Fathom Events' "Meistersinger": Sometimes Life Sachs

The Cast of the Metropolitan Opera's "Die Meistersinger"
(photo: Beth Bergman)
Screened at Regal Cinemas in Kingston, MA, with encore screening Weds. Dec. 17th

Fathom Events’ latest HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera was the Richard Wagner masterpiece, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, the last outing before this busy Otto Schenk production is retired. It’s a work with some great music and a hero, Hans Sachs, a shoemaker (who’s cobbled together a song) with an exemplary life. The story of this noble sole lasts and lasts…for six hours. Wagner could have used editing, but some moments, such as an act three quintet, are sublime.

For such a lengthy piece , the story is relatively simple. The setting is 16th century Nuremburg. The knight Walther von Stolzing (tenor Johan Botha) has fallen in love with Eva (soprano Annette Dasch), daughter of a goldsmith. Since she is promised to whoever wins the mastersinger song contest, he joins their guild, but his song is rejected. The cobbler Hans Sachs (baritone Michael Volle) alone finds Walther’s song worthy and advocates for him. Eva agrees to elope with Walther. The Meistersinger Beckmesser (Johannes Martin Kränzle), a clerk, also loves her and comes to serenade her. Sachs interrupts this with strokes of his cobbler’s hammer arousing a crowd and preventing the elopement, as the night watchman (Matthew Rose) disperses a crowd that had gathered. The next morning, Sachs helps Walther take down words for a new song. Thinking this is Sachs’ poem, Beckmesser steals it, but later messes up his delivery of the song to the crowd’s amusement. Walther then correctly delivers the song and wins the contest. As he and Eva are united the crowd cheers for Sachs.

The singing at this performance was top-notch, beginning with Volle (the hit of this performance) and Botha (who, it must be said in these highly defined times, looks nothing like the knight Wagner envisioned). Dasch’s singing was exquisite. Also featured were Magdalene (mezzo Karen Cargill), David (tenor Paul Appleby) and Pogner (bass Hans-Peter König). The HD broadcast Hostess was Renée Fleming. Directed for Live Cinema by Matthew Diamond (with Stage Direction by Paula Suozzi) and Conducted by James Levine, it was a pleasure to hear. The Set Design by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, Costume Design by Rolf Langenfass, Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, and Choreography by Carmen de Lavallade all added to the enjoyment of the opera, as of course did the Met Chorus under the dependably terrific Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo. Lengthy or not, it’s a work that deserves more popularity, especially thanks to the excellence of the third act. Find out for yourself at the encore presentation this coming Wednesday at a theater near you.


National Theatre Live's "John": Life Is a Carousel

                               Hannes Langolf in and as National Theatre Live's "John"  
       (Screened at Cape Cinema in Dennis, MA and at a motion picture theater near you)

The Internationally renowned DV8 Physical Theatre has brought its powerful new production of “John” to the National Theatre as part of the current HD broadcasts at a movie theater near you. A work conceived and directed by Australian-born choreographer and theater-maker Lloyd Newson, it contains adult themes, strong language and nudity (labeled as suitable for 18 years and up). DV8 (one has got to love that moniker) has produced eighteen highly acclaimed dance-theatre works and four films for television, which have earned over fifty national and international awards. This current work depicts authentic real-life stories, combining movement and spoken word, creating an intensely involving experience. Lloyd Newson, DV8’s Artistic Director, interviewed over fifty men asking them pointed questions, initially about love and sex. One of those men was John.

What has emerged is a story both mind-blowing and moving, covering many years of crime, addictions and struggling for survival. John ends up on a search in which his own life converges with the lives of many others, in an unusual and unknown place. The character of John, taken directly from oral transcripts, is a survivor (primarily through obsession with exercise while imprisoned), despite a liftetime of losses of those whom he loved. He eventually found some security in the anonymity and ambiguity of gay saunas. The complex role of John, undertaken by Hannes Langolf (who also served as Newson’s Creative Associate) was a physical tour de force. The rest of the cast included Taylor Benjamin, Lee Boggess, Gabriel Castillo (who also provided Musical Supervision), Ian Garside, Ermira Goro, Garth Johnson, Vivien Wood and Andi Xhuma. The constantly-revolving Set Design (matching the constantly moving choreography) was by Anna Fleischle, with the eerie Lighting Design by Richard Godin, and the atmospheric Sound Design by Gareth Fry.

The production was a daring and provocative one, controversial even for this company, known for its typical edginess. Not five minutes into the action, there has already been portrayed sadism, rape, incest, and a drug overdose. There is humor, naturally dark, but the storytelling is predominantly one of survival against unfathomable odds. Newson attests that not only was John real, but he survives still. That example alone was worth attending this unique production, for which National Theatre deserves many kudos. This was what theater and dance, and dance theater, are all about.

SpeakEasy's "Necessary Monsters": Kuntz Uncaged

Thomas Derrah and Cast in "Necessary Monsters"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s latest offering is the world premiere of playwright/actor John Kuntz’s “Necessary Monsters”, a gleefully demented amalgam of “La Ronde”, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”. In the spirit of spoof, herewith (hopefully with most spoilers unspoiled) please accept some theatrical Cliff notes.

After some foreshadowing mime, a familiar “ding” (precisely the sound you hear on an airplane) indicates all the actors are to be seated in rows for their stories to begin with the singing of “You Are My Sunshine”. Drake (Michael Underhill), hunky with a monkey (stuffed), asks Stephen (John Kuntz), a waitperson, if they’d ever met before. Next, Cissa (McCaela Donovan), a film special effects editor, enters for her blind internet date with Drake, informing him she’s at work on a serial killer mystery, “Necessary Monsters”. Then there’s a flashback to a younger Drake, held hostage by an unnamed man and his moll Mia (Georgia Lyman). Stephen next enters to admit to Drake that years ago he saved Drake’s life in Barcelona. Then Midge (Evelyn Howe) meets Victor (Greg Maraio), who lost one hand, in a crowded bar where the masked Clint (also played by Maraio) also appears. It becomes clear (well, if you’re paying strict attention) that this is all a filmed scene being created by Cissa (who overhears a television show about a man intent on strangling his wife) and that Midge is an undercover cop on the trail of a serial killer. Flora (Stacy Fischer) relates the same story about the strangler on the phone to Clint, who’s tied up Theo (Kuntz again) who turns out to be a psychiatrist intent on strangling his wife. Next Abigail (Lyman again) is on Theo’s office couch talking about her overeating. Next Faye (Howe again) enters describing how she was photographed firing an underling.

Meanwhile, it turns out all this is part of the book that just everyone’s reading (yes, you guessed it, entitled “Necessary Monsters”). Drake, at home, imagines he hears creatures running about. Then Gillian (Donovan again) Drake’s ex, appears to thank him for the flowers he sent when her mother died. Next all shush Drake so that Greer (Thomas Derrah, in drag) can deliver a lengthy monologue (spoken to an invisible friend Suzanne at a benefit for burned and limbless children), then exit as the cast sings “You Are My Sunshine”. Clint arrives to offer a younger version of Drake money for sex, at which Gillian yells “cut”, indicating we’re watching a scene being filmed again. Theo the psychiatrist then gets shot by Abigail, which turns out to be part of that book everyone’s reading. Mia (the moll, remember?) tells Drake he was the one who got away from the killer. And Cissa reveals she’s finished “Necessary Monsters”, which Kuntz also does, to Willy Nelson’s “You Are My Sunshine”; how won’t be revealed here.

It should be noted that the entire play occurs within the confines of a huge cage designed by Cristina Todesco (filled with television sets, an endless telephone line, and seemingly endless supply of props). The rest of the technical credits include Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and Sound/Video Design by Adam Stone. Each contributes enormously to helping things seem at least partly comprehensible, as does the fluid Direction by David R. Gammons. The acting by all of the travelers on this ship of fools is also first rate, especially important when roles are as doubled as they are here for most of the cast. Derrah stands out with his devastatingly hilarious diatribe. All of these amazing thespians make the storytelling amusing and involving even if more than a tad convoluted.

