"Mrs. Packard": Using It or Losing It?

Olivia D'Ambrosio in and as "Mrs. Packard"
(photo: Mark J. Franklin)

Bridge Repertory Theater has the much deserved reputation of presenting unusual and provocative plays in the four years of their existence, and this remains true with their latest production Mrs. Packard in their new home at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge. The play is based on a relatively unknown but important true story of a woman whose place in feminist history should by all accounts be on a par with the suffragettes who secured the vote for women in this country. Playwright Emily Mann's mission was to celebrate this overlooked heroine and establish her rightful place in that history (or herstory). In this co-production by Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, she has successfully managed just that, even though the result is less drama than polemic. Her 2007 work takes the true tale of Elizabeth Packard (referred to by everyone in the play, including her husband, with her more formal title rather than her first name) who was institutionalized in an insane asylum for the unforgivable crime of questioning her Calvinist preacher husband's beliefs in public. While difficult to believe today, in 1851 the State of Illinois passed a law that enabled a husband to have his spouse “entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband...without the evidence of insanity required in other cases”. The play is set in the State of Illinois from 1861 to 1864, the years of Mrs. Packer's virtual imprisonment.

In the title role, Bridge Rep's Producing Artistic Director Olivia D'Ambrosio creates a stunning character who dominates the play with the extraordinary breadth of her performance, perhaps even beyond the playwright's words. It's easily D'Ambrosio's most memorable work, as she navigates the perilous tightrope between proving her sanity while not relinquishing her own integrity. The task is made difficult, seemingly impossible, by the insidiously corrupt role of Dr. McFarland (superbly portrayed by Producing Artistic Director of Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, Joseph W. Rodriguez) and the unbending rigidity of her husband Theophilus Packer (Steven Barkhimer). In the asylum she finds herself in the company of other women equally sane, and a staff that ranges from brutal, as in the case of Mrs. Bonner (Annabel Capper), to the more humane, as in the case of Mrs. Tenney (Shanae Burch). Only after several years does the opportunity to convince others of her sanity arise, in the person of Asylum Board Member Mr. Blackman (Matthew Zahnzinger), who perceives in her the passion that was incorrectly viewed as insanity, and her using of reason as opposed to losing it. The entire cast of eighteen is uniformly brilliant. It should be noted that Burch in particular creates a very believable character with more humanity than might be expected; the same could be said for Zahnzinger, who provides yet another meticulously crafted role in a varied career. When Mrs. Parker is finally freed, after initially being held as a prisoner in her own home, and finally publicly cleared, she resolves to do all in her power to use her restored freedom to do good for others in similar situations.

And so she did, with her subsequent books that exposed the deplorable conditions in the era's institutions. She continued to be an outspoken champion not just for women's rights in this country but also for reform of those same institutions for the “mentally ill”. This production, ably directed by Emily Ranii, with clever use of the space by Scenic Designer Jon Savage and Lighting Designer E. D. Intemann, as well as appropriate Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, is another memorable collaboration by the estimable Bridge Rep in its relatively brief existence.


New Rep's "Golda's Balcony": Hitting Pay Dirt with Golda Dust?

Bobbie Steinbach in "Golda's Balcony"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Golda's Balcony, a 2003 one-person play by the late William Gibson, first saw the theatrical light of day in an earlier version titled Golda , essentially a vehicle for the actress Anne Bancroft, back in 1977, which played pre-Broadway in Boston (remember those days?). Gibson had previously worked with Bancroft in her Broadway debut, Two for the Seesaw, in 1958, and again in the unforgettable The Miracle Worker in 1959, so hopes were high that this would be yet another successful collaboration, but it was not to be (though it garnered a Tony Award nomination for Bancroft). More than twenty five years later, Gibson decided to dust off the cobwebs and rework his play and presented the rewritten version, a successful effort this time, which would become the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history, now appearing on the stage at New Rep. In its current form, it remains a solo vehicle for an actress, Bobbie Steinbach, as Golda, having last appeared at New Rep as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof.

