New Rep's "Fully Committed": A Holiday Buffet, with No Reservations

“Fully Committed” by Becky Mode, New Rep’s latest offering, is a tour de farce for any actor/juggler with impeccable timing, impressive memory and impossible energy. Happily, Gabriel Kuttner, who plays Sam the reservation clerk at a four-star Manhattan restaurant, has mastered this role before, winning an IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) Best Solo Performance award in the process. Kuttner, familiar to New Rep audiences from past performances in “DollHouse” and “Speed the Plow” (for which he won another IRNE), hasn’t lost any of the stamina needed for this role (or, rather, roles, since he actually ends up playing three dozen or so of them). As acted by Kuttner and directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, Associate Artistic Director for New Rep (who also directed “DollHouse”), there’s something new on the uh, Verizon. It’s like another course in the holiday buffet (and definitely not leftovers), or finding yet another present under the tree you hadn’t noticed. And what an unexpected holiday gift this is. It’s a hilarious cure for the holidaze.

Sam, it turns out, is an aspiring actor who’s very good at his day job but is desperately trying to get home to his widowed father in South Bend, Indiana for the holidays, as he anxiously awaits a Lincoln Center call back for an acting role. Frustrating and delaying his travel plans and career hopes are the innumerable last-minute calls he gets from the likes of Naomi Campbell’s assistant, Sherry Lansing’s secretary at Paramount Pictures, East Side socialites, suspected members of the mafia, a Middle Eastern sheik, and a blacklisted chap by the name of Ned Finlay. All are blithely ignoring his insistence that the restaurant is “fully committed” for the evening/week/month/eternity. How he manages to keep all these juggled balls in the air is the source of all the fun in this work, as he turns the tables, literally, massages all those egos, accepts bribes and, as has been said elsewhere, “gives good table”. Depending on the skill, pacing, and, yes, the aforementioned mental skills of the sole actor in the play, this can be (and is, in this iteration) sheer theatrical joy mixed with utter amazement. Kuttner’s portrayal of so many different personalities, accents and attitudes is a wonder to behold, or be on hold for. This critic has seen the play in three separate versions, and this one is the most restrained, nuanced and enjoyable.

The play earned a spot on Time Magazine’s top ten list of the 2000 theater season, and justly so. It’s a fast-paced roller coaster ride requiring a great deal not only from the actor and director but from the technical crew as well. The Scenic and Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan and Sound Design by Bill Barclay are call-perfect, almost becoming Kuttner‘s co-stars. While this is hardly profound theater, (nor is it intended to be), it’s a terrific ride. However fully you’re committed this holiday season, you owe it to yourself to squeeze in another fabulously funny night at the theater. And whatever you do, don’t tell them Ned Finlay sent you.


Trinity Rep's "The How and the Why": Evolving the Q and the A

“The How and the Why”, by Sarah Treem, now being presented by Trinity Rep, is the story of an encounter between two female scientists, one an established respected professional, the other a graduate student on her way to her own potential renown. Both of them are evolutionary biologists and both are the creators of original, strongly feminist scientific ideas, the older having defended her “grandmother theory” for decades, the younger about to do the same with her “evolutionary menstruation theory”. How they meet, and why this is at the center of the story, is gradually revealed in the course of this brief but compelling play. The scientific theories, in fact, are secondary to the relationship between the two women, which is a good thing, since each of the theories wouldn’t hold up to close inspection or empirical research and observation, if one truly believes that human biology is an ongoing evolutionary reality. Fortunately for the play as well as for the playgoer, what interests Treem far more is the evolving questions and possible answers to how these women relate and why they were destined to encounter one another in their own microcosm.

As directed by Shana Gozansky and performed by Anne Scurria as Zelda, the acknowledged expert in evolutionary biology, and Barrie Kreinik as Rachel, the ambitious grad student, this becomes a very involving exploration of female evolution, family histories, and the roles of mentor and protégé. These two deliver their lines with very fine-tuned rhythm and well-timed pacing, making the characters truly believable representations of a world-weary mature realist who thinks she has seen it all, and the up-and-comer with an unmistakable chip on her inexperienced shoulder. They are complemented by dramatic Set Design by Tilly Grimes and Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, consisting of blacks and whites and fifty shades of grey. The Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz are effectively dramatic in their own right.

Several revelations in the course of the story are predictable and even telegraphed if one has been paying close attention to inflections, pauses, and unfinished thoughts. The play ultimately could be subject to the same criticism as the evolutionary theories espoused by the two scientists. Close scrutiny might expose some of the more questionable coincidences that wouldn’t provide ultimately satisfying answers to the more incredulous audience member. That said, the dialogue is sharp, clever and witty enough to make the work a fascinating exploration of several universal themes. In the hands of two highly competent performers and a wise and inventive director, the work evolves as a subtle celebration of the sublime contributions of the female of the species over the ages. They prove beyond reasonable doubt that thought provoking theater isn’t just evolutionary but revolutionary.


Huntington's "Our Town": You Can Go Home Again

If you have ever loved “Our Town” (and who hasn’t?), be prepared to fall in love all over again. Huntington Theater Company’s holiday gift is a stunning re-imagining of Thornton Wilder’s groundbreaking play. This January 25th will be the 75th anniversary of the out-of-town pre-Broadway tryout opening of “Our Town” at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, which went on to win Wilder his second of three Pulitzer Prizes, becoming a perennial classic and perhaps the most beloved American work for many a theatergoer, including this critic. Thus it was a courageous risk for Director David Cromer to revive it off-Broadway in 2009 with a startlingly different approach. That production not only ran for over six hundred performances (its longest run ever), it won an Obie for Best Direction by Cromer, as well as Lucille Lortel awards for Best Revival and Direction. It was generally regarded as a truly revolutionary re-thinking of an extraordinary play. In its original production, it was acclaimed for its return to the basics of drama, with virtually no scenery and few props to distract from the fundamental issues on view; Wilder felt that “the spectator restages it inside his own head”, and that he could more effectively present “the life of a village vs. the life of the stars”. By setting this iteration in about the smallest venue imaginable, with the audience on three sides of the playing space, with action that takes place all around them, the creators of this version have made the audience a real part of the story, with the emphasis on that word “imaginable”.

In this production, which preserves the three-act structure of the play as originally written, the cast consists of thirty-two actors, twenty-nine of whom are local performers. In the original, Wilder himself played the part of the narrator (Stage Manager) for a few weeks of its Broadway run; in this version, Cromer repeats that feat (until December 30th). Also repeating their contributions from the 2009 production are the technical crew of Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay, Costume Designer Alison Siple, and Lighting Designer Heather Gilbert. It remains the deceptively simple story of 1901 Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire (“just across the Massachusetts line”), and what happens between and among its residents, primarily next-door neighbors and sweethearts George Gibbs (Derrick Trumbly) and Emily Webb (Therese Plaehn), both totally natural and believable. Also featured in prominent roles are Mrs. Gibbs (Melinda Lopez) and Dr. Gibbs (Craig Mathers) and their other child Rebecca (Emily Skeggs), Mr. Webb (Christopher Tarjan) and Mrs. Webb (Stacy Fischer), and the Choirmaster Simon Stimson (Nael Nacer). There isn’t a clinker in the bunch. Other townfolk include Mrs. Soames (Marianna Bassham), Joe Stoddard (Dale Place), Professor Willard (Richard Arum), Sam Craig (Nicholas Carter), Constable Warren (Paul D. Farwell), Farmer McCarty (Douglas Griffin), Irma (Kathryn Lynch), Joe Crowell, Jr. (Jay Ben Markson), Howie Newsome (Alex Pollock), Wally Webb (Eliott Purcell), and Si Crowell (Ryan Wenke). It’s hard to picture a better cast or a more effective fresh approach to what might be considered an old chestnut; they prove you can indeed go home again, and rediscover what we all might’ve taken too much for granted. It’s a revelation.

Wilder stated that his play was “not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village, or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death”, but “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life”, having “set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place”. In the end, he believed that “each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner” and that “our claim, our hope, our despair, are in the mind…not in things, not in ‘scenery’.” Cromer respects this view, although he jolts us with a third-act surprise that’s unforgettable. While honoring the source material, he manages, in his complex performance and his pitch-perfect direction, to reveal not only the sentimental side of the work but also its darker one, its personal impact as well as its universality.

The struggle between the commonplace and the universal dimensions of human experience is perhaps best expressed in the mini-logue of George’s younger sister Rebecca at the end of the first act when she refers to a letter send to her friend from her pastor: “On the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America…Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God”….“and the postman brought it just the same”. Right on. Or, perhaps, Amen.


New Rep's "Holiday Memories": 'Tis a Gift To Be Simple

Every year at the holidays there’s that dreaded moment when arriveth those banes of human existence: the holiday fruitcake, the overtly and overly sentimental stories, and regional theater productions involving elves, animals and urchins (preferably orphans) that threaten to put a sprig of holly straight through a cynical theatergoer’s heart. Amazingly, although it includes all of the above, New Rep’s offering this year is a happy exception, that surprise under the Douglas fir that delights one mostly because it was so unexpected. Based on two much beloved and largely autobiographical Truman Capote short stories based on his own Alabama childhood, “The Thanksgiving Visitor” (1967) and “A Christmas Memory” (1956), and televised several decades ago with an incandescent performance by Geraldine Page, the basic story is hardly an unfamiliar one. The current version is called “Holiday Memories”, as adapted for the stage by Russell Vandenbroucke, and, yes, there is fruitcake (consider yourselves aptly warned) and sentiment (but not sentimentality), an orphan of sorts (more or less “posited”, as Capote wrote, with non-adoring relatives), and a dog. (More about that dog later). But it has much more than that; in what might very accurately be described as the true spirit of the holidays, it’s about life in the country in the Depression of the 1930’s, friendship, and the joy of giving; what keeps it from curdling is that it’s also about loneliness and loss.

