Huntington's "Second Girl": A Long Dazed Journey

Kathleen McElfresh, MacKenzie Meehan & Christopher Donahue in "The Second Girl"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington Theatre Company’s current production is the world premiere of “The Second Girl” by Ronan Noone (whose “Brendan” and “The Atheist” had previously been staged by the company). It was the playwright’s expressed wish to write about the Irish in America, specifically Irish-born Americans, and he had the clever idea of portraying a day in the life of the three servants in the employ of the Tyrone Family made famous in Eugene O’Neill’s beloved “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. In these days of the rabid popularity of “Downton Abbey”, as well as the ubiquitous “reality” programs now in vogue, the temptation to present the downstairs flip side of that venerable classic must have been too great to resist. After all, in the original O’Neill work we were given only a brief exposure to the “second girl”, Cathleen (here performed by MacKenzie Meehan), and the rather dismissive description of her as “amiable, ignorant and clumsy, and possessed of a dense well-meaning stupidity”. Surely there was more to her than that, and it’s this premise that Noone has decided to explore.

The play begins in virtual darkness (just before sunrise) on that famous August day in 1912 in the Tyrone’s summer home, Monte Christo (named after the role the elder Tyrone played some six thousand times in his acting career). It starts, fittingly enough for this story, with a prayer. The cook Bridget (Kathleen McElfresh) has risen early, as has been her daily custom, to prepare breakfast for the family, the first of endless minor chores she faces each day. She’s shortly joined by Smythe (Christopher Donahue), a garage mechanic who has been moonlighting as a part-time chauffeur for the family. Finally, Cathleen, niece to Bridget, arrives to assist with the preparations. As they go through their mundane daily tasks, it becomes clear that their lives are pretty much defined by the work they do, and it’s tedious and repetitive work at that, interminably boring. They bicker, tease and flirt, as we are gradually given clues as to their past, and glimmers of what their futures might be. We learn that Cathleen (a survivor of the Titanic four months earlier) has spirit and gumption, that Bridget is rigid and frigid, and that Smythe, in his quiet and awkward manner, has dreams of a better life. Throughout the course of a day, loneliness becomes almost a fourth character, and all three change a bit, while remaining pretty much the same. Although there are revelations to be learned, they’re not the sort of critical developments of which great theater must consist.

All three actors are completely credible, natural, and comfortable in their roles, with occasional opportunities to rise above the superficial tedium of their lives. The direction by Campbell Scott is consistent with the author’s portrayal of these lives of quiet desperation. On both the creative and technical levels, the production is up to the company’s usually impeccable standards, especially with respect to the Scenic Design by the deservedly renowned Santo Loquasto (who has earned three Tony Awards, and fifteen nominations over his lengthy career). The kitchen, which seems almost an afterthought appendage to the house, is a marvel of intricate detail and practicality. Loquasto also provided the Costume Design, which is simple and appropriate. The Sound Design by Ben Emerson is unobtrusive, though curiously, although there are at least two references to the fog (which Mary Tyrone loved), there is no sound of the horns (which she despised). The Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls is a crucial element in its passage from one morning to the next with varying degrees of the light of a long summer’s day, and is very strikingly present at the first moment of the intermission.

At the end of the day, this is a well-constructed and painstakingly accomplished treatment of the often overlooked meaning of the menial in the everyday lives of people in service. It might profit from a bit of trimming and the omission of an intermission, as there is insufficient dramatic arc to support the need for a break in the action. It should also be noted that the first action after the initial prayer is a hasty gulp of spirits, signaling we’re once again in the land of the Irish stereotype. This becomes, for at least one character, a long dazed journey.


ART's "Father Comes Home": From the Servile War

The Cast of "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/ART)

ART’s current production, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, parts 1, 2 & 3”, by Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer winner for “Topdog/Underdog”) is, by the playwright’s own admission a “mashup”. The first clue is the laid-back and low-key design scheme that visualizes her complex mix of the historical (the African-American experience since the Civil War) with the surreal and the magically real (a Greek chorus, mythological namings and literary allusions, grunge garb including Crocs and a Rolling Stones t-shirt). It’s not every play with major social themes like this one that could metaphorically mix the classical with the clowning as successfully as this work, and it’s not every playwright who could carry this off with such fearless focus and energy. Parks knows her sources well and utilizes them with all the aplomb and dexterity of a master juggler with a firm eye on the jugular. Pity the temerity of a theatergoer who’s unwilling or unable to surrender to the almost-lost art of storytelling at its purist.

