2014 South Shore Critic (a.k.a. "Crabby") Awards

Note: these represent the most memorable (rather than "best", although "outstanding" is close to the mark) achievements of the local 2013-2014 season


Play: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Arts Emerson)

Musical: “Jungle Book” (Huntington)

Director (Play): Tom Morris, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Arts Emerson)

Director (Musical): Mary Zimmerman, “Jungle Book” (Huntington)

Ensemble Acting (Play): “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Arts Emerson)

Ensemble Acting (Musical): “Into the Woods” (Lyric Stage)

Lead Actress (Play): Olivia D’Ambrosio & Deb Martin, “Gidion’s Knot” (Bridge Rep)

Lead Actor (Play): Jeremiah Kissel, “Imagining Madoff” (New Rep)

Lead Actress (Musical): Aimee Doherty, “Into the Woods” (Lyric Stage)

Lead Actor (Musical): Kevin Carolan,“Jungle Book” (Huntington)

Solo Performance: James Fluhr, “Our Lady” (New Rep)

Supporting Actress (Play): Tangela Large, “Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike” (Trinity Rep)

Supporting Actor (Play): Ed Peed, “The Importance of Being Earnest"  (Moonbox)

Supporting Actress (Musical): Melissa Carter, “Merrily We Roll Along” (Boston University)

Supporting Actor (Musical): Noah Parets, “Oliver!” (Trinity Rep)

Musical Direction: “Jungle Book”, Doug Peck (Huntington)

Choreography: “Oklahoma!”, Michelle Chassé (Boston Conservatory)

Scenic Design: “The Tempest”, Daniel Conway (ART)

Costume Design: “Jungle Book”, Mara Blumenfeld (Huntington)

Lighting Design: “Our Lady”, Dan Alaimo (New Rep)

Sound Design: “Jungle Book”, Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli & Andre J. Pluess (Huntington)

Projection Design: “Our Lady”, Matthew Haber (New Rep)


Odyssey's "Zanetto" & "Susanna's Secret": Double Will

Eve Gigliotti & Eleni Calenos in "Zanetto"

Inna Dukach in "Susanna's Secret"
(photos: Kathy Wittman)

Odyssey Opera has done it again, assembling a troupe of singers and orchestra members for another evening of memorable musicianship in the space of twenty-four hours. Conductor Gil Rose, the company’s Artistic and General Director, chose to produce three fully staged operas for their June Opera Festival; on the first night, it was Verdi’s “Un giorno di regno” (“King for a Day”), and, for the finale, a double bill of one-act works. “Zanetto”, the first production of the evening, was composed by Mascagni (better known of course for his “Cavalleria Rusticana“). The second was “Il segreto di Susanna”, or “Susanna’s Secret”, created by Wolf-Ferrari. Rose previously stated that the name “Odyssey” was chosen for the company to portray a musical journey to a place most opera goers haven’t ever been before. This was true of the Verdi work, as well as both of these shorter works, which happen to have a couple of elements in common. Both halves of this twosome are conducted by Rose, are directed by Daniel Gidron, and sung in Italian with English supertitles. More significantly perhaps, both are about will power, or the lack thereof.

The first one-acter was described by its composer as a “scena lyrica” (literally, a lyric scene). Premiered in 1886 in Pesaro, it was well received until two weeks later when it failed at La Scala, perhaps due to the size of the theatre. It is based on the play “Le passant” (“The Passer-by”) by François Coppée, with a libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. The simple story concerns a wandering minstrel and poet, Zanetto, a “pants” role for a mezzo-soprano, here sung by Eve Gigliotti (in her Boston debut), and the aging and rich courtesan Silvia, a soprano role, sung by Eleni Calenos. It takes place during the Renaissance near Florence, where Sylvia has resigned herself to her destiny of living alone. As she laments, “to live without a lover is not to live”. The minstrel arrives, playing on his mandolin (the sound quite beautifully simulated by harpist Amanda Romano). After he falls asleep on the ground she recognizes him as her ideal mate, awakens him, and is seen by him to be his ideal. She summons the will to resist his advances. He tells her he has heard of a certain Silvia, and she tells him to search for her in the direction of the dawning sun. Watching him until he’s out of sight, she exclaims that she can now weep again. Cursed with a rather dedicated melancholia, hers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both singers performed the music extraordinarily well, even though as directed by Gidron there was little chemistry between them. It’s a dramatically static piece, so this may be the fault of its librettists.

