Fathom Events' "Meistersinger": Sometimes Life Sachs

The Cast of the Metropolitan Opera's "Die Meistersinger"
(photo: Beth Bergman)
Screened at Regal Cinemas in Kingston, MA, with encore screening Weds. Dec. 17th

Fathom Events’ latest HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera was the Richard Wagner masterpiece, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, the last outing before this busy Otto Schenk production is retired. It’s a work with some great music and a hero, Hans Sachs, a shoemaker (who’s cobbled together a song) with an exemplary life. The story of this noble sole lasts and lasts…for six hours. Wagner could have used editing, but some moments, such as an act three quintet, are sublime.

For such a lengthy piece , the story is relatively simple. The setting is 16th century Nuremburg. The knight Walther von Stolzing (tenor Johan Botha) has fallen in love with Eva (soprano Annette Dasch), daughter of a goldsmith. Since she is promised to whoever wins the mastersinger song contest, he joins their guild, but his song is rejected. The cobbler Hans Sachs (baritone Michael Volle) alone finds Walther’s song worthy and advocates for him. Eva agrees to elope with Walther. The Meistersinger Beckmesser (Johannes Martin Kränzle), a clerk, also loves her and comes to serenade her. Sachs interrupts this with strokes of his cobbler’s hammer arousing a crowd and preventing the elopement, as the night watchman (Matthew Rose) disperses a crowd that had gathered. The next morning, Sachs helps Walther take down words for a new song. Thinking this is Sachs’ poem, Beckmesser steals it, but later messes up his delivery of the song to the crowd’s amusement. Walther then correctly delivers the song and wins the contest. As he and Eva are united the crowd cheers for Sachs.

The singing at this performance was top-notch, beginning with Volle (the hit of this performance) and Botha (who, it must be said in these highly defined times, looks nothing like the knight Wagner envisioned). Dasch’s singing was exquisite. Also featured were Magdalene (mezzo Karen Cargill), David (tenor Paul Appleby) and Pogner (bass Hans-Peter König). The HD broadcast Hostess was Renée Fleming. Directed for Live Cinema by Matthew Diamond (with Stage Direction by Paula Suozzi) and Conducted by James Levine, it was a pleasure to hear. The Set Design by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, Costume Design by Rolf Langenfass, Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, and Choreography by Carmen de Lavallade all added to the enjoyment of the opera, as of course did the Met Chorus under the dependably terrific Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo. Lengthy or not, it’s a work that deserves more popularity, especially thanks to the excellence of the third act. Find out for yourself at the encore presentation this coming Wednesday at a theater near you.


National Theatre Live's "John": Life Is a Carousel

                               Hannes Langolf in and as National Theatre Live's "John"  
       (Screened at Cape Cinema in Dennis, MA and at a motion picture theater near you)

The Internationally renowned DV8 Physical Theatre has brought its powerful new production of “John” to the National Theatre as part of the current HD broadcasts at a movie theater near you. A work conceived and directed by Australian-born choreographer and theater-maker Lloyd Newson, it contains adult themes, strong language and nudity (labeled as suitable for 18 years and up). DV8 (one has got to love that moniker) has produced eighteen highly acclaimed dance-theatre works and four films for television, which have earned over fifty national and international awards. This current work depicts authentic real-life stories, combining movement and spoken word, creating an intensely involving experience. Lloyd Newson, DV8’s Artistic Director, interviewed over fifty men asking them pointed questions, initially about love and sex. One of those men was John.