Part 1, set in the spring of 1862 on a modest Texan plantation, and entitled “A Measure of a Man”, begins with a lively debate by the “Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” (Charlie Hudson III, Tonye Patano, Jacob Ming-Trent, and Julian Rozzell, Jr.) and The Oldest Old Man (Harold Surratt) about whether the slave Hero (Benton Greene) will make the choice to accompany his “bossmaster” into battle, and leave behind the love of his life, Penny (Jenny Jules). Also involved in the issue is another slave, Homer (Sekou Laidlow). Part 2, in the latter part of the summer of the same year, set in “a wooded area in the South, pretty much in the middle of nowhere”, is entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness”, involving Hero, his master The Colonel (Ken Marks) and their captive Union soldier, Smith (Michael Crane). Part 3, set in 1863, again in a modest Texan plantation, featuring a group of runaway slaves, is entitled “The Union of My Confederate Parts” in which Hero’s fate is revealed by his faithful Odyssey Dog (Jacob Ming-Trent), in a sort of deus ex mongrel. There is much revelation to come, but won’t be divulged here. Suffice it to say that there are secrets that will inform you not just about these characters themselves, but about the playwright’s themes of faithfulness and freedom. Actually, if truth be told, Parks seems less interested in the abstract notions of pompous themes as she is in how her characters lived them or failed to do so. She’s not focused on “faith” and “freedom” as much as on what it means to be faithful and to be free. As the otherwise obtuse Colonel (who actually thanks God he was created white, a courageous bit of playwrighting in itself) asks, once the Union wins the war and they’re granted “freedom”, “What then?”; it’s the story of “what then?” that one looks forward to in Parks’ remaining parts.

This cast, first introduced in the production done in partnership with New York’s Public Theater last fall, is uniformly wondrous. It seems unfair to single out individuals, but Jules is so strong she commands that attention must be paid. And there’s that mutt, as incarnated by Ming-Trent, looking like a shag rug cross between an ottoman and Ozymandias, in a verbal and physical marathon of comic (and cosmic) acting that would split anyone’s sides. And both Greene and Laidlow are unforgettable, as directed by Jo Bonney, who’s quite an adept and adaptable, even astonishing, ringmaster. The technical crew is in keeping with this theatrically entrancing circus, from the Scenic Design by Neil Patel to the Costume Design by Esosa, Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, Sound Design and Music Supervision by Dan Moses Schreier, and Music Direction by Steven Bargonetti (who provides continuity with his live performance of Songs and Additional Music by Parks).

At one point, we’re advised: “keep your treasures close”. That would presumably include creative artists like Parks, who has already lived up to her earlier promise. Her writing runs, nay races, from the sublime and lyrical to the (intentionally) low and ridiculous. Hers is a voice to be reckoned with, now and in the remaining six parts to come. As several of her characters in the current trilogy might say: Mark it.


Trinity Rep's "Middletown": Life is an Oreo Cookie

Justin Blanchard as Astronaut in "Middletown"

At the start of Trinity Rep’s production of “Middletown”, a 2010 play by Lowell native Will Eno (“The Realistic Joneses”), we are all (including the “newly departed”) welcomed to the little town, an ordinary place at an ordinary time, as aren’t they all. Later comes the kicker: “No, they are not, all”. We’ve been hearing from the Public Speaker (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), who is often compared to the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”, but to overstress this brief similarity would be to miss the uniqueness of Eno. The playwright has said that he wants to convey the “difficulty of consciousness, and the various complications of even the simplest-appearing life”. As very well directed here by the company’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, it soon becomes clear that this is not meant to be enjoyed as yet another nostalgia trip. One could put it that life is like an Oreo, with birth on one side and death on the other, with a lot of stuff in between. Before the play’s end, we know there will be both a birth and a death, but this doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s a very wise and wonderfully funny work.

