New Rep's "Blackberry Winter": Having No Egrets

Adrianne Krstansky in "Blackberry Winter"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

If you've never been a resident of the midwest or southern U.S., the term Blackberry Winter might not be a familiar one. It refers to a late spring frost or cold snap that can occur even as the local blackberry bushes are in bloom. It's also the title of the National New Play Network “rolling world premiere” of a play, written by Steve Yockey, which is receiving its New England premiere at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, under the Direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary. Leaving aside the inherently oxymoronic concept of multiple world premieres (with a record seven productions for this play), this is a work worth the rolling.

The play, at just under ninety minutes, revolves around the character of Vivienne (Adrianne Krstansky) who is facing the harsh reality that her mother's Alzheimer's disease is worsening. Her first reaction to an as-yet-unopened letter from the assisted living facility where her mother is a resident is to refuse to open it, in classic approach-avoidance mode. A deeper part of her process of dealing with the crisis is to imagine a fable, here acted out on stage with a background usage of shadow puppetry, in which she has fantasized an “origin myth” about the disease. Actors representing a White Egret (Paula Langton) attempt to preserve the memories of the forest animals in a box to be buried underground, and a Gray Mole (Ken Cheeseman), prone to digging things up, which releases these memories which are then lost. It's a clever conceit, though suffers from being presented in three segments, as it's too simple (and, it must be said, simplistic) to sustain any dramatic arc. Vivienne's vulnerability is marvelously portrayed by Krstansky even as she allows these fabulous elements to help her give herself permission to take stock, acknowledge and admit just how much the story is about her as “the proactive family care manager”. O'Leary has noted that the play is not strictly speaking about the disease itself, but how the caregiver for a loved one with the disease copes and allows herself “the space for things to change”. The stage contains several pedestals upon which are simple everyday objects (a trowel, an iron, a red marker, a piggy bank, and so on), each of which will provide Vivienne with some reassuring comfort. All these everyday items become ideas that help with the playwright's storytelling about Alzheimer's. The “long goodbye”, as it was so accurately described by a former First Lady, is in fact much more the journey of the caregiver than the patient.

Under O'Leary's keen direction, Krstansky gives yet another amazing performance, which certainly qualifies for that overly-used designation of “riveting”. Langton and Cheeseman do what they can with essentially cardboard characters that serve at least to give the lead actress an opportunity to rest. The technical contributions are all fine, from the Costume Design by Becca Saenz, to the Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg, to the Sound Design by David Reiffel. Special note should be made of the Scenic and Puppetry Design by Matthew T. Lazure. Other productions of the play have reportedly used projected cartoons, which sounds on the surface like a misguided choice.

Yockey (who also wrote afterlife: a ghost story, presented a few seasons ago and also featuring Krstansky), seems to know whereof he speaks, with acutely accurate observations.  O'Leary questions in the program “what it means to be known (when) one of us forgets the story”. Typically in such cases, it's not so much forgetfulness of the story as it is the roles to be played by caregiver and patient. In real life, victims of this cruel disease tend to recognize a caregiver as a source of feeling safe even if not able to identify her or him. (Full disclosure: this critic worked as a nurse in several assisted living facilities with memory-impaired units).  But this is the accounting of a caregiver's strength, love, and endurance.

This treatment of a profoundly serious subject is not without its touches of humor, which Vivienne uses frequently as a defense mechanism. She speaks of having to develop a “bullet proof smile” and “social camouflage”, even as she yearns for a setting that would truly be ”individualized, personal”, and not just platitudes. She recognizes the “odd flip” with her now being responsible for her mother. She also sees the need to keep her mother active, for a staff to engage rather than control. Most modern facilities at least give lip service to the approach of navigating the world that memory-impaired residents live in, validating their world rather than imposing upon them a world they have forgotten. Her mother, with confabulations common to people afflicted with this cruel condition, is no longer the double-major graduate in education and linguistics.

It's an honest, well-researched and wisely written play. The only misstep is in Vivienne's guilt about expressing what a “blessing it would be (for her mother) to die in her sleep”. Rather than a valid source of self-recrimination, this is a common and perfectly understandable view. Towards the end of the play, she wisely asserts that “It's about what's left; it has to be about what is left” and admits that she can't make her mother's brain better, but refuses to admit that she can't face that fact. As she sums it all up: “all this fear... who has time for it?”. There is probably not a single theatergoer who hasn't faced this issue, or will in the future. This is the Blackberry Winter of our discontent.


New World Records: Virgil Thomson Songs

The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice & Piano
(photo: New World Records)

The title of the newly-released New World Records CD set “The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice and Piano” says it all. This is an ambitious, exhaustive and comprehensive effort as part of the Florestan Recital Project (highlighting art song in the twentieth century) by artistic co-directors baritone Aaron Engebreth and pianist Alison d'Amato. The 3-CD set, with a total of seventy-seven pieces (about three and a quarter hours of music) presents works ranging from forty seconds (the Benedictus from his Mass for Solo Voice) to seven minutes (Les soirees bagnolaises) in length, including several previously unpublished works (such as four brief lullabies) from the Virgil Thomson Papers at Yale. Set to texts by William Blake, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Georges Hugnet, Jean Racine, Isaac Watts, Edward Lear, and others, even William Shakespeare and the Marquis de Sade, they're an incomparable collection.

