Goodspeed's "Guys and Dolls": What, the Fugue?

Jordan Grubb, Noah Plomgren & Scott Cote in "Guys and Dolls"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You know you're not in Kansas anymore when the opening number of a musical is entitled “Fugue for Tinhorns”. Goodspeed Opera House's first production of the season is the much-beloved 1950 musical “Guys and Dolls, A Musical Fable of Broadway”, with Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser and Book by Abe Burrows (who rewrote the book by Jo Swerling) based on the popular underworld stories of Damon Runyon. Its original Broadway incarnation won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, and ran for an incredible1200 performances. It also was chosen to receive the Pulitzer Prize, until the Pulitzer board learned of Burrows' contretemps with the House Un-American Activities Committee. It has seen several successful revivals since, and was made into a largely forgettable 1955 film that miscast Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra. The play, praised for its faithfulness to the source material in style, characterizations and above all Runyon's depiction of the patois of the world of really-off-track-betting, it has endured in large part due to its unbelievably melodic and topical score. Besides its title song, there are such wonderful hits as “Luck Be a Lady”, “I've Never Been in Love Before”, “I'll Know (When My Love Comes Along)”, and “If I Were a Bell.” Then there are the comic songs such as “Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat”, “Sue Me”, “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game)” and, perhaps the ultimate showstopper, “Adelaide's Lament”. It's no wonder most experts include it as one of the handful of all-time best Broadway musicals.

The musical magic begins, as noted above, with that groundbreaking opener, “Fugue for Tinhorns”, a very complex (for Broadway, anyway) contrapuntal composition that perfectly sets up the story to follow. Having been thrown out of the local Save-a-Soul Mission for conducting an illegal crap game there, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Scott Cote), Rusty Charlie (Jordan Grubb) and Benny Southstreet (Noah Plomgren) and their boss Nathan Detroit (Mark Price) need money to relocate, so Nathan makes a bet with inveterate gambler Sky Masterson (Tony Roach) about taking a “doll” to dinner in Havana (how topical), with Sergeant Sarah Brown (Manna Nichols) of the mission as the target of the bet. Nathan leaves to attend the night club act of his “doll”, Adelaide (Nancy Anderson) while Sky makes a very unsuccessful play for Sarah, even though promising to send the mission a dozen sinners. Sarah relents under pressure from her boss, General Cartwright (Karen Murphy) to produce genuine sinners, and flies off to Cuba with Sky, realizing once there (in Bacardi veritas) that she's in love with him. On their return, she realizes just where the floating game drifted, namely her beloved mission, and assumes that's why Sky got her out of town. She complains to her mission co-worker, Arvide (John Jellison), but he urges her to follow her heart. Meanwhile in the sewers of the city, Sky falsely states that he failed to take Sarah to Cuba and makes a bet to all present, including Chicago gangster Big Julie (Jerry Gallagher), of $1000 each against their attendance at the mission. Sky wins, the gamblers attend a mission service, the local cops led by Lt. Brannigan (David Sitler) are satisfied, and everyone ends up a winner, Sarah with Sky, Adelaide with Nathan.

Simple, yes? Deceptively so, as the show calls for a secure grasp of what the Runyonland folk are really like, especially with respect to the lower-level New York accents. (Many are those amateur versions that “rock the boat” in the wrong way). It also calls for respectful hands that can balance the seemly with the seedy, the lyricism with the lowlifes. In this production, all of the above are in quite capable hands. The Direction by Don Stephenson and Choreography by Alex Sanchez are just plain marvelous, with extraordinary attention to detail. The cast is uniformly great, with excellent diction from all, most notably the hilarious Price and Anderson (the latter unforgettable in her rendition of “Adelaide's Lament”). The technical aspects, from the perfect Costume Design by Tracy Christensen, the beautiful Set Design by Paul Tate de Poo III (including a neon-lit Times Square complete with the old smoking Camel billboard), expert Lighting Design by Stephen Terry, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, Music Direction by Michael O'Flaherty, and Orchestrations by Dan DeLange, all hit the high standard for which Goodspeed is deservedly famous. It's a glorious night at the theater, far above and beyond all the other floating crap games around.

