Hartford Stage

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

Inane Antics of the Idle Rich

Review of Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Hartford Stage

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his unflappable valet Jeeves are beloved figures of British fiction. Brought to BBC television, they inspired a popular show in the 1990s that brought them to life via actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I must confess I had never sought out these incarnations.

Onstage at Hartford Stage in the Goodale Brothers’ adaptation, Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, directed, as it was in London, by Sean Foley, the duo are indelibly enacted by Arnie Burton and Chandler Williams, respectively. And wonderful they are in the roles.

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in  Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense , at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

Jeeves (Arnie Burton), Wooster (Chandler Williams) in Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, at Hartford Stage, directed by Sean Foley

The conceit of the Goodale Brothers’ stage show is that Bertie has decided to make a play of the tangled story of the cow-creamer—as a one-man show. He soon realizes he’s helpless to tell the story much less dramatize it without Jeeves, who abruptly turns up and also enlists fellow servant Seppings (Eddie Korbich) to flesh out the cast. This means that all the subsidiary roles are played by Burton and Korbich, and that the staging of the varied elements of the story—involving several locations—involves a comic and inventive handling of the illusions of theater. And that means much credit is due Alice Power who handles both Scenic Design and Costume Design (indeed, they are inextricably entwined).

A fireplace is wheeled into place to indicate Wooster’s digs, then, when it becomes a room at the club, a different painting is cranked into place. The entrances and exits are as amusing as anything, involving every possible variety, from graceful to rushed to incorrectly costumed. A recurring gag is that the villain of the piece, a fascist named Strode (patterned on Oswald Mosley, Britain’s leader of the blackshirts--here, blackshorts, a boy’s club) increases in height each time he appears. Played by Korbich as a pint-size dictator, Strode becomes more preposterous with each new appearance—until he is both set and costume. Other characters, such as the newt-enthusiast Gussie Fink-Nottle (Burton), are memorably enacted as well, and there’s much fun with coming in and out of a bedroom by door and window, and, my favorite, a scene in an old roadster with Korbich enacting a man observed in passing. The gags are nonstop.

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Unfortunately, there is also plot aplenty as the play combines elements from two separate tales in The Code of the Woosters, the one involving a cow-creamer, which Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia (Korbich) wants Bertie to “sneer at” to bring down the price, that then falls into the hands of Sir Watkyn Bassett (Burton), a rival collector, and must be pinched, and the other involving a dinner party and Fink-Nottle’s book of notes on Strode and Watkyn-Bassett. The plotting, ingenious as it may be, would seem much ado about little were it not for the diverting techniques of impromptu staging at which the cast is amazingly and breathlessly adroit. If you do want to settle in to follow the path of such MacGuffins as the cow-creamer, the notebook, and a policeman’s helmet you will find yourself checked at every turn by the outrageous and highly professional mocking of amateur theatricals.

When all’s said, I have to say that what I liked best was Chandler’s forthrightly clueless and feckless Bertie Wooster. His appeals to the audience have the brash charm of someone who knows you can’t possibly think too ill of him—privilege, m’boy. Wooster opens Act 2 sitting in a bubble bath and Chandler renders charmingly the sangfroid of someone able to field the impertinence of several hundred prying eyes suddenly present in his bathroom. His Wooster is always the life of the party and very much the guiding spirit of his “one-man show.”

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams)

The other great asset is Burton’s Jeeves. No doubt we’ve all seen some version of the stiff-upper-lip of the indefatigable English valet, but Jeeves is more—he’s apt to be psychic about what’s to come, encyclopedic about what has occurred, and never the least bit ruffled even when having to climb in or out windows. It’s all part of serving perfectly, with only the differing amounts of dryness in his tone to let us know his view of the situation.

That said, I wish there were more of the two titular characters interacting, which is really the heart of the thing. I am aware of how readily the Brits must guffaw at males in female wigs and feminine trappings affecting a falsetto—Monty Python did it, Benny Hill did it, and no doubt countless others—but such humor strikes me as a sepia-toned invocation of those glory days when theater was a boys only affair, letting us smirk at the drollery of the masquerade. Granted, a joke isn’t dated if it still makes an audience laugh, and Kobich’s fun with Aunt Dahlia, and Burton’s with Madeline Bassett, an ingenue of the old school, add their charms to the proceedings as well.

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Steppings as Aunt Dahlia (Eddie Korbich), Bertie (Chandler Williams)

Still, I was most amused at Bertie’s efforts to convey the intricacies of this perfect nonsense from his point of view, because ultimately, his is the view that matters—everything is on the verge of becoming a disastrous embarrassment that will never happen so long as Jeeves is on the job. With its penultimate show of the season, Hartford Stage offers perfectly silly escapist entertainment—but, as the saying goes, nothing’s perfect. You might find yourself wondering why a giggle at 1930s Britain, complete with fascists on the rise and a baffled upper-crust, should be such a timely target for spoofing.

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Steppings (Eddie Korbich), Bertie Wooster (Chandler Williams), Jeeves (Arnie Burton)

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense
A new play from the works of P.G. Wodehouse
By the Goodale Brothers
Directed by Sean Foley

Scenic Design: Alice Power; Costume Design: Alice Power; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Choreographer: Adam Cates; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Cast: Arnie Burton, Eddie Korbich, Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
March 21-April 20, 2019

Reaching Out

Review of Detroit ’67, Hartford Stage

In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit exploded. There was looting and arson in black neighborhoods, where the racist treatment by the police incensed the residents into violence. The police, and eventually the National Guard and U.S. Army, retaliated. The rebellion played out over five days as the most destructive riot of the many that occurred that summer, and one of the worst in U.S. history.

Halfway through Dominque Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, playing through March 10 at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, the chaos in the streets starts and impinges on the story. At that point, the play, concerned with a drama of personalities, is set against a threatening background that will likely lead to death. If the role of the offstage violence in the play seems a bit convenient, its presence makes clear the kind of underground life these characters live, the risks they face, and the resentments below the surface.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) in Hartford Stage’s production of Detroit ‘67 (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Set entirely in the basement of the house Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey), short for Langston as in Hughes, grew up in, the action, initially, concerns the siblings’ efforts to earn money by hosting afterhours parties in the basement. To that end, Lank, contrary to his sister’s devotion to vinyl, has procured a new-fangled device: an 8-track player! Such details take us back to a different time, greatly aided by Dede M. Ayite’s period costumes and Leah J. Loukas’ hair and makeup design. The feeling of a bygone era is key to the play, recreating a world in which the greats of Motown—Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops—are at the top of their game. As a defining export from black Detroit also beloved of white America, Motown was an important cultural ambassador, a fact which makes the hostility in the streets all the more searing.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie)

The long shadow of that era in popular culture means we feel we know these characters and how they interact. They’re familiar, whether it’s the clash between the siblings over how to spend their inheritance from their deceased parents—Lank wants to invest in opening his own club, Chelle is skeptical—or Lank’s smooth-talking buddy and would-be business partner Sly (Will Cobbs), who may be sweet on Chelle, or Chelle’s sassy and brassy friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie) who has “a lot to go-around.” Into this mix, even before we get to the riots, enters Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white girl in a go-go outfit whom Lank can’t help helping when he finds her wandering dazed, bloodied, and bruised in traffic.

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Caroline (Ginna Le Vine)

Now we’ve got the makings for interracial romance, and that might be enough of a vehicle for revisiting the way black and white cultures didn’t cross lines much during those times. That they might and did was part of the thrill and risk when the races mixed, and Le Vine and Ramey do a good job of playing with a fire set on a low heat. It could catch, but there are many complications, not least Chelle’s aversion to Caroline—though she lets her stay and help with serving in the basement club—and Lank’s unease about going behind his sister’s back to buy a real club that’s up for sale.