Thomson, born in Kansas City (Missouri) in 1896, started composing while a student at Harvard. For the length of his subsequent prolific career until his death in 1989, the breadth and depth of his contributions to the musical world are amazing, including several operas. So it should come as no surprise that his art songs are so numerous and varied. With titles such as “The Courtship of the Yongly-Bongly-Bo” and lyrics such as “I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut” (from Kenneth Koch's Love Song), they illustrate Thomson's wit as well as his way with chromaticism; as the co-directors note, they also portray his “unique compositional language and deep personal expression”. Featuring the aforementioned Engebreth and d'Amato, the set also includes fine work by soprano Sarah Pelletier, contralto Lynne McMurtry, and tenor William Hite, with accompaniment by Linda Osborn on piano (as well as John McDonald on percussion for the additional work Song of Solomon).

This compilation is a testament to the priceless work accomplished by Thomson in his time as well as a labor of love on the part of Engebreth and d'Amato, and certain to be a treasured addition to any music lover's library of the works of this prolific composer.


SpeakEasy's "Bootycandy": Sure to Shake Yours

Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene,
Maurice Emmanuel Parent & John Kuntz in "Bootycandy"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)

If you're in the market for a show that will “shake your booty”, you need look no further than Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy, now being presented in its New England premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company. The tagline the playwright proposes says it all: “everyone is welcome, no one is safe”. This work is not a play in the strictest sense, but a series of sketches in which Maurice Emmanuel Parent plays the central character, who grows up, gay and black, before our very eyes. When it premiered off Broadway in 2014, it was named as one of the top ten plays of the year by the New York Times. As the title implies, referencing the slang term for the male sexual organ, this is not intended for general consumption, and not just because it displays the full monty. As the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault accurately describes it, it's “a bold show that breaks all the rules” governing political correctness about sexual, racial, and cultural stereotypes. Perhaps only the fact that O'Hara, the director (Summer L. Williams) and the star are themselves African American rescues this work from crossing some lines. It obviously owes a great deal to another relatively recent sketch-filled “play” by George C. Wolfe, which O'Hara has admitted in interviews, stating that it is “absolutely a part of the legacy of The Colored Museum...(from which he) stole everything possible that I could”. While it's doesn't quite reach that level, it's a clever and telling depiction of a subculture that will be alien to many theatergoers. Covering the period between the1970's to the present, it features a small cast that also includes Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene, and John Kuntz, who among them portray some twenty-one characters. Only Parent remains the same person, Sutter, at three stages in his life: in his youth, as a teen and ultimately as an adult in his 40's.

In the first brief prologue of sorts, the title of the play (in case you didn't already know) is disclosed, as Sutter's mom explains it all for you. There follows a scene in a black church when the minister (Davenport) sermonizes about gossip from the “I heard” folk and references the terms “screw and nut” about heterosexual intercourse that he describes as a “teachable moment”, before he reveals he has more up his sleeve than we first realize. The bit goes on a tad too long with a predictable payoff, but Davenport carries it off so well it works. That can't be said for the next scene, a conversation among four women on the phone, about naming a child Genitalia; it's almost unintelligible with respect to the dialects used, and way too long for its final punchline. Next is a series of blackouts between Sutter and the man who has married Sutter's sister, which pushes the envelope further, as they discover they have more in common than first meets the eye. Then, in a most curious brief scene, there's a “muggable moment” that seems detached from the work at large. But the final scene in the first “act” features a meta-conference of playwrights, in a Q & A segment that manages to tie together, more or less, the previous sketches, adding that the play should be provocative and “should not melt in your mouth”.

The second “act” is a flashback to Sutter's teen years wherein his parents caution him to take up sports, stop reading Jackie Collins novels and drop his penchant for appearing in high school musicals. It's perhaps the truest scene, in which his mom asks “have you lost your mind in real life?”. Next up is an overly long yet hilarious celebration of non-commitment, a lesbian divorce between the aforementioned Genitalia and her soon-to-be-ex, Intifada. It precedes the most serious of the sketches, a three person game of truth or dare which ends badly for one of the players. The final scene, between Sutter and his Old Granny in a nursing home, again manages to tie together a lot of the prior sketches, with Davenport giving his all as the old lady and Parent doing a smashing Michael Jackson turn, silver glove in hand, declaring that if men would only connect sexually, “there'd be peace in the world”.
Noble sentiments that these are, there is a subtext to this work that reflects the reality noted in some Human Rights Campaign literature, namely that “the black church, the oldest institution and pillar of the black community, has historically dictated the community's stance on homosexuality-either you don't talk about it, or you condemn it”. As the playwright commented with respect to the all-white Oscar nominations, “you can't say oh, that just happened...there's a process”. He has also stated that all of the scenes are based on facts, which is a sobering thought beneath the satire. But O'Hara's aim is obviously to entertain while he instructs. Thanks to Williams' s direction and the skilled timing of the ensemble, with its often broad but focused acting (difficult to achieve), it succeeds on both levels. Every member of the cast is superb, but special attention must be paid to Parent, who demonstrates once again how incredibly versatile he is. Also remarkable are the efforts of the creative team, from the gaily colorful set by Jenna McFarland Lord, to the cool period Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, to the effective Lighting Design by Jen Rock and Sound Design by David Wilson.