The storytelling begins with Mary Swanson (Angela Brazil), pregnant with her first child, who has just moved into town next door to chronically troubled John Dodge (Mauro Hantman). Hoping to enjoy the closeness she expects from small town life, she finds that neighbors are strangers to one another and lack connection. There seem to be two lives being led, one visible and ordinary, the other invisible, and very mysterious, even epically poetic. Through the lives of what first appear on the surface to be ordinary lives being led by ordinary people, we begin to appreciate what the playwright is up to. These townfolk include the brash Cop (Joe Wilson, Jr.), a wacky Librarian (Janice Duclos), an Astronaut (Justin Blanchard), a kindly Doctor (Sullivan again) and a Mechanic (Lee Osorio). There are also some visitors touring the town (Rachael Warren and Tracy Allard) with a Tour Guide (Rebecca Gibel).

Eno knows just how to set you up for a warm and fuzzy scene (the one between Mary and the Doctor is especially lovely), then blindside you with absurdist humor. Note the Mechanic: “people don’t stop to think how lucky they are. I do. And, I’ve realized, I’m not that lucky. But I get by. If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer.” Or the Librarian quoting a Native American who first lived in the area: “Someone is born, someone will die. Both are you. Unwind, unknow.” And especially the Cop: “People come, people go…crying, by the way, in both directions”. Then there’s the tongue-in-check Tour Guide: “Sunglasses were almost invented here”. Eno is all about words. In one truly hilarious scene he has one character working under a sink inaudible to us, but another character can hear and respond, so we get a fractured half conversation. At the base of all of this is, in the Doctor’s words, love and forgiveness.

The entire cast is extraordinarily effective with just the right pacing by Columbus. Standouts are Brazil, Hantman, Duclos and Wilson, not to mention Blanchard in one beautifully cosmic scene. The Set Design by Deb O is mischievous and subtle (when a character does die, the light is quietly put out in his dollhouse-sized “home” set on a pole). The Costume Design by Alison Walker Carrier is smart and on target, while the Lighting Design by Josh Epstein and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz convey a good deal of the underlying mystery.

Eno is a playwright to be reckoned with, whose lyricism even in the simplest of exchanges is spellbinding. As he says in the play, birth is both real and surreal. The same could be said for this groundbreaking new play. It makes us feel lucky, as one character sums it up, to be a human person. And a theatergoer, one might add.


New Rep's "Muckrakers": Weak e-Leaks

Esme Allen & Lewis D. Wheeler in "Muckrakers"

For the first half or so of New Rep’s current production of “Muckrakers” by Zayd Dohrn, there’s a good deal of realistic dialogue between its two characters, Mira (Esme Allen) and Stephen (Lewis D. Wheeler). The acting, and direction (by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary), are first rate, but the play soon becomes tiresome as one waits for something more dramatic to occur. Since we don’t really know much about these people, their sexual sparring isn’t particularly interesting, and neither comes across as remotely likeable. Though it strains credulity at first, she has invited this man, whom she doesn’t know any better than we do, to a sleepover at her apartment; it seems her organization (which she describes as an “online agitprop news source”) has just given him a journalism award because he has leaked sensitive government info (a la Julian Assange). He’s more than a bit paranoid about being followed (perhaps justifiably), though he assures her it’s “nothing personal, I don’t trust anybody…I assume they’re watching me at all times”. After a considerable amount of naturalistic banter, the true priorities of the playwright begin to emerge. It’s all about personal privacy vs. the public’s right to know, and related issues, certainly timely in today’s world.

What they are not, despite the author’s convictions, are sufficiently developed arguments. There are a lot of allusions to openness (“It’s all becoming clear…transparent…visibility is the beginning of morality”). But though the play makes a pass at some major contemporary issues, it never really tackles them. It feels somewhat like a laundry list of power points, first obscured by sexual politics, ultimately revealed (via two personal “secrets”, one telegraphed) but even then not very compelling in the context of this play. Any significance one would attach to this work comes from the topicality of the issues as demonstrated by external current events. The technical contributions to this production are all worthy, from the Scenic Design by Alexander Grover (early eclectic agitprop décor), to the appropriate Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg and eerie Sound Design by Edward Young.