As the name implies, this is the history (or herstory) of the American schoolteacher (born in Kiev, thus an immigrant to our then-welcoming country) from Wisconsin who became the fourth (and first female) Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. Towards the end of the play, the title is revealed as a reference to the balcony area where visiting VIPS could observe the activity in Israel's secretive Dimona nuclear weapons facility. Therein lies the conundrum: while Meir's life was a fascinating one, bringing her life to the stage is another matter. Gibson himself stated that at the core of his theme was the question: “What happens when idealism becomes power?”, and in this work that query remains unanswered. This production is Directed by Judy Braha, with Scenic Design (a table, chairs, stools and seemingly hundreds of military boots under a multi-level playing area) by JiYoung Han, Costume Design (a single house dress) by Penney Pinette, Lighting Design by John Malinowski, Sound Design by David Wilson, and Projection Design by Seaghan McKay.

With this hundred-minute portrayal, has New Rep truly hit pay dirt? On the plus side, there is the drama of the plight of the children in Cyprus and the dilemma of whether to use nuclear weaponry in a preemptive strike to which there would be a response of worldwide destruction; on the negative side, there is too much didactic verbiage bordering on a polemic. In the end, one's involvement in this work may well depend on how vested one is, especially those who have Jewish ancestry. (It's of interest, though, that the author of this Israel-centric play was raised by his Irish Catholic mother). It's unsettling, in any case, to see in its final scene what almost threatens to be a glorification of war rather than peace. Golda herself is quoted in this regard: “to save a world you create...how many worlds are you entitled to destroy?”. The play, however, ends with the one word and concept it fundamentally fails to promote: shalom.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Idomeneo": Hit or Myth?

Matthew Polenzani in Met Opera's "Idomeneo"
(photo: Met Opera)

Mozart's Idomeneo, with a libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco, is a relative rarity in the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera, but one which continues to grow in popularity with its many ardent fans. It premiered in 1781 in Munich in Italian when the composer was twenty-five years old. The full title was actually Idomeneo, King Of Crete, or Ilia and Idamante. It boasts over a dozen arias in its three acts, which have enhanced its reputation through the ages, even though its plot is not particularly involving, given that it's about mythological characters.

Idomeneo (tenor Matthew Polenzani), King of Crete, returns from the Trojan War to find that Ilia (soprano Nadine Sierra), a Trojan princess in captivity in Crete has fallen in love with his son Idamante (mezzo Alice Coote), who is also loved by Elettra (soprano Elza Van den Heever), princess of Argos. When his fleet is threatened by a storm, Idomeneo vows to make a sacrifice to Neptune of the first person he sees upon his return, who turns out to be his son Idamante. Idomeneo's confidant Arbace (baritone Alan Opie) brings word to Crete that the king has died at sea, but Idomeneo arrives in Crete very much alive. To save Idamante, he orders him to accompany Elettra back to Argos, but another storm appears, along with a sea monster. Idomeneo confesses his guilt, offering himself as a sacrifice. Since his father never told him of his oath, Idamante can't understand his father's actions. Crete has been devastated by the monster, and the High Priest (tenor Noah Baetge) demands to know who is to be sacrificed. Idomeneo names his son, who returns after having killed the monster. He insists that he be sacrificed as his father promised, but the voice of Neptune (bass-baritone Eric Owens) intervenes, with an offer that if Idomeneo were to relinquish the throne to Idamante and Ilia, the gods would be placated. Elettra collapses, in the weirdest mad scene ever on an operatic stage, rather as though she were the Queen of the Night when off her meds (and one could hear musical themes that would find their way into Mozart's later work in The Magic Flute). Idomeneo gives up the throne and unites Idamante and Ilia.

Under James Levine, still conducting at his peak, the performance was exemplary. The entire Production, Set and Costume Design were by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, with Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, with the result being old-fashioned (the same Met production as some thirty-five years ago) and dark. The Live in HD Direction was by Barbara Willis Sweete. The direction was mostly static, in the stand-and-proclaim approach. The singing was top notch, with relative newcomer Sierra a real find in her believable acting and as well as her exquisite singing. Host Eric Owens did double duty, since he also sang, as noted above.

The Met Live in HD broadcasts are winding down for the season, with only two remaining, namely Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin next month and Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier in mid-May. The next season has already been announced, but more about that in future posts.

