11/07/2018

"Everybody's Talking about Jamie": Not a Drag

The Cast of "Everybody's Talking about Jamie"
 
Once upon a time there was a 16-year-old boy who had a secret he wanted to tell”, who “approached a documentary filmmaker, as you do, and asked if they would help them tell it.” With that terse statement begins the new (2017) British musical Everybody's Talking about Jamie, inspired by a 2011 BBC Firecracker Documentary, “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16”. It has just arrived on these shores at local theaters in an HD broadcast, with two more showings scheduled, so don't miss this incredibly brilliant piece of theater. It starts a bit confusingly with a scene full of strong accents (hard to follow), but never fear, it's bound to win you over, as a brief synopsis should reveal.


John McCrea & Lucie Shorthouse in "Everybody's Talking about Jamie"
 

Year Eleven (equivalent to our tenth grade) Careers teacher Miss Hedge (Michele Visage) asks students what they want to become. Jamie New (John McCrea) gets teased about his homosexuality, telling the audience he wants to be a drag queen performer (“But You Don't Even Know It”). Meanwhile his mother Margaret (Rebecca McKinnis) and family friend Ray (Shobna Gulati) make plans for his sixteenth birthday. Mother gives Jamie a card ostensibly from his absent father (Ken Christiansen), and a pair of red high heels from her, which Jamie is reluctant to wear (“The Wall in My Head”). He shows them to his friend Pritti Pasha (Lucie Shorthouse), and both of them are taunted by bully Dean Paxton (Luke Baker), she for being a Muslim and Jamie for being gay (“Spotlight”/”Star of the Show”). Jamie meets Hugo (Lee Ross) the owner of a local drag costume store, Victor's Secret, who was once a drag queen himself (“Legend of Loco Chanelle”), and shows Jamie a beautiful dress (“The Blood Red Dress”). Meanwhile Margaret meets secretly with Jamie's father who wants nothing to do with him (“If I Met Myself Again”). Jamie finds the blood red dress with a note (again ostensibly from his father) and thus is emboldened to perform in a drag show, while Miss Hedge calls his attire “A Work of Art”. He begins to lose his nerve, but three helpful drag performers, Lieka Virgin (Alex Anstey), Tray Sophisticay (James Gillian) and Sandra Bullock (Daniel Jacob) push him on stage (“Over the Top”).The next day at school, the show's title proves true (“Everybody's Talking about Jamie”) but Miss Hedge tells him to “get real” and refuses to let him wear a dress to the prom (“Limited Edition Prom Night Special”), and Pritti tells him “It Means Beautiful”, though Jamie sings of being “Ugly in the Ugly World”. His Mother expresses her feelings in an exquisite solo (“He's My Boy”) Eventually, everybody comes around, in ways not to be revealed here (“Out of the Darkness/A Place Where We Belong”). It's a joyful ending, maybe a bit too universally accepting for reality, but it sure makes for a reassuring view of our world. McCrea is stunning, McKinnis breaks one's heart, Gulati is a gem and Shorthouse is mesmerizing. The quality of the cast is nearly unmatchable.


John McCrea in "Everybody's Talking About Jamie"
 
Others in the cast include Fatima (Courtney Bowen), Sayid (Jordan Cunningham), Levi (Daniel Davids), Mickey (Ryan Hughes), Bex (Harriet Payne), Cy (Jordan Laviniere), Becca (Lauran Rae) and Vicki (Kirstie Skivington). The terrific Music is by Dan Gillespie Sells and the engaging Book and literate Lyrics are by Tom MacRae. It was excellently Directed by Jonathan Butterell, with superb Set and Costume Design by Anna Fleischle, truly rousing Choreography by Kate Prince, Music Direction by Theo Jamieson, Lighting Design by Lucy Carter, Sound Design by Paul Groothuis, and Video Design by Luke Hall.



The Cast of "Everybody's Talking about Jamie"
 

Nominated for five Olivier Awards, Jamie won none (this being the year of Hamilton in Britain), but it's already been extended on the West End stage and rumored possibly to be made into a film. As a documentary, stage production and live broadcast, this show has on several levels proven to be a winner. And when did you last see a show whose second act was even better than the first. We'll surely be talking about Jamie for some time to come.


For movie theatre information and ticket purchase, visit JamieinCinemas.com. or the box office at Regal Cinemas in Kingston, MA or at a theatre near you.  The encore dates at Kingston are Sunday Nov.11 at 12:55pm and Wednesday Nov.14 at 7pm.

11/02/2018

National Theatre Live & Bridge Theatre's "Allelujah!": Amen!

The Cast of "Allelujah!"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)

A new play by British playwright Alan Bennett (of History Boys fame) is cause for celebration (and cerebration), especially when it's on the extraordinary level of his latest, Allelujah! by name, produced at Bridge Theatre, now being presented by National Theatre Live (this past week at Cape Cinema in Dennis, and next Monday November 5 at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline). On its surface it's a very funny and uplifting treatment of a dozen patients in a geriatric ward (in Bethlehem Hospital, no less) where there too often seems to be no room at the inn, since its “patients” have become “residents” in a rather open-ended prolonged purgatory. Underlying all the humor, as is often the case with the works of Bennett, there is a much darker side that puts the spotlight on the political pawns that these poor people devolve into when authorities fixate on numerics, prizing not recovery but discharge. At the heart of this mind-blowing play is the insidious and callous calculation of “heads in beds”.



The Cast of "Allelujah!"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)
 
 
Central to the community at “The Beth” is the twenty-five-year veteran nurse, Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), whose final solution to the problem is managing to achieve her ideal: an empty bed. That may also be said for the unctuous Hospital Chairman Salter (Peter Forbes), the newly migrated Dr. Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), and even the ambitious young administrative government inspector up-and-comer Colin (Samuel Barnett), son of one of the more outspoken elderly occupants, Joe (Jeff Rawle). As the play progresses, much is revealed about who these folks are (and were), and just how deceptively powerful and transformative “old age” can be when in the hands of a still-creative and cleverly inventive bunch like these seniors, especially the alert and oriented Mavis (Patricia England), Mary (Julia Foster) and Hazel (Sue Wallace). There are sad moments, such as the perennial waiting-for-Godot patience of former teacher Ambrose (Simon Williams) whose former student promises to appear at any moment (but never does), or the plaintive cry by Mrs. Maudsley (Jacqueline Clarke): “It was my house!”. There is talk about the tenacity not of “the jaws of death but the jaws of life” as some look forward to their own idea of peace, or closure.


