ART's "Heart of Robin Hood": Merry (Wo)men in Tights

What, you may wonder, another Icelandic swashbuckler? The current production by American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, “The Heart of Robin Hood”, is ostensibly about the legendary (and quite possibly mythical) hero of British folklore, as re-envisioned by playwright David Farr, but is in fact profoundly formed and informed by the mythological heritage of its other creators, from Iceland, led by Director Gisli Orn Gardarsson. As Farr himself has noted about the work, first performed by no less than the Royal Shakespeare Company of London in 2011, here “forests are places where what we thought we knew is turned on its head, where the subconscious becomes conscious, where dream becomes reality”. The theme of man (or woman) vs. nature, and the metaphorical transformations that occur, and what he also refers to as the “shamanistic quality of the forest”, is at its center, but it’s far less ponderous and somber than that sounds. Any performance that lists among its crew an Aerial Consultant (Associate Director Selma Bjornsdottir) and a Fight Director (really a choreographer, Joe Bostick) should give you the first clue that we’re not in anyone’s previous vision of Sherwood Forest anymore. Add to the mix a live roots band of five singer/musicians, Connecticut’s Poor Old Shine, fulfilling the role usually played by a troubadour like Alan-a-Dale (a la “Brother, Wherefore Art Thou?”), with such original tunes as “Don’t Let Your Burden Touch the Ground”, and you’ve yet another clue. Add a cast of extraordinarily athletic actors and you end up not really in Sherwood Forest, but in the primeval land of Gymnasia.

What you have here, without having to pay the airfare to London, is a perfect portrayal of the modern British “panto”, that seasonal mainstay across the pond with its broad humor, outrageous puns, and frequent cross-dressing. This time around it’s Maid Marion (the beautiful and commanding Christina Bennett Lind) putting on the green tights to masquerade as Martin of Sherwood and teach Robin Hood (the very handsome and dashing Jordan Dean) a thing or two about brigandry, especially the part about redistributing the guineas from the rich to the poor. With more than a slight nod to Shakespeare in “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night”, it’s tremendously clever fun. From the moment Marion’s servant Pierre (Christopher Sieber, Tony nominee for his dimintutive Lord Farquaad in “Shrek”), later to be known as Big Peter (!), begins his narration of the story, we know we’re in good hands. It’s truly the tale of Marion and how she transforms not only herself, but the rest of the kingdom, a cast of fourteen but often seeming like thousands, including Will Scathlock (Zachary Eisenstat), Little John (Jeremy Crawford), Sarah Summers (Claire Candela), Jethro Summers (Andrew Cekala, Theo in last season’s “Pippin”), Prince John (Damian Young), and, each playing as many as seven roles, Louis Tucci, Laura Sheehy, Katrina Yaukey, and David Michael Garry. At the opening performance, the role of Much, usually played by Andy Grotelueschen, who had torn a meniscus, was played by Director Gardarsson, to be played in subsequent performances by local actor Daniel Berger-Jones (known for his roles in Lyric Stage‘s “Stones in His Pockets”, and Bruno the Dog in Lyric‘s “Shipwrecked”). Each one of them acted and moved splendidly in this amazingly fluid piece, most especially the incredibly agile Moe Alafrangy, also in several roles. Along the way (parents with sensitive urchins beware), some fairly gruesome fates await; a slight stabbing here, a beheading there, a hanging, an arrow to the chest, and even (shudder) a de-tonguing, but it’s all tongue in cheek. And there’s even a shark (no spoilers here). What is most engaging and enthralling is its pure physicality and its gravity-defying acrobatics that have to be seen to be believed, but are ultimately unbelievable.

The Set Design by Borkur Jonsson is a marvelous wonder, from its huge oak tree overhanging the audience to its outdoor playroom chockfull of incredible entrances and exits (again, no spoilers here). The Costume Design by Emma Ryott, including the “extremely iconic costumes (Pierre) just made”, is brilliant, as are the Lighting Design by Bjorn Helgason, the Sound Design by Jonathan Deans and the Musical Direction by Kris Kukul.

In the end, what you have here is a historical and hysterical romp. The core of this production though, amidst all the hilarity, lies in its title: its heart. Even when the titular Robin was seemingly cruel and heartless, Marion saw the heart inside him. When they finally connect, it is not in the cathedral of “marble and gold but the bark and branch” of the forest, as Robin declares. What we’ve witnessed has been theatrical magic, truly prestigious prestidigitation, and, for those weary of yet another dose of treacle, a perfect holiday treat!


Bay Colony's "Christmas Carol": The Solo of Wit

This production, with the entire original cast, will be encored this holiday season at these sites:
Cape Cod Community College (Dec.9), Newton Presbyterian Church (Dec.10), First Church of Boston (Dec.12,13,14) and Plymouth Center for the Arts (Dec.18,19,20,21)

Every Christmas season, as predictable as the swallows’ spring return to Capistrano, there arrives at one’s theatrical doorstep (or one’s door knocker) an abundance of productions of Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol”, and this year is no exception. Among the more typical megacast and musical versions, however, there is one exception, that of the fledgling local troupe, The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company. While this critic reads the original novella every Christmas, the prospect of attending yet another staged version was daunting, and had prompted in past reviews the headline “Three Ghosts Walked into a Bar…”

Until this version. This is not your grandmother’s “Christmas Carol”, but she surely would have loved it. The striking difference that makes this production stand out from all the others is that all the roles, with one brief exception, are filled by one actor. And not just any actor, but the company’s Artistic Director Neil McGarry, so memorable in and as their recent “Hamlet”, now in another demanding, astounding, and charming performance. Under the insightful direction of the company’s Associate Director Ross MacDonald, this “Carol” is worth singing about, for it supplies a crucial voice most other versions miss, namely that of Dickens himself. From the moment McGarry arrives onstage literally carrying the baggage of Scrooge's life, we’re struck by the incomparably wise and witty language of the author. Where other productions tend to stick to the well-known words of various characters, this one depends much more on the literate beauty and deviously comic viewpoints one appreciated only on the page, until now. Such asides as having “often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now”, or “awaking in the middle of a prodigious tough snore” are hilarious examples. The star of this version is none other than Dickens himself, in the person of the narrator, and in that role McGarry truly shines.

McGarry is not your typical Scrooge, given his youth and good looks, but he manages to convince, with intricate gestures, fluid movement and seemingly infinite facial expressions, not only in the pivotal role of the old miser but in all the supporting roles save one, with wondrous turns as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, the long-suffering Bob Cratchit, and especially the small role of the boy sent to buy the prize turkey. Wisely, avoiding what could have been unintentionally funny, only the love of his young life, Belle, is portrayed by another actor, by the offstage voice of Erica Simpson, who also provides some music and very effective multiple sound effects. With few props (a scarf that doubles as a blindfold, a coat rack that doubles as a Christmas tree, street lamps and a trunk), and an almost bare stage, stripped to its bare essentials, the story has never been so alive and real. To see and hear McGarry exclaim “Oh, there never was such a goose!” is absolutely brilliant. He runs the gamut of emotions from Scrooge’s first horror at the vision of Marley’s face to the uniquely believable transformation at the end. Not only is this performance a triumph of memorization, it’s the most energetic effort seen on any stage thus far this season; at one point, at the Fezziwigs’ ball, one could have sworn there were ten lords a-leaping.

