SpeakEasy's "Bad Jews": Anti-semantic?

Victor Shopov, Gillian Mariner Gordon, Alex Marz & Alison McCartan in "Bad Jews"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

No, that‘s not a typo, but a reference to the apparent political incorrectness of the title “Bad Jews”, a play by Joshua Harmon which is being given its New England premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company. Not to worry, though, this is not an anti-religious diatribe (it refers to a momentary culinary indiscretion), though it’s relentlessly cruel toward certain stereotypically strident members of a certain tribe, while simultaneously being hilarious and bitchy. The story of a struggle between two cousins, Liam Haber (Victor Shopov) and Daphna Feygenbaum (Alison McCartan), after the death of their much-loved grandfather, it’s also about a more universal struggle. Liam has pretty much dispensed with his Judaic heritage, both religious and cultural, whereas Daphna (née Diana) is in-your-face about her roots. Laim’s girlfriend Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon) and his brother Jonah (Alex Marz) are also involved, at least as targets. The gold chai (“life”) symbol on the necklace smuggled out of a concentration camp by their deceased “Poppy” is at the crux of their conflict, which runs much more deeply than this one artifact, namely what it signifies (or not) to each of the combatants. For the first third of the play, Harmon slowly but shrewdly positions potential land mines that will eventually take their tolls as the story progresses.

“Bad Jews”, set in New York’s upper West Side in “not quite winter, not quite spring”, begins with the playing of the John Lennon song “Imagine” (which Melody later references), “imagine all the people, living for today”, with no boundaries. Yet there are boundaries aplenty in this play, as each of the four players will reveal. A success Off-Broadway in 2013, then moved to a larger Broadway venue, in this version, as cleverly directed here by Rebecca Bradshaw, the hundred intermission-less minutes fly by. To describe their interactions here would be to spoil the gradually unleashed moments of tension and the motivations behind them. Suffice it to say that their battles will unveil all their individual weaknesses and strengths. McCartan nails Daphna as one of those pious but conflicted zealots bordering on the sociopathic who identify, then mercilessly attack, the vulnerabilities of people they encounter. Shopov, a local treasure previously known for more serious roles (“Normal Heart”, “Bent”) commands our attention as the self-centered, superficially laid-back Liam, a time bomb just waiting for the final insult to trigger his inevitable meltdown, which is hysterically funny. Gordon is perfectly gooey sweet until she too reaches her breaking point after an unforgettable performance of “Summertime”. But it’s Marz as the almost non-verbal Jonah who most tellingly embodies the play’s simmering pressure cooker setting. The four perfectly cast actors are an amazingly well-tuned quartet. They’re ably supported by a fine technical crew, from the appropriately chaotic Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, to the Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the realistic Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro and Sound Design by Edward Young.

It’s difficult to believe this is Harmon’s first major play. It has some flaws often found in a freshman venture; several long bathroom breaks are conveniently spaced to facilitate plot points, and the initial verbiage for both women overdoes it with the Valley-Girl-speak. But the work overcomes all of this with its wise and perceptive take on modern day culture. It’s not difficult to see how this has become one of the ten most produced plays in America, with its witty amalgam of roots as diverse as Woody Allen’s plays and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Harmon has said elsewhere that modern Jews’ remembrance of the history of their forbears has been “reduced to a piece of horseradish”, and that “different members of a family feel differently about their shared legacy…the ‘bad’ member is in the eye of the beholder”. True enough, as he (and we) refuse, or are merely unable, to choose sides. We’re way too busy holding our sides with laughter.


ArtsEmerson Duo: Mozartian and Mahabhratian Magic

Pauline Malefane in "The Magic Flute" (photo: Keith Pattison)
Jean-Claude Carriere in "Mahabhrata" (photo: EnActe Arts)

The local arts scene is frequently a complex and varied one, never more so than at the start of the current theatrical season. Such was the case this weekend, which afforded the opportunity to see a couple of inventive and unusual creations, playing contemporaneously under a single artistic umbrella, Arts Emerson; on the same day, one could be confronted by such disparate geographies as South Africa, in the form of an adaptation of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”, and India, in the form of a narrative of the classic saga, “Mahabharata”. It made for a fascinating cultural mashup.