The Cast of "Allelujah!"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)


If this sounds serious, it's because it is. But it's also relentlessly hilarious at heart (and there is much heart), not least because this incredibly orchestrated cast can effortlessly punch a line and join in a rapturous kick line that belies their years. Director Nicholas Hytner manages to hit all the right notes that Bennett provides, beginning and ending with sung “Allelujahs”, the former from an old hymn, the last from film (“Sing Hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgment day!”). Choreographer Arlene Phillips assembled a cast of primarily amateur dancers (though most are life-long acting professionals) who truly make the show sing. The other creative elements (Design by Bob Crowley, Music by George Fenton, Lighting by Natasha Chivers and Sound by Mike Walker), as well as the Direction for the Screen by Robin Lough, are all fabulously integrated.

Like the recent musical Fun Home (set in a funeral home), this production takes a situation steeped in gravitas to a plateau overflowing with soaring spirits. It's fundamentally impossible to describe (especially some sudden twists that would qualify as major spoilers) this curiously engaging amalgam; it's basically sui generis, wonderfully one of a kind, positively unique. It's arguably the best work in the career of its eighty-four-year-old playwright, and merits being given many an encore. Bennett has surely come a long way since his efforts (as writer and performer) in 1960's Beyond the Fringe. This work could easily deplete one's thesaurus of positive adjectives, so let's just call it positively brilliant, with a heartfelt, heart-rending and hearty “Amen!”.

 
Encore HD Broadcast will be presented at Coolidge Corner Theatre (Brookline) on Nov. 5th at 7pm.



10/28/2018

Met's "Girl of the Golden West": Minnie and the Miners

 
The Polka Saloon set for "The Girl of the Golden West"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

While it is indeed about Minnie and her miners, that's not the name of a punk rock group, but a reference to the characters inThe Girl of the Golden West or La Fanciulla del West , an opera that is far from one of Giacomo Puccini's best-known or frequently performed works. This may perhaps be due to its somewhat outrageous plot, written by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after a play by American David Belasco (who also wrote the play on which Madame Butterfly is based). The Metropolitan Opera actually commissioned the opera back in 1910 from Puccini himself, and the company has brought back its most recent production in a Live in HD broadcast, certain that its less familiar music will carry the day, despite the undeniable fact that any resemblance to the true American West of 1849-1850, golden or otherwise, is purely coincidental. The plot is also relatively unknown, so a synopsis, even of its simple yet surely outlandish story, is in order.


Millie's Cabin in "The Girl of the Golden West"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

At the Polka Saloon in the foothills of the Cloudy Mountains of California, miners including Sonora (baritone Michael Todd Simpson), bartender Nick (tenor Carlo Bosi) and the traveling minstrel Jake Wallace (bass Oren Gradus) all share a love for Minnie (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek), the bar's owner, as does Sheriff Jack Rance (baritone Zeljko Lucic), whom Minnie rejects. The Wells Fargo agent Ashby (bass Matthew Rose) arrives to tell them he is after a bandit. A Stranger (tenor Jonas Kaufmann) who calls himself Dick Johnson arrives, whom Minnie recognizes. The miners drag in an outlaw, Jose Castro (baritone Kidon Choi) who pretends he will lead them to the hideout of the gang led by the bandit Ramerrez; he whispers to Johnson (whose real identity is that of Ramerrez) that he let them capture him so that he could trick them. Left alone, Minnie and Johnson are attracted to one another, and she shyly invites him to her cabin. There they proclaim their mutual love, but he hides when they hear shots. Rance enters to tell Minnie he has uncovered Johnson's true identity. After Rance leaves, she confronts Johnson, who says he is giving up the life of a bandit since he met her, but she sends him away. Another shot is heard and Johnson, wounded, staggers in. She hides him in her attic as Rance enters to search for the fugitive. When blood drops down from the attic, Johnson's hiding place is revealed. Minnie challenges Rance to a poker game wherein if he wins, she is his, but if she wins, Johnson will go free. Minnie wins, by cheating, and nurses Johnson back to health. The miners enter, determined to hang him, but she pleads with them, reminding them how much they all owe to her. They release Johnson and the two leave to start a new life together.


Westbroek & Hoffman in "The Girl of the Golden West"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

While the score may not be as familiar to audiences as his other works, Puccini managed to provide some memorable melody, so much so that Andrew Lloyd Webber notoriously was sued by the Puccini estate (and settled out of court) for his use of a theme Puccini repeats half a dozen times and shows up in the music for Lloyd Webber's song “Music of the Night” from his musical The Phantom of the Opera. In this production, the three leads, Westbroek, Kaufmann and Lucic shone (even if Westbroek ultimately stole the show), and the supporting singers, including the male Met Opera Chorus, were all one could ask for. This performance was Conducted by Mario Armiliato. The Production was by Giancarlo del Monaco, with Set and Costume Design by Michael Scott, Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, and Stage Direction by Gregory Keller. The Chorus Master was the ubiquitous Donald Palumbo, and the Live in HD Director was Gary Halvorson. The Live in HD Host was Susanna Phillips.

And there's still gold in them thar hills, with an encore broadcast next Weds. Oct. 31st.


10/27/2018

Lyric Stage's "Roommate": Whines of a Certain Vintage

Adrianne Krstansky & Paula Plum in "The Roommate"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The Roommate, a two-hander by playwright Jen Silverman now being produced by Lyric Stage Company, portrays the complications of sharing one's space with another human being. It's the story of Sharon (Paula Plum), a middle-aged divorcee in (financial) need of a roommate to share her Iowa home. On her doorstep arrives a woman who might provide more than mere company, but also the potential fulfillment of more than this financial need, Robyn (Adrianne Krstansky), a leather-clad lesbian poet from the Bronx whose own needs prove to include a place to hide, as well as an opportunity to start over with her life. While sharing books and music, Sharon uncovers a few secrets held by Robyn as well as her own deep-seated desire to transform herself. These two mismatched (and more than a bit stereotypical) combatants have decidedly differing views on many aspects of their respective herstories. Where Robyn declares “all first poems are bad, but there's a great liberty in being bad”, Sharon opines that “everybody wants to start over, just burn it and start over”.