The story is a simple one wherein two social outcasts, seven year old Buddy (played convincingly and uncloyingly by New Rep newcomer Michael John Ciszewski) and his older cousin and best friend Miss Sook (warmly enacted by frequent New Rep contributor Adrianne Krstansky) prepare a turkey-centric dinner for the immediate world, collect fallen pecans and buy whiskey for said fruitcake, and make one another their annual favorite Christmas gifts, kites. As directed by Michael Hammond in this production, also featuring a narrator named Truman (Marc Carver) and two actors playing multiple roles identified as Man (Jesse Hinson) and Woman (Elizabeth Anne Rimar), one couldn’t ask for a more effective and less pretentious cast, most certainly including the aforementioned canine Queenie (per the program, played by Queenie herself). Attention must be paid to such a dog; rarely is an animal actor so well-trained, so well-behaved, so unobtrusively present.

The technical crew deserves very special mention. The Scenic Design as imagined by Jon Savage, is what would be worthy of Louise Nevelson if she’d grown up in Alabama, not only amazingly functional but visually stunning (with what fittingly appears to be pecan wood in flooring, walls and furniture). The Costume Design by Molly Trainer (appropriately based on the Depression era world of the South), and the Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and Sound Design by Edward Young all coalesce into a smooth telling of Capote’s tale, managing to cover a number of brief episodic scenes fluidly, also utilizing evocative projections. One scene will indelibly remain in this theatergoer’s memory: the nightlong vigil spent by Queenie guarding the Christmas tree with her gift, a huge five cent bone wrapped in the comics, sitting near the very top of the tree. (Queenie later buries her present where, as the narrator notes, she too will be “buried one year hence”). This team doesn’t strike a single false note, or bark, in telling Capote’s story.

What sets Capote‘s storytelling apart is its poignancy, its universality, and above all, its simplicity. Its morals are also true, usually as expressed by the also simple (in several meanings of the term) Miss Sook, (shy except in the company of complete strangers) such as “the only unpardonable sin is deliberate cruelty” and “I’ll always be here in your memories” and the disappointment of not being “able to give someone else what they want to have”. She also opines that “there’s never two of anything”, and her life surely perpetuated that theme. The way Capote expressed the moment of her death says it all: “When that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven”. What could be more moving and seasonably warming than an evening spent with two such unforgettable kite runners?


Lyric Stage's "Chinglish": Ancient Chinese Joke Only Funny Virgin

That might qualify as a “Chinglish” mistranslation of the phrase “oft-repeated Chinese jokes are only funny the first time”. The 2011 play by David Henry Hwang (“M Butterfy”, “Golden Child”), now presented by Lyric Stage Company, is full of such malapropisms, arguably too full of them. The incongruent phrases are projected via surtitles, a device that’s clever if not particularly original; the same gimmick was used quite a few years ago in another play about Pidgin Chinese being mangled by a group of well-meaning missionaries (the name of which is lost to memory). This play concerns more mercenary ends, namely how an American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Barlow Adamson) aims to get in on the growth potential of a Chinese province, hiring a cultural consultant and a translator to transmit his message. Sometimes hilarious phrases lost in the translation provide truly comic moments as the unworldly businessman attempts to make the sale. The first act consists mostly of these misfires, with pretty much all of the humor confined to the surtitles; the script may well read funnier than it plays.

The second act has fewer comedic lines but a little more dramatic interest in some of the players. The role of Xi Yan (extremely well performed by Celeste Oliva), the only well developed character in the play, turns out be more complex than first thought. It seems that there is more agenda at work here and that she, as several others, is not quite what she appeared to be. Ironically, too, it’s only when the occidental salesman is found to have been deeply involved in the Enron scandal that the potential oriental customers express enthusiasm for his project, which involves producing various forms of commercial signage (not a very subtle point). In that scene, Hwang comes perilously close to more than mere political incorrectness, as the Chinese characters become caricatures. Even more egregious is the portrayal of a minor Chinese sycophant as an offensive homosexual stereotype (a misstep Hwang was also guilty of in his re-writing of the book for a 2002 revival of “Flower Drum Song”). In any case, as directed by Larry Coen, the rest of the cast performs admirably in roles that, given the audience’s need to read above their heads first, require a special kind of timing. Included in the cast are Alexander Platt, Tiffany Chen, Michael Tow, Chen Tang and Liz Eng (some doubling roles). The Scenic Design by Dahlia Al-Habieli, Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, Lighting Design by Matthew Whiton and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus are all first-rate, managing quite well without duplicating the rotating stage device of the Broadway version.

Time Magazine called that version one of 2011’s ten best Broadway plays, and the reviews, while not unanimous, were generally pretty favorable. One’s enjoyment of the work might well depend on your tolerance for the repetitious and the constant need to keep your extra set of eyes on the surtitles, as it is there that, as previously noted, most of the comedy takes place, and there’s not much real drama happening on stage. Having digested this version of the play, this critic had a subsequent craving, a few hours later, for more theater.



Luminarium's "Mythos:Pathos": Illuminating

Luminarium (literally, a body that emits light), which recently ended its season with the final iteration of its work “Mythos:Pathos”, performed at the Oberon complex in Cambridge, is a contemporary dance company founded two years ago by two Mount Holyoke alumnae, Merli V. Guerra and Kimberleigh A. Holman. Their intent was to provide a new entity for performing arts, a space in which they hoped to merge dance with other visual and aural elements such as projection, video, film, lighting design and music. In so doing, they are attempting to shed light on issues and enlighten audiences as a self-described “think tank, museum, and gallery for contemporary dance and for contemporary ideas”. Thus it was supremely ironic that the event was held in Cambridge, concurrent with two external events, one unpredictable, one predictable. The former was a power outage that left significant parts of Cambridge, including the campuses of Harvard and MIT, in complete darkness (but not the Oberon); the latter was a full moon. Luminarium, as its name suggests, hopes to heighten the senses of its audience.

Often contemporary dance is perceived as somewhat abstract exercises that emphasize the beauty of graceful movement and precise athleticism, concentrating on a viewer’s intellectual appreciation while not particularly affecting her or his emotional involvement. In the case of “Mythos:Pathos”, as the name suggests, there are intentional and easily discernible allusions to Greek mythology as having resonance for an audience today with themes that are timeless. This work attempts to do this in the form of nine related pieces. “Now we are here” (a solo performed by Kara Fili), “Of good, evil” (with Virginia Byron, Guerra, Amy Mastrangelo and Katie McGrail), “A voice without a tongue” (featuring Akshaya Tucker and Fili), “Seiren” (represented by Rose Abramoff, Jess Chang, Melenie Diarbekirian, Guerra and Mastrangelo, with the sailor performed by Mark Kranz), “The passing storm (Nephelae)” with Byron, Fili, Jessica Jacob and McGrail), “Andromeda” (danced by Diarbekirian), “Hubris” (with Abramoff), and two segments identified by their suffixes, “-us”, the first being “Icarus” (with Kranz along with Abramoff) and the second being “Prometheus” (featuring Chang as well as Kranz). The choreography for the whole work was split between the co-founders and artistic directors, Guerra (who also created an accompanying film segment) and Holman, with the lighting designed by Brandon Bagwell and Matthew Breton. The music sources are about as eclectic as one could imagine, perhaps chosen precisely to emphasize the universality of the ideas presented throughout.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to follow the segments too specifically as they segue from one to another more or less seamlessly, but the more familiar one is with their mythological origins, the more the work impacts. This reviewer was fortunate enough to have had formal classes in mythology as well as acting, music and dance, even if some of this foundation is a little rusty. Those less familiar with the ancient archetypes could still find significant enjoyment in the company’s fluidity and seemingly effortlessness. That effortlessness is, of course, the fundamental illusion at work here; in order to seem so free, so spontaneous, a great deal of painstaking study, work and rehearsal is essential. It helps as well that the performing space was so flexible and the technical elements so well coordinated. What might not have helped some in the rear of the space were the imperfect sight lines; much of what took place in the work was on the floor, which can hardly be easily visible from that vantage point. At times, there might have been a bit more light on the subjects in order to discern who was in which segment, but perhaps again universality rather than individuality was the intent.

This is a young company which has managed in an incredibly brief lifetime to make its unique mark on the local dance scene and promises to enlarge that audience if it maintains the standards of quality and effort evidenced in this work. Pathos is defined as the power of life experiences to affect us emotionally, something this company is well on its way to attaining.


New Rep's "Chesapeake": Retrieving the Existence of Dog

If one were to pick a bone with New Rep’s production of “Chesapeake”, it would be to wonder why it took so doggone long to appear on the company’s schedule. The 1999 play by Lee Blessing, best known for his 1987 work, “A Walk in the Woods” (nominated for a Tony as Best Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama), is a marvelous piece of theater. In the current mode of such works as “ART”, “Bakersfield Mist”, “Red”, and “Pitman Painters”, “Chesapeake” is an examination of the nature of art and the reliable judgment as to its worth (and, in the case of Blessing’s play, the consequent justification of its appropriateness for public funding). What could keep these dramas from becoming great art themselves is the fact that they share the same danger of potentially distancing an audience in that they are all more intellectually than emotionally involving. As political polemics, each must depend on the author’s gift of powerful speech and the actors’ equal gift of powerful interpretation. In the wrong hands, any of these plays could be a dull and pedantic diatribe. In the right hands, they can produce theatrical dynamite.

