Lyric Stage's "Virginia Woolf's Orlando": Not Mickey Mouse

Rory Lambert-Wright, Caroline Lawton & Jeff Marcus in "Orlando"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In the history of theater, there has long been a tradition of choral storytelling, much of it very fondly remembered (such as Paul Sills' 1970 Story Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic 1980 The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby). It often appeared as an outgrowth of improv theater, with a sense of controlled spontaneity and exhuberance. In this same vein has arrived Virginia Woolf's Orlando, now being performed by Lyric Stage (in collaboration with Suffolk University's Theatre Department). An adaptation by Sarah Ruhl from Woolf's long love letter to Vita-Sackville-West, it consists of a half dozen episodic ventures (or adventures) involving half a dozen actors through half a dozen centuries (that's a lot of half-dozens) beginning with the Elizabethan era and ending in the “present moment”. In ninety gender-bending minutes (including an intermission), our hero/heroine Orlando (Caroline Lawton) encounters members of a five person acting chorus (here played by Elise Arsenault. Michael Hisamoto, Rory Lambert-Wright, Jeff Marcus and Halyey Spivey. The journey, reminiscent of that of another youth (in Voltaire's Candide) is Directed by A. Nora Long, the company's Assistant Artistic Director, with versatile Scenic Design by Richard Wadsworth Chambers, impressive Costume Design by Jessica Pribble and complex Lighting Design by Steven McIntosh. Here is a bit of a triptik for theatergoers (with what one hopes are not too many spoilers) to aid in one's appreciation of this take on Orlando's journey, which as noted above, despite its title, does not remotely feature a voyage to the land of the Mouse.

Orlando, a sixteen year old boy when first introduced by the chorus, longs to be famous, so he sets about writing a great poem, “The Oak Tree”. Queen Elizabeth, quite taken with him, sets him up at court with titles, land and her heart until she catches him with another and falls ill. The Great Frost occurs, trapping some Russian ships in ice, which is how Orlando meets and falls in love with the Russian Princess Sasha. Jealous at catching Sasha in bed with another, he first rages but then decides to run away with her, but the Great Thaw occurs, freeing the Russian ships which depart with Sasha. Orlando returns to his poetry, but the Romanian Archduchess attempts to seduce him, so he asks to be sent to Constantinople, where he beds the gypsy Rosina Pepita, eventually awakening as a woman. She returns to England to work on her poem,where the Archduchess exposes herself to Orlando as a man and tries again to seduce Orlando to no avail. A century later Orlando, finding herself surrounded by nothing but married couples, trips and breaks her ankle. A man on horseback arrives and they are shortly engaged and subsequently married. Finally, a century still later (the twentieth, if you've been keeping score), Orlando feels a bit like a duck out of water amidst all the technology that surrounds her, and decides after a visit from an old friend to return to writing her great work, The Oak Tree, as a clock strikes midnight.

Michael Hisamoto, Jeff Marcus, Caroline Lawton, Rory Lambert-Wright & Hayley Spivey
in "Orlando"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As Director Long puts it, Woolf “relished the idea that the mind of the artist is androgynous”, so she most likely would have enjoyed the wordplay and transtheatrical hijinks. Whether an audience member concurs might well depend on how one appreciates the literary short story form versus a more coherent and sustained storytelling work, or a novella as opposed to a more in-depth novel. There is much to be learned and loved in all of these possible choices.

But, unlike the previous plays noted above, Ruhl's take is by definition episodic, which leads to a lot of repetitious themes. The cast tries nobly to keep the narrative threads reasonably intact, but the text divides rather then conquers. There were also some pacing issues, which may have been due to one cast member's being indisposed (and, with remarkable poise on the part of the other actors, seamlessly dropped from the last scene). There are some cogent points made by the adapting playwright (equating being dead and a woman, in the context of women's lack of power or influence over the ages, or how one can be struck and disoriented, then altered, by exposure to the arts). But one wishes she had provided a more focused romp, such as the way in which Story Theatre utilized Grimm fairy tales and Aesop's fables with a complete story in each of its segments, or the opposite approach with Nicholas Nickleby's continuing narrative with more time to devote to development of a few supporting characters. In this Orlando, one never has a sense of who the various roles are, with comings and goings so fleeting that they leave little impact. It's as though one were at a banquet sampling appetizers without feeling sufficiently satisfied in the end; it may be that Ruhl is slightly fearful of overdoing the message she wishes to convey.

What's indisputable about this piece is that she certainly isn't afraid of Virginia Woolf.


Fathom Events' Met Opera "La Boheme": Still Paying the Rent

Susanna Phillips (center) & Cast of "La Boheme"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

La Boheme, composed by Giacamo Puccini, is one of opera's most popular and best-known stories that has withstood the test of time in many varied productions (and even survived, if just barely, its adaptation as the rock-like musical Rent). Given its familiarity to most opera fans, a brief synopsis along with identification of the singers involved in this performance should suffice.