The women both tend to bitch and moan, sometimes about mutual complaints, sometimes not. Sharon, at first seemingly unimaginative, turns out to have submerged idiosyncrasies of her own that entice her with the concept of being Robyn's “accomplice” if Robyn shares much of her past with her. As opposed to many characterizations of women of a certain vintage and their whines that are typically presented on stages today, these feel like real people, truly complex women who aren't dependent on the presence of any male influence for their own validation. Though they are fundamentally mismatched initially, with Sharon living in stasis and Robyn ever transforming herself, they share a common escape mechanism of putting up barriers that each is reluctant to disassemble. As Silverman has described it, at the most basic level they share feelings of being alone, dissatisfied and even angry, as they face the question of whether a human can truly change and reinvent herself, and to what degree can she do so? What evolves is a subversive tragicomedy about what it means to attempt to rewrite your life and what happens if the effort goes awry. In a brief ninety minutes, Silverman, who has described her play as “naturalism on speed”, manages to convey a wealth of pithy observations, even though they may not be fully developed or realized.


Paula Plum & Adrianne Krstansky in "The Roommate"
(photo: Mark S. Howard) 

Thankfully, with players of a certain vintage and professionalism, talent and experience save the day (and the play). The perils of Paula Plum and Adrianne Krstansky are expertly shown and met with passion that is ultimately transformative, primarily for the better-written character of Sharon. There are funny lines well-delivered, especially by Paula, having found yet another plum role. They are ably directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, with appropriately fussy Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord and Costume Design by Tobi Renaldi, as well as Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs, and Sound Design and Original Music by Dewey Dellay.

There is a basic question underlying all of this: interestingly, the play is titled The Roommate rather than The Roommates. What are we to make of that? Perhaps the answer is in the fact that Sharon, though the homeowner, is the one more affected by her change in status from a solo to a duet, and the message from this profoundly cynical work is that the worst addiction is breaking bad. As Sharon puts it near the end of the play as she searches for a word to best describe herself, “it's a good word, but no longer right”. She ends up as the one who has been changed. It's about finding that “great liberty in being bad.”

This formidable twosome will be in combat through November 18th.


BSO's "Mahler 2nd": Resurrected with Eternal Light

Andris Nelsons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: BSO)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra season continued to provide some much-needed uplift from the current politically charged environment, with a performance of the Mahler 2nd Symphony (a.k.a. the “Resurrection” Symphony) this past Friday afternoon, with the added bonus being the rarely heard brief piece Lux aeterna (for unaccompanied chorus) by the Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.

Lux aeterna is a brief (approximately six minutes in length) adaptation of lines from the Catholic liturgy of the Requiem Mass, composed in 2012 for the Latvian Radio Choir. It was performed by the Boston Symphony Chorus under the direction of James Burton in recognition of the centennial celebration of Latvian Independence (with another Latvian work due to be performed by the BSO next month, Andris Dzenitis' orchestral piece co-commissioned by the BSO, Ma ra) . Per the instructions of the composer, giving a choice of using accompanying percussion, crotales (sometimes referred to as “ancient cymbals”) were used in this performance. With echoes of Gregorian Chant, this work, by a young daughter of a Latvian organ builder, was a moving opener for the program that was to highlight the beloved piece of Mahler.

The BSO performance of the Mahler was beautifully conducted by Latvian-born Andris Nelsons. He and his orchestra gave a fine rendition of the work. Its debut was in 1888 (when the composer was only 28 years old), as audiences were first introduced to its unusual structure of five movements (about which the composer himself said “can no more be explained than the world itself”). The first movement was a twenty minute long piece based on the Tottenfeier (Funeral Rites) with an unexpected combination of discordant stretches and quieter ones, finally quite loud as it portrayed a descent into the void, having included a reference to the familiar Dies irae. The second movement was a lighter and happier piece like a dance, for sixteen minutes. The third movement might then be expected to be peaceful but was anything but, preparing the audience for the fourth movement which featured soloist mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, and the fifth and final movement, featuring both Fink and soprano Ying Fang, as it portrays the longing to escape from pain and need, and from death to resurrection in paradise as the gates of heaven open wide, with accompanying bells and the organ with all its stops out, and the words “I shall die so as to live”. Mention should also be made of the superior performance by the chorus, whose first entrance especially was soto voce, amazingly so, and aptly dramatic.

For lovers of this Mahler work, and they are many (including this critic), this was a much anticipated and ultimately satisfying experience.


Encores of this program will be given on Saturday October 27th and Tuesday October 30th.



10/22/2018

SpeakEasy's "Fun Home": Home Run

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

What would happen if we spoke the truth?”

Caption: That is the existential question posed by Alison Bechdel in her graphic novel based on her true-life story of growing up in a funeral home, (hence the title Fun Home), upon which the musical of the same name was subsequently based. This brilliant adaptation, currently being performed by SpeakEasy Stage Company, is faithful to its sources. Its Broadway production in 2015 (after its off-Broadway successful run in 2013), with Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron and Music by Jeanine Tesori, was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical, Book, and Score. It holds the distinction of being the first musical in Broadway history to feature an out lesbian protagonist. The entire story is told in non-linear flashbacks by the adult 43-year-old character of Alison Bechdel (Amy Jo Jackson) via numerous songs, some of them quite brief and more like operatic recitative. Never fear, however, for this smart and insightful creation is very approachable, often true to the “fun” in its name, and irresistibly honest. As it was performed in its original productions in New York, this version is presented in the round (or more precisely, three-quarter-round), which is often a treacherous decision in the wrong hands that cannot prevent audience members missing action when faced with an actor's back.


