ART's "Plough & Stars": Going Brogue

James Hayes & Ciaran O'Brien in "The Plough and the Stars"
(photo:  Ros Kavanagh)

On this, the 90th anniversary of Sean O'Casey's play The Plough and the Stars, Dublin's Abbey Theatre (where the work had its world premiere in 1926) is presenting the tragedy at American Repertory Theatre. The third play in the playwright's “Dublin Trilogy”, it followed his Shadow of a Gunman in 1923 and Juno and the Paycock in 1924. The title of this final part of the triplet references the Irish Citizen Army's flag featuring what is known in the U.S as the Big Dipper, but in Britain and Ireland as “the plough and the stars” (meaning a free Ireland would control the destiny of everything from the earth to the sky). O'Casey dedicated the play thus: To the gay laugh of my mother, at the gate of the grave, a quintessential Irish memento mori  if there ever was one. The work covers events leading up to the Easter Rising, in four acts. If it's unfamiliar to American theatergoers today, a brief synopsis should suffice.

At the flat of Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson), a bricklayer, and his wife Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan), Fluther Good (David Ganly), a trade unionist carpenter, a former heavy drinker now on the wagon, is fixing the lock on the door. Charwoman Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran) delivers a new hat, a gift for Nora. Nora's uncle Peter Flynn (James Hayes), a laborer, and Jack's radical cousin The Young Covey (Ciaran O'Brien), a fitter, argue. Nora comes in, and Jack is suddenly informed he is pressed back into the service of the Irish Citizen Army with a promotion, of which he was previously unaware, since the letter informing him of this never reached him. Mrs. Gogan's daughter Mollser (Rachel Gleeson) who is dying of tuberculosis comes in, after her mother heads for a political meeting. In a public house Jack and others carry in the flag, while Fluther decides to go off with the prostitute Rosie (Nyree Yergainharsian). On Easter Monday, opening day of what would come to be known as the aforementioned Easter Rising, Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay), a Protestant street vendor, gloats about what she foresees as the rebels' defeat. Jack ignores Nora's plea to stay with her and goes off to fight. What follows is a string of tragedies not to be revealed here, involving Nora, Mollser, Jack and, ironically, Bessie.

It's fitting that the play ends in irony (especially with respect to the fate of the only major Protestant character), as this was typical of O'Casey. When first produced, it hit so close to home that riots broke out in the theater. Much ink has been spilt over how naturalistic and realistic vs. idealistic O'Casey's trilogy is. This current wondrous cast of fourteen is a wonder to behold and to hear, though the brogue can at times be impenetrable. This is no criticism of the actors, as the previous Abbey Theatre production seen in Boston in 1976, with legendary luminaries such as Cyril Cusack and Siobhan McKenna, (not to mention Sorcha Cusack as Nora, now appearing as Mrs. McCarthy, the parish secretary in the Father Brown television series) was equally difficult to understand at times. It would behoove a theatergoer to read the play first in print in order to overcome the language difficulty. (Full disclosure: this critic is of Irish descent and still had problems with the dialect). The brogue is at times all too authentic to absorb, but no matter, as the superb acting skills of this indelible ensemble masterfully convey all their hopes and fears.

This production, as controversially Directed by Sean Holmes, has Set Design by Jon Bausor, Costume Design by Catherine Fay, Lighting Design by Paul Keogan, and Music and Sound Design by Phillip Stewart. Featured aspects of present day Dublin including modern dress and television, which perhaps make the play more universal, can also come across as distractingly auteurist touches. One such concept is the use of the rock song Everybody Speaks, Nobody Hears (a phrase first penned by G.K. Chesterton) and other contemporary music, sometimes sung live with hand mikes. All of the characters break the fourth wall, often speaking to the audience rather than one another, which can be off-putting when dialogue is declaimed. Yet it's a fact that O'Casey frequently has his characters speak of themselves in the third person. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.

Overall, the magic surely works in the current production of the classic play, since the broad historical events and high-toned rhetoric of the events taking place don't take center stage. It's the tale of ordinary people being impacted by those extraordinary events, which is the genius of the playwright. His focus was not on the epic but on the everyday lives of those simple people. As Nora puts it, she “risked more for love than they would risk for hate”. It's a powerful message when delivered with the eloquence of the ordinary.


Trinity Rep's "Beowulf": Fang in Cheek

The Cast of "Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage"
(photo: Trinity Rep)

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, the musical? The rock and roll musical? The 3,182- line oldest Auld English poem in all of its anonymous and alliterative glory? Lest you fear, here are two words for you: Dave Malloy. The Dave Malloy who created the Libretto and Music for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Three Pianos has written the Music for Beowulf, while Jason Craig has provided the Book and Lyrics . It still consists of the tales of the three pursuits by Beowulf (Charlie Thurston), hero of the Geats, of the Great Mead Hall of Heorot presided over by Danish King Hrothgor (Joe Wilson, Jr.). He first slays the monster Grendel (Stephen Berenson), then the monster's Mother (Anne Scurria), and, about fifty years later, a Dragon (Janice Duclos), though he is then fatally injured. The tale has been the subject of numerous movies, television shows, novels (including graphic ones), music (opera, classical, rock opera), board games, and video games. This incarnation is not your eighth grade assignment, as there are many f-bombs dropped and a lot of the scat is scatological.