The second one-acter about that mysterious secret, takes place in the Piedmont region of Italy in the early twentieth century. With a libretto by Enrico Golisciani, it’s the slight story of Countess Susanna, sung by soprano Inna Dukach (in her Boston debut) and Count Gil, sung by bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter. Gil suspects his wife of having a secret lover when he smells smoke in their home (where, as far as he knows, no one smokes). He eventually notices the smell comes from her clothes. He leaves, then soon returns, hoping to catch a suspected lover. After he leaves again, she lights up a cigarette, her little secret with her mute servant Santé (Steven Goldstein). Gil again returns and, in looking for the source of the smoke, burns himself on her cigarette. Forgiving each other, they swear their love forever, as they smoke together. It’s obviously an inconsequential plot, but the music is bright and effervescent (one felt a longing not for a smoke but for some Pops punch). There is some hearty humor in the husband’s mistaking his wife’s statements (about her undisclosed habit) for a romantic affair. She asks “what if it’s stronger than my will?”. The intended humor in Susanna’s aria in praise of smoking with its “cerulean swirls” is probably best appreciated by those who are now or have ever been smokers, rather than an ode to a nasty habit. The piece is a bit too broadly directed, given its inherent silliness. There’s also the husband’s illogical resolution to take up smoking with her since he detests the smell. Still, Dukach and Irmiter are a treat to listen to, and Goldstein is hilarious in his miming and mining a lot of variety as the faithful servant. The last gasp is appropriate: “true love smolders without end.”

With both productions, the technical crew doubles as well. The Scenic Design is by Stephen Dobay, which works fine in the first work, but is a jarring mix of abstraction and realism in the second. (Though it must be said that a poster on the wall for Massenet’s “Le Cendrillon” makes a very clever statement, as does the almost-smashing of a Beethoven bust). The Costume Design is by Amanda Mujica, suitably pastoral in the first opera, more modern (and very appealing) in the second. The fine Lighting Design is by Christopher Ostrom. Most importantly, Rose and his orchestra were again at the top of their game in both the serious composition and the lighter romp.

The Opera Festival by Odyssey Opera has been a memorable success for the company. One can truly look forward now to their next work on September 13, a concert performance of the Boston premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 masterpiece “Die tote Stadt” (“Dead City”), at Jordan Hall, with Jay Hunter Morris and Meagan Miller both making their Boston debuts. The company continues on its odyssey toward potential greatness.


Odyssey's "Un giorno di regno": Not a Soap Opera

James Maddalena, Michael Chioldi & David Kravitz
 in "Un giorno di regno"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Verdi‘s “Un giorno di regno”, or as usually translated, “King for a Day”, sounds like a quiz show but in plot more resembles a soap opera; its music, however, makes this work much more than that. It’s clear, from the first moments of the overture, so reminiscent of Rossini (especially his own overture to “William Tell”) and Donizetti, that this is definitely not your nonna’s Verdi. In their publicity for the production, Odyssey Opera refers somewhat tongue-in-cheekly to its being “Verdi‘s first comedic opera”; it would be over fifty years before his only other comic opera, “Falstaff”. What makes this even more pertinent is what the composer’s life was like at this point, after his having lost, in three successive years, his infant daughter, his infant son, and his wife. The management at La Scala wanted an opera buffa, however, so Verdi chose this libretto by Felice Romani and proceeded to compose his first attempt at melodramma giocoso (“jocular drama”). Infrequently seen since, “Un giorno di regno” (also known as “Il finto Stanislao”) it was a failure at La Scala and immediately pulled from the schedule. Criticized at the time for being derivative of Rossini and Donizetti, (although today recognized as a link between early and mid-nineteenth-century operas), it subsequently rarely saw the light of day. Its U.S. premiere didn’t take place until 1960, later given a very impressive recording on Philips (1974) conducted by Lamberto Gardelli and featuring the dream cast of Cossotto, Norman, Carreras and Wixell (its “first time in stereo and first time complete”).