Merissa Simeqi, Amy Jo Jackson & Ellie van Amerongen in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

Fortunately, we're on firm ground and in great hands in this production, as it's directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault, one of Boston's always-dependable creative minds. He meets the challenge of theater in the surround by and large without compromising any seat in the house, keeping his cast consistently alert and oriented. Alison is played by three actresses who present her story at three stages of her life: 19 year old Medium Alison (Ellie van Amerongen), 9 year old Small Alison (Marissa Simeqi), and the adult Alison who provides most of the narration. The rest of the family consists of her father Bruce (Todd Yard), her mother Helen (Laura Marie Duncan) and her brothers Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold). Also featured are Desire Graham as Joan and Tyler Simahk in several roles, as Roy, Pete, Mark, Bobby and Jeremy. In the space of just one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission, we learn an uncanny amount of insight into this intimate community. Much of the success of this work is due to the extraordinary journey taken over five years by Kron and Tesori as they honed the storytelling and developed the musical medium in which to tell it, as an impressionistic memoir by an artist who rebelled by becoming a lesbian cartoonist.


Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

The story begins with a scene of a father/daughter airplane game. In emotional rather than strict chronology, we come to learn that Bruce is obsessed with renovation of his material world while unable to reconstruct or escape his closeted self, yearning for the courage that his daughter exhibits in her independence in his song Pony Girl: “some folks get the call to go, some folks are bound to stay.”  Helen has spent their married life in virtual denial, as she cries out to her daughter in the song Days and Days: “I didn't raise you to give away your days like me” and “chaos never happens if it's never seen". Small Alison longs to express herself as she becomes aware of another female with a “Ring of Keys” that simultaneously promise and threaten to unlock her developing desires. Medium Alison begins to accept who and what she is as she sings that she is Changing (Her) Major to Joan. The time frame (the 70's and 80's) in part defines how each character comes out or remains closeted. This father and daughter epitomize two very different people, one a prisoner of his times and generation; the other enjoying her new found freedoms and visibility. There evolves yet another existential question: how many times can the members of one cast in one performance break your heart?



The Cast of "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)


And this well-knit cast does exactly that, time and again, with their bravery in sharing their perception and enlightened comprehension of what lies beneath the surface of cosmic issues in microcosm. The three Alisons and her parents, and their growth or stasis, are obviously crucial to realizing what's at the core of the story. None of them disappoints, and each gets a perfect aria to reveal what is at stake; Yard, Simeqi, van Amerongen, Jackson, and Duncan each give award-worthy turns, and Graham and Simahk (though discomfortingly looking too young for his various parts) give fine support. And attention must be paid to the exquisitely expressive work in the Music Direction of Matthew Stern, as well as the other creative elements, from the Set Design by Cristina Todesco, to the brief Choreography by Sarah Crane, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

Tesori spoke about these characters as real people who “could not find a way to sing, and children who were trying to sing the song of the parents who didn't have the form and structure to sing” but did have “the desire to acknowledge and accept one's truth.” And Kron described both Alison and her father as having “stood on the precipice of becoming the person they wanted to be...but in order to do that, you have to be willing to go through humiliation. If you're going to become a different person...you must become someone you cannot control, and that is humiliating...that's not bearable”. And there remains one last existential question: if one keeps noting that every SpeakEasy production is even more sublime theater than the last, will readers' eyes glaze over and eventually lose their trust, and thus if a review falls on deaf eyes, does it make a noise or any impact? Caption: it must be said that this is SpeakEasy and Daigneault at their best, making this the show you owe it to yourself to see, even as it breaks your heart too many times to count with its fierce and revelatory truth.
 

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

In the end, what does Fun Home have to say to us? Find out now, through November 24th . For, as Small Alison puts it best, remembering the airplane game, at the end of the show: “Caption: every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”


10/21/2018

Met Opera's "Samson & Delilah": Her Hirsute Suitor

The Bacchanale from "Samson & Delilah"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Samson and Delilah, composed by Camille Saint-Saens with a Libretto by his cousin-in-law Ferdinand Lemaire from the Old Testament Book of Judges , is now being given its first new Met production in twenty years, and is the latest Met Opera HD Broadcast. It was a mixed bag, as this opera often is, given the composer's terrific second act sandwiched between two relatively disappointing acts, especially in the case of this over-the-top physical production.


Elina Garanca & Roberto Alagna in "Samson & Delilah"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The story takes place in about 1150 BCE, in Gaza, capitol of ancient Philistea, where Samson (tenor Roberto Alagna) and his fellow Israelites decry their enslavement, accusing their God of breaking their Holy Covenant. While Samson urges them to bless God's name, Abimelech (baritone Elchin Azizov) mocks them for their belief in a God powerless against the Philistine deity, Dagon. Samson calls on his people to revolt before striking down Abimelech. The High Priest of Dagon (bass-baritone Laurent Naouri) arrives to curse Samson and his people. At dawn, Delilah (mezzo Elina Garanca) appears with Philistine maidens bearing flowers and she lures Samson with their lost love, to follow her home. As she awaits him, the High Priest promises money for his conquest, but she states she only wants revenge. When Samson arrives, she demands he give into her as well as reveal the source of his strength, which he does (something about a haircut). She calls for the guards and Samson cries out that he has been betrayed. Soon he finds himself in a dungeon attached to a mill wheel, praying that God will punish him alone. At dawn, the Philistines worship Dagon (in the infamous orgiastic Bacchanale ballet) as the High Priest mocks Samson, and Delilah reminds him of their night of passion (if not love). Praying to God to return his strength, the restored Samson brings the temple crashing down. Also in the featured cast are a First Philistine (tenor Tony Stevenson), a Second Philistine (bass-baritone Bradley Garvin), a Messenger (tenor Mark Schowalter) and an Old Hebrew (bass Dimitry Belosselskiy).


Elina Garanca in "Samson & Delilah"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

As noted, the first act is rather static, with little electricity between the two lead performers. It's a bit dated as well, as one character criticizes the Israelites as being as “weak as women”. After the languid first act, the second act produces more passion (only to be diluted by the writhing third act ballet). Fortunately, this production reunites Alagna and Garanca after their pairing in the Met production of Carmen. In this performance, they were terrific together in the second act, especially in the seduction aria Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix. Naouri was also excellent, in all three acts. The conducting by Sir Mark Elder was fine, leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, with Choreography by Austin McCormick. The Live in HD Director was Gary Halvorson and the Live in HD Host was Susan Graham. The new and arguably bizarre Production was by Darko Tresnjak, with Set Design by Alexander Dodge, Costume Design by Linda Cho and Lighting Design by Donald Holder.