And need one be gently reminded that, for Boston residents, Goodspeed is a mere two hours away? You've got the house right here. As for the prospects of this extraordinary show selling out the house if you don't make your move soon: You betcha.

URT's "Mr. g": Noble but Inert

The Multiverse of Underground Railway Theatre's "Mr g"

Underground Railway Theatre's current production, “Mr.g”, is based on the 2012 novel by MIT physicist Alan Lightman (author of “Einstein's Dreams”), “Mr. g, a Novel About the Creation”, a philosophical fable about responsibility and loss. Consider how the work begins, as narrated by the titular divinity: “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” As adapted by playwright Wesley Savick (who also directs this production, and who staged the company's 2006 production of “Einstein's Dreams”), this is a cerebral effort indeed, as is usually the case when this company couples with MIT in their Catalyst Collaborative. The book was a whimsical, wry and witty take on the “multiverse” (so au courant in such works as the film “Interstellar” and the recent play “Constellations”). The play thus concerns the role of Mr. g (Jordan Ahnquist), who first creates time, space, matter, and a few basic laws of physics, which in turn give birth to stars and planets. Problems arise with the creation of intelligent life: the Creator's plans go awry when a Neighbor Girl (Melissa Jesser) questions the nature of free will as we experience the birth and fate of Mr. g's favorite universe: ours. There are also ethical questions “at the border of science and theology”. Literally, attention must be paid to such a plan.

Or so it seemed at first until the play lost track of its source material, about a half hour into the plot, when it became clear that the playwright had eliminated the novel's crucial antagonist, Belhor aka Belial, Baalial and Beliar, who is a demon figure in both the Christian and Hebrew apocrypha. As the intellectual equal to Mr. g, Belhor delights in provoking him, demands an explanation for the inexplicable, requests that the newly created intelligent creatures not be subject to rational laws, and argues for the necessity of evil. Then there is Baphomet, a twelfth-century pagan deity in Christian folklore who reappears in the nineteenth century as a Satan-like figure. The problem of evil in this play is replaced by that of suffering, which is not at all the same thing. The play's story evolves (so to speak) to include interactions with Aunt Penelope (Obehi Janice) and Uncle Deva (Vincent Ernest Siders), whose name is Sanskrit for “deity”. Complications may be seen in the Creator's comments: “sometimes the absence of a thing is not noticed until it is present”; “I had unintentionally invented time”; and “I had created music, but then music created feelings that weren't there before”. In the original book, Mr. g also acknowledges the various voices from past civilizations that dreamed of immortality, from the Buddha (“a wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering”) to the Qur'an (“We have built the heaven with might, and We it is who make the vast extent”) to the Bhagavad Gita (“the senses are higher than the body; the mind higher than the senses; above the mind is the intellect; and above the intellect is the Self”) and the New Testament (Second Corinthians): “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (shades of “The Little Prince”!). All this is mostly missing from this adaptation. Also missing are ethical questions: about stealing or starving, the wrongfulness of an act committed (or not) at a mother's command. Some points of light remain: about religions, “I wanted them to have awareness of Me”. What becomes curiouser and curiouser is what happened to all the whimsy.
 All the technical teamwork is fine, as is that of the four extraordinarily hard-working actors. They try very hard to respond to the directors' style: if one grimace or hand flutter will do, why not three? If one strange sound is called for once, why not again? All this (excellently executed) thespian excess makes one think that Mr. g hath created scenery that it might be chewed upon. It begins to feel like an extended sketch from “Saturday Night Live”, more comic than cosmic. What could have been a gas becomes a noble effort, but is at its core inert.


