ArtsEmerson's "Cuisine": Well Worth the Whisk

Melvin Diggs & Sidney Iking Bateman in "Cuisine & Confessions"
(photo: Alexandre-Galliez)

ArtsEmerson's current production, Cuisine & Confessions, is the fifth visit to Boston by Les 7 doigts de la main, or “7 Fingers” as they are now calling themselves, the wonderfully wild and witty circus troupe based in Montreal. The “cuisine” on the menu is less of a dinner or buffet than a collection of tapas, consisting of the “confessions”, or individual back stories of the nine performers as they prep, mix and cook, ultimately resulting in banana bread made, baked and served by them.
The multitalented cast of nine provided an array of visual delights that ranged from tumbling to juggling to aerial spectacle. Everyone in the ensemble was sublimely professional and a joy to see and hear. There were some highlights that stood out, but in the end it was the sort of communal presentation that defies singling anyone out, though the heartbreaking narration and accompanying acrobatics by Matias Plaul as he tells of his father's being “disappeared” in Chile is unforgettable. Sidney Iking Bateman, Melvin Diggs, Mishannock Ferrero, Anna Kichtchenko, Heloise Bourgeois, Nella Niva, Emile Pineault, Matias Plaul and Pablo Pramparo were individually and collectively splendid. So were the Creation and Staging by Shana Carroll and Music Director Sebastian Soldevila (even including an audiovisual Bolero), Sound Design by Colin Gagne, Lighting Design by Eric Champoux, Scenography by Ana Cappelluto and Costume Design by Anne-Seguin-Poirier.

The cast crossed off ingredients on a blackboard as the performance proceeded. Even the program notes got into the act, providing the recipe for the banana bread. For the record, that goes like this: Cream 4 ounces butter with 4 ounces of sugar. Mix in six crushed bananas, then two eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla extract and chocolate chips to taste. Combine 9 ounces of flour, one teaspoon of baking soda and a pinch of salt, then slowly mix into the creamed mixture. Pour into greased and floured loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about fifty minutes or until cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. (Though they had the audience set their cellphones at thirty-six minutes, so take the timing with a grain of salt).

The results of their labors and incredible flour power was not merely a dessert, but about eighty-five minutes of astonishing acrobatics and hysterical humor. While their efforts were extraordinarily difficult and demanding, this troupe made it all seem like, well, a piece of cake.


Ogonquit's "Hunchback": Hump, What Hump?

F.Michael Haynie as Quasimodo and the Cast of "Hunchback of Notre Dame"
(photo: Julia Russell)

Parental guidance warning: this is decidedly not your childrens' cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame ; rather, it's a “musical created for the adult audience”, according to Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Productions. Based primarily on the original source, the 1831 Victor Hugo novel Notre Dame de Paris, with some songs from the 1996 Disney film, it had its premiere in Berlin in 1999, where it ran for three years. Subsequent versions honed the tale, including the effective prominent presence of a choir, and the elimination of most of the antics of a trio of comic gargoyles. First seen by this critic at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, this in an amazing and satisfying transformation all around, with significant differences in tone, subject matter and sophistication, drastically diverging from the story line of the film. Now in its New England premiere at Ogonquit Playhouse, only the third American production, after having been presented at La Jolla in San Diego and then at Papermill, it's a stunning achievement, much deeper, darker and more deadly, and, ironically, much more animated than the film.

As “The Bells of Notre Dame” in Paris toll, a chorus introduces the story that takes place in and around the cathedral. Two orphaned brothers, Frollo (Bradley Dean) and Jehan (Matthew Amira), were raised by priests of the cathedral; Frollo flourished and became a priest, while Jehan ran off with gypsies and died, leaving his deformed son Quasimodo (F. Michael Haynie) to be brought up by Frollo in the belfry of the cathedral. The boy grows up to be the bell ringer of the cathedral, longing for a fuller life “Out There”. He slips out to the marketplace below during the Feast of Fools celebration and is captivated by the gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Sydney Morton), who arranges for him to be chosen as the King of Fools by the gypsy leader Clopin (Paolo Montalban) in the wonderfully danced “Topsy Turvy”. Esmeralda sings her plaintive plea “God Help the Outcasts” as both Frollo and the handsome Phoebus, Captain of the Guard (Christopher Johnstone) become enamored of her. When Frollo catches Esmeralda and Phoebus in a kiss, he plots revenge, arresting both of them on trumped-up charges. When Esmeralda is brought out to be burned at the stake, Phoebus rescues her but is wounded by Frollo in the process as Quasimodo watches helplessly from the belfry tower (“Esmeralda”). She convinces him to hide Phoebus, but they are found by Frollo who arrests them again. Esmeralda is to be burned at the stake, inspiring Frollo's great solo turn in “Hellfire”. Quasimodo rescues her and takes her to the tower where....well, let's not spoil things. He has a terrific “eleven o'clock number” in “Made of Stone”. Ultimately, he descends to the square, where all the people come to realize what humanity they have in common with the hunchback, seeing him in a new light.

