Zeitgeist's "Big Meal": Ring of the Nibblings

Shelley Brown, Peter Brown, Ashley Risteen, Arianna Reith, Devon Scalisi, Johnny Quinones, & Becca A. Lewis in "The Big Meal"  (photo: Richard Hall/Silverline Images)

Zeitgeist's current production is “The Big Meal” by Dan LeFranc (now enjoying a bit of a local mini-festival, with his “Sixty Miles to Silver Lake” being presented by Bridge Rep), a fast-paced comedy performed in ninety intermission-less minutes. With eight actors playing twenty-six characters (and one mute actor as a waiter) the play unfolds over fifty years in the life of an extended family and over various restaurant tables. While there's much to digest over the years, it's rare that anyone does more than nibble at actual food in the cyclic center ring of this complex extended family. The play had its world premiere in Chicago in 2011 and played off-Broadway in 2012. It's not the first time an author has attempted a play in such circumstances, as the company's Artistic Director David Miller notes in the program for this production. Thornton Wilder's 1931 one-act play “The Long Christmas Dinner” was also about family and time, covering ninety years in about a half hour over dinner tables, a concept which was borrowed by Orson Welles (self-admitted) for his extended dining scene spanning the years in “Citizen Kane”. Wilder also collaborated on a 1963 operatic version of his play by Paul Hindemith. There was yet another multi-generational comedy covering several evolving characters, “The Dining Room”, in 1982, by A. R. Gurney. In the right hands, this clever, if not particularly original, idea can cover a lot of ground in a brief period.
Fortunately, this time around, the device is used to display the estimable talents of a versatile cast, under the able direction of Miller, including Man # 1 (Peter Brown) and Woman # 1 (Shelley Brown), Man # 2 (Devon Scalisi) and Woman # 2 (Becca A. Lewis), Man # 3 (Johnny Quinones) and Woman # 3 (Ashley Risteen), as well as Boy (Alec Shiman) and Girl (Arianna Reith), and the aforementioned dumb Waiter (Josh Clary). All are completely believable and natural in their varied permutations. Each of them gets her or his “aria”, with standouts including the ditsy airhead daughter-in-law played to perfection by Risteen, the handsome but shallow Sam embodied by Scalisi, and the heartbreaking interplay by the two Browns as one of the grandparents cares for the other who is gradually slipping into dementia. Even Clary as the omnipresent waiter has a chance to interact, playing an important role (not to be disclosed here) in the lifespan of several characters.

LeFranc takes liberties with time and dimensions, as he has done in other work, an approach that's becoming more frequent these days in the arts (the current Broadway play “Constellations”, and the film “Interstellar”, for example). Thanks to Miller's expert direction (and simple Set Design), coupled with the essential Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, apt Costume Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, and minimalist Sound Design by J. Jumbelic, it's an engaging and effective production. One negative aspect, all too frequent in our time, is the physical setup, with half of the audience on either side of the playing area, choirstall-style. As happened in such recent area productions as Huntington Theatre's “Our Town” and SpeakEasy Stage's “Tribes”, a good portion of the audience is unable to see facial expressions for considerable lengths of time, simultaneously annoying and frustrating.

That said, this is an acting and directorial buffet for theatergoers looking for more nutritious playwriting. It's short and bittersweet, perhaps not as filling as it could have been, but still satisfying. LeBlanc's skill at overlapping natural dialogue and half-finished sentences makes one hungry for more from this author. As one character asks rhetorically “Where does the time go...where does it all go?”, we hear the plaintive lyrics to the Niko Case song “(I'm so lonely), I Wish I Was the Moon Tonight”, which sort of serves as a just dessert.


Fathom Events' "Iolanta" & "Bluebeard's Castle": Slavic Fables & Femmes Fatales

The Metropolitan Opera's "Bluebeard's Castle" & "Iolanta"
(photo montage: Paul Pelkonen)

The Metropolitan Opera's latest HD broadcast is a dual bill of Tchaikovsky's “Iolanta” and Béla Bartók's “Bluebeard's Castle”, a fascinating combo to say the least. While it may not endure as long as “Cav/Pag” has, it's an original approach to presenting these two works. The former is a fable with a libretto (by Modest Tchaikovsky) based on a play by Henrik Hertz, while the latter is a horror story with a libretto (by Béla Balázs) based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault. Together they present a compelling presentation of contrasts, and a welcome diversion from the more familiar opera repertoire.

