Darko Tresnjak

The Kid is Alright

Review of The Flamingo Kid, Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak, who steps down as Artistic Director with the conclusion of this season, ends his tenure at Hartford Stage on an upbeat note. The Flamingo Kid, a new musical based on the fondly regarded film by Garry and Neal Marshall from 1984, re-teams Tresnjak with Robert L. Freedman, Books and Lyrics, who wrote the Book and co-wrote the lyrics for the Tony-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, one of the director’s prior big successes.

This time the comedy is not quite as wildly inspired, but the show is vastly entertaining, with the kind of witty lyrics—often adding a deliberate flavor of Jewish Brooklyn missing from the film—that musicals about coming of age should have. Scott Frankel, of War Paint and Grey Gardens, wrote the music and there’s a nice range of musical inspirations, all feeling at home in 1963, the year of the action. That’s the summer, of course, between the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. A great time to be young and alive after the U.S. got the U.S.S.R. to backdown and before the country, in the view of many commentators, lost its innocence.

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Flamingo Kid is rich with the kind of associations many of us have with the era, not least in pitting the bedrock values of the working lower middle-class, here instanced by the Winnicks in Brooklyn, with the leisure-time instincts of the upper middle-class out on Long Island. It’s still a time when such might occasionally rub shoulders, and when the so-called American Dream offered the notion that a kid who has to earn his way could still work his way up in pay and respect.

The story, which begins on the Fourth of July weekend and ends on Labor Day weekend, takes the side of the young, ethnic up-and-comer, Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), over the self-important blowhard Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch), owner of some luxury car showrooms, whose spell the young man falls under, while also falling for Brody’s niece, Karla (Samantha Massell). Freedman’s script takes a few potshots at those who put salesmanship over sincerity and elevate winning by any means over winning fairly. There’s even a little wink in having Karla reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the beach, a bit of cultural unrest that finds its answer in the actions of Brody’s wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) late in the play.

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indeed, one way the musical stretches beyond the movie is in its interest in the older generation. The film is concerned almost wholly with Jeffrey’s effort to prove himself, moving from the plans of his gruff but loving father, a plumber, to the slick and glib mentorship offered by Brody, “the King” of the gin game at the El Flamingo Beach Club. Freedman gives standout numbers to Mr. Winnick (Adam Heller), “A Plumber Knows,” and his wife Ruth (Liz Larsen), “Not For All the Money in the World,” and to Mrs. Brody, whose “The Cookie Crumbles” is a word-to-the-wise aimed at Karla, full of the cynicism of the neglected wife. Meanwhile, Brody gets to make the most of “Sweet Ginger Brown,” his tagline, a song that comes back for a rousing reprise in Act II.

For excitement, there are big dance numbers like “Another Summer Day in Brooklyn,” “Rockaway Rumba,” and even a visit to the track with “In It to Win It.” Gregory Rodriguez adds much pizzazz to Act II as the lead singer of Marvin and The Sand Dunes, singing “Blowin’ Hot and Cold.” Comic highlights are provided by Brody’s card-playing pals who are apt to carp at “The World According to Phil,” and by the MILFs of the day who can’t get enough of Jeffrey as the cutest “Cabana Boy.” The romantic plot is handled by “Never Met a Boy Like You,” wherein Karla is smitten, and it plays out with the sweetness of the sweetest summer romance, featuring a see-saw and a lifeguard stand and a painted moon over a painted sea.

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Is the show sentimental and nostalgic? You betcha, so much so it feels like a return to an earlier time not only in its setting—which is fetchingly colorful in the set by Alexander Dodge and the costumes by Linda Cho, two longtime exemplars of excellence at Hartford Stage—but in its grasp of how to combine family and fun and romance with the kicks of kids and the fretting of elders. The movie was an Eighties’ nod to the way Fifties Hollywood informed so many of the movers and shakers of the era. As a musical in our day, The Flamingo Kid treats perennials like first love and first major summer job the way the Golden Age of television might and lets us enjoy the ride for all it’s worth.

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The first Act may run a bit long and, in general, there’s a sense, in each Act, that the search for a close is a problem that derives from the arc of numbers in a musical more than from the story per se. Freedman wants to keep the emphasis on “Fathers and Sons,” a theme that shows up strong at the end with the show’s penultimate number. Which makes it an ideal show running up to Father’s Day on June 16—indeed, the show has been extended from June 9, its original ending date, to June 15. Bring the folks, or the kids, as the case may be.

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The show’s secondary theme—what makes for marital happiness in two couples of different socio-economic situations and how the difference affects a young, formative couple negotiating both worlds—plays out as a fond look at how much we owe to where we’re from—and how much we all love summer getaways. As a musical getaway, The Flamingo Kid is hot, and that’s cool.

 

The Flamingo Kid
Book & Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Music by Scott Frankel
Based on the motion picture The Flaming Kid, screenplay by Neal Marshall and Garry Marshall, story by Neal Marshall
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography: Denis Jones; Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Design: Joya Giambrone; Dance & Vocal Arrangements: Scott Frankel; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Bruce Coughlin; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel

Orchestra: Conductor: Thomas Murray, Keyboard: Paul Staroba; Percussion: Charles DeScarfino; Reed 1: John Mastroianni; Reed 2: Michael Schuster; Trumpet: Seth Bailey, Don Clough; Trombone: Jordan Jacobson; Horn: Jaime Thorne; Violin/Viola: Lu Sun; Guitar: Nick DiFabio; Bass: Roy Wiseman; Keyboard Programmer: Randy Cohen

Cast: Ben Bogen, Jimmy Brewer, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Ben Fankhauser, Michael Hartung, Adam Heller, Jean Kauffman, Ken Krugman, Marc Kudisch, Liz Larsen, Taylor Lloyd, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Lesli Margherita, Samantha Massell, Anna Noble, Erin Leigh Peck, Gregory Rodriguez, Steve Routman, William Squier, Kathy Voytko, Price Waldman, Jayke Workman, Alex Wyse, Kelli Youngman, Stuart Zagnit

Hartford Stage
May 9-June 15, 2019

One Ring to Rule Them All

Review of The Engagement Party, Hartford Stage

Dinner parties never seem to go well onstage. The assembled characters are bound to find some cause for friction that will defeat the best-intentioned bonhomie. Think only of two plays produced last season at Hartford Stage: Sarah Gancher’s Seder and Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes. Though Samuel Baum’s The Engagement Party, currently in its world premiere there, doesn’t quite launch us into the contested waters of those two predecessors, it does live up to the expectation that the thin veneer of social cheer will be cracked and warped and all but destroyed by evening’s end.

There is entertainment in watching that happen—if only because Baum’s characters are so insular in their attitudes—but the play’s insistence on a whodunit moment (or, more properly, a “was something done?”) creates a catalyst that leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe I’d just like to think better of everyone gathered here than they do of each other, or maybe it’s that Baum, and director Darko Tresjnak, want characters we can “suspect” rather than characters we can expect to be complicated.

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Josh (Zach Appelman) and Catherine (Beth Riesgraf) are a well-to-do couple in a swanky Manhattan townhouse, its living and dining areas’ comfortable modernism perfectly established by Alexander Dodge’s enthralling set, which spins to reveal a showcase kitchen—with an incredibly high ceiling inferred—and, later, a second floor bedroom we see through a picture window. Each space is more enclosed than the last, and that makes for an escalating sense of claustrophobia as the partyers find themselves looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to catch hints of the conversation walked in upon.

The guests are: Catherine’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins), a fit septuagenarian, and his wife Gail (Mia Dillon), who disdains sporting a needed crutch; Haley (Anne Troup), much frumpier than her friend Catherine, and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Josh’s not-as-successful colleague. The two younger couples have been mutual friends since college—Harvard—along with Alan (Teddy Bergman), the intellectual of the bunch who now teaches at Columbia and disdains the trappings of wealth that his former classmates are so keen on curating. But he’s not the real odd-man-out: that role is filled, with jocular, working-class machismo, by Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), a childhood friend of Josh’s who knew him when.