As for all that speculation about the secret source of Samson's strength: Hair today.....
 

Encore HD broadcast presentation will be on Weds. Oct.24th at a theater near you.




10/20/2018

BSO's Harbison, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev: Triple Play

The BSO at Symphony Hall
(photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The first Friday afternoon performance of the current Boston Symphony Orchestra season, coincidentally also the winding-down of the baseball season, presented a true triple play. Conducted by Ken-David Masur, BSO Associate Conductor, featuring as piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson, the orchestra performed John Harbison's Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra), Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.1, and excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet music for Romeo and Juliet. The highlight of the program was indisputably the rarely-performed Rachmaninoff piece (due in large part to its demands on a pianist), which made for a strange juxtaposition of the piano concerto bookended by dance compositions, neither of which had as much impact as the central one. It might have been more effective to have placed the piano concerto at the end of the program and allowed the music to build rather than to be a bit of a letdown after the Rachmaninoff display of virtuosity on the part of Garrick Ohlsson, the piano soloist already well known to BSO audiences.

The curtain raiser, a piece by the American composer John Harbison, was quite appropriate in recognition of his eightieth birthday this year. Barely eight minutes in length, it was to be expanded upon by Harbison in later years into an opera. An MIT professor originally from Orange, New Jersey, he received a commission to develop the work into a full-length opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Reflecting the jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it was given a performance (also in its expanded form) by the BSO at Tanglewood in 2013. Though brief, this “foxtrot” with its jaunty pace and frequent sudden dissonance was a crowd-pleaser that left one wanting to hear more. It was an enjoyable homage to Harbison's long association with the BSO, part of several pieces by the composer to be offered this season.

Rachmaninoff's first concerto for piano and orchestra, the composer's first piece ever written, (thus also his Opus No.1) when he was eighteen, and performed in 1892 by the composer himself as the piano soloist, was not a success at first. It may have been too uninhibited for some with its vivacious style and grand climax. After some revisions which he undertook as a more mature composer, the piece eventually achieved more acceptance, but it would never approach the popularity of his later works. Ohlsson was certainly up to the challenge of the work, which in lesser hands can be deemed too tempting to over-dramatize and show off. His playing instead demonstrated his familiarity with the often-overlooked nuances and subtleties of the composer's output, having completed, with this piece, all of the Rachmaninoff piano concerti with the BSO. The sole issue with this pianist is that he manages to make it seem all too easy to meet and even exceed one's expectations.

After the intermission, the orchestra performed ten excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet, about the star-crossed teenage lovers, beginning with the second suite the composer wrote, about the Montague and Capulet clans. Composed in 1935, this is a lengthy piece when presented in its entirety, here excerpted into segments of the basic Shakespearean tragedy, though not in chronological or dramatic order, which made for some jarring placement. The awakening of the street and the young girl segments, were followed by the suites for masks and minuet, the famous central balcony scene, then the segment featuring Friar Lawrence, the death of Tybalt, and the final portrait of Romeo at Juliet's tomb, reminiscent of the final scene in Verdi's opera Aida. It made for a somewhat anticlimactic presentation, though the audience seemed appreciative, especially with the music familiar to Boston Pops audiences.
 
The orchestra was assured and confident under Masur's baton, and, as noted above, Ohlsson was extraordinarily fine. There may have been a moment or two of tonality issues in the brass section, but overall this was a home run for the orchestra.

Encore performance of the entire program to be performed on Sat. Oct.20th & Tues. Oct.23rd.


10/15/2018

BLO's "Barber of Seville": Splitting Heirs

Matthew Worth & the Cast of "the Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography) 

Boston Lyric Opera is initiating its current season with a production of the comic opera The Barber of Seville by Rossini (which it also presented a half dozen seasons ago). Having now seen several recent versions of this opera buffa, it's hard to discern which one deserves to inherit the crown of all-round best; perhaps rather than split heirs, one should enjoy each production on its own merits. One shouldn't compare one opera comedy's approach with another, so one will make no mention of the incomparable Barber (by Francesca Zambello) this past summer at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, which set a high bar for physical productions that will be difficult to match or exceed. The current BLO version offers fine singing, and would have been thoroughly enjoyable in concert form, whereas in its present form it is chock-a-block with visual distractions.


Daniela Mack in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

In this familiar work, with its lively music by Gioachino Rossini and hysterical libretto by Cesare Sterbini, the production was imagination on speed, a visually confusing romp with a plethora of repetitious comic touches, two stage turntables with towers, and a non-stop cornucopia of heavy-handed direction by Rosetta Cucchi. It's rare that a much beloved work receives such an approach that is neither unified nor original, and if one comic touch seemed to land well, it was too often visited a second or third time. This take continued with the choice of Costume Design by Gianluca Falaschi (many ideas more suitable for Alice in Wonderland), Lighting Design by D.M. Wood and Scenic Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, based on the art of M. C. Escher with its stairways going nowhere (an apt metaphor for the entire production). Fortunately, the old saying still correctly admonishes that you can't hum the scenery; it remained for the orchestra (under Conductor David Angus) and cast to solidify all the stage business with musical and vocal precision. For all its apparent simplicity and ease, this is a challenging piece to perform, and neither the musicians in the pit nor on the stage failed to deliver, especially Daniela Mack as Rosina.


Jesus Garcia & the Cast in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

The story is well-known enough to dispense with a synopsis, other than to note that it all revolves around the character of Rosina, the almost universal object of affection of virtually everyone on stage, who is the ward of Dr. Bartolo (Steven Condy). Count Almaviva (Jesus Garcia), aided by Figaro (Matthew Worth), is another suitor. The rest of the cast include Rosina's music teacher Don Basilio (David Crawford), the housekeeper Berta (Michelle Trainor), and the characters of Almaviva's servant Fiorello (Vincent Turregano) and an officer (Jesse Darden). Vocally, there wasn't a clinker in the bunch.