Fathom Events' "Cav/Pag": A Fine "Finita"

Marcelo Alvarez in "Pagliacci" and "Cavellaria Rusticana"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera's last HD broadcast of the current season is that of the traditional combination of Pietro Mascagni's “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1890) and Ruggero Leoncavallo's “Pagliacci” (1892), familiarly known as “Cav/Pag”. Though verismo operas aren't as much in favor these days as they used to be, what with their unsavory plots involving lower class heroes, fast-paced naturalism, and lack of the currently popular coloratura singing, this is a welcome sign of the Met's recent attempts at diverse repertoire. Not seen at the opera house for the past six seasons, this duo is being presented in a brand new production, replacing that of the 1970 Franco Zefferelli era. Both of the operas in this combo utilize the same Sicilian setting, (designed by Rae Smith of “War Horse” fame), the former set in the early 1900's, the latter about fifty years later (despite being set not in Sicily but in Calabria in the libretto) and the same lead, tenor Marcelo Àlvarez, as Turiddu in the former and Canio in the latter (not an unprecedented event), as well as George Gagnidze as the baritone in each opera. Both are under the Direction of David McVicar and the baton of Conductor Fabio Luisi. There the similarities pretty much end in this offering.

Except for their common themes of adultery and murder, that is. Cavalleria Rusticana”, or “Rustic Chivalry”, based on a very short story by the same name, centers around these sordid topics, on Easter Sunday yet. It fulfills the naked “truth” requirement inherent in the verismo category, as it deals with the continuation of the traditions of the past, with much emphasis on religious faith and an ancient, even primitive, code of honor. Turiddu sings of his love for Lola (mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson), wife of Alfio (Gagnidze), having seduced and abandoned Santuzza (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek) previously. After speaking with Turiddu's Mamma Lucia (mezzo Jane Bunnell), Santuzza, in a famous scene (reproduced endlessly on Sicilian donkey carts even today) begs Turiddu not to enter the church for Easter Mass, as Alfio and Lola had already entered. He obstinately enters despite her pleas. There follows the famous Intermezzo, as usual beautifully sung by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (under the direction of Donald Palumbo). After the services, Turiddu and Alfio have words and head offstage to duel with knives. Word comes back to Mamma Lucia that her son has been killed in the duel. The singing was glorious, especially by the Met Chorus, but the staging was silly and senseless, with a too-frequent revolving set distracting from the plot.

Pagliacci or “The Players” finds the same town, now half a century later and lit by electricity, still the site of the same sordid subjects of adultery and murder. This short work looks to the future to suggest how we might see similar issues today. It begins with the famed prologue by Canio, Vesti la guibba, in which he wears clown makeup and attests that the story we're about to see is true and that performers too have lives with consequences. When it's suggested that his wife Nedda (Patricia Racette) has been unfaithful to him with Tonio (Gagnidze again), Canio warns that will not be tolerated. Ironically, she has indeed been less than faithful, but with another suitor, Silvio (Lucas Meacham). Canio almost catches him but he escapes, leaving Canio to suspect it was Tonio. The performance later that same day so parallels the real triangle (or, rather, quadrangle) that Canio becomes enraged, mistaking the unreality of the play for reality, stabbing Nedda and, when he tries to intervene, Silvio. Tonio then announces to the audience that ”la commedia è finita!”

The singing by Àlvarez, Westbroek, Racette and Gagnidze was exemplary. Fabio Luisi's conducting was solid, with fine creative contributions in the Costume Design by Moritz Junge. Less effective, at least in the first opera, were the dim Lighting Design by Paule Constable and unnecessary Choreography by Andrew George. The second opera boasted what must be a first for the Met, Vaudeville Consult by Emil Wolk, which was a welcome addition. The HD Live Direction was by Gary Halvorson, with HD host Susan Graham. It was a fine “finita to this stellar season.

The program will be repeated Wednesday April 29 at 6:30pm. Meanwhile, if you can't wait for the Met's next season of HD broadcasts and find yourself suffering withdrawal symptoms, check out Boston Lyric Opera's up-an-coming production of “Don Giovanni” at the Citi Performing Arts Center/Shubert Theatre May1st to 10th . Check schedule and availability at http://blo.org, and watch for this blog's review on May 2nd.