Confused? No doubt, and this seems to be part of the playwright’s intention. The interrelated stories are rather like “Six Degrees of John Kuntz”, and challenging to follow. There are some clues along the way in dialogues as Kuntz unwraps overlapping layers. Faye asks: “Is there a finite amount of suffering?…I stub my toe, so that a hungry child may eat a warm meal; I win an Emmy so thirty nuns must die in a tidal wave…why isn’t life equitable?”. Abigail declares that “hearts are over-rated”. Theo states that “things are never as bad as they seem”. And Greer, making a passing reference to a deceased son Kenneth (one of Clint’s victims?), opines that she “deserves something better than this…Things will never get better if you just stay quiet”. Finally, there’s the statement by Midge that “there has to be some connection, there just has to be, between you (Victor) and him (Clint) and all of his victims; It can’t just be random”.

So there’s method in Kuntz’s madness. If your preference is for linear theater, then this probably won’t be your bag. It’s as absurdist as drama gets these days, where there’s more attention paid to the journey than to the destination. At the close, the actors, finally let out of their cage, silently walk off, with a brief pause to look back at one another, never to return. The audience, first bewildered then bemused, eventually realizes the author is still at work even after the supposed end of the play. There are no curtain calls (alas, removing one of the prime rewards of performing), as the theatergoers stumble from the darkness into the light. Some may be reminded of Greer’s note about her husband: “He adores the ballet, the only time he gets any sleep”. If you love surrealism, you’ll be totally enthralled by the creativity and language. After all, intelligibility is over-rated.


ART's "O.P.C.": Conspicuous Presumption

Peter Porte (Damien), Nicole Lowrance (Kansas), Kate Mulligan (Smith),
 Michael T. Weiss (Bruce) & Olivia Thirlby (Romi) in ART's "O.P.C."
(photo: Evgenia Eliseena, ART) 

On entering the Loeb Theater for ART’s latest production, “O.P.C.”, the audience was greeted by an overwhelmingly cluttered and impressively detailed set filled with the detritus of modern life. Counterprogamming for the holiday season, garlands of empty plastic water bottles and solitary mittens hang from the rafters, amid countless empty produce cartons, several dumpsters, Barbie dolls that have seen better days, discarded wooden palettes and other trash literally littering the stage. It’s either indicative of a limitless set design budget, or a nonexistent one, given the availability of such “found objects”; in fact, Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis seemed to be channeling sculptor Louise Nevelson with a much more colorful palette. It’s an extraordinarily effective creation as a backdrop for the first act, an astonishing and mesmerizing mess.

Sadly, this could equally be said of this work by established playwright Eve Ensler (Obie Award Winner for her “Vagina Monologues”), which itself is astonishing and messy, but not in a good way. This play, a world premiere, with a title referencing a diagnosis of Obsessive Political Correctness (one of scant few inventive elements), is a product of a feminist activist with a good deal of street cred who was deservedly honored with a special Tony Award for her humanitarian work in the fight to end violence against women. “Vagina Monologues” led to the creation of the global V-Day effort and the One Billion Rising movement to end such violence. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that anticipation was high that this current work might lead to further pleas to activism, this time regarding global warming, unbridled consumption and waste. The play concerns all of these issues and more, but leads less to activism than ennui, featuring caricatures rather than characters, hubris instead of humor, and dialogue which is literal as opposed to literate. Along the way there are also puerile allusions to (undeniable) white male supremacy, such as “using boy metaphors” and “this feels like what it must be to be born a white man”, and unaccountably cheap shots at Oprah and Barbara Walters, the latter including her oft-satirized speech impediment (“Saturday Night Live”, anyone?), and predictably lame jokes.

The story centers around its two female antagonists, the squatter and “freegan” Romi (Olivia Thirlby), and her mother Smith (Kate Mulligan), a Senate candidate, and their interactions with Romi’s father Bruce (Michael T. Weiss), her sister Kansas (Nicole Lowrance), her boyfriend Damien (Peter Porte), and others including Mrs. M. (Nancy Linehan Charles), Sister Ro (Liz Mikel), and Prakash (Babak Tafti). All appear to have been urged to be shrill (as Directed by Pesha Rudnik with Movement by Jill Johnson). The remaining creative artistic elements include the devastatingly clever Costume Design by ESosa, intricate Lighting Design by Bradley King, complex Sound Design by Jane Shaw and well-executed Projection Design by Shawn Sagady.

Thirlby presents a moving if overly extended meltdown in a pair of Prada “stinky boots” that ends the first act. In the second act, the actors (and the set) seem to be in another, more surreal play, basically a non-stop stream of psychobabble. Once again the male characters are trashed (no pun intended): the husband/father figure admits to playing second fiddle to his wife the politician, admitting that loving her is his fulltime occupation; the boyfriend is described as prefering winning to being right, and a mere “asset”. But the females are also skewered, from the power-seeking matriarch to the blandly-named “Kansas”, an irony the latter hasn’t missed. What’s equally ironic is the conspicuous presumption that Freegans are unaware of their dependence for survival on the very societal system they abhor; this isn’t a novel criticism of the movement, but Ensler offers no valid defense or alternative. The huge targets Ensler has taken on this time include liberals (especially those within the Democratic Party), and the usual lip service given to saving the planet. Up against this she presents approaches such as urban foraging, rediscovering vs. discarding garbage, and even “high trashion”. This last element was at least initially funny, but eventually overdone as is most of this overwritten play.

Is the one-time-only omission of printed programs (which audience members were informed of in advance, but this critic is of the opinion that this decision doesn't recognize sufficiently the lifelong careers of both cast and crew) supposed to be part of an overall solution, or is it, by the very nature of its being a “one-off”, mere tokenism? Is satire, however flawed, a viable answer? And is this whole effort one of preaching to the saved? One hopes that Ensler has more potent, more pointed, more politically incorrect plays in her future that more urgently reflect the activism of her past.


Moonbox's "Musical of Musicals!": Parity of Parodies!

The Cast of "The Musical of Musicals the Musical!"

It’s all about the exclamation point in the title of Moonbox’s current production: “The Musical of Musicals The Musical!” Without that same exclamation point, there may never have been such memorable shows as “Oklahoma!” and “Hello, Dolly!” (or, say, “Oh! Calcutta!”). Now, with this production, we have a musical parody given birth on a parity with those other shows. Written by Joanne Bogart (Lyrics) and Eric Rockwell (Music), with the Book by both, it’s a hilariously on-target spoof of the musical theater genre. It opened off-Broadway in 2003 and ran almost 200 performances, this despite Bogart’s warning that there would be “no pastiche served during the show”. If you’re tired of your Scrooges being humbugged or your nuts cracked, this is a gas.

It’s actually five musicals with the same plot of the inability to pay the rent, each in the style of a different famous musical theater composer. Each features four characters: the Ingenue June (partially played by indisposed trouper Katie Clark at the opening, with singing by understudy Dani Apple), the Romantic Lead Big Willy (Peter Mill), the Matron Abby (Meredith Stypinski) and the Villainous Landlord Jitter (Phil Tayler). The musicals are “Corn!” (Rodgers and Hammerstein), “A Little Complex” (Sondheim), “Dear Abby” (Jerry Herman), “Aspects of Junita” (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and “Speakeasy” (Kander and Ebb). Clark rose to the occasion, while Apple deftly provided off-stage singing. Mill personified the smarmily fatuous leading man, and Stypinski was devastatingly, painfully perfect as the Famous-Name-Above-the-Title-and-Talent-Free Star. But it was, with this production (as was typically the case with the musicals it impaled), the villain who really stole the show. Tayler, who never fails to impress, was at the top of his form, singing, dancing and acting up a perfect storm, earning an exclamation point all his own: he was fabulous!

Also terrific were the energetic members of the Ensemble, consisting of Julianne Daly, Nicholas Davis, Matthew Kossack, Caroline Lellouche, Allison Russell, and Andrew Winans. As painstakingly directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, this was wondrous. With expert Music Direction and Accompaniment (on piano) by Dan Rodriguez, clever Set Design by Dale Conklin, dramatic Lighting Design by David Wilson, ingenious Costume Design by Marian Bertone, and excellent Sound Design by Dan Costello, it was everything a theatrical exclamation point could hope for. All one can say, properly precise pluperfect punctuation in place, is: Five musicals for the price of one! Tons of puns and fun! Five out of five exclamation points!!!!!