Odyssey Opera, founded by Conductor Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director (formerly Opera Boston’s Artistic Director) has chosen to produce this as the first in its Opera Festival of three fully staged operas. Rose has stated that the name “Odyssey” was chosen for the opera company to portray a musical journey to a place most opera goers haven’t ever been before. This opera, however, was performed in our area about thirty-five years ago by Boston Lyric Opera, in its own infancy, at Brookline High School’s Roberts Auditorium with Robert Honeysucker, Susan Larson, Valerie Walters and J. Scott Brumit. Now, at the Boston University Theatre, Odyssey Opera’s goal is met in a surprisingly (for Verdi) jovial production.

The opera’s central story is a relatively simple one of intentional disguises and mistaken identities, just the sort of work that Gilbert and Sullivan operettas would later satirize. Here, during the latter part of the overture, the cast ingeniously mimes their roles, already clarifying who and what they are. The setting is the castle of Baron Kelbar (James Maddalena) near Brest, France, where a double wedding is anticipated. Kelbar’s daughter Giulietta (Jessica Medoff) is betrothed to State Treasurer La Rocca (David Kravitz); Kelbar’s niece, the Marchesa del Poggio (Amy Shoremount-Obra) is to wed Count Ivrea (Christian Figueroa). One problem is, each lady is in love with someone other than her respective fiance; Giulietta loves La Rocca’s nephew Eduardo (Yeghishe Manucharyan), while the Marchesa is enamored of Belfiore (Michael Chioldi), a Chevalier disguised as the deposed King Stanislaw of Poland (who commanded Belfiore to impersonate him while the true king himself returned to Warsaw). Things get a bit more complicated before they finally are resolved, by a letter delivered by the servant Delmonte (Daniel Kamalic): Belfiore is allowed to “abdicate” from his regal disguise, and a double wedding (with two different couples!) is again scheduled to occur. Rose’s conducting (of a forty-four piece orchestra) is marvelously crisp, and the result from all is fine playing and singing, including the impressive chorus of sixteen, (not to mention four baritone soloists among the principal singers). They’re all completely involved throughout the performance, reflecting Director Joshua Major’s experience with stage movement.

Philip Gossett, general editor of “The Works of Giuseppe Verdi”, wrote that the opera “employs too many repetitions”, “simply goes on too long” with “pieces…too similar in construction”; these observations are remedied by “selected cuts” as it is in this current production directed by Major, who chairs the opera studies department at New England Conservatory. With this cornucopia of whimsical directorial touches (without ever overdoing the schtick), he has made this literally delightful, that is, full of delights, even to the clever curtain calls. The cast is fully up to producing the many comic moments as well as the challenging music. Chioldi and Shoremount-Obra, both in their Boston debuts, are wonderful together. Maddalena, more familiar to audiences locally, calls on a lifetime of experience to great effect. Medoff, also in her Boston debut, is lovely to hear, as are Manucharyan and Kravitz, the latter an especially fine actor with superb timing. The simple Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, the Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, and the Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom, are all effective parts of the overall witty approach. On every level, this is an unforgettably winning production.

Gossett wrote that this is “a work of great charm and importance and deserves to find a treasured part in today’s opera repertoire”, and this is certainly true of this current version. After the triumph of “Rienzi” last September, and this production of an often overlooked opera, one can truly look forward to Odyssey Opera’s remaining double bill of Mascagni’s “Zanetto” and Wolf-Ferrari‘s “Il segreto di Susanna”. All three operas are performed in the original Italian, with English super titles (the better to be clued in to the comedy in this first one). It’s a totally unexpected lighter-than-air Verdian romp. (And when did you ever expect to hear that line?). As the libretto puts it at the end: “a sparmiare sospiri e pianto forse il gioco riusci”, or, “so perhaps the joke has spared us many sighs and tears”. All hail this king, for more than just a day.