Fathom Events will present an Encore broadcast on Weds. March 29th at a theater near you.


PPAC's "42nd Street": Those Dancing Feats

The Cast of "42nd Street"
(photo cortesy of 42nd Street National Tour)

We all know the story of 42nd Street, now being presented at PPAC as part of the show's National Tour. Anyone who's seen the original black-and-white film version with Ruby Keeler (and who hasn't?) will find much that is comfortably familiar, especially the basic libretto. It's the story of the ingenue from Allentown, Peggy Sawyer (Clara Cox), who goes on in place of the injured leading lady, diva Dorothy Brock (Kara Gibson Slocum) who breaks a leg (well, OK, so it's an ankle) and the director of the Broadway-bound show Pretty Lady, Julian Marsh (Matthew J. Taylor), who tells Peggy she's going out a youngster but coming back a star, and all that. Also featured in the large cast are characters such as the wisecracking old-timer Maggie Jones (Gerrianne Genga), male ingenue Billy Lawlor (Connor Coughlin), and second banana Annie (Kahlia Davis) as well as a huge ensemble of dancing and singing actors (almost three dozen triple threats). But you could write the plot yourself. No matter, it was never about the threadbare tongue-in-cheek storyline. It remains all about the dancing, most of it in the form of audience-pleasing tap.

The original Broadway production back in 1981 won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and Choreography) and played for more than eight years. The revival twenty years later also won a Tony for Best Revival. It's one of those shows where you can enter the theater humming the score, a pastiche of golden oldies like the title song, plus such standards as “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, and “We're in the Money”, all to the Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin and book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (who also serves as the Director of this production, and was nominated in 2001 for a Tony for Best Direction of a Revival). The songs constitute one of the first of what would come to be called “jukebox musicals”, assembled from several films, some of them shoehorned into the score without any real context. The creative team boasts several established professionals, with fine Set Design originally conceived by Beowulf Boritt, fabulous Costume Design by Roger Kirk (seemingly hundreds of them) and expert Lighting Design by Ken Billington.

All of the performers are fine, with wonderful precision and synchronization, especially in the second act that makes no pretense of any plot to speak of but presents one showstopper after another . It's the kind of all-singing all-dancing ensemble show that easily conforms to the huge venue that is PPAC. The only disappointment was the number “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, usually performed in the sleeping car by all the chorines, but rather anemically set in this version. Coincidentally, this critic got to converse years ago with both Michael Stewart and Ruby Keeler on a transatlantic crossing on the QE2, subsequently sitting right behind Keeler at a performance of this show on Broadway. Both were extremely gracious and eager to share memories of their respective roles in the history of the film and play. They would surely feel the same way towards this production.


SpeakEasy's "Grand Concourse": An Unconventional Nun

Alejandro Simoes, Thomas Derrah, Melinda Lopez & Ally Dawson in "Grand Concourse"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)

Sorry I'm stuck I'm stuck” begins the attempted prayer by unconventional nun Shelley (Melinda Lopez), as she finds she's gotten out of the habit, in the SpeakEasy Stage Company New England premiere of Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck. In a sparse script virtually devoid of punctuation, making for very realistic and natural dialogue, Sister Shelley resorts to timing her conversation with her God by means of a microwave (the only spoiler you'll find here, but one couldn't resist sharing this example of the playwright's bizarre sense of humor) in the industrial soup kitchen in the belly of a Bronx church. Shelley is nothing if not supremely self-aware (not at all atypical in religious life that stresses introspection), thus resulting in a crisis of faith for someone who inexplicably no longer loves her work. She finds herself more comfortable in dealing with the needs of others than dealing with her own pain, later revealed, and is beginning to entertain thoughts of alternate perspectives. The title of the play refers to the literal street (the longest through street in the Bronx) that was long ago planned to equal or at least mimic the Champs Elysees in Paris but has become the locale for the poorest of counties. It also references the concept of a grand coming together of people, but as the play develops, reality intervenes and challenges not only Shelley's inner turmoil but some larger issues as well, from the apparent dichotomy of selfishness vs. service to the difficulty of helping others when one is inwardly broken, to the fundamental question of what it means to forgive.