With its familiar overture suddenly performed as though never heard before, with drums and marimbas, this “Magic Flute” was not the typical form of this deservedly popular allegorical opera, here adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May for the Isango Ensemble of Cape Town. While the basic libretto and music are essentially the same, the sound is not, making for a unique reintroduction to Mozart’s magic. A production by Eric Abraham and the Young Vic (which won the 2008 Olivier Award in London as Best Musical Revival), this was a revelation. With a fabulous cast of some two dozen dancing singers (actually quadruple threats, as actors and instrumentalists as well) led by the incomparable Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night, it’s a revival in several senses. Standouts included the Tamino (Mhlekazi “WhaWha” Mosiea), the Papageno (Zamile Gantana) and most especially the Sarastro (the amazing bass Ayanda Tikolo). The Musical Arrangment by Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis (who also conducted) and lively Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana are something to hear and see. With a raked Set Design by Dornford-May and Dan Watkins, Lighting Design by Mannie Manim and Costume Design by Leigh Bishop, this morality tale was given a whole new lease on life. If you think you’ve seen the definitive “Magic Flute” sometime in the past, think again. This was the “Magic Flute” of the present and the future. It’s not unlike rediscovering the pleasures of being in the company of an old friend, with suddenly renewed vim and vigor filling the Cutler Majestic Theater as perhaps never before.

Nearby, at the Paramount Theater, one of the cinema’s true giants narrated one of the two greatest Hindu sagas (the other being “Ramayana”), “Mahabharata”. One of the longest works ever written (with over 100,000 stanzas, fifteen times the length of the Bible), composed by many hands over many centuries, it survives as one of the most powerful guides to moral behavior. This version, originally a nine-hour play, subsequently a five-hour film, is presented in a much-trimmed ninety minute narration by Jean-Claude Carrière. His name may not be immediately familiar, but his film work is; he was Oscar-nominated for his screenplays for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, “That Obscure Object of Desire” and “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. He is also the recipient of the just-announced, truly rare and extraordinary honor of a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. His experience in directing showed as he played a wandering minstrel and a traveling bard (common in ancient India) giving voice to the oral epic. (Actually, projections of the cast of characters, and surtitles in English, might have helped those unfamiliar with the saga). He was assisted by expert sitarist Amie Maciszewski (playing for all of those ninety minutes), the sublime dancer Sunanda Narayanan and the vocalizing of Hari Narayanan, as well as Yusuf Buxamusa as the Young Man to whom the storyteller directs his tale. The relating of the story of the war between two families, the Pandava (five children of the gods) and the Kavrava (a hundred sons of a king whose legitimacy is questionable), at least for those who knew the basic facts of the narrative, made the simple but powerful performance, mixing family histories, myths and legends, a moving experience.

Each of these two distinctly different theatrical presentations made its own contribution to the local arts scene. Yet one thing about each of them was strikingly similar; they transported you to lands and ideas you’d never before encountered quite this way. (It would also help enormously to be versed in the source material of each of these works). Magic takes many forms, and these surely made for a unique duo.


National Theatre Live's "Skylight": Looking Up

National Theatre Live HD Broadcast screened at Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline and at other  area theaters on October 23rd; NTL's encore presentation to be screened on Thursday eve Nov.20th

Bill Nighy & Carey Mulligan in "Skylight"

It’s a bitterly frigid night in London when 30-ish urban schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan) receives, unexpectedly, a visitor to her run-down under-heated flat, her former older flame of six years, Tom Sergeant (Bill Nighy), a charismatically successful restaurateur…and he’s not the first visitor of the night. It has been three years since Tom and Kyra have seen one another, and she quickly learns that his wife has died within the past year. As the evening progresses, they make halting attempts at rekindling their prior relationship and its passion, but discover themselves engaged in a battle between their contrasting ideologies and mutual attraction. This is the set-up for the National Theatre’s revival of the 1995 play by David Hare (“Racing Demon”), which was nominated for several Tonys (including Best Play) when it was brought to Broadway back in 1996. This version shows why it was so successful then and now. On the surface a tale of two almost-reunited lovers, what’s on offer here is more a morality play on the wide gulf between the haves and have-nots, fears and longings, and the need in our lives for some level of balance and equanimity.