Bridge Rep's "Gidion's Knot": Unravelled & Unrivalled


Bridge Rep's "Gidion's Knot"

In the film “Little Big Man”, Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb (no relation to this reviewer) bids goodbye to his adopted father Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) who heads to the top of a mountain to die; when he returns alive the next morning, he explains “sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t”. The same can be said for theatrical magic, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. In the case of Bridge Rep’s current production, “Gidion’s Knot”, by Johnna Adams, the combination of play, director and actors makes for true dramatic magic. It’s a terrific choice with which to end their first full season. Its world premiere was produced at the 2010 Contemporary American Theatre Festival at Shepherd University in West Virginia, with subsequent productions all over the country including off-Broadway. The title references the term Gordian Knot, an ancient metaphor for an apparently unsolvable, intricate and complex problem, which in fact can often be disentangled by thinking outside the box. It’s a term utilized as long ago as in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Turn him to any cause of policy, the Gordian Knot of it he will unloose.” Adams’ concise play consists of a single seventy-five minute intermission-less scene (in real time) depicting that relatively modern invention of the parent/teacher conference. We first find fifth grade teacher Heather Clark (Olivia D’Ambrosio) as she sets up her classroom for this event, apparently nervous and upset. The mother of Gidion, one of her students, Corryn Fell (Deb Martin) arrives; Heather states she had not been expecting her.

Two facts about this play are abundantly clear: reviewing it without unintentionally revealing a few spoilers is difficult, to say the least, and its power depends largely on the balance struck between the histrionic talents of its two female antagonists. The first fact necessitates as little plot discussion as one can muster, and so be it. The latter requires that both actors, individually and as a team, be on an equal playing field, as it were. Fortunately, Martin and D’Ambrosio (the company’s Producing Artistic Director) are perfectly matched. As sensitively directed by Karen MacDonald, they make this confrontation seem all too real. In these times of heightened awareness of the prevalence of school bullying, this work is a particularly relevant one. While the first half hour or so may be a bit slow in revealing pertinent plot points, it lays down some clues to the conflict at hand, and gradually becomes an intense, tautly presented portrayal of two differing sides of a basic argument of ideas within the current educational system. On the one hand you have an evasive neophyte teacher, while on the other hand you have a tightly wound graduate professor of literature. The two of them are in a cultural mash-up over aggression vs. defensiveness, the right to express oneself freely vs. communal paranoia that stifles individual imagination, and grief vs. culpability. One aspect that does become clear is that positions of parents always change when their own children are involved. The interaction of a mother in grief and a teacher overwhelmed with emotion is captivating. At one point the mother declares “I’m exactly where I should be”, denigrating the teacher’s “all two years” of experience, and claims that while men face midlife crises by getting hair transplants or trophy wives, women “just make bad choices”.

The play is like an onion, revealing more with each cutting remark. By the time it reaches its logical conclusion, it’s taken the audience on an unforgettable ride. The plot requires a bit of suspension of disbelief; it’s hard to accept that even a relatively new teacher would reveal so much personal information (occupational background, marital status, whether she herself had children, even what pet she owns) in such an unprofessional manner. Chalk it up perhaps to the emotional state she is in, and why. It’s a minor flaw in the course of this amazingly fine new work. The technical elements, from the Scenic Design by Esme Allen to the Lighting Design by Katy Atwell, Sound Design by David Remedios and Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, are also well done.

It’s a timely piece, and well-timed as well. Adams has pulled off a two-hander that would be hard to match. As one watches the knot unravel, it would be hard to imagine not being profoundly saddened by this extraordinary play. It’s a high point of this, or any, season.


Huntington's "Smart People": Four Play

Roderick Hill & McKinley Belcher III
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

As its final production of the season, Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of “Smart People”, a very funny treatment of some very serious stuff. It’s a mind-bending work by Huntington Playwriting Fellow Lydia R. Diamond, whose “Stick Fly” was well received in 2010. Diamond was inspired by the recently published research by social psychologists Banaji and Greenwald (“Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People”), part of Harvard’s Project Implicit, about “implicit biases”. They found that even well-intentioned people, regardless of what they profess as their beliefs or positive intentions, have great difficulty when asked to associate images of black people with positive words, or those of Asian-Americans with patriotic words. This led to the development of the Stereotype Content Model, which holds that people categorize others, particularly based on race, gender, and age, and that we only get to know people in categories beyond our own core group when we find ourselves obligated to work in a more diverse group or play on a team.