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

The revelations that come out about what the characters are hiding or lying about deserve to be preserved from spoilers, but the reliance on a misplaced—and insanely costly—engagement ring as the evening’s turning point spoiled what had looked to be a play in which we get to see what friends of long-standing say about one another when one or another is out of the room. That play gets swept away, more or less, by an extended investigation of suspicion that traps the characters (for a time) as though in a “lite” version of The Exterminating Angel. When Alan—whom Teddy Bergman plays with captivating dryness—leaves the party, close behind tearful Haley and exasperated Kai, I was quite sorry to see him go and wished we could follow him to some other destination where he might continue to add interest to the evening.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Back inside, the drama unfolding between the sophisticated elder couple and their vapid daughter and up-from-Canarsie son-in-law-to-be escalates to near violence. Johnny—important if only because he knows the backstory that Josh has told no one—heads out for coffee, inviting Josh for a dialogue that never occurs. Pity, but the host can’t leave until the expensive engagement ring’s whereabouts are determined.

The revelation you might be expecting—Baum is the author of The Wizard of Lies, the gripping story of Bernie Madoff, and the play is set, deliberately we imagine, in 2007, just about when the lie that was our nation’s economy was exposed—doesn’t materialize. That’s too “Noughts”; the exposures of the “Teens” have been “Me-Too” moments, so think along those lines.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

 The women here are mostly engaged in low-key reaction—with the always excellent Mia Dillon almost entirely wasted—though Catherine eventually gets to vent at her parents and husband. She may be the one we sympathize with most, but since she has cluelessly not divined much about the men in her life, we can only go so far with that. As Josh, Zach Appelman has to go from grabby husband to alienated son-in-law to awkward boss-friend-host (of Kai) to embarrassed chum (of Johnny), and eventually to hyper, almost paranoid, frenemy to everyone and, at last, hero egregiously wronged while also still wronging. We might think better of him were it not that he seems to understand himself so little.

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

The others do what they can with what they’ve got. Bekins, in his confrontation scene with Josh, plays concerned pater convincingly until the unsavory past is thrown in his face (with Baum stacking the deck with not one, not two, but three wrongs!). The scene comes undone well, but there’s nowhere the play can go after that. Fortunately, it doesn’t have much longer to go.

Brian Lee Huynh keeps things lively as Kai who is, in his own eyes, the most put-upon person present; as Haley, Anne Troup plays distraught well, but never gets to have a scene alone with her friend Catherine. Teddy Bergman’s Alan is spot-on, including recalcitrant hair, and Brian Patrick Murphy gives Johnny the touch of soul that no one else here has any inkling of.

Up until the fateful wine spill a third of the way through this quick 85-minute play, I was engaged by The Engagement Party, thereafter not so much. Some viewers will be sustained by the low order curiosity concerning what became of that much admired ring. If you must know, go!

Gail (Mia Dillon)

Gail (Mia Dillon)

The Engagement Party
By Samuel Baum
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Casting: Laura Stancyzk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Whitney M. Keeter; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Zach Appelman, Richard Bekins, Teddy Bergman, Mia Dillon, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, Beth Riesgraf, Anne Troup

Hartford Stage
January 10-February 3, 2019

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

What Fools These Players Be

Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hartford Stage

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has much to delight. With three stories that dovetail into one, the play offers at the heart of each story comic elements that have kept audiences entertained for generations. In one story, four Athenian youths—Hermia (Jenny Leona), Lysander (Tom Pecinka), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet)—are caught up in a love triangle, overruled by Hermia’s father Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis) in a dispute brought to the attention of King Theseus (Esau Pritchett). Meanwhile in the forest, the fairy rulers Oberon (Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) are sparring over who should get custody of a changeling child. And a troupe of Athenian workmen, rehearsing in the forest, are putting together a play for the nuptials of Theseus and his bride Hippolyta (Strallen). Mistaken identity, love potions, metamorphosis, fits of jealousy, and ham-fisted theatrics combine to make the play a celebration of the different worlds theater can manifest.

Last year at Hartford Stage, director Darko Tresnjak gave us a silly, effervescent Comedy of Errors and seems determined to do the same with Midsummer. The problem, though, is that the latter play doesn’t lend itself as well to over-the-top hamming. That doesn’t mean the game cast doesn’t do all it can to provide belly laughs at almost every turn, but somewhere amidst all the preening and posturing, the pointing hands and waving arms, the crotch-grabbing and air-humping, the lampoons of American method actors by a showboat Bottom (John Lavelle) and the gauche ardors of lovers in school uniforms, a wise, witty, and sumptuously lyrical text goes missing.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

That might not matter to everyone, and there is method in the director’s decision to rein in the set while unleashing the actors. This strategy gives us an English country estate, particularly its gatehouse, for Athens, complete with an ordered park as environs. When Lysander and Hermia, supposedly at large in the wilds, lie a little further off amidst trim hedges and park benches, something seems awry. It’s that kind of disjunction that may keep a viewer waiting for a moment when something like the playwright’s vision might occur. One supposes it’s to be found in an obscene prop that accompanies Brent Bateman’s eager turn as Snout as Wall.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Theseus, as everyone knows, is kind of a killjoy. Here, I found myself taking his side. It helps that Esau Pritchett gives the king much dignity, though he doesn’t seem much different when he becomes Oberon, but for his very becoming tunic. As Hippolyta, Scarlett Strallen looks good in a riding habit, with dark hair, and as Titania, she’s a begowned blonde who has the intonation to make the verse, and sometimes song as well, come alive. Her doting upon the “translated” Bottom is quite the set-piece it’s meant to be and the attendant fairy-maids (Melody Atkinson, Gabrielle Filloux, Anne O’Sullivan, Madison Vice) may be commended for actually downplaying what are often flamboyant parts, though the notion of an otherworldly fairy realm is lessened to nothingness. The lack of feyness in the fairy world is compounded by Will Apicella’s vigorous Puck, the least beguiling version I’ve ever seen.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

One imagines the lovers would fare better if differently presented. In their school uniforms, they look immature and, suitably, act petulant rather than passionate. That tone, once established, helps to make their plight comic from the first, and then it’s just a matter of who will run farthest with it. I would single out Fedna Laure Jacquet for highest praise—as Helena, petulance suits her, and since she’s able to fawn like a dog and coquette like an awkward doll, she inspires the most laughter. Tom Pecinka’s Lysander and Damian Jermaine Thompson’s Demetrius get in some fun as boyish rivals à la “Our Gang,” while Jenny Leona makes Hermia’s turn at jealousy very vivid.

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Vivid too are those mechanicals, with John Lavelle as a Bottom whose well of mugging and vocal mannerisms hath no bottom, abetted by Matthew Macca as a lollipop-licking Flute. The point of the play within a play seems to be to show that, once upon a stage, a player will strut for all he can.

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

The critic G. K. Chesterton is quoted in the playbill as proclaiming that “the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a merit of design.” By “design,” he means of course what we would mean by structure, the way the different worlds of the play impinge on one another to create a world in which magic—whether of love, fairies, or inspired clods—triumphs. Hartford Stage’s production gets demerits for design, as an unusually static take on this fluid play. Its failings help to show how much a play may be the creature of its appearance. The supreme merit this production aims for, and sometimes hits, is a merit of display.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Projection Design: Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley; Wig Design: Jodi Stone; Composer & Music Director: Alexander Sovronsky; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Will Apicella, Melody Atkinson, Brent Bateman, Robert Hannon Davis, Gabrielle Filloux, Fedna Laure Jacquet, John Lavelle, Jenny Leona, Matthew Macca, Anne O’Sullivan, Tom Pecinka, Esau Pritchett, Alexander Sovronsky, Scarlett Strallen, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Louis Tucci, Madison Vice

Hartford Stage
September 7-October 8, 2017

On With the Shaw

Review of Heartbreak House, Hartford Stage

Bravo, Darko Tresnjak! The Artistic Director of Hartford Stage ends the 2016-17 season by directing George Bernard Shaw’s magisterial Heartbreak House, a play that lets the audience take stock of its own situation by gazing at the foibles of the generation that saw the outbreak of the First World War. Shaw, who subtitled the play, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” had in mind Chekhov’s great elegy for a clueless upper-class, The Cherry Orchard. Around the time of our most recent election, Broadway theater-goers saw a revival of that play that, in its revamped concept, missed the opportunity to be a trenchant commentary on our times. Audiences at Hartford Stage have a better offering for gauging how little we learn from past generations’ catastrophes.