To criticize this play for this lack of emotional heft would be barking up the wrong tree. What sets this work apart is that it is basically a piece of performance art about a piece of performance art threatened with being defunded. The title refers to a Chesapeake Retriever, variously referred to as “Rat” or “Lucky”, owned by one Senator Therm Pooley (insert here “Strom Thurmond”, “Jesse Helms”, or your favorite conservative flavor of the month), who has attained political power largely based on his opposition to NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) funding for the artist Kerr (rhymes, not coincidentally, with “cur”). The first act sets up the conflict between the Senator and the artist, as well as the roles of the Senator’s wife, aide, and that canine. It ends with a literal cliffhanger. The second act, a lengthy shaggy dog story, becomes fantastic in both senses of the term, indescribable without this critic’s being guilty of one of theater’s all-time spoilers. Suffice it to say that the entire cast is fabulous, again in both senses of this term.

That entire cast happens to consist of one Georgia Lyman. As directed by Doug Lockwood, (who ironically performed in New Rep’s “ART” last season), she’s a one woman powerhouse. As the audience members first take their seats, she’s found sitting quietly on the sidelines, then gradually interacts with them, drawing them into her storytelling. The plot is based in part on the real-life experiences of the artists who in 1990 became known as the NEA Four, having had their funding revoked. If this sounds too heavy or pedestrian, rest assured that Blessing, Lockwood and Lyman manage to build, especially in the second act, a series of hilarious scenes. Lyman has never had such a golden plum of a role, which she gleefully inhabits. She’s aided by the extremely effective Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan (also responsible for the simple set involving a canvas floor cloth), perfectly timed Sound Design by David Reiffel, and appropriately versatile Costume Design by Adrienne Carlile.

At one point, Blessing has Kerr refer to the concept of “neoteny”, or physiological maturation that is slowed or delayed, later more specifically alluded to as childlikeness. Without sounding too, uh, dogmatic, isn’t that what good theater often brings out in all of us, as we experience the impact of role-play? And how terrific is it when we’re also motivated to ponder life’s mysteries. (For example, is there a dog?). Amidst all the (all too) familiar typical holiday fare of Dickensian urchins, rodent monarchs and ubiquitous caroling, you’d do well to unleash your inner non-seasonal theater fan and get thee to New Rep. Dog forbid you should miss this one.


Trinity Rep's "Christmas Carol": Three Ghosts Walk into a Bar.....

Trinity Rep’s “A Christmas Carol” is a family-friendly version of the Dickens classic that young folks, and the young of heart, will love, especially if they share a considerable tolerance for broad humor. As adapted decades ago by Adrian Hall and Richard Cumming, this production presents the familiar story in five “staves”, a curious use of the term, which normally means verses of a poem. In fact, the tale does seem at first to be just that, rather like an operatic recitative, but this musical device is, fortunately, discarded early into the play. It starts out with an unusual (but not particularly effective) flashback as told to a group of Victorian urchins by “The Reader”, as enacted by Tom Gleadow. As anyone who hasn’t been holed up in a cave for the past couple of centuries knows by now, it portrays the miserly Scrooge as he spends a Christmas Eve visited, as in the title above, by three ghosts. (Full disclosure here: this reviewer used the same line when reviewing another local production of the classic yuletide tale a few years ago, but then what can one say new about this chestnut?)

In the current revival under the direction of Tyler Dobrowsky, any trace of subtlety is lost in the transition to this ninety minute work. Truth to tell, subtlety is lacking even in the original Dickens, but his gift with storytelling made up for this with a considerable dollop of whimsy and feeling. The same cannot be said for this production, though the cast works hard at punching home this atypically funny approach. The Set Design by Eugene Lee, fairly monochromatic, is authentically Dickensian in spirit, and allows for some truly ingenious entrances and exits. The Lighting Design by John Ambrosone, Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, and Costume Design by Alison Walker Carrier, all contribute consistency to this television sitcom effort.

This year the cast includes Timothy Crowe revisiting his role as Ebenezer Scrooge, the aforementioned Mr. Gleadow as Mr. Fezziwig, Stephen Thorne as Marley, Mauro Hantman as Bob Cratchit, Mia Ellis as the Ghost of Christmas Past, three actors (Elliott Peters, Daniel Duque-Estrada and Joe Wilson, Jr.) as various stages (or staves?) of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Leicester Landon as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and the alternate (“Green”) cast of young thespians, all of them believable, with standout performances by Lily Clurman as Martha and Phineas Peters as Tiny Tim. All seemed to be having a swell time.

So did the audience, for that matter. If you’re tired of the same old treacle-filled versions you’ve seen in the recent and/or distant past, this laugh-filled production is just what Santa ordered. For those more traditional folks like this reviewer, an annual reading of the original masterpiece (for example, in a worn old forty-five-cent paperback copy) will fill the bill.





Huntington's "Betrayal": The Pause That Refreshes

Harold Pinter remains the king of silence; no one wrote pauses as well as he did. Over his lengthy career he wrote over fifty works for the theater and screen, few so universally praised as his 1978 play, “Betrayal”, one of his so-called “memory plays”. This was a revealing effort at the time, since Pinter himself was then involved in an extra-marital affair with a British journalist. “Betrayal”, which plays in reverse chronology from 1977 to 1968, is about a seven year long affair encompassing several layers of betrayal. The original 1980 Broadway production lasted a mere 170 performances. It was first seen in a Boston production that same year, at the Charles Playhouse Theater, with Jenny Agutter, Paul Benedict, and Richard Jordan; the film version in 1983 starred Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge. Those are impressive acts to follow.

The current revival by Huntington Theater Company features Alan Cox (Jerry), Mark H. Dold (Robert), Gretchen Egolf (Emma), and Luis Negron (Waiter), impeccably directed by Huntington favorite Maria Aitken (“39 Steps”, “Private Lives”), who even overwhelms with a striking final blackout, which will not be disclosed here. This is a complicated story, not merely because of its time reversal or economy of dialogue. As with most Pinter works, much emotional baggage is hidden and motivations are at first unclear. There is a great deal of self-centered banter disguising fundamental issues with guilt, honesty and deception (including self-deception). As the play evolves in nine spare scenes, we gradually understand just how complex the relationships are; Emma may need both men at times, but the two men also need each other, and for a while all their individual betrayals keep them afloat. There is as much meaning in what is not said but merely implied as there is in what is spoken and explicit. What’s truly surprising is how much humor, albeit brittle, lies just beneath the surface; equally surprising, despite the paucity of verbiage, is attention to details (such as the purchase of a Venetian tablecloth) that come to have more meaning as we discover the truths at the core of the story.

Cox, Dold and Egolf are all wonderful players, and even Negron adds some color in his brief scene. Cox, in perhaps the most complex role as the romantic Jerry, is especially moving; Egolf is his perfect foil as the more practical and realistic Emma; and Dold excels in the least showy role as the uptight cuckold Robert who only once lets us see the buttoned down core underneath his very stiff British upper lip. Each has that absolutely essential ability to deliver Pinter’s sparse dialogue that paradoxically speaks volumes. That minimalism is echoed by the nuanced Scenic Design by Allen Moyer, the subtle Costume Design by Nancy Brennan, and the stark Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg and Sound Design by John Gromada (including original music). The use of the cinematic “iris-in” device is very effective in segueing from scene to scene. And there’s that finale, with all the shared baggage this trio has accumulated over the course of their interrelated lives.

Seldom does one get treated to this exalted level of wit and profound depth of meaning. Too often playwrights who create a three character plot suffer from diarrhea of words and constipation of thought. When a writer like Pinter is at the top of his form, and is presented in such a terrific production, theater can be astonishing. In less capable hands, this seventy-two minute work might seem a pointless trifle. In these professional hands, this becomes an extraordinary piece of theater and proves yet again that less is more.


Lyric Stage's "The Chosen": Many Are Called

“The Chosen”, adapted by Aaron Posner (and Chaim Potok, from his 1967 novel), now ours to enjoy in Lyric Stage Company’s second outing of the season, is a faithful rendering of the beloved work. It’s an old-fashioned format (complete with that swiftly vanishing species, an intermission), which fortunately serves the material well. It’s a simple and basically sweet story about two vastly different approaches to parenting in the midst of an increasingly threatening world. Two Jewish boys, living just blocks apart, are brought up with all the best intentions, but in fundamentally opposite traditions by their influential fathers. All of these characters are called in varying ways to live out their beliefs. How the boys mature and make life-changing decisions will change our preconceptions of who is chosen for what.

Director Daniel Gidron has assembled a very talented group both behind and in front of the “curtain”. The technical achievements are all well coordinated, from the versatile Scenic Design by Brynna Bloomfield to the perfectly suitable Costume Design by Mallory Frers, to the effective Lighting Design by John Malinowski, Sound Design by Dewey Dellay and Floor Projection by Martin Mendelsberg. They all contribute to a harmonious recreation of 1940’s Brooklyn, with careful attention to details (such as the Eastern European style of glass tea implements in the traditional home, versus the more assimilated home‘s porcelain tea service). The small cast of five includes Charles Linshaw (the adult Reuven Malter), who serves as the narrator, a role often introduced when a literary source is adapted for the stage. Zachary Eisenstat (Young Reuven) and Luke Murtha (Danny Saunders) are the boys, and Joel Colodner (Reb Saunders) and Will McGarrahan (David Malter) are their fathers.

Colodner has the meatiest role, in which he excels, as he has chosen to mold his son by silence. “For a word to be spoken, there must be silence before and after”. Murtha (so memorable in the recent New Rep production “The Kite Runner”) laments that his father “talks a lot, but not to me”. The only evident intimacy they share is in their arguments about the Talmud. McGarrahan, in yet another challenging role that adds to an amazingly varied career, feels that “anything that brings (people) together is a blessing”. That something, an accidental injury during a baseball game, is the catalyst for a friendship that will result in change for all of the characters as they react to the post-war Holocaust revelations, especially as they debate the possibility of a secular Jewish state. Those who have read the book will probably recall how the tensions are resolved, but those new to the storyline will probably not anticipate the eventual choices that are made.