In “Smart People“, four educated Cambridge residents are brought together through work and sport, managing to keep tripping over their assumptions and biases about each other. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election, it portrays Brian (Roderick Hill), a white, male neuro-psychiatrist who does research on race by observing neurological responses the brain has to various images, and how this is affected by race, with its effects on and implications for him, his Asian-American lover Ginny (Eunice Wong) and two African-Americans, Jackson (McKinley Belcher III) and Valerie (Miranda Craigwell). Brian presents some statistical data, asking: “Someone tell me not what it is, but what it implies”. For him, seeing is believing, and he feels that if he can show people who believe they don’t discriminate that they actually do so, he can make change for the better. Ginny, a tenured psychology teacher, states that “findings still debunk Western assumptions naming primary causes for anxiety and depression in Asian Women as familiarly induced…yes, I‘m happy to take questions about our population selection criteria.” For Ginny, it is better to accept people’s biases as fact and develop coping strategies. Jackson, a surgical intern, becomes defensive on rounds: “You asked that I explain my diagnostic reasoning; I’m trying to but…I am listening; I was listening.” Valerie, an actress, finds herself holding back: “That needs more attack, doesn’t it?”

This synopsis may sound overly pedantic, but Diamond knows how to balance the sober with the humorous, mining new insights through her comic dialogue and serious debate. If it all seems a bit too esoteric, fear not. Diamond has a knack for bringing us back to Planet Earth, and all of this intriguing byplay takes place under the very insightful direction of Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois. Added to this is the fact that Hill, Wong, Belcher and Craigwell are all superb. Hill is convincing in his drive to unearth our true feelings, and his own, as he masterfully portrays when his own façade starts to crumble. Wong manages to convey all the baggage her in-group accumulates, realizing her double minority status, in the eyes of the larger society, as a woman and an Asian-American, strong yet vulnerable. Belcher perfectly balances his character’s altruism with barely repressed anger at the skewed treatment he receives as a result of his color. Craigwell, painfully aware of the pervasive perception of the black woman as victim, is the most flamboyant of the foursome, which suits her role as an aspiring actress who’s often the smartest person in an audition room. As a group, they manage to provide many permutations and combinations on Diamond’s basic theme of “hard-wired” biases.

The structure of the play, consisting of many black-outs, (or more precisely, “slide-outs” using moving panels and projections) requires timing both on the part of the actors and the technical crew. The Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge, coordinated with the Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne, is crucial to the play’s flow. The rest of the technical achievements, from the Lighting Design by Paul Gallo, to the Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, and the Sound Design by M.L. Dogg, are also essential to the fluidity of a work that shuttles between 2008 to 2007 to 2009. It’s a brilliant marriage of writing, performance and precision that makes for extremely satisfying theater and thought-provoking ideas. Rarely do intelligence and humor so impressively coexist on the same stage.

As it now stands, this is a clever work, full of wit and wisdom, but it needs some trimming, after being exposed to live reactions from (and interaction with) audiences. In its present form it’s a very promising treatment of the fundamental foibles we all share. It’s enlightening to discover, by taking the lid off one’s id, that smart people aren’t as self-aware, nor as open or accepting, as they may think, but are in reality basically flawed. As author Robert Zend has said, “people have one thing in common; they are all different”. But, in the immortal words of the sociology of Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”


Broadway on Screen's "Driving Miss Daisy": A Long Road Trip

Screenings start Weds. June 4
at Legacy Place, Patriot Place, Chestnut Hill, Kendall Square & Others
(use search engine for "Broadway on Screen")

Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy"
Coming soon to movie theaters (see above) near you: Broadway!

“Broadway on Screen”, by arrangement with “Broadway Near You”, the very promising new series of theatrical events captured in live performances, is easily the most exciting news in decades for theater buffs. Its first production is the 2013 Australian version of the beloved play “Driving Miss Daisy” by Alfred Uhry. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama when it was first produced off-Broadway in 1987, the work went on to win the Oscar for Best Film just two years later when it was adapted by Uhry himself (who won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process). Uhry went on to win two Tonys, for his other two Southern works, completing his “Atlanta Trilogy”, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and the book of the musical “Parade”. He is the only playwright who has been honored with an Oscar, a Tony (twice) and the Pulitzer Prize, but he remains best known for his creation of “Driving Miss Daisy”. It was revived in New York in 2010, then toured throughout Australia in this successful, well-received production.

