New Rep's "Camelot": Brief Shining Moments

New Rep’s current production of the musical “Camelot” is a reminder of what a fascinating history the original Broadway production had. Anticipation had been high among critics and the general public back in 1960 for “Camelot”, the next musical to be presented by the creative team behind “My Fair Lady”. Once again, the book and lyrics were to be by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, to be directed by Moss Hart. It was to be based on the story of King Arthur and his Round Table in three of the four books in “The Once and Future King” series by T.H. White (the rights to the first having been obtained by Walt Disney for his animated “Sword and the Stone” about Arthur’s youth with Merlin). After almost two years of writing and rewriting and painfully troubled pre-Broadway tryouts in Toronto and here in Boston, with Loewe recuperating from a massive coronary and Hart also suffering a heart attack, Lerner took over as director. The advance word wasn’t good, and the show finally opened in New York to a fairly tepid reception among critics and the public. The cast album had been rushed to record stores before the New York opening, in hopes of increasing demand for tickets (famously having musical numbers recorded out of their final order). Just as things were looking dim, Lerner and Loewe were offered a tribute on Ed Sullivan’s televised variety show, so they chose twenty minutes of songs from “Camelot”, which enraptured the public at last. In its fourth month, the show increased sales, ultimately lasting two years on Broadway.

The show survived, despite the qualms Loewe expressed about the subject of cuckoldry (which proved prescient) and the troublesome denouement (the “Guinevere” song), which described all the action taking place off-stage, a curious choice. The second act continued to strike audiences as by far the weaker act, until history intervened. After President Kennedy was killed, his widow Jacqueline revealed that he had frequently listened to the cast album; she likened his loss to the feelings Arthur expressed at the dissolution of his round table and the ideal of Camelot. Suddenly the ending of the show had unexpected resonance for the audiences of the day. It was partly with this in mind that New Rep made the noble choice to mount this show on the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s death. Those of a certain vintage will always make the internal connection, but it isn‘t necessary to feel the myth and its message.

What is necessary is a trio of singing actors that can truly deliver on its magically wondrous score. This production surely does that, under the direction of Russell Garrett. King Arthur (Benjamin Evett) needs to be a bit out of touch with the times (an idealist in a bellicose era), and gentle as well (“the way to handle a woman is to love her, simply love her, merely love her, love her, love her”). Evett delivers as usual, and with a hitherto unknown fine singing voice. His Guinevere (Erica Spyres) must be full of youthful spirits (“shan’t I be young before I’m old?… shall kith not kill their kin for me?”) and eventual remorse (“I have so much forgetting to do before I try to gaze again at you”, and “now there’s twice as much grief, twice the strain for us, twice the despair, twice the pain for us, as we had known before”). Spyres too delivers, particularly poignant in a difficult role; she and Evett are charming together in their duet, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”. The knight in shining armor, Lancelot (Marc Koeck), requires a handsome actor with a large baritone voice, so winning that he can get away with lyrics such as “had I been made the partner of Eve, I’d be in Eden still”, (with such self-flaunted traits as virtue, nobility, iron will, godliness, purity, boldness, self-restraint, but seemingly not modesty) and finally steadfast (“no, not in springtime, summer, winter or fall, no never could I leave you at all”). Koeck, a senior at Boston Conservatory, overcame all doubts (despite a distinct lack of shining armor in a very unflattering costume). A very buff Sir Dinadin (Michael J. Borges) and Tom of Warwick (a promising young Dashiell Evett) were both truly outstanding in a huge cast.

The artistic decision to recreate literally the Dark Ages resulted in a production that jettisoned color and pageantry for the presumably more historically accurate drabness of the period. Logistics and financial restraints these days dictate a smaller than ideal orchestra, resulting in a tiny (and often tinny) sound, surprising given musical director David McGrory’s memorable work in the past (as with New Rep‘s “Marry Me a Little” last season).

The essence of the Arthurian myth is idealism. When a small boy (the younger Evett) appears in the final scene wishing to become a knight of the Round Table, Arthur realizes this means his vision lives and he hasn’t failed; “men die, but an idea doesn’t”. And thus naturally come the last words of the show: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”.