The more traditional father states at one point that “a mind without a soul is not what I need from a son”, but that “the heart speaks through silence”, through which one learns “to hear the suffering of others in between silences”. Just how the conflicts between a scholar and an activist are reconciled is at the heart of this work, and this story has a lot of heart. As with all good theater that brings us together, this is a blessing.


SpeakEasy's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson": Hickory Hickory Rocks

In its previous off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was successful neither as a musical nor as a comedy, but as a rarer breed, a sort of theatrical hybrid. It was memorable more for its star-making titular performance by newcomer Benjamin Walker than for its political (and historical) incorrectness. Such is also the case with Speakeasy Stage Company’s local premiere of the work, thanks to Gus Curry (in his SpeakEasy debut) in a sexy, staggering, swaggering, no-holes-barred, take-no-prisoners, pull-all-the-stops-out performance. It’s a breathtaking turn, for audience and actor, as he dominates the stage for almost every one of its hundred minutes, not an easy task given its extraordinarily talented cast (most notably Mary Callanan as the Storyteller). If there is any justice in this world, this won’t be the last you will have heard of Mr. Curry. His trim and handsome version, or revision, of our seventh President, is more of a Young Hickory, and whether the concept works for you will probably depend less on his incredible charisma than on your tolerance for (intentionally) silly slapstick, emo-rock music (if you have to ask, you might want to pass on this one) with an occasional touch of country, and outrageously sophomoric humor (as when he asked an audience member if she wanted to see his stimulus package). It’s as though Hasting Pudding meets Saturday Night Live.

The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are often memorable, as in the plaintive “Second Nature” (effectively rendered by multi-talented Nicholas James Connell as the Bandleader, who also serves as the Music Director). The book, by Alex Timbers, is more problematic. Subtlety and sophistication suffer; nuance is in absentia. So, it must be said, is acceptable taste, at least occasionally, as in the following that must rank as the single most offensive and mean-spirited lines in recent or distant memory: “Susan Sontag’s dead/So I guess her cancer wasn’t metaphorical after all/Sorry”. Equally offensive in the Broadway version was its jaw-dropping depictions of gay stereotypes, from a group of “effete Spaniards” to the “foppish doily-wearing Washington elite” (as described in the liner notes to the original cast recording). Most (but, incredibly for this gay-friendly company, not all) of these caricatures are missing in this production. Also missing from this version is the overwhelmingly busy and distracting original set, here re-imagined in the very clever Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, along with very effective Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Sound Design by Eric Norris, and Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito. Add to this mix the inventive Choreography by Larry Sousa and Fight Choreography by Angie Jepson and you have less of a concert-like experience than its New York forbears and more of a truly theatrical one. Last but assuredly not least, the work of Director Paul Melone is outstanding, worthy of the typical efforts of the company’s Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, and that’s saying a good deal.

Meanwhile, about that great supporting cast, there is strong evidence that local schools have a huge talent pool: from Boston Conservatory, Tom Hamlett, Diego Klock-Perez, Joshua Pemberton, Alessandra Vaganek, and Brittany Walters (at the same time as the Boston Conservatory production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, with another outstanding title performance by handsome and hunky Marc Koeck with an astonishing vocal range, and a uniformly superb cast); add to this the talent from Boston College (Evan Murphy), Berklee College of Music (Mssrs. Curry and Connell), Northeastern (Michael Levesque) and Brandeis (Ben Rosenblatt) and you’ll have an idea of how impressive our “locavore” resources are.

“Bloody Bloody” was a certifiable hit Off-Broadway, but when it moved to Broadway, it lasted fewer than 100 performances. It may be that it misjudged its target demographic. It might be that many potential theatergoers of a certain age see this controversial President in a less humorous vein. (Certainly Native Americans do). Perhaps they missed the point entirely, as in the lament of two newly relocated Floridians who decried the forced relocation of “the Indians from here in Florida…a real tragedy…but then, we were, like…it is nice that it doesn’t snow”. Truth be told, that serious lament comes rather belatedly. In the final number, the Bandleader sings: “The motels on the canyon/They make a second nature….The grass grows/We take it/We want it/It’s second nature to us”. If a wonderfully performed political cartoon in the midst of the current political circus is the antidote you need, then by all means vote for “Andrew Jackson” with your derrieres (in the seats, that is). And vote often.


Huntington's "Now or Later": All Politics Is Vocal

Huntington Theater Company’s production of “Now or Later” by Christopher Shinn, in its American premiere, follows current trends in playwrighting: it has no intermission, one set, a small cast and a short running time (less than eighty minutes). What sets it above the crowd is how much it has to say about several profound issues. Shinn poses a number of provocative questions, and purposely avoids providing pat answers, challenging the theatergoer to find her or his own responses. He also challenges himself as an author in that he creates a complex series of confrontations in real time. It’s refreshing to see an author follow the traditional Aristotelian unities of action, place and time in such an up-to-the-minute and relevant manner.

The surface plot revolves around a thoughtless college prank involving some potentially viral video that threatens to explode with world-wide repercussions. On a presidential election night, the son of the winning candidate is revealed to have been photographed in a costume mimicking Mohammed. (Tellingly, we never see the incident; it’s gradually described for us, as though all politics is filtered through the words of others). One might assume that Shinn wrote this within the last month, influenced by current events, but this isn’t the case, as the play had its debut in London in 2008; its very accidental timeliness lends the work its resonance. The topics of freedom of expression, reactions to Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits of rigid convictions and their consequences, aren’t easy ones, and Shinn holds no punches. In his view, all politics is personal and everything personal is potentially political. Even such a simple gesture as using the hotel minibar becomes a subliminal statement of the choices one makes.

As directed by Michael Wilson (whose most recent work was directing the well-received “The Best Man” on Broadway), the play is quite riveting. The Scenic Design by Jeff Cowie sets a perfect tone with his recreation of a typical luxury hotel suite (curiously designated by Shinn as in a Southern state on election night, though no one in the cast has an accent and one might expect the candidate to have chosen to end the campaign in his home state). The Costume Design by David C. Woolard seems just right for each of the characters (except perhaps for the future First Lady, a Democrat wearing a red dress rather than blue, despite being described as one of those people who “hold focus groups on what color tie to wear”). The Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa and Sound Design by David Remedios provide a believable realistic background for the multiple interactions of the cast.

And what a cast, thanks to the work of Casting Director Alaine Alldaffer; not only do they all absolutely look their parts, but they manage in such a brief time to inhabit them. Grant McDermott as John Jr., son of presidential candidate John Sr. (Tom Nelis) and his wife Jessica (Alexandra Neil), is extremely affecting in his conflicted reactions to the near-hysteria that surrounds him. Neil, as his overprotective mother, and Nelis, as his driven father, couldn’t be better, nor could Adriane Lenox (so very memorable in her Tony-winning role in “Doubt”) as campaign staffer Tracy. Michael Goldsmith as Matt, John Jr.'s best friend, and Ryan King (Marc), another campaign staffer slightly lower on the pecking order, are the other characters, but haven’t been given as much time or depth to develop them.

Toward the end of the play, when John Jr. receives a phone call and it turns out not to be the one he expected, it becomes increasingly evident that Shinn feels that there are no easy answers to some of life’s most complicated problems. No one, especially in the public eye, is completely free in making choices; these are often influenced by forces we can’t anticipate or control, and may well have devastating consequences, either now or later.


New Rep's "Race": A Mamet Undertaking

After treating theatergoers to what amounted to a dramatic feast in its first outing of the current season, “Kite Runner”, New Rep has followed up with a disappointing palate cleanser, the David Mamet play, “Race”. Thin and trim almost to the point of anorexia, this is Mamet Lite, certainly not a bad night of theater, but not a great one either. It does have a hearty helping of his trademark rapid-fire dialogue with many a dollop of down and dirty language. What doesn’t help is the basic plotting that has more than a few unbelievable coincidences, absurd plot devices, and more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. For a playwright with his reputation, it’s really shocking, not so much to hear Mamet’s neoconservative leanings or salty wordplay as to encounter such sloppy writing. (As an example, can he truly believe Bermuda is in the Caribbean?). He appears to have bitten off more than he can ruminate upon in a spare ninety intermission-less minutes.

The plot, such as it is, involves the accusation that a white man has raped a black woman, and what various agendas this brings to the surface when a team of lawyers begins to develop its defense. Not so coincidentally, this team also consists of a white male and a couple of blacks, one male, one female. The bulk of the play revolves around the baggage each character brings to such a volatile issue and how this affects each one’s opinion on guilt or innocence. Mamet seems driven to depict these viewpoints in what he no doubt sees as unexpected and therefore dramatic ways. Without much support for his take on race in our time, he skewers well-meaning, often subliminal pseudo-liberals with knee-jerk reactions making them overly color-blind. He gives himself away in an article he wrote at the time of the play’s Broadway production in which he pontificates that “all drama is about lies; when the lie is exposed, the play is over”. Ouch. One would have thought drama, rather than intending to deceive, instead depends on gradual unfolding of truths that have been intentionally withheld until the appropriate revelation. But this is Mamet’s play and his current world view, take it or leave it.

New Rep’s production has some great elements in it. The direction by Robert Walsh is crisp, aided significantly by the dramatic lighting by Scott Pinkney and an unusual set by Janie E. Howland. The cast of four (Patrick Shea as the defendant, Ken Cheeseman as the lead attorney, Cliff Odie as his partner, and Miranda Craigwell as their assistant) manages the rhythm of Mamet well, if a bit shaky at times. (It’s difficult to distinguish, with this author, when an actor might have gone up on his lines as opposed to when this is in the text). It’s a well crafted effort, unfortunately in the service of an unsatisfying evening. When all was said and done, it was like the politically incorrect adage about eating Chinese food: one left hungry for more theater.