New Rep's "Little Prince": The Taming of the Few

Will Moser & Andrew Barbato in "The Little Prince"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
The latest production from New Rep is a musical adaptation of “The Little Prince”, the enormously popular 1943 novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which reportedly still sells two million copies a year. Others have attempted this in the past in the form of plays, operas and a 1974 musical film version (with Bob Fosse no less), as well as an upcoming animated film. The gentle whimsy of the original language, though, too often seemed artificial when adapted to these other forms. Happily, this particular musicalization, with a pleasant original score with Music by Rick Cummins and Lyrics by John Scoullar, is far more successful. As wonderfully directed and imaginatively choreographed here by Ilyse Robbins, with excellent musical direction by Todd C. Gordon, New Rep’s offering is that welcome exception, quite amazingly managing to appeal to children while capturing the interest of the child in every feeling adult theatergoer. It’s the perfect family treat for the holiday season.

Well, maybe not perfect; one could quibble that the lyrics often feature too predictable rhymes, or that the ninety-minute playing time and basic dramatic arc didn‘t call for an intermission (though it may make the work more family friendly). But this is perhaps as close to a perfect adaptation as one could hope to see and hear. The simple yet profound story remains that of the Little Prince (Wil Moser), from Asteroid B-612, who encounters The Aviator (Nick Sulfaro), a.k.a. “Solitaire”, stranded in the desert after his “third unauthorized flight” and grounded as punishment. The Aviator’s sole friend is his airplane, though he strikes up a relationship with the Little Prince by drawing sheep. The Little Prince is fond of a lovely Rose (Laura Jo Trexler) on his home planet. He also knows a Fox (Andrew Barbato) who believes that truly important things are invisible, and is bored, hoping someone like the prince will tame him. Then there’s the Snake (also played by Trexler) who is the only being with the power to send the prince back to his home planet. Lastly there are the Men of the Planets (all played by Barbato) including a King, a Conceited Man, a Businessman, a Lamplighter, and a Geographer.

Firmly at the helm of this sweetly fragile tale is the magician-like Robbins, who has assembled a literally stellar cast. In the almost impossible task of portraying the beloved but mysterious title role, young Moser embodies both the natural and more mystical traits that characterize this Prince, with a fine voice and confident stage presence beyond his years. The dashing Sulfaro is a perfect complement to his otherworldly friend, with extraordinarily expressive face, voice and movement. Trexler is very funny (and appropriately dangerous when called for). And then there’s Barbato, in several hysterically funny roles, who strikes the perfect tone of almost-over-the-top restrained mania, especially as the Fox. His timing is impeccable, his labile face astounding, his diction precise and his energy seemingly boundless. It’s an unforgettable performance and an indelible lesson in how to command the stage without ever upstaging or overdoing. It’s the smartest, sexiest and savviest work thus far this season. Just to hear him innocently inquire “are there…chickens?” is a wonder. Aiding and abetting these great performances are the harmonious efforts of the creative technical team. The marvelous Scenic Design by Matthew Lazure is a beautiful amalgam of celestial bodies, sundials, compasses and ingenious projections. The clever Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, fantastic Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and atmospheric Sound Design by Michael Policare, as well as apt added orchestrations by David McGrory, all contribute to this totally immersive experience.

Full disclosure would require that this critic confess that “The Little Prince” has been one of his two favorite books (the other being “The Velveteen Rabbit”, which has also resisted adaptations). It was thus with great relief that this production turned out so well. There are apt aphorisms aplenty: that “the hardest thing to judge is oneself”, that men in power like the King “don’t own, they reign over”, that one can lose “the wonder, the joy, the feeling (of the) boy I was”. And of course there are the fox’s immortal lines: “Tame…an act too often neglected…it means to establish ties…then we shall need each other; to me you will be unique in all the world; to you I shall be unique in all the world.” Or these: “Here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can rightly see; what is essential is invisible to the eye…men have forgotten this truth.…you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed”. And as Saint-Exupéry elaborated: “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important”. At this season of remembering family and friends whom one has “tamed”, those present as well as those absent but still in one’s memory, could the meaning of the holidays be expressed any more accurately or succinctly? Be forewarned: This play could be charmful to one’s spirits. Oh, and by the way, Happy Taming!


Lyric Stage's "Allergist's Wife": Feinting Couches

Caroline Lawton & Marina Re in "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"

As audience members entered the Lyric Stage Company’s theatre to attend their production of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, they were promisingly greeted with the strains of the background music from the (non-musical) film “Auntie Mame”, a sly underscoring referencing the real childhood of playwright Charles Busch. His own Aunt Lillian literally altered his life by enrolling him in the High School for the Arts, quite reminiscent of Mame Dennis and her nephew Patrick. At the same time theatergoers were presented with a typical New York monochromatic setting with not one but too fainting couches. (There will be a lot of feinting going on later, but it would be a spoiler to elaborate). This, Busch’s first attempt at mainstream writing, was a huge success, first briefly in 2000 Off-Broadway, then on Broadway for a substantial run (777 performances), earning a Tony nomination for Best Play. The author has updated the play for this version with allusions to more current celebrities. What hasn’t been updated is the disappointingly sophomoric and scatological level of the wit on display.

The story centers around middle aged matron Marjorie Taub (Marina Re), first looking like an unmade bed, who feels her life will never be more than mediocre though she fills her days with all manner of artistic and intellectual pursuits. Her doctor husband Ira (Joel Colodner) is a champion of homeless people but ignorant of her needs, and her constantly complaining mother Frieda (Ellen Colton) lives all too close, just down the hall in the co-op. Enter an unexpected visitor from Marjorie’s childhood, Lee (Caroline Lawton). Lee’s abrupt arrival impacts everyone (even the already impacted Frieda) as she settles in for what appears to be permanent residency. The sole other character, the doorman Mohammed (Zaven Ovian) proves pivotal when some plot twists (frankly obvious to anyone paying attention to the lengthy set-up) arise. Suffice it to say that it’s a very ethnocentric (i.e. Jewish), very New York type of play, with several hysterical lines and lots of low humor.

The cast has been directed by Larry Coen toward madcap mugging and scenery-digesting, which may be entirely appropriate for such basically sit-com material. The technical credits are up to what one would expect given Lyric’s well-established reputation, from the Scenic Design by Matt Whiton, to the Costume Design by Mallory Frers, Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro and Sound Design by Jack Staid. Whether this is one’s personal cup of tea depends on how hilarious one considers what passes for funny writing in the usual fare on the tube these days. As Marjorie says to the doorman at the wimpy conclusion of the play, cooking is “both simple and difficult…like so much in life”. And comedy, too.

Odyssey's "Miss Havesham"/"Water Bird": Double Trill

Heather Buck in "Miss Havesham's Wedding Night"

Odyssey Opera Boston’s current production at the intimate Modern Theater is a double bill presentation of Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Dominick Argento’s monodramas “A Water Bird Talk” and “Miss Havesham’s Wedding Night” (adapted from his full-length opera “Miss Havesham‘s Fire”). Both are fully staged, conducted and directed by Gil Rose, the company’s Artistic and General Director.

“Miss Havesham’s Wedding Night”, a musical soliloquy based on the character from “Great Expectations”, the one Dickens novel students often loathe, has a libretto by the late John Olon-Scrymgeour. It features Aurelia (did she actually have a first name?) Havesham (soprano Heather Buck), fifty years after she was jilted by her fiancée on the morning of their intended wedding day. Still dressed in her wedding attire (save one missing shoe) in her dressing room in Satis House in Essex, England, everything in the room untouched for all those years, she reenacts all that happened to her that fateful day when she first received the note with the last-minute breaking of their engagement. Smashing all the clocks and blocking out any light from outdoors, she had vowed never to leave the room or take off her gown and veil. She imagines how different her life would have been if the note had never been sent, and laments: “I am out of my wits“ (which seems clear). Interrupted by her chambermaid (Raya Louise Malcolm in a mute role) with her morning tea, she prepares to tell the young innocent Estrella (Victoria Leigh Isotti, another mute role) “all about men”. Pity poor Estrella, and even moreso her future “Pip”.