ArtsEmerson's "Ulysses on Bottles": Better Call Saul

Will Lyman, Jeremiah Kissel & Karen MacDonald in "Ulysses on Bottles"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

ArtsEmerson's latest offering is the play “Ulysses on Bottles” by Gilad Evron (translated by Evan Fallenberg), produced by the Israeli Stage in its first fully staged production, as well as North American premiere, at the Liebergott Black Box Theatre in the Paramount Center. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, Founder and Artistic Director of the company, it's about as contemporary as theater gets, a tightly woven work (just seventy-five minutes long) about the concept of freedom (especially freedom of information) and how it is defined based on what choices one makes.

The story concerns an Israeli Arab, a teacher nicknamed by the press “Ulysses” (Ken Cheeseman) arrested for attempting to smuggle works of Russian literature into Gaza on a raft made out of bottles (hence the rather provocative title), an act that has been prohibited by the Israeli government. His pro bono lawyer Saul (Jeremiah Kissel) and a disbelieving Israeli military officer, Seinfeld (Will Lyman), Saul's social climbing wife Eden (Karen MacDonald) and another lawyer in Saul's firm, the morally vacant Horesh (Daniel Berger-Jones) all play a part in the tale as it develops, and each contributes an essential angle. “Ulysses” asserts that “you can't keep people from reading”, while Seinfeld suggests that people need to be separated from “ideas that their lives could be better”, and that some thirty years or so hence, the Gaza population will reach twelve million and simply overrun their surroundings. Saul posits that one is “not an observer” in these times. Eden is more concerned with presenting a humorous drag performance by Saul for a children's charity event than with the odyssey of the presumed lunatic teacher. And Horesh voices one of the major points of the play when he asks about a verdict of not-guilty versus actual guilt or innocence: “What's the connection?”

The work itself is impressive, made triply so by the rare (and thus to be treasured) privilege of seeing MacDonald, Kissel and Lyman (once ubiquitous at ART in Cambridge in former days) together again, each of them revealing why they have been so important to the local theater scene for decades. Berger-Jones is also memorable in a smarmy, perfectly nauseating role. Yet it's Cheeseman, in the title role, who commands the stage with his intensely physical craft. He's never been better, and that's saying a lot. The technical credits are superb, from the minimalist Scenic Design by Ronald J. DeMarco to the tremendously effective Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney, eerie Sound Design by David Remedios and perfectly executed Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker that ranges from the sleek upwardly mobile to the ironically absurdist.

At the end of the play, Saul, faced with the oblivious and callous indifference to the fate of “Ulysses” displayed by both his spouse and his professional colleague, reprises the lyrics from a song he sang in an earlier scene, the bland and innocuous Doris Day tune “Que sera, sera”, suddenly subverted and subversive. What will be, will be, indeed.


Moonbox's "Kimberly Akimbo": Funeral or Real Fun?

Micah Greene, Andrew Winson & Sheriden Thomas in "Kimberly Akimbo"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)

There are two arresting images on the stage of the Calderwood Pavilion's Plaza Theatre at the beginning of Moonbox Productions' latest offering,“Kimberly Akimbo”, the 2000 comedy by Pulitzer Prize winning South Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”, “Fuddy Meers”, “Shrek the Musical”, “High Fidelity”, “Good People”). One is a clock on the wall of a disheveled living room, the other a fast food take-out bag on a kitchen table. The clock has no hands and the container sports a logo (designed by a former Moonbox nonprofit partner, Youth Design) from a local drive-through by the name of Zippy Burger. They're emblematic of the attention to detail that this production pays, and it pays off. It's a wacky and weird hoot, especially if you're into anagrams (but more about that later). It's the story of lonely sixteen year old Kimberly (Sheriden Thomas), who has quite a lot on her plate. She has to deal with her chaotically dysfunctional family, consisting of her very pregnant hypochondriacal mother Pattie (Micah Greene), her wacky aunt Debra (Shana Dirik) who's lately been living in the public library, and her phlegmatic alcoholic gas station attendant father Buddy (Andrew Winson). Not only that, but she's suffering from a rare disease (referred to as “progeria without the dwarfism”) that causes her to age four and a half times faster than normal. (And then there's the mysteriously abrupt move they've made from Secaucus to Bogota, New Jersey). Kimberly is befriended by a schoolmate, the nerdy Jeff (Lucas Cardona), who works at the aforementioned burger joint, is neglected by his father, wants to make her the subject of his writing project, and is quite obsessed with word games. (He tells her that her full name, Kimberly Levaco, is an anagram for “cleverly akimbo”, which is how his skewed mind works). It's not so coincidentally her sixteenth birthday, the age at which most people die from her disease.