This theatrical version boasts the same creative team as the film, with Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Book by Peter Parnell, adding almost a dozen new songs and dropping some (such as the frivolous gargoyle number, “A Guy Like You”). Masterfully directed here by Shaun Kerrison with expert Choreography by Connor Gallagher, it's memorable on so many levels, from the breathtaking Scenic Design by Adam Koch, to the clever Costume Design by Martha Bromelmeier (except for the silly gargoyle outfits), complex Lighting Design by Richard Latta and the brilliant Sound Design by Kevin Heard. This version is Conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman, with the added bonus of a powerful thirty-two member choir under Chorus Master Wendell Scott Purrington. The cast is uniformly excellent, most notably the crucial and demanding central role of Haynie's Quasimodo. Morton and Johnstone sing beautifully, and Dean earns a well-deserved ovation for his depiction of the incarnation of evil to counterbalancing the simple goodness of the Hunchback.

The program notes that Hugo discovered a one-worded piece of graffiti in Notre Dame Cathedral, “ANAKTH”, Greek for “fate”. The word FATE appears on the pre-show curtain, referencing Hugo's melancholic approach. The choir, acting as a Greek chorus, actually sings in Greek (Kyrie Eleison) as well as Latin and Romani. The show is mostly serious with very few comic moments, such as a visual gag concerning St. Aphrodisius (Neal Mayer, who has the distinction of having performed in all three American productions of the show). There is a very different ending from the Papermill version, which portrayed the people putting smudges on their faces like those of Quasimodo, symbolically demonstrating their commonality with him as outcasts. Nonetheless, this is still a very moving piece, a Broadway-ready triumph for this company, that truly rings.


Goodspeed's "Bye Bye Birdie": Puberty in Prime Time

The Cast of "Bye Bye Birdie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

In 1976, Charles Strouse was busily engaged in the creation of an improbable musical based on a comic strip about a little orphan and a dog. It was premiered at Goodspeed Opera House, with Book by Michael Stewart, Music by Strouse, and Lyrics by Lee Adams; it was to go on to win the next season's Tony Award as Best Musical. The show was in development for years before it finally saw the light of day at Goodspeed in its world premiere, and required a good deal of revision before it was ready for its ultimate opening on Broadway. That show, of course, was Annie. Seventeen years prior to that, when most of the creative team and cast were unknowns, Broadway had enjoyed this team's first musical, also a Best Musical Tony winner; this one scored as a long-running tenant on Broadway, a film version (more about this later), a televised 1995 adaptation, and countless high school productions over the years. Despite its title, Bye Bye Birdie has never really left us.

