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.