“A Water Bird Talk”, with a libretto by the composer, is based very loosely on Chekov’s “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” and J.J. Audubon’s “The Birds of America”. It centers around a gentleman lecturer (baritone Aaron Engebreth) speaking to a ladies’ club on a summer evening (in “Maryland, or perhaps Virginia”) about water birds whose unusual habits just happen to mirror those of the lecturer’s own life (as a henpecked husband and father). Illustrating his talk with tinted magic lantern slides from Audubon’s work, he describes a half dozen birds, such as the cormorant whose young never leave the nest, the male phalarope who’s a stay-at-home father, the puffin who mates for life, and the innocent grebe who is prey for many a predator and disappears when a confrontation looms. His wife (whom he calls “an old crow”) listens from the wings with discernable throat clearance and coughing, and finally leaves in disgust. He then digresses as he reveals the sad facts of his misery due to his wife’s overbearing manner and the ridicule of his six or seven daughters (about the exact number he was unsure), all born on the thirteenth of September. Ironically, the off-stage wife has referred to him as a booby and a loon.

These two pieces have more in common than the fact that they are musical monodramas by the same composer. Both take place around the middle of the nineteenth century, and both reveal more and more about their idiosyncratic protagonists, one increasingly mad and the other increasingly hysterical (in both senses of the term). Buck was extremely effective in both her memorable singing and intense acting in a very demanding role, and Engebreth provided the perfect comic counterpoint to the evening with his believable bumbling and growing panic. Their accomplished singing was accompanied by the impressive Odyssey Opera Orchestra, with sixteen instrumentalists in the former piece, and thirteen in the second, decisively conducted by Rose. The Projection Design by Callie Chapman had a prominent place in both pieces, eerily contributive in the first and more straightforward in the lecture in the second. The imaginative Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, complex Lighting Design by Linda O’Brien, and appropriate Hair and Makeup Design by Rachel Padula, all added to the enjoyment of both of these accessible operas.

As music, both of these monodramas had their distinctive attributes, the first emphasizing tragic pathos, the latter more humorous even if equally grotesque. Miss Havesham is haunted by dimly-remembered tunes with ethereal tonalities, and the unnamed Lecturer (in a libretto written this time by the composer himself) is surrounded by motifs that vary from rhapsodic avian paeans to the more pathetically personal. This double bill is to be repeated Sunday afternoon November 23rd at 3pm. Next up for Odyssey Opera is the full-length opera, in conjunction with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, by composer Tobias Picker, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, to be performed December 7th at Jordan Hall. If the titular fox is half as wily as Argento, it should surely prove to be another high point for this creative company.

Fathom Events' "Barber of Seville": Splitting Heirs

Screened at Regal Cinema in Kingston; Encore screening Wed.  Nov 26th

The Cast of "Barber of Seville"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The latest Fathom Events offering in its ongoing live HD broadcasts from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York is the revival of the 2006 production by Bartlett Sher of Rossini’s 1816 opera buffa “Barber of Seville”. A perennial audience favorite since its premiere at the Met in its inaugural season in 1883, this opera has been presented more than six hundred times in the house and on tour. All this is in spite of the fact that its plot, even for an opera, is about as convoluted as it gets.

What’s at stake in this opera is who will inherit the hand of the fair damsel without having to play Solomon and split her in two. The libretto by Cesare Sterbini after the French play by Beaumarchais is probably familiar to most audience members, but in case a refresher could come in handy, herewith is a brief synopsis. In Seville, Count Almaviva (the diminutive tenor with a great coloratura voice, Lawrence Brownlee) serenades Rosina under the balcony of the room where she is confined (wonderfully sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, the Cherubino just last month in the HD broadcast of the Met’s “Marriage of Figaro”), who is the ward of Dr. Bartolo (bass baritone Maurizio Muraro, perfect for this role). The titular barber Figaro (Baritone Christopher Maltman, with impeccable timing and diction) offers to help the count disguise himself as a soldier with orders to be quartered in Bartolo’s house. Rosina’s music teacher Don Basilio (the shrewd bass Paata Burchuladze) warns Bartolo about the count and urges the good doctor to marry his ward with all due haste. When the count arrives disguised as a drunken soldier requiring billeting in Bartolo’s house he passes a note to Rosina. He’s about to be arrested by the local civil guard but is freed when he divulges his true identity, surprising everyone but the all-knowing Figaro. Later the count returns, again disguised, this time as Rosina’s substitute music teacher. While Bartolo snoozes, the count and Rosina rhapsodize about their mutual love. Figaro then arrives to shave Bartolo and manages to steal his house keys. Bartolo summons Basilio to bring a notary for his proposed marriage to Rosina. She is shown a note from a mythical student Lindoro in the presence of the notary (actually the count, his third or fourth disguise, but who’s counting?) that seems to prove that she’s been deceived, and thus she agrees to marry Bartolo. But the count reveals his true identity at last and claims Rosina as his bride. All celebrate their great good fortune including, unaccountably, Bartolo. And, yes, it’s complicated, and no, it really doesn’t make much sense.

What does make sense is that this all occurs with the most sublimely wonderful music, gorgeously sung and whimsically performed. The leads are all in fine voice and enact their roles with appropriate gusto. The fine ensemble also includes the roles of Fiorello (baritone Yunpeng Wang), Berta (soprano Claudia Waite, a standout), a Sergeant (tenor Dennis Petersen) and the mute role of Ambrogio (a hilariously deadpan Rob Besserer). Conducted by Michele Mariotti, the Met Orchestra was once again invaluable, frequently highlighting refined individual playing on cello and viola. Very ably directed for Live Cinema by Matthew Diamond, and introduced by HD Host Deborah Voigt, the production offered fluid if spare Set Design by Michael Yeargan, clever Costume Design by Catherine Zuber, effective Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, and as usual terrific support from the Met Chorus under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo.

Once again, audiences were transported not just to the stage of the opera house, and to balmy Seville, but to operatic heaven at a fraction of the cost of an opera house ticket. And next up is Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, which, if one were paying for by the minute, these days would probably mean having to sell the kids into slavery. Fathom Events HD broadcasts continue to be the biggest bargain in entertainment, with the possible exception of your Uncle Harry’s lampshade routine at the family’s dinner table at Thanksgiving.


ArtsEmerson's "Trip to Bountiful": the Enchanting Island of Cicely

Cicely Tyson, Arthur French & Jurnee Smollett-Bell in "A Trip to Bountiful"
(photo: Craig Swartz)

ArtsEmerson’s current offering of the recent Broadway version of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” has an impressive pedigree. It began as an original television drama (remember those?) way back in 1953 with none other than Lillian Gish in the lead role of Carrie Watts. It transferred to Broadway for a brief run with the television cast intact. Three decades later it resurfaced in a well-received film version with Geraldine Page winning an Academy Award for her performance of Mrs. Watts. Most recently, in 2013, it was revived on Broadway and subsequently again on film by the Lifetime Network (nominated for two Emmy Awards) with essentially the same cast now being enjoyed in its Boston reincarnation.

The story is a simple one, that of the physical and emotional journey of the elderly Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson) who lives in Houston with her very protective son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and his bitchy wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Forbidden by Ludie to travel alone and no longer able to drive herself, she fulfills her dream of revisiting her ancestral home in the (mythical) small Texas town of Bountiful, escaping by bus. She meets a young woman, Thelma (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on the bus and tells her story in lengthy conversation with her. At the penultimate stop, she even convinces the local sheriff (Devon Abner) to drive her the remaining leg of her journey. Of course she finds time hasn’t been kind to the town (long ago depleted by the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl), or the family homestead. Predictably her son and daughter-in-law catch up with her and take her home. Other roles include Roy (Arthur French), a ticket agent (Wade Dooley), and various travelers and bus employees (Pat Bowie, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr., and Desean Kevin Terry). And that’s about all that happens, accompanied by a healthy dollop of sentiment and a whole lot of heartfelt language. The production is ably directed by Michael Wilson, with meticulously detailed Scenic Design by Jeff Cowie, perfect vintage Costume Design by Van Broughton Ramsey, effective Lighting Design by Rui Rita, and Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. This includes some intrusive and unnecessary piano tinkling to underline or underscore dramatic tension less appropriate for live theater than for the sort of thing seen on the Lifetime network, where, as noted above, this production found a home last season.