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In his 1919 preface to the play, Shaw is scathing in his view of the self-delusions of the educated, the indifference of the intelligentsia, and the idiocy of the popular press in the run-up to the Great War, which had just ended. Heartbreak House, which was not produced until the 1920s, was written during the war but is set just before the outbreak of German aggression. The people who inhabit the play are still, as in most drawing-room comedies, primarily concerned with who will marry whom and who is available for a fling. Shaw, though, is never one to miss an opportunity to hector us with sagacity, and here he puts the wisest asides into the mouth of Captain Shotover, a somewhat daft—or crazy like a fox—patriarch suffering an English country-houseful of bohemians, stuffed-shirts, and social climbers. As played by Miles Anderson, in a finely calibrated performance, Shotover is a lot like Shaw—irascible, pointed, and full of curmudgeonly brio. About him flit a host of moths in search of the light.

Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) has arrived, as a less well-to-do friend invited by the Captain’s artsy daughter Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Perry) who lives in her father’s house with her gad-about husband Hector (Stephen Barker Turner). Hesione’s well-married sister, Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), shows up as well, having been absent from the family home for twenty-some years. She is pursued there by her husband’s brother, Randall Utterword (Grant Goodman), a lackluster aristocrat. Also on site are Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Keith Reddin), a figure for political probity contrasted with his employer and sometime creditor, “Boss” Mangan (Andrew Long), a boorish capitalist, complete with Trumpian comb-over. The only attendant servant is the Shotover girls’ old nurse, Guinness (Mary VanArsdel) who is apt to call everyone “ducky,” regardless of age or rank.

Just about everyone makes mention of how peculiar the house is, with its eccentric inhabitants, and Colin McGurk’s wonderful multi-tiered set fully captures Shaw’s conceit that the house should look like a ship, helmed by the old skipper who is fond of nautical metaphors and sea-going reminiscence. The ship of state is sailing for some perilous seas and Shaw would have us know that the generation charged with its safe conduct is all at sixes and sevens. Appealing as they are, there’s a gnawing lack of gravitas in these characters who are without even the Chekhovian delusion that they are profound. And that’s very much the point.

The cast of Heartbreak House (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of Heartbreak House (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tresnjak’s production is anchored by four strong portrayals. Anderson, as Shotover, is everything he should be, while De Waal’s Ellie moves from sweet naivete to a sharply registered youthful confidence. Her strategic sense of her position is one of the more engaging aspects of the characters on view here. She is abetted by her friend, who presumes to be a mentor, and Charlotte Perry’s Hesione, quite fetching in a costume with more than a hint of Bloomsbury, put me in mind of Eileen Atkins, and there’s not much higher praise than that. Then there’s the comic relief: Andrew Long’s Mangan looks Trump and acts a bit Sydney Greenstreet, a mix that makes him a rather put-upon villain of sorts who, like our current President, is both out of his element and in over his head.

Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), background: Boss Mangan (Andrew Long) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lady Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), background: Boss Mangan (Andrew Long) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Other key roles are handled well here but it’s hard to warm to the characters. Tessa Auberjonois hits all the right notes as the “siren” Lady Utterwood, but the lady’s a pointless embellishment, and her current would-be lapdog, Randall, is even less necessary. Similarly, Hector Hushabye, supposedly a suave ladies’ man, pales beside the more compelling male roles. Here Shaw’s keen eye for the vanities of this set doesn’t make for enduring characters. It takes a Wilde to put them on and take them off at once.

The other interesting role is Mazzini Dunn—named for the Italian revolutionary—who might be more forceful if there were more for him to do. Keith Reddin gives him an air of distracted pleasantry but rises to the occasion of a diverting flirtation with Hesione. At another point he characterizes his high class betters as “very charming, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people.” He means it as a compliment, but his author looks over his shoulder to nudge us that such fine qualities can’t save their bearers from perdition. At the play’s close, the abyss is close to home indeed, and these fine people feel little more than curiosity and the thrill of something unprecedented in their jaded lives.

Heartbreak House’s inhabitants can wear on one a bit in the stretch, but the play is well-worth the attention, if only because Shaw knows how to work dialogue and Tresnjak knows how to work the Hartford Stage space to give us a feel for these lightweight leaves about to be swept into a deluge. Along the way, everyone learns something about the subterfuges of class and wealth and the need for deft navigation in troubling times.

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Colin McGurk; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Consultant: Greg Webster

Cast: Miles Anderson; Tessa Auberjonois; Dani De Waal; Grant Goodman; Andrew Long; Charlotte Parry; Keith Reddin; Stephen Barker Turner; Mary VanArsdel

Hartford Stage
May 11-June 11, 2017

Inspired Silliness

Review of The Comedy of Errors, Hartford Stage

The Comedy of Errors, a farce involving two sets of twins and escalating mistaken identity, is probably Shakespeare’s silliest play. It’s also one of his earliest and finds the Bard adhering to the “unities” of time and place. As a play in which no one is exempt from being the butt of a joke—the main one is the plot itself—it has a very democratic sense of comedy. All are fools and appear foolish and the best aspect of the Hartford Stage production, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, is how relentlessly theatrical it is.

the cast of The Comedy of Errors (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

the cast of The Comedy of Errors (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There have been a series of productions at Hartford that take us back to the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Rear Window, the Italian Neo-realist design of Romeo and Juliet, and, here, the echoes of films like Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek, films that exploit the charm of Greece—the play is set in Ephesus—Hollywood style. The set is stunning in its symmetries and vibrant color scheme, creating the perfect multilayered space to play out this broadly physical farce. Tresnjak throws in some of the costuming and larger-than-life style of Bollywood comedy from India as well to arrive at a zany concoction that teases and pleases. The show is a lot of fun, a feast for eye and ear, and divertingly entertaining with a vengeance.

Errors is the kind of play that requires zestful ensemble work and the cast is very much up to the mark. Special mention must be made of Jolly Abraham as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanka); she’s a wild cartoon of a scheming and mistakenly jilted wife, using a voice that veers irrepressibly through a range of emotions, from shrieks to guttural threats. It’s a thrilling ride every time she speaks or moves. As her sister, Luciana, Mahira Kakkar plays meek second fiddle very well and the chemistry between the two is memorable.

Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks), Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks), Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Though they don’t get to spend time on stage together until the very end, the twin Antipholuses—Hatanka as our man in Ephesus and Tyler Lansing Weaks as the twin newly arrived from Syracuse—support each other well, with Hatanka the more frenetic and Weaks the more phlegmatic. Their twin servants, both named Dromio—Alan Schmuckler of Syracuse and Matthew Macca of Ephesus—recall put-upon clowns of many stripes, such as the Marx Brothers or the Stooges. Like many of the routines of such comedic masters, the servants manage to be both witless and quick-witted as occasion demands.

foreground: Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Macca), Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanaka), and cast (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

foreground: Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Macca), Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanaka), and cast (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

And that’s only scratching the surface. The supporting players here are all terrific, whether the fetchingly costumed prostitutes, the policemen in traditional Greek folk costumes, the striking lead courtesan, Paula Legget Chase, whose opening song brings back memories of Melina Mercouri, the twitchy Dr. Pinch (Michael Elich), the beleaguered Aegeon (Noble Shropshire), Merchant of Syracuse and father of the twin Antipholoi, or the strutting Solinus (Elich again), Duke of Ephesus, and, last but far from least, Tara Heal in a fat suit that makes Nell suitably “spherical” as described. Heal makes the most of her pneumatic curves so that when comedy is described as “broad,” it suits her in every sense of the word.