What has emerged is a story both mind-blowing and moving, covering many years of crime, addictions and struggling for survival. John ends up on a search in which his own life converges with the lives of many others, in an unusual and unknown place. The character of John, taken directly from oral transcripts, is a survivor (primarily through obsession with exercise while imprisoned), despite a liftetime of losses of those whom he loved. He eventually found some security in the anonymity and ambiguity of gay saunas. The complex role of John, undertaken by Hannes Langolf (who also served as Newson’s Creative Associate) was a physical tour de force. The rest of the cast included Taylor Benjamin, Lee Boggess, Gabriel Castillo (who also provided Musical Supervision), Ian Garside, Ermira Goro, Garth Johnson, Vivien Wood and Andi Xhuma. The constantly-revolving Set Design (matching the constantly moving choreography) was by Anna Fleischle, with the eerie Lighting Design by Richard Godin, and the atmospheric Sound Design by Gareth Fry.

The production was a daring and provocative one, controversial even for this company, known for its typical edginess. Not five minutes into the action, there has already been portrayed sadism, rape, incest, and a drug overdose. There is humor, naturally dark, but the storytelling is predominantly one of survival against unfathomable odds. Newson attests that not only was John real, but he survives still. That example alone was worth attending this unique production, for which National Theatre deserves many kudos. This was what theater and dance, and dance theater, are all about.

SpeakEasy's "Necessary Monsters": Kuntz Uncaged

Thomas Derrah and Cast in "Necessary Monsters"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s latest offering is the world premiere of playwright/actor John Kuntz’s “Necessary Monsters”, a gleefully demented amalgam of “La Ronde”, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”. In the spirit of spoof, herewith (hopefully with most spoilers unspoiled) please accept some theatrical Cliff notes.

After some foreshadowing mime, a familiar “ding” (precisely the sound you hear on an airplane) indicates all the actors are to be seated in rows for their stories to begin with the singing of “You Are My Sunshine”. Drake (Michael Underhill), hunky with a monkey (stuffed), asks Stephen (John Kuntz), a waitperson, if they’d ever met before. Next, Cissa (McCaela Donovan), a film special effects editor, enters for her blind internet date with Drake, informing him she’s at work on a serial killer mystery, “Necessary Monsters”. Then there’s a flashback to a younger Drake, held hostage by an unnamed man and his moll Mia (Georgia Lyman). Stephen next enters to admit to Drake that years ago he saved Drake’s life in Barcelona. Then Midge (Evelyn Howe) meets Victor (Greg Maraio), who lost one hand, in a crowded bar where the masked Clint (also played by Maraio) also appears. It becomes clear (well, if you’re paying strict attention) that this is all a filmed scene being created by Cissa (who overhears a television show about a man intent on strangling his wife) and that Midge is an undercover cop on the trail of a serial killer. Flora (Stacy Fischer) relates the same story about the strangler on the phone to Clint, who’s tied up Theo (Kuntz again) who turns out to be a psychiatrist intent on strangling his wife. Next Abigail (Lyman again) is on Theo’s office couch talking about her overeating. Next Faye (Howe again) enters describing how she was photographed firing an underling.

Meanwhile, it turns out all this is part of the book that just everyone’s reading (yes, you guessed it, entitled “Necessary Monsters”). Drake, at home, imagines he hears creatures running about. Then Gillian (Donovan again) Drake’s ex, appears to thank him for the flowers he sent when her mother died. Next all shush Drake so that Greer (Thomas Derrah, in drag) can deliver a lengthy monologue (spoken to an invisible friend Suzanne at a benefit for burned and limbless children), then exit as the cast sings “You Are My Sunshine”. Clint arrives to offer a younger version of Drake money for sex, at which Gillian yells “cut”, indicating we’re watching a scene being filmed again. Theo the psychiatrist then gets shot by Abigail, which turns out to be part of that book everyone’s reading. Mia (the moll, remember?) tells Drake he was the one who got away from the killer. And Cissa reveals she’s finished “Necessary Monsters”, which Kuntz also does, to Willy Nelson’s “You Are My Sunshine”; how won’t be revealed here.