The first opera, “Iolanta”, is the story of a young blind girl (soprano Anna Netrebko), daughter of King René (bass Ilya Bannik). She is living in seclusion with the peasant couple Marta (mezzo Mzia Nioradze) and Bertrand (bass Matt Boehler). The king wishes to spare Iolanta, and her betrothed Duke Robert (baritone Alexei Markov) the realization that she is blind. She believes eyes are simply for crying. Alméric (tenor Keith Jameson) announces the arrival of the king and the Moorish Doctor Ibn-Hakia (baritone Elchin Azizov) who insists she must be told of her affliction before a cure can be tried. Duke Robert and Vaudémont (tenor Piotr Beczala) arrive, and Robert is unnerved by his surroundings, while Vaudémont falls for Iolanta and asks for a red rose; when she gives him a white one, he becomes aware of her lack of sight. The king overhears Vaudémont explaining to Iolanta about her blindness, and angrily declares if the treatment doesn't cure her, he will have Vaudémont killed. She is cured and the king consents to her marriage to Vaudémont. Iolanta can't believe that those she loves look the way they do, but her love for him, and the wedding ceremony itself, subdue her fears. And that's about the silliest, most laughably absurd opera libretto you're ever apt to encounter. Thankfully, it's filled with glorious music, gloriously sung here by the entire cast, especially Netrebko, Markov and Beczala, not to mention the Met Opera Chorus.

In the second opera, Judith (soprano Nadja Michael) has come to live with Bluebeard (bass Mikhail Petrenko), despite the terrifying rumors about him, believing her love will transform him and his gloomy castle. She demands that the doors to seven rooms be opened. They contain a torture chamber, an armory, a treasury, a garden, his bloody empire, a sea of tears, and the final room, a space beyond life on the border of life and death, with his previous wives. Judith walks through the seventh door and joins them as part of Bluebeard's space forever, as the circle of her journey closes. Both singers were in great form, with a difficult, demanding, and ultimately rewarding score.

Both operas were expertly conducted by Valery Gergiev, with the Production by Mariusz Trelinski, and Director Gary Halvorson at the HD helm, aided by Choreographer Tomasz Wygoda, Set Design by Boris Kudlicka, Costume Design by Marek Adamski, Lighting Design (as is typical of the Met, too dimly lit) by Marc Heinz, Projection Design by Bartek Macias, and Sound Design by Mark Grey.

No matter what mood you're in, at least one (if not both) of these works will appeal.The HD broadcast will be repeated this coming Wednesday February 18th at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


Bridge Rep's "FUFU & OREOS": Double Dunkin' Dark Roast

Obehi Janice in "FUFU & OREOS"

FUFU & OREOS”, a one-person piece created and performed by the brilliant local young author Obehi Janice, is one of two works now being presented (in real repertory) by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston. (The other is a two-hander, “Sixty Miles to Silver Lake”, by playwright Dan LeFranc). As the author is quoted in the program, she had “never read a play about a young Nigerian-American girl sorting out her life. So I thought, what is the worst thing I could write? A play about myself. And here we are”. And here we are indeed, with one of the most unusual theatrical experiences one could hope for, all in the unique voice (or, more correctly, voices) of this tremendous talent. There's a great deal of deeply personal revelation, with what might be called double dunkin': near the beginning of the play, “fufu” or mashed yams, is dipped in soup; at the end of the play, Oreo cookies are dunked in milk, all in a darkly knowing self-roast of sorts. Rarely has a performer presented an audience with such drenching and wrenching truth. As Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw here, this was theater at its most remarkably involving, with huge support from this amazingly versatile company.

