues by Paul Whitaker, with music by Broken Chord and, no doubt, very vital stage managing by Rob Chikar and Kelly Hardy.

There’s much to think about here in terms of how we portray children, protect and neglect children, and project ourselves onto (and back to) children, as well as how children grow into the world as they find it. A fascinating evening of theater.

 

Make Believe
By Bess Wohl
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Original Music & Sound Design: Broken Chord; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast: Megan Byrne, Chris Ghaffari, Brad Heberlee, Roman Malenda, Alexa Skye Swinton, RJ Vercellone, Molly Ward, Sloane Wolfe

Hartford Stage
September 6-30, 2018

 

 

Peter Pan's Origin Story

Review of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park

Ever wonder how Peter Pan became Peter Pan? If yes, then Peter and the Starcatcher, the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Peason and the play adapted from it by Rick Elice, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Sean Harris, will be just the ticket. Its conceit is that we’re watching a telling of the story much as children might perform it, with whatever materials come to hand—toy ships, and crates, and bits of rope to outline a ship’s hull. This lends the story a very busy immediacy, charming if a bit belabored.

The telling is worth more than the tale, in many ways, because the twists and turns often seem motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep the episodic story going. That’s particularly true in the setup featuring twin crates on two different ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, that are simply elaborate MacGuffins more or less (one of the crates contains either treasure or stardust, the other sand). Eventually, everyone is off the ships and getting washed up on the shore of an island where magical things begin to happen.

 Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

In the Playhouse on Park production the lively tone, needed for all that exposition, gets bogged-down in the telling. It’s the sort of play that requires very good diction because most of the dialogue is silly, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get much. Silliness is the play’s strength, but here it seems to take a backseat to a certain earnestness that gets in the way.

One could imagine the play done with actual children so as to maintain the childishness the story thrives on—with farts and bad puns and wry slippages (“dyke” for “deck,” for instance). Here, only Natalie Sannes as an indomitable Molly (the girl who becomes a chum to Boy with No Name (Jared Starkey) who will become Peter Pan) fully maintains the requisite sense of make believe, like a child on a playground. If she were, it’s likely she’d be a bit nonplussed that her playmates haven’t her concentration. She’s a delight throughout, acting with an innocent single-mindedness that dissipates for most people around age ten. As Boy, Jared Starkey seems a bit wishywashy in the early going, but grows into the part well, as Peter should. He’s on a learning curve to become a hero, with Molly’s good will making that happen.

 Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Able support in the large cast comes from Bill Daniels as Slank (one of the ship’s captains) who gets a very funny tragic moment in Act 1, and from Elena V. Levenson as Fighting Prawn, the outrageously Italian “native” king of a tropical island (all the actors play ensemble parts as well and Levenson is particularly busy). Colleen Welsh is better as a Scottish mermaid than she is as the Cockney Mrs. Brumbake, whose always alliterative pronouncements should be clearer and quicker.

As second-in-command to the dastardly villain (we’re getting there), Miss Sandra Mhlongo is a Smee who seems quite at home in the absurdity, and times well her corrections of the boss’s verbal errors. As her master Black Stache, Matthew Quinn gets to chew more scenery than does that fearsome crocodile made of planks. Quinn has assayed the part of Hook in more than one incarnation and he seems to the manner born in his fey and flighty bonhomie and casual malapropisms. One way to know it’s an adventure story is that the villain will be the best part, and that’s certainly true here.

 Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

The songs, by Wayne Barker, are mostly little ditties that crop up within the narrative, though “Swim On” has the rousing quality necessary for an Act 1 closer. “Mermaid Outta Me,” the Act 2 opener, is even better, abetted by Kate Bunce’s fanciful costumes, and a highpoint of the show, though not much related to the plot.

And that’s pretty much the way of the show—lots of exposition, random action (not all of it necessary, one feels), deliberately bad jokes that don’t always land in all the busyness, halfhearted songs with a few showstoppers, and here and there, something that’s bound to tickle your fancy (at the show I saw, one audience member had an extended laugh at the sight of Alf (James Fairchild) transformed into a mermaid). The staging is quite imaginative, in its own right, and that helps, but, for the sake of the plot, there’s a lot of eager loose-ends-tying at the close simply to make the legend of Peter Pan take shape as it must.

This Peter and the Starcatcher is catch-as-catch-can.

 

Peter and the Starcatcher
A play by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Sean Harris

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Lighting Designer: Joe Beumer; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Judi Manfre; Musical Arrangements: Melanie Guerin and Sean Rubin

Cast: Brianna Bagley, Thomas Daniels, James Fairchild, Elena V. Levenson, Miss Sandra Mhlongo, James Patrick Nelson, Nick Palazzo, Matthew Quinn, Nicholas Dana Rylands, Natalie Sannes, Jared Starkey, Colleen Welsh

 

Playhouse on Park
September 12-October 14, 2018

New Plays, Long Wharf Theatre

Preview: Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, September 21-22, 2018

This year, the fourth annual festival of staged readings at Long Wharf Theatre, curated by Long Wharf literary manager Christine Scarfuto, arrives a month earlier than last year. And that means it’s easier to take advantage of this always interesting sneak peek at plays on the way to major productions, before the New Haven theater season opens.

When I spoke to Scarfuto last week, she was taking a break from watching a staged reading. For her job at LWT, she reads about 150-175 plays a year, for both the Long Wharf season and for the festival. She believes a staged reading of a play is preferable to reading it oneself. And sometimes, I’d add, it can be better than a full production where unrealized factors can distract from a play’s virtues.

The advantage of the staged reading as mounted at the Festival—with actors, a director and some staging—is that not only might we hear the voice of the play more clearly, but, as Scarfuto points out, “audiences get to be ears and eyes in the room” for the ongoing development of the play, as it becomes more solidified. “A Talk Back follows each play and the author and the director of the production are present” to engage with the audience about the play, its process, and to take comments and questions.

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This year, a play that was featured two years ago in the Festival—Boo Killibrew’s Miller, Mississippi—will receive a full production in the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-19 season, a development that, Scarfuto said, was one of the hopes for the Festival. While virtually all of the plays featured in the Festival have gone onto productions, this is the first time that a Festival play will be produced by Long Wharf, a gratifying outcome.

The means by which plays come to Scarfuto’s attention varies from play to play, but she’s always on the lookout to “find new voices, different perspectives.” The plays selected for the Festival have generally been worked on, and most have had productions, but, as unpublished plays, the works at the Festival can still be considered in process.

“The purpose of the festival is to introduce our audience to exciting new plays and playwrights and to create a pipeline for future productions at Long Wharf Theatre,” Scarfuto said.

Three playwrights are featured this year: Kevin Artigue, Angella Emurwon, and Torrey Townsend.

 Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue (Sheepdog) writes plays, TV, and film. Raised in Redlands, CA, he lives in Brooklyn, and his plays have been developed with Page 73, the Public Theater, South Coast Rep, the National New Play Network, New York Theater Workshop, Portland Center Stage, Golden Thread, Theatre of NOTE, the Playwrights Foundation, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Great Plains Theatre Conference, University of Iowa, and the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. A former member of Interstate 73 Writers Group and the Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, Artigue holds an MFA from Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

 Angella Emurwon

Angella Emurwon

Angella Emurwon (Strings) is a writer, award-winning playwright, stage director, and screenwriter based in Tororo, Uganda. Of her three radio plays (Blackberry Girls!, 2009; The Cow Needs a Wife, 2010; and Sunflowers Behind a Dirty Fence, 2012), two have won BBC Audio Drama Awards. Strings, her first full-length stage play, received a dramatic reading directed by Rogers Otieno at the 2014 Kampala International Theatre Festival. She is a Sundance Institute East Africa fellow, a member of the 2013 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and a Maisha Film Lab screenwriting and youth mentor.

 Torrey Townsend

Torrey Townsend

Torrey Townsend (Night Workers) received an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. Townsend’s most recent play, The Workshop, was produced by theater incubator SoftFocus, directed by Knud Adams, and starred Austin Pendleton. A New York Times “Critic’s Pick,” The Workshop was described as “an incisive and insightful tale of ambition and envy, inspiration and mediocrity,” and by Sara Holdren at vulture.com as “one hell of an evening of theater.” Other works include A Night Out and Home Universe (Knud Adams, director).

For Scarfuto, “new work is the lifeblood of the theatre, it’s what keeps the art form vital and alive. We’re thrilled to bring these new voices to our audience.”

Strings, by Angella Emurwon, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, kicks off the festival Friday, September 21, at 7 pm. Scarfuto has known of the play for a few years and is very excited to be able to include it this year. Set in a village in Uganda, the play is “a gorgeous, rich family drama,” both “comical and poignant.” A patriarch returns to his family after an absence of 20 years, during which time the image his family has given him of their lives is markedly different from the reality. The play uses different voices in its telling, including African song chants and is, Scarfuto said, ultimately about “coming to terms with what life is, and the choices we make in our lives.”

Sheepdog, by Kevin Artigue, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, is next up, on Saturday, September 22, at 5:30 pm. Artigue is a writer Scarfuto has known since their days at Iowa. Already familiar with his work, she chose Sheepdog because it “speaks to this moment,” particularly in light of a recent killing of a black man in his own home by a white female police officer without apparent cause. In Artigue’s play, set in contemporary Cleveland, an interracial love story between two police-persons, one female and black, the other white and male, becomes fraught with “fall-out” after the male officer, in the line of duty, shoots a black man, raising questions and issues in his lover’s mind. The play, Scarfuto said, “speaks to a lot of the issues America is facing right now surrounding police violence in the black community, both from an intellectual and emotional perspective. It’s also a riveting story. It really pulls you in.”

Night Workers by Torrey Townsend closes the Festival on Saturday, September 22, at 8 pm. Townsend’s play came to Scarfuto through director Knud Adams, who has worked with the playwright on several of his plays. Scarfuto knew of Townsend’s work, as The Workshop “got lots of press,” and she found Night Workers particularly relevant while reading it this summer. Set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held in a repurposed bar in Brooklyn, the play, Scarfuto said, is “deeply human and not sentimental” as it treats of “resilience on the road to recovery.” With the dismaying number of overdoses requiring medical intervention on the New Haven Green this summer, the play struck a chord in its sympathetic treatment of substance abuse and the way disparate lives can touch one another through common difficulties.

Each of the plays has distinctive situations to offer audiences and unique perspectives on our times. There will be a Happy Hour with half-off drinks before each reading and other refreshments available. “It’s a great opportunity for people in the community to meet and mingle with artists and fellow theatergoers, to see great work and have a good time. That’s the energy we want to cultivate at the festival,” Scarfuto said.

Tickets are $10 each, or all three readings for $25. Reservations can be made by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting longwharf.org.

The festival is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Burry Fredrik Foundation.

Long Wharf Theatre
September 21-22, 2018

Blood Will Have Blood

Review of The Purple Flower, Yale Cabaret

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The Yale Cabaret is back, opening its 51st season with The Purple Flower, a powerful and fairly obscure work by Marita Bonner. Bonner, an African American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though based in Chicago, published the play in W.E.B. DuBois’ Crisis magazine in 1928. It was given readings but no full production in her lifetime. Its themes, unfortunately, are still timely 90 years later.

At the Cabaret, the show’s proposer Mika H. Eubanks, director Aneesha Kudtarkar, and a talented team, many of them Cabaret associates this year, have devised a unique presentation of the play. Bonner’s script allows for over a dozen parts, but the Cabaret does it all with two mercurial actors, Ciara Monique McMillian (as the male characters of “the US’s”) and Adrienne Wells (as the female characters of “the US’s”). The brief non-speaking roles of “Sundry White Devil” are played, with masks and foppish manners and duds complete with tails, by Devin White and Patrick Young.

The text lends itself well to this streamlined approach, giving us a poetic play, amorphous in its characterizations. The action shows a collective of dark-skinned US’s pitting themselves against sundry white devils. The white devils hold the hilltop where the purple flower can be found. Their main intention is to keep the US’s from having access to it. Set on long planks surrounded by the detritus of what the text calls “the thin skin of civilization,” the play occurs in a mythic time that is both current and ancient (as is racism itself).

The play’s dialogue renders, at times almost telegraphically, the various views of the situation among the US’s. Some, like a lazy male who can’t be bothered, assume that sooner or later the situation will change; others, like an old woman who has slaved away for decades in hopes of improving her station, are becoming embittered. The tenor of the piece is to suggest—with a kind of light satire—the state of the US’s as they fool themselves into thinking that education (a bag of books) or wealth (a bag of gold) will gain them acceptance by the white devils. Bonner cannily alludes to the disappointments of such strategies, pointing, in the end, toward a more direct confrontation.

Describing the plot schematically is to rob the play of much of its poetry. Bonner’s text works like a parable. The language makes use of the prophetic mode found in the Bible and in works that derive from its sense of mysteries and portents. Much of the fascination is in trying to grasp the world portrayed and to see the world we know through its eyes.

The relation of one US to another is conveyed through dialogue, action, and movement, and McMillan and Wells are tellingly effective in rendering the different voices and mannerisms within the community. “Average,” for instance, a middle-aged, middle-class male, is brought to life by McMillian with a hat, a stoop, and a kind of laissez-faire patriarchy that’s all in the voice and body language. Sweet and Finest Blood represent the generation that may finally unseat the white devils. Sweet is girlish and lively, until molested by a white devil hiding in the bushes; her brother Finest Blood wants to avenge her honor.