Mention should be made that this is a production unafraid to reference the religious meaning of the season, with Dickens’ quote “and he took a child and set him in the midst of them” and “he (Scrooge) went to church” near the end of the storytelling. As Scrooge finally puts it, “I am not the man I was”, and neither are we when reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, especially for those who believe, but even for those who do not. This is “A Christmas Carol” for the ages, and for theatergoers of all ages as well. Anyone who misses this production, to quote Dickens himself, “should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”. If you haven’t ordered tickets yet, what the dickens are you waiting for?


Lyric Stage's "Becky's New Car": Larger than "Life"

The titular heroine of Lyric Stage’s production of the comedy “Becky’s New Car”, by prolific playwright Steven Dietz, proclaims that “when a woman says she needs new shoes, what she really wants is a new job; when she says she needs a new house, she wants a new husband; and when she says she wants a new car, she wants a new life”. Alas, Becky Foster (Celeste Oliva) is an unhappy wife with a seemingly dead end job (processing auto titles and managing a car dealership). Her rather mundane (in her eyes) husband Joe (Mike Dorval) is a roofer, and their son Chris (Alex Marz) is a perennial student constantly quoting psychobabble. When Becky meets wealthy widower Walter Flood (Will McGarrahan) and he mistakes her for a widow, all sorts of previously undreamt possibilities emerge. At the same time, one of her colleagues at work, recently widowed Steve (Jaime Carrillo) is depressed at his own status and forever remembering (and, worse, verbalizing) the details of his wife’s dramatic death. Meanwhile, Walter’s daughter Kenni (Samantha Richert) and neighbor Ginger (Kortney Adams) have their own issues with finding mates.

This work deals with the various permutations and combinations these seven playing pieces in the game of life present, and they are certainly varied. Each member of the ensemble is great, as is the overall direction by Larry Coen. Oliva in particular is a dramatic dynamo, and the work of the rest of the cast is on the same fine level. The hit of the show, not to denigrate the performances in the least, is the Scenic Design by Shelley Barish, which manages to be gorgeous and fun at the same time, a giant colorful game board larger than “Life” (or other games on view, such as "Mystery Date" and "Chutes and Ladders"). The other tech crew contributions are also top-notch, from the Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue to the Lighting Design by Margo Cadell and the Sound Design by Edward Young.

Would that all this talent were matched by an equally memorable script, but such is sadly not the case. All the efforts of the cast and crew can’t overcome the basic thinness of the plot and a lot of really unnecessary gimmickry. Beginning with some announcements made by the actors in character directly to the audience, the playwright initially breaks down the fourth wall, then obliterates it. This open approach continues with considerable audience participation, too frequent and too uninspired, and not very original. Just two examples of the level of humor: Becky hands an audience member a roll of toilet paper with the instruction to “put this in the bathroom when you go”, and one character’s double entendre about another’s assets as an amateur detective, “You’re a regular dick”. There are a few basic lacunae in the telling of Becky’s story, such as why she finds it necessary to find that new car and new life, since her husband Joe comes across as a rather likeable chap, and why her son‘s search for direction is seen by her as a crisis. As for her own plight in life, she states that “women of a certain age become invisible, I want to be seen”, and “I’d rather keep driving in some other car (that is, life) other than this one”, yet she’s the driving force behind all we see. Other characters comment that “life is chaos and holidays”, that “blackmail is fun” and that “things unravel faster than they…ravel”. Unrelentlessly cynical and sarcastic satire wears thin pretty quickly, despite a few verbal blows that succeed. The games people play become sillier as the plot unravels or ravels. The program notes quote Jane Austen, “happiness in marriage is a matter of chance”. So is attending theatre, and if gamesmanship is one of your pastimes, this may be just your cup of tea.


Moonbox's "Earnest": The Joker's Wilde

The current offering by Moonbox Productions of the 1895 play by Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a welcome addition to the local theater scene indeed. As described by its author in its subtitle as “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, his skewering of the customs and pretensions of Victorian England has not only survived the intervening centuries, but has become widely beloved as perhaps the funniest play ever written in the English tongue. Its familiarity to audiences notwithstanding, theatergoers looking for an evening of wit and wisdom would do well to attend this impeccable production. As directed by Allison Olivia Choat (who helmed last season‘s excellent “A New Brain”), and performed by a flawlessly crusted cast (upper as well as lower), this is another feather in this company’s cap, from the very moment we first see the archetypal servant cleaning up after, and setting up before, the extravagances of his “superiors” in society.

Lane (Matthew Zahnzinger), manservant to Algernon Moncrieff (Glen Moore), is arranging the morning room in Algernon’s London flat for tea (and rearranging the room after what appears to have been a rather rambunctious party). Lane’s meticulous attention to detail is matched by his obvious disdain for his master’s tastes in chocolates and wine, as he samples the leftovers of both. Algernon, having just finished a piano piece, declaims that he doesn’t “play accurately, anyone can play accurately, but (he plays) with wonderful expression”. Lane offers that he hasn’t heard this because he “didn’t think it polite to listen”. Such is Wilde’s command of phrase turning that he manages to sum up in a few words the relationship between the classes. When his friend Jack (also known as John in the city, and as Ernest in the country) Worthing (Andrew Winson) arrives, he too sums up his lifestyle thus: “When one is in town one amuses oneself; when one is in the country one amuses other people; it is excessively boring”.

The arrival of Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Ed Peed), with her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Cat Claus), for tea, cements the portrayal of the upper class as Bracknell pronounces that she has been looking forward to “one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised” (and which Algernon has completely consumed). The very model of a modern major general, or perhaps battleship more accurately, Lady Bracknell is naturally appalled at the details of Worthing’s unworthy birth, and Peed gives it his all with both tone of voice and facial expression. This is truly unfortunate for Worthing given his wish to propose to Gwendolen, as will also be the case for Algernon who wishes to propose to Ernest’s young ward Cecily Cardew (Poornima Kirby). Providing social commentary are Cecily’s all too present governess Miss Prism (Catherine Lee Christie) and her suitor of sorts, Rev. Canon Chasuble (Gabriel Graetz). The remaining cast member is Merriman (Ray O’Hare), butler to John/Jack/Ernest. Each of them has her or his opportunity to shine, whether in verbal gymnastics or mime, and Choat has prepared all of them with an eye toward the jugular but with the precisely proper restraint. In the wrong hands, this work could end up tiresome or tedious; with this director and her cast, it’s anything but, becoming a fast-paced, sharp-tongued and thoroughly enchanting comedy of manners and manors. The technical crew adds a great deal to the overall success of this production, from the ingenious Scenic Design by John Paul Devlin to the Lighting Design by Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Sound Design by Dan Costello, lovely Costume Design by Susanne Miller and the efforts of Music Director/Composer Dan Rodriguez and his quartet.

One couldn’t ask for a more enjoyable version of a classic like this. It is almost criminal to single out individual actors or moments from such a terrific ensemble, but a few must be noted. Winson’s exasperation at many of the goings-on is hysterical, frequently reminiscent of John Cleese at his finest, and Peed’s delivery, accompanied by perfectly timed gestures with Lady Bracknell’s lorgnette and reticule, are a wonder to behold. Kirby’s ditsy Cecily is downright hilarious. From the pun inherent in its title (Ernest finally learning the importance of being earnest) to its revelations within its pivotal handbag, this production is a gem.