The magic begins with a rollaway cot, part of the ingenious cardboard Scenic Design by Anita Shriver, aided in no small measure by the perfectly coordinated and complex Lighting Design by Juliana Beecher and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Add to these contributions the colorful Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, and you have some idea of how much this work is dependent upon many unseen creatives. Along the way, one is treated to a barefoot crabwalk, totally distinct dialects for the author's father, mother, aunts and uncles, as well as a smarmy television cooking show host, and even a spot-on Boston accent that ran the gamut from “Wickahd Smaht” to “Woosta” (MA), to a devastating “Lion King” putdown. We learned, as Obehi Janice ticked off “minus this, add that”, that she was first enlightened about sex from the television series “Seinfeld”, naming her pet bird “Kramer”. She shares how different it is to walk the streets of Lowell or Boston, after having “felt like you belonged” when walking African city streets. A self-described Texas-born “African princess”, she's told by a well-meaning but fatuous (mandatory) college counselor (with her “Janet Reno glasses and Margaret Thatcher pantsuit” and office filled Georgia O'Keefe “vagina paintings”) that Nigerian culture is the main cause of her clinical depression. When asked by the same counselor if she wants to be happy, she responds “of course I do; I don't know how”.

The scant one hundred minutes seemed to fly by in this nimble and energetic dynamo of a performance. Though the playwright has been honing the details and incorporating a lot of disparate influences into a more and more cohesive whole, it's hard to imagine it could use more than a bit of trimming here and there. As she herself might enumerate, this is an event with “Minus attitude; Add honesty”.


Bridge Rep's "Sixty Miles": Deconstructed Duo

Before and After: the VW in "Sixty Miles to Silver Lake"

Sixty Miles to Silver Lake” by local playwright Dan LeFranc (whose work may also soon be seen in “The Big Meal”, being produced by Zeitgeist Stage Company) is one of two plays currently on view (in true repertory) by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston. The other work, previously reviewed on this site, is the one-person performance by Obehi Janice, “Fufu & Oreos”. This play, a taut two-hander of some seventy minutes in length, is about a father, Ky (Barlow Adamson), who is taking his son, Denny (Kristian Sorensen), in his VW to a newly acquired Silver Lake home near Los Angeles. It's one of the weekends he gets to have with Denny, sharing custody with his divorced (unseen, but much discussed) wife. As Directed here by Shana Gozansky, it's an intriguing if ultimately less than satisfying, deconstructed portrayal of the relationship between these two combative types. Both actors, with gestures and timing, succeed in keeping the dialogue in the fast and furious lane, managing to evoke different stages in their growing interplay, as well as making the trip(s) all too believable, even when the author throws a couple of mysterious (and unexplained) curve balls.

The creative team consists of the same troupe responsible for the look and sound of “Fufu & Oreos”, with Scenic Design by Anita Shriver (cleverly camouflaging the cardboard set built for the other play), crucial Lighting Design by Juliana Beecher and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, and simple but appropriate Costume Design by Tyler Kinney. The focal point is another deconstruction, namely a cutaway car created from an actual VW automobile. (A Volvo was used in some prior productions, but budgets are always a concern for a relatively new theater company, and in this case a very responsible choice).

But it's about those curve balls. Without giving away too many possible spoilers, there are brief instances when Denny is clearly worried about safety and his father assures him that they may not yet be, but will soon be, safe. From what, we never learn. Obviously the playwright intends the audience to fill in some of the blanks, just as he does with some audible flashes forward to Denny's possible adulthood, but, as theater, this is frustrating to say the least for the theatergoer. It's a worthwhile trip nonetheless, thanks to some fine direction and acting. You may, though, find yourself asking, “Are we there yet?”.


New Rep's "King of 2nd Ave": The Law and the Profits

Ken Cheeseman, Kathy St. George & Remo Airaldi in "The King of Second Avenue"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