But it's all in good fun. We first meet three academics, Berenson, Scurria and Duclos, all discussing the merits of the poem. Soon we find our soldier of fortune taking off on that triple quest, like an ancient Don Quixote, accompanied by five Warriors (Rachel Warren, Rachel Clausen, Rebecca Gibel, Laura Lyman Paine, and Brad Wilson). They provide some great musical backup for such songs as Wilson's “That Was Death”, Thurston's “Passing” and Warren's astonishing showstopper, “Not Only”. The story is often somber and cynical (“better to retaliate than to mourn”, “his dark inevitability”), but mostly intelligently silly. The buff and ready Thurston makes an immediate and lasting impression as he struts and swaggers through each ordeal. The whole cast is in perfect harmony, visually and audibly. If there are standouts, they would have to be Scurria's shocked-little-girl reactions (priceless) and the low-tech overhead projected stick figures (very fang in cheek).

As Directed by Curt Columbus, this one is a winner for the company. The funny, complicated Set Design by Michael McGarty, Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, Lighting Design by Dan Scully, Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, as well as Musical Direction by Michael Rice, Choreography by Jude Sandy and Puppet Design by Shoshanna Utchenik are all tremendous assets to the fast-paced show.
All in all, it's very high octane, high energy and hilarious. Being presented now through October 9th at Trinity Rep's Chase Theater, it's well worth revisiting Ye Auld English world. So broaden thy horizons and get thee to Heorot (sounds like “carrot”) for this raunchy, rousing and riotous romp. 


BLO's "Carmen": Another Torrid Adorer

Michael Mayes as the Toreador Escamillo in "Carmen"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Widely known (even among those who aren’t opera buffs) for its famous Toreador aria, Georges Bizet’s Carmen is a much-beloved favorite of many fans, typically listed among their top ten operas. This is despite the fact that the titular heroine isn’t usually presented as a particularly nice or even sympathetic character. In the current Boston Lyric Opera production (amazingly the first professional opera company to grace the stage of the appropriately named Boston Opera House in almost two decades), a co-production with San Francisco Opera, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano plays the flirtatious Carmen more as a victim than as a predatory seducer. The Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy revolves around her relationships with the staunch soldier Don José (tenor Roger Honeywell) and torrid bullfighting hero Escamillo (baritone Michael Mayes), featuring village girl Micaëla (soprano Chelsea Basler). It's set in “modern day Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in North Africa”.

As most music lovers will know, the libretto is a rather steamy one, from the first appearance of the gypsy girl Carmen. Virtually ignored by Don José (who initially loves Micaëla) until he arrests Carmen for fighting, she seduces him to gain her freedom. Subsequently she declares he must prove his love by deserting the army. Later in the gypsy camp, her ardor diminishes as she now professes love for the toreador Escamillo. Micaëla arrives to tell Don José his mother is dying, and they depart together, Don José threatening he will see Carmen again. In the final scene Don José confronts Carmen, trying to win her back, but when he fails…well, this is opera, so one shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t end happily. And that’s the tempestuous tale, told over four acts. For this opera to be so popular with such a simplistic story, there must be a powerful score, and indeed there is. The success of a production of Carmen, as with many operatic works, thus often depends on the quality of the singing and conducting, not necessarily on how deeply involved an audience is on an emotional level; but surprisingly this is not the case with this version, which not only boasts superior vocal talent and the depth of a huge orchestra, but also delivers an emotional wallop.
The Cast & Orchestra for BLO's "Carmen"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)
There's more than enough fire and passion (and sex!) in the singing and acting of this version, despite the minimalist sets (except for some classic cars and an imposing bull billboard). Catalonian Calixto Bieito, in his U.S. debut, delivers a stunning production, with Revival Direction by Joan Anton Rechi. Sensitively conducted by BLO's Music Director David Angus (except for the rapid-fire tempo in the overture), Cano and her three co-stars made this more than a mere potboiler, with Basler a standout in her aria Je dis que rien ne m'epouvante. The rest of the cast was extraordinary, including the singers in the roles of Moralès (baritone Vincent Turregano), Zuniga {bass Liam Moran), Frasquita (soprano Kathryn Skemp Moran), Mercédès (mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher), El Dancairo (baritone Andrew Garland) and El Remendado (tenor Samuel Levine). Visually, the technical work was outstanding, from the Set Design by Alfons Flores, to the Costume Design by Merce Paloma, Lighting Design by (Robert Wierzel), and especially the realistic Fight Direction by Andrew Kenneth Moss. Mention should also be made of the huge orchestra of 63 musicians and a cast of 108 consisting of the BLO Chorus and the youthful Voices Boston, including soldiers, cigarette girls, smugglers, and gypsies, all with well-coordinated movement. Never has so much beefcake and cheesecake been on display, not gratuitously, and the effect was mesmerizing.
As Bieito sees it, his vision is one of a victim in a society wherein people “live and dream their lives very fast, full of violence”. He has made significant cuts in the score, especially the recitatives, to focus on these fast-paced lives. As he has said, his is an interpretation, an attempt at eliciting pity and compassion for both lovers. If you've never been a fan, this could result in a conversion. It's decidely difficult to remain cool about something so hot.


PPAC's "Wicked": Green with Envy

Jessica Vosk in "Wicked"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

There is much that is green about Wicked, the musical: one witch, a lot of peer jealousy, and a whole lot of money. Billed as “the untold story of the Witches of Oz”, the musicalization of the popular novel by local author Gregory Maguire has grossed, since its Broadway opening thirteen years ago (on 10/30/03), $1,044,603,475 (yes, that's over one billion). Thus a plot synopsis would hardly seem necessary. Everyone is familiar with the original film The Wizard of Oz, and the books by L. Frank Baum, and most theatergoers have presumably already seen this story of brains, heart and courage and are eagerly looking forward to a revisit to the Kingdom. They won't be disappointed.

Just as a brief refresher, the show is really the back story of Elphaba (Jessica Vosk), alias (in Baum's original books) the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire in his breakthrough novel took the Dorothy story and pretty much upended our expectations. The Book by Winnie Holzman takes the plot-heavy musical in even more foreign territory, wherein Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), “the good witch”, is the flawed narcissist (with the delightful song “Popular”) whose status increases as that of Elphaba declines at Shiz School, which culminates in the showstopping climax to Act I, the chill-inducing “Defying Gravity”). Characters who are not found in the original The Wizard of Oz novel (but some of whom are in Baum's dozens of sequels) are Headmistress Madame Morrible (Wendy Worthington), the sole remaining Animal on the faculty, Dr. Dillamond (Chad Jennings), Elphaba's younger sister Nessarose (Kristen Martin), the prince Fiyero who becomes the Scarecrow (Anthony Festa), and Boq who becomes the Tin Man (Sam Seferian). And of course there's The Wizard himself (Stuart Zagnit) who confesses he's not all powerful after all. How all this, and more, transpires requires that attention be paid, for all's well that ends well. Except for that unfortunate landing of a house on top of Nessarose brought on by this girl named Dorothy....

The Book, its weakest element by far, is lacking in subtlety, and the jokes are labored and unfunny (“the artichoke is steamed”, “so happy I could melt”, “innuendo, outuendo”, “the goat is on the lam”, “twister of fate”, and the visual of Galinda's Evita-like hand posture at the beginning of Act II). At the same time, there are some wise subtexts, such as finding a common enemy in order to control the people (sound familiar?) and telling “lies they wanted to hear”, that have resonance today. Schwartz' lyrics, however, save the day (such as a reference to Elphaba's “verdegris”) and his score is often glorious. Standouts include such memorable songs as “Dancing through Life”, “Defying Gravity” and “For Good”, perhaps the most moving and powerful number in the show, the eleven o'clock number unforgettably sung by Vosk and Cooper:

Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good...
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you...
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine...
Because I knew you, because I knew you
I have been changed
For good

Much depends on the abilities of its cast, and most delivered, if often too broadly, but, as the Wizard himself puts it, “you have to give people what they want”. Vosk avoids the burlesque style and creates the sole nuanced role on the stage. The original Direction was by Joe Montello, with Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento (fondly remembered from the original cast of Chorus Line) ; with Scenic Design by Eugene Lee, Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, Sound Design by Tony Meola and Projection Design by Elaine J. McCarthy, this version is in fine technical shape.

The musical's popularity, due in large part to its message of empowerment for young women and girls, is undeniable. With a solid score and despite its sometimes incomprehensible plot(s), it's no wonder that it's been such a hit. In the midst of our current electoral blues (and reds), perhaps it's time again to embrace the green in all of us and follow that yellow brick road.


ArtsEmerson's "Machine de Cirque": Towel of Terror

Four Fifths of The Cast of "Machine de Cirque"
(photo: Loup-William Theberge)

Horseplay in the locker room will never be the same. Just when we thought it was safe to come out of the water, and just in time for some desperately needed escape from the absurdity of our national election, along comes a ninety-minute, intermission-less bit of madcap fun that goes by the name of Machine de Cirque. ArtsEmerson is now presenting the area premiere of this new Quebec City circus company, founded in 2013, a not-for-profit group whose self-described goal is “to gather various players from the art world and technology field to produce circus shows”. The fundamental concept is simple: five men try to preserve their post-apocalyptic civilization using found junk parts (teeter boards, juggling clubs, drum kits), and their own invention to create whatever tools they will need to locate other survivors. In the course of this quest, they “don't hesitate to reveal themselves”...literally. Their “canvas is the body, and its limits”. And what a canvas it is.

The Director, Co-Writer & Original Idea's creator is Vincent Dube, with Co-Writers, Co-Directors and performing Artists in the persons of Yohann Trepanier, Raphael Dube, Maxim Laurin, Ugo Dario and Frederic Lebrasseur (who also composed the Music). All contributed to the evolution of the show, called a “creation project” by Vincent Dube. (It's noteworthy that his brother Raphael and Trepanier had been a successful comedy juggling duo). In just ninety swiftly-passing minutes, this quintet manages countless feats that defy description (and the less one reveals anyway, the better). The technical team is right in tune, from the Costume Design by Sebastien Dionne to the Lighting Design by Bruno Matte, Sound Design by Rene Talbot and Mechanical Engineering by David St.-Onge. The set seemed as though Rube Goldberg and Louise Nevelson had co-conspired, and works beautifully.

And it's about that towel of terror, or rather towels plural; this too defies any attempt to convey the timing and precision this bit requires, and the hilarity that ensues. All the mayhem and madness takes place at the Paramount Mainstage, but only until October 2nd. We still have the rest of the election to suffer through, but this show is the perfect antidote to electoral stress, and should provide some temporary symptomatic relief. Get off that bathmat and head for the theater while there's still time. The towel scene alone is the funniest, bawdiest, and most brilliant visual ever conceived, and a joy to watch unravel.

The Entire Cast of "Machine de Cirque"
(photo: Loup-William Theberge)


Opera Odyssey's "Dimitrij": Not Godunov but Just as Grand

Ales Briscein as "Dimitrij"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

'Twas a grand night for singing when Opera Odyssey gave Boston its first ever performance of the little-known grand opera, Anton Dvorak's Dimitrij, a bombastic barnburner if there ever was one. Composed in 1800, with a libretto by Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova, this was in effect the U.S. premiere of Dvorak's original work (not the cut and pasted version by Kovarovic in 1906). Though the composer created ten operas in his life, this is his only truly grand opera on such an epic scale. Less well-known than his Rusalka and Armida, it deserves to be seen and especially heard more often. As beautifully Conducted by Gil Rose, with a seventy-plus exquisite chorus under the direction of Chorus Master William Cutter, this made Jordan Hall come alive as perhaps never before. It has a complex and convoluted plot that mirrors the complicated truths in history, occurring as it does just after the events in the better-known opera Boris Godunov.

It is Moscow, 1604, after Godunov's death, as the Russian people have divided into two camps, one led by Sujskij (bass-baritone Mark S. Doss) favoring the Godunovs, the other led by Basmanov (bass-baritone Christopher Job) favoring the false pretender Dimitrij (tenor Ales Briscein), the husband of the Polish Marina (soprano Dana Buresova) and the assumed son of Ivan the Terrible, Boris' predecessor. If Ivan's widow Marfa (mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura) should publicly declare Dimitrij her son (though she knows he is not), she believes it will help her against her enemies. Dimitrij breaks up a fight between the Russians and the Poles, rescuing Godunov's daughter Xenie (soprano Olga Jelinkova), and thwarts the conspiracy led by Sujskij, who is sentenced to be executed. Xenie begs Dimitrij to be merciful towards Sujskij. When Marina suspects a relationship has developed between her husband Dimitrij and Xenie, she reveals his humble birth, but he is firm in his commitment to Xenie and continuing his rule. Xenie, mourning her betrayed love, is killed on Marina's orders, though Marina changes her mind but not in time to stop the murder. Dimitrij, his origins revealed, is finally shot by Sujskij.

The superlative ensemble of singers in this production were all led by Briscien who, with his high tenor in the role of the False Dimitrij, never hit a false note. Though this was admittedly a concert version, one might have profited if he had demonstrated a little more real interaction with the other singers, as did his co-stars Buresova, Mishura and Jelinkova, with sumptuous detail, not to mention the ardent Doss. (At one point the text called for Dimitrij to be told: “if you can, look me in the face”). But there was so much to admire, with the healthy infusion of brilliant international stars, (Poles, Russians, and Czechs), and everything from mazurkas to triumphant choral singing. The huge Opera Odyssey Chorus and Orchestra echoed in their singing and playing the words from the text, a reference to “this magnificent cathedral” that could easily have been applied to Jordan Hall itself.

Rose has a busy year ahead, with his Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the remaining Opera Odyssey schedule, with tickets for the company's remaining performances to go on sale October 3rd. Their “Wilde Opera Nights” season will focus on “masterpieces inspired by the writings and world of Oscar Wilde, to include: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Lowell Lieberman (a co-production with the Boston Modern Opera Project, November 18 only, at Jordan Hall; a fully staged The Importance of Being Earnest by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, March 17 & 19, at the Wimberly Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion; The Dwarf (Der Zwerg) by Alexander von Zemlinsky, April 14 only, at Jordan Hall; and Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, by Sullivan and Gilbert, June 3 & 4, fully staged at Boston University Theatre. If their Dimitrij is any indication, it will surely be a full season of grand nights.


Huntington's "Sunday in the Park": Harmony, by George

The Cast of "Sunday in the Park with George"
(photo: Paul Moratta)

For this critic, it all began in 1984, as the first act of a preview of a then-new Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George , thundered to the climax of its final scene, with its exquisite visual, lyrical drive. It was love at first sight, and hearing, with its affirmation, in spite of all that is dark, desperate and demonic in our world, that there still can be art, inexplicably beautiful, brilliant, moving and enthralling. Though it earned two Tony Awards for technical achievements, the show was met with a decidedly mixed reception, until it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In subsequent productions, virtually all true to the original conceptualists and their visionary brilliance, it grew in acceptance and stature, despite the fact that its subject matter, the creation of the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), is an unusual one. Sondheim in his book Look, I Made a Hat speaks of the painting's “varying perspectives and proportions...(with) hundreds of thousands of daubs of color”, and the “curious fact that not one of them is looking at another”. It was Librettist James Lapine who first noticed what was missing: the painter. With that realization, they were able to proceed with what has come to be regarded as perhaps the finest work by Composer/Lyricist Sondheim and Lapine. Thus it was that the announcement that this work had been chosen as the initial production of Huntington Theatre Company's current season elicited excitement among local theatergoers as they wondered: will this possibly equal the company's magnificent track record with such works as She Loves Me, Candide and Jungle Book? It's a joy to reveal that Huntington has created another transcendent and
transporting miracle.
The story begins with the words of Georges Seurat (the passionate Adam Chanler-Berat): White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, balance, light, and harmony. He is at work on a huge painting of some fifty characters, one of whom is his model and Mistress “Dot” (the lustrous Jenni Barber), a sly allusion to his pointillist style. Also in the painting are an Old Lady, George's mother (the wondrous Bobbie Steinbach) with her Nurse (Amy Barker). Eventually there will also be three bathers (echoed in Seurat's other work, Bathers at Asnieres) and a Boatman (Todd A. Horman), two shop girls both named Celeste (Morgan Kirner and Sarah Oakes Muirhead) who are flirting with a handsome soldier (Andrew O'Shanick), a middle-aged couple, Yvonne (Aimee Doherty) and her husband Jules (Josh Breckenridge) who stroll in to criticize his work, their two servants, Franz (Patrick Varner) and Frieda (Melody Butiu), and a dog. There will also be young Louise (Bailey MacNeal) and an American couple, Mr. & Mrs. (James Andrew Walsh and Barker again). The score includes the songs “The Day Off”, (a dog song, no less), and “Finishing the Hat” (about which Sondheim writes of “the treasured feeling of trancing out in a stream-of-consciousness lyric"). Then there is Dot's resigned lament “We Do Not Belong Together” as she leaves, pregnant with George's child, for America with her new beau Louis the baker (Nick Sulfaro), and Georges' mother's comments on the passage of time in “Beautiful” (and quite beautifully sung by Steinbach). As the painting progresses, it becomes clear why Seurat was consumed with satire, considered by some as a cartoonist as much as a painter. The first act ends with his commentary: “Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony”, and the song “Sunday” with its stunning use of the word “Forever”. It remains one of the most brilliant moments in musical theater history.

Adam Chanler-Berat as George in "Sunday in the Park with George"
(photo: Paul Moratta) 

Act Two begins a century later with the characters in the painting expressing what they would have thought if they'd understood the reality that they would be immortalized, in “It's Hot Up Here” (with what Sondheim describes as a “tone of enervation”). The site is the museum in which the painting hangs (in a sort of meta moment, the Art Institute of Chicago, home of the painting in real life). The museum is the venue for a cocktail party for Seurat's great grandson George, (Chanler-Berat again) a self-described sculptor and inventor. He enters with his grandmother Marie (whom Dot was pregnant with in Act I, portrayed by Barber) for his latest multimedia installation, another in a series of “chromolumes” (referencing Seurat's theory of his “chromoluminarism”or “color-light-ism”). There is a generous amount of discussion about today's art scene, in the fabulously staged “Putting It Together” about the art of making (and promoting) art. It remains the weaker of the two acts in plot, but the stronger for its masterful score, notably Barber's two stellar turns in “Children and Art” (“the only things we hand down") and “Move On”. Along the way there are numerous humorous bits, but also what Sondheim describes as its “current of vulnerability, of longing, of compassion, that inform the show”. Undeniably the star of the proceedings is Sondheim himself, for his lovely music and even moreso his tantalizing lyrics. There are so many excerpts one could note, but let the following arbitrary choice suffice:
And the girls are so rapturous
isn't it lovely that artists can capture us?...
It's not so much do what you like
as it is that you like what you do...
I chose and my world was shaken – so what?
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not...
Stop worrying if your vision is new
Let others make that decision
They usually do
You keep moving on...
Anything you do, let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see....

Though there are some (intentionally) cardboard characters on the stage, the live cast is anything but, starting with Chanler-Berat and Barber, and true of the entire ensemble, which sings just about perfectly as a chorus. And what of the design, composition, balance, light, and harmony of this production? It's actually not a miracle when a company's palette includes Direction by Peter DuBois, with Musical Direction by Eric Stern, Choreography by Daniel Pelzig, Orchestrations by Michael Starobin, Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Robert Morgan, Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind, Sound Design by Jon Weston and Projection Design by Zachary G. Borovay. DuBois really seems to have captured the creative intent of Sondheim and Lapine, as have the rest of the creative team. Special notice should be made about Morgan's array of colorful costumes, true to the original painting and period yet fresh and new in feeling.

Regarded as one of the world's half-dozen most beloved paintings, there is no substitute for seeing it with its transcendent size and in living color (though this production will do quite nicely in the meantime). It's ironic that it has become iconic, so much so that it now even exists as a life-size topiary park in Columbus, Ohio. And now, thanks to Huntington Theatre, it has been resplendently reaffirmed, for which we should all be exceedingly grateful. We should also be grateful that DuBois plans to mount the remaining Sondheim works over the next few decades. As the final line in the play puts it: So many possibilities.  Meanwhile, please, Mr. Sondheim, give us more to see.   And hear.
The "Sunday in the Park with George" Topiary
(Columbus, Ohio)


Nora Theatre's "Marjorie Prime": The Stepford Lives

Sarah deLima & Lee Mikeska Gardner in "Marjorie Prime"
(photo: Nora Theatre)

It's about that gorilla in the room, the automated one, the machine that, if taken too much for granted, might just be about to take over. AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), a machine that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human can, is by some estimates about a decade away. Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, written by Jordan Harrison, is the current production at Nora Theatre, taking on this subject, as well as a much more worrisome one. It's Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) that worries philosophers. What if machines develop the ability to make mistakes, use misplaced modifiers and non-sequiturs? What if they threaten the completion of Psychologist Daniel Gilbert's “Sentence”: “The human being is the only animal that...”

Heady stuff for an hour and a half play, with innumerable subtexts and implied dangers. By investigating the great mystery of human memory as opposed to the possibility of unlimited promises of technology, this work suggests it's more fact than fantasy. In a world some sixty years from the present, there are some suggestions of advanced tech, such as turning off a musical source with one's fingertips in the air. Most of the world on view seems at first not to have changed all that much, but the playwright has much more in store for us, as he peels back the layers of life as it will be, much like the proverbial onion. As one character says, “pronouns are powerful things”, as are the concepts of then and now, as in the casual use of “didn't/don't”, the expression of living “as one”, the desire for one who “want(s) to be more than human too” and the off-hand remark that “it's amazing what they can do with a few zillion pixels”.

On the surface, this is the story of an 85-year old woman named Marjorie (Sarah deLima), cursed with a fading memory, who is kept company by a handsome young man (Alejandro Simoes) and visited by her daughter Tess (Lee Mikeska Gardner) and Tess' husband Jon (Barlow Adamson). To divulge any further details would be a shame, as the author has a clear and careful, incremental exposition in mind. Suffice it to say that it's as though one combined “The Twilight Zone” with “The Stepford Wives”, and that the word “prime” doesn't refer to anyone's surname. That's just about all one can say without destroying the impact of its numerous revelations.

Presented as part of The Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, and wonderfully Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, it boasts a quartet of excellent performances, all in their prime. Harrison has created a thought-provoking and potentially disturbing work. The creative team provided fine support, from the Scenic Design by Sara Brown to the Costume Design by Penney Pinette, to the Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao and Sound Design and Original Music by Arshan Gailus. It's a testament to its compelling issues that it's just been made into a film, with Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins, no less.

At the end of this remarkable play one character sums up: “How nice that we could love somebody”. It's a mark of the genius of this play that this seemingly benign observation is so chilling. And about the completion of “The Sentence”. How about: “The human being is the only animal that.....can write theater reviews”?


SpeakEasy's "Significant Other": 3 Weddings & No Funeral

Greg Maraio & Kathy St. George in "Significant Other"
(photo: Justin Saglio)

In his new comedy,Significant Other, in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, before its (unrelated) Broadway opening next year, Joshua Harmon once again shows his knack for amicably skewering the intense self-absorption of today's youth, especially the subculture of New York City millennials. It's a brisk semisweet concoction about the everyday challenges city singles face in both finding love and in letting go. His targets are, to varying degrees, neurotic, needy and narcissistic. It's to Harmon's credit that he can create such superficially off-putting characters who manage to enrage yet engage us, without losing his driving sense of humor and benign observational skills. While his overview here may not be as incisive as in his previous Bad Jews, it's a very recognizable fable of foibles. Depending on one's vintage, these may be current or distant hook-up points, but we've all more or less been there and done that, if not to such an amusing degree.

The central character, Jordan Berman (Greg Maraio), is a 29 year old, single gay man whose life has revolved for many years around his three BFFs, Kiki (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard), Laura (Jordan Clark) and Vanessa (Kris Sidberry), but anchored by his tender relationship with his aging grandmother, Helene (Kathy St. George). There is much discussion of their interactive friendship and companionship, with not a few hints of their underpinning of loneliness and fear of perpetual isolation, of never finding that titular Mister Right. Along the way, there are three weddings, each a successive loss for our hero (as he puts it, “your wedding is my funeral”), and various encounters with secondary characters played by Eddie Shields (Gideon, Evan and Roger) and Jared Troilo (Will, Conrad and Tony). Harmon synopsizes it best: “in act one...the joy of a loving, close-knit group of friends ...in act two, as that group breaks apart, we feel its loss keenly...as their lives change, the friendship changes”.
Harmon's ear for funny dialogue remains intact, especially as impeccably delivered by Maraio, in lines such as “hearing you say I have obsessive tendencies makes me feel like I need to go to the vet and be put down”, “I want kids so I can discipline them”, and “sweet is code for ugly”. It falls to St. George (in yet another indelible portrait by this mesmerizing actress) to provide the more sobering lines, such as her advice to her grandson: “don't die young, but don't grow old”, and “it's a long book; this is just one tough chapter”. The rest of this cast are equally memorable, especially as each wedding protocol gets wackier and more self-centered (undeniably reflecting today's reality, as one recent real marriage procession, in a church yet, included the family dog in bow-tie and vest; no editorial comment needed).

As Directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, this is funnier than real life even as it mirrors it. The creative team is perfectly on point, with very versatile Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader, apt Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, and fine Lighting Design by Daniel H. Jentzen and Sound Design by Lee Schuna. It moves smoothly and inevitably to its unsurprising end.

There is no cure, other than time, for our current electoral ills, but this play may help with the treatment of some of the symptoms. In the program notes, Daigneault stresses the need “during such dark and complicated times, to share a laugh and reconnect with one's humanity”. As another (unattributed) quote from the program says about finding that other who's sufficiently significant, “the odds are good but the goods are odd”. Not to worry; as Harmon opines: “Other than marrying the right person, the only thing that's truly essential is a great cake”. Meanwhile, this oft-hilarious bittersweet slice of life will do just fine. Enjoy!


ArtsEmerson's "Ouroboros": A Trilogy of Culinary Tails

"Madame White Snake"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The ouroboros, an ancient icon depicting a serpent eating its own tail, symbolic of eternal renewal, is now also a symbol of three grand operas, created and written by Cerise Lim Jacobs, consisting of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake, along with two World Premieres, Naga and Gilgamesh, presented by ArtsEmerson as The Ouroboros Trilogy. The endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, with each opera a fully realized production, features libretti by Jacobs, each set to music by one of three composers. Naga (composed by Scott Wheeler) is the story of a young Monk who renounces everything to find nirvana, but is tempted to abandon the path when he encounters Madame White Snake (composed by Zhou Long), which is the story of a demon who longs to become human in order to experience love, while Gilgamesh (composed by Paola Prestini) finds the demigod son of Madame White Snake realizing his true power while being pushed into a position where he must choose between his family and happiness. The operas will be performed on separate nights as well as in full day marathon events; each is less than two hours in length, performed in English with surtitles. Any serious opera buff would do well to secure tickets quickly,as these will be performed only twice more, all of them with Director and Production Designer Michael Counts at the helm.

Naga (referring to a semi-divine snake), as noted above, is the story of a young monk (baritone Matthew Worth) who has denied himself everything. The White Snake encounters him saying goodbye to his wife (mezzo Sandra Piques Eddy). Moved by the couple’s grief, she longs to experience such powerful emotion herself. The monk subsequently comes upon Xiao Qing (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), the Green Snake, who tempts him three times. The monk resists the first two attacks, but his resistance weakens during the third. The White Snake (soprano Stacey Tappan) stops him from turning back and leads him to a renowned healer, the Master (bass David Salsbery Fry), who takes him in as an apprentice. When the healing master discovers the White Snake, he recognizes her magic as the answer to his prayers for the salvation of the world. He believes that whoever eats of her will be healed. The monk, however, feels she should be free so the universe will appreciate her beauty and uniqueness. The Master orders him to hold the White Snake so he can sacrifice her. In the ensuing struggle, the monk releases the snake and the master is stabbed. The singing was uniformly excellent, including an adult choir and a children's chorus. The challenging score by Wheeler, utilizing electric guitar and a soprano sax as well as more ancient instruments, was lovely and wonderfully conducted by Carolyn Kuan.