There is surely grist for the theatrical mill in the issue of personal privacy, but not here: It presents a concrete invasion of privacy in having the female lead urinate in sight of the male lead (at his request, not ours)…the ultimate Wikileak. It’s a graphic illustration of the work’s lack of subtlety. While an admirable effort by an obviously sincere playwright, in the end it’s not groundbreaking, just more agitflop.


Underground Theater's "St. Joan": It's Bedlam

Eric Tucker, Andrus Nichols, Tom O'Keefe & Edmund Lewis, the Entire Cast of "St. Joan"
(photo courtesy of Bedlam)

What do you get when you have four actors playing some two dozen roles over the course of three hours? Why, bedlam, of course; that is, New York’s Bedlam Theater Company, now performing in Underground Railway’s current presentation of “St. Joan”, by George Bernard Shaw. Named as one of the New York Times’ Top Ten Plays of 2013, it’s an admittedly lengthy show (it is Shaw, after all), but goes by amazingly quickly, thanks to its pluperfect pacing, as directed here by Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s co-founder. The company’s other founder is Andrus Nichols, who plays Joan. The other actors in the company are Tom O’Keefe, Edmund Lewis (the latter seen recently in ART’s “The Tempest”) and Tucker himself. They’re all accomplished actors individually, but as a unit they’re a dynamic quartet indeed. All of them perform at breathtakingly full throttle, in what can truly be called immersive theater. At several points, sections of the audience had to move their seats, a strikingly concrete metaphor for the company’s revelatory approach to Shavian wit and wisdom.

This Joan’s arc is presented as neither progressing from peasant girl to saint nor as evolving from activist to madwoman. Straight off the farm, she’s pure and simple, as the company’s note puts it, an “illiterate intellectual, a true genius whose focus on the individual rocked the Church and the State to their cores”. Genius or not, this Orleans maid is unquestionably one of the most controversial figures in the herstory of Christianity. Condemned in her lifetime as a heretic (for reasons more political than doctrinal), she was canonized four hundred years later by the same hierarchical body that had reviled her. Putting aside for the moment the fact that her vision (and visions) of God was that of a bellicose one who chose sides, one can’t but admire her virtuous if naïve steadfastness. As Shaw puts it, her crime was simplicity, seen as heresy, and her punishment one of political necessity. The play gets off to a relatively slow start, given the amount of necessary exposition and historical context. Once Joan has confronted her accusers, both religious and secular, the question hangs in the air: are her voices from God coming from her imagination? (To which her answer is, where else?). Disbelievers are converted when the wind changes (quite literally, as a result of her prayers). Shaw then presents a fascinating debate about the new “protestant-ism” and “national-ism”.

Then it’s back to the viscerally protesting protagonist and the question of her pride or humility; she’s convinced she’s right to do as she does, so is this arrogance or obedience? As Shaw has her say about confronting the religious and secular authorities, “If there were no if and then, no pots and pans, there’d be no need for tinkers”. Joan herself exacerbates her fate by choosing to break rules, whether of organized religion, class, or gender. Her life inspired the likes of Voltaire and Mark Twain, Brecht and Schiller, Anouilh and Shaw, Cecil B. DeMille and Otto Preminger, among countless other re-creators. In an era when any women, much less peasant farm girls, were listened to or had their words and deeds recorded, on this basis alone she was miraculous. As Tucker notes in the program, this production, unlike most that are concerned with sheer length, includes the epilogue in which Joan argues that if she had been a man, they would not have been so frightened of her; she forgives them all, as everyone thought that she or he was doing the right thing.

In the hands of this stalwart group, aided by the simple Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski (including the projection of a subtle rose window), Shaw and his version of the Maid of Orleans (a force for social justice if there ever was one) once again come back to life. It’s an exemplary and inspiring troupe, this Bedlam, providing the sort of ensemble acting for which one dreams. And, in the end, the irony is that all of the players in the real-life drama are today remembered because of Joan, and she because of them: “They would not remember me as well if you’d not burned me”. So it often is with ardent activists who inflame the establishment of their day. In the end, as Shaw has her proclaim, “It is to God that we (all) must answer”. And, with this production, the theater gods must be very well pleased.