An Old Woman, saying “it’s time!,” mixes, in a hard-iron pot, a handful of dust, the books, the gold, and, finally, blood, to produce “the New Man.” The refrain, “blood has been taken, blood must be given,” suggests one or both of two things: a mixing of blood—as in mating and intermarriage—or a shedding of blood, as in a fight to the finish. Finest Blood, as a figure associated deliberately with Isaac, whose father, Abraham, was called upon to sacrifice him in Genesis, might seem a possible victim, but he also emerges as a David against a Goliath, or a Christ before the Romans. The blood that must be given, in our day, might sound like a call for reparation of some kind for the social and political crimes committed against African Americans.

Bonner’s text is rich with the aesthetic tendency—a common practice among vanguard artists of the 1920s—to find new meaning in old myths and political significance in religious imagery. The play’s ultimate meaning, as with any parable, is ambiguous, but the show’s skillful presentation here makes for a thought-provoking and fascinating kick-off for the new season.

 

The Purple Flower
By Marita Bonner
Conceived by Mika H. Eubanks and Aneesha Kudtarkar
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme; Co-Dramaturgs: Christopher Audley Puglisi, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Movement Director: Leandro Zaneti; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Adrienne Wells, Devin White, Patrick Young

 

Yale Cabaret
September 14-15, 2018

The Yale Cabaret Returns

Preview of the Yale Cabaret’s 51st season opener

Yale Cabaret, the distinguished basement theater at 217 Park Street, celebrated 50 years of existence last season. A black box into which current students in the prestigious Yale School of Drama place their passion projects—favorite works, brand new collaborations, original plays, devised pieces, and theatrical provocations—the Yale Cabaret provides challenging and vibrant theatrical experiences.

 Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

The team for Cabaret 51 consists of Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong, with Managing Director Armando Huipe, all third-years in the YSD program. FitzMaurice studies Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Gourzong is a student of Technical Design & Production, and Huipe of Theater Management. FitzMaurice directed last season’s closer, Camille, and has been a producer of at least five other shows at the Cab, in addition to dramaturgical work for the Yale Repertory Theatre (Native Son). Gourzong has worked on shows in YSD and the Yale Rep, and served as the Yale Cabaret Production Manager last fall. Among Huipe’s affiliations are the steering committee of the national Latinx Theatre Commons as a member of the Cultivation and Governance Committee, Yale’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and the YSD Latinx affinity space, El Colectivo. Huipe served last year as Assistant Managing Director for YSD and Yale Repertory Theatre.

The sixth decade gets underway this weekend with a production of Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower, conceived by Mika H. Eubanks, a third-year costume designer, and directed by third-year director Aneesha Kudtarkar. The play falls into the category of “overlooked masterpiece.” Originally published in 1928 and never produced in the lifetime of its author, The Purple Flower, is “credited as the first known experimental work” by an African American woman, mixing “biblical imagery and political allegory” to “disrupt the thin skin of civilization.” Bonner’s text, said FitzMaurice, who worked on the production, “has already proved a fertile meeting ground for our team of collaborators, and I cannot wait to share this vividly theatrical and still too-urgent revival with our audiences.” Gourzong praised the team’s “love, joy, and compassion that will inevitably explode through the work in truly beautiful ways.”

The show plays only two nights this weekend, Friday, September 14, and Saturday, September 15, with two shows each night, at 8 pm and 11 pm. Full dinner service begins at 6:30 pm before the 8 pm performances, and a late-night menu is offered beginning at 10 pm for the 11 pm performances. Beer and wine are available.

During the summer, Huipe announced the hiring of Dana Cesnik Doyle of Queen of Tarts Catering as Chef for the 2018-19 season. Though the Cab’s artistic and managing directors change each season, this marks the first change-over in the Cab kitchen in fourteen years. Huipe extended the team’s heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Chef Anna Belcher, who helmed the dining experience at the Yale Cabaret since 2004, for all her fine work with the students of the Drama School.

Queen of Tarts began in Ojai, California, in 2012, but Cesnik Doyle, originally from Chatham, New Jersey, moved back to Connecticut in 2016. She has catered events for the Yale Sustainable Food Program, as well as the Medical School, the Divinity School Library, and the Yale University Library Council. Cesnik Doyle’s cuisine is “influenced by her time in California,” and features ingredients from “local farms, farmers markets, and her garden in Hamden.”

“Dana’s food is delicious,” Huipe said, “she brings an ambitious energy to the kitchen that matches the talents and efforts of everyone working on the performances onstage. Our goal is to provide a full, cohesive, and continuous experience from dinner and drinks through the performance.” The team, said FitzMaurice, is “thrilled to partner with Dana for her inaugural season. Her food delights—with fresh ingredients, inventive flavors, elegant presentation, and a witty sense of fun that feels right at home in the Cabaret.” Gourzong added that “opening our doors, minds, and artistic selves to a new human at the Cab” adds excitement to the start of the season, as “Dana herself brings such joy to the kitchen,” and the opportunity to “create memories and share stories” with the Cabaret community.

This year’s team stresses the importance of its many supportive patrons in helping the Cabaret continue its mission in entertaining and thought-provoking theater. Patrons are encouraged to donate in whatever capacity suits their budget, from Season Sponsors, at $5,000, to Friends of the Cabaret at $50. Cab 51 continues the practice of allowing patrons to sponsor individual shows, at $500. An opportunity to put your money to good use, supporting talented artists early in their careers, such as the incredible roster of names who worked at the Cabaret as students, including Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Christopher Durang, Paul Giametti, Lynn Nottage, Sigourney Weaver, Lupita N’yong’o, Henry Winkler, Tony Shalhoub, and the Pulitzer-winning playwright of 2018, Martyna Majok.

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For information about tickets, dinner reservations, donations, and sponsorships, go to the Cabaret website at www.yalecabaret.org, or call (203) 432-1566 during regular box office hours (Tues.-Sat., 2:30 pm - 5:30 pm, and 90 minutes before performances). Tickets range from $12-$25.

Next up: Fade by Tanya Saracho, a Chicago playwright from México, who writes for HBO; directed by second-year director Kat Yen, September 20-22: “Two Latinos at a Hollywood studio: one writes; one cleans. Can they subvert the stereotypes of a whitewashed TV show? Tanya Saracho’s timely play explores race, class, and the politics of belonging within the Latinx community.”

 

Yale Cabaret 51, 2018-19 season

Action Kafka

Review of The Understudy, Westport Country Playhouse

Once again, Westport’s co-artistic director David Kennedy has found a notable play to direct. Theresa Rebeck’s multivalent comedy The Understudy has entertaining fun with theater, show-biz, romantic comedy, and Kafka. Kennedy’s direction weaves together the various levels of the play’s action in a very engaging way, keeping before us the play’s main contention: theater is the existential art par excellence.