Set in 1961, the show bisects the real life event of Elvis Presley's induction into the Army.  As anyone who has seen one or more of those endlessly-produced high school versions of the show can attest, it's the sweet story of Albert Peterson (George Merrick), talent agent and songwriter who once had a dream of becoming an English teacher, his secretary/girlfriend Rosie (Janet Dacal), and the prospect of their biggest rock and roll star, Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter) being drafted. They concoct a publicity stunt in which Conrad would bestow “One Last Kiss” on a lucky member of his fan club live on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. By lottery, Kim MacAffee (Tristen Buettel) of Sweet Apple, Ohio (somewhere between Pittsburgh and Dayton) wins the dubious honor, which prompts one of the cleverest ensemble numbers ever performed, the gossipy “Telephone Hour” (which uses its lyrics to reference the original title proposed for the show, Let's Go Steady), one of theatre's greatest opening numbers (though the show was originally written with a scene between Albert and Rosie that lacked the high energy of this eventual opener). Kim's boyfriend Hugo (Alex Walton) is decidedly unthrilled, especially when Birdie moves in with the MacAfees. Kim's father Harry (Warren Kelley) shares Hugo's lack of enthusiasm, until he learns the whole family is to appear on the televised smootch; this inspires a number with Mrs. MacAfee (Donna English) and their eleven-year-old son Randolph (Ben Stone-Zelman), the serio-comical “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”. Albert tries to comfort the fan club members, notably Kim's best friend Ursula (Dorcas Leung), in “Put on a Happy Face” (the eventual title of composer Strouse's memoir). When Kim runs away, her family sings the hysterical “Kids” number, as Albert's mother Mae (Kristine Zbornik) arrives with tap dancer Gloria Rasputin (Lauren Fijol) to entice him away from Rosie, who's off to a local dive run by Maude (Branch Woodman). Meanwhile Birdie tries to convince his fans that it isn't the end of the world as we know it in the song “Got a Lot of Livin' to Do”. Loose threads get tied up when Birdie leaves town (on the train with Mae aboard), Kim and Hugo reunite, and Albert learns of a job teaching English in Pumpkin Falls, Iowa, requiring that the teacher be married. This finale is somewhat low key, but all that precedes it was truly exciting on a level rarely seen these days. A favorite scene, the hysterically funny dance Rosie performs with a group of Shriners is among the missing.

Some of the jokes are dated, even jaded, but most land wonderfully given this expert cast. As is often the case with Goodspeed, everyone on stage is so amazingly good that it's impossible to single anyone out, though Kelley shines in “Kids”, with a line of dialogue adlibbed by the original actor in the role, Paul Lynde, “Ed (Sullivan), I love you!”. Zbornik excels in her solo, and Dacal is a true Spanish spitfire, as anyone who saw her in In the Heights can attest.  Obviously Stewart, Adams and Strouse, tongues firmly in cheeks, had a lot of fun satirizing this typical town and its people in the sixties, and the whole rock-and-roll revolution. Oddly enough, the show had no title song until the film version with Ann-Margret, who at twenty-two was a way-too-voluptuous Kim, especially in wide-screen format. Goodspeed has incorporated that title song, and reinstated another, “A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore” written for the televised version. The original Broadway show garnered four Tony Awards out of eight nominations, thanks to its lovingly and unabashedly corny plotting, terrific score, and the signature approach by its original director, Gower Champion. The 1981 sequel, Bring Back Birdie, was a flop, lasting just four performances. (This just a couple of years after this critic was told by Stewart that he'd sworn off writing for musicals). But Strouse, at 88 years old, has never stopped composing. In 2002 Boston's Huntington Theatre Company presented his musical Marty and in 2005 Providence's Trinity Rep mounted his semi-autobiographical Dancing with Time, and he (with Adams, and others) has several new works in various stages of development.

As usual, Goodspeed spins yet another miracle, a high-spirited romp with Direction by Jenn Thompson (who keenly respects the original material but has a lot of fun with it) and original Choreography by Patricia Wilcox. The Scenic Design by Tobin Ost uses venetian blinds to manage quick set changes cleverly, and the Costume Design by David Toser, Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg and Sound Design by Jay Hilton are all up to the company's very high standards. The expert Music Direction is by Michael O'Flaherty in his twenty-fifth year with Goodspeed. Special attention must be paid to the extraordinarily terrific projections before each act, with television highlights from the period, including Ed Sullivan himself, as well as a brief nod to Maureen Stapleton, who played Mae in the film version.

It's no wonder this show has been extended until September 8th. And it wouldn't be surprising to find this lively production had a future life. To quote Sullivan, “folks, this is a really big shew”.


Broadway in Boston's "If/Then": Door #1/Door #2

Anthony Rapp & Jackie Burns in "If/Then"
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The most charged words in the English language might well be, “what if?”, as in, what if we had made other choices than the ones we made. How different might our lives have been? The 2014 Broadway musical If/Then answered that question with several possible answers. With Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey and Music by Tom Kitt (the duo responsible for the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal), it was a star vehicle for Idina Menzel. It garnered two Tony Award nominations (for Best Musical and Best Lead Actress for Menzel) and had a respectable run of over four hundred performances. It's now on a national tour, arriving at Boston's Opera House for a run from July 5 to 17, with Jackie Burns in the lead role of Elizabeth. It's to her credit that the score seems to have been written specifically for her, and no coincidence that she was nominated for an IRNE Award for portraying Elphaba in Wicked, another Menzel role. But as much of a star turn that Burns' performance was, it's only one memorable part of a fine production, which comes along just when we needed it most. Given the recent tragic event in Orlando, it's a timely reminder that, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda at this season's Tony Awards, “love is love is love is love is love.....and love cannot be killed or swept aside”. The love enacted in this play includes two gay couples whose lives are affected by the choices made by their mutual friend Elizabeth, an example of how uplifting theater can be, and how life-affirming.