What, you say, another klezmer musical? New Rep's world premiere of “The King of Second Avenue” is just that, a story with klezmer music provided by an on-stage band, about a con man who outwits a successful Hollywood producer, swindling him out of his money, his home and his self-respect. Based on the classic 1894 picaresque novella “The King of Schnorrers” by British author Israel Zangwill (whose parents had emigrated to Britain from Latvia and Poland), it's an updated comedy that respects the author's original intent. Often referred to as the “Dickens of the ghetto”, Zangwill was a satiric genius. His use of the term “schnorrers” in his novel was not in the more pejorative contemporary sense, but refers more to a “beggar”; not one who directly begs, but who habitually obtains his needs by politely and insistently borrowing things (with no intention of returning them). What further distinguishes him from the sterotypical beggar is his endless chutzpah or shamelessness. Zangwill's work was the basis of two prior failed musicalizations, one in 1968 by composer Bernard Herrmann (better known for his film scores, notably “Psycho” and other Hitchcock efforts) and a short-lived 1979 Broadway musical by Judd Woldin. The present production boasts Book and Lyrics by Robert Brustein and Music by Hankus Netsky, with Direction by Matthew “Motl” Didner and Choreography by Merete Muenter. Brustein orginally used the book's title but says he decided that the current title referencing Second Avenue “grounded the play more in its adapted modern period”. As such it becomes a satirical jab at the inequality of wealth between the out-of-work actors of the dying Yiddish Theater and those purveyors of schlock that profited from successfully gauging the public's lack of taste. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate the humor, but it probably helps, given the lexicon of Yiddish expressions used throughout the play. Then again, you may be better off not catching all the allusions; perhaps, in this case at least, ignorance is briss.

The Jewish Law (orTorah) commanded that one's profits be shared with those less fortunate. As Joseph Stein wrote in the libretto of another Jewish-themed musical you may have heard of, “Fiddler on the Roof”, the beggar Nahum, when told why the butcher was giving him half his usual alms because he'd had a less profitable week in the butcher shop, says “So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”. Here updated to a sort of Romeo and Juliet theme in the lower east side of 1960's Manhattan, with antagonistic Jewish sects, we find the Sephardic actor Da Costa (Will LeBow, with that magnificent voice, though going up on more than a few lines, which will probably dissolve with subsequent performances), “down on his luck”, as they say, who tricks Joseph E. Lapidus (Jeremiah Kissel, obviously having a ball with his delivery), a successful Hollywood producer (and Ashkenazic) . Meanwhile, Da Costa's daughter Dolores (the beautifully voiced Abby Goldfarb) is courted by both Lapidus' ill-behaved son Joe Jr. (Alex Pollock, perfectly cast) and one of her father's fellow beggars, Schmuelly (Remo Airaldi, at his most hilariously rubber-faced). Also along for this tempestuous ride are Lapidus' wife Rosalie (Kathy St. George, giving another hysterically funny turn) and his “man”, Wilkinson (Ken Cheeseman, a haughty hoot). What follows are basically con games and swindles, as well as a schmear of true love.

The technical crew is along for the ride as well, with clever and versatile Scenic Design by Jon Savage, amusing Costume Design by Frances McSherry, striking Lighting Design by Natalie Robin, perfectly synchronized complex Sound Design by Mike Stanton and the very clever Choreography by Muenter. The band plays well, given that klezmer music isn't the most diverse or varied source for a complete score (rather like listening to a full evening of bagpipers); many of the dozen and a half short tunes are too similar to one another. This is often intentional, as with “A Piece of Fish” and “A Pair of Pants”. St. George does get to do a funny parody of a torch song, though. But the success of the work is in Brustein's book (perilously close to what killed vaudeville and burlesque) and lyrics (surprisingly nimble). A lot of the puns are painful (and this critic would be hypercritical as well as hypocritical to object to same), so close to over-the-top that, in the wrong hands, it could spell disaster. It's a tribute to this all-star cast that the production is as stellar as it is, and that, thanks to their joyousness, understanding the rather circumscribed text doesn't require circumcision.

What saves this work is the obvious affection of both the creative team and the performers for the traditions they are skewering, as well as (to quote DaCosta near the end of the play) their “panache”. Even if hyperventilated comedy isn't typically your thing, this show should melt the hearts and minds of any audience in recovery from snow overload. Successful farce, especially as presented by non-British actors, is a rarity. Happily, this regal schnorrer is one in a minyan.


ArtsEmerson's "Breath & Imagination": Rock & Roland

Elijah Rock as Roland Hayes in "Breath & Imagination"
(photo: Mike Ritter/Ritterbin Photography)

Arts Emerson’s latest offering has deep and broad Boston roots. “Breath and Imagination”, the musical play by Daniel Beaty, is the true storytelling of the life and career of Roland Hayes (Elijah Rock). Hayes, the son of a slave, became the first world-renowned African American classical vocalist, based in Boston with an impressive history of Symphony Hall appearances. As directed here by David Dower, the city can once again be duly proud of its connection with the famed performer.