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Sly (Will Cobb), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Director Carroll is skilled with a play that has a lot of episodic encounters, its characters chatting and sometimes grooving to the tunes, while having little moments of discontent or disagreement. The pacing, for a play that runs to two and a half hours, is nearly flawless. And, while we can feel the plot like a net closing in, there are many nice touches that keep our disbelief suspended. Not least is what strikes me as the heart of what Morisseau is getting at: a plaintive grievance that Chelle sounds to Bunny about what she sees as a kind of betrayal in Lank’s interest in Caroline. And that means that Lank is apt to fail his sister where it counts.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Lank (Johnny Ramey)

At the heart of the play, then, is Chelle, and Myxolydia Tyler lets us hear her, not least in a gripping moment when the seductive power of “Reach Out I’ll Be There” reaches catharsis. Cobbs, groomed to look perfectly the part, is suitably sly and sexy as Sly, and Allie’s Bunny offers both comic relief and canny appraisal of the others, the kind of friend you want on your side.

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), Sly (Will Cobbs)

The further plot elements—the vulnerability of the club during the disturbances, Caroline’s ties to corrupt cops, the doomed love aspects—begin to pile up as though Morisseau can’t resist reaching out, trying to bring in all the possible obstacles and upsets the time and place afford. If there were less story, there might be more time for the characters to complicate the roles they’ve been written into.

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

Bunny (Nyahale Allie), Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler)

An ambitious, at times meandering play, Detroit ’67 works at Hartford Stage in Carroll’s capable way with a capable cast, each contributing to an engaging ensemble. Like the five-part vocals of a song by The Temptations, Detroit ’67 gives each voice its space.

 

Detroit ‘67
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite; Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Hair & Makeup Design: Leah J. Loukas; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Production Stage Manager: Heather Klein; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Nyahale Allie, Will Cobbs, Ginna Le Vine, Johnny Ramey, Myxolydia Tyler

Hartford Stage
February 14-March 10, 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

Comfort and Joy

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This is my fourth “go” at the Hartford Stage’s traditional production of Charles Dickens’ famed yuletide classic A Christmas Carol—now celebrating its 20th anniversary, having debuted in 1998, adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. That’s a lot of Christmases past, indeed. I saw two productions with Bill Raymond as Scrooge, and this is my second time seeing Michael Preston in the role, and the third time with Rachel Alderman as director. And you know what? I think it’s the best version I’ve yet seen.

Not sure why that is, since most of the cast is identical with last year, and the staging has not varied much in the four years I attended. This time, though, there seemed more gravitas to the whole. It could be that I’ve simply got beyond the warm haze of familiarity and am seeing the show not in comparison to the various Christmas Carols that have gone before, but as something in its own right. Or rite. As a ritual enactment, the Hartford Stage version has much to recommend it.

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s moving, and it moves. The show boasts a wide-open set, with entrances from every direction, and has a second story that adds much visual interest. And there are skeletal ghosts—some even fly—that create a feel for how haunted is this story of a mean-spirited old miser. They’re fun but can also be a bit unnerving.

Preston’s Scrooge, even when he’s at his worst, tends to feel a bit sympathetic because we see how he’s beset by his own bluster. Scrooge, as we learn, was once much more of a softie, but some hard knocks—a very unaccommodating father and the loss of his beloved sister, for starters—and some bad choices, like letting the love of his life get away, have made for a very testy middle-age. He also prizes his fortune as something that’s for him to hoard and for others to do without. That’s the part that really needs a make-over.

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The supporting cast—many in more than one role—have had time to make these roles their own. That includes, of course, Noble Shropshire, who delights as the air-borne and woebegone ghost of Marley, and as the doting Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper, and Robert Hannon Davis’ dignified Bob Cratchit, and Terrell Donnell Sledge, who provides a welcome focus in the early second act as Scrooge’s warmly effusive Nephew, Fred. As Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancée, Vanessa R. Butler plays well the heartstring-tugging of Scrooge’s big loss, a break that she treats as a sacrifice on her part.

The three debtors who transform into the spirits that haunt Scrooge’s uneasy slumbers on Christmas Eve are all top notch, both as street vendors and as ghosts. Bettye Pidgeon (Rebekah Jones), a doll vendor, Bert (Alan Rust), a fruit and cider vendor, and Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison), a watchworks vendor, already feel like familiar characters, and the three introduce some welcome comedy at Scrooge’s expense.

This year, I think the rebukes aimed at Scrooge by the spirits landed with a bit more force—maybe the travails of 2018 make even Christmas spirits less patient with pig-headed old fools like Scrooge. As Christmases Past, Rebekah Jones telling Scrooge not to blame her for the mistakes of his youth, and, as Christmases Present, Alan Rust’s use of Scrooge’s own callous words against him certainly come across as the dire lessons they’re meant to be. For all their cheeriness as ambassadors of Christmas, the spirits have to shock Scrooge into examining his life. And Preston’s Scrooge is every bit as fearful and repentant as he should be when the baleful Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come shows up.

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

This year, I saw the show with some viewers who never saw A Christmas Carol before—in any form, I believe—and that fact made me attend a bit more anxiously. Certainly I wanted their experience of this great story to be memorable—as any first viewing of it should be—and I’m very pleased to say that, trying to make myself follow the story as if I didn’t already know it, I was thoroughly caught up and found the Hartford Stage version wonderfully faithful to the spirit of Dickens. I admired again how the script keeps much of his quaint but vivid language in play, as it should—such as the bit about the doornail and the Victorian fussiness with statements of sentiment. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, how the dialogue at the Cratchits, in a scene from the possible future, could be improved upon, made effective by the way Davis and Shauna Miles, as Mrs. Cratchit, underplay their grief for the children’s sake.

As Cratchit reminds Scrooge early on, Christmas Day comes but once a year. True, but it comes round every year. Whatever significance one attaches to the fact of the day and its long tradition, A Christmas Carol attests to the notion that we could all do much better in treating others—whether strangers, co-workers, employees, or relatives—humanely, and that, as we close in on the date when we change the old calendar for the new, many of us would do well to turn over a new leaf. How one nasty man becomes generous and open with others is a tale worth seeing, and seeing done well. Hartford Stage’s production delivers comfort and joy.

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

 

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Design: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Associate Choreographer: Derric Harris; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Vanessa Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roody, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

The Hartt School Ensemble: Christopher Bailey, Patrick Conaway, Austin Doughty, Karla Gallegos, Holly Hill, Aubrey Jowers, Mark Lawrence, Peter Mann, Rachel Moses, Ariana Ortmann, Haley Tyson, Leslie Blake Walker, Matthew Werner, Reid Williams

The Children: Isabella Grace Corica, Ethan Dinello, Damien Galvez, Elijah J. Gibson, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilly Harris, Maddiekay Harris, Tyra Harris, Maxwell (Max) Albert Kerz, Emma Kindl, Michkael Jude McKenzie, Andrew Michaels, Addison Pancoast, Shannen Penn, Meghan Pratt, Messiah J. Price, Divena Rai, Tessa Corrie Rosenfield, Fred Thornley IV, Jake Totten, Ava Lynn Vercellone, RJ Vercellone, Leela Hatshepsut Washington-Crowther, Julia Claire Weston, Anderson Wilder, Tilden Wilder

 

Hartford Stage
November 23-December 29, 2018

But Little Touch of Harry

Review of Henry V, Hartford Stage

A production in the round is unusual in current Connecticut theaters, and it’s unusual to see a Shakespeare production as stripped-down and bare bones as the version of Henry V now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson. The choices make for an almost behind-the-scenes feel to this varied play.

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), foreground, and the cast of Henry V at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), foreground, and the cast of Henry V at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

This is the third production Williamson has directed at the theater—following Caryl Churchill’s satiric Cloud 9 and an explosive Seder by Sarah Gancher—and she tends to go for edgy. Here, as with the Churchill play, the text requires many different tonalities to succeed fully. The cast—many playing multiple roles—delivers only some of them. The main tone is a very American address to a very British play, leaving the viewer in some doubt as to what and why.