The simplicity of Foote’s basic story with its universal themes, despite that healthy dose of sentiment (and sometimes sentimentality) is alive and well and presently thriving at the Cutler Majestic Theater, in no small part because of its stellar cast. Initially a henpecked stereotype, Underwood, a Golden Globe nominee, comes into his own in the moving final scene with his mother at the family home. Williams, a Tony and Grammy Award nominee, courageously takes on one of the theater’s most unflattering roles. The rest of the cast, including the memorable Smollett-Bell and French, are superb. But it’s Tyson’s recreated Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated turn that is the island of sanity and serenity in this production. With more than eight decades of life experience from which to draw, she’s just plain astonishing. (Her reaction when she’s literally bowled over by some unexpected bad news is alone worth the price of admission). The play shows its age, but not the player. The work remains primarily a vehicle for an enduring star, starting with Gish sixty years ago, and Tyson surely makes it her own. Toward the end of the play, Ludie admits he should have taken his mother back to her home sooner. The same could be said for Tyson and Boston,


BLO's "Love Potion" or "Vin Herbe": Herbal Tease

The Greek Chorus in "The Love Potion"
(photo: Boston Lyric Opera)

Boston Lyric Opera’s current production of “Le Vin Herbé, translated as “The Love Potion”, is a bit of a tease; it’s not that more famous elixir. This work, by Frank Martin, centering on the romantic story of Tristan and Isolt (yes, the same coupling from yet another opera), is more obscure. As part of its Opera Annex program, BLO is continuing its policy of presenting both the more familiar and the less, as it follows its recent “Traviata” with this arcane work. It’s being given its fully staged Boston premiere in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Swiss composer’s death. Based on the novel by Joseph Bédier written in 1900, “Roman de Tristan et Iseult”, (in turn based on a tale that dates back to the time of Arthur and his Guinevere, and even before that), it was previously performed in this area in a concert version in 1990 by the John Oliver Chorale. This production is being performed in a new translation by Hugh MacDonald (commissioned by the BLO) accompanied by the eight-member BLO Chamber Ensemble (seven strings and a piano). Continuing the company’s dedication to offering operatic works that are “not readily available…in evocative venues”, the performances are held in Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. Also true to its other aim of extending opportunities for local talent to shine, ten out of the twelve singers are either current members or alumni of BLO’s fine Emerging Artists Program. The opera is in three parts with a total of eighteen scenes, clocking in at just under two intermission-less hours.

The story is that of the medieval princess Isolt (soprano Chelsea Basler), cursed as most such damsels seem to be with the dilemma of choosing between her duty and her love, in this case for Tristan (Jon Jurgens). Her mother (Heather Gallagher) gives the titular potion to Brangain (Michelle Trainor) for Isolt to use on her betrothed, King Mark (David McFerrin), but it falls into the hands of a maid who, thinking it wine, pours for Isolt and the king’s nephew Tristan, whose previous animosity for one another turns instantly to love (as these things do). The king, on learning of their love, condemns them to death but hasn’t the heart to execute it when he discovers them asleep and apart. Tristan, with a heavy dose of guilt, wanders away and giving up hope for Isolt marries another, Isolt of the White Hands (Rachel Hauge, apparently sharing a popular given name of the time), daughter of Duke Hoël (David Cushing). Later, mortally wounded in battle, Tristan sends his friend Kahedin (Omar Najmi) to bring his true love Isolt to him, furling white sails if successful, black if not. Isolt of the White Hands hears this, and later falsely tells Tristan that the ship is returning with black sails. He dies in grief, but our heroine does arrive, lies down beside him and joins him in death. Buried by King Mark in adjacent tombs, a living green branch miraculously grows out of Tristan’s tomb into Isolt’s (which continues to regenerate even as attempts are made to sever it) uniting them eternally.

As Joshua Rosenblum wrote in his article “The Other Tristan” about Martin’s “Le Vin Herbéin a recent issue of Opera News, Martin felt he had all the right in the world to approach this story from his own view and with music of his own time, especially with respect to the lushness of his harmonies. This work is more oratorio than opera, and thus by its very nature subject to a certain sameness, with the bulk of the story narrated not by the principals but by the chorus. In the roles of the lovers, Balsen and Jurgens were tremendously moving, as was the outstanding Trainor. The rest of the chorus, every one of them individually audible when making the rounds of the circular stage, were wonderful, including Yvon (Mara Bonde), Treasa (Tania Mandzy Inala), Denolenn (Brad Raymond) and Andret (David Wadden). Conductor David Angus led the chamber ensemble exquisitely, with a thrilling Set Design by Jim Noone, muted Costume Design by Nancy Leary, astounding Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel and Wig and Makeup Design by Jason Allen. But the star of the opera was unquestionably Stage Director David Schweizer, who made what could easily have become a very static work into a living, vibrant whole with ingenious and breathtakingly mysterious stagecraft.

The intriguing question before the performance began was just how wise a choice the venue would prove to be. The huge domed sanctuary could easily have become an acoustical nightmare with notes flying up to the celestial heights never to be heard again. Not to worry. A series of baffles undoubtedly helped contain them, and the presence of a crystalline central piece of the set design kept singers from being in the one spot where voices went dead or reverberated depending on whether a performer was facing toward or away from a segment of the audience. In the end, it succeeded as a resonant playing space in several senses of the term: an insert in the program, referencing the recent attack on renowned local Rabbi Mosheh Twersky in Jerusalem, served as a reminder of the significance of the use of the site as an exaltation of “the unifying force of the human spirit” through the arts and in particular through this performance of “The Love Potion”.


Fathom Events' "Billy Elliot": Tutu Twain

  Screened at Showcase Cinemas, Dedham, MA & other theaters; Encore at 7pm Tues. Nov.18th

Liam Mower & Elliot Hanna in and  (both) as "Billy Elliot"
(photo: Fathom Events)
There’s a magical moment (one of many) in the musical “Billy Elliot” when there occurs a dream sequence in which the young Billy dances a pas de deux with his older self. It was even more amazing in the recent HD broadcast of this work when Elliot Hanna, currently portraying the title role, danced this number with the now mature Liam Mower, the original Billy from the phenomenal London success in 2005. It was previously lauded as an Oscar-nominated non-musical film in 2000, and subsequently in 2008 as a Broadway musical, winning ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ten Drama Desk Awards, also including Best Musical. It ran in New York for over three years. Now it’s enjoying yet another success with an HD broadcast of a performance from London’s Victoria Palace recorded this past September 28th ; it made history as the first ever event cinema broadcast that was the number one box office hit in the U.K. And what an event, as it included over two dozen actors who have played the title role in a mash-up finale.

The story, adapted from the film by Lee Hall (who also wrote the lyrics) from his own screenplay, featuring a musical score by Elton John, concerns the 1984 miners’ strike in a Northeastern England mining town in County Durham. It centers around the tale of the young Billy who transitions from the boxing ring into a ballet class, with understandingly fierce initial reactions from the workers from his blue-collar neighborhood. Billy Elliot (the remarkably talented Hanna) finds support in his dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (Ruthie Henshall), his brother Tony (Chris Grahamson), Billy’s best friend Michael (Zach Atkinson) and his Grandma (the showstopping Ann Emery repeating her role from 2005); eventually, even his working-class Dad (Deka Walmsley) is won over. As is the audience, especially whenever Henshall, Hanna and Atkinson take the stage.

The story is a strong one, but the score is what really makes this “Billy” soar, from the rousing “Once We Were Kings” (“we all go together when we go”), to the exhilarating paean to performance, “Electricity” (“I really can’t explain it, I haven’t got the words…it’s like forgetting , losing who you are, and at the same time something makes you whole”) to the anthem “The Stars Look Down”, a reference to the A. J. Cronin novel which inspired this tale (“and the stars look down and know the pain and…lead to where the light shines again, where we‘ll stand as one”). Then there’s the unforgettably hilarious turn by Billy and his buddy Michael (“If you wanna be a dancer, dance…what we need is in-div-id-ual-ity”), the most life-affirming number in many a year. Hanna is stupendous throughout the show, but briefly meets his match in the person of Atkinson. Never has dancing in the aisles been more tempting.

This production, directed by the original helmer Stephen Daldry, and re-directed for film by Brett Sullivan, looks fabulous on the big screen. The Set Design by Ian MacNeil (notoriously temperamental in its New York previews) is as wondrous as ever, with fine Costume Design by Nicky Gillibrand, intricate Lighting Design by Rick Fisher, and effective Sound Design by Paul Arditti. Of course, the crucial Choreography by Peter Darling is as stunning as it gets. With a technical crew this great, backing up a cast full of talent, musical theaters is alive and (literally) kicking.