That's already an exhausting amount of information to digest, and things get curiouser and curiouser as we immerse ourselves deeper and deeper into this, uh, rabbit hole. Under the wondrous Direction of Allison Olivia Choat, this cast takes us along for this increasingly zany yet hilariously lunatic ride. Central to the mayhem is Kimberly herself, as believably as well as beautifully embodied by Thomas, whose skeptical but innocent coming-of-aging is amazingly portrayed by her every expression and gesture. She's evenly matched by the appropriately manic performance of Winson, who nails his character's Joisey accent as well as his roller coaster persona. The same could be said for the neurotically self-centered Pattie portrayed by Greene and the crazed and criminal Debra inhabited by Dirik, not to mention the creepily engaging Jeff played by Cardona, a youthful discovery who's more than capable of holding his own with the other seasoned performers. Even as the play spirals more and more away from anything remotely resembling the norm, they all keep this careening vehicle on course. Lindsay-Abaire's knack for creating off-the-ceiling characters has never been funnier, but he has some serious thoughts to share as well. This is all ably abetted by the amusingly trashy Set Design by John Paul Devlin, the wild Costume Design by Susanne Miller, fine Lighting Design by Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Music Composition by Dan Rodriguez, and, at the wonderfully absurd denouement, the effective Projection Design by Matthew Houstle. The cast and creative team are clearly on the same fringe-tattered page.

This is about as black as humor gets, and the magicians at Moonbox manage to pull it off just about as colorfully as one could hope for. As Jeff might put it, as in the heading above, this is a comedy, not a “funeral”. Which, also not coincidentally, is an anagram for “real fun”.


ArtsEmerson's "Needles and Opium": The Rubrics of Cubism

Marc Labreche in "Needles & Opium"
(photo: Nicola-Frank Vachon) 

ArtsEmerson's current production of “Needles and Opium” is a trip in several meanings of the term. Written and Directed by Robert LePage (“The Andersen Project”), founder of his own Ex Machina, a multidisciplinary production company in Canada, and designer of the 2012 “Ring Cycle” at the Metropolitan Opera, this is one tour de force of what might be termed cubism, though LePage doesn't follow the rules of any form, but shatters and reassembles them.

Written by LePage in1991 after a break-up with his lover, this piece of performance art features a Québécois also named Robert (originally played by LePage himself, played here by Marc Labrèche) who has checked into the Parisian Hotel La Louisiane, Room Number 9, in withdrawal from a romantic crisis. The room is the same one in which Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre once lived, a reflection of Robert's own current torment as well as that of famous jazz musician Miles Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III) and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (played by Labrèche) who are also featured in this work in scenes taking place some forty years prior. Cocteau had become addicted to opium, Davis to heroin, while Robert's addiction is to love. When they were each at the very top of their respective careers, they cross in the sky when Cocteau flies to New York and Davis takes a flight to Paris. In his “Letter to Americans”, Cocteau questions whether pain should be considered a sine qua non of creative genius and whether one's sadness may be transformed into beauty. The play's action takes place entirely within a rotating cube as the actors search for their proper places, literally and, more important, figuratively, while the world transitions from the technology of the mechanical age to that of the postmodern.