New Rep's "Camelot": Brief Shining Moments

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Huntington's "Cocktail Hour": Just a Smash

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Huntington's "Power of Duff": Breaking Views

“The Power of Duff” by Stephen Belber, Huntington Theatre’s current production, directed by Peter Dubois, was first staged by Dubois last summer at New York Stage and Film and Powerhouse Theatre. The story first saw light almost a decade ago when Belber created it in the form of a screenplay, which was optioned by Universal Studios and was said to be of interest to director Ron Howard and actor Russell Crowe. In its present form, it betrays its cinematic roots in that there are many very brief and dialogue-heavy scenes. This actually works to its advantage, given that the screenwriter-turned-playwright sets most of the action in a television studio, Channel 10 in Rochester, New York, where breaking news is delivered by co-anchors Charles Duff (David Wilson Barnes) and Sue Raspell (Jennifer Westfeldt) in the typical fast and furious sound-bitten manner so prevalent today. Belber nails the ersatz world of what passes for broadcast news today, right down to the self-conscious scribbling the on-air staff engages in whenever the lights start to dim. There’s even the wise-cracking colleague sportscaster John Ebbs (Brendan Griffin) to complete the picture, as well as their self-absorbed boss Scott Zoellner (Ben Cole) and their fatuous reporter Ron Kirkpatrick (Joe Paulik, who also plays several other roles). Another character, Joseph Andango (Russell G. Jones), was once the focus of a feature story on the station. As for Charlie’s personal life, there’s a good deal of baggage in his damaged relations with his son Ricky (Noah Galvin) and ex-wife Lisa (Amy Pietz). Each of them is about to be impacted by Charlie’s sudden on-air change.

On most nights, Charlie closes with his personal tagline, “have a good night”, but this is about to change, as he ends with a prayer for his recently deceased father on the air. Understandably, for legal reasons, his boss is apoplectic at first (though he also admits to a slight case of religious PTSD) though he’ll soon succumb to the power of ratings; his colleagues are shocked (but in different ways that hint at their own problems dealing with faith); his family is disgusted, given his previous priority of career angst over familial concerns. Most tellingly, the varying reactions of the public are what drive the progress of the play. A fascinating, original premise becomes the catalyst for a whole lot of soul-searching and searching for a soul. While Charlie is told by one of his colleagues “experience is just time, what you have is heart”, we’ve seen him prefer a handshake to a hug and a relationship to his viewers over his more immediate circle of co-workers, friends and family. As his on-air praying apparently begins to affect the world around him in miraculous ways, others question whether his is an anchor desk or a pulpit, and whether his increasing public power and his frustrated personal ambition are a toxic combination. Belber has stated that the community effect of Charlie’s prayer is central to his concept of the play.Though he’s not religiously affiliated, he states that he’s “always been suspicious of some sort of…force to be reckoned with”. What he’s feeling is a desire to connect: “if we close our eyes we find faith, if we open them we find each other”. He has settled in the past for what Belber calls the “seductive mediocrity that leads to either pompous self-regard or extreme yearning and existential woe”. Now, as he sees the effect he has on the larger community, he begins to build the courage to reach out and to accept reconciliation in return. Meanwhile, he’s tempted by all sorts of diversions, including a devilish Google exec. He longs for the days when he connected with his father’s remark that “this is the way it should be” (an unintended nod to the banal phrase used by a certain New England state, “the way life should be”).

Occasional Hallmark-like clichés aside, this is an impressive effort. It’s a bit of a bipolar work, with a somewhat manic first act (especially due to the hilarious jock-caster played by Griffin) and a contrasting serious, almost depressing second act. Yet it succeeds, in large part due to the fine work by Barnes and Westfeldt in their complicated on-and-off-air relationship, the hyperventilated hypocrisy displayed by Cole as their wavering superior, the sensitive portrayals by Jones, Pietz and Galvin, and the all-too-identifiable shallowness of their man-on-the-street played by Paulik. Jones is particularly poignant as the HIV-positive man who is one of the recipients of Charlie’s intervention. On the technical side, there is superb work as well, from the wonderful Scenic Design by David Rockwell, who designed “Hairspray” (which also included a television studio) and was a Tony nominee this past season for both “Kinky Boots” and “Lucky Guy”, to the Costume Design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, the complex Lighting Design by Rui Rita, the Sound Design by M. L. Dogg and Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne.

As the program notes quote from Kierkegaard: “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays”. By the close of the play, Charlie is arguably on his way toward the connectedness he sought. You would do well to make the journey with him, as theater this inventive can assure that theatergoers, in Charlie’s words, “have a good night”.


Lyric Stage's "Water by the Spoonful": Medicine by the Byteful

The current Lyric Stage production of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, “Water by the Spoonful”, by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Tony winner for “In the Heights” in 2008) presents us with playwriting at its most profound and live theater performance at its most moving. This powerful play makes it clear that, while our lives may be dissimilar on the surface, we all follow remarkably parallel paths as we wrestle with the challenges in our everyday lives. This second in her trilogy of works based on the real life experiences of her cousin Elliot, a veteran of the war in Iraq, (the other two being “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue”, a finalist for Pulitzer a few years ago, and “The Happiest Song Plays Last”, recently premiered in Chicago), proves that Hudes is a literary force to be reckoned with, a major new star in the theatrical firmament. This work continues the story she began in her first play, as Elliot Ortiz (Gabriel Rodriguez, seen last season in New Rep’s remarkable “Amadeus”) returns home to his fractured family in Philadelphia (of Puerto Rican descent, as is the playwright herself), struggling to find his place in the what’s left of his world. At the same time, a group of drug addicts in recovery are shown interacting via an online chat room as they too seek, as Hudes puts it, “community… acceptance…connection…redemption, even if it’s only drop by drop”.

While Elliott finds varying degrees of support from family, especially his cousin Yazmin (Sasha Castroverde) and mother Odessa (Mariela Lopez-Ponce), the three chat members, known by their online monikers, Fountainhead (Gabriel Kuttner), who hides his addiction from his wife and even from himself, Chutes&Ladders (Johnny Lee Davenport) who has lost contact with his family and bemoans that he is “fifty years old on a good day”, and Orangutan (Theresa Nguyen), who has chosen to flee to the country of her birth, all find support in their literal interconnectedness. Odessa happens to lead the chat room activity, but she has her own struggle with recovery, as Elliott notes “we all have skeletons, but, yeah, she’s an archeological dig”. By the time we’ve grown to know these characters better, it seems that the regeneration and renewal they all seek is just around the corner, but as Odessa says to Elliott, “staying sober is like dancing on a mine field”.