The play opens with a bang, literally, as Harry (Eric Bryant), the titular character, storms into the theater shooting off a prop gun, threatening the audience to turn off their damn cell phones (with good reason: let’s compare most egregious cell phone disruption at a play). Harry, as he proceeds to tell us, is a respectable actor who has taken on the role of understudy in a theatrical version of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which—in the play’s fiction—is playing on Broadway. The Kafka play stars a Hollywood action hero known only as “Bruce” whose “quote” for a film is upwards of $22 million. We never see him.

 Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

The other actor in the show, who will have to go on for Bruce if he should be absent for some reason, is Jake (Brett Dalton), an up-and-coming (he hopes) film actor, far below Bruce in pecking order, but far above Harry. As it’s explained at one point, in Shakespearean terms, Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and Harry is seventh spear carrier. Harry, in fact, missed getting a small part in the disaster film that Jake is currently starring in. Its breakaway line—“Get in the truck!”—gets a lot of comic mileage.

Harry will understudy Jake, so that if Jake has to take Bruce’s part—which is a multi-character role, basically every character but the protagonist—Harry will take Jake’s. Helping along this percolating male rivalry, and at times aghast at it, is Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), the beleaguered Stage Manager. She’s very good at her job, but her emotions get involved because—the romantic comedy aspect—she and Harry have history. He jilted her.

 Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

That romantic subplot gives considerable status to Roxanne and lets Syglowski run away with a number of scenes. She’s very good at playing sarcasm, emotional explosion, and self-conscious irritation, all in the same speech. The romantic comedy elements work into the actors’ one-upmanship quite well, particularly with the staging of kiss before or after slap.

Roxanne’s distress is what makes real-life messiness impinge on the make-believe of the theater and the “can you believe it” of show biz. The earning ability of pointless, barely entertaining movies, and the money and power of those who star in them, is the source of Harry’s bitterness, and Bryant is generally entertaining in putting across Harry’s realization that, in terms of the star system, he’s wasting his life and his talent and is a nothing. His failure with Roxanne shows that he’s not even very good at starring in his own life. Cue Kafka.

Kafka is a dead writer with considerable hipster cred—virtually unknown and mostly unpublished in his lifetime, he’s now a household word (well, in literate households), his name synonymous with a state of modern anomie in which the experience of living is a kind of purgatory of dread and uncertainty, marked by the creeping suspicion that all decisions and actions—and the success or failure they entail—are arbitrary in an arbitrary world. For some must understudy whilst some must star, and so runs the world away.

One of the play’s easy jokes is that a three-hour play derived from Kafka would be a hit on Broadway if only an actor with Bruce’s instant recognizability would take part. We may be reminded of unlikely hits in which a similar casting coup carried the day, and that’s the point. Very capable actors find themselves earning “real money” as minor characters in Law and Order, while big name actors can make or break plays beyond their skill set.

Which puts the focus on Jake. Assumed to be an unintelligent, talentless success by Harry, Dalton’s Jake is an acting enthusiast as only a fan boy can be. He speaks of Kafka with the kind of relentless admiration generally reserved for Dr. Who or Star Trek. He makes the telling point that the $2 million he received for the disaster epic “doesn’t go very far,” when you consider how much money has to be shelled out to keep his circus running. Theater is always precarious, but perhaps more precarious is remaining “A-list”—even more precarious is trying to break into that world, as Jake hopes to do.

 Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

At Westport, a key comic element works well. Up in the booth is Laura, Roxanne's assistant, seemingly a stoner who misses cues, won’t take direction, and switches scenery unasked. She’s a kind of demented god in the machine, cueing the Kafka play’s sets and making The Castle—our play is supposedly a run-through rehearsal—pursue its arc, from bar-room to trial room to prison cell, letting each change contribute to the exchanges among the trio. The changes let us know not only where we are in the shambles of a rehearsal but also where we are in terms of The Understudy’s own arc. One of the underlying perks of The Understudy is that any given production gets to determine how a “Broadway play of The Castle” might look and sound. Andrew Boyce’s scenic designs, complete with Disneyesque castle backdrop, Matthew Richards’ lighting design, and Fitz Patton’s sound design, with Kennedy’s direction, almost make us wish the play were real. The delightful “old soft shoe” in the conclusion is a suitably existentialist gesture, as in Kafka meets Chaplin.

Not everything in the script is as sharp as it could be. The use of fortuitous exits and of the oft-stated and just as oft forgotten fact that everything said on the stage can be heard throughout the building at times forces action or revelation in highly scripted ways. But even that is not without charm, since Rebeck’s working conceit is that life has its “cues” and its “reveals” in ways that seem to be part of a play. The Kafkaesque sense that our lives may be rehearsals for a part we never get to play (see “Before the Law”) underscores The Understudy with understated irony. Life is so unfunny all we can do is laugh at it. Amusing theater helps.

 

The Understudy
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Maiko Matsushima; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Choreographer: Noah Racey; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy

Cast: Eric Bryant, Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski

Westport Country Playhouse
August 14-September 1, 2018

 

A Satanic Sock-Puppet

Review of Hand to God, TheaterWorks

A hand-puppet goes rogue with hilariously scary results in Robert Askins’ Hand to God, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Tracy Brigden. Brigden directed the show at City Theatre in Pittsburgh and several veterans of that cast are in the production at TheaterWorks, which features a gripping intimacy that fully exploits the play’s foul-mouthed charm.

Key to the production’s success is Nick LaMedica’s simply stupendous turn as Jason, the bashful and depressed son of a Sunday school teacher, Margery, who is trying to put together a hand-puppet performance among her charges, and as Tyrone, the hand-puppet with a mind and voice of its own that takes over the play like a male monster of the Id. At first, Tyrone, like a ventriloquist’s dummy with the dirt on its master, is simply a bit too forthright in expressing what Jason would rather not say, then, after Jason fails to destroy him, he sprouts fangs and turns Jason into his aghast appendage.

 Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica) (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica) (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

As Margery, Lisa Velten Smith is also perfectly cast, with a surprising mix of religious fervor, impatient mothering, and volcanic passions. Her husband, Jason’s father, has died recently and the loosely-structured plot uses that event as a way of explaining the wild mood swings of his surviving family. Both mother and son are seemingly schizophrenic in veering between their normal, mealy-mouthed personae and the extremes of their out-of-control acting up. It may be a bit too-too to have mother and son both fly off into surprising behavior—on paper—but on stage it works because the manic version of Margery, and Tyrone, as the vicious version of Jason, are so much fun.