This is a world light as air in its quick switches, sharp in its put-downs and abuse, and pointed in its hyper-aware glee of how the human race is somehow at its best when able to laugh at itself. Tresnjak’s staging makes the most of the set’s various areas and keeps the gags turning on a dime. And, amidst the hilarity, there are lyrical touches like the set’s vivid palette, and the top notch choreography (Peggy Hickey), lighting (Matthew Richards), sound (Jane Shaw) and, especially, costumes by Fabio Toblini. This Comedy of Errors is an embarrassment of riches.

Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

The Comedy of Errors
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dakro Tresnjak

Choreography: Peggy Hickey; Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Hair & Wig Design: Tom Watson; Makeup Design: Tommy Kurzman; Composer/Music Director/Arranger: Alexander Sovronsky; Associate Scenic Designer: Colin McGurk; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski

Cast: Jolly Abraham; Brendan Averett; Lauren Bricca; Louis Butelli; Paula Leggett Chase; Michael Elich; Jamaal Fields-Green; Ryan-James Hatanaka; Tara Neal; Daisy Infantas; Mahira Kakkar; Matthew Macca; Kalob Martinez; Evan McReddle; Johanna Morrison; Monica Owen; Tyler Pisani; Alan Schmuckler; Noble Shropshire; Tyler Lansing Weaks

Musicians: Alexander Sovronsky; Louis Tucci

 

Hartford Stage
January 12-February 12, 2017

 

 

The Land of Yesterday

Review of Anastasia, Hartford Stage

Back in 1997, Don Bluth et al. created Anastasia, a musical cartoon feature film (adapted from a 1950s movie that earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar). The cartoon musical, from Twentieth Century Fox, gave Disney a run for its money. The latter studio had come back from the dead in the 1980s and discovered box office gold by incorporating the methods of Broadway musicals into animated films with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994). All three were later adapted to the stage—such is the interchangeability of show biz—with different levels of success. Now, Hartford Stage bring us Anastasia, A New Musical, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak with choreography by Peggy Hickey, another Broadway-bound show adapted from a popular animated film.

The story of Anastasia Romanov takes its cue from the many imposters who claimed to be her, keeping alive the story that she had survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Russian revolution of 1917. Bluth and company clearly saw the usefulness for an animated feature of any story involving a princess, and Disneyfied the story with anthropomorphic animals and an evil mystical villain—Rasputin!—to give some humor and thrills to the tale. Composers Stephen Flaherty, music, and Lynn Ahrens, lyrics, created for the film several big numbers, notably “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past,” “Learn to Do It,” and “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart).” For the stage show, Flaherty and Ahrens have expanded their supplementary songs from the animated film into a full scale musical that tells its tale through song more than dialogue.

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The task facing Terrence McNally, who wrote the Book of Anastasia, A New Musical, is to create yet another story based on the spurious legend of Anastasia’s survival that lets viewers have their fairy tale—she is a princess!—while doubting it too. McNally replaces the evil mad monk with dastardly Communist apparatchiks who must lay to rest the dangerous notion that a Russian princess might yet live. This alteration in favor of something a bit more historically accurate helps in some ways, even as it flattens the fairy tale aspects considerably. For one thing, there are nearly no comic roles and what passes for jokes are basically quips—cue Gertrude Stein (Rayanne Gonzales). And Communists make for rather colorless villains. The story has little dramatic interest, most of the songs serve only narrative purpose and are uninspiring as vehicles for feeling, and the performances, for the most part, are adequate rather than stellar.

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of the kudos in the show go to the technical features. Anastasia is a spectacle and in that sense it’s spectacular. The movable set decorations of Alexander Dodge’s brilliantly conceived scenic design make us look forward to each scene change—which is to say, each new song—and video & projection design by Aaron Rhyne makes the background more fascinating than the foreground action more than once. Peggy Hickey’s choreography gives this huge troupe of dancers—there are 14 in unnamed but multiply-costumed roles including a segment from Swan Lake—much to do and it is all brought off flawlessly. Linda Cho’s costumes will no doubt spawn facsimiles for figurines, or should. The Dowager Empress’ get-ups are gorgeous at a level that only the regal can wear, and Mary Beth Peil looks every inch a queen in her outfits. And getting to put on stage peasant garb, military wear, bohemian chic, and haut bourgeois splendor makes Cho’s contribution very much a high point. The projections and scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting design make the stage able to compete with animated action, and Peter Hylenski’s sound design gives the actors’ voices that ever-bright note that makes cartoon sound so distinctive.

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

With such a spectacle on offer, I wish I could say more in favor of the show tunes. It helps that “Once Upon a December”—which we hear three times—is a pretty song. It has to carry the emotional freight of the show, but is never more moving than it is at the start when Peil, as Anastasia’s Nana, the Empress, sings it with Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca). Which is to say the real Anastasia—at the last time the two actually see each other. The reunion and reprise, for McNally’s purposes, is real too, in the sense that everyone comes to believe that Anya (Christy Altomare), an amnesiac, Cinderella-like menial taken under-wing by two opportunists, Vlad (John Bolton, amusing) and Dmitry (Derek Klena, mostly still a cartoon), is the actual Anastasia. But there’s really not much suspense or satisfaction in whether or not the aging Empress will accept Anya as kin.

The flight from the dogged Kremlin agent Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and his minions provides some excitement here and there—a train sequence gets things moving near the end of Act I—but most of the high-points on stage are incidental to the actual story. Two such are the moody song of the exiled Russians, “Land of Yesterday,” and “The Countess and the Common Man,” a comical duet by Vlad and his onetime flame, Countess Lily (the Empress’s companion, coincidentally). Both those numbers feature Caroline O’Connor as Lily and, performance-wise, she’s the best thing in the show, which helps Act II, set in Paris where she and the Empress reside.

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The other key bit from the film that holds its own here is “Learn to Do It,” the Eliza Doolittle-like number wherein Vlad and Dmitry try to get Anya to become sufficiently aristocratic. At that point, halfway through Act I, I still had hopes that the show had lots more such tunes up its sleeve. Alas, no. “Journey to the Past,” the big rousing number before the curtain, gives Altomare a chance to show off her range and puts the show’s purpose into song.

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a journey into the past, the notion that every little girl wants to be a princess—which Disney has done much to perpetuate—returns to the point in history at which aristocracy became a dirty word, for the sake of an ideology that, in Anastasia’s view, is pernicious because it’s against grandeur and beautiful accessories. If the show has a point, it’s achieved when the three renegades from Soviet Russia, one of them allegedly nobility, hit Paris and find themselves outsiders to the capitalist fat cats as well. One needn’t really be a princess, simply able to dress like one. Better go see Grandma.

Tresnjak, who began the season trying to adapt film noir to the stage with Rear Window, again with much better tech than story, gets closer here to what seems his desiderata: stage productions that are interchangeable with movies in their attention to visuals over script. The point made by the top-notch animated features produced by Disney in the late 1980s, early 1990s (named above) was that the Broadway musical’s tendency to employ caricatures rather than characters could suit cartoon characters perfectly. That Broadway should then make caricatures of cartoon characters might reasonably nonplus a few, while for those who like that sort of thing that’s the sort of thing they like. Anastasia, if you’re willing to forego laughs, excitement, complex motivation, and are happy with great visuals and a handful of winning numbers, should not disappoint.