Make that lives affirming, as it centers around the two very different lives Elizabeth could have had, based on a simple choice. This may be the most existential musical in recent history, a story about what happens, or not, based on such choices, as well as by chance. Elizabeth , a recently divorced urban planner nearing her fortieth birthday, moves back to New York City to make a fresh start. She runs into old schoolmate Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a community organizer, and Kate (Tamyra Gray), a kindergarten teacher. Lucas urges her to change her name to Beth; Kate suggests she adopt the name Liz. At this point in the play, “Beth” leaves with Lucas and “Liz” stays with Kate. Thus begin the two tracks that play out, each dependent on which choice Elizabeth finally makes. Without revealing too many spoilers, here is a synopsis of the parallel plots.

As Liz, she's pursued by Josh (Matthew Hydzik),             As Beth, she accompanies Lucas to a protest
a member of the army reserves, whom she meets             over a development project, which she is asked
when she decides to remain in the park with Kate            to oversee at the moment she answers that
and Kate's girlfriend Anne (Janine Divita). Liz                 phone call.  She also has a one-night stand with
doesn't answer a call she gets on her cell phone.               Lucas and becomes pregnant but doesn't tell
An old friend Stephen (Jacques C. Smith) gets                him.  He exits her life for two years.  Meanwhile
her a teaching position. He introduces Lucas to               she earns multiple awards for her work and
his best friend David (Marc Delacruz) and they              Lucas becomes a noted activist.  Beth takes on a
become a couple, even adopting a son. Things               protégé Elena (Kyra Faith), who finally
also get serious for Liz and Josh, leading to                   disappoints her when she leaves the job to have  
pregnancy, marriage and a family. Kate and                  have a family.  After a near catastrophe, Beth is
Anne also marry. After a catastrophe, Liz                      compelled to reestablish contact with Lucas.
leaves her teaching work, despondent. Asked                Stephen offers her a position working with him,
to join Stephen in a project, she accepts and                  but she turns him down, planning to run for city 
looks forward to a promising career.                              council.
Elizabeth meets Kate and Lucas in the park for coffee, where Josh, returning home from his third tour of duty overseas, offers to buy her coffee and she accepts. Both of the stories take Elizabeth, as Liz and as Beth, along somewhat similar yet strikingly different paths, and the exposition of both lives is frequently fascinating (though it must be said that city planner and community organizer are not sexy jobs, and theatrically rather dull). It's best that one not examine too closely the specifics of the results of the two potential choices, as it should be obvious that Elizabeth's personal dilemmas wouldn't really affect the lives of others to the extent that they do in the script. Just go with the flow, and you'll find this a very thought-provoking and ingenious examination of the consequences of the choices we all must make and the role of chance in our lives. The success of the storytelling is largely dependent on the expertise of the cast, and here the ensemble doesn't disappoint. As brilliantly directed by Michael Greif, with outstanding Choreography by Larry Keigwin, this is a winning effort all around, from the Set Design by Mark Wendland to the Costume Design by Emily Rebholz to the Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and the Sound Design by Brian Ronan. The projections are terrific; New York City has never looked so good. The score, while it may not be quite on a par with that of Next to Normal, is a keeper, an almost through composed (thus virtually operatic) piece. As noted, Burns is up to the huge demands the role makes, as is Rapp (of Rent fame), a member of the original cast who has grown in his role. Gray and Hydzik offer great support, as do the remaining members of this cast.

This is a prime example of the level of professionalism of many national touring productions these days. It's as far from cookie-cutter shows as it gets. Instead, it's a very clever, original piece, beautifully performed. Catch it while you can; the choice is yours.


Odyssey Opera's "Lucio Silla": Political Convention

Joanna Mongiardo & Katy Lindhart in "Lucio Silla"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

As its companion piece to last week's production of Gluck's Ezio, in its “When In Rome” mini-festival, Odyssey Opera presented the equally rarely-heard opera Lucio Silla by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra. The influence of Gluck and the prevailing opera seria of the time, with stock characters and their predictable situations, can easily be seen in this work by Mozart and de Gamerra.  The work is amazing given its composition by a sixteen-year-old. It wasn't even the boy's first opera (that would be his equally obscure Mitridate, re di Ponto), nor of course would it be his last. Its place in the context of opera seria is not merely historical, however, as it has many touches that hold the promise that the prodigious musical genius was ultimately to fulfill. The youthful composer respected the rules of the form, with its many conventions, political and otherwise, but even at his extraordinarily young age, there were glimpses of what was to come, submerged under a plot-heavy story that almost defies synopsis; the synopsis in the program for this production is over two pages long, but herewith is an attempt to synopsize that synopsis.

The setting is Rome, in 79 BC. Cecilio (countertenor Michael Maniaci), a senator returning from banishment by the dictator Lucio Silla (tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan), meets a patrician, Cinna (soprano Joanna Mongiardo) and asks him about his wife Giunia (soprano Katy Lindhart) only to hear she is being held prisoner by Silla. Meanwhile Silla tells his sister Celia (soprano Sara Heaton) and a tribune Aufidio (tenor Omar Najmi) of his love for Giunia, who refuses to reciprocate the dictator's love even when told Cecilio has died. Later, in a cemetery, she encounters Cecilio very much alive. Silla is urged by Aufidio to force her to marry him, to which he agrees. Cecilio, upon hearing this, urges Giunia to marry the dictator and murder him on their wedding night, but she refuses and urges Cecilio to surrender his sword and to trust in the gods. The two of them are led away to prison, where Giunia continues to spurn the dictator even if it means she will die at Cecilio's side. In the final scene in the great hall, Silla has a change of heart, renounces any claim to Giunia and swears to marry her to Cecilio, as well as marrying Cinna to Celia. He then removes his crown, abdicates and declares that Rome is to be free.

As was the Gluck opera, this was eloquently conducted by Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director of the company, leading the Odyssey Opera Orchestra of thirty. Additionally, this work included the Odyssey Opera Chorus of sixteen, led by Chorus Master Krishan Oberoi. As Directed by Isabel Milenski, it was dramatically rather static, with some strange choices (not once, not twice, but thrice characters upended chairs to show their anger), and the comically abrupt change of heart at the end brought hearty laughter from the audience. But in the end it was all about the music, which was extraordinarily demanding and gloriously sung. All of the cast were superb, especially Lindhart, with her lengthy solos presaging the composer's later work (in particular, the Queen of the Night's role in The Magic Flute).  The Scenic Design by Jian Jung was similar to his work on the Gluck opera (even repurposing some elements), and the simple Costume Design by Seth Bodie and clever Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew added some context.

Given the presentation of these two operas in the mini-festival of opera seria, there is a decided temptation, even an expectation, to compare and contrast them, but the fact remains that Gluck was composing at the height of his career and Mozart had only just begun. Each work had its memorable moments and extraordinary highlights, making for the festival a cornucopia of operatic riches.


MSMT's "Ghost": Medium Rare

E. Faye Butler, Liz Shivener & Gregg Goodbrod in "Ghost the Musical"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)

Geography matters. Had the new and improved version of “Ghost the Musical” opened first on Broadway, there'd be a virtual lock on at least one of the Tony Awards being presented at this season's ceremony. But its opening was at Maine State Music Theatre (in a co-production with the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA), in its East Coast Regional Premiere, a real coup for the company for the start of its 58th season. The longer and larger version had debuted in Manchester, England in 2011, soon after transferring to London's West End, ultimately opening on Broadway in 2012 (where it lasted a mere 136 performances). This streamlined work was seen recently at the Fulton Theatre, with that company's Artistic Director Marc Robin as Director and Choreographer. He repeats in both roles for this production, which also boasts the same cast and creative crew. As was the case with the original, the Book and Lyrics are by Bruce Joel Rubin (who won a best screenplay Oscar for the 1990 film on which this version is closely based) and Music and Lyrics are by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. This chamber musical form, with acoustic renditions of the score, is in fact more of a play with music rather than a traditional musical. With ten singing actors and six pit musicians, it's an approach undertaken by Director John Doyle that has worked well for several Sondheim shows as well as the current Broadway iteration of “The Color Purple”. Whether it works for this production is an open question, as it simultaneously highlights the emotional love story at its core while revealing some of its fundamental flaws (inherent in the film as well, despite the fact that it was the highest grossing movie of the year).

The central story is still that of Sam Wheat (Gregg Goodbrod), successful Wall Streeter, and ceramicist Molly Jensen (Liz Shivener) who have just moved to Brooklyn (an update from the TriBeca move in the movie). Sam gets murdered in an apparent mugging event (this is no real spoiler as it happens soon into Act I) and suddenly his money-laundering best friend and colleague Carl (Mike Backes) is all too available to console Molly. Enter the formerly phoney medium Oda Mae Brown (E. Faye Butler) who seems to have found her niche in the spiritual world as she can hear Sam whereas no one else at that point can. It's easy too see why this was an Oscar winning role for Whoopi Goldberg in the film, but Butler isn't mimicking or even channeling that performance, but makes the role her own. And it's about that Tony; this is an award-winning supporting performance if there ever was one. A seasoned performer, Butler has that rare gift of being fully capable of bringing down the house while eschewing chewing the scenery. How she saves the day and everyone gets her or his due is best left unspoken here. There is great support all around, not with dazzling high tech but with earnest and energetic work from the cast and creative crew. The rest of the cast includes the hood Willie Lopez (Caesar F. Barajas), a Subway Ghost (Kyle E. Baird), a Hospital Ghost (Billy Clark Taylor) and mulitiple roles for Jessica Lorion, Janelle McDermoth, and Linnaia McKenzie. The Scenic design by Robert Andrew Kovach is clever, as are the Costume Design by Beth Dunkelberger, complex Lighting Design by Paul Black and important Sound Design by Jacob Mishler.

The major problem here, as in previous incarnations, is that there's little time to establish a true connection among Sam, Molly and Carl (though they're all superb), especially in the case of the two lovers, as Sam comes across as commitment-phobic, never being able to say those three little words (that would be “I love you”) to Molly, instead voicing a non-committal “ditto”, which could be interpreted as his being less than enchanted. Another significant problem is the score, which isn't memorable except for the borrowed “Unchained Melody” (sung thrice, with those unfortunate lyrics, “time goes by so slowly”). While the program lists some thirty “musical numbers”, most are brief snippets that underscore rather than carry the plot along. And the lyrics are often memorable in the wrong sense, such as the verse, “I picked up your shirts” or the spoken line “eternity can wait”. All of the principals have been directed to belt without ceasing, making for a score that's often shouted rather than sung; some variation with the sound balance might be of help. One exception is the rousing “I'm Outta Here”, sung by Butler in the closest thing that the show has to an “eleven o'clock number”.

That said, it comes across as a perfect show for a romantic date. The opening night audience responded enthusiastically, even hissing as the two bad guys in the plot went (literally) to hell.  If this audience's involvement is any indication, the producers will have a huge hit on their hands, as this sampling of theatergoers seemed to love it. As for this critic, the appropriate response would be: “Ditto”.


Huntington's "Most Alive": Drama with a Capital D

The Cast of "I Was Most Alive with You"
(photo:  T. Charles Erickson)

Choices in life are at the center of the remarkable new play by Craig Lucas, I Was Most Alive with You, currently being given its world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company. In this unforgettable work, the audience must also make choices, but more about this later. Lucas, renowned for past theatrical works such as Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, Light in the Piazza and American in Paris, the screenplay for Longtime Companion, and the libretto for the opera Two Boys, is a graduate of Boston University with a BA in theater and creative writing. His careers include that of an actor, playwright, screenplay writer and, with this production, director. His varied background informs and transforms this latest effort which both lives up to one's expectations and exceeds them, creating what can truly be described as unique. “Unique” is an often misused term, frequently expressed as one of degree, as in “more unique” or “most unique”. Here one may accurately ascribe this adjective to this play, as it is unquestionably and undeniably “one of a kind”. For starters, the entire work is performed by an exquisite company of seven actors, while simultaneously being signed (in American Sign Language, or ASL) by an equally fine troupe of avatars who are also performing, acting, rather than only signing. What results is an immersive experience unlike any other you've ever seen. Or heard.