Shelley is belatedly coming to the realization that she is becoming detached not from feelings but from outcomes as she interacts with security guard Oscar (Alejandro Simoes) and wacky homeless
jokester Frog (Thomas Derrah), described as a “manipulator” by Shelly even before we first meet him. Into this milieu steps Emma (Ally Dawson), a nineteen-year-old volunteer, on her first day, seemingly looking for a sense of purpose, who will become the catalyst for the tumult that follows. Though her first reaction to the soup kitchen regulars is a valid one, that there is a lot of need present, she subsequently becomes the proverbial straw that breaks Shelley's back, as well as a bit of a wake-up call. Though Shelley first remarks that Emma brings a lot of light to their underserved and vulnerable population, as the young woman's flaws become more evident in her depression, inconstancy, and eventual inability to keep commitments, the older woman comes to realize that offering help can be a way of seeking help (or needing to be needed). There are eventual conflicts, personal secrets, and rather unexpected betrayals along Shelley's journey, and a great deal of humanity as well.

What first appeared as a world divided into givers and receivers of help devolves into a realization that there are some poor souls in their flock who suffer not so much from poverty as from mental illness. Some of these damaged individuals, like Emma, see right through to the insecurity that makes all of the other characters susceptible to manipulation. In the end, Shelley finds she must face the stark reality that perhaps there are acts that cannot be forgiven, and that forgiveness is a process, not a default strategy, telling Emma that what she did “was evil...I'll be relieved of obligations to forgive you. I don't want to forgive you, ever, ever, ever”. Shelley is not going to forgive her, which the playwright observes is a liberating moment that would allow her to reach authentic forgiveness. She even washes her hands in a nod to Pontius Pilate, which any nun would recognize, as what Schreck calls an “act of grace”.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, never fear, for Schreck laces her scenes with abundant humor, expertly delivered by her cast of four. Any opportunity to experience the acting skills of Derrah is cause for hurrahs, and to see him on stage (for the first time ever) with the wondrous Lopez is grand concourse indeed. They're ably supported by the excellent Simoes and relative newcomer Dawson, under the extraordinarily keen direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary with meticulous Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (from the countless complex props, to the broken stained glass panes covered with plywood, bilingual posted notices, and more food on hand than in the musical Waitress), detailed Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, fine Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (with a lot of blackouts), and realistic Sound Design by Lee Shuna. All around, this is a superlative piece of storytelling.

As Schreck has stated about the implications of her work, “figuring out one's purpose in today's political climate is more vital than ever.....if you're not political, not addressing the system, not trying to solve those problems on a systemic level, is what you're doing effective?” She also quotes famed Catholic Social Activist Dorothy Day: “the gospel has taken away our right forever to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor...giving is something we just ought to do”. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that the better off one is, the less likely one is to empathize with people. O'Leary notes the play's universal application in its simplicity that mirrors “our individual struggle to find our own capacity for faith in things much bigger than ourselves”. One's faith, especially facing atrocities such as the proposed federal budget, is tested every day. Who could have foreseen that one's most appropriate response would be resistance?

The character of Frog divides humanity into “angels and assholes”, and even Shelley yells to some neighborhood rock throwers: “Jesus loves you, but you're making it hard for Him”. In this wise and witty play, one could hope for a bit more back story for all of the characters, but especially Shelley. Schreck's naturalistic style and cryptic asides hint at more complexity in tantalizing ways, but who are we to complain about a few lacunae? After all, it might seem unseemly and ungrateful in a soup kitchen to leave feeling hungry, for which one should perhaps beg absolution.


Cotuit's "Lines in the Sand": Brave, Strong & Free?