As for Sutter, his may not be the butchest booty on the block, but he's undeniably (and at his core) an unforgettable protagonist. As with any series of sketches, some are better than others, but in the end there are belly laughs aplenty (often depending on just how street-smart one already is) and some revelations that will stay with you long after the last guffaw. It's a hearty and healthy mix of the zany and the sobering, and what more could anyone ask?


BLO's "Werther": Love Means Forever Having to Say You're Sorry

Sandra Piques Eddy & Alex Richardson in "Werther"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For the second production in its “love series” of operas, Boston Lyric Opera is presenting the 1892 work Werther, based on Geothe's 1774 epistolary novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther, with Music by Jules Massenet and Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann. Second in popularity to his Manon, it's not difficult to see why, as it remains a relentless dramatic downer, as is its literary source. Yet the score is so lush and glorious that it deserves to be seen and especially heard. As an added treat, this staging includes a piece of hitherto unheard text which was serendipitously discovered on the internet (but more about this later). Since it's not as frequently performed as other works that are often found in a company's repertoire (including Manon), a brief synopsis might be in order.

This version takes place in an arrondisement outside of Paris, updated in this production to the late 1920's, inspired by the filmmaker Jean Renoir's poetic realism style, in French with English surtitles. It begins as the widowed Bailiff (baritone James Demler) is teaching his children a Christmas carol (in July!) while his drinking biddies Schmidt (tenor Jon Jurgens) and Johann (baritone David McFerrin) look on, and his teen-aged daughter Sophie (soprano Rachele Gilmore) notes that her older sister Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy) is dressing for the local ball later that night. New man in town Werther (tenor Alex Richardson) is to escort Charlotte (“Lotte” in the novella) to the ball, because her intended, Albert (baritone John Hancock), whom she had promised her late mother to marry, is away. Werther falls in love with her, even though aware she is promised to Albert. When Albert returns, Werther is in despair. He continues to be so even after their wedding. Charlotte, confused about her own feelings, asks Werther to absent himself until the Christmas celebration. Upon Werther's return, they read the poem of Ossian about the reawakening of spring, and they briefly embrace before she runs off. Werther sends his servant to borrow Albert's pistols (but, oddly, in this version Sophie fills this role). Charlotte rushes to Werther's home but arrives too late. As the children are heard singing and laughing, the couple confess their love for one another and Werther dies. The novel ends with his funeral thus: “Workmen carried him. No clergyman attended.”

As the program notes, this is is a “tale of passion and angst, idealization and sacrifice” about a “romantic hero- sensitive, artistic uncompromising and stormily passionate”. Yet, given the text (that libretto-by-committee), the story becomes less about passion than it is about obsession. It's difficult to become emotionally involved, save for the lovely music Massenet provides. It helps to have such great acting singers such as Richardson in the title role, notably his fourth act aria, Porquoi me reveiller, and the beautifully-voiced Eddy as well, especially in her third act aria Va, laisse couler mes larmes. Demler is equally impressive, and both Gilmore and Hancock are fine, providing a touch of humor to the dour goings-on. As Conducted by BLO Musical Director David Angus, this becomes a thrilling experience. The Stage Direction by Crystal Manich, despite some questionable choices (the children are given such excessive stage business to accomplish that one expected them any minute to break into Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music), enhances the melodrama of the plot, with Werther found with a pistol to his chest not once but four times. The abstract Set Design by John Conklin helps to keep the tone of this piece, and even the Costume Design by Deborah Newhall contributes to it, as such details as Charlotte's dress, first brightly verdant, becoming gradually more colorless. The Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller is well done, and the Projection Design by Greg Emetaz is extraordinarily effective. As the program further notes, all the creative elements, particularly the video design, “mirror the hero's increasingly obsessive thoughts and devastating actions”.

One fascinating note concerns a very brief piece of text which Angus came across while preparing for this production. He disovered an online copy of the original manuscript of the orchestral score, in Massenet's own hand. Overlaying the Act 4 moment when a dying Werther finally kisses Charlotte, these unknown vocal lines had the two characters joining in with the music that plays at that moment. Angus noted that it in “glorious, full unison at the tops of their voices, and then breaking apart and weaving around each other’s music in sensuous counterpoint”, and described it as Puccini-like and a rarity in this work in that characters sing together, rather than in alternating, sung dialogue. He found these vocal lines were not included in any printed, published version of the score, suggesting they may never have been performed before by a major professional company. He and Manich, as well as the singers themselves, all fell in love with what this discovery added to the beauty and depth of the scene, and decided to include it in this performance.