Trinity Rep's "Vanya" et al: Duranged Drollery

There are no shared memories anymore. Such is the thinking of the character Vanya in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, his comedic take on the characters and values of Chekov. The play opened first off-Broadway in 2012, transferring in 2013 to Broadway where it deservedly won the Tony as Best Play (with an undeservedly brief run of just over 200 performances), now being given its New England premiere by Trinity Repertory Company in Providence. As directed by Curt Columbus, the company’s Artistic Director, it’s a non-stop cornucopia of laughs with a knowing nod to what civilization has lost. While Durang places the action in a farm house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he takes aim at many of the current conventions that afflict all of us, especially anyone connected with the theater and what passes for pop culture. Though the setting and mood is Chekovian (he even states in his stage directions “there used to be a shed for peacocks, but the peacocks are long gone”), his wit and wisdom are aimed straight at the jugular of the modern lack of communication and connection. The barbs come fast and furious, most of them amazingly close to the truth.

At the center of the work is Vanya (Brian McEleney) who laments that it is his fate to “worry about the future, (and) miss the past”. He and his adopted sister Sonia (Janice Duclos), have given fifteen years to caring for their elderly parents, now deceased, and are consequently numb. They have also kept the farm going, with long distance financing from their sister Masha (Phyllis Kay), who has become a film star of sorts, and who describes live theater as having to act “loudly, so they can hear you” and declaims that “life happens” (to which Sonia retorts “not here it doesn’t”). Masha has descended upon her siblings with a hunky young stud, Spike (Mark Larson), who shares and even manages to exceed her narcissism and is an aspiring actor with well-developed abs and an undeveloped brain (missing Sonia’s meaning when she commiserates that he almost got a television role: “maybe you’ll come close to getting another part soon”). They’re visited by yet another aspiring young thespian, Nina (Sylvia Kates), and aided by an aptly-named cleaning lady Cassandra (Tangela Large). There is a seventh unseen character by the name of Hootie Pie, Masha’s personal assistant, described in one incantation by Cassandra as “the spawn of the devil”.

Since, as in Chekov, the main characters would probably end up doing nothing if left to their own devices, the members of the supporting cast prove to be important catalysts, with Large looming laughably, Kates providing an off-center daffiness, and Larson a clueless ditziness. They’re all wonderful. But, then, so are the leads. McEleney and Kay (who played brother and sister back in a 2006 Trinity Rep “Cherry Orchard”) are terrific foils for one another as they are for Duclos, who has a great deadpan delivery of many of Durang’s best lines (“I hope you’re not going to give Chekov references all day”, for one). The technical elements are all wonderful, from the clever Set Design by Michael McGarty (with its intentionally mismatched furniture), to the amusing Costume Design by Olivera Gajic (with a nod to Disney), to the well-coordinated Lighting Design by Josh Epstein and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz.

As it is for all of us, change is hard, and the family here has resisted it. As one character puts it near the beginning of the play, “if everyone was on antidepressants, Chekov would have nothing to write about”. The same could be said for Durang, of course, who has endowed his own characters with varying degrees of the morbid and melodramatic. And it’s about that lack of shared memories. Towards the end of the play, Vanya, who’s been fairly sedate up to this point, begins a very lengthy rant about his nostalgic loss, encompassing Senor Wences, Annette Funicello, Darlene Gillespie, and especially (and accurately) the fate of Disney protégé Tommy Kirk. Yet even his fond relish of popular culture such as“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (with its plots about such events as a pair of hardly adventurous missing socks, with the family seemingly, in retrospect, all medicated) is tinged with regret. Notably, he laments watching “news reports on what you already think” and that theater isn’t “part of the national consciousness anymore”.

Durang has a virtually infallible recall and uncanny ear for those shared memories that helped define us as a nation, for better or for worse. But at least there was definition. With this extraordinarily, outrageously funny play, here extraordinarily and outrageously well performed, one can appreciate more the joy, the humor, and humanity that is Chekov. Durang obviously loves what he is sending up, and even leaves us with an exhortation (from Nina, no less) to “always get your hopes up”, accompanied by the Beatles with “Here comes the sun”. Fittingly, though, his ultimate disgust is bestowed on Facebook, and, by extension, the basically antisocial world of social media. To which one can only add, this play earns the ultimate praise: LOL.