Huntington's "Good People": Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo

Early in “Good People”, Huntington Theater Company’s current production of the play by local boy David Lindsay-Abaire, Johanna Day, in the central role of Margie Walsh, says of her high school boyfriend, “he was always good people”. It’s obvious that the playwright feels the same way toward his characters in this work; while they are far from perfect, he sees them as basically good people. Lindsay-Abaire, who once helped his father sell fruit across the street from the very theater presenting his latest play, has evident affection for them. It’s clear why this has become the most frequently produced play across the country this season, but equally clear that the play belongs here more than in any other venue, as he has recreated the pulse, the rhythm and above all the soul of the Southie he fondly but objectively recalls. Incredibly, this lasted a mere hundred performances on Broadway, despite earning such honors as the Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony nomination, for Best Play.

As superbly directed here by Broadway veteran Kate Whoriskey, this work should certainly find a more understanding audience. In the role of Margie (for which Frances McDormand won a Tony for the Broadway version), Day gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the world-weary single mom who’s been laid off, faces eviction, and is dealing with a developmentally challenged daughter. Lending her the kind of community support one only finds in a true ethnic and religious ghetto, local stalwarts Nancy E. Carroll as her landlady Dottie, and Karen MacDonald as her best friend Jean, amazingly together for the first time in their individual illustrious careers, complete the perfect trio. Their somewhat unholy alliance at their local parish hall bingo game is painfully accurate in the play’s spot-on depiction of those who by choice or chance are trapped in Southie, as opposed to those who’ve managed to find a way out.

Michael Laurence as the aforementioned boyfriend, now a successful fertility doctor living comfortably in Chestnut Hill, represents those who (as did playwright Lindsay-Abaire himself) escaped the confines of the ghetto, at least on the surface. When confronted with his real past by Margie, in the presence of his wife Kate (very well played by Rachael Holmes), a lot of buried baggage is disinterred. Questions of identity, fate and class in America, and the role of choices and luck, or the lack of either, are brought to the fore. Meanwhile, as all of the memories of relationships past are unearthed, it falls to Nick Westrate (memorable in off-Broadway’s triumph “Tribes”) as fellow bingo-player Stevie to reestablish faith in the basic goodness of people.

If this all sounds too heavily melodramatic, rest assured that it’s not; in fact, it’s hilariously truthful. Aided by a terrific technical team, from Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge to Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi to Lighting Designer Matthew Richards, this is as close to perfection as theater gets. While there is all too recognizable pain in the laughter, this is an extraordinarily fine-tuned balance of hysterical timing and thought-provoking writing. As Lindsay-Abaire has posited, there are good people in comfortable theater seats, as well as good people selling fruit in the streets, and there is always belief in the possibility for change. As one character puts it toward the end of the play, "something’ll come up”, to which Margie replies, “I hope so”. Bingo!


Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere": It's No Wonder

It’s no wonder that Cirque du Soleil’s “Mystere” has been running since 1993 to packed houses in the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s unquestionably the fastest ninety minutes this reviewer has ever spent in a theater, with not a single wasted moment to slow the incredibly rapidly paced flow from one breath-defying act to another. One loses count of all the acrobatic feats of fancy, with not so much as a glance at one’s watch, as the inadequate adjectives strive to tumble out almost as non-stop as these awe-inspiring athletes. It’s hard to imagine that any other show, even one of the two dozen Cirque du Soleil productions playing all over the world, could possibly match these displays of strength, coordination and grace.

There are a seemingly endless procession of versatile aerial cubists, an amazing woman (Ginger Ana Griep-Ruiz) suspended in mid-air supported by only cloth, gravity-denying pole climbers, hand-to hand balancers, fearless human bungees on trampolines and courageous men and women on flying trapezes. There’s humor, too, none of it forced or farcical, especially from comic Brian le Petit, with some elements incorporating good natured cooperation from willing audience members, all of it harmless good fun. There are cast members playing a precocious baby, birds, black widows, lizards, “spermatos” and “spermatites”, a trouble-making clown, and a ventriloquist narrator. In short, it’s “Cirque du Soleil” as one has come to expect, but at a level that would be hard to beat.

Cirque du Soleil Founder Guy Laliberte has aptly described it as the “flower in the desert”, the creation of an ingenious group headed by Director Franco Dragone, who has helmed no fewer than ten Cirque du Soleil shows over the past twenty-five years or so. Gilles Ste.-Croix is credited as Director of Creation, and each of the creative team stands out with her or his contributions, including choreography (Debra Brown), sets (Michel Crete), costumes (Dominique Lemieux), music (Benoit Jutras and Rene Dupere), lighting (Luc Lafortune) and sound (Jonathan Deans). There’s not a single element that mars the nearly flawless whole.

It’s no mystery why “Mistere” has established itself as a virtually permanent resident of the Las Vegas scene. The sole mystery, if you’ve been to Las Vegas and haven’t seen it yet, is why not. It’s what Las Vegas and entertainment in general are all about. “Mystere” will overcome any hesitation you might have about this kind of theatrical wonder. It’s energy will wipe out such reservations. What happens in Vegas, slays in Vegas.



Cirque du Soleil's "IRIS": Eye-Opening

If you like movies, and especially if you love movies, then this is the Cirque du Soleil for you. Let’s start with the venue: “IRIS” is not playing now at a theater near you, but in the magnificently appropriate Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater in Los Angeles, the current and future home to the annual Academy Awards presentations. There is history there, with its ghostly vibes of movie stars from the golden age of the silver screen. What the folks at Cirque du Soleil have put together is subtitled “A Journey through the World of Cinema”, and it is decidedly that.

This is a journey unique to the Cirque du Soleil brand, in that it depicts more of a central narrative in a specific locale, namely Hollywood. The storytelling revolves around two young protagonists, Buster and Scarlett (any cinematic homage is purely intentional), as they break into the movie business, encountering all sorts of familiar images and experiences, while also demonstrating the eye-opening magic that only live theater can bring. Ironically, while on the surface celebrating iconic moments in film history, this show overwhelms with its equally exciting visual theatrical wonders.

The creative team behind this production is led by the extraordinarily imaginative Writer/Director Philippe Decoufle, who established the dance company DCA three decades ago. There are a host of other contributors to this multi-ringed circus. A cast of seventy-two (though it seemed at times like ten times that number) performs astounding acrobatic feats, painfully realistic recreations of vaudeville routines (sources for many an early film), and superbly executed mime and dance movement. Choreographer Daphne Mauger stands out in the group of contributors, including acrobatic performance designers and technical staff. While the elaborate sets, props, sound design, lighting and wondrous costumes (five hundred, count them, five hundred) can overwhelm, it’s the balletic grace on view that keeps this show on its toes. Add to this the bountiful orchestral score by Danny Elfman (himself no stranger to movies and Academy Awards), including an introduction sounding suspiciously like Jack Skellington of “Nightmare Before Christmas”.

The sole complaint one might make about this show is that there is always more going on that meets the eye, or rather, one pair of eyes. Whether you’re being entranced by an eight-man acrobatic team (who don’t so much defy gravity as redefine it), a three-woman group of marvelous contortionists, or several high-flying acts even “Spiderman” couldn’t match, there are many potential diversions elsewhere on stage, in the aisles and in the wings. While this is hardly unusual for Cirque du Soleil, it can be a bit exhausting, most challenging if you’re a true movie buff. If you keep that one pair of eyes attentive, you’ll catch references and images of some of the most iconic cinematic moments, from earliest silent films (such as Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon”) to gladiator epics, loin-clothed jungle heroes, and even the MGM lion. (No spoiler here, but this one will have you off to a roaring start.

“IRIS” promises to become a permanent fixture on the Hollywood bucket list of serious filmgoers, theatrical devotees, and circus enthusiasts. If you’re a fan of all three, then this is the smorgasbord made for you, should you be traveling to Los Angeles in the future. The finale, “Film Noir”, in which the best is saved for the last reel, will send you out of the theater with the saddest words of all time: “The End”.


SpeakEasy's "Motherf**ker with the Hat": A Pain in the Asterisk

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s first production of the season, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Motherf**ker with the Hat”, presents not a few challenges. Giurgis, who has a history of challenging work (“Jesus Hopped the A Train”, “Our Lady of 121st Street”, “Last Days of Judas Iscariot”) has at last found a secular, if unprintable, title. A Tony nominee for Best Play of 2011, it’s the first in a very promising year of SpeakEasy regional premieres, including two nominees for Best Play of 2012, “Other Desert Cities” and “Clybourne Park”, (the latter being the eventual Tony as well as Pulitzer winner). “Motherf**ker” is a short, nine scene five-hander about the discovery of that hat, the suspicions it arouses, and the effects of its mysterious appearance on the extremely dysfunctional characters in this small interrelated group.

Jackie (Jaime Carrillo), the main character, a parolee with a history of using and dealing, discovers the unexplained hat after he arrives home as his partner Veronica (his girlfriend since childhood) is about to take a shower. Veronica herself (Evelyn Howe) is a current drug addict. Jackie’s sponsor in a 12-step program, Ralph D. (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), is a former addict who has his own issues with his shrewish wife Victoria (Melinda Lopez). The fifth wheel of the group is Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Alejandro Simoes). All of them are former or current users and abusers of drugs, alcohol, sex and/or people. As directed by David R. Gammons, they perform a complicatedly choreographed series of exercises in various permutations and combinations, enabling each of them to have a chance to reveal just how much of a pain in the asterisk each of she or he is.

The cast handles the difficult task of presenting basically unpleasant people, trapped in their constricting roles, with varying degrees of humanity. Simoes, in the showiest role with most of the funniest lines, conveys the complex pansexual straight man with excellent timing. Carrillo, Lopez and Howe all come in to their own in the final scenes of the play. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is excellent in the unsympathetic role of the expert sponsor with extraordinary baggage. All do very well under the capable direction of David R. Gammons. The problem is, despite several hilarious lines here and there, we never get to know (or care) about any of the characters as Giurgis has written them. He certainly seems to have captured the speech and the mannerisms of his inner city troupe for whom we might feel empathy but little else.