Madame White Snake (soprano Susannah Biller) is the story of a white snake demon who longs to become human to experience love. She transforms herself into human form as a woman, encountering Xu Xian (tenor Peter Tantsits), a mortal man, and marries him. Afraid to disclose her true identity, she meets Abbot Fahai of the Golden Mountain Monastery (bass Dong-Jian Gong) who recognizes her for who she is. He sows the seeds of doubt in Xu Xian’s mind and gives him a truth potion which re-transforms Madame White back into a snake. The Abbot leads Xu Xian away but White Snake raises the waters to drown the Abbot. A great flood covers the world as she is defeated by the Abbot after giving birth to a son, rescued by the Green Snake (Michael Maniaci, one of the world's rare male sopranos). This too was sung expertly by the entire cast including two choruses, ably conducted by Lan Shui, and beautifully composed by the Pulitzer-winning Long.

Gilgamesh, or Ming (baritone Christopher Burchett), the semi-divine son of Madame White Snake (soprano Hila Plitmann), was abandoned during his mother’s epic battle with the Abbot (bass Andrew Nolen). He encounters her for the first time in her human form as she is imprisoned in the Golden Mountain Monastery. She reveals to him his birthright, the power to control the waters, begging him to use his power to save her. Ming returns home to find that his wife Ku (soprano Heather Buck) has just given birth to a white, iridescent baby girl who resembles her grandmother. Giving the baby to the green snake (Costanzo again), who had saved him when his mother was defeated, he returns to the Monastery. A robe and empty alms bowl are all that are left. Ming dons the robe, takes the alms bowl, and departs. Once again, the singers (and two more choruses) were all in great form, especially Costanzo in his difficult register. Conducted by Julian Wachner, Prestini's music was another wondrous take on this mythological world.

Just as impressive as the audio elements were the visuals created for all three operas: the striking Costume Design by Zane Pihlstrom, the dramatic Lighting Design by Yi Zhao and the absolutely stunning Video and Projections Design by S. Katy Tucker. Tucker's work was especially mesmerizing.

The crowning moment was a (well deserved) standing ovation for Jacobs, whose obvious glowing elation with the reception of this audience was unforgettable. After decades of work on her trilogy, the palpable warmth from the opera-lovers present seemed to overwhelm her, as well it might. It was a magnificent night for opera. And, if you're in the mood for even more of an opera fix, note that Odyssey Opera Boston is producing, for one night, 9/16 only, Dvorak's Dimitrij, and Boston Lyric Opera begins its season at the end of this month with several performances of Carmen. Suddenly, Boston is awash with operatic opportunities, and Ouroboros truly shouldn't be missed.


New Rep's "Regular Singing": Last Gathering of the Apple Corps

Paul Melendy, Laura Latreille, Joel Colodner, Karen MacDonald, Sarah Newhouse
& Bill Mootos
 in "Regular Singing"

Playwright Richard Nelson took on the daunting task in 2010 of creating a quartet of plays about a single family confronting national events as they impact one another. The cycle began on the eve of the midterm elections that year, with That Hopey Changey Thing, continuing in 2011 on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in Sweet and Sad, and again on election day 2012 in Sorry. This fourth and final installment, Regular Singing, takes the family to 2013 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. On the surface, it's a linear relating of the middle class liberal Apple Family in Rhinebeck, New York (where the playwright has lived since the eighties). The author obviously has more expansive intentions, as he has referred to the family as “worried liberals of a certain generation...(what they) would be talking about at a particular point in time...through simple human talk”. This final play in the cycle is now being presented by New Rep Theatre, in association with Stoneham Theatre (which has been involved with local productions of the other plays). It fits in nicely with New Rep's seasonal theme of “What's Past Is Prologue”, as it alludes to a history of American manners and private life. Nelson has also stated: “I hope these plays are about the need to talk, the need to listen, the need for theater, the need to be in the same room together and the need to know, in small and even in some bigger ways, that we are not alone”. Thus each of the Apple Family Plays occurs around a meal. There is continuity afoot, as this production is helmed by Stoneham Theatre's Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes, with, remarkably, the exact same cast and design team for all four locally presented plays; even the sets and props have “traveled between stages”. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that the cast is still intact, but more about that later.

As subtitled Scenes from Life in the Country, the works have been compared to Checkov's Uncle Vanya, and, in this final piece there's also an allusion to The Cherry Orchard. The influence of Chekhov can easily be seen in its cast of characters and their reactions to their very ordinary lives. The action of this work (and the three former plays as well) takes place in the home of the eldest sibling of four, Barbara (Karen MacDonald), a high school English teacher, responsible for Uncle Benjamin (Joel Colodner), a retired actor now suffering from memory loss after a heart attack and coma, and living in an assisted living facility an hour from Rhinebeck. Richard (Bill Mootos), a lawyer in the Governor's office in Albany, pays his first visit home in some time, to share the impending death of the (unseen upstairs) Adam, ex-husband of Marian, (Sarah Newhouse), a grammar school teacher. The remaining couple consists of the youngest sibling Jane (Laura Latreille), an aspiring writer, and Tim Andrews (Paul Melendy), an actor recently transplanted from New York City. They share what JFK's death means to one another, as well as their relationships with Adam, and his terminal lung disease brought on, in a former play, by his taking up smoking again after the suicide of his twenty-two-year-old daughter Evan. As the title implies, there is a healthy dose of singing of psalms in preparation for their tribute to Adam, at his request, upon his death.

There is a great deal of “normal” conversation, which is a problem in the first third of the play as the everyday dialogue takes a while to morph into more universal issues. There are some later sections that are more telling, with language such as “somewhere halfway in between”,speech acts”, “sometimes better not to know” and “every writer is Scheherazade, telling stories to keep from dying”. This cast of six manages to bridge the gap between the mundane to the more profound fairly seamlessly, and their comfort with one another is self-evident. This family tree, at an intermission-less two hours, could use some pruning, but there's no denying its relevance, though Nelson has stated he initially expected the play cycle to be disposable. Unfortunately, this has proven to be partially true already, as real life events come so quickly and unceasingly that some of the dialogue is already dated. A good deal, however, remains pertinent enough for us to engage with this insular tribe, especially as this tightly knit ensemble gathers for the last time on the stage. Their connection, in the play as well as undoubtedly offstage, gives this production an honesty and credibility that's a rare theatrical treat.

The hardy Scenic Design by Crystal Tiala, timely Costume Design by Gail Buckley, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, and Sound Design by David Wilson are all fine, though the ending of this production needs a slight technical tweaking (an easy fix). The penultimate line, delivered by Tom, is, “That's it, that's the end”, followed by a swift increase of light as Barbara and then the others face the audience. The effect was to confuse members of the audience who thought the play was over and started to applaud, partially drowning out the real ending of the work.

This was a shame, for the actual final words, belong to Barbara and must be heard: “And so we live. Sometimes we come together. Something brings us together. And some days we are alone. But it's those days together, that remind us, why we live. Or maybe it is - how. How – we live...”


Lyric Stage's "Company": Singular Sensation

John Ambrosino and the Cast of "Company"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

It's hard to believe that it has been almost a half century since the musical Company burst upon the theater scene, and it would be difficult to overstate the significance, historical importance and indelible impact of this first “concept musical”. With Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and Book by George Furth, it tried out in Boston in 1970, going on to Broadway to mixed responses, though it earned fourteen Tony Award nominations and won six of them, including Best Musical. It was subsequently revived and revised in 1995 and 2006. It covers a wide range of mid-life crises from growing up to aging, loving and hating, adoration and ridicule, fear of commitment and fear of not committing, and basic survival. It was heralded by some as a true breakthrough from typical “book musicals”, while others criticized it for a coldness, brittleness and cynicism that had a bunch of stereotypical New Yorkers revolving around a central cypher. Despite its initial controversial reception, it has endured, steadily gaining in acceptance and respect by those who recognize that at its core it's not about cynicism but irony.

Perhaps the most ironic facet of the work is that, nearly five decades later, it seems even more relevant today, as relationships have become much more complex. While the basic frame of the musical remains the same, it has taken on remarkable resonance. The core of the work is still the character of Robert (John Ambrosino), who has non-related, non-chronological encounters with five couples who are friends of his (but not, seemingly, of one another): dieter Sara (Kerri Wilson) and her supposedly on-the-wagon husband Harry (Davron S. Monroe); the older and more cynical Joanne (Leigh Barrett) and her latest long-suffering hubby, Larry (Will McGarrahan); Susan (Elise Arsenault) and Peter (Matthew Zahnzinger), going through an amicable divorce; the ultra-square Jenny (Teresa Winner Blume) and her controlling husband David (Todd Yard); and Amy (Erica Spyres), approaching and avoiding marriage to Paul (Tyler Simahk). Also orbiting are three of Robert's girlfriends: Marta (Carla Martinez), hipster lover of NYC, Kathy (Maria LaRossa), small town girl, and April (Adrianne Hick), a flight attendant. As Sondheim himself has described it, it's about “a man with no emotional commitments (who) reassesses his life on his thirty-fifth birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and his girlfriends; that is the entire plot”. He further notes that it “does have a story, the story of what happens inside Robert; it just doesn't have a chronological linear plot”.

What it does have are several stand-out showstoppers that excite and enthrall even as they elicit provocative thought. The most brilliant of these is the paean to the “Ladies Who Lunch” and their basically empty busy lives, never performed more effectively than here by Barrett; no one in memory has sung it more beautifully while simultaneously delivering its vodka-stinging barbs with such stunning acting chops. Then there's the hilarious (and impossibly tongue-twisting) “Getting Married Today” enacted by another local treasure, Spyres, with (unusual for this role) beautiful vocal support by Blume. There are also two terrific dance numbers, “Tick-Tock” by LaRossa, and almost the entire company in the rousing (and ringing) “Side by Side by Side”, with its audio-visual expression of Robert's aloneness. The ensemble is filled with great turns by some very familiar faces (such as those consummate professionals, McGarrahan and Zahnzinger) and some relatively new ones. But any Company rises or falls on the shoulders of its central character, and in this production, Ambrosino (very fondly remembered for his Lyric Stage roles in Avenue Q, Into the Woods, and especially On the Town) shows how much he has matured as a performer. As the role requires, his is a tightly wound bachelor who finally blossoms in the finale, Being Alive. It's a courageous choice to portray the show's central character as essentially reactive, making his eventual outburst a singular sensation.

The creative team is all-around what one would expect from this company. Superbly Directed by Spiro Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director of the company, with expert Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta and Choreography by Rachel Bertone, it boasts evocative Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, apt Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, effective Lighting Design by Frank Meissner, Jr. and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

All this said, it's the team of Sondheim and Furth who are always the stars of Company, from the wit of Sondheim's lyrical internal rhythms (“perhaps collapse in the apse”) and thoughtful asides ('being the kid as well as the sitter”) to Furth's city-wise observations (“he's a New Yorker; nothing interests him”). At the most crucial point toward the end of the show, when Joanne offers to take care of him, Robert asks somewhat rhetorically, “but who will I take care of?”. Ah, irony.