Michelle Trainor & the Cast in "The Barber of Seville"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

What it lacks is a clear concept amidst a lot of chaotic busyness, here until October 21st.


10/11/2018

Goodspeed's "Drowsy Chaperone": A Real Sleeper

John Scherer as Man in Chair in "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

When The Drowsy Chaperone hit Broadway in 2006, it was a real sleeper, as no one was prepared for how big a hit it would prove to be. Now being presented by Goodspeed Musicals, it's often referred to as “a musical within a comedy”, and that indeed it is. First performed in 1998 in Toronto, it evolved into a full-fledged Broadway musical comedy eight years later, running for almost 700 performances, with thirteen Tony nominations and five Tony Awards (including, notably, Best Book and Best Score) and seven Drama Desk Awards, as well as five Olivier Awards for its London production. Many (this critic included) felt it was the best musical of that season. A parody of the silly musicals of the twenties, with its ditzy chorine, comic gangsters, mistaken identities and even an aviatrix, it was immediately embraced by musical comedy buffs as the loving valentine to the form that it was intended to be. With the Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, it emerged as one of the most original creations in memory. It's the story of an agoraphobic man living alone with his theatrical memories and LP collection of Broadway musicals, especially the 1928 (fictional) musical favorite of his, The Drowsy Chaperone.



The Cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The protagonist, identified only as Man in Chair (John Scherer), suffering from some “non-specific sadness”, or what he calls feeling “blue”, finds comfort in playing his recording of the Drowsy score. He narrates the plot and presents the characters to the audience, introducing such stereotypical characters as Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall), who's hosting the wedding of Broadway diva Janet Van De Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg) and oil magnate Robert Martin (Clyde Alves), his best man George (Tim Falter), the titular Drowsy (as in “tipsy”) Chaperone (Jennifer Allen), Mrs. Tottendale's employee known only as Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones), Broadway producer Feldzieg (James Judy) and note the reversal of name from Ziegfeld, as well as aspiring chorine, Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt). Also featured are self-proclaimed Latin lover Aldolpho (John Rapson), the aforementioned aviatrix, aptly named Trix (Danielle Lee Greaves), a Superintendent (Evan Mayer) and two brothers who are Gangsters (Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh, brothers in real life), these last two disguised as pastry chefs (don't ask).



The Cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)


As helmed here by Director Hunter Foster (himself a Broadway star) and Choreographed by Chris Bailey, this production is, well, swell. The hilarity is on a high level, notably in the numbers “As We Stumble Along”, “Message from a Nightingale”, and “Love Is Always Lovely”. Then there's the ironic “Show Off” with Rothenberg dismissing countless song conventions while simultaneously executing them, a satirical hoot for musical comedy buffs. It's difficult to describe the rest of the show without too many spoilers, but suffice it to say the scenes when the record skips, as well as quite a few other tongue-in-cheek homages to clichés of old musicals, including spit-takes, make this one enormously funny show. The performances from all of the members of the cast are superb; the entire company shines. Special attention must be paid, however, to Scherer, as his Man in Chair is nothing short of perfection. Even though this critic has seen four previous productions of the show (including Broadway), this version makes even familiar lines fresh and Sherer's timing impeccable. The Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-seventh season with the company) as well as versatile Set Design by Howard Jones, excellent Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman, Sound Design by Jay Hilton and most especially the many fabulous costumes by Gregg Barnes (many from his own Tony- winning creations for the Broadway original) are all topnotch.



The Cast of "The Drowsy Chaperone"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

As Man in Chair says (when referring to a typical overture), this is like a pupu platter of tunes, and it does “what a musical is supposed to do, takes you to another world...for when you're feeling blue...as we stumble along life's crazy labyrinth”. For the perfect antidote to what ails us all these days, whether you've never seen Drowsy Chaperone before or if it's been a while since you last saw it, get thee to Goodspeed. It's being delightfully performed by a hugely talented cast, in what may well be Goodspeed's best ever, a description one tends to keep repeating with each new production. And your record collection may never seem the same again.



 

10/07/2018

Met Opera's "Aida": Dueling Divas

Anna Netrebko in "Aida"
(photo: Met Opera)

As its first HD Broadcast of the current season, the Metropolitan Opera chose a decidedly beloved war horse and not one but two divas in demand. The opera was Giuseppi Verdi's Aida with soprano Anna Netrebko in the title role and Anita Rachvelishvili as her nemesis. The production, equally popular, is a familiar one, as is the Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, a simple and, to most operagoers, also a well-known one.


The Cast of "Aida"
(photo: Met Opera)

The opera takes place in Egypt in the reign of the pharaohs. In Memphis, High Priest Ramfis (bass Dimitry Belosselskiy) tells the warrior Radamès (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) that Ethiopia will attack Egypt. Radamès, in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris (mezzo Rachvelishvili), the daughter of the Egyptian King (bass Ryan Speedo Green), dreams of freeing her (“Celeste Aida”), though the jealous Amneris also loves Radamès; he is to lead the army against the Ethiopians. Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her country, where her father, Amonasro (baritone Quinn Kelsey) is King. Ethiopia is defeated, and Amneris waits for the return of Radamès leading a triumphal procession with the captured Ethiopians (including Amonasro). The king declares that Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage. Aida agrees to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia and to tell Amonasro. Aida asks Radamès and Amonasro, overhearing, emerges from his hiding place. Realizing that Amonasro is his enemy, Radamès is horrified. Aida and her father escape. Radamès, first believing Aida to be dead, learns that she has survived, and rejects an offer by Amneris to save him if he renounces Aida. Denying the high priests' accusations of treason, he is condemned to be buried alive in a stone vault. Amneris begs in vain for mercy for him. Aida, emerges from hiding in the same vault, and they express their mutual love for the last time while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès.