In this production, directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”), Mulligan is riveting, and Nighy is well nigh perfect. Nighy’s is the showier role especially in the first act, with his nonstop stream of unconsciousness; but it’s Mulligan who slowly but surely peels away her character’s protective layers until there’s not much left hidden. Together, they’re an amazingly effective duo. The only other cast member, Matthew Beard (as Tom’s son Edward) appears briefly but to great effect. What’s amazing is how sadly relevant all this class angst is even in these post-Thatcher, post-Reagan years. One can’t get more specific about the verbal clashes without revealing too much of what the prolific playwright (this is his 29th play) deals out discriminatingly as the plot evolves. Suffice it to say that it’s a complicated ride, aided and abetted by the cleverly crafted Set Design by Bob Crowley, as well as the Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, realistic Sound Design by Paul Arditti, Costume Supervision by Irene Bohan, and Music Composition by Paul Englishby.

In the developing tradition of selective broadcasts of outstanding theatrical events from the National Theatre, this is yet another winner (also headed for Broadway). Its three performers would seem at this point to be virtual shoe-ins for Tony nominations this season, as are the play and its director. And if you missed its first showing, never fear. It encores Nov.20th at a theater near you



Huntington's "Ether Dome": Going Under

Ken Cheeseman, Richmond Hoxie, Tom Patterson, Bill Kux, & Greg Balla in "Ether Dome"
(photo T. Charles Erickson)

If historical drama is your thing, you’ll surely find yourself going under the spell of “Ether Dome” by Elizabeth Egloff now being performed at Huntington Theater Company (a co-production with Alley Theater, La Jolla Playhouse and Hartford Stage Company). Even if this type of theater isn’t typical of the sort of play you prefer, the story of the discovery of ether’s use as a surgical anesthetic makes for a marvelously gripping mystery. Egloff has recreated the convoluted tale of this search for operative pain relief with an eye towards resolving the contentious battles for the allocating of credit for the revolutionary idea that would forever change the surgical world. It centers around the complicated relationship between Hartford dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) and his student, budding young entrepreneur William T. G. Morton (Tom Patterson). In investigating the dynamics of their involvement with one another, Egloff along the way comments on the commercialization of medicine, the evolving ethics of research and development, the attribution of scientific contributions involving many sources and resources, and even the relegation of females to the periphery of a male-dominated society. It’s a lot to cover in a single play, but by and large Egloff succeeds with wise choices and a wide perspective, and unexpected doses of humor (some successful, some not). Even if, to use the most obvious comment, the work could use a scalpel here and there, its almost three hours (with two intermissions) go by swiftly, are relatively painless, and certainly won’t put you to sleep.

The action of the play takes place over three years (condensed from the twenty-five year real life story) in Hartford, Paris and of course Massachusetts General Hospital (referred to, anthropomorphically, as “the General”). After some graphic demonstrations of how barbaric even minor dental surgery was before the advent of anesthesia, (one scene featuring local treasure Karen MacDonald as the ever-patient Mrs. Wadsworth), the various stages in the eventual discovery of pain relief are covered. These primarily involve the venerable Founder and Chief of Surgery at the General, Dr. John Collins Warren (the impressive Richmond Hoxie), his surgiphobic cohort Dr. Charles T. Jackson (the amusingly pathetic William Youmans), and their peers at the General, Drs. Gould (Ken Cheeseman), Hayward (Bill Kux), and Bigelow (Greg Balla). Very much on the sidelines are the women in their lives, especially the supportive Elizabeth Wells (Amelia Pedlow), referred to by her husband as “Little Mother”, and the delicate Lizzie Morton (Liba Vaynberg). Also featured are Lee Sellars, Matthew Barrett, Veronica Barron, Nile Hawver, Nash Hightower, and Mac Young. All of them make for an exceptional ensemble, with some standouts. Patterson makes Morton a believable con man (if a bit too boyish at the beginning) with a worthy if tormented mentor in Bakkensen’s Wells, and Pedlow manages to create a memorable anchor as Wells’ long-suffering spouse. As for the others, with so many of them jockeying for a position in history with their self-proclaimed credit for the momentous discovery, it makes for a veritable ether parade.

Under the direction of Michael Wilson (former longtime Artistic Director of Hartford Stage Company), the play lives up to its subtitle, “A Grand Exhibition Produced on the Dramatic Stage with No Expense Spared, Showing the Exhilarating Inventions of the Medical Mind.” Adding to the impact of the work are some impressive technical credits, from the superb Scenic and Projection Design by James Youmans, to the apt Costume Design by David C. Woolard, complex Lighting Design by David Lander, and eerily effective Sound Design by John Gromada and Alex Neumann, (with considerable original music by Gromada).

