New Rep's "Ripe Frenzy": Topical Paradise?

Veronika Duerr, Stacy Fischer & Samantha Richert in "Ripe Frenzy"
(photo: Zalman Zabansky)

As one approached the venue for the play Ripe Frenzy by Jennifer Barclay, one was greeted by a series of theater posters on the walls of prior productions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Then one was handed a program with the phrase “striking topical drama” on its cover, and inside a note by Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary referencing the shootings at Columbine and other schools. With regard to the setting, the program noted that the action was to take place in the town of Tavistown, New York in 2017, at the high school theater and the surrounding woods. One was tantalized by the ambiguously portentous admonition that “time is slippery here”. And indeed it was to be. We were certainly not in Kansas, Toto. This latest choice as the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, a co-production by New Rep Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance, was beginning to feel more than a bit threatening and not about a small town paradise it may have first seemed.

Stacy Fischer, Henry B. Gardner & Reilly Anspaugh in "Ripe Frenzy"
(photo: Kalman Zabarsky)

Produced at Boston University's Studio ONE (from February 24th to March 11th), in an intermission-less fast-paced ninety minutes, this was a stunner from the first appearance of the main character Zoe (Veronika Duerr), as we were informed by her that she played the role of The Stage Manager decades ago in one of the school's biennial productions of “Our Town”, and she is now, among other things, (such as town historian), the real life stage manager of the fortieth production of the work (which she mysteriously refers to as the thirty-ninth-and-two-thirds production, which is the heaviest hint of what's to come); she is also mother of the show's projectionist. The director of this version of “Our Town” is Miriam (Stacy Fischer), also a mother, and helping out is another mother, Felicia (Samantha Richert). There are also teenagers, Matt (Henry B. Gardner), Bethany (Reilly Anspaugh), Hadley (also played by Anspaugh) and Bryan James McNamara (also played by Gardner).

Under O'Leary's taut direction, the cast, without exception, was stellar, most notably Duerr (who impressed earlier this season in SpeakEasy Stage's Men in Boats). Her opening lengthy monologue as Zoe was a true acting tour de force. The creative elements were also on point, from the Scenic Design by Afsoon Pajoufar, to the Sound Design by David Reiffel, the Costume Design by Annalynn Luu, and most especially the work of Projections Designer Jared Mezzocchi, who described his contribution as “mediaturgy” (the importance of which might even be a spoiler).

Stacy Fischer & Veronika Duerr in "Ripe Frenzy"
(photo: Kalman Zabarsky)

As the plot developed, we became more aware of what Zoe meant when she noted that “logic is calming” and that “positivity is a choice we make”; so is denial, expressed by her: “we must remind ourselves of the goodness in life”, and the fact that two seemingly opposite things can both be true. Love and horror co-exist. Ripe Frenzy is a much darker (and maybe more truthful) take on small town life than that of Wilder. To elaborate on these themes would be to give in to the temptation to clarify some issues that would be unfair spoilers. Many people have relatively benign and romanticized remembrances of Wilder's original, conveniently forgetting how even he had his bittersweet moments. In his preface to the published version of his work, he spoke of how theatergoers were beginning to seek plays that were “soothing”; while he sought to demonstrate “a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life”, he at the same time utilized the words “hundreds', “thousands” and “millions” many times, to assert that individuality is inner; it lies within. It's the obverse of what Playwright Barclay clearly sees, the town from the other side of the tracks.

Were Barclay to portray the character of Emily, she would still have her bemoaning as to how one never notices another in a cloud of ignorance and blindness. This Our Town has morphed into the current reality of what might now be entitled Every Town.