Huntington's "Cocktail Hour": Just a Smash

In 1988, playwright A. R. Gurney wrote what he describes as his “most autobiographical” work, “The Cocktail Hour”. Though the patrician class may have dwindled a bit since then, the work survives as a particularly potent skewering of the top one percent and their insular community. Some might too hastily conclude that this play is dated, but much more correctly, Huntington Theatre Company’s current production of the play, directed by Maria Aitken (fondly remembered for her staging of “39 Steps”) reminds us, via this comedy of (increasingly ill) manners, of how this subculture has become almost extinct. One could get the first clue as to Gurney’s intent from very detailed specifics describing the living room set he envisions in the written text of the play: “the overall effect should not be opulent or grandiose or particularly trendy, but rather tasteful, comfortable, and civilized, an oasis of traditional warmth and solid good taste, a haven in a heartless world”. He goes on to depict what will become the focus of the evening: “On the coffee table, noticeably set apart from…other objects, is a thick manuscript in a black cover” (though in this production the chosen color is red).

That manuscript forms the set-up for the play, a deceptively simple one. It’s the 1970’s, and time for the ritual happy hour at the home of the prototype WASPs, Bradley (Richard Poe) and Ann (Maureen Anderman), also attended by their son John (James Waterston), editor at a publishing company as well as part-time playwright, and their daughter Nina (Pamela J. Gray). Since their new maid is clueless about how to cook a roast, happy hour extends considerably longer than usual, making for some unusually loose lips. It seems John has written a comedy of manners about a WASP family that appears to mirror a certain real-life family all too close to home. Hence the manuscript perched ominously on the family coffee table. As the family begins to realize just what John has wrought, what becomes foremost at issue here is personal privacy and boundaries. It should be noted that this is a patriarchal family (the cast in the written text delineated as “Bradley, Ann his wife, John his son and Nina their daughter”) with all the time-worn expectations this implies. As an example, Bradley declaims: “You can’t live without servants…civilization depends on them” (begging the question of whose civilization). As to the cocktail hour itself, it‘s described as “family…family feelings…it replaced evening prayer…it kept all of life in an amazing state of suspended animation”. As the evening progresses, glasses are refilled, as Ann requests, with “just a splash; I’m serious”.

Just as Gurney promised his parents this play wouldn’t be produced in Buffalo in their lifetimes, this is the big issue in this play, as we begin to recognize this play within a play, reminded of visions of those Chinese boxes within boxes within boxes, or those Russian Matryoshka nestled dolls. His writing in the first act is funny and satirical; by the second act, it’s almost surreal as though we’ve just watched a play about the play John wrote, which is essentially the play Gurney wrote. There’s even Gurney’s self-described obligatory family skeleton to be revealed, as he (in Bradley’s fearful view) “spills the beans”. Thus the playwright weaves an increasingly clever web that, in the right hands, presents us with an almost clinically perfect dissection of a modern gathering of dinosaurs. Thanks to the superb acting by Waterston, Poe, Anderman and Gray, under Aitken’s meticulous direction (who, for example, has Poe and Anderman cross their legs simultaneously as per Gurney’s precise stage directions), things are decidedly in the right hands. The technical crew, as the family members themselves might put it, is also truly top drawer, from the Scenic Design by Allen Moyer (also faithful to the playwright’s instructions, and wittily so, with a totally furnished dining room including its own chandelier, stage right), to the Costume Design by Candice Donnelly, to the Lighting Design by Paul Palazzo and the Sound Design by John Gromada.

At the end of this sumptuous, pluperfect production, prepare to be both shaken and stirred. The cocktail hour as a ritual institution may be, as John puts it, “over, it’s dead, it’s gone” (as, indeed, is also true today of the nuclear family meal that Ann says “will make us all feel much better”), but it’s fully on view in this work. What does endure, happily for those of us who cherish it, is fine theater. In the case of this very funny production, to paraphrase Ann, what we have is just a smash, seriously.