 

Anastasia, A New Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Video & Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. Lapointe; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Doug Besterman; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Music Preparation: Joann Kane Music, Russell Bartmus & Mark Graham; Fight Choreographer: Jeff Barry; Casting: Telsey + Company, Craig Burns, CSA; Vocal Arranger: Stephen Flaherty; Dance Music Arranger: David Chase; Associate Music Director: Steven Malone; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Bonnie Panson; Stage Manager: Trey Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast (in order of appearance): Nicole Scimeca; Mary Beth Peil; Lauren Blackman; Constantine Germanacos; Molly Rushing; Alida Michal; Samantha Sturm; Shina Ann Morris; Manoel Felciano; Derek Klena; John Bolton; Christy Altomare; Ken Krugman; Kevin Ligon; Johnny Stellard; Rayanne Gonzales; Janet Dickinson; Caroline O’Connor; Kevin Munhall; Max Clayton; James Brown III

Hartford Stage
May 12-June 19, 2016

A Rocky Path for Lovers

Review of Romeo & Juliet at Hartford Stage

Scenic design is an integral part of the theater-viewing experience. It can be transformative; it can be unobtrusive; it can be a distinctively theatrical environment; it can seem like an actual place you could inhabit. The choices made to convey a play to us take on concrete shape with the set’s design and orientation.

Director Darko Tresnjak’s scenic design for the Hartford Stage’s production of Romeo & Juliet chooses to place “Shakespeare’s most popular play” (as the press packet reads) in a post-war Italy influenced by Neorealist filmmakers, such as Pasolini and de Sica, a decision that gives us a very austere setting, with a backdrop of vertical graves as in a mausoleum, with small vases tended now and then by attendants (one great virtue of this R&J is that it has a cast large enough to have extras). Gone is any sense of Italy's sensuality; in its place is a sterile, barren presence that never lets up.

Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

Worse, center stage is a pit of gravel. The first time boots tread across the space, accompanied by speech, we become aware of why this wasn’t such a good idea. Do we want our Shakespeare accompanied by noisy rocks and stones and worse than senseless things? After all, these characters aren’t speaking Italian with subtitles, nor are they speaking Fifties-ish lingo. They are speaking Elizabethan poetry, which, generally speaking, we like to hear as clearly as possible, unmarred by unnecessary sound effects. At one point, the pit seems intended as a swimming pool, with Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) in flippers and bathing suit, and that does add a touch more color, incongruous as it might seem, to the drabness.

Wyatt Fenner (Mercutio), Alex Hanna (Benvolio), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo) and Ensemble

Wyatt Fenner (Mercutio), Alex Hanna (Benvolio), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo) and Ensemble

I could say more about the moving slab that becomes a balcony and the rising and lowering slab that becomes a marital bed for the lovers, but let’s just leave it at: unprepossessing. For some viewers these matters might mean less than nothing as they are transported to another world by their wonder at Shakespeare’s language and control of this very deft plot; I’m not of their number.

Kandis Chappell (Nurse), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Charles Janasz (Friar Laurence)

Kandis Chappell (Nurse), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Charles Janasz (Friar Laurence)

And that’s not due to the fact that this is an overly familiar play. Watching it, as with most Shakespeare plays, one is surprised that there’s always more to learn. Here, we learn how very important Friar Laurence (Charles Janasz) and Juliet’s Nurse (Kandis Chappell) are, because they are the two best performances in the show. Indeed, Janasz’s tongue-lashing to Romeo is only bettered by his woeful, at-wit’s-end explanation of what went wrong, addressed to a stern Escalus (Bill Christ) at the play’s close. And Chappell’s reactions, even when silent, speak volumes. Her face when she finally realizes Juliet is mourning more for Romeo than for Tybalt registers an almost frightened acknowledgement of youthful passion. The scene when she counsels giving up on Romeo and marrying Paris (Julien Seredowych) as Capulet (Timothy D. Stickney) commands is also fraught with a dissembling that speaks volumes about her underling status.

The principal roles are spottier. As Romeo, Chris Ghaffari is boyish and energetic, able to climb up to and down from the balcony slab with impressive ease, but any sense of Romeo as morose or lovesick—as he should be when we meet him—never materializes. And he’s much better at banter and challenge than he is at the passionate declarations required in the denouement. Kaliswa Brewster fares better as Juliet, swaying her Nurse with the passion of her love for Romeo and finding depth and tears in the “banished” speech, but she also has a tendency to proclaim earnestly more often than find a register that can carry her from pertness to pathos and back. Together they don’t really ignite, and their best scene has them lying on their sides, their body language expressing the yearning that’s stirring them.

Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

And Mercutio? This time he’s more a nerd—with his pedal-pusher braces and bicycle—than a fop (the typical rendition), and Fenner knows how to deliver the poetry of his speech about Queen Mab, and that makes him a welcome addition here. The Montagues don’t have all that much to do, and, as Juliet’s parents, Thomas D. Stickney enacts fed-up anger well and Celeste Ciulla seems the most at home in the Neorealist trappings, looking like a Rosselini heroine, cigarette and all. Robert Hannon Davis, who plays Romeo’s stiff of a dad, makes more of an impression as a truly scary Apothecary, and Alex Hanna’s Benvolio is apt.

The best things about the look of the show are Ilona Somogyi’s costumes—Juliet’s go-to-be-shrived outfit is quite fetching—and Matthew Richards’ lighting design, which makes for some interesting effects against that somber, tomblike backdrop. The notion that Italy’s war dead serve as those fallen to Capulet vs. Montague intrigues is more suggestive than satisfactory, but the set’s sense of gloom does serve to underline all the misgivings and the willingness to die expressed often enough. This is a Romeo & Juliet where the couple’s brief flame of love seems a stray moment in an enduring culture of mourning. Doom’s the word.

 

William Shakespeare’s
Romeo & Juliet
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Associate Scenic Deisgner: Colin McGurk; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Binder Casting; Productioin Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Brae Singleton; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Callie Beaulieu; Kaliswa Brewster; Michael Buckhout; Kandis Chappell; Bill Christ; Celeste Ciulla; Robert Hannon Davis; Jonathan Louis Dent; Wyatt Fenner; Chris Ghaffari; Alex Hanna; Olivia Hoffman; Charles Janasz; Raphael Massie; Stephen Mir; Ella Mora; Stephen James Potter; Jenna Rapisdara; Alex Schneps; Mac Schonher; Julien Seredowych; Timothy D. Stickney

Hartford Stage
February 11-March 20, 2016

 

 

 

 

Window Watcher

Review of Rear Window at Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak’s production of Rear Window, adapted by Keith Reddin from the Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder,” that inspired the famous Hitchcock film, creates, on the one hand, a visually interesting “stage noir” take on the story, and, on the other, adds levels of complication that make for a confused approach to characters and content.

Some of the problem, of course, may be in the eye of the beholder. If you come to the show informed by the film, you may be expecting the play’s big-draw film star, Kevin Bacon, to be playing Jeffries as a take on the affable Everyman made so indelible by James Stewart. The Jeffries in Reddin’s script, based a bit on Woolrich himself, is deliberately not that. Jeffries is an alcoholic newsman brooding over at least two major issues: one is the loss of his wife, Gloria, in a vague backstory, the other is a certain disillusion caused by the conviction and execution of an innocent black youth in South Carolina, a story he covered. Typically, Jeffries likes to write about homicide, and to purloin the murder weapon when possible, but the racist handling of the case of George Stinney (which actually occurred) has given him pause, professionally speaking.

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

He’s also on pause because, like the main character in both story and film, he has a cast on his leg, and crutches, and a wheelchair. All of which gives Bacon something to do, physically, in moving about the stage and making the most of a world-weary, hang-dog manner. But if you’re hoping for a good, middle-aged female nurse role such as Stella, brought to life by Thelma Ritter in Hitchcock’s film (scripted by John Michael Hayes), forget it. The helper for Jeffries is a young black kid, Sam (McKinley Belcher III) who shows up saying Jeffries, one drunken night, invited him over. He also has nothing but wide-eyed praise for Jeffries the writer; Jeffries looks askance at the flattery but takes a liking to the kid anyway. All well and good, except that Sam, a cipher of a character, also has to take on the role of getting Jeffries evidence—in the film, that task is left to his swanky girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and in the story to Sam, a servant of long-standing. Here, the strongest character reading of these two is as a folie à deux between newsman turned sleuth and adoring fan turned factotum; there are also a few hints of Jeffries being in the closet, but those aren’t developed any more than that wan recollection of a former wife.