Nick Bucchianeri & Tony Travostino in "Lines in the Sand"
(photo: Jim Dalglish)

In relating an earlier incident in which a fifteen-year-old initially identified only as Boy in the play Lines in the Sand by Jim Dalglish exaggerates his reaction as feeling “brave and strong and free”, we're given a window into what the world of being bullied is like today. The play, being given its world premiere currently at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, is in some ways reminiscent of the playwright's Unsafe which was produced last season. In about ninety minutes of dialogue between two protagonists (the other initially identified only as Man), there persists a feeling of dread, that something wicked this way comes. The title refers to those points beyond which one will proceed no further, or once a decision is made, it is permanently decided and irreversible. The fifteen year old Boy, Billy (Nick Bucchianeri), a high school student who has been the object of stereotyping and anti-gay bullying, meets the thirty-two-old Man, Tom (Tony Travostino), an apparent stranger, by whom he is rescued from a gang of violent seniors. What develops thereafter (and won't be revealed here) is somewhat predictable in that it's perfectly logical, leading to a treatment of larger issues such as redemption and the question of forgiveness.

The two at first agree on little but the realization that the catch phrase “it gets better” is just so much bull that teachers, coaches and counselors say with respect to bullying, especially when directed toward gay youth, or those perceived as gay. They also tend to agree about the “bull...you hear every day. About everyone being special...they're assholes and losers in their own special way”. It's a cynical view, though not based on abstract issues but on how the system works today; as Tom cryptically puts it: “always somebody out there”. The older man advises the boy about his instinctive flinching from threats: “gotta work on that”. His most sage advice is about Billy's reaction, in that “there's this little part of you that believes them. That's what kills you”. His solution is literally a graphic one: “you gotta draw the line...fight for that line with everything you've got...inside those lines, that's you. Who you are”. At times the dialogue is a bit arch, such as when Billy describes his sketching: “what's left blank is just as important as what you can see” or when Tom opines that “forgiveness can be a difficult thing”. Other times things are left unremarked upon, such as Billy's choice for his alternate name: Christian (as a person who suffers passively?). Most of the time, however, the writing is in character and rings true, such as when Billy longs for “a place where you are not afraid to show who you are inside”, for which “all you have to do is close your eyes”.

A two-hander by nature is extremely dependent on the skills of the actors portraying the two roles, and in this case they're exemplary. Both Bucchianeri (belying his age and relative inexperience) and Travostino (so memorable in the former play, Unsafe) are, to use an adjective too often loosely applied, riveting. In such a tiny black box, each threatens to blow the place apart. As Directed by Dalglish and Ian Ryan, they come close to doing just that. The play has been selected to be performed at the fourteenth annual International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival this May, and it's easy to see why. Presented here with Artwork by Jackie Reeves and Original Music by Sam Holmstuck, it's another example of Dalglish's mixing of powerful “in your face” writing and wise restraint, not a mix that an awful lot of playwrights have the wit to threaten as well as to withhold.

The truth is, it does get better, but not because of external forces, but from what grows within. One need only close one's eyes to the banality of bullying and be open to the myriad of more positive forces that are inside oneself and mirrored in accepting that in communities there is “always somebody out there.” Like great theater, It gets braver, and stronger, and freer.


Odyssey Opera's "Earnest": Victoria's Secret

The Cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

What better way to spend St. Patrick's Day than an evening with that ultimate Irish wit, Oscar Wilde? And who knew that his most popular play,The Importance of Being Earnest, had been turned into an opera?   Well, Gil Rose (Artistic and General Director of Odyssey Opera) did, at least after a bit of researching. It turned out that Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (known more for his cinema scoring, for hundreds of Hollywood films including Lassie Come Home and Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray) wrote such an opera (his last of five) in 1961-2, which, while not yet published, was subsequently performed in 1971 in Monte Carlo and in 1975 in New York. It's a three-act opera with eight singers (two tenors, three sopranos, two baritones and a mezzo-soprano) and one non-singing role, supported by two pianos and two percussionists. Intentionally comic quotations abound, with countless witty allusions to prior musical works. Thus it's presented very much tongue in cheek, which must make it awfully difficult to sing, but must be compensated for in that it is performed in English.