Nora/Underground Railway's "Arabian Nights": Persian Daze

Quality family fare is rare enough these days to cause one to celebrate when a gem like “Arabian Nights” reappears. The third outing for their 2011 success, this playful paring of the talents and resources of Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater is cause for rejoicing. As directed once again by Daniel Gidron, with its gorgeous production team virtually intact, this is a visual wonder. The creative team of Scenic and Puppetry Designer David Fichter (with Puppet Master Will Cabell), Lighting Designer Karen Perlow, Composer and Sound Designer Kareem Roustom, and especially Costume Designer Leslie Held continues to amaze. At its core, however, is not the technical splendor on view but the marvelous storytelling at its heart.

The central Persian story of Shahrazad (Sophori Ngin), bride number 1001 of the ruler Shahrayar (Vincent Ernest Siders) is only one of the myriad of sources for this multi-layered work. Adapted in 1998 by Dominic Cooke for London’s Young Vic from “1001 Nights”, this witty retelling of several ancient tales will bring back childhood memories for audiences familiar with such films as 1944’s “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, 1958’s “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, and Disney’s popular 1992 animated feature, “Aladdin”, or the written works of authors from Voltaire (“Candide”) to Stephen King (“Misery”). The several folk tales (from India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and other countries) that form the balance of this production requires the cast of four women (including Zena Chatila, Lindsey McWhorter and Jackie Davis) and five men (also featuring Yavni Bar-Yam, Alexander Cook, Elbert Joseph, and Andrew Tung) to fill some six or seven dozen roles, which they all do with fine timing and craft. Along the way they portray kings, slaves, hangmen, viziers, dervishes, cannibals, ghouls and grave robbers, in scenes featuring childbirth, dismemberings, throat slittings and stabbings.

Yes, you read that correctly. Though this is intended as a family show, there are a few elements that may be inappropriate for the youngest members of a typical family these days, depending on their level of sophistication. Then again, they won’t see anything here that isn’t a staple of television nightly news these days. The length of the show (over two and a half hours including intermission) might be sufficiently attention-span-challenging to postpone taking toddlers for another holiday season or more. There should be ample opportunity for them to grow into this show, as it should be around for many seasons to come, if there’s any justice in the theatrical world. Older children will delight in the scenes of belching and breaking wind. Theatergoers of all ages should be dazed (as in bedazzled) by the production’s light and color, its imaginative puppetry and pageantry, and the sheer exuberance shared by the entire cast.

The success of “Arabian Nights” is partly of course due to the inspired adaptation by Cooke. The first act could use some trimming, especially since the universally familiar Ali Baba story (think “Open, Sesame!”) takes up a good half hour or so to relate. Then again, it’s in this opening tale that Gidron’s direction is at its most creative and funniest, and his touch is the other major reason for the success of the work. (And, beyond the work of these two magicians, there are probably about 999 other reasons to see this show, such as this huge magic carpet….). As the narrator Shahrazad exhorts at the end of the stories: “Listen!”


Simple Machine's "Turn of the Screw": Not a Turn for the Worst

Readers unfamiliar with specific plot points in the original story should be aware that some plot details are discussed in the second paragraph; this critic may be mistaken in assuming that most readers have previous exposure to the story in one or more of its previous versions.

With the growing popularity of what has become an annual Halloween season rather than just All Hallows Eve, it was a wise decision by the co-founders of Simple Machine Theatre to present “The Turn of the Screw”, widely viewed as the ultimate ghost story. Only the second production in the company’s history, the play is an approximately 80 minute adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of Henry James’ 1898 novella, one of many versions over the years. The story has been televised (in 1959 with Ingrid Bergman), filmed (in 1961 as “The Innocents” with Deborah Kerr, and numerous subsequent films), composed as an opera by no less than Benjamin Britten, and done even as a ballet. In this version, the co-founders of the company are themselves playing all of the parts. Anna Waldron appears as the unnamed Governess and Stephen Libby portrays The Man as well as the other parts, including a ten-year-old boy, and the maid Mrs. Grose. In the appropriately Victorian setting of the Gibson House Museum in Boston (and the Taylor House Bed and Breakfast in Jamaica Plain), it’s a wonderfully eerie experience. Seldom is theater so close up and chillingly personal. M. Bevin O’Gara (responsible for the incomparable direction of SpeakEasy Stage’s “Clybourne Park” last season as well as their production of “Tribes” this season) tackles this famous ghost tale with her typical ingenuity. The ambiguity of the original source material is preserved; the genius of James (whose own sexual issues have been debated over the years) lies in the fact that he never appears to take a definitive stand on any of the differing conclusions drawn by his readers, and this production honors that.