The Cast of "Aida"
(photo: Met Opera)

In this performance, Conducted by Nicola Luisotti, the two principal female singers were outstanding, each worthy of the accolades they received, but the lead tenor was not up to the challenges of his role. But Netrebko and Rachvelishvili saved the day. Also prominently featured were the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (under Chorus Master Donald Palumbo), the Met Orchestra itself, and the company's Ballet, with Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky.. The thirty-year-old Production was by Sonja Frisell, with its awe-inspiring Set Design by Gianni Quaranta, Costume Design by Dada Saligeri, and Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler. The Live in HD Director was Gary Halvorson and the Live in HD Host was charming Isabel Leonard.

Overall, it was a wondrous beginning for the 2018-2019 season of Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts.

 

An encore presentation will be broadcast on Wednesday October 10th at a theater near you.


10/04/2018

Huntington's "Sherlock's Last Case": Fun Holmes?

Rufus Collins, Mark Zeisler & Malcolm Ingram in "Sherlock's Last Case"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
 
The year is 1897. It is September of that year, in Victorian England, and the iconic address is 221B Baker Street, home of its equally iconic inhabitant, a world-famous detective. “I am Sherlock Holmes. That is a name and reputation well known throughout these British Isles and, I daresay, beyond them”. With these words the play Sherlock's Last Case by Charles Marowitz is afoot. This 1987 Broadway comedy ran a mere 124 performances. Prior to this play's brief Broadway run, the celebrated sleuth was the subject of the more successful 1965 musical, Baker Street, with 311 performances, as well as such works as Crucifer of Blood, with 236 performances, not to mention the thirty year career portrayal by William Gillette (whose castle home in Hadlyme, CT may be visited to this day). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective was the subject of no fewer than fifty-six stories and novels which he wrote since first inventing him in 1887, and since then the further subject of literally hundreds of literary adaptations and visualized mysteries in virtually every medium. His role was in essence to “make sense of things”. He wearied of writing time and again about his brilliant creation and tried to kill him off in his 1893 The Adventure of the Final Problem, but his fans were so incensed that he was finally forced some ten years later to resurrect him in his 1903 The Adventure of the Empty House, wherein he revealed that the detective had in fact faked his own demise. Conan Doyle fans, be ye on alert, as the original quote has it: “the game is afoot!” (an exclamation actually originated in Shakespeare's Henry V). As is typical with productions by Huntington Theatre Company, all of the creative elements are in place, but for those seeking nutritious theater, the alimentary question is whether this iteration has found firm footing.


Antoinette Robinson & Rufus Collins in "Sherlock's Last Case"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into the confines of 221B Baker Street arrives a letter purporting to be written by Simeon, the son of none other than the arch enemy of Holmes (Rufus Collins), the evil nemesis, Doctor Moriarty:

        If you would know the hornet's sting
        Seek the insect in his nest
        But do not dare to cut his wing
        Or never shall your heart know rest


Rufus Collins in "Sherlock's Last Case"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Holmes' interpretation of the riddle is that it is a threat made against his life. Doctor Watson (Mark Zeisler) and Mrs. Hudson (Jane Ridley) are involved in the game, as are such expected supporting characters as Inspector Lestrade (Malcolm Ingram) and some not-so-expected, such as the mysterious Liza (Antoinette Robinson). And therein is just about all the information that might be shared while one keeps suspected spoilers at bay. There are, in fact, more red herrings in this work than in the ponds of Plymouth (that would be Great Herring Pond and Little Herring Pond), making for a true challenge for one's written assessment of the play. There are a half dozen major verbal and visual tricks in play, but it must be said that several of them are blatantly predictive rather than deductive, especially notable in the case of a direct steal from the 1970 play Sleuth, which is discernible from even the most cursory reading of the program's listed cast of characters.


Jane Ridley & Mark Zeisler in "Sherlock's Last Revenge"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Director Maria Aitken formerly directed Huntington's madcap Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, but this is a much more cerebral effort, too much so in fact. The first act includes a lengthy verbal bout of exposition that becomes redundant even with some estimable parody. One longed for a less obvious plot that might utilize more ingeniously the talents of Zeisler, Collins, Robinson, Ridley and Ingram. Their work here is ably supported and enhanced by the Costume Design by Fabio Toblini, Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg and Sound Design by Mike Pool.

It's a pity the source material is so infrequently successful and feels so dated. This cast and the creative team deserve a better vehicle. It says a lot when the standout of this production is the arresting Scenic Design by Hugh Landwehr; be it ever so humble, there's no place like Holmes'.


 

9/23/2018

Odyssey Opera's "Reine de Saba": Just Desserts?

Kara Shay Thomson as "Reine de Saba"
photo: Keira Cronin

Make mention of Reine de Saba to many people and they will no doubt have visions of sponge cake with chocolate and almonds (made famous by Julia Child) swirling in their heads. But it's also the name of a grand opera in five acts written in 1862 by Charles Gounod. In this, the the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, it was presented in concert form in Jordan Hall by Odyssey Opera, in its tradition of presenting works that are relatively unsung, esoteric and ambitious. This was no exception, as it in effect became not only the opera's U.S. premiere but also in a sense its world premiere of a sort, given the research and restoration this overlooked work required. For the first time, this reconstructed version, with three recovered excerpts, was available to be heard and enjoyed. With a libretto by Jules Bardier and Michel Carre, inspired by Gerard de Nerval's Voyage en Orient, the performance was part of a minor “GounOdyssey”, as Artistic and General Director Gil Rose notes in the program, since the company is also performing, on November 9 and 11 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, a fully staged version of the composer's Le Medecin malgre lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself). Given the rarity of Reine de Saba, a brief synopsis would be in order.