Zeitgeist's "Steve": Showtune Queue

Mikey DiLoreto, Alex Jacobs, Jenny Reagan, Victor Shopov, Adam Boisselle & Mike Nilsson in "Steve"
 (photo: David J. Miller)

Steve, by playwright Mark Gerrard, the current production by Zeitgeist Theatre, is first and foremost a play for all musical comedy queens with its myriad list of showtune references, but should appeal to any even broader spectrum of theatergoers. Stephen (Alex Jacobs), a somewhat inhibited businessman and Steve (Victor Shopov), failed chorus boy and stay-at-home dad raising their son, have been live-in partners for sixteen years. Their small circle of friends includes lesbian Carrie (Jenny Reagan), recently broken up with her longtime girlfriend (and terminally ill). There's also a hunky personal trainer named Steve (!), whom we mercifully don't see, and a flirty Argentinian waiter/dancer Esteban, which is Spanish for, um, Steve (Adam Boisselle). Another Steve (this one named Sondheim) in one version of his musical Company had a line about “multitudes of Amys”; this show obviously has a multitude of Steves. Oh, and there are guys not named Steve, Brian (Mike Nilsson) and Matt (Mikey DeLoreto). Issues that arise in these relationships include narcissism, sexting, monogamy, and middle aged gay New Yorkers and how they interact.

Victor Shopov & Jenny Reagan in "Steve"
(photo: David J. Miller)

What they've come together to celebrate is the 42nd birthday of Steve, to the tune of a barrage of showtune references, at least a couple of dozen just in this first scene. Most of them are fairly current shows, though Call Me Madam and Oklahoma! get brief mention. Some are quick and easy to miss (a cat named Elphebah, for example, or a line like “you're not a kid anymore, you'll never be a kid anymore” from Company. One of the more enjoyable ways to approach this encyclopedia of references is to try to catch which shows are included while still trying to follow the really thin plot. For the record, these would include Mame, Merrily We Roll Along, Man of La Mancha, West Side Story, Into the Woods, Bye Bye Birdie, A Little Night Music, Jesus Christ Superstar, My Fair Lady, Sunday in the Park with George, South Pacific, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, DreamgirIs, and I Can Get It For You Wholesale. And, yes, they're all in that first scene.

Alex Jacobs, Jenny Reagan & Mike Nilsson in "Steve"
(photo: David J. Miller) 

Once the play gets a bit less referential, there emerge some truths not to be revealed here, but suffice it to say that, thanks to David Miller's terrific direction and the acting of the ensemble, especially Zeitgeist repeaters Shopov and DiLoreto, there is much to appreciate in the play itself. One problem is that,in addition to the confusion about which Steve is which in any given line, and the roles of five other unseen characters, Gerrard also tinkers here and there with time (clumsy flashbacks) and place (suddenly we're at Fire Island?). But there are enough moving moments (as when Reagan protests about her ex, “we speak every day...almost”) as playwright Gerrard pursues the serious side of the zeitgeist. At one point Reagan queries if their talk might be “just noise”, a provocative question for a playwright to pose.
Zeitgeist may be off-off-Tremont, but it should be on every Boston theatergoer's map. It's never boring and is often more insightful than the product of a lot of other larger local companies. In any case, for members of this little company that could, it's obviously a labor of love, and it shows. The Direction, Scenic Design and Production Photos are by David Miller, who rumor hath it also makes the popcorn (untrue), with Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, Sound Design by Jay Mobley and Costume Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan. One caveat: if you're going to put on a show with choir style seating, an overstuffed wingback chair on stage makes for partially obstructed views for some audience members.
Steve (all of them) is at the Boston Center for the Arts through March 24th. It's fun and a lot more engaging than a mere list of other theater pieces makes it sound. You should see it even if your name isn't Steve.