The concept of excavating the truth behind all of the historically suspect versions of how and by whom the process of discovery took place, and “who deceived whom”, while it might sound dull on paper, is as one of the characters proclaims, “a leap…this is no humbug.” Rather, it’s a fascinating journey, with a literate script, lively direction and a cornucopia of delicious deceit, betrayal and corruption, all that makes theater so grand. As for the future of this play, one can only say, break a leg.


URT's "Disappearing Number": Prime Theater

Underground Railway Theater's "A Disappearing Number"

The number of well-written and intelligent plays of late has seemed like a brief series with a decidedly finite limit. Then along comes a work like “A Disappearing Number”, the latest production by Underground Railway Theater at the Central Square Theater, offering up infinite possibilities. This play, co-written and devised by Théâtre de Complicité and conceived by English playwright Simon McBurney, won the 2007 Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards as Best Play, and it’s easy to see why. Just under two intermissionless hours, it’s based on the real life encounter between math wizard Srinivasa Ramanujan (a sublime Jacob Athyal) from India and G. H. Hardy (a brilliant Paul Melendy), a Cambridge University don. It parallels their meeting with the story of a more modern couple, math teacher Ruth (the very enthusiastic Christine Hamel) and her hedge fund husband Al (the moving Amar Srivastava). Also in the superb cast, often in several roles, are Ekta Sagar, Sanaa Kazi, Lorne Batman, Bari Robinson and the hysterically funny Harsh Gagoomal. How the play juxtaposes their stories and keeps time-warping back and forth is one of the joys of this work. It’s complicated, complex and precise, and often loads of fun, just as math can be for some. But even if math isn’t your cup of tea, this play will still enthrall you; if math is your cuppa, your enjoyment of the work will increase exponentially.

As Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, the production moves with such astonishing fluidity and mathematical precision that it takes your breath away. The technical contributions are all first rate, especially the amazingly intricate Scenic Design by Jon Savage and witty Projection Design by Seaghan McKay (at one point taking us on a cab ride through throngs in India, later on a similar cab ride through the insides of a cavernous computer). The beautiful Choreography was by Aparna Sindhoor. Also extraordinarily well done are the lovely Costume Design by Leslie Held, complex Lighting Design by Tyler Lambert-Perkins, expert Sound Design by David Reiffel, and Music Direction by Brian Fairley, with the tabla, an Indian drum, played by Ryan Meyer.

Suffice it to say that you don’t need a profound understanding of the “Ramanujan summation” technique for assigning a value to infinite divergent series (infinite series that are not convergent, that is, which do not have a finite limit) which forms the basis for modern string theory. This is truly math as creative art, which even if you appreciate only a fraction of the intricacies of the plot, you will be transported. As Vaan Hogue is quoted in the program, this is a metaphor for our human curiosity and pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The atheist G. H. Hardy described a mathematician as a maker of patterns which are harmonious, where the first test of a theorem is beauty: “there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics”. The believer Ramanujan stated that for him an equation “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God”. Despite the disparity in their world views, they found a common denominator. There are so many reasons to see this play; as one of the characters puts it, “do the math”. If there’s any justice in this mathematical world, the title “A Disappearing Number” will soon refer to the availability of tickets.


Lyric Stage's "Dear Elizabeth": Poetry in Emotion

Ed Hoopman & Laura Latreille in "Dear Elizabeth"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The choice by Lyric Stage Company to mount “Dear Elizabeth”, a 2012 play by Sarah Ruhl (unaccountably missing a bio in the program, but renowned for “The Clean House”, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”, and “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”) was a daring one. Adapted from the book “Words in Air”, a collection of some 300 letters, edited by Thomas Travisano and Saskia Hamilton, it concerns the three decades long epistolary relationship between two of the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Artists and friends, both were Pulitzer Prize winners (Lowell twice). Having met at a party in 1947 thrown by a mutual poet friend, Randall Jarrell, they corresponded until Lowell’s death in 1977. The bipolar Lowell (with two tumultuous marriages) and depressive alcoholic Bishop (having lost her lover of sixteen years, Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, to suicide), though often a continent apart, had a sort of marriage of their minds, though disparate ones. Where Lowell’s poetry could be fervent and personal, Bishop’s by and large was not. Does this make for great theater, or is it as deadly as it sounds? Deadly, thanks to the acting and technical elements, by no means. But neither is it especially lively.