It should be noted that the entire play occurs within the confines of a huge cage designed by Cristina Todesco (filled with television sets, an endless telephone line, and seemingly endless supply of props). The rest of the technical credits include Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and Sound/Video Design by Adam Stone. Each contributes enormously to helping things seem at least partly comprehensible, as does the fluid Direction by David R. Gammons. The acting by all of the travelers on this ship of fools is also first rate, especially important when roles are as doubled as they are here for most of the cast. Derrah stands out with his devastatingly hilarious diatribe. All of these amazing thespians make the storytelling amusing and involving even if more than a tad convoluted.

Confused? No doubt, and this seems to be part of the playwright’s intention. The interrelated stories are rather like “Six Degrees of John Kuntz”, and challenging to follow. There are some clues along the way in dialogues as Kuntz unwraps overlapping layers. Faye asks: “Is there a finite amount of suffering?…I stub my toe, so that a hungry child may eat a warm meal; I win an Emmy so thirty nuns must die in a tidal wave…why isn’t life equitable?”. Abigail declares that “hearts are over-rated”. Theo states that “things are never as bad as they seem”. And Greer, making a passing reference to a deceased son Kenneth (one of Clint’s victims?), opines that she “deserves something better than this…Things will never get better if you just stay quiet”. Finally, there’s the statement by Midge that “there has to be some connection, there just has to be, between you (Victor) and him (Clint) and all of his victims; It can’t just be random”.

So there’s method in Kuntz’s madness. If your preference is for linear theater, then this probably won’t be your bag. It’s as absurdist as drama gets these days, where there’s more attention paid to the journey than to the destination. At the close, the actors, finally let out of their cage, silently walk off, with a brief pause to look back at one another, never to return. The audience, first bewildered then bemused, eventually realizes the author is still at work even after the supposed end of the play. There are no curtain calls (alas, removing one of the prime rewards of performing), as the theatergoers stumble from the darkness into the light. Some may be reminded of Greer’s note about her husband: “He adores the ballet, the only time he gets any sleep”. If you love surrealism, you’ll be totally enthralled by the creativity and language. After all, intelligibility is over-rated.


ART's "O.P.C.": Conspicuous Presumption

Peter Porte (Damien), Nicole Lowrance (Kansas), Kate Mulligan (Smith),
 Michael T. Weiss (Bruce) & Olivia Thirlby (Romi) in ART's "O.P.C."
(photo: Evgenia Eliseena, ART) 

On entering the Loeb Theater for ART’s latest production, “O.P.C.”, the audience was greeted by an overwhelmingly cluttered and impressively detailed set filled with the detritus of modern life. Counterprogamming for the holiday season, garlands of empty plastic water bottles and solitary mittens hang from the rafters, amid countless empty produce cartons, several dumpsters, Barbie dolls that have seen better days, discarded wooden palettes and other trash literally littering the stage. It’s either indicative of a limitless set design budget, or a nonexistent one, given the availability of such “found objects”; in fact, Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis seemed to be channeling sculptor Louise Nevelson with a much more colorful palette. It’s an extraordinarily effective creation as a backdrop for the first act, an astonishing and mesmerizing mess.

Sadly, this could equally be said of this work by established playwright Eve Ensler (Obie Award Winner for her “Vagina Monologues”), which itself is astonishing and messy, but not in a good way. This play, a world premiere, with a title referencing a diagnosis of Obsessive Political Correctness (one of scant few inventive elements), is a product of a feminist activist with a good deal of street cred who was deservedly honored with a special Tony Award for her humanitarian work in the fight to end violence against women. “Vagina Monologues” led to the creation of the global V-Day effort and the One Billion Rising movement to end such violence. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that anticipation was high that this current work might lead to further pleas to activism, this time regarding global warming, unbridled consumption and waste. The play concerns all of these issues and more, but leads less to activism than ennui, featuring caricatures rather than characters, hubris instead of humor, and dialogue which is literal as opposed to literate. Along the way there are also puerile allusions to (undeniable) white male supremacy, such as “using boy metaphors” and “this feels like what it must be to be born a white man”, and unaccountably cheap shots at Oprah and Barbara Walters, the latter including her oft-satirized speech impediment (“Saturday Night Live”, anyone?), and predictably lame jokes.

