"Blue Man Group": Cereal Killers

The Freedom Trail. The view from atop Bunker Hill Monument. “Blue Man Group”. All occupying a space in one’s back burner bucket list, for they’ll always be there, right? One could be forgiven for the perennial intention to take in all of the above. This is particularly true in the case of “Blue Man Group”, which originated in New York but was soon replicated here in Boston almost two decades ago, and has been playing here ever since. So it’s high time you got yourself to the Charles Playhouse to join the rest of humanity, including audiences from Las Vegas to Chicago, Orlando, Tokyo, Berlin, Toronto, and London. Creators Chris Wink, Phil Stanton and Matt Goldman first came up with the basic concept in 1987. Even they were surprised at its immediate reception, eventually winning them (in 1991 and 1992 respectively) off-Broadway recognition with both Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards. Its first incarnation entitled “Tubes” was a huge success as it took aim at the eighties, but, while it’s still tubular, dude, it has evolved, grown, and been updated so that true fans (and they are legion) are able to revisit each iteration as they keep the humor fresh, which is a fundamental reason for its continued success.

What keeps drawing theatergoers, whether for their first exposure or repeat visits, is its wise and witty amalgam of the very best of live and lively entertainment for (literally) all ages. At a recent performance, one little girl of about eight was in giggle heaven throughout the show, while a few seats away from her a guy about eight times her age was in side-splitting mode for the duration. It manages to appeal to such a broad range of ages, and tastes, by being so universally recognizable to virtually any audience member who’s ever been enthralled by the likes of “Cirque de Soleil”, improv, and most especially, mime. The key to its instantaneous acceptance is its uncanny melding of the familiar with the weird, all without a single spoken word by the three men in blue. Time and again, one is reminded of the great Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball at their finest. Mime is, after all, a form of theater with a very long history. It requires near perfect timing, coordination and fluidity in movement that continues to astonish, as they seamlessly transition from one skewering of some aspect of pop culture to another with deceptively natural ease.

While the three men in blue don’t utter a sound during the deadpan delivery, they are aided and abetted by occasional written and spoken elements that set the scene for their hijinks, none of which will be revealed here. They’re backed up by a trio of fine musicians, and a technical crew that numbers in the dozens, providing lots of high tech, from computers to phone apps to a PCP xylophone. You’ll find out for yourselves how the trio of blue men utilize percussion and paintballs, marshmallows and toilet paper, giant bouncing balls and noodles, Jello and twinkies. And what they do to Captain Crunch cereal is almost criminally funny and gross at the same time. In just two incredibly fast hours, these actors, drawn from a bench including Blue Man Captain Mike Brown, Gregory Balla, Bhurin Sead, Brian Tavener and Jason McLin, raise the concept of performance art to outrageous heights.

So it’s about that bucket list. Yes, these blue men have been delighting Bostonians and tourists in town since 1995, and threaten to remain here forever, but isn’t it high time you put yourselves at the mercy (perhaps again) of this truly unique (that is, by definition, one of a kind) experience? If you’ve only seen them on television, you haven’t really seen them. To be properly enthralled, you need to be there in person, giving in with every childlike bone in your body, to this ultimate immersion into live theater. The only thing you risk is terminal addiction to pure silliness, and potentially permanent damage to your funny bone.


Tir Na Theater's "Jimmy Titanic": Unthinkable?

Is a tragicomedy about the loss of the Titanic just over a century ago unimaginable? Actually, it wouldn’t be the first such effort, as that event has been the basis of several previous treatments, including the 1960 musical comedy about its famed survivor “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, by Meredith Wilson. It was also featured in the more serious 1993 work of connected vignettes, “Hello Again”, by Michael John LaChiusa (based on “La Ronde”, the ship not identified by name but as a transatlantic vessel which sank in 1912), and of course was the title “character” in the 1997 Tony Award winner as Best Musical (as well as the Oscar-winning Best Film). Thus the Tir Na Theater production of “Jimmy Titanic”, currently being presented by New Rep Theater in Watertown, finds itself in good company. In this case, as opposed to some of those previous overpopulated efforts, the cast consists of a single (but amazingly versatile) actor, one Colin Hamell (who is also Tir Na’s Producing Artistic Director). Written by journalist Bernard McMullan (from Belfast) under the direction of Carmel O’Reilly, the play had its world premiere in New York (way off-Broadway) last year, then in Philadelphia, on to Donegal, and now (though it has also been produced by WHAT on Cape Cod) in its Boston area premiere.