As many plays have in the history of theater, this one begins with memories of a family gathering for a holiday celebration, namely Thanksgiving dinner. Knox (Russell Harvard) states that he is grateful for three things he formerly thought were curses: being deaf, being gay and being an alcoholic. While society as a whole might view them as disabling, he sees them as gifts. The enduring analogy for his apparent trials and tribulations is one of the oldest examples of storytelling, the suffering visited upon Job (which Lucas pointedly notes is part of Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage, all conveniently represented on stage). The reaction of the righteous to the woes inflicted upon them may be wisdom or may be despair. In the case of a person who is hearing-impaired, she or he might use the lowercase 'd' to refer to being deaf as the audiological fact of not hearing sounds, whereas others who share this challenge choose to self-describe with an uppercase 'D', refering to Deaf people who share the same language (ASL) and culture. This was the choice dealt with in the 2010 play by Nina Raine, Tribes , which, not coincidentally, was seen by Lucas, who decided to write his play specifically for its amazing actor, the aforementioned Harvard. In Lucas' play, there's drama and there's Drama, just as there are deaf people and a Deaf community. And, as is the case often with syntax, there's much more to it than whether it's expressed in lower or upper case.

The characters alludes to this as another choice, but more obliquely than in the decidedly more political realm of Tribes. Knox brings home a guy who has been living with him, Farhad (Tad Cooley), a heavy drug user who was recently homeless. Assembled for the traditional holiday dinner are Knox's father, Ash (Steven Goldstein), Ash's wife Pleasant (Dee Nelson), Knox's grandmother Carla (Nancy E. Carroll), Ash's best friend and co-writer Astrid (Marianna Bassham), and Carla's companion Mariama (Gameela Wright). The rest of the cast includes four wondrous “shadow interpreters”, Joey Caverly, Amelia Hensley, Monique Holt and Christopher Robinson.

But Lucas isn't basically writing about deafness, but about what it means to believe in other people and the choice for life even in one's darkest moments. The playwright has stated that he intended this work to be a comedy, a drama, and a tragedy, in the sense of “ bad things happening to people”; if “at enough distance, it's comical..closer to the characters, it's drama...insert yourself wholly into...the characters' flaws, it becomes tragedy”. As the program quotes Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr): “humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies, with laughter, is a high form of wisdom”. At one point in the play, Goldstein's character refers to faith as what bridges the gap between what you know and what you feel. As one final tragedy befalls, the question arises as to what is left to know or to feel when one is deprived of a hitherto vital form of human communication and connection.

The cast, all eleven of them, are flawless, as are the technical contributions. The intentionally monochromatic Set and appropriate Costume Design by Dane Laffrey provide the perfect focus needed, as do the Lighting Design by Mark Barton, Composition and Sound Design by Daniel Kluger, and Projection Design by Lucy MacKinnon. If one were to single out especially memorable elements, they would have to include the ingenious set that complements but never distracts, the way that Carroll has with tossing off a barbed one-liner, and of course the phenomenal Harvard at the core of the play. Theatergoers are continually confronted in this work with choices: whom to watch, whom to listen to, when blessed with a cornucopia of duplicate performances. (The analogy limps, of course, as these are people not puppets, but one is reminded of Avenue Q, in which, after a very brief period, one forgets where the actors end and their alter egos begin). Close attention must be paid, especially at the close of Act One, when a deluge of plot points cascades, more Noah-like than Job-like.

The expressed intent of the production is to ignite a conversation about the play, which is, after all, what theater is all about. By and large, Lucas is hugely successful. This may develop into his finest play; it's certainly his most religious. One could hope for more back stories for some of the characters (when did we last ask a play to be longer?). But this first exposure to a live audience will no doubt help shape its future form, and it will certainly have a future in the theater. As was the case with that trilogy of intention (comedy, drama and tragedy in one), this play is by turns promising, engrossing, fabulous, frustrating and disturbing, at one and the same time a desperate and life-affirming, truly enthralling achievement. Without divulging any spoilers, suffice it to say that there are echoes of the short story The Lady, or the Tiger?, in that each audience member is called upon to provide some resolution, taking on a much more active role than one is used to in live theater. And that's also when theater is most alive with us.

Craig Lucas, we hear you.