It's avant-garde theater at its most visually stunning. The concepts of space/time movement and the continuum of life are creatively illustrated with some of the most awe-inspiring magic one could ever hope to see. This is greatly achieved and enhanced by the Set Design by Carl Fillion, which often defies description, as well as the musical pieces chosen, ranging from Davis' jazz works to Rodgers and Hart's “My Funny Valentine” and Kern and Fields' “The Way You Look Tonight”, with Music and Sound Design by Jean-Sébastien Côté, Lighting Design by Bruno Matte, Costume Design by François St-Aubin, Image Design by Lionel Arnould and Technical Direction by Michel Gosselin. The text as noted is by LePage, in an English translation by Jenny Montgomery.

The physical requirements for the actors are demanding, as they transverse the cube center stage, and both Labrèche and Robertson are amazing. One negative note is the difficulty in understanding the monologue by the character Cocteau due to his heavy French accent. Yet that's a minor complaint when one is presented with such visuals. Not unlike the production for the Met, (which was controversial in opera circles), the mechanics of this work are complex and precisely timed. It's no wonder that the huge tech team took bows alongside the actors. And about that trip: in production notes in the program, Rob Orchard (ArtsEmerson's Founder and Creative Consultant) writes that “as a tourist you'll be frustrated by a trip with Robert LePage; as a traveler, you'll be transported.”


Huntington's "Come Back Little Sheba": Mutt As Metaphor

Adrianne Krstansky & Derek Hasenstab in "Come Back, Little Sheba"

At the beginning of the play “Come Back, Little Sheba” Lola Delaney (Adrianne Krstansky) has been dreaming of searching for Sheba, her long-lost dog, for whom she still calls out. It will become a metaphor for other losses that cannot be reclaimed. Directing a production of the famous William Inge work was a long-time dream of David Cromer which has finally come true at Huntington Theatre Company. Cromer helmed the terrific production of “Our Town” for the company a couple of seasons ago. The current production, concerning a middle-aged couple in a rundown Midwestern city over the course of a single week, was one that spoke to its audiences back in 1950; it ran on Broadway for two hundred performances. Inge was to continue with other plays about commonplace Midwestern folks (“Picnic”, “Bus Stop”), but it was this character study of an intellectually ill-suited, co-dependent twosome that struck such a chord with theatergoers as they watched the husband in recovery and the wife, first in denial, survive a shattering crisis. It calls for some rather intense naturalism, without frills, just great storytelling, a credible middle-class drama. What it also calls for is heart.

Fortunately, it has plenty of that, in Cromer's hands and as embodied by Krstansky's truly heartbreaking Lola. Her husband of twenty unhappy years is Doc (Derek Hasenstab), a chiropractor who gave up a promising potential career in medicine when she became pregnant before they married, subsequently losing the baby in childbirth. Their young boarder Marie (Marie Polizzano), the daughter they never had, is encouraged by Lola in Marie's amorous pursuit of both the hunky track and field star Turk (Max Carpenter) and her wealthy boyfriend Bruce (Nael Nacer) who resides in her hometown of Cincinnati. Meanwhile Lola herself, a former beauty queen, flirts with the Postman (Adam Zahler) and the Milkman (Michael Knowlton) under the watchful eye of her neighbor Mrs. Coffman (Maureen Keiller). Doc, a recovering alcoholic, stays sober by forgetting the past, helped by two of his fellow A.A. members, Ed (Christopher Tarjan) and Elmo (Jeremy Browne). Yet it's a tenuous state, as events will come to prove. The first act, essentially the setup for the drama to come, is slow and methodical, a little too commonplace and even dull. As with other Inge works, this play is long on characterization but short on convincing plot. The first act serves to set up the mundane everyday bare bones of their existence in order for the second act to give vent to the torrid all-too-human drives previously lying dormant. It succeeds most at being a vehicle for a consummate actress and a strong supporting cast.