Set 100 years after the tragedy (thus, in our own times), it features more than twenty characters, some in heaven, some in Belfast or on the Titanic itself. The characters include the fictional Jimmy Boylan and Tommy Mackey, two Belfast shipyard workers, as well as the (overly) prissy Angel Gabriel, very Italianate Saint Peter, bombastic John Jacob Astor, and a chain-smoking God, sometimes in a (literally) heavenly disco. The Irish-born Hamell is mesmerizing in portraying them all; his acting in the two shipyard worker roles is especially, uh, riveting. As directed by O’Reilly and written by McMullan, this is clearly a true collaborative creation that has undoubtedly grown with each iteration. The small playing space of New Rep’s Black Box Theater is ideal for this superb production, using virtually every inch of the venue, very effectively lit by Lighting Designer Tyler Lambert-Perkins.

It’s an often funny, sometimes moving voyage. As hilarious as some of his roles are, it’s when Hamell gets serious that this is most engaging. Jimmy reveals that “Sometimes at night, I’m back on the Titanic…1498 people lost…the crew…their pride and joy, the Titanic, the wonder ship”, while another passenger notes, “Did you never hear of driver’s ed? Big object in frontaya, steer around”. Sound advice, but do book passage on this wonder ship soon, as it sets sail at the end of the month. Just don’t skip the lifeboat drill.


Bay Colony Shakespeare Company's "Hamlet": To See or Not to See

Is there something rotten in the town of Hanover? Or dare one hope that a fledgling theatrical company is successful in presenting its first production of Shakespeare at their new home, Laura’s Center for the Arts Theater at the Hanover Emilson YMCA? ‘Tis a mouthful, but also ‘tis a collaboration devoutly to be wished. But a truly professional production at a venue in the burbs? While it’s true that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, it’s also often true that regional companies attempting Shakespeare (especially “Hamlet”, his longest and arguably most popular work) are more matter with less art, with soaring thoughts remaining below. Not so with this production of the four hundred year old tragedy, by the Bay Colony Shakespeare Company. What a piece of work is this “Hamlet”!   Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt one’s admiration for this company, nor doubt whether to see or not to see it. This is an exciting new beginning for a company with great promise that is already delivering on that promise, at extraordinarily low ticket prices, given such an amazing ensemble of actors.

This above all, to their own selves they’re true, and so it follows that their acting couldn’t be false to any theatergoer. As is so often true of ensembles, when good actors come, they come in battalions. This version of the play stars Neil McGarry (who is also the Producing Artistic Director of the company) in the title role, in an exhilaratingly athletic performance. Jessica Webb is his Ophelia (very believably deranged), with Dana Block as Gertrude (and frailty never named this woman), Ron Lacey as both Claudius and the Ghost (and a 2012 Elliot Norton Award nominee, a little more than kin and way less than kind), Bill Salem as a very animated Polonius, James Bocock as an engaging Laertes, and Omar Robinson as Horatio (another 2012 Elliot Norton Award nominee). The rest of the cast (with several excellent current or recent Boston Conservatory students) includes David Frank (as Player King/Francisco/Gravedigger), Lydia Barnett-Mulligan as Rosencrantz/ Osric (and especially good as the latter), Mike Maloney (as Guildenstern/Fortinbras), Emily Shankman (as Marcellus/
Player Queen/Gentlewoman), Paige Berkovitz as Voltemand/Player Lucianus/Gravedigger), Jonathan Luke Stevens (with great stage presence as Reynaldo/Player/Sergeant/Pallbearer), and Alexis Scheer (as Bernardo/Messenger/Captain/Priest). As superbly directed by Christopher James Webb, they’re all to the Shakespearean manner born. His ingenious use of multiple adjunct playing spaces is wonderfully creative. In action how like an angel it is, including the swordplay and the staging of his barefoot Hamlet‘s famous soliloquy, which won’t be revealed here.