The plot follows that of Wilde's original play. Jack Worthing (tenor Neal Ferreira) visits his best friend Algernon Moncrieff (tenor Stefan Barner), who knows him as Ernest in the country, with the intention of proposing to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (soprano Rachele Schmiege). Algernon discovers a cigarette case inscribed “to Uncle Jack from little Cecily”; he learns that Jack is living a double life in the city and that the lady in question is Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew (soprano Jeni Houser), with whom Algernon falls in love. Gwendolen and her mother Lady Bracknell (soprano Claudia Waite) arrive. Lady B. is horrified to discover that Jack was found as a baby left in a handbag at Victoria Station. Meanwhile, Algernon seeks out Reverend Chasuble (baritone James Demler) to be baptized as “Ernest”, since his beloved insists she will only marry someone with that name. All turns on the secret revolving around that handbag, revealed by Cecily's tutor Miss Prism (mezzo-soprano Christina English). And all ends relatively well as Jack declares he has discovered the “vital importance of being Earnest”.

It's a lively piece, even at almost three hours, thanks largely to Conductor and Stage Director Rose, as well as his cast, including the butlers Merriman (baritone Colin Levin) and Lane (J. T. Turner, in a non-singing role). All of the principals are perfectly cast, and, if there's a real standout, it would have to be Waite's Lady B. (as in Battleax?), which is true of virtually every performance of this Wilde work. All of the costumes (designed by Brooke Stanton) are apt, with those of Lady B. amounting to profound social commentary (including one that seems to harbor half of the fauna of Sherwood Forest). The Set Design by local treasure Janie E. Howland is brilliant as usual, as is the Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom. And the playing by pianists Linda Osborn and Esther Ning Yau and percussionists Robert Schulz and Nicholas Tolle also made the performance sing.

But the most fun of the evening was identifying (or attempting to) those hilarious musical references from so many familiar sources. They included Mendelssohn's Wedding March, Dies Irae, Hail Hail to Poesy, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Claire de Lune, Tosca, Don Giovanni, II Trovatore, the mad scene from Lucia, and the Marseillaise, and that's just a partial sampling. Especially funny were the interpolation of Rossini's Una voce poco fa and the gossipy Flight of the Bumblebee. These were not arbitrary inclusions in the manner of current jukebox musicals, but were effortlessly and seamlessly utilized, with the most memorable being that of Lady B.'s entrances to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. This must all be seen and heard to be fully appreciated, to discover Victoria's secret.


Huntington's "Top Dog/Underdog": Everybody Has a Laughin' Place

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson & Matthew J. Harris in "Top Dog/Underdog"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Watch me close. Watch me close now”.

So begins the dialogue between two protagonists in the current Huntington Theatre Company production of Top Dog/Underdog, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3) . It takes place, “here” and “now” in the starkly furnished room of two young African-American men who are brothers, best friends and bitter rivals. Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), in his late 30's, is a former three-card monte hustler who now works as a Lincoln impersonator (in white face) in an arcade shooting gallery where people pay to shoot at him with plastic guns. Booth (Matthew J. Harris), in his early 30's, unemployed for quite some time, is a shoplifter who wants his brother to get back in the game and teach him the ropes. Both were twice abandoned in their youth, by both their father and their mother. “Link” seeks advice from Booth in honing his acting skills as a dying Lincoln, while Booth seeks to learn how better to execute the card game scam. Their efforts to attain their respective goals quickly devolves into what is described in the program notes as a “darkly comic fable of brotherly love and sibling rivalry...about family wounds and healing bonds”. In the course of their banter, we learn about Booth's obsession with his girl friend Grace (whom we never see) and perhaps sexual allusions to shooting blanks. Parks is particularly adept at such portrayals.

This two-hander, in its depiction of how each brother aspires to improve his skills, affords an opportunity to witness both the creation of a performance and the crucial stakes of enhancing one's success. Parks has stated that “there is a lot of watching...what theater is about” and that she likes larger than life characters, setting up a relationship between audience and performer, wonderfully enhanced by Director Billy Porter (Kinky Boots, The Colored Museum). Consider the words of “Link”: “Fake beard. Top hat. Don't make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that” and “Cards ain't luck. Cards is work. Cards is skill.” And those of his brother Booth: “You're only yourself when no one's watching!”. The title of the play refers to the psychological term for the dominant side and the submissive side, and in this work they switch constantly, each continually trying to be the dominant person in the room. George C. Wolfe, who directed the play's New York premiere, references a “point in the play where the two brothers stop being brothers and turn into male animals. That's when deadly, awful things can happen”. And Parks' world is one of “curious contradictions”. Porter references the institutionalized racism that has quietly raged in this country for years, given the fundamental psychology of slavery as the breakdown of family, slaves ripped from their families, separated from their community. They are “constantly trying to come back together...we succeed a lot, but sometimes we don't. This play speaks to when we don't...stuck playing someone else's game”. Porter has exquisitely directed (or more to the point, choreographed) his two exemplary actors with their every gesture, every inflection, every nuance in harmony like a concert or ballet. They together produce an emotional wallop.