Thus it was great news to hear of the HD broadcast on this side of the pond. Even better news: if you missed it this time around, never fear. As noted above, it’s being repeated on Tuesday November 18th at, as the saying goes, a theater near you.


Huntington's "Awake and Sing": Snooze and Schmooze?

Correction: As noted in the comment at the end of this review, the character of Bessie indeed does smash her father Jacob's records in the original script. The incorrect reference to a lack of stage directions has been removed. Snoozing indeed, on the part of this critic!

Will LeBow, Stephen Schnetzer, Michael Goldsmith, Lori Wilner & Eric T. Miller
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the announcement that Huntington Theater Company was to produce the 1935 play, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing”, theatergoers might have been forgiven for imagining they were in a time warp of sorts. Huntington kicked off their current season with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (based on a 1967 film) and is scheduled to present “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950) later this season. Additionally, they might well have mused as to whether such a presumably dated vehicle as “Awake and Sing” would induce sleep or seem like insignificant small talk. Not to worry, this piece has aged well (with some reservations), now being revived in honor of Odets’ birthday, who would have been 100 this year. It’s the first full-length play he wrote, considered by many to be his greatest (though some favor “Golden Boy”). It didn’t win any Tony Awards in its first time out, as they didn’t exist then, but the 2006 revival earned eight nominations and won two Tony Awards, for Best Revival of a Play and Best Costumes. At its core is the conflict between capitalists and communists, as the depression era produced economic crises and social struggle. The goal of the individual for self fulfillment vs. one’s family’s expectations is a call for action, from Isaiah: “Awake and sing all ye who dwell in the dust…and the earth shall cast out the dead”.

As the playwright once wrote about this work, all of his characters have in common a basic “struggle for life amidst petty conditions”. The action takes place in a Jewish walk-up in the Bronx in the 1930’s. The central role is that of the matriarch of the Berger family, who describes herself as both mother and father in the home, Bessie (Lori Wilner), a realist obsessed with social appearances and deeply frightened by the evictions she sees in the neighborhood. Orbiting around her are the remaining members of the family, most of them idealists, her subdued husband Myron (David Wohl), their daughter Hennie (Annie Purcell), their son Ralph (Michael Goldsmith) and Uncle Morty (Stephen Schnetzer), as well as Bessie’s father Jacob (Will LeBow), and two of Hennie’s suitors, Moe Axelrod (Eric T. Miller) and Sam Feinschreiber (Nael Nacer). The only other character is the janitor Schlosser (Kevin Fennessy). Through various crises, the family is at odds to preserve their basic dignity. As Odets wrote about Bessie, though she wants the best for her children, she is stymied by her own fears and panic. It’s a theme found in other playwrights such as O’Neill and Williams: a mother wanting her children’s survival, but sometimes ensuring their eventual destruction. As superbly directed by Melia Bensussen, this cast embodies ensemble acting at its finest, with terrific star turns, most impressively LeBow in a towering performance, and Wilner with her unforgettable portrayal. They’re all memorable (though Goldsmith’s delivery is sometimes too rapid for the acoustics of the house). Some of Bensussen’s directorial decisions might be deemed controversial,  but she does make the extended family seem heartbreakingly real. The technical credits are up to Huntington’s demanding standards, from the evocative Scenic Design by James Noone to the wonderful Costume Design by Michael Krass to the Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal and the Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The Set Design, with Sacco and Vanzetti posters and newspaper headlines, is especially effective.

While it still speaks to us today, it’s often does so as though in a foreign language. As one might expect of a play that’s eighty years old, there are more than a few odd colloquialisms: “bughouse” (crazy), “plunks” (dollars) or perhaps the most outstanding one, “foxie-woxie” (?) and shockingly casual politically incorrect terms, even for Jews (“mockie”). Then there are such ethnic phrases as “you gave the dog eat?”. Yet some of Odets’ dialogue is too poetic to seem natural to these less educated characters, such as Ralph’s final admission: “The night he died. I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born! I swear to God, I’m one week old! I want the whole city to hear it - fresh blood, arms. We got ‘em. We‘re glad we’re living”. Odets wanted his audiences to leave the theater glad to be alive. Written while he was an actor with the activist Group Theater in New York, before he succumbed to the temptations of Hollywood, the point of the play is best expressed by Ralph’s earlier exclamation that “life should not be printed on dollar bills”. So who would have guessed that this play from the seemingly distant past would strike us as painfully relevant today? Like many a treasured antique, despite showing its age, it might well prove to be of more value to us now than ever before.


Fathom Events' "Of Mice and Men": A Vole in the Hay

Chris O'Dowd & James Franco in "Of Mice and Men"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

Most current and former high school students are probably already familiar with the story of two itinerant laborers, one a bit of a control freak and the other a gentle giant who didn’t know his own strength when petting a tiny rodent, a newborn pup, or a soft lock of hair. They are the lead characters in the 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” written by Pulitzer Prize winner John Steinbeck, who once referred to it as “a kind of playable novel.” Thus it should come as no surprise that within less than a year after its publication it appeared on the Broadway stage, adapted by none other than Steinbeck himself. It was swiftly followed by a 1939 film version, subsequently remade in 1992. In play form, however, it was not revived on Broadway until 1974, then unproduced until just this past season, when three stars from other artistic worlds aligned, all in their Broadway debuts. It was this version that National Theatre Live chose as its first worldwide HD broadcast from a venue other than London and shown at a movie theater near you. Nominated for two Tonys, and directed by Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner herself as Best Director for “August: Osage County”), it was a wise choice, not least for the celebrity of its players.

The original working title of the book was “Something That Happened”, which is rather detached for such a dark and ominous work. The book, film and play all take place in the 1930’s in Salinas Valley, California (“just south of Solidad”, or “solitude”), where many migrant workers suffered, poor but proud, from homelessness and hunger. The basic story centers on the relationship between the cynical George Milton (James Franco, of “127 Hours”, “Milk”, and a few dozen other varied projects), and the friend for whom he cares, the mentally challenged and ironically named Lennie Small (Chris O’Dowd, of “Bridesmaids” and his personally-created British television series “Moone Boy”). The pair share the American dream of their someday having a small place of their own. They move from job to job escaping the consequences of Lennie’s unpredictable actions. At their current job on a ranch, the boss’ daughter-in-law (identified only as “Curley’s Wife”), a very flirtatious woman (Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl”) takes an interest in them. While George refers to her as a “tramp”, Lennie’s reaction is simpler: “gosh, she’s pretty”. Thus begins an inexorable spiral into the “something that happened”, a tragic something indeed.

The casting of Franco (surprisingly tender when it counts) and O’Dowd (deservedly nominated for Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk Awards for this performance) was serendipitous, but the real standout is the supporting character of Candy (former Tony winner Jim Norton), who steals every scene he’s in, even when silent. Meester is also fine as the flirt oblivious to the danger at hand, as are the remaining members of the cast, Slim (a hulking but understanding Jim Parrack), Crooks (a heartbreaking Ron Cephas Jones), Curley (an anxious Alex Morf), Carlson (an amusing Joel Marsh Garland), the Boss (a menacing Jim Ortlieb), and Whit (a canny James McMenamin). The technical crew are all terrific in their contributions, from the complicated Set Design by Todd Rosenthal, to the eerily atmospheric Tony-nominated Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, to the Original Music Composition by David Singer, Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb, Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and extraordinarily choreographed Fight Direction by Thomas Schall.

As Steinbeck admitted, this is less a historic work (though loosely based on an actual event he witnessed) than a symbolic one. Many critics saw it as too sentimental, even as they described the characters as more animal than human. But as the literary essayist Susan Shillinglaw once noted, friendship is portrayed as “the most enduring relationship, love at its highest pitch”, but also an escape from home, marriage, commitment. This echoed what writer Frederick C. Mills wrote about these men who hated to travel on the road alone: “denied wives, or families, or circles of sympathetic friends, this feeling can only be partially satisfied through the institution of partners.” Although one of the workers says to George that it’s “funny how you and him string along together”, Steinbeck made sure it was clear that George had a tendency to visit the occasional brothel, lest we draw some other conclusions about this male bonding. But it can’t be denied that their bonding was a special one, even if George was a bit too overbearing in his caring for Lennie. In the end, this is an enduring and deeply moving testament to the true American spirit.