As described by A. Nora Long, Lyric’s Associate Artistic Director, they “wrestle with loss, identity, poverty, family, faith and fear; drug addiction is only part of that struggle”. They all, individually and collectively, face these real issues, some more effectively than others. As Chutes&Ladders puts it, there are only two rules: “don’t use, and don’t hurt anyone”, but this is easier said than done. What they all aspire to do is to learn how to live, all over again. At one point the question is asked whether they believe in God, in miracles, or at the very least, in action. At another point assurance is given to Elliott: “I know you can do this, but I know you can’t do it alone”. Yet his final decision regarding his present role (a “maker of sandwiches”) and his future dream (to have an acting career) will mirror the lives of the online family, as he moves from caregiver to reconciliation with family to a drastic change in locale. As he says at the end of the play, “If I stay…I’m gonna become one of them; I’m already halfway there… you’ve got armor, you’ve got ideas, but I don’t.” Rodriguez is especially touching in this scene. This may seem all too somber, but there are many touches of humor as well. To the question as to what his native tongue is, Elliott answers “Spanglish”, and one of the group sends another member who can’t swim a pair of water wings. (After all, Hudes’ middle name means “joy”). But the serious message is that just as water by the spoonful every five minutes prevents dehydration, baby steps in recovery are equally small and powerful.

The underlying dissonance these people endure is effectively, even unforgettably driven home by every member of this stellar cast (including Zaven Ovian, in several supporting roles) under the meticulous direction of Scott Edmiston. The technical staff is also at the top of their game, from Sound Design & Composing by Dewey Dellay (utilizing, per the author’s instructions, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Ascension”), to Scenic Design by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, to Costumer Design by Elisabetta Polito and Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, with the exception of brief scenes with overhead lighting that obscured the actors’ facial expressions.

This is a stunning, profoundly memorable production, nothing short of a dramatic triumph for Lyric Stage. As one of Hudes’ mentors, playwright Paula Vogel, once asked: “How many plays make us long for grace?”. This is surely one of them.


New Rep's "Rancho Mirage": Other Desert Pities

New Rep‘s current production of “Rancho Mirage” is one of the National New Play Network of Rolling World Premieres (now there’s a mouthful) wherein several theater companies more or less simultaneously produce promising works by relatively unknown authors. This play is the latest effort by Steven Dietz, the most successful playwright you’ve probably never heard of. His body of work is said to be one of the most frequently performed of all but a handful of American playwrights. A couple of seasons ago, this network gave us “Bakersfield Mist”, the very funny and authentic-feeling comedy by Stephen Sachs. That was an enjoyable two-hander about art and its perception. This time around we’re presented with three couples who have gathered for a dinner party in the gated community referred to as Rancho Mirage (which also happens to be the name of one of those “other desert cities” referred to on a highway exit sign near Palm Springs). All of the couples have been socializing for the past eight years or more, this time at the home of Nick and Diane Dahner, pronounced “Donner” (Lewis D. Wheeler and Tamara Hickey).

Any resemblance to another Donner party may not be intentional, but it would be apt given the manner in which they all cannibalize one another. Over the course of two hours, after a truly preposterous premise that demands that we accept as reality that one of the husbands, Charlie (John Kooi), has made a life-changing decision without previously informing his wife Pam (Cate Damon), we’re exposed to one after another of a series of implausible revelations. Dietz unfolds these secrets using naturally overlapping dialogue and rhythms of speech, but to say that these confessions strain credulity would be an understatement. This would be less of a problem if his characters and their problems were even remotely funny. In real life, one wouldn’t intentionally spend five minutes with such a cruel group of self-pitying, self-centered and self-loathing overgrown children, let alone two hours. The third couple, Trevor (Robert Pemberton) and Louise (Abigail Killeen) have their own issues involving an underage baby sitter, Julie (Marion Mason). At the beginning and end of the work we‘re told by Charlie that these are the “best people we know”; one can only speculate what the worst people they know might be like. Throughout the course of the play, as each of the spouses reveals her or his tragic event, the self-absorbed so-called friends either don’t hear or don’t care, or both; why, then, should we be expected to?

The cast tries valiantly to make us care. All of them do their best to make their characters believable, as directed by Robert Walsh, but it’s an uphill battle. The technical work is top-notch as is the norm at New Rep, from the Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan to the Costume Design by Amanda Maciel Antunes and the Sound Design by Deway Dellay.  Special mention should be made of the earth-toned Scenic Design by John Howell Hood, one of the production’s more credible aspects, right down to the color-coordinated throw pillows, all fourteen of them.

The Rolling World Premieres concept remains a worthwhile one, even if it occasionally results in a major misstep. Sometimes (as, for example, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) larger-than-life monstrous people can be fascinating in their mutual destruction, but this play (with George and Martha to the third power) proves that isn’t necessarily always the case. At one point, one of the characters describes the evening as a “why-not night”. Let us count the ways.


Huntington's "Jungle Book": Can Wild Animals Be Captivating?

Once upon a time, in a land not far away, there lived a wonderful magician, and her name was Mary Zimmerman. Not long ago, she helmed a production of “Candide” for the Huntington Theatre that was the finest piece of theater seen in these parts in decades. She has now returned to the Huntington stage as the author and director of a brand new version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, based in part on the Disney animated film of the same name. It became perhaps the most eagerly anticipated production of the current season, with many questioning how storytelling about a boy brought up by animals in the wild could possibly captivate a sophisticated audience in these more cynical times. One need not have feared. Zimmerman, her seemingly bottomless bag of theatrical magic intact, has done it again.

With a terrific cast of nineteen and an amazingly versatile orchestra of twelve (and more about that later), there is much for one’s senses to absorb. From the first appearance of the diminutive young hero Mowgli (Akash Chopra), in his astoundingly poised professional debut, to the panther Bagheera (the fabulously sinuous Usman Ally), the tiger Shere Khan (the majestically sinister Larry Yando), the python Kaa (the sensationally sibilant Thomas Derrah), the unforgettable elephants Colonel Hathi and Lieutenant George (the vaudeville-inspired Ed Kross and Geoff Packard), the lovely Peacock (the stunning Nikka Graff Lanzarone) and the brief but pivotal role of Little Girl (Glory Curda), this is a cornucopia of marvelous star turns. They’re supported by a chorus who are not your usual somewhat anorexic ensemble, but actually look like real people, uh, that is, animals, wonderfully choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (a Tony winner for his recent work on another Disney venture, “Newsies”).

After a slightly sluggish start, the show comes alive with the welcome appearance of a bear named Baloo (Kevin Carolan). Carolan, in an amazingly clever costume, is adorable and hysterical at the same time, providing some much-needed feeling, with his growing platonic-but-heartfelt bromance (dare one call it bearmance?) with Mowgli. His arrival, with his showstopping “Bare Necessities”, is soon followed by the marvelous entrance of King Louie (Andre De Shields), head of all the monkey business. In his own showstopper, “I Wanna Be Like You”, De Shields somehow manages to devour every piece of scenery in sight, shamelessly (yet successfully) mugging his way through a fabulously choreographed tap dance where the only human is barefooted and all the monkeys are in tap shoes. These two production numbers are the highlights of the first act, which even at fifty-five minutes could use a bit of trimming and a touch more of that heart provided by Baloo. At the end of this act, a father and his daughter left the theater (probably because she was only five years old), having seen a good show, which was a shame, for if they’d left at the end of the second act, they’d have seen a magnificent one.

Contrary to the usual norm, this piece of musical theater has a second act that transports the work to a level rarely experienced. This time, a fifty-five minute act fled by, propelled by non-stop theatrical bliss. It’s a truism that many a musical rises or falls on the strength or weakness of its music and lyrics. This score, by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with some new lyrics for two of their songs by Richard M. Sherman, is already beloved by many who have embraced the film over the years, and is very well served here. The music and lyrics for two of the songs, from an earlier proposed treatment of the film version, are by Terry Gilkyson (“Kalaweeta, Kaliana” and the popular “Bare Necessities”), and the music and lyrics for one new number, “Jungle Rhythm”, are by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowski. The resulting seamless amalgam is a delight, ranging from blues to swing to jazz, and even barbershop (in a particularly memorable number by a hilarious quartet of vultures).

The orchestra, all attired in colorful turbans and “sherwani” coats, frequently leaving the pit to take part in the onstage action, played numerous instruments, some familiar and some exotic. Yes, another musical score (with fascinating orchestration by Doug Peck) featuring sitars, dafs, veenas, flugelhorns, dholaks, ghattams, dhols, dumbeks, and tablas. Not since that other Disney musical about the king of another jungle in another part of the world has there been such an intriguing treat for the ears, enhanced by the complex sound design by the trio of Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli and Andre J. Pluess; and a treat for the eyes, for the exquisitely beautiful costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, the strikingly effective light design by T.J. Gerckens, and the gorgeous sets by Daniel Ostling are, to coin a word, awesome. Ostling is especially creative in the opening and closing scenes, both very cinematic, which bookend the fantasy; his final simple, silent, surreal scene is one that will linger in the hearts of theatergoers for years to come. It’s a miracle of stagecraft. The only miracle remaining is how one gets one’s hands on a ticket once word gets out about how this sublime work takes flight, and takes us along for the ride. The answer to the question as to whether wild animals can be captivating is yes, they Shere Khan.


Central Square's "The Other Place": It's a Mystery

The current offering at the Central Square Theater (a co-production by Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater), Sharr White’s “The Other Place”, was first produced off-Broadway in 2011 and subsequently (a full two years later) in White's Broadway debut, when it was nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Actress, although it lasted just sixty-one performances. As directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary (Associate Artistic Director at New Rep in Watertown) and starring Debra Wise (Artistic Director of Underground Railway Theater) as the main protagonist, narrator Juliana Smithton, it’s obviously intended as just that, a star vehicle. The story centers on Smithton, a Boston-based drug company scientist who is certainly a complex character. Married to a famous oncologist Ian (David DeBeck) with whom she had a daughter Laurel (Angie Jepson) who was intimate with one of her mother’s former colleagues, Richard (Jaime Carrillo), she attended a pharmaceutical conference in the Virgin Islands to speak about a new drug she has discovered for the treatment of a form of dementia. Treated herself (for what she fears is brain cancer) by Dr. Cindy Teller (also played by Jepson), she finds her own intelligence is her greatest asset and her largest burden. Along the way, there are mysterious revelations that don’t really prove to be very revelatory, as we begin to comprehend what’s really going on here. A theatergoer with any sense of irony will see the punch line coming a mile away.

Other plays have dealt successfully with women coping with various manifestations of illness (such as stroke in “Wings”, ovarian cancer in “Wit”, or mental instability in “Proof”). In this very brief work (just ninety minutes without an intermission), White ends up juggling one too many plot points. It’s a challenge to a reviewer since it depends on many gradual contradictions that can’t be discussed, even though most audience members should see, not long into the play, exactly where it’s going. They surely will, if they’ve been paying attention to several clues dropped fairly frequently, and, unfortunately, quite obviously. What eventually transpires at the end of the play comes as no surprise, since it’s been telegraphed all along. In the end, what seemed all too transparently predictable is just that. Even the title serves to help give away the secrets the playwright thinks he has successfully withheld.

Fortunately, this production has a lot of positive aspects about it, starting with O’Leary’s expert direction and the radiant acting by Wise and her co-stars, especially DeBeck as her understanding husband, backed up by Jepson and Carrillo in multiple roles. The technical crew contribute some very atmospheric elements, from the clever Set Design by Janie E. Howland to the Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and the Sound Design by David Remedios.

All of these professionals, on and off stage, are working at the top of their form. It’s a tribute to both theatrical companies that they almost succeed in overcoming the fundamental flaw of a mystery play with very little mystery. The true mystery is why anyone would consider this a work worthy of being produced.


SpeakEasy's "Tribes": Can You Hear Me Now?

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s season opener, “Tribes” by Nina Raine, is compelling in so many ways, not the least of which is how it compels us to “hear” with our eyes. First produced in London in 2010 (with an Olivier nomination for Best Play), it had a lengthy run Off-Broadway in 2012 in a stellar production directed by David Cromer (remembered for his directing and acting in Huntington Theatre’s recent revival of “Our Town”), earning six Lucille Lortel nominations, as well as the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best New Play. As superbly directed here by M. Bevin O’Gara (whose work last season for SpeakEasy‘s terrific production of “Clybourne Park” was so memorable), it not only opens the season but also our eyes, our ears, and ultimately our souls, with an impact that cries out to be seen, heard and felt to be believed; in its beauty and truth, it is unmatchable, unforgettable, unmissable.

The play is the story of an extremely dysfunctional family whose method of communicating their love for one another is through rather intense and almost hostile discussions. Its youngest and, at least initially, quietest member is Billy (James Caverly), who although born deaf has been raised in his hearing family as though he were exactly like them; for example, he knows nothing about sign language. His curmudgeon of a father, Christopher (Patrick Shea), is an acerbic academic critic prone to pontificating (“making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end”) and sarcasm (referring to sign language as “broken English”). His slightly more sensitive mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) is preoccupied with writing a detective novel about a marriage breakdown. His sister Ruth (Kathryn Myles) is an aspiring opera singer performing in strange venues like church halls and pubs. His other sibling Daniel (Nael Nacer) is a neurotic underachiever who is writing a thesis about the worthlessness of language, ever ready with criticism of others, referring to opera goers as “a bunch of people listening to something they don’t understand and feeling vaguely emotional and pleased with themselves…a bit like being drunk”, living with frequent voices in his head and anti-depressants in his system. Into this insular cocoon steps Sylvia (Erica Spyres), a woman Billy has just met, who is the daughter of deaf parents, and is now losing her own hearing. How she is received by Billy’s family, one tough tribe to crack, as well as the hierarchical tribe of the deaf community (which Christopher derides as “like any sect, built on exclusion”) is the focus of the first act of this brilliant work.

The second act is a stunner, which won’t be described here lest some of the extent of its intensity be diminished, other than to note that both Billy and Sylvia are profoundly changed, one becoming more and more confident, the other becoming less and less so. Caverly, with his extraordinarily expressive face, is mesmerizing, and Spyres is an astounding force of nature. Shea and Krstansky battle as often and as brutally believably as George and Martha in “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, and Nacer shows yet another facet of his seemingly effortless versatility (as in recent regional productions “Our Town”, “Kite Runner” and “Lungs”). Only Myles is left with relatively little to convey, as her character comes across as least sympathetic in Raine’s writing. Raine has, however, provided much to feast upon in the rest of her writing. She asks us to hear exactly how we hear, both in silence as well as in speech, as we listen passively and aggressively or not at all, as a family or other groups of people with a common culture that threatens to define them. Like any significant playwright, she exposes us to worlds we didn’t know existed, such as the class distinctions in the deaf world, with people who are born deaf and use sign language at the top of the pyramid. Without being preachy, her play deals with the politics and psychology of being born deaf or gradually going deaf, as well as the deaf community’s place in society at large. In the case of Billy, who reveals to his family that he has been treated as their mascot, it’s an even more profound examination of his identity and his reinvention of himself. More broadly, Raine deals with how each of us can fit in with a group if we’re still struggling as individuals. At more than one point in the play we as the audience are suddenly made to feel deaf until something is interpreted. As Raine has stated elsewhere, she wants us to confront ourselves with the question of what choices we would make if our children had been born deaf, and whether we would be emotionally deaf as well.

In SpeakEasy’s production, as with the original off-Broadway version, the play is presented in the round, and in so doing something is lost and something is gained. For extended periods, some members of the audience are unable to see the facial expressions of some of the cast. On the other hand, intimacy for such a work is indispensable, and no theatergoer is more than five rows from the stage. This presents a real challenge for Scenic Designer Christina Todesco, Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand and Projection Designer Garrett Herzig, but all of them are up to the task. Also in top form is the (obviously) essential Sound Design by Arshan Gailus, with its meticulously chosen music ranging from the Queen of the Night’s aria from “Magic Flute” to “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney‘s “Jungle Book” to the exquisitely appropriate irony of the finale, the humming chorus from “Madame Butterfly”.

In the end, although some of the members of Billy’s family appear to be terminally self-absorbed, there is a lot of love in their tribe, albeit oddly expressed. As Raine has also stated, the fact that “people make mistakes is really the point”. Sometimes they do so out of an excess of protectiveness, sometimes possessiveness, sometimes obliviousness. But at the roots of every tribe there is that elusive need not only for feeling love, but also for communicating it, something at which this playwright has been profoundly successful. Ms. Raine, we hear you.


Trinity Rep's "Grapes of Wrath": The Milk of Human Kindness

Trinity Rep’s fiftieth season opener is “The Grapes of Wrath”, adapted in 1988 by Frank Galati for the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago from John Steinbeck’s book and dedicated to his widow Elaine. Subsequently it was produced on Broadway and won the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play. Starring a then-unknown Gary Sinese as Tom Joad, the recently paroled member of the Joad Family, it was their story of being kicked off their land by the bank and their 1938 trek from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California. Though reluctant to leave (because “a feller gets used to a place, it’s hard to go”) they are forced to pull up roots and head for the promised land of employment opportunity. As the first
Narrator puts it: “The corn could go, as long as something else remained…women studied the men’s faces secretly…to tell whether this time the men would break”. And break they did, at least as far as keeping up any hope of remaining on the land they had once made fertile. As the character of the former preacher Casy says about their shared hopelessness: “the spirit ain’t in the people much no more… maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of” (which Tom recalls later near the end of the play). It‘s only “when they’re all workin’ together, that’s holy”. As in Steinbeck‘s novel, much of the meaning of their plight is expressed by Casy. When he observes that theirs is a one-way migration, he marvels that “it’s like a whole country movin’ (west)”. Along the way, there are many hints of dire conditions at the end of their travels, deaths of both the elderly and the newborn, and a whole lot of denial. But Ma Joad remains steadfast (“It ain’t kin we, it’s will we?”) and never looks back at the farm, as “it’s just the road goin’ by for me”, that is, not the past and not the future, only the present matters.

This play is a perfect choice for Trinity Rep to start its fiftieth season, both because of the company’s depth of bench (in its true repertory of players) and its versatile venue. It’s clear from the moment one enters the theater to the music of the seven-piece band known as “3pile” (composed of Brown University students Ben Grills, Nikki Massoud, Ted Moller, Alex Curtis, Matt E. Russell, Sherri Eldin and Zdenko Martin) that this is a novel approach to the novel, beginning with Martin’s spiel to the audience about exits and cell phones. Each one of these multi-talented singer/actors play supporting roles in the work, and all are splendid. The meatiest parts are impeccably played by very familiar members of the resident company, headed by Stephen Thorne (Tom), Anne Scurria (Ma), Joe Wilson, Jr. (Casy), Richard Donelly (Pa), Jessica Crandall (Rose of Sharon), Fred Sullivan, Jr. (Uncle John), Janice Duclos (Granma) and Stephen Berenson (Grampa). They’re joined by two newly added resident members Charlie Thurston (Muley) and Mia Ellis (Mrs. Wainwright), both of them welcome indeed. Rarely do we get the opportunity to see this huge company all play together, and it’s a treat for us as much as it appears to be for them. Although this is a successful team effort, one would be remiss if mention weren’t made of the sublimely controlled power in Scurria’s performance that breaks our hearts, and the complexity in the creative evolution of Thorne’s central role that nourishes our souls.

Director Brian McEleney elicits fine performances from the entire cast, choosing to let his actors (rather than, as in previous productions of the play, effects like troughs of water, fires and working automobiles) convey the strong message of taking care of one another. He has described his vision as interior storytelling about music, poetry and people, with the folk-rock songs composed by students Eldin and Martin as a counterpoint to the story. The sets (designed by Michael McGarty) are minimalist, often constructed by the cast in the style of productions of “Nicholas Nickleby”, “A Man of No Importance” or “Les Miserables”. The lighting design by John Ambrosone keeps us focused on each cast member as she or he carries the plotlines, enhanced by the complex sound design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. All of the technical effects combine to help advance the tale of the troubles of the Joad Family, the emergence of Tom Joad’s social consciousness under the influence of Casy, and the plight of migrant farm workers (then and now). McEleney’s choice to keep it simple and utilize contemporary music is a brilliant one, as it makes a classic literary source seem all the more relevant.

As Ma puts it, “us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone…we’re the people that live…we go on”. As they reach their goal of the California fruit farms, Tom adds “we sure ain’t bringin’ nothing’ with us”, and that his “grandparents wouldn’t’ve seen it, it’s for the youngsters who are really seeing it”, but he’s partly wrong. Men see life as a series of jerks, Ma pronounces, whereas women see life as a flowing river. It takes a while for Tom to see this, in the iconic words “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…Whenever there’s a cop beatin’ up on a guy, I’ll be there…and whenever our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there”. As the play ends, Rose of Sharon offers the sacrifice embodying the milk of human kindness in the most profoundly moving scene. Steinbeck’s title (a reference to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and its Old Testament sources about the wickedness in the world) is ironic, in that he emphasizes the valiant, often fruitless, struggle of good people. This wondrous production echoes the somewhat clumsy (yet both simple and profound) grace before a meal voiced by Casy. He (and we) should be “glad that there’s love here”.


"Elephant Man": New Rep Packs This Dermis with Wit

New Rep’s season opener, “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, directed by Artistic Director Jim Petosa with many of the actors from his memorable last season closer “Amadeus”, is a reminder that if you believe that beauty is only skin deep, this play’s not for you. It also serves as witness to the wit and wisdom of this winner of the 1979 Tony, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards as Best Play. Based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) in London (and, briefly, Belgium), it explores society‘s treatment of those people who are different, or at least appear to be, and are consequently either categorized, ostracized, or institutionalized. The fact that it takes place in England in the Victorian Era by no means lets us off the hook, as even a superficial review of health care priorities today would prove. This is a work that, in the right hands, plays much more hauntingly than it reads on the page; it is one of those works that a director and her or his team of actors can make soar.

In this production, the words on the page do indeed take flight, for they are unquestionably in the right hands. The incredible experience that Petosa and his team of actors and technical crew created last spring is equaled if not surpassed here, starting with the astonishing performance by Tim Spears (last season’s Mozart) again in the title role of the physically deformed young man. When he cries out “sometimes I think my head is so big because it is full of dreams”, it’s a truly heartbreaking moment, as we see clearly what his contemporaries by and large did not. His apparent rescue from exploitation by Dr. Treves (Michael Kaye, also wonderful) is merely the beginning of more subtle and insidious treatment. As his first carnival “manager” Ross (a very believably creepy Joel Colodner) describes his new “home” at London Hospital, it is a milieu that exemplifies “places cruel to life are the most revealing scientifically”. When Merrick asks “I have a home? As long as I like?” and is told “that is what home is”, he at first fails to see the hypocrisy afoot. Later in the play a wiser Merrick asks “if your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”, and is told by his protector Treves that “rules make us happy because they are for our own good”. As Merrick finishes constructing a model of the nearby St. Philip’s Church, he states “I make an imitation of an imitation….we are all just copies? of originals?…who made the copies?…He should’ve used both hands”, evidencing a level of intelligence most of his contemporaries missed. And, in the most revealing moment in the play, in a dream of Treves, roles are reversed and Merrick analyzes Treves: “…as a boy (he) developed a disabling spiritual duality, therefore was unable to feel what others feel, nor reach harmony with them…thus denied all means of escape from those he had tormented”. It’s a fabulously heightened theatrical moment, an unforgettable one.

Spears as our seemingly unlikely hero is surrounded by a versatile, extraordinary cast, all of them (except Spears himself) in multiple roles that display the breadth and depth of the local talent pool. Valerie Leonard is terrific as Mrs. Kendal (and one of the Pinhead Sisters), as are Russell Garrett as Carr Gomm (and a train conductor), Esme Allen as Miss Sandwich (and Princess Alexandra and a Pinhead Sister). The aforementioned Colodner also shines in the additional roles of Bishop Walsham How and Snork. In several supporting roles (Lord John, the manager of the Pinhead Sisters, a policeman and Will), with suitable regional accents for each of his characters, Ross MacDonald also stands out. All of their work is enhanced by the atmospheric musical accompaniment by oboist Louis Toth. The technical crew all added substantially to the overall wonder of this production, from the ingenious Scenic Design by Jon Savage (not an easy job given that the play consists of twenty-one scenes), complex Costume Design by Molly Trainer and Lighting Design by Daniel Maclean Wagner, effective Sound Design by David Reiffel, and the musical accompaniment by Toth (playing music beautifully composed by Reiffel).

At the close of the play, Treves is asked if he has anything to add to Merrick’s obituary after his inevitable early death. When he has one (unexpressed) belated thought, he is told : “It’s too late, I’m afraid. It is done”. By this time, the audience has been transported to a level of theatrical perfection rarely seen. As each well-meaning character expresses how “very like me” Merrick was, we come to realize that, beneath the skin, it is not Merrick but all those around him (and, by extension, we as well) who are carrying baggage. It’s a triumph for all who contributed to this marvelous, flawless production.


Lyric Stage's "One Man, Two Guvnors": Give a Little Skiffle

Lyric Stage’s first production of the current season (its fortieth year of bringing great theater to Boston),“One Man, Two Guvnors”, gets the fall theater schedule off to a rousing start. Based on the classic Italian commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Goldoni, “A Servant of Two Masters”, this is a surprisingly faithful adaptation by Richard Bean, even down to its frequent asides to the audience, with most of the original plot left intact. (It’s no wonder the Tony Awards committee argued over its decision to consider it an original play or a revival; they opted for the former, but really should have chosen the latter). When it was first announced as Lyric’s season opener, the news was met with decidedly mixed anticipation. Farce, with its rigid demands for precision, timing and tone, is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, and oh so easy to ruin. Happily, in the ever capable hands of Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and local treasure Neil A. Casey in the lead role, farce has survived intact. Some may compare this work to the like of “Noises Off!”, but its closest kin might well be the inspired zaniness of the British television series “Fawlty Towers” at its faultless best.

With its mistaken identities, gender switches, pratfalls, and other such tricks of the slapstick trade, the play defies synopsis without giving away too much of its inherent pleasures. Casey, as the scheming “one man”, Francis Henshall, serving two employers simultaneously, appears to be having the time of his life in this role of a lifetime. His juggling of the overlapping duties and interconnected love stories of the play must be seen (and not described) to be enjoyed. He’s ably surrounded by a terrific cast that includes his two “guvnors”, Stanley Stubbers (Dan Whelton) and Crabbe (McCaela Donovan), a pair of star-crossed lovers named Pauline Clench (Tiffany Chen) and Alan Dangle (Alejandro Simoes), their fathers Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Dale Place) and Harry Dangle (Larry Coen), and the hysterically funny long-in-the-tooth waiter Alfie (John Davin). Their names alone are fodder for fun, worthy of that other fine British playwright Alan Ayckbourn as are other characters with such monikers as Lloyd Boateng (Davron S. Monroe) and Gareth (Harry McEnerny V), as well as a barman (Chuong Pham) and a policeman (James Blaszko). There’s also yet another standout performance as the manager Dolly by the incredibly versatile Aimee Doherty, who also plays a mean set of spoons.

It‘s about those spoons. They‘re a staple of popular British musical performances known as “skiffle”, which is music (jazz, country, folk, and other genres) using unusual instruments such as spoons, jugs, kazoos, washboards, ukulele, harmonica, steel drums and the like. With some fifteen numbers (written by Grant Olding specifically for the show and actually released on a CD), this could easily be considered as a musical. (Ah, let us once again pity those Tony Award committee members). They’re played and sung by members of the cast and a live, visible band under the direction of Catherine Stornetta. The technical elements are all cleverly on the money, including the Scenic Design by Matthew Whiton, Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

As noted above, it’s so tempting to take slapstick and run with it; it takes real discipline and practice to do physical comedy without giving in to the natural inclination to overdo. Kudos are due to this cast and its creative team for delivering such low comedy on such a high level. The play may take a rather lengthy time for the set-up, but the pay-off is well worth it.


Priscilla Beach's "Godspell": A Miraculous Tent Revival

Rejoice, theatergoers, for the second coming of the renowned Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth is at hand! In recent years the theater has been focused on children’s theater, but the complex has now been rebirthed by Producers Bob and Sandy Malone as a theatrical tent (that is, until the old barn, the actual inspiration for the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie “Babes in Arms”, is restored or replaced). Their first production is the popular musical “Godspell” (auld English for “Gospel”) based primarily on the parables found in the Gospel of St. Matthew, with three parables from St. Luke. It first opened off-Broadway in 1971, where it ran for five years, transferring to Broadway for another year, with several revivals and a long-running Boston version. The music, a mixture of pop, rock, gospel, folk and other styles, is by Stephen Schwartz (perhaps you’ve heard of his other musical about a certain green witch). Schwartz has a talent for magic, as evidenced in his body of work, from “Pippin” to “The Magic Show” and that aforementioned witch musical, to his next project starring Hugh Jackman in the title role of “Houdini”. The lyrics of “Godspell”, by John-Michael Tebelak, are taken from both the Episcopal hymnal and the Bible. It also has one song, “By My Side”, by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon (a member of the original cast). The book honors several stage traditions from mime to vaudeville to even a hint of burlesque, with more than a casual nod to Medieval festivals. Given the talent behind the original, it’s a pleasure to inform you that creativity, as displayed in this revival, is not dead.

It’s easy to love “Godspell” for its sheer theatrical fun and complex but accessible score, filled with show-stoppers and amazingly moving moments; it’s also easy (for some) to dismiss it as simplistic. A case in point is the long Prologue, consisting of sound bytes from various philosophers, which could be seen as pretentious, but that’s sort of the point. The scene ends with general cacophony as they all dispute one another’s tenets, only to be confronted by the profound message of Jesus. There follow those parables, eleven in all, that may also be taken as simplistic, but only at first hearing, until you see what effect they have on followers of Jesus. Although Jesus is the lead role, this is fundamentally a story about the community left behind and how their lives were changed. One need not have personal faith (in the very narrowest sense of the term) to share the message of this ensemble.

And quite an ensemble this is, ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-nine, evidencing an extraordinary degree of intelligence in the choices each made about her or his character, as well as a daunting depth of musicianship. The result is a show that will make your soul soar, your spirit sing and your heart break, all at the same time. The power of this production rests in its highlighting of the individual strengths of its cast members. Brendan Duquette (Jesus) is sweet and gentle, balanced with a manly (and godly) presence and a gorgeous voice; if there is any justice in this world, he will have a very productive career. And speaking of voices, Jarryd Blanchard (John the Baptist/Judas) and Meghan Boutilier are blessed with pipes with incredible range (when they hit their highest notes, one wouldn’t want either of them anywhere near your precious crystal); Meghan also generously contributed some truly lively choreography. Corrine Manning’s comic timing and gift for improv are wonders to behold, as is Neil Nisbet’s delivery in a series of funny dialects, and Denise Faul-Sundstrom’s acting is intense. Maggie Irvine’s vocal chops show both the depth of her experience (this being far from her first musical) and trained dance. Caitlin Ricker, a petite performer with a huge talent, effervesces with unparalleled musicality (at last count, she can play some twenty instruments), while Will Flederman, at the ripe old age of fifteen, has amazing skills with magic and mime. They all share apparently boundless energy and enthusiasm. (One must demure from critiquing the performance of Jack Craib, since he doubles as a theater critic, thus risking conflicted interest; suffice it to say there’s not a clinker in the bunch).

This isn’t just theater under the stars; it’s a theater full of stars. Yet, impressive as they are individually, it’s as a group that this stellar troupe really shines. They’re a unit, a community, a family, which any successful “Godspell” cast should be. Under the able direction of Conni DiLego with Geronimo Sands (in his fifty-second year with the theater), it evolved as a truly collaborative effort with the cast, which was absolutely appropriate for this show. Organist Chris Ricci deftly leads a spirited group of musicians including Mark Elsner on brass and shofar (an authentic ram‘s horn), Charlie Tairmina on bass, and expert percussion by Isaac Lit. The intricate Lighting Design is by Rich Sullivan. Sound Design is by Ben Blanchard. Stage Manager is Dena Moscheck. The end result: a “Godspell” that’s as magical to see as to hear.

The “good news” (the meaning of the title) is that adult summer stock theater is alive again at Priscilla Beach Theatre, in a show suitable for the whole family. This inspired reincarnation (you should excuse the expression) incites sheer joy, but then what else would one expect from a theatre that has an unprecedented run of seventy-seven years?


Nora Theatre's "Absurd Person Singular": Wreck the Halls

With bows of folly, Alan Ayckbourn set his three-act comedy “Absurd Person Singular” (his twelfth play of seventy-seven and counting) on three successive Christmas Eves. First produced in London in 1972, it had its Broadway debut two seasons later, and ran for two years. This current production by Nora Theatre (at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge) adroitly shows why it was, and remains to this day, one of his most popular plays. The increasingly farcical trio of acts follows three couples as they host their respective holiday parties (the final one impromptu), and the subterfuges behind them, providing a great deal of madcap fun, alongside some underlying serious issues. Anyone intent on discerning the deep significance of the title, however, may cease and desist now, as Ayckbourn himself admitted it has nothing to do with the play; rather, it was a clever title he’d come up with years before which he put aside until he needed it. His longest running play both in London and on Broadway, it takes place in an unnamed town in England in three distinctly different kitchens. Its theme, again per Ayckbourn himself, may be summed up as “cursed are the meek”.

Act One, “Last Christmas”, takes place in the home of Sidney Hopcroft (David Berger-Jones), a social climbing tradesman, and his submissive wife Jane (Samantha Evans), a housewife who prefers cleaning her kitchen to anything else. Sidney, a wheeler-dealer, hopes to convince his guests (three couples, one of which we mercifully never see) to invest in his business. That infamous couple we don’t ever see on stage are the Potters, Dick and Lottie, who at all costs must be avoided by all three of the other couples, each seeking refuge in the kitchen. Geoffrey and Eva Jackson (Bill Mootos and Liz Hayes), and Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright (Steve Barkhimer and Stephanie Clayman) are the other two couples. Though Jane ultimately gets locked out in the rain, Sidney, very unfeeling for her, considers the party a success.

Act Two, “This Christmas” takes place a year later, in the kitchen of Geoffrey, an adulterous architect whose buildings have a history of collapsing, and his severely depressed wife Eva, who has a serious tendency to attempt suicide in front of company. With their marriage on the rocks due to his infidelity, nobody realizes Eva’s despair, and in fact they misinterpret her suicide attempts, thus ending up cleaning her oven, fixing the sink, or attempting to fix a light. All end up huddled in the kitchen hiding from their dog George (who is also mercifully never seen, but still manages to dominate the rest of the household) and, again, the Potters.

Act Three, “Next Christmas” takes place another year later, this time in the upscale kitchen of Ronald, a banker unable to count to ten, and Marion, an alcoholic who locks herself away in her bedroom. This time around all try to hide from Sidney and Jane who arrive unannounced, having had their fortunes rise. But since Geoffrey and Ronald both need Sidney and Jane now, they invite them in, and Sidney ends up having all dance (quite literally) to his tune.

Under Daniel Gidron’s superbly timed direction, the performances are all just demented enough to be hilarious. From Berger-Jones’ bluster to Hayes’ mimed and crazed Eva, they’re a hoot. Hayes’ performance in the second act is especially hysterical (in both senses of the term), leading to a tableau of well-intentioned guests that has to be seen to be believed, the funniest visual comedy in years. Mention must also be made of the Set Design by Brynna Bloomfield, each deliriously different kitchen a masterpiece of subtle detail, with transformations that are fun to watch during intermission. The Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney and Costume Design by Leslie Held are also sufficiently varied and appropriate to each couple’s level of upward mobility. Ayckbourn’s world is a dog eat dog one (not limited to George). He satirizes the concept that materialism is what matters most, given what flawed individuals he sees most of us are; his bet is that the odds favor those with the least scruples and most ruthless ambition. It‘s all a matter of priorities in each of their lives, and many bad things that happen in life result from well-intentioned actions. Heady stuff for a comedy, but that’s more the subtext as we watch each of these couples unravel in their own ways. And, in the end, what could be more refreshing than Christmas in July?