 Jessica (Maggie Carr), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Jessica (Maggie Carr), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

And the rest of the cast is not just a bunch of straight-persons to these hyperbolic hi-jinx. As Jessica, Maggie Carr is a great comic asset, playing a mostly imperturbable teen whose lending a hand-puppet in an explicit seduction scene with Tyrone is one of Act Two’s high-points. Miles G. Jackson plays Timmy as a tough kid with feet of clay, or maybe just a confused teen with the mercurial nature that implies. He’s got a crush on Margery, resents Jason, and sneers at everything, that is until Tyrone shows his bite is as good as his bark. And as Pastor Greg, Peter Benson’s musing tone keeps the unctuous platitudes of the local religious leader from being a mere cliché. He’s got his eye on Margery too and his effort at seduction, for all that it tries to pose as anodyne and uplifting, is blandly creepy in the era of #MeToo.

 Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), Margery (Lisa Velten Smith)

Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), Margery (Lisa Velten Smith)

There is much bad behavior flying past quickly onstage, and Tyrone, who speaks with the kind of expletive-ridden, verbal crassness that seems de rigueur in the era of our uncouth president, comes across as a mad-as-hell rebel. As with puppets used in therapy to help patients act out aggression and mimic traumatic events, Tyrone, in the scheme of the play, can be seen as a kind of desperate therapy, not only for the mourning, anger, and suppressed urges of Jason and Margery, but for a culture in which politeness masks all kinds of unpleasant truths. The play is set in Texas, and its author, a Texan, knows whereof he speaks in showing how the typical locutions of the milquetoast version of Jesus’s love can drive almost anyone to distraction.

Luke Cantarella’s scenic design is nimble in presenting the different spaces of the show—the classroom, Jason’s bedroom, Pastor Greg’s office—and Matthew Richards’ lighting design, as ever, is a godsend. Fight Choreography by Robert Westley deserves plaudits as well as this is a very physical show in a fairly small space, and the puppet design by Stephanie Shaw provides props able to seem as real as their handlers.

 Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Askins’ target here is “the devil” as an explanatory concept for whatever is deemed heinous, inappropriate, or foul-minded in human nature. The opening and closing homilies by Tyrone, in his good and bad incarnations respectively, are simple-minded gestures toward what could be called social context. It’s not that we expect a puppet to be profound, but might wonder why the author deems it necessary to make the puppets his mouthpiece. Within the story, Tyrone’s malevolent force and Margery’s erotic urges are made to seem coping mechanisms and needn’t be considered the result of demonic possession. And yet, Askins is asking why we need both an ultimate good—Jesus—and an ultimate evil—Satan—to convince us we’re not so bad.

While some might be shocked by the behavior and/or the language of the play, there’s a rather contemporary sense in which the play—first produced Off Broadway in 2011—lets “locker-room talk” become part of classroom talk, and treats the pornographic imagination as matter-of-fact. The play may aim to exorcise our demons, in a sense, though it plays more like a Feast of Fools pageant where free license actually supports social cohesion. Hence the show’s popularity.

 

Hand to God
By Robert Askins
Directed by Tracy Brigden

Scenic Design/Projections: Luke Cantarella; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Elizabeth Atkinson; Puppet Design: Stephanie Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Robert Westley; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Peter Benson, Maggie Carr, Miles G. Jackson, Nick LaMedica, Lisa Velten Smith

TheaterWorks
July 20-August 26, 2018

Frisky Farce

Review of A Flea in Her Ear, Westport Country Playhouse

Farce, such as those created by Georges Feydeau in the Parisian Belle Epoque, may be said to be the quintessence of stage comedy. The humor derives from ridiculous situations played as though sensible, from lightning fast costume/character changes, and from mistaken motives, mistaken identity, and changeable sets. The production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Westport Country Playhouse uses David Ives’ new version of the play, and was developed with Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware by director Mark Lamos. The cast are spirited and define ensemble acting, where everyone gets played for laughs and some are stand-out targets of hilarity.

Theater such as this, with its improbable plot elements and clearly demarcated lines between the fussy upper class, the earnest servant class, and the jaded demimonde, requires—besides energy to spare—great costuming and set direction, and this has that. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design gives us the placid confection of the Chandebise home and, in the raucous middle act, the cleverly designed corridor and chambre des assignations of the Frisky Puss Hotel, where extramarital alliances are the order of the day. Bedroom farce needs a memorable bed, and the room here certainly has one, as it moves between two separate rooms to considerable comic effect. And Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes give us the becoming high style of Mme Chandebise, the absurd getup of Frisky Puss proprietor Ferraillon, and outfits that expose various levels of undress and distress.

 Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The physical comedy never becomes a free-for-all, as it’s the overlaps in the action—the entrances and exits at just the split-second right moment—that make the show spin. The slapstick, when it occurs, is delightful—as for instance Victor Chandebise, mistaken as the ubiquitous Poche, Ferraillon’s lackey, holding a doorjamb and being lifted horizontally by the obstreperous Rugby, an Englishman played as an insufferable twit. The caricatures are broad indeed—a favorite is the flouncing Don Carlos (Michael Gotch), a jealous husband with a deadly accent. Other verbal treats are furnished by Mic Matarrese’s comic insouciance in his rendering of the speech impediment of Camille Chandebise, nephew of the put-upon master of the house.

The Chandebises—Victor (Lee E. Ernst) and Raymonde (Elizabeth Heflin)—live in bourgeois comfort, but the marriage has become too tepid for the Madame, who, seeing as how her husband no longer performs his nuptial task, suspects a sideline sexual conquest. She’s disturbed by the idea enough to put-off an interested suitor, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), her husband’s friend. Conferring with her good friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), the wife of Don Carlos, Raymonde hits upon the stratagem of sending Victor an anonymous, impassioned letter, setting up a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss. Lucienne obligingly pens the billet doux and therein lies more suspicion when Don Carlos happens to read it.

 Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Hilarity ensues, in part because nearly everyone in the cast has a reason to be at the hotel when they shouldn’t be, and because the actual inmates of the hotel—Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Olympia (Deena Burke), Baptiste (Wynn Harmon), Eugenie (Laura Frye) and Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock)—are such diverting company. The crowning element is that the lackadaisical Poche is a spitting image of Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst in a double role played like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett in the same body alternately). The fact that everyone mistakes each as the other—whether an abashed Mme Chandebise addressing Poche as her husband or an enraged Ferraillon delivering kicks to M. Chandebise as an uppity Poche—strains credulity, of course, and that’s the central joke: elitism and doltishness in one physiognomy.

 Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Further support in this vast cast is provided by David Beach, as the dutiful, oft-confused butler Etienne, Carine Montbertrand as his wife Antoinette, and Hassan El Amin as the much amused Dr. Finache. The behavioral send-ups don’t bite so much as belittle, as a distrustful wife is hoist on their own petard, and all would-be dalliances fizzle in the midst of absurdity. One suspects that it could all be a bit racier with more made of—for instance—the liberties Raymonde and Romain take with Poche. The Westport production, for all its flirtation with unseemly and seedy behavior, maintains a certain primness.

 Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

In terms of structure—the first two acts are each followed by intermissions and a change of set—the play’s third act doesn’t quite recover from the first two. The set-up keeps new characters coming at us with fast-paced fun; the second act, at the Frisky Puss, takes us into an irrepressible comic world and opens the possibility of any number of unexpected encounters; Act 3, back at the Chandebise home, plays out the mistaken identity plot, strung out for as long as it can go, but without much in the way of genuine surprise.

In short, a good time can be had by all, particularly as the foolishness never flags and all’s well that ends well.

 

A Flea in Her Ear
A new version of George Feydeau’s farce by David Ives
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin

Cast: David Beach, Deena Burke, Hassan El Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Frye, Michael Gotch, Robert Adelman Hancock, Wynn Harmon, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Carine Montbertrand, Stephen Pelinski, John Rensenhouse, Antoinette Robinson

Westport Country Playhouse
July 10-28, 2018

Superstar of Sorrows

Review of Jesus Christ Superstar, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Certainly, there is genius in the notion of Jesus Christ as a “superstar.” The venerable rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice dates from a time when the adulation surrounding rock stars could combine with counter-cultural possibilities to suggest a populist savior (think John Lennon and the “bed-in for peace”). Jesus, as a counter-cultural force both within the Roman empire and within the orthodoxy of Judaism, seems tailor-made to fit the bill.

All that was needed was to concoct a musical that combined both aspects of Jesus’s appeal—the religious and the political—with the energies of the youth of the day. Rice and Webber’s rock opera presents the main details of the Passion Play while also stressing the tensions without and within. As Jesus leads his hand-picked troupe of apostles into Jerusalem, the authorities grow concerned at the size of the mob following him, and Judas, one of the disciples, grows worried that “Jesus can’t control it like he did before.”

 Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

In Terrence Mann’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series, the trappings of a hippie theatrical troupe—put on the screen so indelibly by Norman Jewison in the 1973 film version—stress the youth of the followers, and with half the apostles male and half female, this Jesus leads a co-ed apostolate. The way in which youth and high spirits and community will be ground down by religious authorities and Roman potentates, while the fall of the Jesus cult will be seized on by media spoke to the times of the original Superstar, and Mann’s version—with vivid staging and design—brings all that back. (I saw a later Broadway production, way back in 1973, and the film, from which Mann borrows a few key touches, many times over the years.)

So what’s new in this classic tale? The element that struck me most forcefully is how overwhelmed Jesus is by the forces he has put into play. The part, as written, doesn’t give him much to say after his great soliloquy (or colloquy with God) in “Gethsemane,” and that song, in Alex Prakken’s rendering, is confrontational and brittle. Jesus, in the authors’ view, is anything but a “lamb of God.” He chides his followers (“why are you obsessed with fighting—stick to fishing from now on”), provokes Judas (“save me your speeches I don’t want to know”), and throws Pontius Pilate’s own words back at him. Prakken delivers accordingly. This is a Jesus who might be easily conceived as the rabble-rouser the high priests Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby) and Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt) fear he is. Jesus’s high-pitched screech at the clinging, needy sufferers who hound him—“Heal yourselves!”—is anything but compassionate.

 Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

The notion that the musical should show us a human Jesus is well-taken, but nowhere at CT Rep do we see a hero who rises above his suffering. The part of Judas is generally seen, rightly, as the main role, one driven by both a complicated love of Jesus as well as a belief in how best to serve the collective purpose. Ryan Vona gives Judas a canny, second-lieutenant look, and makes him the figure here who is actually betrayed. His cries in extremis leading up to his death in despair are suitably tortured. The rave-up of the song “Superstar”—as it always does—comes as the questioning of Jesus by the show’s authors, its words put in Judas’ mouth. “Who are you, what have you sacrificed?” Then comes the gripping answer. Jesus, whether “misguided martyr” (as Pilate says) or not, sacrifices himself.

 Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

In this production the crucifixion is strikingly executed, putting stress on the fact that there’s only one possible outcome. Having to enact Jesus’s death is harrowing and that means, as a musical, the ending is bound to feel bitter. Along the way, the more typically heart-tugging moments come from Sasha Renae Brown’s soulful Mary Magdalene, singing the popular hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the requisite passion surging up in the midst of bewilderment. The bewilderment becomes even more eloquent in her duet with Peter (Will Bryant), “Could We Start Again, Please?”, delivered after Jesus has been taken away without a fight. As Pilate, Jonathan Cobrda lords it up well, and plays to our sympathies as a man who hoped to avoid this particular date with destiny. The iron sense that, as Jesus says late in the play, “everything is fixed and you can’t change it,” plays out badly for the humans involved. Jesus, in his immortal guise, lets things take their course.

 Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

The dance numbers—especially “Simon Zealotes” (with Simon Longnight as Simon)—and the forming of tableaux, such as a Da Vinci-esque Last Supper and a Pieta-like moment between Jesus and Mary, are where the power of this production lies. The big show-biz number—“King Herod’s Song”—is camped up amusingly by Griffin Binnicker, perfect as Herod, backed by a colorful ensemble. In general the ensemble, often in the aisles, makes the “50,000” feel palpable, and enacts all the joy to be found here.

 Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

And, of course, there’s the score—which makes guitar riffs feel “operatic” and, in the hands of a capable band, streamlined enough for “classic rock” status. I particularly liked having guitarist Thomas Bora come onstage at the opening to lead off the “Overture” with the needling guitar figure from “Heaven on Their Minds.” Elsewhere, some nice choral effects from the ensemble caught my ear, and Ryan Vona impressed me with his vocal ability to give new readings to familiar lyrics.

Prophet, messiah, confused leader, patsy to his Dad’s plans for the firm, Jesus is a superstar grown truculent with his management and tired of having to play the same role all the time, trying, in the early going, to keep his fans on course (“you’ll be lost, you’ll be sorry, when I’m gone”), and then throwing in the towel. Have no fear, the “cult” went on and became its own authority, though, given the events of Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s not surprising its hero has—to date—not returned.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Terrence Mann

Music Director/Conductor: Bryan McAdams; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Scenic Designer: Tim Brown; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Technical Director: John Parmelee

Cast: Alex Prakken, Ryan Vona, Jonathan Cobrda, Griffin Binnicker, Sasha Renae Brown, Will Bryant, Tyler Grigsby, Simon Longnight, Bryan Mittelstadt, Jamie Colburn, Madeline Dunn, Shaylen Harger, Annelise Henry, Michael Katz, Nick Nudler, Jovick Pavajeau-Orostegui, Hayden Elizabeth Price, Paige Smith, Alessandro Viviano

Orchestra: Bryan McAdams, conductor, keyboard 1; Thomas Bora, guitar; Daniel Gonko, drums; Seth Lisle, bass; David Parsons, trumpet; Philip Plott, reed; Katya Stanislavskaya, keyboard 2

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2018 Nutmeg Summer Series
July 12-22, 2018

 

Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

 Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

 Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

 Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

 Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018  

Once Upon a Time in the West

Review of Flyin’ West, Westport Country Playhouse

A Western set in the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, a settlement established by African Americans after the Civil War, finds its way toward a non-white version of Americana, or the tales we like to tell ourselves about the pluck and determination of our settler forebears. Here, the cast is entirely “colored” (as they would have been identified at the time) with at least one able to “pass,” or live as if a white person. All of which means that Pearl Cleage’s engaging Flyin’ West, at Westport County Playhouse, directed by Seret Scott, dramatizes a saga often overlooked in the many stories of immigrant populations finding their little slice of the American dream: how the first free generation descending from slave ancestors heard and heeded the call to “go west.” And how that story is as much a part of the sustaining myth of the Great Plains as any, or should be. Flyin’ West helps to make that case.