The story centers around its two female antagonists, the squatter and “freegan” Romi (Olivia Thirlby), and her mother Smith (Kate Mulligan), a Senate candidate, and their interactions with Romi’s father Bruce (Michael T. Weiss), her sister Kansas (Nicole Lowrance), her boyfriend Damien (Peter Porte), and others including Mrs. M. (Nancy Linehan Charles), Sister Ro (Liz Mikel), and Prakash (Babak Tafti). All appear to have been urged to be shrill (as Directed by Pesha Rudnik with Movement by Jill Johnson). The remaining creative artistic elements include the devastatingly clever Costume Design by ESosa, intricate Lighting Design by Bradley King, complex Sound Design by Jane Shaw and well-executed Projection Design by Shawn Sagady.

Thirlby presents a moving if overly extended meltdown in a pair of Prada “stinky boots” that ends the first act. In the second act, the actors (and the set) seem to be in another, more surreal play, basically a non-stop stream of psychobabble. Once again the male characters are trashed (no pun intended): the husband/father figure admits to playing second fiddle to his wife the politician, admitting that loving her is his fulltime occupation; the boyfriend is described as prefering winning to being right, and a mere “asset”. But the females are also skewered, from the power-seeking matriarch to the blandly-named “Kansas”, an irony the latter hasn’t missed. What’s equally ironic is the conspicuous presumption that Freegans are unaware of their dependence for survival on the very societal system they abhor; this isn’t a novel criticism of the movement, but Ensler offers no valid defense or alternative. The huge targets Ensler has taken on this time include liberals (especially those within the Democratic Party), and the usual lip service given to saving the planet. Up against this she presents approaches such as urban foraging, rediscovering vs. discarding garbage, and even “high trashion”. This last element was at least initially funny, but eventually overdone as is most of this overwritten play.

Is the one-time-only omission of printed programs (which audience members were informed of in advance, but this critic is of the opinion that this decision doesn't recognize sufficiently the lifelong careers of both cast and crew) supposed to be part of an overall solution, or is it, by the very nature of its being a “one-off”, mere tokenism? Is satire, however flawed, a viable answer? And is this whole effort one of preaching to the saved? One hopes that Ensler has more potent, more pointed, more politically incorrect plays in her future that more urgently reflect the activism of her past.


Moonbox's "Musical of Musicals!": Parity of Parodies!

The Cast of "The Musical of Musicals the Musical!"

It’s all about the exclamation point in the title of Moonbox’s current production: “The Musical of Musicals The Musical!” Without that same exclamation point, there may never have been such memorable shows as “Oklahoma!” and “Hello, Dolly!” (or, say, “Oh! Calcutta!”). Now, with this production, we have a musical parody given birth on a parity with those other shows. Written by Joanne Bogart (Lyrics) and Eric Rockwell (Music), with the Book by both, it’s a hilariously on-target spoof of the musical theater genre. It opened off-Broadway in 2003 and ran almost 200 performances, this despite Bogart’s warning that there would be “no pastiche served during the show”. If you’re tired of your Scrooges being humbugged or your nuts cracked, this is a gas.

It’s actually five musicals with the same plot of the inability to pay the rent, each in the style of a different famous musical theater composer. Each features four characters: the Ingenue June (partially played by indisposed trouper Katie Clark at the opening, with singing by understudy Dani Apple), the Romantic Lead Big Willy (Peter Mill), the Matron Abby (Meredith Stypinski) and the Villainous Landlord Jitter (Phil Tayler). The musicals are “Corn!” (Rodgers and Hammerstein), “A Little Complex” (Sondheim), “Dear Abby” (Jerry Herman), “Aspects of Junita” (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and “Speakeasy” (Kander and Ebb). Clark rose to the occasion, while Apple deftly provided off-stage singing. Mill personified the smarmily fatuous leading man, and Stypinski was devastatingly, painfully perfect as the Famous-Name-Above-the-Title-and-Talent-Free Star. But it was, with this production (as was typically the case with the musicals it impaled), the villain who really stole the show. Tayler, who never fails to impress, was at the top of his form, singing, dancing and acting up a perfect storm, earning an exclamation point all his own: he was fabulous!