But the opera offers much more than this unearthed moment. Imagined as a dreamlike flashback on the part of Werther, this production is a visual cornucopia that complements the composer's lyrical score. There are echoes of Wagner. Even moreso, there are constant reminders of Puccini in the more melodic sections. Audiences should surely embrace this truly gorgeous score in BLO's current complex presentation. And, it might be added, unusual for opera, the female heroine lives to see another day.


Huntington's "How I Learned What I Learned": An August Performer

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Theater at its most sublime requires first and foremost a remarkable storyteller. Playwright August Wilson, in his intimate relationship with Huntington Theatre Company, was such a man. The unique form of theater that is a solo dramatic performance demands a similar quality of an actor, that he be a raconteur extraordinaire. Memorable one-person shows are few, but when the subject of a piece of theater is as legendary as Wilson and a vessel of his work is as commanding as actor Eugene Lee, it's a truly unforgettable experience.

For the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job; but since 1863, it's been hell.” So begins the verbal saga of Wilson in Huntington Theatre Company's production of How I Learned What I Learned, his final theatrical work. It's a portrait of a poet as a young man, co-conceived by Wilson (with his friend Todd Kreidler) before his untimely death at 60 from cancer in 2005. Featuring Lee as the playwright and numerous characters in his life, it's a 100-minute bravura display, not in imitation of the late renowned playwright, but a loving attempt to “conjure his essence”. It's not unlike discovering you've invited to your party the perfect guest. How we have learned what we've learned from his body of work is the at the center of this play. And what a marvelous coda to Wilson's and Huntington's shared history it turns out to be.

Anything in the author's past is grist for his mill, from his life in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (where most of his plays take place) to the dissection of the meanings of the word “black” in the dictionary, not merely its definitions, but its connotations as well. He also tackles his Mother Daisy and a washing machine as a symbol of pride, as well as her wise words such as “something is not always better than nothing”, and his realization of the “limitations of (his) instrument.” In 2003 Wilson himself performed this piece in Seattle, noting that reading his poetry was a solitary act, whereas a theatrical audience is a communal experience. He asked about what his identity was and how it could forge his path to the future; he dealt with lessons that were learnable only through human interaction. His view was that all art is political in the sense that it serves someone's politics, and theater particularly was a “collected mythology, celebrating a common humanity”. Throughout this play, the issue of respect, and how Wilson expected and demanded it, is at his core.

This work was last seen in 2013 off-Broadway, and is quite an appropriate choice for this company, as Huntington has staged all ten of the plays in his Century Cycle, eight of them as world premieres. Even the intriguing set by David Gallo (who also did the Projection Design) serves as a reminder of his output, cluttered with detritus (such as a mangled trumpet or a golf club) that echoes his works from Gem of the Ocean, taking place in the 1900's, wherein 285-year-old Aunt Ester redeemed souls, to Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in the 1910's, set at a boardinghouse where folks looked for lost family members, to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, in the 1920's, about recording a musical heritage amidst racial strife. The remaining plays in the Century Cycle include, chronologically:The Piano Lesson (the 1930's, in which Boy Willie wishes to sell the family piano and his sister Bernice opposes him since the family's history is carved upon it), Seven Guitars (the 1940's, wherein Floyd Barton needs the fare for a bus ticket), Fences (the 1950's, with jealous Troy Maxson ruining his son's sports career), Two Trains Running (the 1960's, in which Sterling Johnson tries to put his life together post-incarceration), Jitney (the 1970's, about cabbies who go where most cabbies won't), King Hedley II (the 1980's, where King and Mister sell stolen refrigerators) and Radio Golf (the 1990's, when Aunt Ester's house is slated for destruction).The technical team also includes Creative Consultant and Costume Designer Constanza Romero (Wilson's widow), Lighting Designer Thom Weaver and Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier. All have worked in tandem to produce a wondrous encounter with Wilson, especially with the use of typing sounds and projected words on a wall of blank pages, an ingeniously coordinated collaboration.

The charming Lee performs so smoothly and effortlessly that one is barely aware of the passing of time. It's as though Wilson himself has returned for one last opportunity to share. It's a reminder of the playwright's tremendous gifts given over his all-too-brief career. As enacted by Lee, this is a warm, wise and witty farewell from a truly august playwright, and an exceptional piece of theater. In preparation and execution, it's easily the finest theatrical work of the season.