The play begins in 1942 at the Georgian plantation home of Hayes’ slave grandparents, where he planned to open a mixed-race music school. Then there are flashbacks to early childhood (Hayes having been born in 1887, moving about thirteen years later to Tennessee), with his beloved mother Fanny or “Angel Mo’” (Harriet D. Foy). Several encounters with music teachers and others (all played by Nehal Joshi) follow, especially after Hayes is exposed to the voice of Caruso singing from “Elixir of Love”. The story takes us to the point in his career where he moved to Boston, then finally Brookline. During a European tour in 1923, he was first booed and hissed for ten minutes until he began to sing and won over the audience. In 1917 he sold out his self-arranged Symphony Hall concert. He also Taught at Boston College. He died in 1977 and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Dorchester.

The performances are uniformly exceptional. Rock is true to his name, anchoring the production with a fine voice and dignified bearing. Foy is a great foil for some of Hayes’ fantasies, a real steel magnolia if ever there was one. Joshi is astonishingly versatile, playing males and females, humans and horses (well, at least one, Molly by name). And the piano accompaniment by Jonathan Mastro is involved in every emotional moment. The writing of the play by Beaty is sometimes on the purple side (“you carry the pain and the purpose of our people in your throat”), but by and large avoids the overly sentimental hagiography it could easily have become. This production by ArtsEmerson boasts not just Accompaniment but also Music Direction, Arrangements and Additional Music by Mastro. The Scenic and Lighting Design is by Alexander V. Nichols, with Costume Design by Merrily Murray-Walsh and Sound Design by Brendan Doyle, all serving the story well. As we’re told at the beginning of the performance, this is a presentation in the manner of “call and respond”, and the audience surely did that. This is a great African-American story. It’s a great American story. Amen.


Fathom Events' "Tales of Hoffman": Thrice the Vice

Vittorio Grigolo in "Les Comtes d'Hoffman"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Fathom Events’ latest HD broadcast is the popular Metropolitan Opera production of “Tales of Hoffman” (first introduced in 2009). Produced by Bartlett Sher with Set Design by Michael Yeargan and Costume Design by Catherine Zuber, this is a complex and complicated creation, as it covers a lot of territory throughout nineteenth century Europe, quite literally, including Nuremberg, Paris, Munich and Venice. With Music by Jacques Offenbach and Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michael Carré , it continues to be one of the company’s favored pieces.

In the Prologue, in a tavern, Hoffman (tenor Vittorio Grigòlo), having had a bit of an altercation with Lindorf (baritone Thomas Hampson), begins to tell the stories of three past loves, accompanied by his muse disguised as his friend Nicklaus (mezzo Kate Lindsey). In the first tale, in the workshop of the inventor Spalanzani (tenor Dennis Petersen), Hoffman falls in love with his mechanical creation, the wind-up doll Olympia (soprano Erin Morley) but the mad scientist Coppélius (Hampson again) destroys her. In the second tale, Hoffman falls in love with Antonia (soprano Hibla Gerzmava), the daughter of Crespel (bass-baritone David Pittsinger), and this time is thwarted by the evil Dr. Miracle (Hampson yet again) who fiddles while Antonia burns. In the last story, Hoffman falls in love with Giulietta (mezzo Christine Rice) but is doomed to heartbreak when the malicious Dappertutto (one last evil turn by Hampson) intervenes. Hampson thus gets to provide thrice the vice via this trio of vile men. In the Epilogue, Hoffman is exposed as being in love all along with the same woman, Stella (Gerzmava again), but he collapses and the storytelling ends.

The singing by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo was again a high point, as was that of Morley, hitting a high A-flat as she managed to be hysterically funny as well. Lindsey too was wonderful, and Grigòlo made for an emotional and believable title character. As Conducted by the dashing and dynamic Yves Abel, this was a tale to relish. It will be told again at the encore broadcast next Wednesday at a theater near you.