The creative team is at the level one expects from this company. The Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg are outstanding, providing a touch of magical realism. The Scenic Design and Costume Design, both by Clint Ramos, are truly extraordinary. Ramos' set, described by Porter as a room floating in the middle of the world, resembles nothing so much as a perch above a giant briar patch, which, if intentional, would be an ironic nod to the stereotypical Uncle Remus stories of Br'er Rabbit and his “laughin' place”. And there is much black humor (no pun intended) even within these crumbling walls. The details are wonderful, from the tin ceiling to the torn wallpaper and disrupted crown molding that are seemingly left over from a converted hotel ballroom. It creates a great playing space for the two brothers to interact, and Harris and Henderson make the most of it. Harris has by far the showier role and is amazingly fluid in his movement and dialogue, but Henderson in his own quietly storming way is a perfect match for him. The trio of Porter, Harris and Henderson are what unforgettable theater is at its best. Porter's work is astonishingly powerful, the finest piece of directing in decades of one's theatergoing. Yes, he's that good.

The play has one drawback: the predictability of its conclusion; but this should be viewed as a dramatic inevitability. Meanwhile, Parks is hard at work with more universal themes. She has always maintained that we have an important relationship with the past, and she continues to do so here. She sees life (especially for African-American males in this country) as a reaction to who the world thinks you're going to be, and how you struggle with that.  She also reflects on what it means to be a family, and, extrapolating to the family of man, how we are connected with somebody else. With specific reference to this work, she has bluntly stated that “a black play ain't playing your game. It might look like it's playing your game, but if it looks that way to you, then that means you been played, honey”. Porter echoes the thought:”If the three-card monte dealer doesn't want you to win, you do not win. If you win, it's only because he lets you”. More to the point, Parks has Lincoln declare to Booth:”you had the card but you didn't have the heart”. Parks has been acclaimed for her almost musical writing, re-imagining the past, filling the “Great Hole of History” as an archeologist of words. With a subtle sense of improvised jazz-like repetition and revision (what she calls “Rep and Rev”), she allows for the presence of metaphor, pulling us in with what she also refers to as “drama of accumulation”, sometimes reminding one of the films of Bunuel. One awaits more works from this keenly observant, still youthful writer; this is especially true given the recent damage done on the national level to what some of us had naively beheld as a post-racial era, when we elected and re-elected a president of color, only to see him be succeeded by a colorful performer with more dangerous racist tricks than card games up his sleeves. We need a playwright like Parks now more than ever; as she herself put it (in the aforementioned Father Comes Home from the Wars at ART in Cambridge two seasons ago), “keep your treasure close”.

Watch her close. Watch her close now.


BLO's "Rake's Progress": From Bedchamber to Brothel to Bedlam; No, Wait!

Jane Eaglen & Ben Bliss in "The Rake's Progress"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It's rare in the operatic world to experience all of the creative stars (and not just those seen on stage) coming together in perfect harmony (and not just the musical kind) to produce a work that succeeds on every level to the extent that the Boston Lyric Opera does with their current production of The Rake's Progress. Composed by Igor Stravinsky with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, this version is performed in English with English surtitles under Stage Director Allegra Libonati. Based loosely on paintings and engravings by Hogarth, it's the familiar tale of what risks one takes in bargaining with the Devil. First performed in Venice in 1951, it was given its American premiere by the Metropolitan Opera in 1953. One could fill volumes with information regarding its reception, history, and significance in the canon, but that's already been done. What hasn't been done, at least in our city and in our time, is the uncanny achievement of such a thoroughly transporting and delightfully bawdy time; not since the Marx Brothers has there been such an ingeniously clever night at the opera.