Seret Scott, who directed the much more intense and disturbing Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre last fall, shows her grasp of the comedy, the heartache, the trials and tribulations of a sort of “three sisters” of the Prairie. Cleage’s script exults in the kind of melodramatic turns that make stories of family and community bonding so near and dear to the hearts of so many. Here, the story isn’t about pining after glory days in a grand place, but rather the value of holding onto what one has and seeing its worth.

 Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

A great asset of the production is Brenda Pressley as Miss Leah, a local matriarch who enters Majorie Bradley Kellogg’s handsomely rustic set fully in possession, not only of the setting but of her sense of her own dignity. The latter may need to be asserted against the bossy determination of Sophia Washington (Nikiya Mathis), the eldest of the three young women who grew up in the house, and the one most familiar with Miss Leah’s attitudes. The play’s opening features a wry but loving joust between these two strong-willed women, set in their ways.

 Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

The other two sisters are the fresh-faced and docile Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), whom local handyman Wil Parish (Edward O’Blenis) is sweet on, and married Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch) who returns to the homestead shortly before her twenty-first birthday with her husband Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), a poet with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of the Midwest in general and Nicodemus in particular. It all might devolve into a case of country mouse vs. city mouse but for the fact that there’s a bit more at stake. The town of Nicodemus is comprised entirely of African Americans and Sophie, more than the rest, sees how important it is that the folks of the town stick together and not sell off its land in parcels to land speculators and white folks with money. Times are changing in Nicodemus, as it moves from a town all but forgotten to one that might be of value to land-grabbers looking to expand.

 Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The story of how the West was won, and bought and sold, is familiar terrain, perhaps, but rarely is it given a racial dimension. Here, the abolitionist tradition of Kansas helps to create a world, in the play, where these characters can shape their own destinies, even under patriarchy. For that’s the other threat here, which is even more immediate than white folks nosing around for a sweet piece of land on the cheap. The villain of the piece is that high-and-mighty Mr. Charles, able to pass for white and able to treat his own wife as his menial. What’s more, he has a violent temper, and is looking to make it big any way he can.

The main tension centers on how Frank Charles’ intentions will be dealt with or met by the women of the place. Wil Parish is quick to assert his own courteous attitudes toward the womenfolk and that’s all to the good, but not even his willingness to deal with Frank, man-to-man, can carry the day. This is a situation for the women to handle for themselves, and gun-toting Sophie isn’t shy about what it might take to scare Frank off or change his tune. Miss Leah has another plan, and it leads to the play’s high-point, a monologue of action and speech, perfectly timed and vastly entertaining, inciting what might be called a somewhat macabre belly-laugh. Brenda Pressley commands the stage and what befalls follows from Miss Leah’s command of certain secrets she learned back on the plantation. Another rousing speech delivered by Pressley tells of how she lost all her sons to slavery and how she herself made it to freedom. The history behind the story is more dramatic than much of what is on stage, but there are many sharp stabs in the dialogue, and, in the action, a telling recognition of how often justice, on the American frontier, was a case of who had the upper-hand. Thank God things are so much better now!

 Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The set, with its indoors and outdoors fully viewable, perfectly suited to the action, and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and sound design by Fred Kennedy, add greatly to the show’s realism, as do costumes by Heidi Leigh Hanson that show off the different self-conceptions of the sisters and Frank’s near-dandified air, which includes credit to J. Jared Janas’ work on hair. Some impromptu songs let us share in the familiarity of these women with one another, though the song choices might be the same if meant as a parody of homespun cliché.

A familiar sort of story with a familiar sort of family dynamic, with an added treatment of a threat reminiscent of The Beguiled, adds up to a story with prickly sort of uplift.

 

Flyin’ West
By Pearl Cleage
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Heidi Leigh Hanson; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Wig, Hair and Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Brittany Bradford, Michael Chenevert, Nikiya Mathis, Edward O’Blenis, Brenda Pressley, Keona Welch

Westport Country Playhouse
May 29-June 16, 2018

Consider the Aloes of the Veld

Review of A Lesson from Aloes, Hartford Stage

Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes is a taut, fraught drama about weathering the storms of marriage and friendship as well as the storms of terrible social and political conditions. In other words, it might have a lot to say to us now, much as it did in the early 1980s when Fugard finally finished and produced a play he’d begun in the early 1960s. The original context for the play was a bus boycott by anti-apartheid workers and the massacres of protesters by police in South Africa, where the play is set. When the play was first produced, the fate of Stephen Biko created an immediate relevance, and it’s interesting to see how a play intended to intervene in its contemporaneous situation plays out half a world away and almost forty years later.

 Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Directed by Darko Tresjnak with a firm grasp of how to pace this play and make the most of its tensions, A Lesson from Aloes presents Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), a white couple attempting to talk normally while waiting for invited dinner guests. He’s of Dutch descent, she’s of British colonial stock. Steven, an old comrade of Piet’s from the protest movement, is supposed to call on them with his wife and three children. The discomfort between Piet and Gladys seems to be caused by the need to entertain, but gradually, as we learn more about the situation, we see that Gladys is trying to cope with the aftermath of a police raid in the couple’s home, and that Steve, who is identified under apartheid as “colored,” has recently been released from prison for alleged political crimes, and that Piet is under some suspicion for what part he may have played in the arrest.

 Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Randall Newsome, is a thoughtful man who likes to quote great British writers in his Afrikaners’ accent, and who has become obsessed with cultivating and cataloguing his collection of aloe plants. The plants, in their spiny oddity, line the rim of the stage, an outdoor deck on the couple’s home, and stand as metaphors for having the knack of flourishing and flowering in the harsh veld. How does one survive in a devastated environment? By a kind of steady osmosis of what nourishment can be found, Piet seems to think. The plants oppress and disturb Gladys, a sign of her vulnerability even before we know her story.

There’s a brooding power to the play’s first act, where every statement becomes a difficult negotiation with the past, as both political and personal affront. Gladys can’t get over the violation of having police agents reading her private diaries and has her doubts about Piet, whose efforts to make nice might be a glib avoidance of guilt. In the second act, when Steve (Ariyon Bakare) finally arrives, the play shifts into a more overtly emotional tone, if only because the social aspects of the visit—Steve and Piet are still affectionate chums—might all be theater to avoid recrimination and defense.

 Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Both Steve and Gladys are given outbursts that go a long way to making their individual trials clear and convincing. As Gladys, Andrus Nichols is a great asset, able to move from withdrawn to confiding to a kind of stringent loathing that encompasses the country she can no longer tolerate, much as she can’t tolerate her husband and herself for remaining. Ariyon Bakare’s Steve arrives jesting, and then warmly takes the couple into his confidences about the problems of packing up and moving—he has decided to go into exile in England rather than live under a ban that refuses him a livelihood in his homeland. With the wine flowing, it’s only a matter of time before the questions lurking under the friendliness begin to surface.

 Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The choice of this play now is a deft move by Hartford Stage’s artistic director—for one more season—Darko Tresjnak. When Piet, early in the play, voices his unshaken faith that man-made laws can be changed and life can improve, we hear the hope that drives political commitment, a lesson an aloe can’t teach. And when, later in the play, Gladys speaks to her husband of her distress, with barely suppressed rage and despair, Piet sits in his chair, lit a bit like an icon, a figure for “white maleness” in its insular convictions, a kind of weed able to flourish even where it’s not indigenous. We’ve heard from his wife and from his colored comrade, and we see in Piet perhaps Fugard’s own struggle to get his audience beyond that bland acceptance of how things are—because they could always be worse—that we might as well call “privilege.” Or is it simply a mask to mimic the imperturbability of the aloe?

 Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Shaw’s sound design plays subtly with natural sounds and subdued percussion, while Matthew Richard’s flawless lighting design incorporates candlelight and atmospheric silhouetting. The set by Tim Mackabee has a rough-hewn beauty that looks, like it should, as an attempt to maintain familiar comforts in a wilderness where the harsh environment is matched by harsh policies.

Sharply written, well-acted, handsomely mounted, and tellingly presented by its director, A Lesson from Aloes is one of the best productions of the season of Connecticut theater it closes.

 

A Lesson from Aloes
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert

Cast: Ariyon Bakare, Andrus Nichols, Randall Newsome

Hartford Stage
May 17-June 10, 2018

Stoops to Follies

Review of The Will Rogers Follies, Goodspeed Theatre

Will Rogers, once upon a time, was one of the most famous Americans alive. He was part Cherokee and became known as a performing cowboy—on radio, in Wild West Shows, on vaudeville, Broadway, and in films. He was a commentator too and columnist, often sniping, in a witty and down-home way, about the issues of the day and about politicians, the perennial laughingstocks of U.S. news.

Rogers’ popular stint in Ziegfeld’s Follies, a cowboy among showgirls, is recreated, tunefully and tongue-in-cheek in The Will Rogers Follies, now at Goodspeed, directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Michael O’Flaherty and choreography by Kelli Barclay. A fond look back at a brand of Americana that has a certain pertinence today, The Will Rogers Follies was a big Broadway success in the hands of Tommy Tune back in the early ‘90s, with Keith Carradine in the title role. At Goodspeed, the razzle-dazzle of what feels like a precursor to every Vegas and television Variety show is abetted by David M. Lutken’s engaging and easy-going enactment of Will Rogers, rope-tricks included.

 Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

The great strength of Rogers’ brand of humor is that it never talked down to “average Americans,” seeming to impart a wisdom derived from homespun common sense. Rogers’ tendency to take shots at those aspects of daily American life that still plague us—the two-party system and those who flourish in that system, and the knee-jerk aspects of news coverage—makes him a welcome voice in our day. His manner, in Lutken’s hands, is casual rather than tendentious, with a low-key delivery that takes every aspect of life in stride—and that includes jokes about his eventual death in a plane crash with friend the pilot Wiley Post.

Lutken, who I saw play Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, a show he devised, at Irish Rep in New York, brings a similar folksiness to the role of Rogers. He has a clear, no-frills singing voice, and immediately warms up the audience by commenting on the stories in a current newspaper. There are similarities between Guthrie and Rogers inasmuch as both believed in the United States as, potentially, a force for good often kept from its best by the specialized interests of those who use government to promote power and wealth for themselves. Both are images of the “common man” (though both were very uncommon in their talents and accomplishments) that are helpful to offset the general cynicism and idiocy of our times.

 Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

In the show, the story of Rogers comes out in snippets, with songs that keep the Variety show aspects of the musical front and center. As “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” Brooke Lacy is a delight in a role that oozes the kind of sexist casting that Florenz Ziegfeld (voiced with imperious élan by James Naughton) promoted relentlessly. Rogers never lets us get comfortable with the cheesecake, as he tends to shake his head over Flo’s favorite’s every appearance. And yet the display of the feminine physique is key to what makes the show a “follies.” The dance routines and the “living tableau” are part of the charm, and this show will keep a grin on your face, though it never quite stuns or amazes the way some dance routines at Goodspeed have.

To change focus from the chorus girls in Ilona Somogyi’s eye-teasing costumes, Peter Stone’s book plays up Will the family man, with emotional coloration by Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, who becomes Will’s oft-neglected wife. Their kids also get into the act and there’s even a collective rope-trick number in Act Two. It’s a very old-fashioned entertainment, a period-piece looking back at an older period.

 Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

As is often the case with stories of the famous, the first half plays better as it seems that every celebrity is more interesting on the way up than when in demand on all fronts. The interplay between Lutken’s Rogers and the other characters—such as his amiably put-upon father, Clem (David Garrison)—keep things bouncing, as Rogers has a gift for ribbing others’ pretensions and for calling it like he sees it, and that includes the hokeyness of the Follies themselves. The best aspects of the show are Lutken’s natural aptitude for the part and the way the action is commented on as something of a relic that has its place in a nostalgia for an Americana all but lost. Michael Clark’s projections help to recreate a sense of the era when Rogers was consulted by presidents and provided bi-partisan chiding of the show-biz aspects of our press and government.

 Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Genial, nice to look at, with songs that serve the story but have little strength on their own, The Will Rogers Follies gives us a likeable version of the man who never met a man he didn’t like.

 

The Will Rogers Follies
Book by Peter Stone
Music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Original New York production directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
Inspired by the words of Will and Betty Rogers

Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographer: Kelli Barclay
Director: Don Stephenson

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Projection Design: Michael Clark; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer: Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Rope Trick Supervisor: Keith Nelson; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Michael Biren, Ella Briggs, Riley Briggs, Aaron Burr, Dewey Caddell, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, David Garrison, Brendan Reilly Harris, Patrick Heffernan, Nathan Horne, Brooke Lacy, David M. Lutken, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Ben Stone-Zelman, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Catherine Walker, Caitlin Wilayto, Borris York, and James Naughton as the Voice of Ziegfeld

Goodspeed Musicals
April 13, 2018