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)

Neil McGarry in Bay Colony Shakespeare Company's "Christmas Carol"

Every Christmas season, as predictable as the swallows’ spring return to Capistrano, there arrive 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?


Fathom Events' "Carmen": Torrid Adoring

Anita Rachvelishvili as "Carmen"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)
Fathom Event screened at Regal Cinemas at Independence Mall in Kingston on 11/01/14, to be    encored Wednesday 11/05/14, also at a theater near you, followed on 11/06 by "Of Mice and Men"

Widely known (even among those who aren’t opera buffs) for its famous “Toreador” aria, Bizet’s “Carmen” is a much-beloved favorite of many fans, typically listed among everyone’s top five operas. This is despite the fact that the titular heroine isn’t a particularly nice or even sympathetic character. In the current Metropolitan Opera production, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili plays the flirtatious Carmen. The story revolves around her relationships with the solid soldier Don José (tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) and torrid bullfighting hero Escamillo (baritone Ildar Abdrazakov), with some plot points delivered by the village girl Michaëla (soprano Anita Hartig). Ms. Rachvelishvili has virtually made a career of late playing her interpretation of Carmen at opera houses throughout the world (including two seasons ago, in this same production, at the Met).

As most music lovers will know, the libretto is a rather steamy one, from the first appearance of the gypsy girl Carmen. Virtually ignored by Don José (who loves Michaëla) until he arrests Carmen for fighting, she seduces him to gain her freedom. Subsequently she declares he must prove his love by deserting the army, which he does. Later in the gypsy camp, her ardor diminishes as she now professes love for the toreador Escamillo. Michaë la arrives to tell Don José his mother is dying, and they depart together, Don José threatening he will see Carmen again. In the final scene Don José confronts Carmen, trying to win her back, but when he fails…well, this is opera, so one wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t end happily. And that’s the tempestuous tale, told over four acts. For this opera to be so popular with such a simplistic story, there must obviously be some approachable music, and indeed there is. The success of a production of “Carmen”, as with many operatic works, thus largely depends on the quality of the singing and conducting, not necessarily on how deeply involved an audience is on an emotional level.

In this production, though, there’s enough fire and passion in the singing and acting to involve an audience, despite the somber and stark sets and costumes. Rachvelishvili and her three co-stars make this more than a mere potboiler, with Hartig a standout. It must be said, however, in these days of close-ups and operatic verisimilitude, that only Hartig looked the part. The performances by the rest of the cast were fine, including the roles of Moralès (John Moore), Zuniga (Keith Miller), Frasquita (Kiri Deonarine) Mercédès (Jennifer Johnson Cano), Le Dancaïre (Malcolm Mackenzie) and Le Remendado (Eduardo Valdes). Between each act there was an appropriately sultry pas de deux performed by Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey. Visually, the production moved well under the able direction (of this Live in HD broadcast) of Matthew Diamond, with sensitive conducting by Pablo Heras-Casado. The Production was by Richard Eyre, with Set & Costume Design by Rob Howell, Lighting Design by Peter Mumford, and Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.

Never fear if you missed this “Carmen”; as noted above, the encore broadcast of the performance will take place Wednesday November 5th at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


SpeakEasy's "Bad Jews": Anti-semantic?

Victor Shopov, Gillian Mariner Gordon, Alex Marz & Alison McCartan in "Bad Jews"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

No, that‘s not a typo, but a reference to the apparent political incorrectness of the title “Bad Jews”, a play by Joshua Harmon which is being given its New England premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company. Not to worry, though, this is not an anti-religious diatribe (it refers to a momentary culinary indiscretion), though it’s relentlessly cruel toward certain stereotypically strident members of a certain tribe, while simultaneously being hilarious and bitchy. The story of a struggle between two cousins, Liam Haber (Victor Shopov) and Daphna Feygenbaum (Alison McCartan), after the death of their much-loved grandfather, it’s also about a more universal struggle. Liam has pretty much dispensed with his Judaic heritage, both religious and cultural, whereas Daphna (née Diana) is in-your-face about her roots. Laim’s girlfriend Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon) and his brother Jonah (Alex Marz) are also involved, at least as targets. The gold chai (“life”) symbol on the necklace smuggled out of a concentration camp by their deceased “Poppy” is at the crux of their conflict, which runs much more deeply than this one artifact, namely what it signifies (or not) to each of the combatants. For the first third of the play, Harmon slowly but shrewdly positions potential land mines that will eventually take their tolls as the story progresses.

“Bad Jews”, set in New York’s upper West Side in “not quite winter, not quite spring”, begins with the playing of the John Lennon song “Imagine” (which Melody later references), “imagine all the people, living for today”, with no boundaries. Yet there are boundaries aplenty in this play, as each of the four players will reveal. A success Off-Broadway in 2013, then moved to a larger Broadway venue, in this version, as cleverly directed here by Rebecca Bradshaw, the hundred intermission-less minutes fly by. To describe their interactions here would be to spoil the gradually unleashed moments of tension and the motivations behind them. Suffice it to say that their battles will unveil all their individual weaknesses and strengths. McCartan nails Daphna as one of those pious but conflicted zealots bordering on the sociopathic who identify, then mercilessly attack, the vulnerabilities of people they encounter. Shopov, a local treasure previously known for more serious roles (“Normal Heart”, “Bent”) commands our attention as the self-centered, superficially laid-back Liam, a time bomb just waiting for the final insult to trigger his inevitable meltdown, which is hysterically funny. Gordon is perfectly gooey sweet until she too reaches her breaking point after an unforgettable performance of “Summertime”. But it’s Marz as the almost non-verbal Jonah who most tellingly embodies the play’s simmering pressure cooker setting. The four perfectly cast actors are an amazingly well-tuned quartet. They’re ably supported by a fine technical crew, from the appropriately chaotic Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, to the Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the realistic Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro and Sound Design by Edward Young.

It’s difficult to believe this is Harmon’s first major play. It has some flaws often found in a freshman venture; several long bathroom breaks are conveniently spaced to facilitate plot points, and the initial verbiage for both women overdoes it with the Valley-Girl-speak. But the work overcomes all of this with its wise and perceptive take on modern day culture. It’s not difficult to see how this has become one of the ten most produced plays in America, with its witty amalgam of roots as diverse as Woody Allen’s plays and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Harmon has said elsewhere that modern Jews’ remembrance of the history of their forbears has been “reduced to a piece of horseradish”, and that “different members of a family feel differently about their shared legacy…the ‘bad’ member is in the eye of the beholder”. True enough, as he (and we) refuse, or are merely unable, to choose sides. We’re way too busy holding our sides with laughter.


ArtsEmerson Duo: Mozartian and Mahabhratian Magic

Pauline Malefane in "The Magic Flute" (photo: Keith Pattison)
Jean-Claude Carriere in "Mahabhrata" (photo: EnActe Arts)

The local arts scene is frequently a complex and varied one, never more so than at the start of the current theatrical season. Such was the case this weekend, which afforded the opportunity to see a couple of inventive and unusual creations, playing contemporaneously under a single artistic umbrella, Arts Emerson; on the same day, one could be confronted by such disparate geographies as South Africa, in the form of an adaptation of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”, and India, in the form of a narrative of the classic saga, “Mahabharata”. It made for a fascinating cultural mashup.

With its familiar overture suddenly performed as though never heard before, with drums and marimbas, this “Magic Flute” was not the typical form of this deservedly popular allegorical opera, here adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May for the Isango Ensemble of Cape Town. While the basic libretto and music are essentially the same, the sound is not, making for a unique reintroduction to Mozart’s magic. A production by Eric Abraham and the Young Vic (which won the 2008 Olivier Award in London as Best Musical Revival), this was a revelation. With a fabulous cast of some two dozen dancing singers (actually quadruple threats, as actors and instrumentalists as well) led by the incomparable Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night, it’s a revival in several senses. Standouts included the Tamino (Mhlekazi “WhaWha” Mosiea), the Papageno (Zamile Gantana) and most especially the Sarastro (the amazing bass Ayanda Tikolo). The Musical Arrangment by Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis (who also conducted) and lively Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana are something to hear and see. With a raked Set Design by Dornford-May and Dan Watkins, Lighting Design by Mannie Manim and Costume Design by Leigh Bishop, this morality tale was given a whole new lease on life. If you think you’ve seen the definitive “Magic Flute” sometime in the past, think again. This was the “Magic Flute” of the present and the future. It’s not unlike rediscovering the pleasures of being in the company of an old friend, with suddenly renewed vim and vigor filling the Cutler Majestic Theater as perhaps never before.