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

And the lack of development on the level of Jeffries’ emotional life nags at the play and isn’t really compensated for by Jeffries’ activity. What Jeffries does, of course, is spy on his neighbors. Though they aren’t up to much other than offering window-dressing, there is an ensemble up there in a tenement-like set, complete with fire escape, able to turn when necessary to let us into the modest apartment of the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton), a couple at loggerheads that Jeffries becomes obsessed with. There’s a glimpse of where this might have gone, were we still living in the Freudian days that fueled elements in film noir and Hitchcock, when we see that the couple might be living out some version of Jeffries’ own marital woe (particularly as Hamilton plays both the former Mrs. Jeffries and the current Mrs. Thorwald, that is, until the latter disappears mysteriously). The psychological battle Jeffries might undergo in confronting why he believes Thorwald—a meek-enough-looking guy, seeming like the quintessential hen-pecked husband complete with effeminate apron when we first meet him—killed Mrs. Thorwald could be the lurid stuff of a melodrama of the 1950s or 1960s (cue Nicholas Ray).

But that’s not what we have here, seemingly. Or that’s at least—without giving it away—what we’re led to believe by the rather rushed and unconvincing denouement that comes about, complete with loud gunplay, before the fuzzy conclusion. Along the way, there’s John Bedford Lloyd as Boyne, a surly detective that Jeffries himself calls into action, as he does in the story, though in Woolrich sans the racism that seems present here to remind us that cops, in New York (not just down South), have been known to mistreat African-Americans. It’s a point that serves little purpose in this story of a house-bound, would-be sleuth going bonkers, but one must allow that it’s a point, at least. Nothing much else here has one.

Except, that is, for the manifest technical point that seems to be exercising director Tresnjak: can the stage take on the mood and feel of film noir and deliver similar entertainment? In terms of the use of Alexander Dodge’s amazing set, with York Kennedy’s rich lighting scheme, Jane Shaw’s powerhouse sound, and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections—including opening titles straight from a movie matinee and a pair of filmed eyes that Hitch, always a friend to kitschy effects, might use—Tresnjak creates a world that should be inhabited by characters from James M. Cain and the like, where murder will out and flawed heroes take their lumps. But this is no campy celebration of beloved effects of a bygone cinematic era. And as a dark night of the soul, the play is oddly soul-less, while the theme of murder, so dear to the noirish heart, is here a vague sub-plot among sub-plots, made all the more will-o’-the-wisp by the fact that the tenement set, as the Thorwalds’ container, leaps into view only when, as it were, Jeffries bothers “to turn on the set.”

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

And that might be the final irony of the staging of Rear Window. The film made the case that we all live, to some degree, in glass houses, created by our voyeuristic love of cinema and television. We look at one another as characters in a drama we’re trying to watch. The richly detailed set in the film recalled a stage set, but “off-stage” and “off-camera” are two different worlds, the one simply doesn’t exist, the other appeals to a range of imaginative possibilities. Staging the cinematic is a complicated business and Tresnjak’s Rear Window demonstrates the problems more than it solves them.

 

Rear Window
Adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin
Based on the story by Cornell Woolrich

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Projection Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: James Harker; Assistant Stage Manager: Cherie B. Tay; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Kevin Bacon; McKinley Belcher III; Melinda Page Hamilton; John Bedford Lloyd; Robert Stanton; Erik Bloomquist; Caitlin Harrity; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly; William Squier; Barbara Gallow; Ashley Croce; Jon Garrity; Quinn Warren; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly

Hartford Stage
October 22-November 15, 2015

That Old Shakespearean Rag

Review of Kiss Me, Kate at Hartford Stage

Granted, Kiss Me, Kate is, as a play, more silly than shrewd. But then this 1940s’ musical isn’t noted for its Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, but for its music and lyrics by Cole Porter. The vitality and wit of songs like “Too Darn Hot,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “Always True to You in My Fashion” remain undimmed by time, much as does the blank verse of the Bard. Combining both in one show is about as classy as you can get. And that’s what we get: a silly tale of backstage romance and its relation to, onstage, a musical of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—on its opening night in Baltimore—with Porter’s songs to keep things witty.

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

Mike McGowan as Fred as Petruchio; Anastasia Barzee as Lilli as Kate

As a musical about putting on a musical, and as a show about sparring leads—Lilli Vanessi (Anastasia Barzee) and Fred Graham (Mike McGowan)—who were once a couple, now playing the shrew Katharine and her roguish suitor Petruchio, Kiss Me, Kate has fun with actors’ egos, theater, musicals, Shakespeare, and the amorous ways of men and women. In this staging it also has director Darko Tresnjak, who scored a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, showing again his sure hand with flamboyantly fluffy stuff, reunited with members of the Gentleman team, Peggy Hickey, choreographer, Alexander Dodge, scenic designer, and Philip Rosenberg, lighting designer, and with Fabio Toblini, who did such an eye-pleasing job with the costumes for Tresnjak’s production of Bell, Book & Candle. And that means the show is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The somewhat clever conceit of the story is seeing an estranged acting couple patch things up in a comic arc that parallels the story of how Petruchio “tames” the shrew Katharine; meanwhile, the co-star Lois Lane (Megan Sikora), a source of jealousy for Lilli, has a boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Tyler Hanes), who signed Fred’s name for his gambling debts, and that brings into the story two comical hoodlums (Brendan Averett and Joel Blum) who, in order to keep an eye on Lilli, get onstage in Shakespearean get-ups. No need to follow the plot too closely, the glory of the story is in the song and dance routines, and Tresnjak and company just keep ‘em coming.

James T. Lane and company

James T. Lane and company

To keep the various playing areas in play—with backstage, and onstage, and paired dressing-rooms—Dodge’s way with the staging is delightful, and Toblini’s Shakespearean costumes wow in blazing Technicolor. The well-known Porter songs, such as those mentioned above, grace the backstage action, where, sometimes, they’re just added delights with no plot points—such as James T. Lane’s frothy work-up of “Too Darn Hot,” the second act opener that threatens to make us forget all about Shakespearean shenanigans.

But there are some great comic tunes within Taming to divert us, particularly two numbers flaunting naughty fun: Petruchio’s “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” makes the most of Porter’s tongue-in-cheek ribaldry, and the flirty Bianca (Sikora), with Gremio (Barrett Martin), Hortensio (Giovanni Bonaventura), and Lucentio (Tyler Hanes), gives “Tom, Dick or Harry” laughs and memorable moves a-plenty. Another comic highpoint finds the hoods lecturing the guys on the Bard’s seductive use with the girls (“Brush Up on Your Shakespeare). Averett and Blum make the most of the music-hall style comedy of heavies in leotards.

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Anastasia Barzee (Lilli / Kate)

Most of the best stuff comes in the second act, with those first three numbers, “Too Darn Hot,” “Where is the Life” and Sikora’s wonderfully fluid rendering of “Always True to You in My Fashion,” whereas the first act is a bit heavy with plot. Still, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” kicks the show off in grand fashion, and Petruchio and Katharine get to make their comical claims with “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Hate Men,” respectively. Indeed, the latter is Barzee’s finest moment, finding ways to work a nude male statue to keep viewers’ transfixed. And for those who like ballads, there’s the lovely lilt of “So In Love,” delivered by both Barzee and McGowan separately in each act. Especially good at what they do: McGowan’s ultra-masculine strut and sonorous voice as Fred/Petruchio, Sikora’s vivacious sexiness as Lois/Bianca, some rousing tap-dancing from Hanes and Lane, and vocals from Charity Angél Dawson as Hattie in the opening.

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

Megan Sikora as Bianca with suitors

All in all, it’s a musical comedy of riches, featuring a judicious use of lines from The Taming of the Shrew to keep in play what T.S. Eliot called “that old Shakespeherian rag—It’s so elegant. So intelligent.” Words that might easily be used to describe the songs of Cole Porter. Together they make a fizzy cocktail of screwball fun.