Fathom Events' "Merry Widow": Met Lite

Kelli O'Hara & Alek Shrader in "The Merry Widow"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

             Screened at Regal Cinemas Kingston; Encore presentation Wed. Jan. 21 @ 6:30pm

Composer Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” was a crossover triumph long before the term was even coined, gracing operatic and musical comedy stages. When this critic first saw this work at the Theatre am der Vien some forty years ago, it was in fact performed very much like a musical comedy, with the singers bowing after every number. Its premiere was also in Vienna, in 1905, and, fittingly, it was the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve offering this year, in all its effervescent splendor. As its Librettist Victor Léon declared, this operetta was “not caviar for the people; it’s purpose was to serve as entertainment, pure and simple”. Here in its new English translation, from the original German, by Jeremy Sams (who also conceived and translated the Met’s recent “The Enchanted Island” as well as “Die Fledermaus”), it has appropriately updated lyrics , for example, the rhyming of “chantoozies” with “floozies”. This production boasts the work of Broadway’s Susan Stroman, (winner of five Tony Awards), as both Director and Choreographer, important in a work such as this that highlights several forms of dance (the waltz in first act, the traditional Slavic folk dance the kulo in the second, and of course the can-can in the third). As Conducted by Andrew Davis, this was a joyous romp.

The setting was Paris, filled with diplomats from the mythical Balkan nation of Pontevedro (thinly based on Montenegro). The Pontevedrian envoy (baritone Thomas Allen) wishes to keep in his country the hefty taxes paid by widow Hanna Glawari (soprano Renée Fleming at this performance, to be played by mezzo Susan Graham in April and May) by setting her up with Count Danilo (baritone Nathan Gunn). What the envoy doesn’t know is that they were romantically involved long ago but are now apart. A subplot involves the ingenue Valencienne (soprano Kelli O’Hara, five-time Tony nominee), a dancer or grisette at the famous cabaret Maxim’s, pursued by the French aristocrat Camille de Rossillon (tenor Alek Shrader). The action takes place to the accompaniment of some of the loveliest and most approachable music ever written. While the best known aria is the folk song “Vilja”, this production also features a solo taken from another Lehar work, “Paganini”.

To evoke an Epoque this Belle requires a host of gifted craftspeople. These would include Set Designer Julian Crouch, Costume Designer Broadway veteran William Ivey Long (making his Met debut with gorgeous work), and Lighting Designer Paule Constable (though, as is often the case with the Met, one could wish for more illumination and less darkness. The operetta itself provides a great deal of enlightenment, especially due to the always dependable Met Opera Chorus, under Chorus master Donald Palumbo, providing support and color.

There were several standouts in this production. First and foremost of course is the titular soprano, with Fleming offering a nice edginess to the often overly sugary role; too much schlage can make for too sweet a widow (especially since the original title is Die Lustige Witwe). She sang beautifully, as one might expect in a role carefully chosen as she winds down her illustrious career. What one doesn’t necessarily expect is that O’Hara is equally at home with this frothy world of delirious high notes and delicious low humor. This is in part the work of Sams with his versatile translation (such as “fan fatale”). Then there’s the marvelously adroit Gunn, no stranger to the musical comedy world as well as opera, and the exciting new discovery tenor Alek Shrader, with boyish good looks and the best voice on this stage. And who could forget the hilarious antics of theatrical veteran, actor Carson Elrod, as the jesting Njegus? But the true star of this excellent production, hands (and feet) down, was Stroman, whose helming was witty and whose choreography and movement direction was on view everywhere. It’s an extraordinary debut.

Some were critical of the use of so much dialogue in such a huge house as the Met. This was certainly no problem in the HD broadcast, which may in fact have provided a better venue than the Met itself. And if you were unfortunate enough to miss it, you’re in luck; you’ll find all the merriment repeated this coming Wednesday at a theater near you. It’s a delightful way to start off the HD broadcast New Year.