In a Parisian garret in the 1840's, writer Rodolpho (tenor Michael Fabiano) and his roommates the artist Marcello (baritone Lucas Meachem), the philosopher Coline (bass Matthew Rose), and the musician Schaunard (baritone Alexey Lavrov) are reduced to burning Rodolpho's work to keep warm while they share a meager supper. Their landlord Benoit (bass Paul Plishka) arrives looking for his rent payment, but they get him drunk and kick him out. All but Rodolfo (who has some writing to finish) head for the nearby Cafe Momus to celebrate Christmas Eve. Soon, there is a weak knock on the door and Mimi (soprano Sonya Yoncheva) arrives with her candle that has blown out. The same happens to Rodolfo and, in their search for illumination, they fall in love (of course, this is an opera after all) and head to join the others at the cafe. There they all enjoy the many distractions, such as the toy vendor Parpignol (tenor Gregory Warren) and the singing by Marcello's former girlfriend Musetta (Susanna Phillips) who arrives on the arm of the rich Alcindoro (Plishka again) and whom she sends off to buy her shoes. Marcello and Musetta fall into one another's arms and join the crowd as they march off after some soldiers, led by the Sergeant (bass Jason Hendrix), leaving the bill behind for Alcindoro.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo in "La Boheme"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Months later, with snow falling, at the Barriere d'Enter, or tollgate, manned by the Customs Officer (bass Joseph Turi), Mimi searches for the home where Marcello and Musetta have moved. She speaks of Rodopho's jealousy and hides when he arrives, complaining of her flirting. He reveals his real reason for their difficulties is that the poverty he can offer is not good for the ailing Mimi, who rushes out to bid him goodbye. They reconcile and agree to spend their days together until the arrival of spring. But months later in the garret, it's clear they have again separated, as have Marcello and Musetta, who bemoan their loneliness. Musetta then arrives with a weakened Mimi, arranging for her jewelry to be pawned, and Coline's overcoat as well, for medicine for Mimi. Rodolfo and Mimi sing of much happier days but she begins to cough violently. As all rally around her, she succumbs, and Rodolfo, the last to realize she is gone, collapses in despair.

Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi in "La Boheme"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Just your usual operatic ending (especially for a Puccini heroine), redeemed by some of Puccini's most gloriously romantic music, and presented in this Production (and Set Design) by Franco Zeffirelli, with arguably the most beloved production of the Met's older offerings. In addition, the Costume Design is by Peter J. Hall, with Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, Stage Direction by Gregory Keller and, as usual, choral direction by estimable Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The HD Broadcast was presented under Director Matthew Diamond, with Kelli O'Hara as the HD Host (who will be taking on the role of Despina in Cosi fan Tutte in a few weeks).

This was a beautifully sung performance from all six of the principals, plus the added bonus of real chemistry between Fabiano and Yoncheva. With singing, acting and orchestral precision of this caliber, the Met need never be concerned about paying the rent.

The HD Broadcast will have an encore on Wednesday February 28th at a theater near you.


Fathom Events' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof": Mellow Drama?

National Theatre Live's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
(photo: Johan Persson))

Continuing with its National Theatre Live HD Broadcast series, Fathom Events will be presenting the acclaimed Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for a single evening this coming week. The 1955 work by playwright Tennessee Williams, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize for drama, was controversial at the time it was first produced, as it dealt with sexual issues including marital dysfunction and a possible repressed homoerotic relationship. In the wrong hands this might have been excruciatingly dated, but reviews of this production were virtually unanimous in praise of director Benedict Andrews (who was also acclaimed for his previous direction of another Williams work, A Streetcar Named Desire) as well as his cast.

Jack O'Connell & Sienna Miller in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
(photo: Johan Persson)

Sienna Miller plays Maggie the Cat, married to the ex-jock Brick, played by Jack O'Connell, who is on crutches as a result of a sports-related injury. The first act is reportedly a real tour de force for Miller as she berates her husband for never standing up to his father, Big Daddy, (superbly played by Colm Meaney) as well as hinting that Brick's long friendship with his dead best buddy Skipper might have been more than what it first seemed. It's the sixty-fifth birthday of the small clan's patriarch, and they have all gathered to celebrate it, with eyes centered on his considerable fortune.

Colm Meaney & Jack O'Connell in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
(photo: Johan Persson)

The second act is reportedly a wonderful diatribe between father and son as Big Daddy, described in the New York Times review as the “blunt philosopher in residence”, has a secret to share with his disappointing progeny. Their ontological discussion is the crux of the play, as Brick states that his only out is either liquor or death, and his father states that “the human animal is a beast that dies, but the fact that he's dying don't give him pity for others”. It remains today a melodrama with more than a grain of truth, and those involved in the family's dysfunction as a whole demonstrate the exaggerated truth of people's reactions when their survival is threatened.