Unlike many other relatively lengthy operas, this work, while it runs almost three hours, lends itself to a somewhat succinct synopsis. In their pastoral countryside, Tom Rakewell (tenor Ben Bliss) and Anne Trulove (soprano Anya Matanovic) celebrate their mutual love, and the job offered him by her father Trulove (baritone David Cushing), though Tom wants a quicker and easier path to fortune. Tom's friend Nick Shadow (bass Kevin Burdette) arrives with news that Tom has inherited a fortune from an uncle unknown to him. Suggesting he serve Tom for a year and a day, Shadow takes him to London where he introduces him to the brothel run by “Mother Goose” (soprano Jane Eaglen). In his new house, Tom swiftly becomes bored, leading Shadow to suggest he meet the bearded lady, Baba the Turk (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson). Anne arrives to find that he and Baba have been married. Bored again, Tom is told by Shadow about a machine that can turn stone into bread. When this business fails, after Anne arrives to find Tom's house under bankruptcy auction by the maniac auctioneer Sellem (tenor Jon Jurgens in drag), Tom is brought by Shadow to a cemetery, a year and a day after their agreement, disclosing that Tom must pay with his soul to Shadow. Shadow, to no one's surprise, turns out to be the Devil, who relents, offering Tom escape via a card game. Tom wins, but Shadow curses him with a life of madness. Anne arrives again (this woman does a lot of arriving) and, hearing her voice, Tom regains his love for her as Shadow sinks into the ground. Tom has survived, but at a price. He is sent to Bedlam under the supervision of the Keeper of the Madhouse (bass Simon Dyer). Anne arrives yet again to find there is little she can do for him. She is persuaded by her father to abandon Tom to his fate, and he dies. In an epilogue/curtain call, all the characters return to deliver the moral of this tale of progress from bed chamber to brothel to Bedlam. Something about idle hands and all that.

It should be noted that in this production, the largely mute role of Stravinsky himself is played by ballet dancer Yury Yanowsky, who also serves as Movement Director. His is an almost constant presence on the stage, frequently (but never intrusively) nudging the story along. He gets to deliver but one line: “No, wait!” (with permission from the Stravinsky estate). It's a nice touch in a production full of them, starting with the lead singers. Bliss is aptly named, as his singing is ubiquitously blissful (he's on stage for virtually the entire piece). He's matched by a lovely-voiced Matanovic, who also has a lot to deliver and does so beautifully. Burdette is charmingly insidious, Cushing is the perfect paterfamilias in acting and singing, and Eaglen and Johnson are each given scene-stealing turns. The rest of the cast, and the very busy BLO Chorus (one counted at least four costume changes they all managed to accomplish without missing a beat), are superb. (Down to the madhouse inmates' attire, each referencing a different Stravinsky work).

On the creative end, the production was meticulously Conducted by David Angus, with awe-inspiring Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, inventive Costume Design by John Conklin and Neil Fortin, expert Lighting Design by Mark Stanley, and a clever tongue-in-cheek use of Magic Designer Christopher Rose, with the BLO Chorus led by Chorus Master Michelle Alexander.

Libonati has stated elsewhere that the work has “morality play trappings, (but with) humans going through incredibly complex emotions”. Stravinsky was at the summit of his neoclassical phase, shortly thereafter turning to his unique adaptation of the twelve-tone technique for the rest of his career. As Tom puts it at one point: “Vary the song, O London, change!/Disband your notes and let them range”. It's one of Stravinsky's most accessible works, though some find it filled with “wrong notes”. There are no wrong notes in this production, however. It may be some time before we get to enjoy such consummate expertise again.

No, wait!

Next up: BLO's final production of the season: "The Marriage of Figaro" April 28, 30; May 3, 5 & 7.
Also due soon: Odyssey Opera Boston presents "The Importance of Being Earnest" Mar. 17 & 18.
And later: "Gay Shorts", seven short plays by local playwright George Smart, Mar. 30, 31 & April 1.