The title “The Turn of the Screw” is a metaphor for the governess’ fate, since a screw’s purpose is to tighten, but if done too tightly, will break what it is intended to hold in place. It tells the story of what happened (or may not have happened) to a young governess assigned by an absentee uncle to care for his recently orphaned niece Flora (in this version, unlike past ones, refusing to speak), in his country home, Bly. Soon after her arrival, the nephew Miles is sent home from his school for unnamed but seemingly sinister actions. There follow some ghostly visions, as well as strange occurrences, in which the children somehow may be complicit, or which may be the result of the governess’ own fear and imagination. She sees (or perhaps doesn’t) a strange man in a nearby tower, later identified by Mrs. Grose as the former valet Peter Quint, now dead; another ghostly figure seen by her (or maybe not) is identified by Mrs. Grose as the previous governess, Miss Jessel. They are described as having been involved in an intimate affair, perhaps somehow even involving the children themselves. The ending, already known to most who are familiar with one or more prior versions, turns the screw so tightly as to leave Miles falling into the governess’ arms, dead of causes not explained but which would be consistent with either interpretation. Either there is evil afoot on the part of the mysterious children and their relationship to the spirits, or there is madness on the part of the governess.

Simple Machine’s co-founders have made another wise decision in their casting of themselves in the various roles. Waldron and Libby (married in real life) are both terrific. Waldron’s Governess evolves from wide-eyed wonderment and anticipation to apprehension and to ultimate hysteria, logically and irrevocably bringing about her own destiny. Libby’s various turns are each individually brilliant, including his prepubescent (if Miles was ever that) waddle down the staircase. Both evidence the care given their character development by dialogue consultant Liz Hayes, and are aided by the perfectly chosen costume design by Emily Woods Hogue as well as by the intentionally creepy lighting design by Ian W. King.

Whatever the nature of the cause of all this, be it evil or insanity, is left up to the audience, just as it was to James’ readers. Scholars of literature, film, opera, ballet and now theater will forever take sides on what in this tale is real or surreal. The only definite is that, in this staging, it is engrossing theater for the discriminating theatergoer. Just don’t neglect to take ghostbusterly precautions, lest you find yourself the victim of one screwed turn too many.


SpeakEasy's "Make Up Your Mind": Some Assembly Required

When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, he left behind eleven versions of a proposed play, “Make Up Your Mind” as he couldn’t decide (insert ironic comments here) which one of them he preferred. Playwright Nicky Silver, when asked to come up with a producible version, went right to the source and “assembled” material from Vonnegut’s work. Thus all the words in this work are Vonnegut’s, including some speeches given by actor Richard Snee, portraying Vonnegut, from his 1981 collection “Palm Sunday”. A fast-paced ninety minute comedy set in 1986 in New York, it concerns a former telephone company employee named Roland Stackhouse (Barlow Adamson) who has developed an unusual technique to cure people of indecisiveness, in the role of a “decisiologist”. In its “final” form, SpeakEasy Stage Company is currently presenting the work as a world premiere, something the company states is part of an increased involvement in the discovery and nurturing of new works, a truly noble idea that should prove exciting in future seasons. As described by Paul Daigneault, Producing Artistic Director of the company, this play is a human tale of fathers and sons and others looking, rather misguidedly, for human connection. It’s directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, who had previously directed Vonnegut’s play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” and loved its absurdist quality.