SpeakEasy's "Future Perfect": Tense

Marianna Bassham, Brian Hastert, Chelsea Diehl & Nael Nacer in "A Future Perfect"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Are we the people our parents warned us about? This question is at the heart of the current Speakeasy Stage Company production “A Future Perfect”. True to its expressed intent to focus more attention on new works by rising playwrights, Speakeasy’s latest presentation is the world premiere of this work by Ken Urban. At just under two hours without intermission, this tense and compelling story covers a lot of (you should excuse the expression) fertile ground, from having babies and/or careers, to love and sex, to dreams and values, to friendship and families, to aging and defining success. Life is presented as a jigsaw puzzle wherein each individual fits the various conflicting pieces together in a more or less coherent whole. As the playwright puts it, “how are we going to live up to our beliefs?” when there’s clearly a distinct disconnect between what your beliefs are when you’re in your twenties, and what stays with you as you mature.

The story takes place in the fall of 2011 (the program specifies “President Obama’s first term”) in a condominium in the upscale Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. The home is owned by two married thirty-somethings, Claire (Marianna Bassham), an advertising executive, and Max (Brian Hastert), a writer and puppeteer for a PBS series. They plan a get-together over takeout food with their married friends Elena (Chelsea Diehl) and Alex (Nael Nacer). When Elena turns down the offer of a glass of wine, Claire, with her typical bluntness, impulsively asks her if she’s pregnant. This serves as the catalyst for subsequent complex discussions of profound priorities as well as some shallow suppositions; for example, Max initially worries that his former bandmate Alex won’t be able to go to concerts with him anymore, while Claire bemoans the reality that the Occupy Movement believes in the same things they do, but they themselves don’t demonstrate or get arrested. This foursome consists of liberals who have angst about their parochial problems while savoring Thai food or pizza, with drinks from Whole Foods. At one point, in a brief scene with a child actress from Max’s PBS production, Annabelle (sharply played by Uatchet Jin Juch), Claire gives the girl advice that she is in reality giving to herself about the right priorities.

As Director M. Bevin O’Gara puts it, “they are to some extent all defined by the music they listen to”, thus music plays an important role in the storytelling, which displays a keen ear for realistic and natural dialogue, often overlapping the way normal conversation does in everyday life. O’Gara (who worked on the piece with Urban in a workshop setting) does a superb job (as she did with Speakeasy’s “Tribes” and “Clybourne Park”) with her quartet of fine actors. All four are totally believable, though the character of Elena could use some fleshing out; she’s a late comer to the trio’s older relationships, filled with shared memories and hookup points. Bassham especially gets to shine, as Claire is pivotal to the plot. The technical elements are all at the top of their game, from the trendy Set Design by Christina Todesco, to the Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting Design by Jen Rock and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh.

The story may well resonate most with a couple who faces the decision between career and family, but anyone could extrapolate from the play about her or his choices. Toward the end of the play, Max sings his recently composed song, “Never Alone” (written by the playwright with his college friend Mike Robb Grieco) in which he states “you still want everything…simple comforts and the two of us together, never alone”. In this compelling and fascinatingly on-target work, Urban seems to be saying and singing, in the end, that life is a mixtape constructed by the choices you make along the journey. 



"Speakeasy Circus": Leave Your Prohibitions at the Door

Rocco Lapaire in Boston Circus Guild's "Speakeasy Circus"

If you’re feeling frightfully frigid these days (and who isn’t?), there’s a jazzy joint that’s a red hot cure for that, transforming ART’s other Cambridge venue (Oberon at 2 Arrow Street) into the Oberon Social Club, a.k.a. “Speakeasy Circus”. As the name implies, it’s part speakeasy and part circus, as well as a theater, and a lot more, and all for a modest bit of cold cash. What it is, you see, is an underground cabaret, a polyglot pastiche of some sophisticated swingers, with hardy hoopists, athletic acrobatics, artistic aerialists, joint-twisting jugglers…and a dash or two of old burlesquers, bootleggers and broads. (You’ll have to excuse the politically incorrect term; it’s decades before our more enlightened days). It’s the creation of the Boston Circus Guild, and if you’re not already a fan of this group, you sure will be once you’ve seem them in action. Founded in 2009 by its Creative Director Charles “Handsome Chuck” Lechien Jr., it’s a lot more theatrical than the traditional circus, with more of a narrative, though the storytelling is accomplished mainly through movement. It’s sort of high quality dinner theater, without the rubber chicken.