This production, in addition to the acting and direction, boasts praised technical elements, including its dramatic copper and gold Lighting Design by Jon Clark and Set Design by Magda Willi, and is said to be a visually exciting version of a true masterpiece. As noted, it's a “one-off”, as they say in the mother country, and from all accounts is one performance not to be missed.



Fathom Events' Met "Elixir": Happy Valentine's Day

The Cast of "Elixir of Love"
(photo: Met Opera)

Donizetti's beloved bel canto opera L'Elisir d'Amore or Elixir of Love would seem at first to be the perfectly logical choice for the Metropolitan Opera to present as its current HD Broadcast in anticipation of Valentine's Day. And so it was, in this finely tuned production.

In 1836 in an Italian village, the young Nemorino (tenor Matthew Polenzani), in love with the beautiful farm owner Adina (soprano Pretty Yende), is upset with the arrival of Sergeant Belcore (baritone Davide Luciano) who firt flirts with Adina and then proposes to her. The subsequent arrival of Dulcamara (bass Ildebrando D'Arcangelo), a wandering peddler of “medicines”, incites Nemorino into buying a “cure all” love potion (in truth, a cheap bottle of Bordeaux). Drinking it down, he becomes so certain of success with his wooing of Adina that he feigns indifference to her. Hurt and surprised, she agrees to marry Belcore at once.

Matthew Polenzani in "Elixir of Love"
(photo: Met Opera)

At the feast for the wedding, Adina demands that Nemorino be present for her signing of the marriage contract. Meanwhile Nemorino, feeling he needs another dose of the “love potion” (it was apparently a good year) but lacking the funds to buy one, enlists in Belcore's regiment in order to receive a volunteer's bonus. While this transpires, the girls of the village, including Adina's friend Giannetta (Ashley Emerson), learn that Nemorino's rich uncle has died, leaving him his entire fortune. Naturally, they all now seek his favor, which convinces him the potion is working. This helps Adina to realize her true feelings, so she buys Nemorino's contract from the army, confesses her love for him, and marries him on the spot. (Well, after all, we should've known, the tenor almost always gets the girl, almost never the baritone).

This performance was expertly led by Conductor Domingo Hindoyan. The Production, first revealed a few seasons ago, is by Bartlett Sher (a man with an incredibly busy opera and Broadway theater schedule) and Stage Direction by Gina Lapinski. The technical effects included the lovely Set Design by Michael Yeargan, pleasant peasant Costume Design by Catherine Zuber, and effective Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton. The Live in HD Director was Matthew Diamond, with HD Host Susanna Phillips. As always, the Chorus shone under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. On the other hand, the direction of the crowd scenes was a bit chaotic.
But Valentine's Day or not, this was a performance to treasure, mostly thanks to the ardent acting and singing on display, especially from the two leads. Yende is far more than just pretty (notably in her high florid roulades especially in the second act), and Polenzani brought the house down (as Nemorino should) in his justly famous aria, Una furtiva lagrima.
It was a production to share as well, with one's valentine or whomever, and there still remains an opportunity to do just that.
Encore HD Broadcast on Wednesday (Valentine's Day ) Feb.14th at a theater near you.


"Mala" & "Shakespeare in Love": Perils of Cast Typing

No, that's not a typo, but a reference to the fact that a certain theater critic has been out of commission for the past month due to injuries incurred while snow shoveling, leading to a painfully pinched nerve that affected one's typing of a cast list, whether as small a cast as that of Huntington Theater's Mala (a solo effort) or a piece affording employment for what seems like most of the remaining local acting community as in the case of SpeakEasy Stage's Shakespeare in Love. For the record, both were splendid in starkly different ways.  Both were presented on the stages of the Calderwood Pavilion.

George Olesky & Jennifer Ellis in "Shakespeare in Love"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

Shakespeare in Love is based on the film of the same name, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall and superbly directed here by Scott Edmiston. It features local gems George Olesky and the ever-luminous Jennifer Ellis as well as a host of Boston's finest. The entire cast as well as the technical crew deserve mention, though it's just not possible at this point in time.

The cast of Mala, more easily typed, consists of one electrifying performer, Melinda Lopez, presenting her own partly autobiographical work, as directed by David Dower. Hers was a heartfelt tale that she delivered a couple of seasons ago, and remains as fresh as ever. Here the technical effects were also perfectly suited for the show, making for a fully engrossing theatrical experience.
Shakespeare in Love remains at SpeakEasy for a final week, and it's an exhilarating romp that manages to be literate, lusty and lovable. So get thee to the Calderwood. On the other hand, Mala has left us, but fear not if you missed it. PBS had the wisdom to record it for future broadcast.

Melinda Lopez in "Mala"
(photo: Paul Marotta)