SpeakEasy's "Every Brilliant Thing": And They'll None of Them Be Missed

Adrianne Krstansky in "Every Brilliant Thing"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

Local actress Adrianne Krstansky, as the Narrator and sole performer in the play Every Brilliant Thing, now being presented by SpeakEasy Stage, has a little list, enumerating the things in life that make it worth living, as a means of communicating with her suicidally-inclined mother. It's a list that started as a defense mechanism in the eighth year of her character's life and grew, from simple material things to the more complex. Members of the audience are employed to insert occasional (mostly pre-written) contributions that not only break the theatrical fourth wall but embrace it, while essentially demolishing it. As such, it offers, for better or for worse, an unusual degree of spontaneity and improvisation, which makes it clear that no performance of the work is the same as any other. This level of reality theater could be disastrous in many an actor's hands, but this is not just any actor, but in point of fact (wait for it) a truly brilliant thing herself.

The play first saw light at a 2013 British fringe festival, written by Duncan MacMillan and stand-up comic Jonny Donahoe (who also performed it), eventually finding its way to these shores in 2014, off-Broadway. The fact that it is playable by any gender on the spectrum of life ably demonstrates its universality; on the other hand, it also betrays the fact that we don't have much opportunity to get to know this character. The company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault admits in the program notes that he's not a huge fan of one-person shows and thus has rarely presented them. One of the reasons he chose to do so in this instance has to have been the further choice to select as Director another renowned actor, Marianna Bassham. It's an enlightening window into what might be identified by the Narrator as the source of many moments of life's mysteries, joys and wonders. Imagination, she discovers, is fundamentally what makes life worth living.

That all this is accomplished on a bare fully-lit (Lighting Design by Eric Levenson) “in the round” (well, square) stage with no set and few props to speak of, with the protagonist simply attired in gray and black with a Twin Peaks shirt (Costume Design by Amanda Ostrow Mason), is all the more astonishing; so is the abundance of wry humor. A few episodes are heart-breaking, bittersweet and funny all at the same time, as when the family pet, to be put to sleep, is revealed to have been named “Sherlock Bones”; it's a moment when her seven year old psyche learns the lesson that a loved one can become an object and thus may be taken away forever. There could have been more allusions to such loss or to her parents' reactions to her list (her mother never verbally acknowledging it, her father merely correcting her spelling), or of the briefly mentioned allusion to the “Werther effect”, from a Goethe novel, meaning a change or “copy cat” act brought about by interaction with a powerful artifact of pop culture, such as the suicide of a prominent figure like Marilyn Monroe or Robin Williams.

That both Actor and Director succeed so well in their respective roles is a testament to their previous growth in theater, as well as their research into how parental depression leads to what the playwright defines as a cloud of silence (Sound Design by Lee Schuna) hovering over a family when they are coping with mental illness. They succeed in conveying the sadness, the guilt and the shame felt by those who love them, while at the same time amassing a list of brilliant things that would indeed be missed.
There is a ironic lyric from the theme song of the television series Mash: “suicide is painless”.  Not.


Lyric Stage's "Virginia Woolf's Orlando": Not Mickey Mouse

Rory Lambert-Wright, Caroline Lawton & Jeff Marcus in "Orlando"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In the history of theater, there has long been a tradition of choral storytelling, much of it very fondly remembered (such as Paul Sills' 1970 Story Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic 1980 The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby). It often appeared as an outgrowth of improv theater, with a sense of controlled spontaneity and exhuberance. In this same vein has arrived Virginia Woolf's Orlando, now being performed by Lyric Stage (in collaboration with Suffolk University's Theatre Department). An adaptation by Sarah Ruhl from Woolf's long love letter to Vita-Sackville-West, it consists of a half dozen episodic ventures (or adventures) involving half a dozen actors through half a dozen centuries (that's a lot of half-dozens) beginning with the Elizabethan era and ending in the “present moment”. In ninety gender-bending minutes (including an intermission), our hero/heroine Orlando (Caroline Lawton) encounters members of a five person acting chorus (here played by Elise Arsenault. Michael Hisamoto, Rory Lambert-Wright, Jeff Marcus and Halyey Spivey. The journey, reminiscent of that of another youth (in Voltaire's Candide) is Directed by A. Nora Long, the company's Assistant Artistic Director, with versatile Scenic Design by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, impressive Costume Design by Jessica Pribble and complex Lighting Design by Steven McIntosh. Here is a bit of a triptik for theatergoers (with what one hopes are not too many spoilers) to aid in one's appreciation of this take on Orlando's journey, which as noted above, despite its title, does not remotely feature a voyage to the land of the Mouse.