Also terrific were the energetic members of the Ensemble, consisting of Julianne Daly, Nicholas Davis, Matthew Kossack, Caroline Lellouche, Allison Russell, and Andrew Winans. As painstakingly directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, this was wondrous. With expert Music Direction and Accompaniment (on piano) by Dan Rodriguez, clever Set Design by Dale Conklin, dramatic Lighting Design by David Wilson, ingenious Costume Design by Marian Bertone, and excellent Sound Design by Dan Costello, it was everything a theatrical exclamation point could hope for. All one can say, properly precise pluperfect punctuation in place, is: Five musicals for the price of one! Tons of puns and fun! Five out of five exclamation points!!!!!



New Rep's "Little Prince": The Taming of the Few

Will Moser & Andrew Barbato in "The Little Prince"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
The latest production from New Rep is a musical adaptation of “The Little Prince”, the enormously popular 1943 novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which reportedly still sells two million copies a year. Others have attempted this in the past in the form of plays, operas and a 1974 musical film version (with Bob Fosse no less), as well as an upcoming animated film. The gentle whimsy of the original language, though, too often seemed artificial when adapted to these other forms. Happily, this particular musicalization, with a pleasant original score with Music by Rick Cummins and Lyrics by John Scoullar, is far more successful. As wonderfully directed and imaginatively choreographed here by Ilyse Robbins, with excellent musical direction by Todd C. Gordon, New Rep’s offering is that welcome exception, quite amazingly managing to appeal to children while capturing the interest of the child in every feeling adult theatergoer. It’s the perfect family treat for the holiday season.

Well, maybe not perfect; one could quibble that the lyrics often feature too predictable rhymes, or that the ninety-minute playing time and basic dramatic arc didn‘t call for an intermission (though it may make the work more family friendly). But this is perhaps as close to a perfect adaptation as one could hope to see and hear. The simple yet profound story remains that of the Little Prince (Wil Moser), from Asteroid B-612, who encounters The Aviator (Nick Sulfaro), a.k.a. “Solitaire”, stranded in the desert after his “third unauthorized flight” and grounded as punishment. The Aviator’s sole friend is his airplane, though he strikes up a relationship with the Little Prince by drawing sheep. The Little Prince is fond of a lovely Rose (Laura Jo Trexler) on his home planet. He also knows a Fox (Andrew Barbato) who believes that truly important things are invisible, and is bored, hoping someone like the prince will tame him. Then there’s the Snake (also played by Trexler) who is the only being with the power to send the prince back to his home planet. Lastly there are the Men of the Planets (all played by Barbato) including a King, a Conceited Man, a Businessman, a Lamplighter, and a Geographer.

Firmly at the helm of this sweetly fragile tale is the magician-like Robbins, who has assembled a literally stellar cast. In the almost impossible task of portraying the beloved but mysterious title role, young Moser embodies both the natural and more mystical traits that characterize this Prince, with a fine voice and confident stage presence beyond his years. The dashing Sulfaro is a perfect complement to his otherworldly friend, with extraordinarily expressive face, voice and movement. Trexler is very funny (and appropriately dangerous when called for). And then there’s Barbato, in several hysterically funny roles, who strikes the perfect tone of almost-over-the-top restrained mania, especially as the Fox. His timing is impeccable, his labile face astounding, his diction precise and his energy seemingly boundless. It’s an unforgettable performance and an indelible lesson in how to command the stage without ever upstaging or overdoing. It’s the smartest, sexiest and savviest work thus far this season. Just to hear him innocently inquire “are there…chickens?” is a wonder. Aiding and abetting these great performances are the harmonious efforts of the creative technical team. The marvelous Scenic Design by Matthew Lazure is a beautiful amalgam of celestial bodies, sundials, compasses and ingenious projections. The clever Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, fantastic Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and atmospheric Sound Design by Michael Policare, as well as apt added orchestrations by David McGrory, all contribute to this totally immersive experience.