Kiss Me, Kate
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Bella and Samuel Spewack

Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography by Peggy Hickey

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Wig Design: Jason Allen; Music Director: Kris Kukul; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Casting: Binder Casting; Associate Music Director: Max Mamon; Production Stage Manager: Anjee Nero; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda Salmons; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Hartford Stage
May 14-June 14, 2015

The Second Time Around

Review of Private Lives at Hartford Stage One of the most successful aspects of Darko Tresnjak’s production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, now showing at the Hartford Stage, is how well cast it is. Ken Barnett and Rachel Pickup play Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, a former couple married to others as the play opens. In the roles originally written for Coward and his wife Gertrude Lawrence, Barnett and Pickup display tons of smooth aplomb, looking every inch as sophisticated as, I’m sure, the originals did.

Coward’s comedy depends upon the tensions that arise when sophistication meets farce. Even the interwar years among the privileged elite must meet with put-downs and comeuppances—here, the belligerent and bored maid Louise (Carine Montbertrand) at Amanda’s flat in France has to stand for all the surliness directed at these posh couples by the underclass. And crowd pleasing she is, though, in this play, most of the deflation and rough patches come, fittingly, from private life: the mismatch of a couple, and the struggle of wills over what tone should prevail, what kind of union a marriage should be.

On an elegant terrace among other elegant terraces on the Riviera, we first meet Elyot with his new, blonde bride Sybil (Jenni Barber). It isn’t that they seem ill-matched, only that Sybil will be going on about Elyot’s former wife. No matter how archly Elyot fields her questions, an undercurrent of unease can’t quite be smoothed away and he begins to bristle. Some things are best not discussed between newlyweds. The couple withdraws and who should appear on the adjacent terrace but Amanda and her new husband Victor Prynne (Henry Clarke). While not suffering from quite the degree of second-spouse anxiety as Sybil, Victor clearly feels he has to dispense with any notion that he’s the runner-up. The comedy in the early going is all in the attempts at bonhomie by these not so tranquil couples.

We feel both Elyot and Amanda’s relief at not having to be their old selves, embraced by the excitement of new loves, yet it is obvious that something is lacking. When, alone on their respective terraces, Elyot and Amanda meet again, their “meant for each other” status is only too apparent. Barnett and Pickup simply match: their voices, their mannerisms, their use of language—both verbal and body—mesh and seem to demand a re-union despite whatever reason may dictate, which would bend to notions of wedlock and new vows. Barnett is dapper without seeming effeminate, contained, cool, dry, wearing a tuxedo as if he’s always lived in one. Pickup, wearing a period gown with great panache, makes the most of long, expressive arms that turn her every gesture into a grace note. In some ways, the play never quite recovers from the close of Act I. Seeing the former Mr. and Mrs. Chase reunite behind the backs of their more average and earnest current spouses satisfies with the snap of a well-mixed martini. What more is there?

Act II and III take place at Amanda’s flat, a rather delightfully garish mélange of patterns and hyper-modernist design. Here Elyot and Amanda, in flight from their current marriages, take their ease and pick holes in one another’s attitudes as only each can. It’s diverting, the slings and arrows of this well-matched sparring, with plenty of flinging about in appealing attitudes on various furnishings. Tresnjak makes the most of the physical grace of his actors as they fully own the space with the kind of theatrical ease that seems bred into these characters, with Barnett, in a dressing-gown throughout Act II, pounding away on a piano with much expressiveness, and Pickup, in a fit of pique, cracking a gramophone record against his head with finesse. Act II ends, as both the audience and the characters fully expect, with the arrival of Sybil and Victor, looking like well-meaning travelers seeking asylum in a madhouse.

Act III primarily affords a pleasure rarely encountered. With Elyot and Amanda, we are able to witness exes making a partnership, a match in its way as passionate as their own. As Sybil, Barber has at times the whine of a flighty child that she uses well to importune, while Clarke, as Victor, is brash and physical, looking to get into a fight with Elyot to prove his manliness. Everyone is pitch perfect, and wonderfully styled and costumed.

Beautiful to look at, swift in running-time, sumptuously staged, Private Lives delivers a fluffy divertissement with the quaint crackle of old-style Hollywood comedy. It’s a world where the British are still the height of style and the globe-trotters of a world they’ve colonized and thus feel blithely at home in. Coward lets us look in on these private lives with a certainty about the fascination that the masses still find in the contemplation of the rich and classy. Tresnjak and company manage to make a period piece come alive with the satisfying theatricality of the “private” made public, exulting in the kind of dialogue that seems to know it’s in a play because, well, aren’t we all, darling?

 

Private Lives By Noël Coward Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Casting: Binder Casting, Jack Bowdan, CSA; Dialect Coach: Gillian Lane-Plescia; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Brae Singleton; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Maxwell Williams

Hartford Stage January 8-February 8, 2015

Grounds More Relative

Review of Hamlet at Hartford Stage Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play of machinations and subterfuge, of, as director Darko Tresnjak points out, surveillance and spying. “Something is rotten” in the state of Denmark and there can be little hope for a happy outcome. As everyone knows, the body count is high at play’s end. And it’s such a theatrical play that we may find ourselves somewhat detached from all those deaths. That, it seems to me, is the struggle for any production that wants to stage Hamlet faithfully, to make us feel how tragically ill-at-heart Elsinore is.

Tresnjak’s production at Hartford Stage is vibrant and entertaining, but the rottenness seems somewhat remote. In part that’s due to the wide-open staging—consisting primarily of large, attractive platforms of tiles that form a cross and take on different colors in different scenes—which mitigates the shadowy and claustrophobic aspects of the place Hamlet calls “a prison.” We have no arras for spies to hide behind, no walls at all—except for cut-outs of curtains that drop down for a few scenes, such as the play within the play. The openness of the staging makes this a Hamlet in a goldfishbowl, with plenty of empty space that Tresnjak and his company are very skilled at filling. The rhythms and movements of the play are a distinct pleasure, but, at the same time, the play’s “darker purpose” seems to elude the production.

The production’s greatest strength lies in its assumption of an audience. Tresnjak lets his actors speak with our presence in mind—Hamlet when alone confides in us; Ophelia, in her madness, gives a flower to a spectator—and that goes a long way toward implicating us, so that the cruciform stage seems significant. For we have here a kind of Passion Play, a story enacted before us to show us how a play may “catch the conscience” and how, in the end, all are “hoist upon [their] own petard.” For all their busy machinations lead to the undoing of the schemers, even Hamlet. Indeed, Tresnjak’s final tableau may make us consider why the outcome is what it is, and what we are to make, ultimately, of the Ghost’s summons for rough justice. And that, we see, is what Hamlet must consider. This is not a Hamlet beset by irresolution, so much as he is worried about the implications of his actions. He’s a modern character—with conscience and scruples—existing in a Revenge play, so that here the obstacles to matching a murder with a murder are internal more than external.

Of course, any production of Hamlet takes much of its tone from its Hamlet. Zach Appelman is a forthright Prince, energetic, amusing, with enough hint of the scholar to keep before us Hamlet’s reputation as a thinker. He reads, he writes love poems, he fences, he is the “most observed of all observers,” as Ophelia says. Commanded to stay at Elsinore and dance attendance on his despised uncle now the King, this Hamlet bristles more than he mopes. He finds what entertainment he can in scheming and in dressing-down with his superior airs and his “antic disposition” the tiresome court personages, including the obsequious Rosencrantz (Curtis Billings) and Guildenstern (Cliff Miller). While I would have my Hamlet a bit more caustic and conflicted, Appelman does justice to Hamlet’s sense of humor, which is made sharper by the fact that Tresnjak’s cast doesn’t overplay the absurdity of Polonius or the other courtiers. They are simply a little slow on the uptake and, though spies for the King, are just doing their duty and may even be generally interested in what ails Hamlet. To Hamlet is left the problem of being Hamlet in this new dispensation, with only a ghost of a father to direct him. The reading of “to be or not to be” seems less a contemplation of suicide and more a disquisition on why life is worth clinging to no matter how much it disappoints us.