ART/Hypocrites' "Pinafore": Oh Joy, Oh Rapture Foreseen

The Cast of "H.M.S. Pinafore"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Never mind the why and wherefore, love can level ranks and therefore you ought to get to Oberon where ART is presenting the Hypocrites' production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” (“or the Lass That Loved a Sailor”) for their third visit. Those of us who were lucky enough to catch their “Mikado” last season (or “Pirates of Penzance” prior to that) should be filled with foreseeable joy and unmodified rapture. This time around, once again, you won't likely be disappointed. From the moment we sail the ocean blue, things are seldom what they seem. With their usual creativity on terra firma, this company continues to delight with its wild, wacky and wonderful approach to the satirical bite of W. S. Gilbert and the musical precision of Arthur Sullivan.

As all of you G. & S. aficionados will recall, in the original libretto, barely do we set off at sea when we encounter the estimable presence of she who is called Little Buttercup, dear Little Buttercup, though she could never tell why. Also aboard is the smartest lad in all the fleet, Ralph Rackstraw, the youth whose faltering feet with difficulty bear him on his course; alas, he loves a lass above his station, one Josephine a maiden fair to see, who bemoans how sorry is her lot who loves too well. Unfortunately for Jack, she's also the daughter of the well-bred Captain of the Pinafore, and a right good captain, too. Complicating matters is the bothersome fact that Josephine is being pursued by another, and not just anyone; he's none other than The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., who when he was a lad did a lot of polishing of all sorts. Yet Jack, audacious tar that he is, can't refrain from professing his love. How this all gets resolved (in typical G. & S. fashion, of course), with a last-minute revelation, is satire of the highest low level. Note the repeated refrain of the whole cast mimicking Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain, “I can't stand it”.

But wait. This is after all the Hypocrites, masters of dramatic deconstruction. Naturally, (or unnaturally), this company takes the tale several steps further, with gender-bending hilarity (virtually everyone is playing her or his opposite gender) and loving disrespect for the original work. How they do so will remain withheld here (critics having taken the Hypocritic Oath) but suffice it to say that Adapter/Director Sean Graney and Co-Director Thrisa Hodits are at it again, and we're all the better for it. Even if you're a purist, you should be won over by their saucy wit. Even The R.H. Sir Joseph succumbs to the inevitable in the end, for, as he himself hath said it (and it's greatly to his credit), he is an Englishman. Or woman. In any case, the splendiferous cast of suspects includes Doug Pawlik (as Joseph), Dana Omar (Ralphina), Emily Casey (Captain Cat Coran/Sail'ress Bobbi), Christine Stulik (Admiral Dame Jo-Anne Porter /Sail'ress Tiffni), Kate Carson-Groner (Dot Deadeye/Sail'ress Candi), Shawn Pfautsch (Porterman Kev'n), Matt Kahler (Little Buttercup/Porterman Matt), Erik Schroeder (Cousin Heebies) and Erin O'Shea (Sail'ress Billi). While Pawlik and Stulik are standouts, all are just about perfect, even the sail'resses; the fault, dear Brutus, is not in their tars, and in fact there's scant little to fault.

Now give three cheers for the chance to romp and rollick with the Hypocrites again; and never fear, that's not the name of a current political party.


Trinity Rep's "Mockingbird": Go Set a Watch

Stephen Thorne & Angela Brazil in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
(photo: Mark Turek)

Anyone attending Trinity Rep's production of its staged adaptation of Harper Lee's“To Kill a Mockingbird” might grow restless during the overly lengthy prologue of monologues and wonder whether it should have been timed and trimmed (but more about this later). Once the play itself gets going, there will be much that is comfortably familiar. Unless one has been living in a cave for the last umpteen years, she or he will already be well acquainted with this story of a rape trial in 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama. To acknowledge this shared memory and attempt to transcend it, some novel decisions were made which, depending on one's tolerance for experimentation with the beloved story in its prior book and film treatments, will either enhance or detract from one's enjoyment. Since the story has been criticized for essentially being a white person's perspective on race, Trinity Rep commendably decided to pair this production with one of “Blues for Mr. Charlie” by black playwright James Baldwin, written about the same time as Lee's novel. It's clear their hearts are decidedly in the right place, and in the end the honesty of all involved overcomes a few potentially controversial ideas in the mounting of this dramatization.

The most radical concept was to have the actors present their own personal experiences with active and passive prejudice, racial and otherwise. The basic idea was, of course, to illustrate how pervasive discrimination is in all of its forms, from misogyny to sexual orientation, and thus to establish contemporary hook-up points with the core story first published over fifty years ago. The problem was, these intensely personal biographical monologues were presented prior to the play's beginning (fine, if a bit overlong) and during the play itself (not so fine). The dramatic arc of the work suffered with these interruptions and broke down what one might call the “fifth wall”, both stepping out of character and addressing the audience directly as themselves.