Full disclosure would require that this critic confess that “The Little Prince” has been one of his two favorite books (the other being “The Velveteen Rabbit”, which has also resisted adaptations). It was thus with great relief that this production turned out so well. There are apt aphorisms aplenty: that “the hardest thing to judge is oneself”, that men in power like the King “don’t own, they reign over”, that one can lose “the wonder, the joy, the feeling (of the) boy I was”. And of course there are the fox’s immortal lines: “Tame…an act too often neglected…it means to establish ties…then we shall need each other; to me you will be unique in all the world; to you I shall be unique in all the world.” Or these: “Here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can rightly see; what is essential is invisible to the eye…men have forgotten this truth.…you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed”. And as Saint-Exupéry elaborated: “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important”. At this season of remembering family and friends whom one has “tamed”, those present as well as those absent but still in one’s memory, could the meaning of the holidays be expressed any more accurately or succinctly? Be forewarned: This play could be charmful to one’s spirits. Oh, and by the way, Happy Taming!


Lyric Stage's "Allergist's Wife": Feinting Couches

Caroline Lawton & Marina Re in "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"

As audience members entered the Lyric Stage Company’s theatre to attend their production of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, they were promisingly greeted with the strains of the background music from the (non-musical) film “Auntie Mame”, a sly underscoring referencing the real childhood of playwright Charles Busch. His own Aunt Lillian literally altered his life by enrolling him in the High School for the Arts, quite reminiscent of Mame Dennis and her nephew Patrick. At the same time theatergoers were presented with a typical New York monochromatic setting with not one but too fainting couches. (There will be a lot of feinting going on later, but it would be a spoiler to elaborate). This, Busch’s first attempt at mainstream writing, was a huge success, first briefly in 2000 Off-Broadway, then on Broadway for a substantial run (777 performances), earning a Tony nomination for Best Play. The author has updated the play for this version with allusions to more current celebrities. What hasn’t been updated is the disappointingly sophomoric and scatological level of the wit on display.

The story centers around middle aged matron Marjorie Taub (Marina Re), first looking like an unmade bed, who feels her life will never be more than mediocre though she fills her days with all manner of artistic and intellectual pursuits. Her doctor husband Ira (Joel Colodner) is a champion of homeless people but ignorant of her needs, and her constantly complaining mother Frieda (Ellen Colton) lives all too close, just down the hall in the co-op. Enter an unexpected visitor from Marjorie’s childhood, Lee (Caroline Lawton). Lee’s abrupt arrival impacts everyone (even the already impacted Frieda) as she settles in for what appears to be permanent residency. The sole other character, the doorman Mohammed (Zaven Ovian) proves pivotal when some plot twists (frankly obvious to anyone paying attention to the lengthy set-up) arise. Suffice it to say that it’s a very ethnocentric (i.e. Jewish), very New York type of play, with several hysterical lines and lots of low humor.

The cast has been directed by Larry Coen toward madcap mugging and scenery-digesting, which may be entirely appropriate for such basically sit-com material. The technical credits are up to what one would expect given Lyric’s well-established reputation, from the Scenic Design by Matt Whiton, to the Costume Design by Mallory Frers, Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro and Sound Design by Jack Staid. Whether this is one’s personal cup of tea depends on how hilarious one considers what passes for funny writing in the usual fare on the tube these days. As Marjorie says to the doorman at the wimpy conclusion of the play, cooking is “both simple and difficult…like so much in life”. And comedy, too.