Nearby, at the Paramount Theater, one of the cinema’s true giants narrated one of the two greatest Hindu sagas (the other being “Ramayana”), “Mahabharata”. One of the longest works ever written (with over 100,000 stanzas, fifteen times the length of the Bible), composed by many hands over many centuries, it survives as one of the most powerful guides to moral behavior. This version, originally a nine-hour play, subsequently a five-hour film, is presented in a much-trimmed ninety minute narration by Jean-Claude Carrière. His name may not be immediately familiar, but his film work is; he was Oscar-nominated for his screenplays for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, “That Obscure Object of Desire” and “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. He is also the recipient of the just-announced, truly rare and extraordinary honor of a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. His experience in directing showed as he played a wandering minstrel and a traveling bard (common in ancient India) giving voice to the oral epic. (Actually, projections of the cast of characters, and surtitles in English, might have helped those unfamiliar with the saga). He was assisted by expert sitarist Amie Maciszewski (playing for all of those ninety minutes), the sublime dancer Sunanda Narayanan and the vocalizing of Hari Narayanan, as well as Yusuf Buxamusa as the Young Man to whom the storyteller directs his tale. The relating of the story of the war between two families, the Pandava (five children of the gods) and the Kavrava (a hundred sons of a king whose legitimacy is questionable), at least for those who knew the basic facts of the narrative, made the simple but powerful performance, mixing family histories, myths and legends, a moving experience.

Each of these two distinctly different theatrical presentations made its own contribution to the local arts scene. Yet one thing about each of them was strikingly similar; they transported you to lands and ideas you’d never before encountered quite this way. (It would also help enormously to be versed in the source material of each of these works). Magic takes many forms, and these surely made for a unique duo.


National Theatre Live's "Skylight": Looking Up

National Theatre Live HD Broadcast screened at Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline and at other  area theaters on October 23rd; NTL's encore presentation to be screened on Thursday eve Nov.20th

Bill Nighy & Carey Mulligan in "Skylight"

It’s a bitterly frigid night in London when 30-ish urban schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan) receives, unexpectedly, a visitor to her run-down under-heated flat, her former older flame of six years, Tom Sergeant (Bill Nighy), a charismatically successful restaurateur…and he’s not the first visitor of the night. It has been three years since Tom and Kyra have seen one another, and she quickly learns that his wife has died within the past year. As the evening progresses, they make halting attempts at rekindling their prior relationship and its passion, but discover themselves engaged in a battle between their contrasting ideologies and mutual attraction. This is the set-up for the National Theatre’s revival of the 1995 play by David Hare (“Racing Demon”), which was nominated for several Tonys (including Best Play) when it was brought to Broadway back in 1996. This version shows why it was so successful then and now. On the surface a tale of two almost-reunited lovers, what’s on offer here is more a morality play on the wide gulf between the haves and have-nots, fears and longings, and the need in our lives for some level of balance and equanimity.

In this production, directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”), Mulligan is riveting, and Nighy is well nigh perfect. Nighy’s is the showier role especially in the first act, with his nonstop stream of unconsciousness; but it’s Mulligan who slowly but surely peels away her character’s protective layers until there’s not much left hidden. Together, they’re an amazingly effective duo. The only other cast member, Matthew Beard (as Tom’s son Edward) appears briefly but to great effect. What’s amazing is how sadly relevant all this class angst is even in these post-Thatcher, post-Reagan years. One can’t get more specific about the verbal clashes without revealing too much of what the prolific playwright (this is his 29th play) deals out discriminatingly as the plot evolves. Suffice it to say that it’s a complicated ride, aided and abetted by the cleverly crafted Set Design by Bob Crowley, as well as the Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, realistic Sound Design by Paul Arditti, Costume Supervision by Irene Bohan, and Music Composition by Paul Englishby.

In the developing tradition of selective broadcasts of outstanding theatrical events from the National Theatre, this is yet another winner (also headed for Broadway). Its three performers would seem at this point to be virtual shoe-ins for Tony nominations this season, as are the play and its director. And if you missed its first showing, never fear. It encores Nov.20th at a theater near you



Huntington's "Ether Dome": Going Under

Ken Cheeseman, Richmond Hoxie, Tom Patterson, Bill Kux, & Greg Balla in "Ether Dome"
(photo T. Charles Erickson)

If historical drama is your thing, you’ll surely find yourself going under the spell of “Ether Dome” by Elizabeth Egloff now being performed at Huntington Theater Company (a co-production with Alley Theater, La Jolla Playhouse and Hartford Stage Company). Even if this type of theater isn’t typical of the sort of play you prefer, the story of the discovery of ether’s use as a surgical anesthetic makes for a marvelously gripping mystery. Egloff has recreated the convoluted tale of this search for operative pain relief with an eye towards resolving the contentious battles for the allocating of credit for the revolutionary idea that would forever change the surgical world. It centers around the complicated relationship between Hartford dentist Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) and his student, budding young entrepreneur William T. G. Morton (Tom Patterson). In investigating the dynamics of their involvement with one another, Egloff along the way comments on the commercialization of medicine, the evolving ethics of research and development, the attribution of scientific contributions involving many sources and resources, and even the relegation of females to the periphery of a male-dominated society. It’s a lot to cover in a single play, but by and large Egloff succeeds with wise choices and a wide perspective, and unexpected doses of humor (some successful, some not). Even if, to use the most obvious comment, the work could use a scalpel here and there, its almost three hours (with two intermissions) go by swiftly, are relatively painless, and certainly won’t put you to sleep.

The action of the play takes place over three years (condensed from the twenty-five year real life story) in Hartford, Paris and of course Massachusetts General Hospital (referred to, anthropomorphically, as “the General”). After some graphic demonstrations of how barbaric even minor dental surgery was before the advent of anesthesia, (one scene featuring local treasure Karen MacDonald as the ever-patient Mrs. Wadsworth), the various stages in the eventual discovery of pain relief are covered. These primarily involve the venerable Founder and Chief of Surgery at the General, Dr. John Collins Warren (the impressive Richmond Hoxie), his surgiphobic cohort Dr. Charles T. Jackson (the amusingly pathetic William Youmans), and their peers at the General, Drs. Gould (Ken Cheeseman), Hayward (Bill Kux), and Bigelow (Greg Balla). Very much on the sidelines are the women in their lives, especially the supportive Elizabeth Wells (Amelia Pedlow), referred to by her husband as “Little Mother”, and the delicate Lizzie Morton (Liba Vaynberg). Also featured are Lee Sellars, Matthew Barrett, Veronica Barron, Nile Hawver, Nash Hightower, and Mac Young. All of them make for an exceptional ensemble, with some standouts. Patterson makes Morton a believable con man (if a bit too boyish at the beginning) with a worthy if tormented mentor in Bakkensen’s Wells, and Pedlow manages to create a memorable anchor as Wells’ long-suffering spouse. As for the others, with so many of them jockeying for a position in history with their self-proclaimed credit for the momentous discovery, it makes for a veritable ether parade.

Under the direction of Michael Wilson (former longtime Artistic Director of Hartford Stage Company), the play lives up to its subtitle, “A Grand Exhibition Produced on the Dramatic Stage with No Expense Spared, Showing the Exhilarating Inventions of the Medical Mind.” Adding to the impact of the work are some impressive technical credits, from the superb Scenic and Projection Design by James Youmans, to the apt Costume Design by David C. Woolard, complex Lighting Design by David Lander, and eerily effective Sound Design by John Gromada and Alex Neumann, (with considerable original music by Gromada).

The concept of excavating the truth behind all of the historically suspect versions of how and by whom the process of discovery took place, and “who deceived whom”, while it might sound dull on paper, is as one of the characters proclaims, “a leap…this is no humbug.” Rather, it’s a fascinating journey, with a literate script, lively direction and a cornucopia of delicious deceit, betrayal and corruption, all that makes theater so grand. As for the future of this play, one can only say, break a leg.