Krstansky is certainly up to the task. With her disheveled look and fluttering movement, her childlike speech and barely controlled terror, hers is a performance that becomes an acting class in itself, with never a false note. It's an unforgettably moving demonstration of this wonderful actor's craft. Hasenstab is a worthy match for her in a variation from the usual brutish take of productions past, more intensely wound, until his breaking point. Polizzano is terrific as the liberated Marie, with fine support from Carpenter and Nacer as her completely opposite swains. The remainder of the cast, in minor but colorful turns, show just how clever Inge was at character portrayals. The creative team includes perfectly suited Costume Design by Sarah Laux, natural Lighting Design by Mike Durst and period Sound Design by Jonathan Mastro. Special mention should be made of the marvelous and meticulous Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, whose work in Cromer's “Our Town” production was so memorable, here in a confining space painstakingly recreated from the past (right down to a working gas stove), which serves as the ideal cage for the captive couple at the core of the story.

By the end of the play, each spouse has realized something fundamental about the past, present and (likely) future life together. The lonely chiropractor husband and his equally lonely wife live their small lives. The play ends up portraying their nostalgia and regret for their vanished youth, indicated by the obvious metaphor of their long-missing pet, perhaps too obvious, as is much of this unfortunately dated yet poignant work. As Thoreau wrote, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Jim Manago's biography of Shirley Booth (who originated the role of Lola on stage and in film), entitled “Love Is the Reason (for It All)”, is also the title of one of the songs from the musical version of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” in which she also starred a year after “Sheba”. This is particularly applicable here. Love is, in the end, the reason for it all.


Trinity's "Flea in Her Ear": Fifty Shades of Gris

The Cast of "A Flea in Her Ear"
(photo: Mark Turek)

A Flea in Her Ear”, the 1907 farce by George Feydeau (better translated as “a bee in one's bonnet” or a “hair across one's derrière”), was not produced in our country until 1967, at the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is its third go-round at Trinity Rep. Set in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, it's the story of a wife, Raymonde Chandebise (Phyllis Kay), who begins to doubt the fidelity of her suddenly sexually-inattentive husband Victor-Emmanuel (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) and schemes to catch him in flagrante dilectu (as they once put it in Rome). Farce being farce, (and this is widely considered the best example of the genre ever written), this of course leads to lots of deliciously unexpected twists and a pandemic of doorslammings.

Raymonde confides in her best friend Lucienne Homenindès de Histangua (Angela Brazil) who suggests that they test Victor-Emmanuel by sending him a letter from an anonymous admirer proposing a tryst at the infamous Hotel Coq d'Or (translated here as “Naughty Pussy” as opposed to the literal and much more slyly suggestive “Golden Cock”). He presumes it was actually intended to go to his best friend Romain Tournel (Mauro Hantman), who coincidentally has his eye on Raymonde. Meanwhile, Victor-Emmanuel's nephew Camille (Stephen Thorne), his speech impediment corrected with a silver palate from Dr. Finache (Richard Donelly), celebrates by taking his maid Antoinette (Alex Woodruff) to the same hotel, followed by her jealous husband Etienne (Peter Martin). Even Dr. Finache heads to the hotel for his own assignation. When shown the letter in his wife Lucienne's handwriting, Carlos Homenindès de Histangua (Timothy Crowe) also heads to the same hotel, vowing to kill her. Victor-Emmanuel follows him in an effort to prevent the murder. With all these characters at the same place at the same time, chaos reigns like cats and dogs. And that's not even accounting for the further complications involving the hotel customers and staff, ranging from Eugénie (Elise LeBreton) to Baptistine (Barbara Meek), Olympia (Rachel Warren), Farrallion (Joe Wilson, Jr.), Rugby (Steve Kidd), and Pocket (Sullivan again), a polyglot crew if ever there was one.