Mixing the art of professionally trained dancers and musicians with the science of physical prowess is the marvelous magic of a contemporary circus. This one is quite different from some nationally produced mega circuses whose performances, while awe-inducing, can seem robotic. At this production, you’re up close and sometimes very personal with a very enthusiastic and personable troupe; don’t be surprised if you find one of those denizens of the deep at your chair side. Or if the band director looks suspiciously like good old Handsome Chuck himself. Anything can happen; after all, they don’t call them the Roaring Twenties for nothing. It all devolves from a very clever conceit that we’ve been assembled to take part in a “libarry” (“libation-ary” would be more exact) for a book club discussion, in which even the programs have a role in establishing the mood and milieu. There follow a dozen or so acts interspersed with musical breaks for drinking and dancing (and these people really move; there wasn’t an unlimber joint in the joint). These range from sole to group juggling, to balancing gymnasts while stripping (this you just have to see), to ballet in drag, to lots of high flying and low humor, accompanied by flirtatious flappers. If the raunchy and rowdy, as well as hot bods and cold brew, are not your thing, you may want to check your pulse. Despite the fact that the novel that was the subject of this meeting was “All Quiet on the Western Front”, the audience of undoubtedly ardent book-lovers lapped it all up, with lots of audible expressions of amazement.

Got a lot of cares and woes? Fuhgeddaboudit. Loosen up with this group, at Oberon for a limited time only, specifically next week on the nights of January 14th and 15th at 8pm, January 16th at 7:30pm, and January 17th at 7:00pm. So if winter’s already getting too much to bear, or your seasonally malajusted mood is as grouchy as a bear, be sure to head for the welcoming warmth of “Speakeasy Circus”. Just tell ‘em South Shore Critic sent ya.


Huntingon's "Vanya" et al: Duranged Drollery Revisited

Tyler Lansing Weaks, Marcia DeBonis, Candy Buckley, Allison Layman & Martin Moran
in "Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike"
(photo: Jim Fox)

As this critic noted in an earlier review of a production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, there are no shared memories anymore, at least in the thinking of the character Vanya in Durang’s comedic take on the characters and values of Chekov. The play opened first off-Broadway in 2012, transferring in 2013 to Broadway, where it deservedly won the Tony as Best Play (with a disappointingly and undeservedly brief run of just over 200 performances), now being given its Boston premiere by Huntington Theatre Company. It’s helmed by Jessica Stone, who stepped in when the late beloved Nicholas Martin became ill and was unable to repeat his Tony-nominated direction; the program notes that this production is “based on the Broadway Direction of Nicholas Martin”. In Stone’s capable hands, it continues to provide virtually non-stop laughs, with a knowing nod to what civilization has lost. While Durang places the action in a home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he takes aim at many of the current conventions that afflict all of us, especially anyone connected with the theater as well as whatever passes for pop culture. Though the setting and mood is Chekovian (he even states in his amusing stage directions “there used to be a shed for peacocks, but the peacocks are long gone”), his witty and wise barbs aim straight for the jugular, especially about the modern lack of communication and connection; they continue to come fast and furiously, agonizingly close to the truth. As Stone states in the program, “the truth is almost always funny mixed with pain”; the pain you’ll feel is from holding your sides with laughter. You couldn’t ask for a funnier antidote to the winter blahs.

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

Since, as in Chekov, the main characters would probably end up doing nothing if left to their own devices, the supporting cast members prove to be very important to the play, with Wood providing both daffiness and ditziness. All the members of this cast are wonderful, led by Moran and Buckley, terrific foils for one another as they are for DeBonis, who has a great delivery of many of Durang’s best lines (“I hope you’re not going to give Chekov references all day”, for one). The technical elements are all superb, from the gorgeous Set Design by David Korins to the Costume Design by Gabriel Berry (with apologies to Disney), to the Lighting Design by David Weiner, and Sound Design and Original Music by Mark Bennett.