This “Hamlet” is no indecisive portrait, but an intentionally politically centered one. With a play so frequently performed and a plot so universally familiar but by no means vulgar (and inspiring other works too numerous to mention, even including an animated Disney version in “The Lion King”), one’s critique of any production might struggle to refrain from comparisons to earlier incarnations that are the stuff of legend. Yet, as Shakespeare puts it in the play in question, one must be cruel, only to be kind; at least, one must be as objective as possible, primarily about the venue itself. The performance space is filled with hard surfaces, such as a concrete floor, which make for serious auditory challenges, where words fly up, sometimes never to return. In the end, though, the play’s the thing, wherein they catch the conscience of an audience. And speaking of ends, one could be forgiven for praying that one’s too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew, considering the length of the work (an abridged, nonetheless daunting, three and a quarter hours, alleviated by truly comfortable chairs). That aside, since brevity is the soul of wit, let it simply be said: neither a borrower nor a lender be, but get thee, not to a nunnery, but to the Hanover YMCA, and somehow procure a ticket. What memories to carry into sleep, perchance to dream, and what pictures to recall that are so imprinted on one’s mind! Goodnight, sweet imprints, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, for that sound you hear will be the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response of the audience, as well as a celebration of all that‘s right in the town of Hanover; the rest is silence.


2013 South Shore Critic (a.k.a. "Crabby") Awards

Play: "Amadeus" (New Rep)

Musical: “On the Town” (Lyric Stage)

Director (Play): David Cromer, “Our Town” (Huntington)

Director (Musical): Spiro Veloudos, “On the Town” (Lyric)

Ensemble Acting: Trinity Repertory Company, “House” & “Garden” (Trinity Rep)

Lead Actress (Play): Amelia Broome, “Master Class” (New Rep)

Lead Actor (Play): Benjamin Evett, “Amadeus” (New Rep)

Lead Actress (Musical): Kathleen LaMagna, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Boston Conservatory)

Lead Actor (Musical): Marc Koeck, “Jesus Christ Superstar” (Boston Conservatory)

Solo Performance: Georgia Lyman, “Chesapeake” (New Rep)

Supporting Actress (Play): Nancy E. Carroll, “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (Huntington)

Supporting Actor (Play): Luke Murtha, “Kite Runner” (New Rep)

Supporting Actress (Musical): Andrea Martin, “Pippin” (ART)

Supporting Actor (Musical): John Ambrosino, Phil Tayler, and Zachary Eisenstat, “On the Town” (Lyric)

Musical Direction: David McGrory, “Marry Me a Little” (New Rep)

Choreography: Ilyse Robbins, “On the Town” (Lyric)

Scenic Design: Cristina Todesco, “Amadeus” (New Rep)

Costume Design: Frances McSherry, “Amadeus” (New Rep)

Lighting Design: Mary Ellen Stebbins, “Kite Runner” (New Rep)

Projection Design: “M” (Huntington)


Trinity Rep's "House" and "Garden": You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Trinity Rep’s final offering of the current season is a pair of intimately connected works by prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (who has more plays to his name than Heinz has varieties), entitled “House” and “Garden”. (For the record, they are the fifty-fourth and fifty-fifth of his seventy-seven plays, and he’s still actively writing more). The cast of both plays includes Trinity’s resident company members Angela Brazil, Janice Duclos, Phyllis Kay, Anne Scurria, Fred Sullivan Jr., Steven Thorne, and Joe Wilson, Jr., as well as Mary C. Davis, Barry M. Press, Catherine Dupont, Stephen Jaehnert, Barbara Meek, Ted Moller and Bridget Saracino. This is no coincidence, as both plays revolve around the same characters and are designed to be performed simultaneously. Literally, that is. The basic gimmick is that “House” is being presented in the (larger, upstairs) Chace Theater, while “Garden” is performed in the (smaller, downstairs) Dowling Theater. This means that when a character makes her or his exit from the set of “House”, she or he may almost immediately be making an entrance onto the set of “Garden”, and vice versa. This results in a hilarious, almost metaphysically impossible challenge for both an audience’s attention span and the actors’ fluidity (not to say athleticism), even more demanding of one’s concentration than the somewhat similar concept seen in the past in such works as “Noises Off”.