Shakespeare’s play chronicles the effort of the newly crowned Henry V, formerly the dissolute rowdy Prince Hal, to wage war on France, driven by advisors who insist he has a claim to the French crown. Here, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Felicity Jones Latta plays up the comedy of the torturous detail by which the claim is justified without necessarily convincing anyone but Henry that there is a claim. He trusts it and so, at the start, we see a king driven by a prideful decision to prove himself, particularly when the scornful Dauphin of France (Anthony Michael Lopez) sends Henry a bunch of tennis balls as a message. Henry, in France’s view, is a total lightweight, and, while we might recall recent events in which two over-wielding political leaders exchanged taunts while the fate of the world hung in the balance, the exchange doesn’t land as definitive for the action to come. Are we to see Henry as a true king in the making (the general version of the character), or misguided, spoiled, or worse?

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta), foreground, with King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush)

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta), foreground, with King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush)

The problem lies mostly with Stephen Louis Grush’s interpretation of Henry. With his shaven head and forceful frame, we easily see him as a man of action. He speaks fast and with a diction better-suited to direct speech than iambic pentameter. His main vocal shift is irascible explosion, otherwise he rarely makes clear the emotions that guide Henry. He’s best when professing himself a soldier unable to woo properly, but that comes late. It may be that Williamson has chosen to downplay the big sentiments that are generally associated with the play, such as the rhetorical fire of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and that choice makes Henry blend into the ensemble work on view here. The play tends to be more interesting when its titular character isn’t around.

Duke of Gloucester (Reid Williams), Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush)

Duke of Gloucester (Reid Williams), Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush)

The staging is empty of most scenic devices, except an occasional table and chair, and wide open, with many points of entry and exit. The floor of the playing space is a map showing the British Isles in relation to mainland Europe. The costuming is a mix of fatigues and fancier uniforms that recall various armies, from the Great War onward. Suffice to say, it’s an eclectic look that does little to recall British history specifically, and the same is true of accents. One character—the truculent Pistol—is played by Miles Anderson with a British accent. As Captain Fluellen of Wales, Baron Vaughn speaks more sing-songy than do the others, which I suppose distinguishes him. A French prisoner, Monsieur Le Fer (Nafeesa Monroe) speaks English as a comic French-person would, and Katherine, the princess of France (Eveyln Spahr) speaks in French and broken English with her French-speaking maid Alice (Felicity Jones Latta). The scene between Alice and Katherine, like the wooing between Henry and Katherine, comes off well, made engaging by Spahr’s skill in romantic comedy.

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), Katherine of France (Evelyn Spahr), Alice (Felicity Jones Latta)

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), Katherine of France (Evelyn Spahr), Alice (Felicity Jones Latta)

At the heart of the play here, it seems, are the efforts to loot while at war on the part of Sir John Falstaff’s former companions, Nym (Felicity Jones Latta), Pistol (Miles Anderson), and Bardolph (Liam Craig). The description of Falstaff’s death, by Mistress Quickly (Baron Vaughn), is played for laughs with but scant pathos, and the scene in which Henry agrees to the death by hanging of one of his former cronies brings forward little of the shared past. Here, it’s easy to overlook why these three ne’er-do-wells are even part of the play, as their role in shadowing Henry’s grandiosity is rarely if ever made pointed. They are comic relief, of a sort, though Anderson’s Pistol emerges as the most dynamic character in the play. Bardolph, shorn of his oft-remarked inflamed nose and pustular visage, is good-looking enough to be mistaken for Captain Gower of England (whom Craig also plays). In a key scene Pistol argues for saving the absent Bardolph while Gower looks on. Keep your playbill handy or you may suspect that Gower is Bardolph in a different garment.

Pistol (Miles Anderson), Bardolph (Liam Craig), Nym (Felicity Jones Latta)

Pistol (Miles Anderson), Bardolph (Liam Craig), Nym (Felicity Jones Latta)

In the midst of the lackluster readings of several of the 34 characters enacted by 15 actors in this busy production is the welcome presence of Peter Francis James as the Chorus. Florid, commanding, with a sure sense of the sound and cadence—to say nothing of the vowels and consonants—of Shakespearean rhetoric, James delivers his too few speeches quite effectively. At certain points, I found myself wishing he would simply narrate the story, which would help us to follow the who’s who and what’s what of this complex and not so well-known Shakespearean plot.

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Disappointing and quizzical, Hartford Stage’s Henry V succeeds at times, but its energy, like that of its hero, too often seems misdirected.

 

Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Matt Hubbs; Original Music: Christian Frederickson; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Yan Chen; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski

Cast: Karen Aldridge, Miles Anderson, Liam Craig, Kate Forbes, Stephen Louis Grush, Peter Francis James, Felicity Jones Latta, Mark Lawrence, Anthony Michael Lopez, Nafeesa Monroe, Jamie Rezanour, Evelyn Spahr, Haley Tyson, Baron Vaughn, Reid Williams

Hartford Stage
October 11-November 11, 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

 

 

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

Of An Age

Review of The Age of Innocence, Hartford Stage

Edith Wharton understood well the humor and the pathos of those conditioned by the rigors of the Gilded Age in “Old New York.” Her eye and, particularly, her ear for how the upper-crust navigated delicate social situations permitted her to paint their portraits with considerable vivacity and knowledge. And The Age of Innocence is her greatest novel. Dramatized on the stage in her own day, it was made into a very faithful film by Martin Scorsese in the early 1990s, and has been adapted to the stage in our day by Douglas McGrath (the filmmaker of Emma), and, directed by Doug Hughes, is in its world premiere at Hartford Stage.

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

The story concerns Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a young lawyer ostensibly in love with lovely May Welland (Helen Cespedes), both the products of families that pride themselves on their social standing. They seem particularly well-matched, and yet their elders—especially Mrs. Welland (Deirdre Madigan)—prefer to delay the marriage. The couple are almost ready to announce their engagement when May’s cousin, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), returns to New York, fleeing an unhappy marriage to Count Olenski, a Polish nobleman. For reasons of family solidarity, Archer finds himself compelled—due to the air of scandal that hangs about his fiancée’s cousin—to speed up the announcement of the engagement and, eventually, the settling of a wedding date, all the while dallying in an increasingly passionate flirtation with Madame Olenska.

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

In McGrath’s adaptation, the action is framed for us by a more elderly Archer (Boyd Gaines), who looks back with a knowing indulgence on his youthful infatuation with Ellen. The tone of his narration isn’t nearly as arch as Wharton’s narrator can be, but it goes a long way to make the play feel more contemporary than the novel. The novel’s narration is focused almost entirely through Archer, so having him reflect on his past in this way corresponds to the novel’s manner of being both in the story and above it. It’s a device that lets us enjoy our distance from the action, and to counter the naïve Archer with Gaines’ wonderfully dry view.

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

Though the focus on Archer is key to what Wharton wrote, it’s also the element that might make the play feel a little too male-dominated for our times. The women are as Archer knows them, not as they know themselves. A constraint, yes, but it lets us see how much he misses, gets wrong, and mismanages. His is a story of an effort to be original in a world that only values tradition, but it’s also the story of how a man in love wants to cling to his illusions about the object—or, here, objects—of his desire. We—and, in age, Archer—learn how the women in the case control so very much without him quite seeing how they do. The “innocence” is entirely Archer’s, much as he might consider himself a worldly man.

The cast and staging of the play are fully engaging, and the adaptation plays a bit like the kind of plays that Archer and his crowd flocked to see: it’s a story of a certain love—the approved one—triumphant, and of another love—the “wrong” one—become a romantic possibility never fulfilled. The whirl of Archer’s pre- and post-nuptial affair holds our attention because it is so very much like a play within a play. The manners of the time are all about maintaining a show and speaking according to a script that rarely reveals real feelings or thoughts.

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Fans of the novel (or of the film) will find certain characters rather flattened here, such as the priggish Larry Lefferts (Tony Ward), and the elusive yet ubiquitous Julius Beaufort (Nick Wyman), though certain elements—like the austere views of Mr. and Mrs. Van der Luyden (Tony Ward and Deirdre Madigan)—come through entertainingly. Darrie Lawrence’s every scene as Mrs. Manson Mingott, the dowager empress of this society, is a delight and all too brief.

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Andrew Veenstra is a young heartthrob of an Archer, fully living up to the obtuseness the role entails but rather a harder sell as the self-examining aesthete of Wharton’s conception. Sierra Boggess is a Countess Olenska who seems thoroughly American and, unlike Wharton’s vision, untainted by the wicked old Europe she has lived in since shortly after her coming out. Boggess and Veenstra sing a lovely duet of “Beautiful Dreamer,” however unlikely such an act would be for the Countess. May, we find, is unable to sing the part with the same lyricism, a strike against her. Helen Cespedes comes off as closest to Wharton’s sense of her character, as her May is both girlish and fully able to wield the upper hand through a successful stratagem.

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

John Lee Beatty’s set, with its array of transparent doors, makes the most of Hartford Stage's wide open spaces, and Linda Cho’s costumes regale us with the fashions of the times. The world of The Age of Innocence is one in which all is show and that makes for an entertaining spectacle. What’s not so clear is what we gain by contemplating such romantic misalignment in our age. A live pianist onstage adds color to the vestiges of romance that still move Archer as “the old gentleman,” offering a chastened remembrance of things past.

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

 

The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
Adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath
Directed by Doug Hughes

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Choreographer: Peter Pucci; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist

Cast: Sierra Boggess, Helen Cespedes, Boyd Gaines, Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, Haviland Morris, Sara Norton, Dan Owens, Josh Salt, Sara Schwab, Andrew Veenstra, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Tony Ward, Nick Wyman

Hartford Stage
April 5-May 6, 2o18

The Game's Aboard

Review of Murder on the Orient Express, Hartford Stage

Murder on the Orient Express, I suspect, is one of the more intriguing murder mysteries in Agatha Christie’s perennially popular oeuvre. Set on a world-famous train that breathes old-world charm, with an international hodgepodge of passengers that includes cosmopolitan aristocrats, their attendant servant class, and various persons of interest, the murder of an American businessman, Mr. Ratchett, alias Cassetti, sets off a whodunit that sweeps up the entire clientele of the Calais coach in its investigation.

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Ratchett (Ian Bedford) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Ratchett (Ian Bedford) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Helmed by the redoubtable detective Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), the sleuthing entails red herrings and aliases, some more questionable than others. First published in 1934, Christie’s original novel, adapted for the screen in high style in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, boasts a canny sense of how a complex killing could be carried off on a snow-bound train in close quarters. Ken Ludwig’s adaptation for the stage, directed by Emily Mann, includes a few nods to the beloved Lumet film, and boasts its own canny sense of how to fit a couple elaborate railway cars, housing a cast of 11 actors in 13 roles, on the stage at Hartford Stage.

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

In this sumptuous production, first staged at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, the main artistic features are the stylistic brio of William Ivey Long’s costumes, the detail of Beowulf Boritt’s sets—including the use of curtains to suggest framing as in a film and even a sense of panning—and mood-creating lighting, sound, and music for a richly achieved world. The main entertainment is provided by the character-actor turns, as Ludwig’s heterogeneous characters, most adapted mostly faithfully from Christie, some by way of the film, try to convince Poirot they are not other than they seem. The levels of deceit vary, and we soon begin to wonder if anyone is telling the truth and what each is trying to hide. A key clue early on lets us know (if we don’t already) the identity of Ratchett (played as an uneasy tough guy by Ian Bedford), and, from then on, it’s a matter of determining who fits into the backstory and how.

That backstory involves dire unpleasantness involving an unfortunate little girl named Daisy Armstrong (Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt), her rich parents and their staff. That crime’s distance from the present action lets the murder on the train be allowed its comic elements as its victim is someone no one would mourn. Still, the solution of the murder, which makes for a great set-piece in Act Two, complete with spotlighted flashbacks, creates an ethical quandary for Poirot (though one not nearly so tiresomely tendentious as in the recent film adaptation, directed with but scant grasp of the material by Kenneth Branagh).

Poirot (David Pittu), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Poirot (David Pittu), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

The big question here is whether the elaborate revenge on Ratchett is the perfect crime.

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Doubtless it would have been, if only Poirot, played with self-involved panache and a wry sense of human foibles by Pittu, hadn’t been given a berth on the train last-minute by M. Bouc, Poirot’s dear friend and the manager of the line (played by Evan Zes as a florid and anxious Watson). Poirot’s presence brings out a parade of striking attitudes by those whose mere presence in the coach makes them suspects.

Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford), Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox)

Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford), Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox)

Among the best are Julie Halston as Mrs. Hubbard, a brassy, oft-married (as in the film) American with a love of Broadway; Veanne Cox as the gruff Princess Dragomiroff, a relic of another time full of captious commentary on her fellow travelers, particularly Mrs. Hubbard; Leigh Ann Larkin as an elegantly gowned and lovely former doctor (Ludwig’s touch) now married to an absent Hungarian count, who helps Poirot with medical know-how and nearly turns his head; and Ian Bedford as blustery Scotsman Colonel Arbuthnot and the unprepossessing Ratchett.

Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Samantha Steinmetz plays Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary accompanying the Princess, with the meekness Ingrid Bergman earned an Oscar for giving her in the film, but with an accent that would doubtless make Poirot question her bona fides in real life. Rounding out the cast are Juha Sorola as Hector McQueen, a prickly assistant to Ratchett, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Michel, the conductor with a secret, and Susannah Hoffman as Mary Debenham, a young governess in a romantic intrigue with Arbuthnot. A surprising act of violence against her comes as a distraction for Poirot and a somewhat gratuitous Act One climax.

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

Christie’s is a world in which murder, however alarming to the innocent and unfortunate for the deceased, has its set target and its deliberate—and recoverable—enactment. The enactment is everything, we might say, and this Murder on the Orient Express steams along with a sure pace and enough visual and verbal variety to maintain interest—even if you already know the culprit.

Ludwig, well-known for comic works such as Lend Me a Tenor, The Game’s Afoot, and Baskerville, was commissioned by the Christie estate to adapt the novel for the stage. The playwright does a fine job of trimming excess and keeping the interactions coming, and his script is at its best as a banter of jibes and jabs among a group of people we would be surprised to see in the same restaurant. Mann’s direction doesn’t go too far into campiness—though I wouldn’t complain if it did—and there’s no effort to give Christie’s characters a deeper psychology. With murder mysteries, everyone is only as complex as their motives, and here the motive is a mighty vehicle indeed.

As a glimpse of a bygone age, Murder on the Orient Express offers welcome romance and its plot’s stodginess is also its charm. Ludwig’s best touch is letting Poirot open and close the show by addressing the audience, so that the entire play is framed as the memory of a brilliant but also fallible man looking back on a troublesome case. Pittu’s Poirot orients us toward the question he would like to express: is a deliberate killing ever justifiable?  The play is light-hearted enough not to take its doubts too seriously, but the question remains.

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

 

 

Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express
Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Emily Mann
A McCarter Theatre Center Production

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Ken Billington; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Wig Design: Paul Huntley; Dialect Coach: Thom Jones

Cast: Ian Bedford, Veanne Cox, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh; Julie Halston, Susannah Hoffman, Leigh Ann Larkin, Charles Paul Mihaliak, David Pittu, Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt, Juha Sorola, Samantha Steinmetz, Evan Zes

Hartford Stage
February 15-March 16, 2018; extended to March 25

Stories of Home

Review of Feeding the Dragon, Hartford Stage

Sharon Washington’s charming memoir, Feeding the Dragon, now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Maria Mileaf, features Washington, an actress, recounting stories of her upbringing. The truly distinctive element of her childhood, Washington tells us, is that her family lived inside a library, literally. Her father’s job was tending the furnace in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library, and so the family—father, mother, Sharon, her grandmother, and their dog—lived in a custodial apartment within the library.

That fact might open upon a vista of imaginative possibility. For some, it would be like living in a castle, or in an infinite storyland, and Washington does play to the romance element, as her childhood might make the basis of a great children’s story or the setting for a tale as perennially interesting as books or movies about hiding out in museums or other places of childhood fascination. That shared thrill at access beyond the norm is our entrée into Washington’s tale, as she stands on a handsome set comprised of stairs that double as bookshelves, buttressed by card catalogs, and backed by an array of glass panes that change color magically.

Sharon Washington (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Sharon Washington (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

And the books aren’t only for décor, as Washington now and then plucks one up and reads a passage—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin—like an enthralling English teacher or a library’s “story lady.” And yet the power of books isn’t really the driving passion of Feeding the Dragon, whose title flirts with the kind of fable that a child’s mind makes of the beast in the basement her hardworking father must feed. The real passion here is a grown woman’s love for her family, now mostly gone.

Washington does well by the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Both appear in her account—as she changes into convincing portraits of both, along with several other characters, by altering her voice and manner—as vividly quirky. Her father, from South Carolina, liked to enact the ‘quitting-time’ scene from Gone with the Wind; her mother, a born New Yorker, speaks like one and has the kind of savvy generally associated with the type. The alterations in accent and manner—particularly when father and Sharon take a trip to the south to meet his folks—help tell the story, as Washington lets characterization aid our imagination.

Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington

There are difficulties—like the father’s alcoholism, another kind of “dragon” to feed—and other interesting characters, such as a rather reclusive uncle who paints for his own sake, and there are glimpses of the times, such as the uneasy race relations of the 1970s, the neighborhood feel of a bygone Manhattan, and, in one of the more detailed sequences, an account of her grandmother’s “good hair,” and the ubiquitous claim among African Americans of having Native American blood.

Washington is a consummate story-teller, engaging, lively, warm and confiding. Her story, however, doesn’t always feel distinctive enough for a full-scale theatrical treatment, nor quite funny or dramatic enough as anecdote. Feeding the Dragon opens up the question of what we want from memoir—revelations or simply a compelling command of the teller’s story. Washington has all the command one could wish for, what’s less certain is if she has much to say.

As theater, the show becomes weakest as it searches for a note to end on. As Washington stands before us, there is clearly no “end” to her story yet, but one senses that how the story of a girl living in a library became a solo performance piece might be as interesting as the story of what the woman telling her life story remembers fondly of her forebears. Were Feeding the Dragon a book, we might simply call for another chapter, in which “the dragon” becomes the theater, and meeting its demands became this actress’s and playwright’s job.

Sharon Washington

Sharon Washington

 

Feeding the Dragon
By Sharon Washington
Directed by Maria Mileaf

Scenic Designer: Tony Ferrieri; Costume Designer: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer: Ann G. Wrightson; Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones; Production Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr.; Assistant Stage Manager: Robyn Zalewski

Cast: Sharon Washington

Hartford Stage
January 11-Feburary 4, 2018

When We Had Gone Astray

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

The Hartford Stage’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as adapted by Michael Wilson, gets a new wrapping this holiday season. With a new Scrooge and second-time director Rachel Alderman at the helm, the well-known story has a different feel. Nothing too drastic, mind you—this is still the story of how a miserly curmudgeon’s reclamation from a mean, grasping life helps to make the season bright. And yet I was struck by a different tone to the whole, and that makes for a bit of a new experience.

The venerable Bill Raymond played Ebenezer Scrooge for many a year, and his version aimed to tickle more than provoke. The play—despite some dark patches—ends happily for all, so there’s much to be said for keeping the spirits high throughout. This year, Michael Preston—formerly seen in the role of Mr. Marvel—gives Scrooge a decidedly more donnish air. Looking like an overweening professor not likely to give high marks to anyone, Preston is far less madcap than Raymond and more haunted.

Marley's ghost (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Michael Preston) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Marley's ghost (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Michael Preston) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The story of a man who has to come to terms with his past before it’s too late has much to commend it dramatically. And that’s what Alderman’s version puts before us. What’s more, I found myself thinking, it doesn’t really have to be a Christmas story.

The Hartford Stage adaptation has always foregrounded the ghosts—with all those skeleton-headed apparitions—and they needn’t be tied to the virgin birth. They represent skeletons in the closet, so to speak, and the past that haunts us with its malevolent glee that we can’t do anything to change it.

Scrooge (Michael Preston), the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Alessandro Gian Viviano)

Scrooge (Michael Preston), the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Alessandro Gian Viviano)

This year, the big clocks that spin as projections on the stage seemed all the more baleful. Preston’s Scrooge is a man full of remorse and the ghosts make him live through the pain of his past (even those who warmed it, like his sister, his fiancée and his old boss, are now gone), the heartlessness of his irritable present, and the dark forebodings of the future. His interplay with the shades of things that were, are, and may be is as full of psychological truth as it is of supernatural soliciting.

Scrooge (Michael Preston), Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison)

Scrooge (Michael Preston), Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison)

The change in the tone of the central role made me think a bit more about this story than I tend to do, since I know it so well. Dickens came up with a double-whammy winner—Christmas and ghosts—and that has made the story so enduring. And it’s also a story that has the great novelist’s sense of caricature, and so all the characters are indelible.

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and cast

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and cast

And that means there’s many a fine role for the cast. Two of the best fall to Noble Shropshire, fearsome as Marley’s ghost and winning as Scrooge’s servant Mrs. Dilber. John-Andrew Morrison, the new Mr. Marvel—a seller of novelties—is lively, as are the Fezziwigs (Kenneth De Abrew and Shauna Miles). Miles also doubles as a particularly strong Mrs. Cratchit, with Robert Hannon Davis her suitably chastened husband, Bob. Alan Rust returns as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Bert, a beverage purveyor, and is quite grand as both. And this year Rebekah Jones gives the Ghost of Christmas Past a bit more stately melancholy.

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and cast

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and cast

The staging is fluid, with props more than sets, and, while that works fine for Scrooge’s bedroom—with its imposing fourposter—and his counting house, it’s less successful at suggesting the Cratchits’ cramped hovel. And so the party sequence hosted by Scrooge’s nephew (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and his wife (Vanessa R. Butler), with numerous guests and games, is a welcome set-piece in Act Two. The large, varied cast, the lighting, costumes—especially the ghostly apparitions from different historical eras—and special flying effects all add up to colorful and exciting spectacle.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebekah Jones) and children cast members, with Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebekah Jones) and children cast members, with Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The many children in the production add to the cheer, and seem all the more a reminder of how swiftly the world of youth passes away. In the end, of course, Scrooge recognizes the true meaning of Christmas—in its “do unto others” sense—but one could also say he realizes that the only way to overcome the past is to pay it forward for the future. A lesson our leaders would do well to consider, though the spirit of the unregenerate Scrooge seems more than ever apparent just now.

 

A Christmas Carol
Adapted from the novella by Charles Dickens
Original Director and Adaptor: Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Scenic Designer Tony Straiges; Costume Designer: Alejo Vietti; Original Costume Designer: Zack Brown; Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel; Original Music and Sound Designer: John Gromada; Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Musical Director: Ken Clark; Assistant Choreographer: Derric Harris; Dance Captain: Sarah Killough; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Assistant Youth Director: Catherine Michaels; Assistant Director/ Dramaturg: William Steinberger

Cast: Vanessa R Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roddy, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

Cast members from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford: Laura Axelrod, Jake Blakeslee, Rebecca Chism, Brittany DeAngelis, Jamaal Fields-Green, Dan Macke, Alyssa Marino, Evan McReddie, Daniel Owens, Nicholas Rylands, Dawniella Sinder, Austin Tipograph, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Dominique Rose Waite

Youth Ensemble Cast: Isabella Corica, Hunter S. Cruz, Ethan DiNello, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Jaime Han, Brendan Reilly Harris, Emma Kindl, Amelia Lopa, Timothy McGuire, Andrew Michaels, Majesty-Alexis Moore, Princess-Larrine Moore, Alexander O’Brien, Addison Pancoast, Ethan Pancoast, Meghan Pratt, Tessa Rosenfield, Ankit Roy, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Taylor Santana, Jordyn Schmidt, Fred Thornley IV, Ava Vercellone, RJ Vercellone

Hartford Stage
November 24-December 30, 2017

Pour Out Thy Wrath

Review of Seder, Hartford Stage

In 2002, the “House of Terror” museum opened in an infamous building at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, a public documentation of the tortures and murders that happened there, under the Nazis until 1944, and under the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) until the end of the 1980s. In a world premiere at Hartford Stage directed by Elizabeth Williamson, Sarah Gancher’s Seder dramatizes the changes in Hungary through the medium of a particular family claiming its Jewish identity, suppressed under the Soviets, by celebrating Passover for the first time.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Such a ritual, we might imagine, would be a way of bringing the family together and healing whatever divides remain. That’s the intention of Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), the sweet daughter in a bitter family, who invites her friend, David (Steven Rattazzi, in a subtly comic performance), to lead her, her cynical brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), their estranged sister Judit (Birgit Huppuch), and their mother Erzsike (Mia Dillon) in the meal, the prayers, the four cups of wine, and the symbolic meanings.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

As the matriarch wanting to find common ground with daughter Judit, Mia Dillon’s Erzsike commands an uneasy sympathy. The tense scenes in 2002 are coupled with flashbacks that show Erzsike as a young woman working as a secretary at 60 Andrássy. She is coerced into a sexual relationship with Attila (Jeremy Webb), one of the commanders in the HCP, who arranges her marriage with Tamás (Liam Craig), the man the children knew as their father. We need this background because one of the great divides in this family is that Judit is on the board at the House of Terror museum where her mother’s face is on “the Wall of Murderers” as one who served in the hated regime.

The play is set in a sprawling apartment with living room, dining room, kitchen, designed as open spaces with the baleful presence of the Wall of Murderers hovering visibly throughout the drama. The play opens with Erzsike coming face-to-face with her photo on the wall, and much of the play will be concerned with her coming to grips with her past. As Erzsike, Dillon turns in a finely calibrated performance. She’s anything but a sentimental woman, in 2002, and, in her youth, was the innocent she would like her family to see her as. Dillon plays both ages winningly—much as she did when playing a mature woman and an 8-year-old boy in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 at Hartford Stage, also directed by Williamson, last season.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

What comes out in Gancher’s fraught, emotionally powerful and important play, is the toll on ordinary lives of extraordinarily unpleasant political realities. The drama explodes several times, yet maintains the believable rhythm of a domestic gathering where strong words are followed by efforts at reconciliation. The humor of the situation is largely maintained by David’s well-meaning focus on the matter at hand—the Seder—and by Laci’s deadpan comments. The main events feature an entertaining collection of voices and agendas, and each cast member contributes significantly to the 2002 scenes. In the past, Webb’s Attila brandishes power in intimacy to chilling effect, while Craig’s Tamás is a dutiful performance in an underwritten role. The scene when we see the parting between husband and wife—one of the grievances Judit lays on her mother—is one of the few where the play’s pacing suffers.

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Key to the political situation is how those who seize power vilify those in power before them, a point that Erzsike has enough historical overview to see. At the heart of the human story is a vindictive battle for historical vindication that pits Judit against Erzsike, whose sins as mother and wife—in Judit’s view—share common cause with her generation’s political hypocrisy, enjoying the fall of Communism without having to own their complicity with its ruthless rule. There is much airing of grief, and Birgit Huppuch gives a thoroughly involving performance as Judit. Full of spite, anger, misery, and, finally, tears that feel fully earned, Judit works through righteous indignation and a daughter’s sense of betrayal to cathartic effect.

Probing, gripping, and touching, Seder provides a lively meal as the basis for a family drama and takes full dramatic advantage of the insight that the personal is political. Though such may not be so literally the case in most families, the question of allegiances and former complicity is very much an issue for many. The benefits and the blame of holding power go hand in hand in Sarah Gancher’s sharp play.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

 

 

Seder
By Sarah Gancher
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Script Consultant: Jocelyn Clarke; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp; Assistant Stage Manager: Merrick A. B. Williams

Cast: Liam Craig, Mia Dillon, Birgit Huppuch, Dustin Ingram, Steven Rattazzi, Julia Sirna-Frest, Jeremy Webb

Hartford Stage
October 19-November 12, 2017

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

Shine On

Review of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Hartford Stage

A tragic tale centered on the bullying of an effervescent teen, James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a play with its heart in the right place. In a series of brief encounters with locals who knew Leonard, Chuck DeSantis, a detective called in to investigate a missing person by the boy’s guardian, pieces together both the unique contribution Leonard made to the small town in New Jersey where he lives, and, more vaguely, what exactly happened to him. The show is an entertaining feast of character studies by James Lecesne, who wrote the young adult novel the play is based on, adapted it as a play, and performs all the characters.

Close your eyes at one point and you will believe a teen-age girl, Phoebe, is onstage talking about her control-freak mom—Ellen, a no-nonsense woman who took Leonard in when he had nowhere else to go, and who runs, suitably enough, a beauty salon. Lecesne’s voice manipulation and mannerisms are wonderfully precise: there’s DeSantis’ Jersey charm, Ellen’s aggressive comments, and a host of vivid characterizations, from the long drag on an imaginary cigarette and the tobacco-ravaged voice of Marion, a client of Ellen’s who tried to counsel Leonard to be a little less flamboyant, to the imaginary binoculars in the hands of Gloria, widow of a former mob boss, who keeps her eye on the lake by her house and spots an important clue, to the natty brio of a Brit enduring the thankless task of teaching dance and drama to suburban brats, and who has some misgivings about the wings Leonard wants to wear as Ariel in an upcoming production of the Tempest.

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The upshot is that Leonard, with, for instance, his insistence that every woman needs to own a little black dress, did wonders for the style and panache of the town. His Converse platforms (sneakers enhanced by a stack of multi-colored flip-flops affixed to the soles) might be the kind of thing to get him in trouble with those who patrol the borders of conformity, but the shoes are also a badge of the kind of style Leonard exults in. As he told Marion: if he were to give in, the terrorists would win.

Quick projections, some animated, give us visuals of the story’s details—such as an example of those sneakers or a blurry photo of Leonard himself and the way to tie certain knots that are also clues—but most of the time this show is carried only by Lecesne’s way with a story and with his enactment of the people who knew and loved Leonard. That they are all “characters,” as in notably theatrical, plays into the detective plot that keeps the play moving forward. While not really a whodunit mystery, there is the nagging question of what happened to Leonard. The people who have something to say, for the most part, are not treated as suspects, but as fonts of information and of odd speculations, as in Gloria wondering what will happen if the Church does away with hell. One gem is Leonard’s insight that every woman continues to wear the hairdo from the high point of her life. Leonard advocates change.

And that’s one of the main themes of Lecesne’s show: change, as in trying to change the attitudes of adults and kids about the trans or gay or lesbian or “questioning” teens among us. The effort to be oneself shouldn’t be hemmed in by the threat of violence and ostracism. Leonard knows this, and the women around him get it, but the bullies that DeSantis interviews simply accept that someone like Leonard is asking for abuse, and they provide it, almost as a duty. That element of the teen years is a given, and DeSantis is up-front in his realization that someone like Leonard couldn’t even have existed in the time of the detective’s own childhood. In those days, he says quite realistically, fathers were the bullies who beat any kind of gender-exploration out of their kids.

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Despite the sensitivity of such issues, Lecesne’s play doesn’t get heavy-handed in its treatment of its themes. The play’s effect relies on a clever theatrical device: the absence of Leonard speaks for what is missing without him there. The contribution of difference—often very flamboyantly conceived—to the fabric of society is what we ask from our exceptional and gifted individuals, while also knowing what a struggle their talents and self-conceptions will be faced with in our less than enlightened culture. The play’s title comes from the astronomical concept of a star’s “absolute brightness” (the measurable intensity of a star’s radiance, regardless of where viewed from) and Lecesne’s characters, while not privy to that idea, attest, from their different perspectives, to Leonard’s brightness. They can only measure the effects of that light, its presence and absence.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey makes its points deftly, with a capable storyteller’s grasp of how personality, vividly rendered, lights up the stage and illuminates some of the dark places in our society.

 

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Written & performed by James Lecesne
Directed by Tony Speciale

Scenic Design: Jo Winiarksi; Lighting Design: Matt Richards; Sound Design: Christian Frederickson; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Original Music: Duncan Sheik; Original Animation & Photography: Matthew Sandager; Clothing: Paul Marlow; Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward

Hartford Stage
March 29-April 23, 2017

Sexual Politics

Review of Cloud 9, Hartford Stage

Caryl Churchill’s wildly irreverent and comic play Cloud 9 addresses sexual politics, and how mores change with the times. It also shows how the past—here, the British past, specifically—is always being re-imagined. Act One’s lively burlesque of Victorian erotic relations in the 1870s is paralleled with a rather more naturalistic rendering set in 1979 in Act Two. The play dates from 1979, so Act Two, originally, was very contemporary indeed. The main difficulty now is that we’ve almost gotten to the point at which “the 1970s” may inspire a burlesque spirit similar to what Churchill makes of the 1870s. If played more for laughs—such as its invocation of a New Agey “goddess”—Act Two might have more bite. In any case, its effort to imagine a sort of social utopia of sexual relations and child-rearing may strike some as quaint, others as progressive—even now. Or especially now?

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Which is a way of saying that the past’s social progress can still present a challenge in times of virulent conservatism. In any case, Cloud 9 remains a challenging and amorphous play that provides equal parts entertainment and food for thought. Launched initially as Margaret Thatcher came to power, Cloud 9 may make us oddly nostalgic for the hopes of earlier eras.

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Casting is key to the success of the production at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, in her directorial debut. Because the cast of seven actors must play the 15 characters of both acts—in some cases cross-gender and contrary to age—and because who doubles as whom is established by Churchill, the overall effect depends upon actors who can manage the considerable disparity in roles. Here, Mark H. Dold enacts the most striking transformation, setting the tone for both acts. In Act One, he plays the repressive patriarch Clive, looking and sounding very Victorian indeed, then plays a preening little girl, Cathy, in Act Two; in both cases, Dold’s character lords it over the others. That shift is the most telling in this play of shifting orientations, and Dold carries it off splendidly.

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act One takes us to a colonial outpost in South Africa where Clive resides with his family: demure wife Betty (Tom Pecinka), adolescent son Edward (Mia Dillon), who has a penchant for playing with dolls, baby Vickie (who is a doll), and mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas); there’s also a manservant Joshua (William John Austin), who has renounced his people through his attachment to Clive; a maid, Ellen (Sarah Lemp), who is very affectionate toward Betty; Mrs. Saunders (Lemp again), a very independent widow; and a very manly explorer, Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams). The amusement is in seeing how a surface “normality” is constantly undermined by the kinds of subversive urges that, time was, would’ve been the subject of considerable repression. Comic moments, such as Ellen’s attempt to seduce Betty, and Harry misreading signals from Clive, are set against bits that are almost poignant, such as Joshua’s song at Christmas, a plaintive love note to his oppressors. Mia Dillon, a veteran actress, is quite remarkable as little Edward, and Tom Pecinka languishes quite ladylike as doleful Betty.

In Act Two, Cathy’s winsome childishness is the best feature, as the play’s treatment of the problem of parenting, as an ongoing chore without nursemaids to take up the slack, hits a contemporary note. Cathy’s mother is Lin (Sarah Lemp), a lesbian with eyes for Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), the doll grown up, we’re to imagine, who has a son we never see and whom she is attempting to raise with help from her novelist husband, Martin (Chandler Williams). Martin is a nice send-up of the "enlightened" male of the period, no less overbearing than Clive, but in a more sensitive way, trying to be supportive and to share parenting duties and the like. His hair and clothes recall aspects of the 1970s most of us would rather forget. Gunyou Halaas, in contrast, wears her retro threads quite well and portrays Victoria as a woman on the verge of change.

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Such is also the case with Betty (Mia Dillon, now playing her own age), who has a deliberate look of Thatcher about her, but is much more liberal. She takes us into her confidence about achieving orgasm manually, fully in the spirit of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Meanwhile, Edward (Tom Pecinka) is a gardener in the local park—where all bring their children to tire themselves out—who is trying to be a “wife” to Gerry (William John Austin), a rather feckless young man who prefers to enjoy a liberated gay lifestyle.

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The aspect of Act Two that never completely jells is the effort to find some common ground for all these inter-relations. Certain moments, such as the song the entire cast sings, seem almost a parody of togetherness, though Williamson is unwilling to satirize progressiveness the way Act One easily satirizes patriarchy. And yet there’s no escaping the fact that seeing same-sex couples as boring—as couples—as hetero couples often are, while it may help support what must once have been a striking notion—that couples are much the same, regardless of what sort of pairing constitutes them—doesn’t make for intriguing theater. It doesn’t help that in Act Two only Dold is still playing against type. The other actors are in roles they might be cast for in conventional casting. Perhaps it’s time to shake-up casting a bit further.

The reappearance of certain figures from Act One in the play’s conclusion makes for a surprisingly fond return. Without being sentimental in effect, the final note arrives as a kind of détente with previous generations: while no doubt at a loss about how the world would change, they may at least be allowed the dignity of their historical situation. It helps, of course, that Dold’s Clive and Pecinka’s Betty are so charismatic they seem almost archetypal. Or is that just a way of saying that some things never change?

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Cloud 9
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design & Original Composition: Andre Pluess; Wig & Hair Design: Cookie Jordan; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli; Assistant Stage Manager: Ellen Goldberg; Casting: Jack Bowden, CSA, Binder Casting

Cast: William John Austin; Mark H. Dold; Mia Dillon; Emily Gunyou Halaas; Sarah Lemp; Tom Pecinka; Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
February 23-March 19, 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

 

 

It's Not Too Late

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This year, Hartford Stage’s beloved Scrooge will take his final bow and make his final “Bah, humbug!” Bill Raymond has been experiencing Charles Dickens’ seasonal reclamation project for 17 years, and if you haven’t caught his act, there’s no time like Christmas present. It’s a propitious time to see the annual favorite even if you already have, for this year the show is directed by Broken Umbrella’s own Rachel Alderman, which makes for a nice New Haven-Hartford bridge.

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the show I attended, Raymond was pulling out the stops, having a grand old time. His has always been a slyly comic take on Scrooge and now the old boy is getting a bit zany. Scrooge has often been played by actors who were better at the grasping “old screw” than the “giddy as a schoolboy” convert to Christmas cheer, but Raymond’s Scrooge is more curmudgeon than scourge. When he encounters the creditors who will later become the Christmas ghosts who haunt his uneasy sleep, he seems almost to be winking at them, since he knows—and we all know—what’s going to happen.

This Ebenezer is really in his element as the unseen guest and enthusiastic reveler at his nephew’s party, and when he has to face the final reckoning presented by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it’s easy to feel sorry for the old gent. Other than being irritable and not forgiving debts or forking over charity, the old skinflint doesn’t seem so bad. There are worse examples running around these days in dire need of some Christmas comeuppance. As the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds us, the worst ill besetting mankind is ignorance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The open stage at Hartford keeps everything nipping along smartly, so we move easily from Scrooge’s ponderous four-poster to Fezziwig’s premises, from the Cratchits’ frugal feast to the nephew’s sumptuous spread. The various levels of the stage add visual interest and each ghost gets a big entrance.

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

An endearing draw of the show are the child actors who fill out many scenes, reminding us that Christmas is for the kids, and also letting the youngsters in the audience exalt in seeing their own generation on the stage. And then there are the ghosts.

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Hartford Stage version never lets us forget that A Christmas Carol is one of the most venerable ghost stories there is. The parade of skull-topped figures who open the show, some of whom fly about, make for a dramatic charge. Not only is Scrooge guided by spirits representing the Christmas season in the past, the present, and the future, but he also is haunted by people already gone—beginning with Marley, but including his sister Fanny, his old boss, and, eventually, himself, to say nothing of the sad possibility of Tiny Tim’s untimely end. A Christmas Carol isn’t about tying one on and feeling good about yourself; it’s about realizing that time is short and that you should do more for others while you have the chance. To that end, the Hartford Stage is hosting “Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive”* to benefit Hands on Hartford’s MANNA program.