Orlando, a sixteen year old boy when first introduced by the chorus, longs to be famous, so he sets about writing a great poem, “The Oak Tree”. Queen Elizabeth, quite taken with him, sets him up at court with titles, land and her heart until she catches him with another and falls ill. The Great Frost occurs, trapping some Russian ships in ice, which is how Orlando meets and falls in love with the Russian Princess Sasha. Jealous at catching Sasha in bed with another, he first rages but then decides to run away with her, but the Great Thaw occurs, freeing the Russian ships which depart with Sasha. Orlando returns to his poetry, but the Romanian Archduchess attempts to seduce him, so he asks to be sent to Constantinople, where he beds the gypsy Rosina Pepita, eventually awakening as a woman. She returns to England to work on her poem,where the Archduchess exposes herself to Orlando as a man and tries again to seduce Orlando to no avail. A century later Orlando, finding herself surrounded by nothing but married couples, trips and breaks her ankle. A man on horseback arrives and they are shortly engaged and subsequently married. Finally, a century still later (the twentieth, if you've been keeping score), Orlando feels a bit like a duck out of water amidst all the technology that surrounds her, and decides after a visit from an old friend to return to writing her great work, The Oak Tree, as a clock strikes midnight.

Michael Hisamoto, Jeff Marcus, Caroline Lawton, Rory Lambert-Wright & Hayley Spivey
in "Orlando"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As Director Long puts it, Woolf “relished the idea that the mind of the artist is androgynous”, so she most likely would have enjoyed the wordplay and transtheatrical hijinks. Whether an audience member concurs might well depend on how one appreciates the literary short story form versus a more coherent and sustained storytelling work, or a novella as opposed to a more in-depth novel. There is much to be learned and loved in all of these possible choices.

But, unlike the previous plays noted above, Ruhl's take is by definition episodic, which leads to a lot of repetitious themes. The cast tries nobly to keep the narrative threads reasonably intact, but the text divides rather then conquers. There were also some pacing issues, which may have been due to one cast member's being indisposed (and, with remarkable poise on the part of the other actors, seamlessly dropped from the last scene). There are some cogent points made by the adapting playwright (equating being dead and a woman, in the context of women's lack of power or influence over the ages, or how one can be struck and disoriented, then altered, by exposure to the arts). But one wishes she had provided a more focused romp, such as the way in which Story Theatre utilized Grimm fairy tales and Aesop's fables with a complete story in each of its segments, or the opposite approach with Nicholas Nickleby's continuing narrative with more time to devote to development of a few supporting characters. In this Orlando, one never has a sense of who the various roles are, with comings and goings so fleeting that they leave little impact. It's as though one were at a banquet sampling appetizers without feeling sufficiently satisfied in the end; it may be that Ruhl is slightly fearful of overdoing the message she wishes to convey.

What's indisputable about this piece is that she certainly isn't afraid of Virginia Woolf.


Fathom Events' Met Opera "La Boheme": Still Paying the Rent

Susanna Phillips (center) & Cast of "La Boheme"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

La Boheme, composed by Giacamo Puccini, is one of opera's most popular and best-known stories that has withstood the test of time in many varied productions (and even survived, if just barely, its adaptation as the rock-like musical Rent). Given its familiarity to most opera fans, a brief synopsis along with identification of the singers involved in this performance should suffice.