The second decision about mounting the play was to employ non-traditional casting taken to a whole new sphere. Color-blind casting is a welcome idea with which audiences should by now be quite comfortable. The exception is when the ethnicity of a character is absolutely essential to a story, as it should have been here, for example in the case of a black actress playing Mayella Ewell (Alexis Green), the story's white accuser of the black defendant, Tom Robinson (David Samuel). This threatens to destroy the theatrical illusion being performed. In the same vein, the characters of the three children in the story, Jean Louise Finch or “Scout” (Angela Brazil), Jeremy Finch, “Jem” (Jude Sandy), and Charles Baker Harris, “Dill” (Mauro Hantmann) are, visually, way beyond the story's descriptions of them as ranging in age from about eight to twelve years. It simply strains credulity, especially if one knows that the actor who plays Atticus Finch (Stephen Thorne) is Brazil's husband in real life. Yet here we have one partially balding man, one black man and a married woman all valiantly trying to represent characters whom they visually contradict. Added to this is the additional decision to have the story narrated (in the style of “Our Town”) by the entire cast, rather than by its central character of Scout. Consider how much more powerful it would have been with an extraordinary child actor (as in, for example, the Broadway musical “Fun Home”).

Lastly, the decision was made to present the play in the round, which on the surface makes sense especially in the lengthy central courtroom scene. The playing space is so vast that even whispered lines have to be declaimed to be audible throughout the theater. Virtually gone is any intimacy between Atticus and Scout, such as the memorable scene side by side on their front porch glider. Despite all these obstacles, the cast consistently shines, and the message prevails. There are some clever meta touches, such as having the judge announce a recess (intermission). Under the Direction of Brian McEleney, standouts include Calpurnia (Mia Elllis), Miss Maudie Atkinson (Rachael Warren), Miss Stephanie Crawford (Rebecca Gibel), Mrs. Dubose (Ashley Mitchell) and Reverend Sykes (Samuel again), and eventually Boo Radley (Sinan Eczacibasi), who actually speaks in this version. The ensemble of Trinity Rep regulars has never been better. The creative contributions include the simple Set Design by Michael McGarty (primarily consisting of tables, desks and chairs), varied period Costume Design by Toni Spadafora, complex Lighting Design by Byron Winn and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz.

At one point a character states that, since it does no harm to us and provides us with music, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird (which the novel's “sequel”, Go Set a Watchman almost did). The same might be said about this play. It does nothing but good (with a strong moral compass) and provides us with thoughtful reinforcement, especially as the consequences of the courtroom scene devolve. It would be a sin to miss it.


Lyric's "Fast Company": Comic Con

Tyler Simahk, Theresa Nguyen. Michael Hisamoto & Lin-Ann Ching Kocar in "Fast Company"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Did you hear about the con game now being conducted by a bunch of immoral opportunists? No, it's not anyone's presidential campaign. It's the comedy being presented by Lyric Stage Company, “Fast Company” by Carla Ching. As the playwright has noted, this play about greed and gullibility was first produced in 2011, and has been revised several times, with this iteration being its fourth production. The current version relies heavily on the concept of game theory. The story, told in numerous blackouts, centers around a family of four con artists, grifters all, involved in the theft of an extremely valuable comic book.

The family consists of the matriarchal Mable (Lin-Ann Ching Kocar), her daughter and game theorist Blue (Theresa Nguyen), her “retired” pickpocket son Francis (Tyler Simahk) , who's become a television magician, and her gambler son H (Michael Hisamoto). Each in her or his own way fulfills the definition of a grifter, that is, one who “obtains goods or money illegally by the use of skills rather than violence” from a mark who is the intended victim, also known as a sucker or patsy. Their scheme includes an “inside man”who pulls off the actual con once the trust of the “mark” has been earned, the “lure” who typically pretends to be something she or he is not, in order to entice the mark, the “roper” or “outside man” who attains the trust of the mark before the con is pulled off, and the “fixer” who's the overall coordinator for the con, who networks resources and backup plans. The cons they have pulled include those with quite colorful names: “Pig-in-a-poke”, involving the sale of a presumably prized thing (a pig) rolled into a bag (“poke”) but in reality worthless; “The Spanish Prisoner” about bailing out a wealthy relative from a remote jail (not unlike much of today's email spam), and “The Badger Game” where a mark is lured into a compromising position, then blackmailed. There is honor of a sort among these thieves, with the first rule being to “have no feelings”, and “never break code”.

In a fast-paced ninety minutes without intermission, a lot of turf is covered, though with some rather unexplored underlying questions, such as Director M. Bevin O'Gara's query “if trust exists within a family, does that make it easier or harder to hustle each other?” and the rationale for a “world of misdirection, sleight of hand, where limits are not limits and you never trust anyone”. And as the playwright herself has asked, “why was my mom so hard when I was growing up?”, and the “how and why people screw over the people they love most”. The actors were up to the task, especially the maternal Kocar, and the direction was brisk. The family happens to be Asian American, which poses another thought: if this work had been written by an occidental playwright, would it be perceived as prejudicial toward Asian Americans? It's quite definitely cynical, as Bevin further admonishes the audience to “stay in your game...you could be duped at any time”, up to and including its surprise ending. All is, at the end of the play, illusion. Helping establish that is the creative team, which includes Scenic Designer Cameron Anderson, Costume Designer Tyler Kinney, Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand, Sound and Original Music Composer Arshan Gailus, Projection Designer Garrett Herzig and Magic Consultant Evan Northrup.

If you come from a relatively functional family, this probably won't be your “poke”. But if stings and capers (or the science and math behind them) are your thing, then do be lured to the Lyric Stage Company. “Fast Company” is the grift that keeps on giving.


Fathom Events' Met's "Manon Lescaut": Desert Song?

Roberto Alagna & Kristine Opolais in Metropolitan Opera's "Manon Lescaut"
(photo: Ken Howard)

The Metropolitan Opera's recent mounting of Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut caused quite a stir. The controversial production is by Sir Richard Eyre, but more about this later. When the 1893 original version was first performed, it became Puccini's first successful work, even though it followed the well-received 1884 Manon by Massenet. First, a brief synopsis might help to illustrate how radical Eyre's concept of the work is.
Students, led by Edmondo (tenor Zach Borichevsky) are singing in the town square in Amiens and urge the brooding Des Grieux (tenor Roberto Alagna) to join them. He flirts with some of the town girls. A train (in this version) arrives, carrying Geronte (bass Brindley Sherratt), Lescaut (baritone Massimo Cavalletti) and his sister Manon (soprano Kristine Opolais). Struck by her beauty, Des Grieux approaches her, and they agree to meet later. Inside the inn Geronte and Lescaut discuss Manon's future, namely Geronte's taking her to Paris. Edmondo overhears them and warns Des Grieux, agreeing to help them to run away. Lescaut advises Geronte that his sister's love for the best things in life will bring her around before long. Manon proves him right by becoming Geronte's mistress in his Parisian palace, but soon becomes bored. When Des Grieux arrives at the palace, they are reconciled and found in an embrace by Geronte, who summons the police and denounces her for her immorality. (It's a sign of the times that only she, and not Geronte himself, is so accused). Before she can flee, she grabs her jewelry, a costly delay as the police arrive to arrest her for theft. Later, she is held in the barracks at the port of Le Havre, to be deported to America with a group of prostitutes. Bribing the jailor, Lescaut intends to free his sister, but the plan is thwarted, and she is led onto the ship. Des Grieux convinces the Captain to take him along as a deckhand. In the final scene, the lovers find themselves in a “wasteland” (the “deserts of Louisiana” in the original libretto by no fewer than five librettists, whose sense of geography was a mite off). Manon, weak, sends Des Grieux to find water and shelter. He returns, but too late, as she dies believing that time will cleanse her of any sin, and he is left with only memories of their all-too-brief time together.

The plot has more than a few lacunae. For example, when Des Grieux sings in the final act of their formerly happy existence, he's referencing a period between earlier acts, which we never get to see. But much could be forgiven when there is such lovely music performed so well. Alagna, stepping in last month for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann, has obviously had time to hone his skills by now, as his singing was superb. Borichevsky, Cavalletti and Sherratt were also in fine voice. But it was in the title role that Opolais truly triumphed, notably in her justly famous, heartbreaking aria “sola, perduta, abbandonata”. But it was the audience who was alone, lost and abandoned by the vision of Eyre. Updating the time frame to 1941, with Set Design by Rob Howell, Eyre added a menacing and inappropriate undertone to the tragic love story with omnipresent Nazis in occupied Paris. Worse, the final scene was altered here to be sung in a deconstructed recreation of the palace bedchamber seen in an earlier act. It was a wrongheaded vision from the start. At least the HD broadcast Host was the charming Deborah Voight, and the performance was Directed for the HD broadcast by Gary Halvorson. The score was energentically Conducted by Fabio Luisi. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus excelled as usual under the capable direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The Lighting Design was by Peter Mumford the and Costume Design was by Fotini Dimou.

Eyre's Production was distracting, bizarre and ultimately pointless. Against all odds, and largely thanks to the memorable performances, this Manon Lescaut survived nonetheless.

Encore presentation will be HD broadcast on Wednesday March 9th at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


ArtsEmerson's "Three Sisters": Sibling Ribaldry

The Cast of "The Three Sisters"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

Now visiting the Majestic Theater as part of ArtsEmerson's multicultural theatrical season are members of the renowned Maly Theater of St. Petersburg, Russia, presenting Anton Chekhov's masterpiece, The Three Sisters.  Performed in Russian with English surtitles, it's a somewhat unorthodox version, filled with ribald passion and humor, unlike the usual treatment of the play as more restrained and static. This family and its circle of friends tend more towards unsuppressed emotions, from joy to rage, as described by the company's Artistic Director Lev Dodin. It's definitely not your typical treatment done in your college days with nothing but simmering angst. There are some tweaks that will surprise and possibly delight those familiar with the more classical approach to this play, though the plot remains mostly faithful to the playwright's original intent. His varied characters, as Dodin has stated, are “maximalists” who seek not merely a taste of happiness. but absolute happiness, and now rather than later. So it's not perhaps so shocking to find the ensemble full of various passions, from social and ideological to intellectual and, especially, sexual. There are several unscripted (by Chekhov, that is) physical couplings and clinches. If you're a purist, this won't be your samovar.