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

My favorite version of Ebenezer’s journey to beneficence is the old British version from 1951 starring Alistair Sims. The Hartford Stage version retains the use of the lovely tune “Barbara Allen” used so effectively in the film as well as here. In the Hartford’s version, the songs and comedy—such as Scrooge knocking about with a huge dummy turkey, and Noble Shropshire as the irrepressible Mrs. Dilber—and the handsome production values help to make the show bright.

-- A final talkback with Bill Raymond will take place after the 7:30 show on Wednesday, December 14, and, if you can’t make that but want to express your appreciation of his long tenure in the role as a part your Christmases past, postcards are provided in the lower lobby for “Letters to Bill.”--

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Staiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Music Director: Ken Clark; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast (in order of appearance): Bill Raymond, Buzz Roddy, Noble Shropshire, Nate Healey, Robert Hannon Davis, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Flor De Liz Perez, Charlie Tirrell, Joey Heimbach, Daniel Shea, Johanna Morrison, Hannah Dalessio, Alan Rust, Michael Preston, Cara Rashkin, Vanessa R. Butler, Billy Saunders, Jr., Troyer Coultas, Spencer S. Lawson, Margaret Anne Murphy, Jillian Frankel, Madeleine Stevens, Greg Seage, Eve Rosenthal

The Children: Charlize Calcagno, Hunter Cruz, Emma Kindl, Julia Weston, Luciana Calcagno, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilley Harris, Timothy McGuire, Addison Pancoast, Tilden Wilder, Miguel Cardona, Jr., Ankit Roy, Ella Rain Bernaducci, Sophia Rose Tomko, Sophia Friedman, Lily Girard, Celine Cardona, Ava Lynn Vercellone, Atticus Burello, Jack Wenz, Fred Faulkner, Max McGowan, Norah Girard, Andrew Michaels, Ethan Pancoast, Fred Thornley IV, Aiden McMillan, Dermot McMillan

Hartford Stage
November 25-December 30, 2016

*Founded in 1969 as Center City Churches, Hands On Hartford’s programs focus on food, housing, economic security, engaging volunteers and connecting communities. MANNA provides direct relief to thousands of Hartford neighbors each month. Patrons may drop off non-perishable goods at Guest Services in the Geo & Laura Estes Lobby on performance days for A Christmas Carol or at the box office during regular business hours. Suggested food items include:

  • Boxed cereal
  • Canned fruit and vegetables
  • Drinks (coffee, tea, 100% juice)
  • White or brown rice
  • Pasta and sauce
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned soup
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Backpack-friendly snacks

For more information about Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive, contact tmacnaughton@hartfordstage.org or call 860-520-7114.

A Haunting Heirloom

Review of The Piano Lesson, Hartford Stage

Of August Wilson’s ten-play American Century Cycle, tracing African-American life through each decade of the 20th century, The Piano Lesson, which won the Pulitzer in 1990, is one of the most popular, and in this very handsome and involving production at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, it’s easy to see why. The show has clear themes of haunting and legacy, boasts enthralling musical numbers that help create the sense of solidarity among characters with disparate intentions, and offers its actors lots of room to stretch out in, discovering nuances of character in dialogues that seem to move backward—into a past that hovers over everyone here—and forward—into a future still to be forged—simultaneously. It’s wonderfully rich writing, and Wilson is in no hurry to get the play where it’s going. These characters need to steep awhile before the tensions can get ironed out. The fact that most do helps as well.

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) (photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) (photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) shows up unexpectedly at the house his sister Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) shares with their uncle Doaker (Roscoe Orman) and her daughter Maretha (Elise Taylor) in the Hill Section of Pittsburgh. Accompanied by his friend Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane), Willie's intention is to sell a truckload of watermelons. Boy Willie’s secondary intention, he soon reveals to his uncle, is to sell an heirloom piano that sits in the parlor of the house. With the money from both sales, together with what he has saved, he plans to buy land that his family worked, first as slaves and then as share-croppers, back home in Mississippi.

Doaker, Berniece, and even Lymon have no interest in returning to the South, but Boy Willie’s dream of being a man of property in the town where his ancestors were treated as property is the main tension driving the play. But the piano has been decorated with the carved faces of ancestors—including Willie and Berniece’s grandmother and father, sold to pay for the piano—and polished with their blood. As such, the fate of the piano becomes an allegory about the relation of the present to the past and the question of what should constitute a basis for identity—historical, racial, familial.

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

To compare the production to the Yale Rep’s revival in 2011, directed by Liesl Tommy, the main difference, noticed at once, is how much better the Hartford Stage playing space delivers the feel of a real house, one that gives the audience very direct access to the action. Alexis Distler, who designed the Delaney sisters incredibly detailed home last season for Long Wharf’s Having Our Say (also directed by Jade King Carroll) has created a space for the Charles family that looks homey and accommodating and even features a glimpse of a neighboring house, styled after Wilson’s own family home on Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh. “The Hill” is home to most of the plays in Wilson’s cycle and the Hartford production maintains a sense of place that surrounds the action.

Key moments, like the four men—Willie, Lymon and Doaker are joined by the latter’s brother Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks)—bonding in a blues learned from doing hard labor at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, are placed front and center and are fully involving; the effects of the presence of Sutter’s ghost—the death, from falling down a well, that leaves the land free for Willie to buy—are subtle but strong in the final confrontation.

Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The development of this production shows a distinctive grasp of each character’s trajectory: Berniece, harsh and unwelcoming, becomes a figure of strength and pathos as we realize all she has lost and all she wants to hold onto; Boy Willie, essentially a smooth-talker looking out for number one, gradually gains stature as he speaks of how he wants to turn the tables and overcome his family’s past; Doaker, with his speech recalling the piano’s history, is an older and wiser figure, removed from the fray, until his threat to protect the piano brings out an almost forgotten strength of will; Lymon, at first a laconic sidekick for Boy Willie, becomes capable of enough romantic eloquence to sway Berniece to tenderness; and Wining Boy, a piano player tired of being a piano player, commands a towering voice in his rendition of a song he wrote for his wife, now deceased (Baikida Carroll, composer).

Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One of the most beguiling aspects of Wilson’s drama is how the characters interact with one another. Though at times at loggerheads, they still have a lot of shared experiences, assumptions, and expectations. They are mostly related, and the others they know all about—like Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), an elevator-operator who aspires to be a preacher and also aspires to be Berniece’s husband, whom Boy Willie remembers well and vice versa. Wilson’s deep sense of how these folk scrape along and make plans and entertain their dreams—such as Lymon’s hope, inspired by Wining Boy, that a silk suit and sharp shoes will immediately earn him respect and female interest—makes for many revealing moments of truth.

Doaker (Roscoe Orman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Doaker (Roscoe Orman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Of special mention should be Orman’s Doaker, whose speech patterns and silent reactions conjure a character somewhat in hiding from his own past, and Kane’s Lymon, whose strong, silent-type manner makes him memorable as a figure key to Wilson’s intentions in the play: to depict the newcomer in the North, capturing the contrast between the more gentlemanly southerners and more callous northerners. There’s also the sense of a grand style fading as Wining Boy helps us imagine figures of the glamorous Twenties becoming has-beens in this post-Depression era world. As the spatting brother and sister, Clifton Duncan and Christina Acosta Robinson register well the deep familiarity and stubborn differences that make all the characters seem peripheral to the struggle of the family’s younger generation—now in its thirties—to cope with its past and find its future.

Through it all the star of the show is Wilson’s ear for the rhythms of speech, rendered well by this top-notch cast.

 

August Wilson’s
The Piano Lesson
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Alexis Distler; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallace; Composer: Baikida Carroll; Music Director: Bill Sims, Jr.; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle

Cast: Toccarra Cash, Cleavant Derricks, Clifton Duncan, Galen Ryan Kane, Roscoe Orman, Christina Acosta Robinson, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Elise Taylor

Hartford Stage
October 13-November 13, 2016