Indeed, this is a hopeful Hamlet, full of conviction that, no matter how “dull and muddy-meddled” he may be, he will by indirections find direction out, and Appelman keeps the audience with him all the way. As Hamlet’s nemesis Claudius, Andrew Long is not evil so much as pragmatic. He can be full of himself and overbearing, but Long lets a certain likeable lightness of tone come into play at interesting points—such as his prayer speech—so that we believe he and Hamlet truly are related. As Hamlet’s mother, Kate Forbes gives us a Gertrude slightly distracted—having lost and gained a husband so quickly, she seems to be on the point of reconsidering everything. There are pointed moments when we can tell her will has separated from her current husband, and her scene with Hamlet in her chambers maintains a regal dignity that often gets sacrificed to histrionics—the expression on her face when Hamlet tells her that, for her, “the heyday in the blood is tame” is worth volumes.

The histrionics are left to Ophelia, and Brittany Vicars manifests a rather shrill love interest for the Prince. The mad scene makes Ophelia’s snatches of bawdry sound like dirges all, a fulsome mourning that, while adding gravitas to the “prating knave” Polonius, misses a chance to register Ophelia’s own pointed dissatisfaction with the hierarchy at Elsinore. Edward James Hyland is a dignified Polonius, even when he’s being mocked, and Anthony Roach’s Laertes is the young puppet of greater men, while James Seol’s Horatio seems oddly detached as though he has somewhere else to be. Long also doubles as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, and provides a commanding presence, full of great voice. Tresjnak delays the entrance of the Ghost and when he appears he has the look of a martial statue, giving us a lasting glimpse of the “majesty of buried Denmark.”

The open trap in the stage that does various offices—as Ophelia’s grave, as Polonius’s hiding place, as the pit into which Hamlet, in pursuit of the Ghost, descends—struck me as a bit awkward. It’s hard to register the earthiness of the grave-digging with such a set, though Floyd King’s Gravedigger is all one could wish, and the struggle between Laertes and Hamlet seems not to be in a grave so much as at the door of a crypt. On the plus side, this Hamlet moves smoothly through segments that can drag—such as Hamlet among the players—and Tresjnak makes Hamlet’s awareness of Claudius and Polonius spying on his colloquy with Ophelia comically obvious. The duel to the death is well-staged too, since for Hamlet it’s simply play while for Laertes it’s do or die—until receiving a wound inspires Hamlet to swordplay in earnest.

All in all, a goodly presentation—with traditional Costumes by Fabio Toblini, all ruffs and breeches and layered gowns—that keep before us the sumptuous life at court in somewhat cartoonish colors that offset Hamlet's suit of solid black, and the Lighting by Matthew Richards gives us many moods and spaces in quite remarkable fashion. Above all, this Hamlet is fun to watch and true to itself.

 

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Brandalyn Fulton; Associate Scenic Designer: Colin McGurk; Voice and Text Coach: Claudia Hill Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Production Stage Manager: Renee Lutz; Assistant Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombbe; Associate Artistic Director: Maxwell Williams

Hartford Stage October 16-November 16, 2014

Are You One Of Them?

John van Druten’s Bell, Book & Candle is a play from a time when subtext was anything not acceptable to polite convention.  His characters have class, in a vaguely bohemian milieu (it’s set ostensibly in the 1950s’ Greenwich Village), and they preen and pose with the regulated pauses of the great screen stars of the 1940s.  In such a world, the fact that there are things going on that we can’t talk about (we’ve since learned to call them subcultures) would be still somewhat risqué for the average audience.  Van Druten, with his comic suggestion that a hunt for witches might turn them up “anywhere,” is a bit ahead of the widespread search for Communists and their sympathizers in the McCarthy “witch hunt,” and way ahead of the political self-outing of the gay community.  And yet, in Darko Tresnjak’s production, more respectful than revisionist, those associations are clearly present—to say nothing of any other sub rosa collectivity that might come to mind.

The square to be initiated into it all is Shep Henderson (Robert Eli), a publisher without much imagination who’s all set to marry a Southern harridan we only hear over the phone, until a sort of accidental run-in with his neighbor, the mysterious and grandly available Gilllian Holroyd (Kate MacCluggage), sends him soon enough head-over-heels and all over the floor for her.  Tresnjak makes the couple couple much more quickly than they ever would have in films or plays of the period, but not, one assumes, than they would’ve in wicked old Greenwich.  It’s to the play’s credit that it seems written for adults—it gives one a nice frisson of nostalgia to watch something that might appeal to people who were all grown up in the 1950s, happily unaware of what the various coming cultural revolutions would do to entertainment.  This is romantic comedy before The Pill and Women's Lib.

Case in point: recall the days when a leading man needed only to be a presentable hunk who looks good in a dinner jacket.  Eli does, and his Henderson has the doggedness of a man who isn’t expecting much excitement or surprise from life and then finds both in the form of his neighbor, a woman who, supposedly, he’s barely noticed until her witchcraft changes his tune.  And of course, “witchcraft,” here is synonymous with whatever “feminine wiles” our parents alluded to when they talked about how a gal gets her man.  The fact that Gillian’s wiles are indeed supernatural adds charm rather than menace, but with little of the slapstick spell-casting that was a staple of TV's Bewitched, the Sixties sitcom that recalls some of Van Druten's characters.

Van Druten’s dialogue never sizzles or pops, its sense of the humorous is droll more often than clever, full of charm rather than laugh-filled.  It’s the kind of play that won’t work without a game cast willing to become anachronisms with relish, and Tresnjak has coached his cast to get the feel of lines uttered on a sound-stage and etched on celluloid.  MacCluggage especially—who was last on the Long Wharf stage as a 40s’ radio actress in Eric Ting’s production of It’s a Wonderful Life—has the look, moves, and voice of a screen star of the era.  Always dressed seductively and lit perfectly, she carries herself with feline pleasure in her every move, her voice sensual in its precision, a sympathetic seductress about to be hoist on her own petard: making Shep fall in love with her, she finds that she fulfills “the old wives’ tale” that a witch in love loses her powers, becoming merely human (with a touch of Doris Day).

The play pirouettes on the familiar theme of lovers’ truth: if, in love, we should always be ourselves, why does it always feel so risky to be honest?  What’s more, once a gal’s wiles are seen through, then what?  Be warned, suspense isn’t really a feature of this plot, but that doesn’t matter.  Though two intermissions drag out the playing time, the pleasures of the show come from the exacting pace, Alexander Dodge's wonderfully mod set, from its “womb chair” to its suspended fireplace to its snowflake chandelier, Fabio Toblini's bright and sprightly costumes—particularly Aunt Queenie (Ruth Williamson)’s revamped Andorra (the Agnes Moorehead character in Bewitched) and the jackets and cape sported by Gillian’s teasing brother Nicky (Michael Keyloun, a study in understated camp), and that game cast.

The cast is filled out by Gregor Paslawsky as Sidney Redlitch, a toupee-wearing, booze-swilling “witch expert,” played with the broad panache of a sitcom’s zany neighbor or clueless boss.

Today, vampires and zombies are our chosen avatars of supernatural allegory.  Once upon a time, in a Manhattan of sparkling martinis and swirling mambos, of barefoot femmes fatales clad in capri pants, of songs by Sinatra and Ella evincing the spirit of swagger and swing, witchcraft—which has, in New England at least, real historical antecedents—could stand for all those “practices” not yet relegated to the melting pot.  Bell, Book, and Candle is a fun throwback to a time not so much innocent as blithely indifferent to the changes to come.  And, in Tresnjak’s version, the play ends with a nice touch not in the script, a way of indicating that love without witchcraft is, perhaps, rather Puritan.

Bell, Book & Candle By John Van Druten Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Long Wharf Theatre March 7-April 11

Photos by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre