Huntington Theater: Dial "M" for Mayhem

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated production of the season was a world premiere, Huntington Theater Company’s “M”, local luminary Ryan Landry’s take on Fritz Lang’s classic film. Those familiar with the source material, the film noir about a serial child killer, wondered how this could possibly serve as a basis for the sort of madcap comedy for which Landry is famous in Boston. The announcement that yet another local legend, Karen MacDonald, would be playing the title role, originally enacted by none other than Peter Lorre, only added fuel to the fire. Landry’s considerable fan base was fascinated at both the possibilities and potential pitfalls inherent in his access to a much larger venue, a much more conservative audience and a notably larger budget. They needn’t have worried; what has emerged is a somewhat schizophrenic amalgam of elements, which will be appealing to some and appalling to others. Whatever an individual theatergoer’s response is, this is undeniably a wild and wacky demonstration of what happens when a brilliant mind is given the keys to the candy store. Hands down, this is the most creative work seen on a Boston stage this season.

When the curtain raises, we’re informed that we’re about to see a “dramedy”, and that eight victims have already been killed. Several other murders subsequently occur, but by the end of the evening it’s quite clear what has survived the mayhem: vaudeville is certainly not dead. Without divulging too many of the endless sight gags and sly allusions, suffice it to say that in the space of what is described as “90-ish” minutes, Landry manages to skewer the musical “Annie”, the music from “Psycho”, Mickey Mouse, “Hansel and Gretel”, Dick Tracy, "Raisin in the Sun" and just about every slapstick routine and device except for a whoopee cushion. What should be essential preparation for seeing this work is viewing the original film (since Landry continually references it), which Huntington Theater has helpfully provided on its website. Meanwhile, Landry not only breaks down the theatrical fourth wall, he demolishes it, once too often, as though it was a novelty and one had never heard of Ionesco, much of absurdist theater, or even Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo”. The humor is intentionally sophomoric, scatological and vulgar. Whether one enjoys this sort of thing will depend on one’s love (or lack thereof) of farce and puerile screwball comedy. At the opening night performance, about half of the audience (including this critic) seemed uninvolved most of the time, while the rest of the audience was convulsed with hysterical laughter. Ryan thus would appear to have succeeded at conjuring up a controversial piece of theater.

The choice of Karen MacDonald at first looks controversial too, as she has little to do for most of the play but skulk and whistle, but in the work’s final scene she comes into her own, superbly channeling the Peter Lorre performance (especially the one reenacted by him in the French version of the film). The rest of the cast, including The Woman (Ellen Adair), The Man (Paul Melendy), The Pig (Larry Coen), Fritz (David Drake), Schlitz (Laura Latreille) and Olga (Samantha Richert) are all adept at scenery chewing. The Little Girl (alternating Eva Jean Chapuran & Ava Rose Cooke) is seen briefly. Most of the cast portray other roles as well, including that of a critic, wherein Landry delivers some preemptive strikes in the likely event that his play might not be universally acclaimed. As directed by Caitlin Lowans, the cast appears to be having the bulk of the evening’s fun, joyfully digesting the amazingly clever scenery by Jon Savage. The Costume Design by Scott Martino, Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan, Music and Sound Design by David Remedios and the Puppetry Direction by Roxanna Myhrum are all marvelous to behold. Special mention should be made of the Projections Design by Garrett Herzig, so perfect it makes one believe there should be an award category for this technology.

In the end, there is a lot of both magic and mystery in this production, which is a noble effort all around. If your cup of tea is the likes of Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and a Hasty Pudding show, this will be just your (tea) bag. If not, fair warning: Ryan Landry, as usual, takes no prisoners.


New Rep's "Master Class": Having a Look

If you’ve lived your whole life for opera, or if you’ve lived your whole life without it, you owe it to yourself to see Terrence McNally’s play “Master Class”, itself a masterpiece of wit, wisdom and warmth. The winner of the 1996 Tony Award as Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, it was a tribute to the memory of his beloved La Divina, Maria Callas, as well as a vehicle for a star turn by a series of notable theatrical divas in various productions over the years. It was also, in the guise of a master class on operatic singing and technique, a window into the process of the making of art. In New Rep’s current production, in the masterful hands of Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, it is all of this and more. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious, an uncanny portrayal of a larger-then-life legend.

But warmth, from Maria Callas; surely that’s an oxymoron? Ah, the clever playwright knows his subject, the tempestuous soprano, through and through, and not just from her often notorious interviews, her visible battles with operatic moguls and her famous recordings. He actually attended several master classes she conducted, and has distilled his experience into a tight, illuminating and cleverly revealing study of the untold price of art. In her own words in the play, Maria (a spectacularly flawless Amelia Broome) stresses the essential need for an aspiring artist’s having a distinctive personal visual presence. She speaks of a student, Sophie, (Erica Spyres) about to perform, as “our first victim; a little joke”. She asks, or rather demands, that the soprano “Act, no. Feel. Be.” To a second soprano, Sharon (Lindsay Conrad), she commands that she “Enter…anyone can stand there and sing. An artist enters and is.” Later she reiterates that “an entrance is how we present ourselves in life”, making it quite clear that she considers us all as members of the class. To a third student, a tenor, Tony (Darren T. Anderson) she intones that he should be aware of his “bella figura”: “a singer has to know his assets”. To all of the assembled class, (and that would include us) she declares that we must be unique and distinctive in how we present ourselves; we must all have “a…look”.

Throughout the class, self-described as “the absolute center of the universe right now”, she dominates not only her hopeful students but also her accompanist Manny (Brendon Shapiro), whom she feels also lacks that distinctive “look”, and a stagehand (Michael Caminiti). In her own view, she is incomparable (“How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you can do?”). While claiming it’s not about her, we (and she) know that it’s all about her: “You have to be like a sponge. Absorb. Absorb…This isn’t just an opera, this is your life”. Broome dominates the stage, as Callas surely did, but she is surrounded by a stellar cast, as one by one they endure her exacting standards. Spyre’s portrayal of a promising singer yet to learn how to extrapolate life’s lessons into musical feeling, Anderson’s cocky but unsure tenor with an ignorance of what he is singing about, and Conrad’s initially nervous but ultimately challenging hopeful, are all up to the task, as are the two actors in the smaller roles, Shapiro and Caminiti. Every one of them has clearly studied this piece in depth; their efforts reward us.

Special mention should be made of the amazing Set Design by John Traub; simple but stunning, it makes what could have been a rather boring rehearsal stage into a versatile wonder. Given Callas’ emphasis on having one’s own look, Stacey Stevens’ Costume Design is perfection itself, as are Chris Brusberg’s Lighting Design and David Reiffel’s Sound Design. All of their expertise reflects the collaboration between Broome and Ocampo-Guzman who have recreated a legend for the ages, one who inspires as much as she instructs, and whose presence among us for just under two hours could stand as a master class in acting and direction when they perfectly intersect, as they do here. Their Callas is a teacher whose life is itself a learning experience for all who would assume the awesome task of artistic creation.

This master teacher speaks not only to her “victims” but to all of us when she declares: “You must know what you want to do in life, you must decide, for we cannot do everything…what matters is that you use whatever you have learned wisely…the only thanks I ask is that you sing properly and honestly. If you do this, I will feel repaid. Well, that’s that”. That’s that, indeed; although, in a sense, that’s only the beginning. What we learn about the legendary artist, with all her flaws and vulnerability, with all her brilliance and mastery of her art, could fill volumes. And as she would put it: “But that’s another story”.


Lyric Stage's "By the Way...": In Vera Veritas

Lyric Stage Company’s current offering of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”, by Lynn Nottage (2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for “Ruined”) is full of truths (though those truths aren’t always immediately apparent). The comedy is based on an enticing story about an aspiring black actress in Hollywood in the 30’s, her subsequent career (some forty years later), and the focus of a 2003 seminar on the impact and meaning of her professional life. Off-Broadway, it earned a 2011 Drama Desk nomination for outstanding play. It’s a great vehicle for a quartet of talented actresses, as well as a golden opportunity for creative multi-media expertise. Fortunately, the cast and crew of this production rise to the occasion. From the moment the audience enters the theater, the illusion of Vera Stark as an actual film star is cleverly illustrated with stills and clips from her supposed filmography. In this prologue, as well as in other filmed and projected interludes between scenes, Film & Media Designer Johnathan Carr and Sound Designer Edward Young are particularly outstanding.

The bumpy voyage from obscurity to fame is shared by the future Mary Pickford-like “America’s Little Sweetie Pie” Gloria Mitchell (Hannah Husband), her maid in real and reel life, Vera Stark (Kami Rushell Smith), and Vera’s friends Lottie (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) and Anna Mae (Kris Sidberry). All perceive the making of the “Gone-with-the-Wind”-like “The Belle of New Orleans” as their possible springboard to more roles, celebrity and riches. They’ll stoop to anything to capture a part in the proposed epic to be helmed by Maximillian von Oster (Gregory Balla) and produced by movie mogul Mr. Slasvick (Kelby T. Akin), even when it requires mimicking the obsequious slave caricatures that these powerful white men envision. Ironically, it’s the latter roles written by the playwright for white actors, as well as the two additional roles played by Akin and Balla (respectively, Brad, a very fatuous Merv Griffin-like television host and one of his guests, Peter, a Mick Jagger-like spaced-out rocker) that come across as stereotypes. And, if you’ve noticed a lot of “-likes” herein, it’s obvious that the intent of the playwright is to parodize a number of Hollywood clich├ęs. Even the final seminar led by Herb (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and abetted by researcher Carmen (Cox) and political activist Afua (Sidberry) manages to prolong the parody. The four actress roles are better written, as is that of Vera’s suitor and first husband Leroy (Sledge).

Director Summer L. Williams does what she can with this imbalance of fleshed-out and cardboard characters, aided by the stylish Scenic Design of David Towlun, Costume Design Tyler Kinney and Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. But the play’s strengths (primarily in confronting us with the historical limitations imposed upon actors of color for far too long a period) may not be enough of a payoff for some theatergoers who might be put off by several cartoon-like portrayals and scenes in need of trimming and tightening.

For those willing to put up with a number of flawed elements, there is rewarding insight into the barriers that existed then (and persist today, if truth be told, if not perhaps as blatantly). There are some hilarious lines, such as Lottie’s remark about the black roles in “Belle of New Orleans” (“Slaves with lines?”) or Gloria’s self-obsessed observations (“It’s exhausting to be this fabulous”). And there’s the fundamental truth that Vera herself reveals in her televised meltdown (“Tonight I’ve crossed the bridge, and there’s no going back”), which will come as no enormous surprise if you’ve been paying attention. This work is a window into a world too many of us chose to be oblivious to, through a glass starkly, despite the evidence right there on the silver screen. “By the way”, indeed.