In a Parisian garret in the 1840's, writer Rodolpho (tenor Michael Fabiano) and his roommates the artist Marcello (baritone Lucas Meachem), the philosopher Coline (bass Matthew Rose), and the musician Schaunard (baritone Alexey Lavrov) are reduced to burning Rodolpho's work to keep warm while they share a meager supper. Their landlord Benoit (bass Paul Plishka) arrives looking for his rent payment, but they get him drunk and kick him out. All but Rodolfo (who has some writing to finish) head for the nearby Cafe Momus to celebrate Christmas Eve. Soon, there is a weak knock on the door and Mimi (soprano Sonya Yoncheva) arrives with her candle that has blown out. The same happens to Rodolfo and, in their search for illumination, they fall in love (of course, this is an opera after all) and head to join the others at the cafe. There they all enjoy the many distractions, such as the toy vendor Parpignol (tenor Gregory Warren) and the singing by Marcello's former girlfriend Musetta (Susanna Phillips) who arrives on the arm of the rich Alcindoro (Plishka again) and whom she sends off to buy her shoes. Marcello and Musetta fall into one another's arms and join the crowd as they march off after some soldiers, led by the Sergeant (bass Jason Hendrix), leaving the bill behind for Alcindoro.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo in "La Boheme"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Months later, with snow falling, at the Barriere d'Enter, or tollgate, manned by the Customs Officer (bass Joseph Turi), Mimi searches for the home where Marcello and Musetta have moved. She speaks of Rodopho's jealousy and hides when he arrives, complaining of her flirting. He reveals his real reason for their difficulties is that the poverty he can offer is not good for the ailing Mimi, who rushes out to bid him goodbye. They reconcile and agree to spend their days together until the arrival of spring. But months later in the garret, it's clear they have again separated, as have Marcello and Musetta, who bemoan their loneliness. Musetta then arrives with a weakened Mimi, arranging for her jewelry to be pawned, and Coline's overcoat as well, for medicine for Mimi. Rodolfo and Mimi sing of much happier days but she begins to cough violently. As all rally around her, she succumbs, and Rodolfo, the last to realize she is gone, collapses in despair.

Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi in "La Boheme"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Just your usual operatic ending (especially for a Puccini heroine), redeemed by some of Puccini's most gloriously romantic music, and presented in this Production (and Set Design) by Franco Zeffirelli, with arguably the most beloved production of the Met's older offerings. In addition, the Costume Design is by Peter J. Hall, with Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, Stage Direction by Gregory Keller and, as usual, choral direction by estimable Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The HD Broadcast was presented under Director Matthew Diamond, with Kelli O'Hara as the HD Host (who will be taking on the role of Despina in Cosi fan Tutte in a few weeks).

This was a beautifully sung performance from all six of the principals, plus the added bonus of real chemistry between Fabiano and Yoncheva. With singing, acting and orchestral precision of this caliber, the Met need never be concerned about paying the rent.

The HD Broadcast will have an encore on Wednesday February 28th at a theater near you.


Fathom Events' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof": Mellow Drama?

National Theatre Live's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
(photo: Johan Persson))

Continuing with its National Theatre Live HD Broadcast series, Fathom Events will be presenting the acclaimed Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for a single evening this coming week. The 1955 work by playwright Tennessee Williams, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize for drama, was controversial at the time it was first produced, as it dealt with sexual issues including marital dysfunction and a possible repressed homoerotic relationship. In the wrong hands this might have been excruciatingly dated, but reviews of this production were virtually unanimous in praise of director Benedict Andrews (who was also acclaimed for his previous direction of another Williams work, A Streetcar Named Desire) as well as his cast.

Jack O'Connell & Sienna Miller in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
(photo: Johan Persson)

Sienna Miller plays Maggie the Cat, married to the ex-jock Brick, played by Jack O'Connell, who is on crutches as a result of a sports-related injury. The first act is reportedly a real tour de force for Miller as she berates her husband for never standing up to his father, Big Daddy, (superbly played by Colm Meaney) as well as hinting that Brick's long friendship with his dead best buddy Skipper might have been more than what it first seemed. It's the sixty-fifth birthday of the small clan's patriarch, and they have all gathered to celebrate it, with eyes centered on his considerable fortune.