Ultimately, the loose ends are tightened as Victor-Emmanuel promises to put an end to his wife's doubts, that very night in bed. That's “ultimately”, as the first act spends a great deal of time in setting up the inevitable, and there are three acts with two intermissions, virtually unheard of in the present day. That places a huge demand on a Director and his actors to keep interest unflagging. As Directed by Tyler Dobrowsky, (Associate Artistic Director of the company), it has its ups and downs; how many of which depends on your attitude toward almost totally unrestrained exaggeration. The creative elements are fine, from the ingenious Set Design by Patrick Lynch to the very creative Costume Design by Olivera Gajic to the atmospheric Lighting Design by Dan Scully and effective Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. The translation (by the company's Artistic Director Curt Columbus) tends toward the single entendre, rather than the subtler but often more hilarious double. One particularly egregious example: an actor repeats “shove it up your ass” not once but five times, which, as much of the text does, descends from the sexy to the smutty. One needn't be a prude to feel that, with racy dialogue, as in many other instances, less is more. But if this sort of way-over-the-top fifty shades of gris performance is one's cuppa, an audience member may well find herself or himself in stitches. Others may agree with the commentary by Raymonde halfway through the final act: “I have had enough of this ridiculous farce”. Whatever your place on the slapstick scale, in the end (and even that sounds a tad suggestive at this point), the whole isn't really the sum of its body parts.


At ART's Oberon: "Mikado" by Hypocritic Oafs

Rob McLean, Matt Kahler & Ezekiel Sulkes in the Chicago production of "The Mikado"

If you want to know who they are, they're not gentlemen of Japan, nor are they really oafs, but The Hypocrites from Chicago in their current production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 “The Mikado”, now at ART's Oberon in Cambridge. This version, not so much updated as upended, has been Adapted and Directed (and “Reimagined”) by the company's Founding Artistic Director Sean Graney for his Chicago-based troupe that most recently brought “Pirates of Penzance” to town in the spring of 2013. In their hands, this “Mikado” (sans the subtitle “or the Town of Titipu”) is a frenetically paced eighty minutes of folk/pop operetta, either zany, hip or twee, depending on one's tolerance for tampering. Perhaps the most obvious change is that there's no mention of Japan. But no matter. The original was never about Japan either, but a thinly veiled jab at the Victorian era's preoccupation with all things Oriental and the British class system. There are some songs missing and of course the orchestrations differ; the singing actors are the orchestra as well.

There are ten performers in all, with some doubling roles. The basic love story remains intact, with Yum-Yum (Emily Casey) in love with Nanki-Poo (Shawn Pfautsch), the son of the Mikado, (Casey again!), though she's betrothed to Ko-Ko (Rob McLean), the Lord High Executioner, which is a tad inconvenient. Pooh-Bah (Matt Kahler), Lord High Everything Else, and the noble lord Pish-Tush (Ryan Bourque) are on hand to complicate matters further, as well as Koko's two other wards, Pitti-Sing (Lauren Vogel) and Peep-Bo (Dana Omar), a couple of mice (Doug Pawlik and Erik Schroeder) and a barker (Kate Carson-Groner). And, of course, there's the aged Katisha (Pfautsch again!), also in love with Nanki-Poo (which may be the definitive example of narcissism, if you think about it). The whole company is multi-talented, with standouts being Casey's singing of “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze”, and McLean's bittersweet “Tit-Willow”. The rainbow of colorful costumes by Alison Sipes, Set Design by Michael Smallwood, Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert and Sound Design by Kevin O'Donnell, add to the circus-like atmosphere. The exhuberant Choreography is by Kate Spelman, and the Music Direction is by Andra Velis Simon. If there's a nit to pick, it might be that there's a bit too much soleil in this cirque for some folks, having dispensed with some of the original satirical bite. Mortified rupture! There still remain countless puns (most attributable to the original text), including one about Katisha/Nanki-Poo being currently abroad that must be heard in context.

You might consider this the ultimate stand-up comic routine, since most of the audience does just that. And one word of caution: there will be balloons. Lots of them. As for any qualms about tinkering with the text, one has a little list, but they'll none of them be missed. This production aims not to appease the purists among us, but to appeal in the broadest performing style to the broadest possible audience including children of all ages. It succeeds quite entertainingly at that. As the original creative team of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan themselves might well have put it: Nicely executed.