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

Durang’s ear for those shared memories that helped define us as a nation is acute. With this outrageously funny play, here so impeccably performed, one can appreciate the joy, the humor, and humanity that is essentially Chekovian but difficult to discern. Durang loves what he is sending up, and leaves us with an exhortation (from Nina, no less) to “always get your hopes up”, accompanied by the Beatles with “Here comes the sun”. Fittingly, his ultimate disdain falls on Facebook, and, by extension, the antisocial world of social media. To which one can only add, this play, as it did on first viewing, earns the ultimate contemporary praise: LOL.


Lyric's "Red Hot Patriot": Bushwhackin' the Shrub

Karen MacDonald and the Shrub in "Red Hot Patriot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Journalist Molly Ivins was the proverbial thorn in the (back)side of many a Texas politician, with her keen eye for hypocrisy, and her acerbic wit. Her knack for satire forms the basis of the current production at Lyric Stage, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins”. Written by Margaret and Allison Engel, no strangers themselves to journalism, it’s a fond tribute to the late essayist. Ivins may not be as well known hereabouts as she was in her home state, but her work eventually found a national audience. She attended Smith College and the Institute of Political Science in Paris, and earned a Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University; subsequently she wrote for the Houston Chronicle, the Minneapolis Tribune, her own Texas Observer, and the New York Times (an anomaly at a time when testosterone was virtually a requirement), having authored or co-authored a dozen or so political books and having been nominated for a Pulitzer in Journalism. Over the years she accumulated a dedicated (mostly liberal) following, ultimately blossoming when Texas governor George W. Bush (whom she christened “the Shrub”) was elected President.

As directed here by Courtney O’Connor (whose Lyric Stage credits include “Rich Girl” and “Stones in His Pockets”), the audience is in luck. It’s essentially a one-woman show, thus requiring a savvy actress who can singlehandedly hold an audience captive for an hour and a quarter without a break. (There is a non-speaking supporting role, identified as “Helper”, played by Jacob Athyal, who coincidentally also performed a mostly mute role in Underground Railway’s “A Disappearing Number”). Fortunately, in Karen MacDonald (whose numerous credits include understudying and performing the role of Amanda Wingfield in “Glass Menagerie” on Broadway), we have an accomplished performer who could probably excel at reading from a telephone book. Even seemingly battling a cold, MacDonald, arguably incapable of being less than transcendent, again delivers an amazingly kick-ass performance.

The show itself (one hesitates to call it a play in any traditional sense) may or may not be to a theatregoer’s liking. Most of the audience, this critic included, would certainly have counted themselves among her “beloveds”, as she addressed her readers; in that sense, the work is probably preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. Some of her own sayings are a bit colorful, which one might expect of a red hot patriot who named her dog Shit, referred to editors as “mice in training to become rats”, utilized the phrase “it’s as obvious as the balls on a tall dog” and referred to a communal chicken de-feathering as a “gang pluck”. Some of her witticisms aren’t all that original (such as debunking those “thousand points of light” as more like one “dim bulb”), but most often her aim is original and right on target. She even had the last laugh: when she died in 2007 after a long fight with breast cancer, she left the bulk of her estate to the ACLU. Only once in the show does she admit to being “out of touch with (her) emotions”. She saved her space for warning her followers to “pay attention the next time (she) warns them not to elect another Bush president”. Timely advice indeed.

The technical credits, at the usual fine level of Lyric Stage productions, all contribute to the intimate feeling of the work, from the Scenic Design by Katharine Burkhart to the Costume Design by Sarie Gessner, Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg, Projection Design by Johnathan Carr, and Sound Design by Chris Kurtz.

As Ivins herself put it, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed toward the powerless, it is not only cruel-it’s vulgar”.
Since she considered that her monument would consist of future freedom fighters, this production becomes a part of her legacy. If you’re part of that choir to whom she preached, you have to see this devastatingly witty depiction. And as she further urged us, don’t ask the proverbial question of her day, “What would Molly say?”; we should instead be responding to the question, “What do you say?”