The story concerns an elderly white Jewish Southern lady, Daisy Werthan (here played by Angela Lansbury), and her relationship with her African-American chauffeur, Hoke Coburn (James Earl Jones), over the period of racial unrest from 1948 to 1973, in Atlanta. Their twenty-five-year bond which developed into an unanticipated deep friendship is one of the theater’s most affectionately remembered tales. Daisy’s son Booley (Boyd Gaines) first arranged for Hoke to drive his mother (most often to the local Piggly Wiggly market), which she initially refused, but came to appreciate when it became clear that they shared much in common, especially their fate as outsiders (as a Jew and a black man) in a predominantly WASP society. In a series of brief evolving scenes, over ninety minutes that seem to fly by, the two marginalized figures mirror the stress and strife of their times. Most theatergoers grew to love this odd couple in their reactions to their changing times, growing pride, and, fundamentally, the empowering friendship that transformed them both. All of this happens at a quiet pace against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, with subtle but strong allusions to segregated toilets, temple burnings, the Klu Klux Klan, and protest marches. As Hoke remarks, “Things changin’, but they ain’t change all dat much”.

The story is familiar to many, but if you think you’ve seen the definitive “Driving Miss Daisy”, think again. Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones are, individually and together, forces of nature to be reckoned with; one would probably enjoy an evening of their reading from a telephone book, never mind an award-winning play. Lansbury, nominated for no fewer than seven Tony awards (and winning five of them, for “Mame”, “Dear World”, “Gypsy”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Blithe Spirit”) is still a wonder. Jones is also an award-winning actor, with four Tony nominations including one for this performance in “Driving Miss Daisy” (winning two of them, for “The Great White Hope” and “Fences”). Gaines, too, is no stranger to awards, having been nominated for five Tonys in his career, in every one of the four acting categories (and winning same for “Gypsy”, “Contact”, “She Loves Me” and “Heidi Chronicles”). Thus it should come as no surprise that this trio of actors comprise what can only be called a dream cast; they may boast of eleven Tonys among them.

Jones is so believable as the gentle but proud Hoke that one quickly becomes unaware that there is anyone else up there but this aging servant, modest but grounded. Gaines is the perfect model of a well-meaning Southern gentleman whose main concern is the welfare of his mother and only regret when given an award is that his father and grandfather weren’t there to share in it. Lansbury, who admits to turning eighty-nine this fall, is astonishing; the beatific smile she gives Jones as the final scene ends is alone worth the price of admission. The chemistry among all three is extraordinarily moving. Director David Esbjornson has modulated the performances so well that the two and a half decades go by seamlessly, aided by the creative team (identical to the 2010 Broadway revival) from the Projection Design by Wendall K. Harrington, to the Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty, the Costume Design by Jane Greenwood, the Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski, and the Sound Design by Christopher Cronin. Only the Music by Mark Bennett sometimes intrudes, as it runs the gamut from an aria from Mozart‘s “Magic Flute” to Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. The production, captured live at a performance at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, is theatre at its finest, lovingly preserved, providing the best seats in the house.

Next up in the “Broadway On Screen” series, later this month at a theater near you, is the irrepressible Nathan Lane in his own Tony-nominated turn, in and as “The Nance”. Rumor hath it that “Twelfth Night” may be on the future schedule as well. Stay tuned.