The titular three sisters are: Olga (Irina Tychinina), the eldest, a spinster who teaches in the high school; middle sister Masha (Ksenia Rappoport), a trained concert pianist; and the youngest, Irina (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). All former Muscovites, they share ownership of their home in a provincial town with their brother Andrey Prosorov (Alexander Bikovsky), an unlucky gambler. They all long for the relatively more exciting life they led in Moscow eleven years before the play begins. Here they interact with Andrey's controlling fiancee, and later wife, Natasha (Ekaterina Kleopina), Masha's husband, idealistic high school teacher Kuligin (Sergey Vlasov), and various military men presently stationed nearby. The soldiers include Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin, (Igor Chernevich) who is having an affair with Masha, and the Baron Tuzenbach (Oleg Ryazanzev), who loves Irina, as do Captain Soleni (Stanislav Nikolskiy) and Sub-Lieutenant Fedotik (Artur Kozin). For someone who is self-described as being old at 24, Irina evokes a lot of local interest. There is also Army Doctor Chebutikin (Sergey Kuryshev), who long ago loved the late mother of the three sisters, and Sub-Lieutenant Rode (Evgeny Serzin), a coach at the high school. Also in the daily life of the family are old Ferapont, doorkeeper at the local council offices (Alexander Koshkarev), and their old nurse Anfisa (Natalia Akimova).  By play's end, some have been reconciled, some have been driven apart, and one has been killed. Much has changed, much remains the same. And what could have been a melancholic, dour drama has somehow flown by over the course of four acts and three hours (about an hour per sister).

It's a testament to this company that they accomplish precisely what they set out to do. As Directed by Dodin, the entire ensemble demonstrates just how comic the work is (or can be). The Sisters and their family are wonderful, and the acting of the soldiers is uniformly good. On the creative end, the Set and Costume Design by Alexander Borovsky and Lighting Design by Damir Ismagilov are accomplished, but the way the set is employed is problematic. The country house facade requires that a lot of action take place far from the proscenium, and forces the characters to be set apart from one another in a static tableau, even as their acting remains fluid; it's distracting and literally distancing. Still, it's an opportunity to see a stellar ensemble in a vivid performance of one of the classics of theater in a uniquely comedic approach. While Chekhov was hardly the Neil Simon of his day, this version manages to succeed at being what Chekhov himself considered it: a comedy. This is a sorority well worth visiting.


Zeitgeist's "Cake Walk": A Slice of Life?

The Cast of "Cakewalk"
(photo: Zeitgeist Stage Company)

Zeitgeist Stage Company's newest presentation is Cakewalk by Canadian playwright Colleen Curran. Written in 1984, it concerns five contestants in a cake-baking contest in a small Vermont town. The play unfolds in an inn that has seen better days. It's the Fourth of July, and, before the play's end there will be fireworks, as each of the entrants reveals her or his true nature.

One of them, Augusta Connors Hancock (Maureen Adduci), intends to enter the wedding cake she has designed and baked for her daughter Tiffany (Ashley Risteen) against her daughter's wishes. Another, Sister Vivien Leigh Cleary (Victoria George) from the local convent, dons mufti and hopes to send another nun to Italy (the grand prize) but finds her focus altered by the arrival of an absent-minded archeologist, Taylor Abbott (Matt Fagerberg). Yet another, Martha Britch (Aina Adler), owns a local cafe by the name of Heaven on Earth and enters a cake from her regular menu, which infuriates boyscout den mother Ruby Abel (Kelley Estes). As the saying goes, complications ensue. Who wins what won't be disclosed here, but suffice it to say that at the end of the play several threads in a very threadbare plot are neatly tied up.

The cast, including some Zeitgeist stalwarts, play their roles as presumably written, over the top and stereotypically. Fagerberg manages best, as his character is rife with opportunities to look and act befuddled, right down to a hair-don't that looks like an unmade bed. George and Adler have some of the better-written scenes and make what they can of them. Adduci and Risteen have both been seen in more fully developed roles in previous productions by this company. It falls to Estes to make her driven caricature into a believable zealot, but the task is thankless. Overall, the hyperventilated script filled with jokes that must have seemed dated over thirty years ago when it was first presented, is a disappointment. One could easily be caustic and refer to the play as half-baked, flavorless, or an overdone slice of life, but these would be cheap shots and would disrespect the author's efforts. Given the numerous plays she has created, this must be an atypical misfire in a host of perhaps more memorable works. That said, nothing is more dour than an intended comedy that, by and large, just isn't funny. As social satire, it kneads work.

The Direction and clever Set Design (replete with stains and scorch marks) are by David J. Miller, Zeitgeist's Artistic Director, with apt Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, fine Sound Design by J. Jumbelic and amusing Costume Design by Jess Huang.

At one point near the end of the work, a character asks: “Cheaters in a cake-baking contest on the Fourth of July...can you believe it?” The answer, sadly, is no.