Giurgis has stated that one of the points he wanted to make is that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, and these people are certainly not indifferent to one another. Jackie claims that “nobody knows nobody”. Ralph D. advises his sponsee Jackie to “stop making lists and start living the damn list”. Victoria describes Ralph D. as having a “PhD in manipulation and self-loathing”. Cousin Julio admits to Jackie that he doesn’t “like (him) very much, you’re a loser”. Veronica feels her relationship with Jackie is “broke” and cannot be fixed. And Ralph D.’s view of relationships is that “anyone you meet before the age of 25... that’s your friend; anyone after that, that’s just an associate, someone to pass the time”. Later in the play, Ralph D. also says “sometimes the truth is ugly”.

The sole saving reality beneath all this vitriol is, as Jackie puts it, “It’s funny how people can be more than one thing”. Despite the mistrust, the pervasive addictions and the impoverishment that surrounds them, there may still be love. The fundamental problem they all share is their inability to articulate it. There are a good number of malicious barbs thrown about, some of them incisive and effective, others bordering on sitcom (albeit X-rated), that manage to amuse and engage us.

What isn’t engaging is the very predictable revelation of just whose hat that was and what that ownership signifies. The revelation we are expected to experience doesn’t come as a surprise, spoiling the intended payoff and exposing the plot’s basic flaw. What we have here is almost two hours of verbal pyrotechnics about, paradoxically, the failure to communicate. In the end, the play is a whole lot less than the sum of its parts; the characters haven’t grown much, and we haven’t learned much. A lot of talent and attention have finally pretty much signified nothing, to which the only logical comment is (bleep)!


New Rep's "Kite Runner": A Way to Be Good Again

Once in a great while, there comes a moment in a darkened theater when one suddenly becomes aware of the thunderous silence that occurs as an audience holds its collective breath. It’s then that we remember just how uniquely exciting and involving live theater can be. During New Rep’s opening production of “The Kite Runner”, masterfully adapted by playwright Matthew Spangler from the much-loved 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini, there were many such moments during which you could quite literally have heard the proverbial pin drop. This iteration of the story of two Afghan boyhood “friends”, in its New England premiere, reminds us of why we love theater.

As readers of the book and viewers of the film version will recall, this is the story of two boys (a servant and his master’s son, thus not truly friends) living in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1973 and what happens to them over the course of three decades. As with most creative storytelling, it is about many things that matter, and the consequences of the choices we all make. Primarily, “The Kite Runner” is about theft, its subsequent repercussions, and opportunities for redemption. Early in the first act of the play, the master of the house, Baba, tells his son Amir that theft is the one unforgivable sin. What is left unsaid, but will soon after be made clear to Amir as he matures, is that theft may take many forms: property, reputation, innocence, and the betrayal of love. Fortunately for theatergoers, there is also a chance to make amends, in the words of another servant, “a way to be good again”.

What this play proves is that, in the theater, there is a way to be great again. Tackling an adaptation of any literary source is fraught with pitfalls. Many a theater piece based on previously written material ends up overly episodic, and often succumbs to the temptation to have the play narrated by a character in order to make theatrical coherence out of an overabundance of plots and players. Miraculously, “The Kite Runner” in its present form, while full of flashbacks and narrated by the adult Amir, manages not only to stay fresh and involving but also intelligent and intelligible.

As impeccably directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, with an excellent cast and crew, most of whom are making their New Rep debuts, this is a stunning start to a promising season. The entire ensemble is terrific, including Nael Nacer (so memorable in last season’s “The Temperamentals” at Lyric Stage Company) as the adult Amir, Fahim Hamid as his younger self, Ken Baltin as his father, and Luke Murtha as the young servant Hassan and in another pivotal role near the end of the play. Nacer’s performance, especially energetic and mesmerizing, is surely one for the ages. Technical credits were flawless, from the atmospheric Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePoo III to the eerie Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins to the authentic Costume Design by Adrienne Carlile and the chilling Sound Design by David Reiffel. There is even a credit, very appropriately, for the amazingly realistic Violence Design by Robert Najarian.

In the words of the young servant Hassan, repeated thirty years later by the adult Amir, if great theater is your passion, then this is “for you, a thousand times over”.


Lyric Stage's "Mikado": Modified Rapture

It‘s easy to see why Gilbert and Sullivan‘s “The Mikado, or the Town of Titipu”, written over a century and a quarter ago, is one of the most performed works of theater throughout the world. The ninth of their fourteen operettas, their tale of the transparently ridiculous residents of the mythical Japanese town is of course not about Japan in any literal sense, but a satire of British politics, and by extension politicians everywhere. A large part of its enduring popularity is precisely that universality, making it appropriate as Lyric Stage Company’s first production of its current season in an election year. What may or may not be appropriate, depending on how much of a purist you are, is the choice to pepper the subtle yet sublimely incisive humor of Gilbert’s libretto with frequent contemporary political references.

Tinkering with some of the lyrics of the musical numbers is accepted tradition, begun by none other than Gilbert himself a decade or so after its first performance, most notably in the memorable “I’ve Got a Little List”. Just how successful this sort of thing becomes depends on how seamless the current inclusions are; in this version, some are, but too many are not. Gilbert was, after all, a master of meiosis, dramatic understatement, the revelation of just how clueless his characters are. Thus lines about Wisconsin and venture capitalists, not to mention awkwardly inserted expressions like “wait for it”, fell embarrassingly flat with the opening night audience, while Gilbert’s lines, although familiar to many, were met with hearty laughter, such as the hero’s exclamation of “modified rapture” and the heroine’s declaration that she sits and wonders “in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world”. Now there’s a skewering of virtually every politician, female and male, that surely needs no embellishment.

The success of any Gilbert and Sullivan production also depends on the extraordinary demands on the cast, requiring them to be practically perfect in pitch, diction and timing. Happily, in almost every case, this cast has that all nailed. Davron S. Monroe (the hero Nanki-Poo), Erica Spyres (the heroine Yum-Yum), Leigh Barrett (the battleship Katishah), Rishi Basu (the noble lord Pish-Tush), and Teresa Winner Blume and Stephanie Granade (Yum-Yum’s sisters Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo) are all terrific, especially when in chorus with the rest of the ensemble. At the performance seen, unfortunately Bob Jolly (Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner) seemed to be significantly indisposed, upsetting both his timing and pitch, and Timothy John Smith (The Mikado) seemed to be performing in another production altogether, certainly capable but much broader than the rest of the company. Last but surely not least on this little list is David Kravitz (Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else) who was particularly winning in both his singing and acting.

The overall direction by Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos was on a par with his many memorable musicals, such as last season’s triumphant closer, “Avenue Q”. The Scenic Design by Janie Howland was perhaps the most beautiful and sensible set seen in many a season hereabouts. Most of the costumes by Rafael Jaen were well done (though two of the women in the cast were somewhat upstaged by their wigs) and the lighting by Karen Perlow was very effective. Thankfully, Sullivan’s music survived intact under the Musical Direction of Jonathan Goldberg, even with the limitations of an orchestra of five.

This is a grand start to a very promising season, whatever one’s view of modernizing a classic. This reviewer has seen many productions of this work over the years that qualified as mortified rupture, so it’s a pleasure to see so much of “The Mikado” so wonderfully (you should excuse the expression) executed. As for that tinkering with Sullivan’s libretto, well, let the punishment fit the rhyme.


Lyric's "Avenue Q": Watch Where You Put Those Hands

When the creators of “Avenue Q” first set out to develop their musical, they described it as “Sesame Street” meets “Friends”, which eventually evolved into a sort of “Puppet Sex in the City”. They opened it in March of 2003 off-Broadway, then moved to Broadway four months later, where it enjoyed a six year run (then moving back in 2009 to off-Broadway, where it remains today). Along the way it earned a great deal of critical and popular acclaim, including Tonys for its book by Jeff Whitty, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and, in an almost unprecedented upset over a certain musical behemoth about a couple of witches, the most coveted award as Best Musical, which it surely deserved. In the right hands, a multi-tasking puppet-populated cast can create a wondrous, hysterically funny and bawdy piece of theater. The good news is that this production by the Lyric Stage Company is in extraordinarily capable hands.

After the cast opens with a deceptively sweet title song that knowingly references the theme song from “Sesame Street”, the real story begins with the residents of Avenue Q lamenting the sorry state of their lives in “It Sucks to Be Me”. It then segues to the arrival of wide-eyed recent college grad Princeton (John Ambrosino), looking for a career and a purpose, in the musical comedy tradition of “42nd Street”, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and a slew of other such archetypes, as he sings, “What Do You Do with a BA in English?”. We next meet Rod (Ambrosino again), a closeted Republican investment banker, accused by his roommate Nicky (Phil Tayler) of ironing his underwear, in the song “If You Were Gay”. By the time we are introduced to aspiring stand-up comedian Brian (Harry McEnerny V) and his partner Christmas Eve (Jenna Lea Scott as a Japanese American therapist with two Masters degrees and no clients) we definitely know we’re not in Kansas anymore, in the outrageously politically incorrect number “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (which she pronounces Ev'lyone’s a Ritter Bit Lacist”). Then there’s the reclusive porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (Tayler again, singing “The Internet Is for Porn”), the building super who resembles former child star Gary Coleman (because he is, as played by Davron S. Monroe), kindergarten teacher Mrs. T (Elise Arsenault), and a couple of anti-Jiminy Cricket Bad News Bears (Arsenault and Tayler yet again). And then there’s kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (Erica Spyres, who also plays Lucy the Slut, a buxom cabaret chanteuse), who wants to start a special school for monsters, and begins to fall for Princeton. She also has arguably the finest number in the show, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” between love and a waste of time (between a lover and a friend, reality and pretend, fairy tale and a lie, what you wanted and what you got). But even she has her dark side, as she admits that at a wedding she “caught the bouquet…well, some little girl caught it, but she wasn’t very strong”. By the time the play ends, she has her “Monsterssori School”, and has matured enough to ask Princeton “can we take it one day at a time?”, after she’s tied up a plot thread or two by innocently dropping a penny from the Empire State Building. Along the way, the cast sings of “Schadenfreude” (happiness at the misery of others) and the impermanence of a few of their least favorite things, in “For Now” (in this updated version, they now replace the original “George Bush!” subsequently changed to “Fox News!”, here with a topical reference to a local celebrity).

Each of these performers pitches perfectly, as directed by Spiro Veloudos, puppet master with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. There’s a lot of funny felt, fur and fuzz on display, by Puppet Designer Rick Lyon. The scenic design by Kathryn Kawecki, an homage to “Sesame Street” but grittier, sets just the right tone. The Puppetry Instruction and Coaching by Jonathan Little and Roxanna Myhrum has really paid off. The actors with no prior puppeteer experience come off like pros. Ilyse Robbins’ choreography is outstanding. If there’s a nit to pick, it might be that the physical configuration of the theater, with its two side seating sections to which the cast frequently plays, sometimes exposes the mechanics of puppet manipulation, but that’s hardly much of a distraction.

As a group conversation concludes, “maybe you’ll never find your purpose; lots of people don’t, but then I don’t know why I’m even alive…well, who does, really?”. And, as Princeton notes in the final line of the play: “Everything in life is only for now”. He could just as easily have paraphrased one of the other morals of the play, given how much fun the cast itself seems to be having: when you make others laugh, you can’t help laughing yourself.


"Motherhood" at Trinity Rep: What to Expect

The audience sat expectantly as “Motherhood, the Musical, the good, the bad….and the laundry” began. Most of them had seen and seemingly enjoyed its predecessor, “Menopause, the Musical”. (Only in the theater could menopause precede motherhood). “Motherhood” has already had a considerably lengthy gestation period, having been done first in Ft. Lauderdale in 2010, followed by engagements in Tampa, Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, and even Australia. Trinity Rep didn’t give birth to this production, but adopted it. GFour Productions is the same group which produced “Nine” and “Nine to Five”. The book and most of the music and lyrics are by Sue Fabisch, who has fashioned a revue with almost two dozen songs in varying styles from pop ballads to blues to gospel. Directed and choreographed by Lisa Shriver (a very seasoned pro who counts the choreography for the current Broadway “Jesus Christ Superstar” among her credits), this show becomes a very fast-paced ninety minute intermissionless ride, with not so much as a pregnant pause, which works well for this format. The direction is fine; the choreography is mind-blowing.

The premise is that first-time mom-to-be Amy (Lisa Manuli), with a due date in three weeks, is being given an intimate baby shower, before a major one, by her closest friends who are all experienced moms. Barb (Mary Kathyrn Kaye) is a world-weary career mom with five, count them, five kids. Brooke (Becca McCoy) is an attorney in a constant tug of war between court and soccer. Tasha (Jewel Lucien) is a single (divorced) mom whose husband has left her. (In a rather unsettling decision, the role has been written for and cast as an African American woman, which doesn’t do much for eradicating stereotypes). Individually and as a group, whether belting, dancing or cracking wise, these four women are terrific.

They’re well served by the technical team. The Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt and Properties by Bekka Lynch are clever and amusing, as is the Costume Design by Jennifer Caprio. Only the Sound Design by Amy Altadonna could use some fine tuning. For the first hour or so of the performance, it seemed the cast had just come from a gig at Boston Garden. The music, primarily by Fabisch, is serviceable and forgettable (and, disappointingly, pre-recorded). The book and lyrics are sometimes a bit saccharine (as in the ballads “I’m Danny’s Mom”, “Every Other Weekend” and “Amy’s Welcome”) but more often hilarious (as in such numbers as “Costco Queen”, “Minivan”, and the aptly-named “I Leak”), if bordering on theatrical chick wit.

This work, while overtly aimed for a female target audience, is not for women only, but estrogen helps. It’s definitely not for the lactation intolerant. Some of the humor is corny (“I leak like a Senator in Congress”), tired (lazy daddy jokes) or borrowed (“five great years of married life” out of fifteen), but mostly elicited hearty laughter of recognition. In amateur hands, it could be deadly. With four such talented triple threats in acting, singing and movement, each one with seemingly inexhaustible energy, this is one of the liveliest shows in recent memory. The amazingly varied choreography alone is worth the price of admission but not the only reason to attend; only go if you’ve been a mom, are about to become one, or have had one of your own.


SpeakEasy's "Xanadu": A-Muse-ment Rocks, and Rolls

Something’s definitely out of this world these days at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Studio Theater, which Speakeasy Stage Company calls home. Their current production of the 2007 Tony-nominated stage musical “Xanadu”, based on the 1980 movie, in turn based on an old Rita Hayworth film, “Down to Earth”, has just rolled in. (Literally, but more about this later). As those of us unlucky enough to have seen the original “Xanadu” film may have difficulty suppressing, its story of a heavenly muse who descends to earth to help a guy fulfill his dream of owning a nightclub is generally credited with almost singlehandedly causing the death of the major movie musical (until “Chicago” in 2002). Starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly (his final role due to his subsequent death, not the death of his career, though this film could have done it), it was nominated for the first Razzie Award as Worst Movie of the Year; in fact, it was one of the finalists for the Razzie as Worst Musical in 25 Years. The only creative elements were its snazzy segues or dissolves between scenes, the last one being the best, as it meant “THE END”. Given its absurdly dumb threadbare plot, jaw-droppingly awful acting, terrible (and terribly shot) choreography, ugly motley costumes and deadly dull sets, if this movie had had any life in it, it would’ve barked.

Thus it took a lot of chutzpah for the creators of the stage musical version to propose resuscitating or resurrecting this godly mess. Douglas Carter Beane (who wrote the hilarious “Little Dog Laughed”, “Sister Act” and the recent “Lysistrata Jones”) provided a book that changes the hero’s dream pursuit of a nightclub into a roller disco. The score compiled by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar was a pastiche of original songs, songs written for the film, as well as from other sources. It featured future stars belter Kerry Butler and heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson, and old trouper Tony Roberts. At awards time, it not only garnered four Tony nominations (in a season that boasted “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange”, as well as the instantly forgotten “Cry Baby”, another work based on a movie), but won a Drama Desk Award for Beane’s book. It also earned the Outer Critics Circle award as Best Musical (shared with “Young Frankenstein”). Perhaps it was, after all, not so much creative chutzpah as divine intervention.

And speaking of divine, Director Paul Daigneault and Choreographer David Connolly have together helmed a musical miracle. Daigneault has pulled out all the stops for this shamelessly pun-packed spoof of a trunk full of theatrical clichés, and Connolly has the cast on their toes and in their skates with depth-defying precision. This cast includes McCaela Donovan as Clio/Kira (with a marvelously dead-on deadpan take on Olivia Newton-John) once again showing her comic chops (is there nothing this woman can’t do?), Ryan Overberg as Sonny the perfectly wonderful male bimbo (who has had much productive time in the gym), Robert Saoud as Danny Maguire and Zeus (sublimely riotous in both roles), Kathy St. George as Calliope and Aphrodite (scene-stealingly hilarious) and Shana Dirik, menacingly funny as Melpomene/ Medusa. The Scenic Design by Crystal Tiala, Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and Lighting Design by Karen Perlow are all tongue-in-cheekly wonderful, especially with the entrance of the “War Horse”, Pegasus. (And Julie Taymor, eat your heart out).

Ironically, since this is a musical, the disco score is easily the least inspirational element of the show. What makes this show much more enjoyable than it has any right to be is the hysterically hip and sharp dialogue by Beane. At one point, a muse muses that since she’s the demi-goddess of inspiration, what in heaven is she doing in a theater? At another point, Zeus decrees that mortals will have the nerve to take old movie songs and string them together to make a stage musical. It’s just this sort of loving self-mocking attitude that sends an audience into convulsions of stomach-aching laughter.

The original mythical Xanadu was Kubla Khan’s pleasure palace, and the Calderwood Pavilion becomes just that for the ninety minutes of this intermission-less romp. It turns out after all that somebody up there likes us.


New Rep's "Little Shop": A Tale of Two Tendrils

Attend the tale of Audrey II. She’s green and mean, this cousin of the Venus fly trap. A true pistil-packing momma with a profoundly bass voice, she’s the horticultural star of New Rep’s final production of the season, “Little Shop of Horrors”. This off-Broadway hit of the 1982 season (with a five year run, winning the New York Drama Critics and Outer Circle Critics Best Musical Awards) is based on a much-beloved, campy cult black and white 1960 film by Director Roger Corman (the king of the low-budget B movies) and Screenwriter Charles Griffith. It ultimately became a 1986 film musical, and was revived on Broadway in 2003. Most prophetically, it was the first mega success of novice creators Alan Menken (score) and the late Howard Ashman (book and lyrics), who would go on to such efforts as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

“Little Shop”, only their second work together, was a loving tribute in farce to the horror movie genre, spoofing 60’s rock and roll, doo-wop, and Motown sound, television sitcoms, and several other targets. Ashman’s book and lyrics were filled with intentionally outrageous puns (for example, referring to the character of a sadistic dentist as the “leader of the plaque”). Some of his other references (“Father Knows Best”, “The Donna Reed Show”, “December Bride” and even “Howdy Doody”) may not resonate with younger audience members today, but most of their fang-in-cheek humor is timeless, if treated with affection and in the right hands.

And this production is certainly in the right hands. Attention must be paid to the direction and choreography by Russell Garrett in his New Rep debut. His respect for this work, which he has described, quite accurately, as true “musical comedy heaven”, shows in his faithful treatment, balanced with a considerable number of original and imaginative touches. Attention must also be paid to the often underappreciated Music Direction by Todd C. Gordon, credited with work on literally dozens of New Rep musicals. As usual, technical credits are superb, never more important than in this particular work. Peter Colao, Scenic Designer for New Rep as far back as “Sweeney Todd” and responsible for constructing all of the company’s sets for the last decade, has captured just the right tone with an amazingly complex set. Costume Designer Frances Nelson McSherry, who was Assistant Costume Designer on the original off-Broadway production, obviously had a ball with the Skid Row outfits, which one character describes as at least not “cheap and tasteless” (but they are, they are, and deliciously so). Paul Perry’s Sound Design was a bit unbalanced at times, and the Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. missed a few cues, but these were minor glitches, easily adjusted, and understandable given that the cast covers a lot of stage territory.

Ah, and that cast. Blake Pfeil as Seymour, in his New Rep debut, is the ultimate nerd working in a struggling Skid Row flower shop; his innocent mimicking of his co-worker Audrey’s accent (as living in “the guttah”) alone is worth the price of admission. Susan Molloy plays Audrey (the part played so memorably by Ellen Greene in both the original production and the film musical) with the perfect tone of the clueless bimbo. Bill Mootos stands out as her boyfriend, Orin the Dentist, and several other roles, reminiscent of his recent work in “Hound of the Baskervilles” at Central Square Theater (another multi-role effort requiring many quick costume changes). Another standout was Lovely Hoffman as Crystal, one of the Greek chorus trio that included fine performances by Jennifer Fogarty as Chiffon and Ceit McCaleb Zweil as Ronnette. Paul D. Farwell as Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the flower shop, seemed to be growing in the role. And then there were Timothy John Smith as the voice of Audrey II and Timothy P. Hoover as her “manipulator” or puppeteer. Together they make one unforgettable villain’s cry, “Feed me!”, providing, oxymoronically, a hysterically hammy plant. How Audrey II miraculously appears, unites Seymour and Audrey, grows, and forever changes the lives of most of the cast, is best left for audience members to discover for themselves.

In a season that included the very memorable “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, this is arguably the highlight. A disclaimer might be in order here: “Little Shop” is one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite shows. Thus it was a relief to find it recreated and refreshed by such trust in the material, which truly pays off. Those familiar only with the film musical version will note some differences; here there is no masochistic dental patient (as in both film versions), and, most significantly, a darker ending. Audrey II is about to take over the world. As one character puts it earlier in the show, “you’re not in Kansas anymore”. One piece of sage advice sung at the end of the show and worth repeating: “Don’t feed the plants!”


SpeakEasy's "Next to Normal": Poles Apart from the Norm

“Next to Normal”, the 2009 Broadway musical about a damaged woman suffering from what was once called manic-depressive mental illness, defies classification just as it (almost) defies description. In its defiantly through-composed form it is undeniably operatic, but its story is intimate and immediate. Its music (deservedly honored with Tony awards for both score and orchestration) is modern but not really rock, powerful and memorable. Yet, even with some three dozen musical numbers, it yields not a single stand-alone standard. While it has moments of humor, mostly in the form of irony, it is decidedly not a musical comedy; rather, it’s the theater’s first truly bipolar musical, in more ways than two.

It is also one of the few musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a feat matched only three times in the last three decades, the others being “Rent” and “Sunday in the Park with George”, and only eight times in the entire history of the Pulitzer. Nominated for eleven Tony Awards, it won only three, including Best Actress Alice Ripley, in a performance that was truly legendary. It was the year of “Billy Elliot” (which shared the award for orchestration with “Next to Normal”) which had fifteen Tony nominations and won ten of them. Nonetheless, “Next to Normal” was a bona fide hit, both critically and commercially. Thus the news that it would be part of SpeakEasy’s season this year was met with high expectations.

As in other aspects of life, nothing succeeds like exceeding expectations. This current version is all a serious theatergoer could reasonably hope for in a regional production, and then some. Not only is it among the finest in a long history of unforgettable SpeakEasy performances, but in at least one significant aspect, it actually betters the original. Director Paul Daigneault outdoes himself (and with musicals this is no small feat), managing to broaden the focus from an individual crisis to a shared family one, which is a truer depiction of the communal influence of the disease than was conveyed on Broadway. Kerry A. Dowling as Diana, the bipolar wife and mother, is better than we’ve ever seen her (also no small feat), but generously shares the stage with an incredibly talented ensemble. In this version, we truly feel the pain shared by the whole family as they deal with her inability to cope, to think, to feel. Above all, “Next to Normal” is about being there for one another. Michael Tacconi as her treasured son Gabe, whom she insists must be there for her, Sarah Drake as Natalie, her almost invisible daughter, craving the attention that her mother completely sucks out of the atmosphere, and Michael Levesque as Henry, Natalie’s unflaggingly sweet boyfriend, are amazing, especially given that they are all current or recent college graduates. Chris Caron ably fills the roles of two of Diana’s practitioners. Then there is Christopher Chew as Dan, the faithful husband and father, whose survival depends on repression, what he calls a “slower suicide”; as he also sings, “who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope or maybe the one who’ll still hope?”. Chew’s acting here is a revelation.

It’s truly gratifying to see such a wonderful work presented in this astonishing production. The music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are perfectly served by Music Director Nicholas James Connell, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg and Sound Designer Aaron Mack. The Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, as well as the Projection Design by Seaghan McKay are brilliant, even if occasionally distracting (as they were on Broadway, so perhaps this is part of the care plan).

This is no romanticized view of mental illness and the stigma with which society often views it, but a balanced presentation of the complexity of treatments (including what used to be referred to as electric shock therapy) for bipolar disease, ironically most often experienced by women and treated by men. Medications are a trade-off, what with their frequent side effects, requiring intelligent choices. As Diana puts it when she is medicated to the point of not feeling anything, she misses the mountains, the magic of the manic days, as well as the pain. (Her therapist’s response to her lack of feeling: “patient stable”). She wonders “what happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?”

Toward the end of the play, Diana, still wounded but hopeful, comes to a decision that rather than have chance take her, she’ll take a chance. Earlier she had said that she had “seen this movie, and I walked out”. As she carries out her decision, she sings that “the price of love is loss, but still we pay…the darkest sky will someday see the sun”. As Natalie put it, one doesn’t “need a life that’s normal, but something next to normal would be okay”. Though some hurt never heals, and some ghosts are never gone, in the end “there will be light”. In this production, the precise term would be incandescence.


SpeakEasy's "Red": The Gripes of Rothko

“Red”, Speakeasy Stage Company’s latest offering about painter Mark Rothko, was the winner of six 2010 Tonys including best play, by John Logan. This author is no stranger to “sacred monsters”, having dealt in the past with the likes of Leopold and Loeb, Howard Hughes and Sweeney Todd. This play, like Rothko’s work, requires that an audience meet and be part of the creation. There are tragedy and drama in both. It is the story of a self-destructive, self-taught genius who in 1958, at the age of 55 (the same age at which his father died), was commissioned by former bootlegger Samuel Bronfman to provide a series of paintings for the proposed Four Seasons Restaurant in his Seagram’s Building, for the then-considerable sum of $35,000. Rothko was ambivalent from the beginning, preferring his panels to be experienced in a sort of wayside chapel, (as some of his panels would eventually be, in a spectacular installation in Houston); he hoped at least to “ruin the appetites of every SOB who ever eats in that room”, putting rich patrons in his created place, the viewers trapped.

The play, in a taut one hundred minutes, portrays this ambivalence as the painter and his newly-hired assistant begin the process, all the while commenting on the nature of art and bemoaning the approaches to painting by his contemporaries. While he hated and rejected labels, Rothko was a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement that supplanted cubism. Part of his anger lies in the knowledge that he too will eventually be supplanted. Given his self-confessed obsessive preoccupation with death (“the first ingredient in my art”) and the fact that he was to commit suicide a decade later, this could have been heavy slogging. The genius of the playwright lies in how he manages to make this reenactment of the creative process so full of caustic wit, memorable dialogue (much of it directly quoted) and mesmerizing detail, all of which Director David R. Gammons captures on his theatrical canvas. The audience is presented with a genuine train wreck of an artist, and we simply can’t take our eyes off him.

It helps that the role of the artist is in the capable hands of an actor like Thomas Derrah. His Rothko is pompous, controlling, manipulative, and opinionated in the extreme, bombastic one moment, in the next breath declaring that, in art, “silence is so accurate”. He declaims to his new assistant (played by Karl Baker Olson) that he intends to be neither his father or mentor, but before long becomes exactly that. It also helps that Olson, in the much more challenging role, is equal to the task of evolving (over a two year period) from a starstruck novice to a more assured combatant. Together these actors stretch canvases, speedily apply glaze, and paint while verbally sparring about the nature of art and the value of their contemporaries in the art world. It’s sheer joy for a theatergoer to listen to the pacing of the speech of these theatrical artists and watch them inhabit the former Bowery YMCA gym that has been transformed into Rothko’s studio (superbly rendered by Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco). The lighting by Jeff Adelberg and sound by Bill Barclay are also perfect for the piece.

This production is every bit as moving and unforgettable as the original import from London, perhaps even more so in the more intimate venue of the Wimberly Theater. The miracle of the play and its presentation here is that it never seems pedantic or pedestrian, as it might easily have become, like watching paint dry. Instead, it’s amazingly dynamic. It’s poetic justice that this work confronts, challenges and involves the audience just as Rothko’s art does.