Trinity Rep's "Lie of the Mind": A Whopper with Many Fans

Britt Faulkner & Charlie Thurston in "A Lie of the Mind"
(photo: Mark Turek)

It‘s fitting that “A Lie of the Mind” by actor/playwright Sam Shepard ends the current season of productions by Trinity Rep, which began the season with “The Grapes of Wrath”; both in very different ways were about finding threads of hope in the face of threatening despair. Shepard’s play, first performed in 1985, is a tale of two families, both of which give a new dimension to the term “dysfunctional”. Much more realistic than his earlier plays, this is, on the surface at least, an exploration of the American family, initially centered on spousal abuse; beneath this, however, are other disturbing themes. Ostensibly about one married couple, it’s really more about their respective families and their connectedness (or lack thereof). It’s also about denial, sometimes to one another, sometimes to oneself. The former often takes place when a person withholds information that might be deemed potentially harmful (in the traditional concept of a “mental reservation”), whereas the latter more often could be seen not so much as deceitful as it is delusional. These are not so much mistruths as much as they are coping mechanisms and survival techniques. In any case, the members of these two families are, put mildly and literally, quite extraordinary. Depending on one’s tolerance for unsavory characters, this can either affect a theatregoer as powerful or zany, or perhaps both. Few will be lukewarm about this piece of work.

It’s peopled by characters each of whom is also individually a piece of work, and collectively one weird family tree. Jake (Benjamin Grills) and Beth (Britt Faulkner) are estranged, following his brutal physical abuse, based on his confusion between her acting in a theater group and reality. He contends that actors “try to believe so hard they’re the person they…think they become the person”; thus he thinks she herself, in portraying a slut, was unfaithful in real life. Beth, severely brain-damaged from Jake’s beating, is being cared for by her parents, Baylor (Timothy Crowe) and Meg (Anne Scurria). When Jake’s brother Frankie (Charlie Thurston) goes to Beth’s home to see if she’s dead or alive, she transfers her love for Jake to Frankie, who’s been accidentally shot in the leg by Baylor. This budding romance is discouraged by Beth’s brother Mike (Billy Finn) who wants her to have no part of Jake or his family. Jake, in turn, is being cared for by his possessive mother, Lorraine (Janice Duclos) and his sister Sally (Rebecca Gibel). All of them are engaged in various lies of their minds. Beth fabricates fictions that help her survive, while Lorraine feigns indifference, Baylor hides behind the image of a frontier hunter, Jake conveniently represses memories of his father’s death, and so forth. Reality for these folks is an amalgam of separate, even contradictory perceptions. There are some wild repercussions from all these entanglements, and a rather open-ended finale, which is appropriate considering how all of these folks are, figuratively at least, drifters.

Trinity’s troupe of resident company members and Brown University students are clearly up to the task of taking on this bizarre cast of characters. They’ve never been better. Each gets the equivalent of an aria in which she or he has an opportunity to shine, and shine they do. Faulkner and Grills, at the center of the melee, are believably tortured souls, and Duclos, Crowe and Scurria are suitably wacky progenitors of the respective broods (with Scurria, in particular, hilariously out of it). Finn, directed repeatedly to walk into a door (not in Shepard’s stage directions), manages to overcome that strange choice of buffoonery and create yet another creepy family member. Sally, at first on the periphery of their warped world, comes into her own in a devastatingly potent explosion near the end of the lengthy evening. Individually and as a company, the dynamic they create is never boring, even in this play which could have profited immensely from some judicious editing. There simply isn’t enough of a dramatic arc, or change in characters, to support three hours of angst.

As directed by Brian Mertes, this production is strong on character, but overstuffed at times with stage business. On the technical side, the decision was made to discard Shepard’s more realistic set description and go for the surreal. The Set Design by Eugene Lee consists of some curious elements, among them a wall of fifty-two box fans. The Lighting Design by Dan Scully and Sound Design by Broken Chord are perfectly coordinated and, along with the Costume Design by Cait O’Connor, are crucial to the work at hand. Would that the same could be said for the music written and performed by Phillip Roebuck, (with members of the cast as well), which while respecting the playwright’s wishes that “music with an American backside” be an ingredient, is at times too intrusive and in one scene stops the momentum cold, adding unnecessary length to an already overlong production.

In this sometimes overwrought world of people imprisoned by both individual pasts and familial pressures, the question remains as to how well-told this “Lie of the Mind” actually is. Beth awkwardly states that “one’s thoughts cannot be fully communicated to another…You don’t know this thought, How? How can you know this thought? In me”. Isolation can be frightening, but then so can communal living on this level. If Shepard is your cup of tea, this is an absurdist feast.