The byplay between them on the page succeeds less as a theatrical performance, despite the skill of the two actors portraying them and the fluidity of the direction. Both are familiar Lyric Stage alumni, Ed Hoopman (“Animal Crackers”, “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and Laura Latreille (“Time Stands Still”, “The Understudy”). As directed by A. Nora Long, the company’s Associate Artistic Director, theirs is a surprisingly involving friendship. Ruhl has given them a lot to share with an audience, while leaving out some of their more mundane letters (such as those about dental appointments). Many of their exchanges are amusing, but don‘t add up to much dramatic tension. In fact, a needless intermission breaks whatever arc there might have been. The technical credits are all superb, from the clever Scenic Design by Shelley Barish, to the Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, and Projection Design by Garrett Herzog (sometimes downstage on the floor and thus difficult to read).

Chalk it up to a very noble and literate effort. The wit is usually dry and laconic, often stinging, yet thanks to these two capable actors, avoids the threat of theatrical ham on wry. Interestingly, toward the end of the play Bishop accuses Lowell of the poetic license of altering facts. Ruhl herself is guilty of the same, for theatrical effect, when she leaves unmentioned the fact that, a few years before Lowell’s death, Bishop had already found another love in Alice Methfessel (at Harvard) who remained with her until her death, with Bishop leaving her Lewis Wharf apartment to her. As Bishop expressed it: “If only one could see everything that way all the time, that rare feeling of control, illumination…life is all right, for the time being”. And beautiful prose and poetry are, too.


Fathom Events' "Nozze di Figaro": One Made in Heaven

          HD Broadcast of 10/18/14; Encore HD Broadcast on Weds. October 22  at 6:30pm

Ildar Abdrazakov & Marlis Petersen in "Marriage of Figaro"
(photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

After a shaky summer of union contract negotiations that threatened to close down the entire season, with the issues finally resolved, the Metropolitan Opera began its scheduled operas last month with its production of Mozart’s wondrous “Marriage of Figaro”. It was also the first Live-in-HD broadcast in a movie theater near you. It was well received at the opening as well as this simulcast performance. Set in an 18th century Seville manor house during the 1930’s, the stars were all aligned in the operatic heavens as the conducting and orchestral playing, the singing and acting by the principals and the chorus, and the physical production, all combined to create a truly effervescent experience. It would be hard to judge who was having the greater time, the worldly performers or their worldwide audience. On hand as the articulate broadcast host was the always charming Renée Fleming. The production was the work of British Director Sir Richard Eyre. The Metropolian Orchestra was led by Music Director James Levine after his lengthy period coping with health issues. (The opening night was his first in four years). Yet, as is often the case, once again the star of the proceedings (aided and abetted by his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte) was unquestionably Mozart.

As Levine conducted the orchestra in Mozart’s sublimely gorgeous music, a pantomime on stage introduced the principal characters of the opera with the clever use of a revolving stage. This lively and energetic cast included the accomplished bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov (seen in the title role of the Met’s “Prince Igor” last season) as the valet Figaro and the beautifully-voiced soprano Marlis Petersen as his bride Susanna (a much earthier rendition than is typical); both were comic superstars in this work. Also featured were Peter Mattei in gorgeous voice as their philandering Count Almaviva and equally impressive soprano Amanda Majeski as his long-suffering Countess. Also in the cast were mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, wonderful as the hormonally frisky pageboy Cherubino, bass-baritone John Del Carlo as the ever pompous Doctor Bartolo, and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer as his former housekeeper Marcellina. (The relationship of Bartolo and Marcellina to Figaro provides the sort of twist that Gilbert and Sullivan would later satirize). The rest of the cast included Greg Fedderly as Don Basilio, Philip Cokorinos as Antonio, a radiant Ying Fang as Barbarina and Scott Scully as Don Curzio. The all-important expert HD Direction was by Gary Halvorson, with a revolving Set Design and lovely Costume Design, both by Rob Howell; the costumes were universally praised, and justifiably so, but the sets were criticized for overpowering the proceedings at the Met, though this wasn’t often the case in the HD broadcast at all. The too-dim Lighting Design was by Paule Constable and the minimal Choreography by Sara Erde.

The plot defies concise synopsis, so suffice it to say that there are some romantic complications for no fewer than four couples, all resolved happily by the final curtain. It is Mozart at his wickedly funniest and musically most complex. In the end, after not a few disguises and impersonations, all ends relatively well and reasonably sane. And that’s exactly what we hope for in a marriage, isn't it?