Far more than a gimmick, however, these interrelated plays provide not only the expected Ayckbourn trademark laughs, but have other rewards for the theatergoer who approaches them with sufficient concentration, as though conquering a tricky crossword puzzle. The author, who actually considers them one play, has described this dual effort as his realization that “we’re all walk-on players in other people’s lives”. They involve a garden party, arranged by villagers Lindy and Barry Love (Davis and Moller), being conducted on the grounds of the home of the Platts, Teddy (Sullivan), Trish (Scurria) and their daughter Sally (Saracino), with Teddy being courted to run for a position as an MP. The luncheon is for visiting film star Lucille Cadeau (Kay), and what a gift she is, with her driver Fran (Meek) in tow, as well as novelist Gavin Ryng-Marie (Wilson), with neighbors such as Dr. Giles Mace (Thorne), his wife Joanna (Brazil) and their son Jake (Jaehnert); also on hand are the housekeeper Izzie (Duclos) and her daughter Pearl (Dupont), as well as the gardener Warn (Press). How all these characters interact (and do they ever) form the basis for both plays, with “House” featuring some of them in lead roles, “Garden” featuring others in leads. It’s a head-spinning experience, rather like a carousel that the little kid in all of us never wants to stop. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and what a wonderful ride.

In such a large company, it’s difficult to highlight the work of particular actors lest one miss any gems, but in the best-written roles, Scurria and Sullivan in “House”, and Brazil, Davis, Kay, Moller and Thorne in “Garden”, all get a chance to shine. With a cast of twenty-one (which includes a mini-ensemble of seven enjoyable moppets), that’s a lot of sunshine, though Ayckbourn has some thunder clouds of seriousness in store as well. Some standout moments include the controlled but hysterically funny hysteria of Thorne, the ditzy dizziness of Davis, and the deadpan dialect every time Moller opens his mouth. Then there’s the scene in “House” when Sullivan sits in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in “Garden” when there’s Morris and Maypole dancing, and general chaos. As meticulously directed by Brian McEleney, (himself a member of the resident Acting Company for the past thirty years), both this company and its guest artists are in fine form and look as though they’re having a fine time meeting the challenges. The Set Design by Eugene Lee is one of his best yet, with the perfect drawing room for a British manor “House” (all antlers and portraits of Platts past) and the colorful details of a typical English “Garden” fete (with a well-timed fountain just one of the clever touches). The Costume Design by William Lane (another logistical triumph) and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz contribute to the merry mayhem. The Lighting Design by Bryon Winn is fine, though it doesn’t change appreciably during the ten-hour span of the day depicted in both plays.

If you’re a serious theatergoer who enjoys farcical fare but thinks you’ve seen it all, think again. This is a truly unique, totally original and brilliantly conceived pair of creations. One piece of advice: be sure to see both plays, as near in time to one another as possible. Either play can stand on its own, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. They’re the very definition of the word synergy: seeing both will more than double your fun. As Scurria proclaims at the onset of “House”, more of a threat than a promise, “life pays you back”. Later she alludes to getting entangled in the ribbons of the Maypole, unable to let go. And, as both Scurria and Sullivan wistfully sum up the day’s events, each one alone at the ends of the respective plays, “Well, that’s life I suppose.” Well, all right, that’s theater, one supposes, and great theater at that. So what are you waiting for? Subscribe to this “House” and “Garden”.