Colm Meaney & Jack O'Connell in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
(photo: Johan Persson)

The second act is reportedly a wonderful diatribe between father and son as Big Daddy, described in the New York Times review as the “blunt philosopher in residence”, has a secret to share with his disappointing progeny. Their ontological discussion is the crux of the play, as Brick states that his only out is either liquor or death, and his father states that “the human animal is a beast that dies, but the fact that he's dying don't give him pity for others”. It remains today a melodrama with more than a grain of truth, and those involved in the family's dysfunction as a whole demonstrate the exaggerated truth of people's reactions when their survival is threatened.

This production, in addition to the acting and direction, boasts praised technical elements, including its dramatic copper and gold Lighting Design by Jon Clark and Set Design by Magda Willi, and is said to be a visually exciting version of a true masterpiece. As noted, it's a “one-off”, as they say in the mother country, and from all accounts is one performance not to be missed.



Fathom Events' Met "Elixir": Happy Valentine's Day

The Cast of "Elixir of Love"
(photo: Met Opera)

Donizetti's beloved bel canto opera L'Elisir d'Amore or Elixir of Love would seem at first to be the perfectly logical choice for the Metropolitan Opera to present as its current HD Broadcast in anticipation of Valentine's Day. And so it was, in this finely tuned production.

In 1836 in an Italian village, the young Nemorino (tenor Matthew Polenzani), in love with the beautiful farm owner Adina (soprano Pretty Yende), is upset with the arrival of Sergeant Belcore (baritone Davide Luciano) who firt flirts with Adina and then proposes to her. The subsequent arrival of Dulcamara (bass Ildebrando D'Arcangelo), a wandering peddler of “medicines”, incites Nemorino into buying a “cure all” love potion (in truth, a cheap bottle of Bordeaux). Drinking it down, he becomes so certain of success with his wooing of Adina that he feigns indifference to her. Hurt and surprised, she agrees to marry Belcore at once.

Matthew Polenzani in "Elixir of Love"
(photo: Met Opera)

At the feast for the wedding, Adina demands that Nemorino be present for her signing of the marriage contract. Meanwhile Nemorino, feeling he needs another dose of the “love potion” (it was apparently a good year) but lacking the funds to buy one, enlists in Belcore's regiment in order to receive a volunteer's bonus. While this transpires, the girls of the village, including Adina's friend Giannetta (Ashley Emerson), learn that Nemorino's rich uncle has died, leaving him his entire fortune. Naturally, they all now seek his favor, which convinces him the potion is working. This helps Adina to realize her true feelings, so she buys Nemorino's contract from the army, confesses her love for him, and marries him on the spot. (Well, after all, we should've known, the tenor almost always gets the girl, almost never the baritone).

This performance was expertly led by Conductor Domingo Hindoyan. The Production, first revealed a few seasons ago, is by Bartlett Sher (a man with an incredibly busy opera and Broadway theater schedule) and Stage Direction by Gina Lapinski. The technical effects included the lovely Set Design by Michael Yeargan, pleasant peasant Costume Design by Catherine Zuber, and effective Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. The Live in HD Director was Matthew Diamond, with HD Host Susanna Phillips. As always, the Chorus shone under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. On the other hand, the direction of the crowd scenes was a bit chaotic.
But Valentine's Day or not, this was a performance to treasure, mostly thanks to the ardent acting and singing on display, especially from the two leads. Yende is far more than just pretty (notably in her high florid roulades especially in the second act), and Polenzani brought the house down (as Nemorino should) in his justly famous aria, Una furtiva lagrima.
It was a production to share as well, with one's valentine or whomever, and there still remains an opportunity to do just that.
Encore HD Broadcast on Wednesday (Valentine's Day ) Feb.14th at a theater near you.