This play takes place in 1986 in Stackhouse’s office and a bench in Central Park, over the course of some ninety intermissionless minutes. The four member cast also includes a billionaire’s wife, Karen Finch (Tracy Goss), a verbose compulsive smoker, Fletcher (also played by Snee), and Roland’s very disapproving father, George (Ross Bickell). Roland’s unseen associate Raymond beats the hell out of clients who regress “because violence is the only thing that works”. Baker has been quoted about the work: “Is this a farce? Is this a piece of absurdist theater? Is this a drama?…all of it”. What it’s not is a coherent play. There is almost complete lack of structure, thus jokes fail with no set-up or payoff, leading some of the actors to shameless mugging. The result is a string of mostly unrelated one-liners delivered out of any context by mostly unrelated characters. What little context there is survives from Vonnegut’s fiction, his profound anger and pessimism, his love of irony, the darker the better; what also survives, however, is what some criticized as incoherence and empty aphorisms.

Irony of ironies, the hit of this production is not written but visual, namely the Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, a witty and clever homage to Vonnegut, who was a well-known graphic artist whose felt-tip illustrations appeared in his written works. (As the old saying goes, though, about a stunningly lovely restaurant with average food, you can’t eat the décor). Even the set changes are accomplished by stagehands dressed in white to match the set. The other technical elements are what one expects of this company, all top notch, from Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, to Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Projection Design by Seaghan McKay, and Sound Design by David Remedios (though it includes an overly long and painfully loud pre-show mix of music).

Vonnegut’s literary works are classics of American counterculture, but what works on the page doesn’t always work on the stage. Whether you should you see this play may depend on how much of a Vonnegut-phile you are. You decide. And so it goes.


Zeitgeist's "The Normal Heart": Kramer vs. Kramer

In 1985, as part of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, Larry Kramer, the controversial activist, wrote his equally controversial play, “The Normal Heart”, about the growing realization of what would eventually be recognized as the AIDS epidemic. The title is derived from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”: “What mad Nijinsky wrote about Diaghilev is true of the normal heart: for the error bred in the bone of each woman and each man craves what it cannot have, not universal love but to be loved alone…no one exists alone; hunger allows no choice to the citizens or the police; we must love one another or die”. Kramer’s work exemplifies this inherent contradiction, especially when it comes to his dueling personas of heartfelt empathizer and angry polemicist. For the theatergoer, fortunately, he has imbued his characters with sufficient depth so that, in the right hands, this normal heart rings true. As directed by David J. Miller (doing double duty as Scenic Designer), the current Zeitgeist Stage Company production reminds us, as the 2011 Tony-winning Best Revival did in New York, not only how potent the humanity of the play is, but also just how meaningful its political message remains today.

Kramer’s lengthy work requires a great deal of its actors, and this cast is more than equal to the task, starting with the difficult role of Ned Weeks (Victor Shopov), an obvious stand-in for the author himself. Shopov, with more than a passing resemblance to actor George Clooney, neatly balances his deeply felt passion for the suffering of the gay community he loves with his incessant outrage at the inaction of government officials on every level. His frustration is shared by another pioneer, Dr. Emma Brookner (wonderfully embodied by Maureen Adduci), who is one of the first few medical experts to identify and begin to attempt to bring the reality to the forefront of the self-absorbed medical community. The rest of this dream cast, providing the finest ensemble acting of the season, includes Joey C. Pelletier as Weeks’ lover Felix, Mario DaRosa, Jr., as the closeted Bruce, Peter Brown as Ned’s brother Ben, Mikey Diloreto as the hyper Mickey, David Lutheran as the uptight Hiram and other characters, Kyle Cherry in several roles, and Mike Meadors as Tommy. Each one manages to capture every nuance Kramer has written into his characters.

The highly professional level of acting is matched by the technical contributions of Sound Designer J. Jumbelic, Projection Designer Michael Flowers and Costume Designer Meredith Magoun. Even the many set changes are handled efficiently, seemingly effortlessly choreographed. Miller has obviously spent many hours putting his actors through their paces, coordinating the extraordinary demands of Kramer’s play’s acting requirements and technical elements into a seamlessly successful theatrical experience.

“The Normal Heart” may have been written a quarter of a century ago, but its power and its message remain all too contemporary, and this unforgettable production proves once again how powerful Kramer’s personal vision can be. Perhaps the saddest commentary would be that it’s a play that has not lost its relevance. The ignorance and denial then prevalent endure on too many levels today; the deafening silence still equals death.