Dominick Chenes as Adoniram in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)

The architect and engineer Adoniram (Dominick Chenes) calls on his ancestors for assistance in creating his magnificent bronze bowl. Benoni (Michelle Trainor) announces the arrival of Balkis, Queen of Sheba (Kara Shay Thomson), who is betrothed to King Solomon (Kevin Thompson). Three of the architect's workers, Amrou (Matthew DiBattista), Phanor (David Kravitz) and Methousael (David Salsbery Fry) arrive to demand more money, but, being rejected, swear revenge. Subsequently Solomon and Balkis address their people, and he asks to meet the architect, though he's been described as an odd man with mysterious origins. Adoniram is stunned by Balkis' beauty, while she removes her necklace and puts it around his neck. The casting of the bronze bowl is stopped by Benoni, who warns it has been sabotaged by the three traitorous workers, and the furnace explodes. Balkis sings of the feelings aroused in her by Adoniram and of how she does not love Solomon, which leads to a duet between her and the architect. Benoni arrives to announce that spirits have restored the casting. Dancing girls announce the arrival of Solomon, and the three traitors reveal to him the meeting between his betrothed and the architect, yet he dismisses them and offers to share power with Adoniram, who declines and states he prefers to leave Jerusalem. Insulted, Solomon vows revenge and argues with Balkis about their wedding. Sarahil (Katherine Maysek) pours some potion into his cup and he falls asleep. Balkis removes Solomon's ring from his finger, fleeing to join Adoniram, but he has been set upon by the three traitors and lies dying. She gives him the ring and, with her slaves and courtiers, attends his death.


Kevin Thompson as King Solomon in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)

There were scenes (primarily those that supported the ballet segments) with lush resonance, but given Gounod's penchant for the bombastic, even those tended to build to a point where no barns were left unburned. One kept hearing undeniable references to his other works, notably Faust. At least there were no overt echoes of his more sentimental output, such as the inexplicably popular but mercilessly maudlin Ave Maria with its notoriously unabashed sentimentality. With the discovery of the previously lost segments and the restoration of the ballet accompaniments, it made for a very thorough presentation of the work, if a bit of a challenge, especially for the orchestra, at an uncompromisingly demanding three hours.

While the opera as a whole is relatively obscure, some of the music will be familiar to those who typically attend recitals of operatic arias. Most notable is the tenor aria Inspirez-moi race divine, which made demands on Chenes within nanoseconds of his appearance at the very beginning of the work, reminiscent of the challenge handed the tenor in Verdi's Celeste Aida. He handled the task quite readily, managing to be heard even in soto voce thanks in large part to the magnificent acoustics of the venue. Others include the impressive aria sung by Trainor about Balkis' beauty, comme la naissance aurore, the revenge aria by the three traitorous workers, Il nous repousse, and, near the end of the opera, Thomson's plaintive aria about her newfound love, plus grand dans son obscurite. Conductor Rose led the Odyssey Opera Orchestra with his usual keen ear for detail as well as nuance, and the Odyssey Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Dr. William Cutter once again added immeasurably to the force of the score. Sung in French with English supertitles, it was a revelation, though it must be noted that the placement of two relatively small screens weren't fully up to the task; on virtually every other measure, however, this eagerly awaited production didn't disappoint. The commanding voices of soprano Thomson, tenor Chenes and especially bass Thompson, as well as the animated delivery of local favorite Kravitz, made for some very memorable moments.
 
 
Kevin Thompson, Kara Shay Thomson & Dominick Chenes in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)
 
Overall, considering the infidelity and final fate of the star-crossed lovers, the evening was one of just desserts, and not merely of the culinary sort.



9/22/2018

ArtsEmerson's "Hamnet": A Typographical Era

Ollie West as "Hamnet"
(photo: Gianmarco Bresadola)

I'm not allowed to talk to strangers”, intones the titular hero before he starts an almost non-stop narrative of his brief and obscure life, one which must have been hard, you'd surmise, for a boy whose name was Hamnet, constantly having to live misperceived as a typo. This production by Ireland's Dead Centre Theatre, Co-Written by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd (as well as William Shakespeare), is Directed by Moukarzel and Kidd (without Shakespeare), and is its U.S. premiere (its world premiere was in 2017 in Berlin). It is the first ArtsEmerson offering of the season, on Paramount Theater's Robert J. Orchard Stage. At a mere sixty minutes, it covers quite a lot of presumption-shattering ground. It's the story of Will Shakespeare's and Anne Hathaway's only son Hamnet, played by Ollie West (nominated for Best Actor by the Irish Times Theatre Awards this year), who died at eleven years after his father fled to London. Presumed to have been named after the Stratford-on-Avon baker Hamnet Sadler (a witness to Will's will), just as his twin sibling Judith was named after the baker's wife Judith, Hamnet considers what it means and what it costs to be great, or at least to be related to greatness. “I'm not a great man yet; you have to be a great man to meet a great man” adds the quite remarkable young West. As the bard wrote in Hamlet, the purpose of drama is “to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature”. This production takes this literally at first, as the audience is faced upon entering with a televised onstage screen that will constantly change, and alter our perceptions of what is real and what is not, with brilliant uses of video not to be revealed here.


Ollie West as "Hamnet"
(photo: Gianmarco Bresadola)

Little is known of the real life of Hamnet other than that he died in 1596, and three years later the play “Hamlet” was written. Shakespeare never dramatized the loss directly, but probably alludes to it (in King John): “grief fills the room of my absent child”. This play addresses that loss with ample visual bits of comedy and numerous Shakespearean allusions and quotations. For a boy “one letter away from greatness”, what should perhaps remain unspoken portends the inwardness of Hamlet. As the authors note in the program, the boy remains trapped on the margins of great things, a celebrated father, literary fame, knowledge, life, and death. They further attest that Shakespeare had something of an obsession with parents compelled to tell their children how to live, and that “the dead haunt the living and the living haunt the dead”.

It's a cleverly profound piece that speaks of the father's writings to his only son, and conveys his theory that in his playwriting he was still writing to him. It manages to be timeless, as the presence of smart phones and allusion to the song “A Boy Named Sue” reveal. West is a wonder no matter his age; the part of Hamnet will be taken on by Aran Murphy in the last few performances here in Boston. The amazing Stage Design was by Andrew Clancy, with appropriate Costume Design by Grace O'Hara, dazzling Lighting Design by Stephen Dodd, eerily compelling Sound Design by Kevin Gleeson, and vitally important Video by Jose Miguel Jimenez. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet in the New York Review of Books: “who is more immortal, the one who lived mostly on stage, or the one who wrote the pages?”, and ultimately it tackles the question of being or not, and what makes a great man. Toward the end of the play, Hamnet proclaims: “in this harsh world, I did nothing”.

Yet, with his youthful directness, he answers the most disturbing existential question of all time: “I choose to be”.