Odyssey Opera's "Reine de Saba": Just Desserts?

Kara Shay Thomson as "Reine de Saba"
photo: Keira Cronin

Make mention of Reine de Saba to many people and they will no doubt have visions of sponge cake with chocolate and almonds (made famous by Julia Child) swirling in their heads. But it's also the name of a grand opera in five acts written in 1862 by Charles Gounod. In this, the the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, it was presented in concert form in Jordan Hall by Odyssey Opera, in its tradition of presenting works that are relatively unsung, esoteric and ambitious. This was no exception, as it in effect became not only the opera's U.S. premiere but also in a sense its world premiere of a sort, given the research and restoration this overlooked work required. For the first time, this reconstructed version, with three recovered excerpts, was available to be heard and enjoyed. With a libretto by Jules Bardier and Michel Carre, inspired by Gerard de Nerval's Voyage en Orient, the performance was part of a minor “GounOdyssey”, as Artistic and General Director Gil Rose notes in the program, since the company is also performing, on November 9 and 11 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, a fully staged version of the composer's Le Medecin malgre lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself). Given the rarity of Reine de Saba, a brief synopsis would be in order.

Dominick Chenes as Adoniram in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)

The architect and engineer Adoniram (Dominick Chenes) calls on his ancestors for assistance in creating his magnificent bronze bowl. Benoni (Michelle Trainor) announces the arrival of Balkis, Queen of Sheba (Kara Shay Thomson), who is betrothed to King Solomon (Kevin Thompson). Three of the architect's workers, Amrou (Matthew DiBattista), Phanor (David Kravitz) and Methousael (David Salsbery Fry) arrive to demand more money, but, being rejected, swear revenge. Subsequently Solomon and Balkis address their people, and he asks to meet the architect, though he's been described as an odd man with mysterious origins. Adoniram is stunned by Balkis' beauty, while she removes her necklace and puts it around his neck. The casting of the bronze bowl is stopped by Benoni, who warns it has been sabotaged by the three traitorous workers, and the furnace explodes. Balkis sings of the feelings aroused in her by Adoniram and of how she does not love Solomon, which leads to a duet between her and the architect. Benoni arrives to announce that spirits have restored the casting. Dancing girls announce the arrival of Solomon, and the three traitors reveal to him the meeting between his betrothed and the architect, yet he dismisses them and offers to share power with Adoniram, who declines and states he prefers to leave Jerusalem. Insulted, Solomon vows revenge and argues with Balkis about their wedding. Sarahil (Katherine Maysek) pours some potion into his cup and he falls asleep. Balkis removes Solomon's ring from his finger, fleeing to join Adoniram, but he has been set upon by the three traitors and lies dying. She gives him the ring and, with her slaves and courtiers, attends his death.

Kevin Thompson as King Solomon in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)

There were scenes (primarily those that supported the ballet segments) with lush resonance, but given Gounod's penchant for the bombastic, even those tended to build to a point where no barns were left unburned. One kept hearing undeniable references to his other works, notably Faust. At least there were no overt echoes of his more sentimental output, such as the inexplicably popular but mercilessly maudlin Ave Maria with its notoriously unabashed sentimentality. With the discovery of the previously lost segments and the restoration of the ballet accompaniments, it made for a very thorough presentation of the work, if a bit of a challenge, especially for the orchestra, at an uncompromisingly demanding three hours.

While the opera as a whole is relatively obscure, some of the music will be familiar to those who typically attend recitals of operatic arias. Most notable is the tenor aria Inspirez-moi race divine, which made demands on Chenes within nanoseconds of his appearance at the very beginning of the work, reminiscent of the challenge handed the tenor in Verdi's Celeste Aida. He handled the task quite readily, managing to be heard even in soto voce thanks in large part to the magnificent acoustics of the venue. Others include the impressive aria sung by Trainor about Balkis' beauty, comme la naissance aurore, the revenge aria by the three traitorous workers, Il nous repousse, and, near the end of the opera, Thomson's plaintive aria about her newfound love, plus grand dans son obscurite. Conductor Rose led the Odyssey Opera Orchestra with his usual keen ear for detail as well as nuance, and the Odyssey Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Dr. William Cutter once again added immeasurably to the force of the score. Sung in French with English supertitles, it was a revelation, though it must be noted that the placement of two relatively small screens weren't fully up to the task; on virtually every other measure, however, this eagerly awaited production didn't disappoint. The commanding voices of soprano Thomson, tenor Chenes and especially bass Thompson, as well as the animated delivery of local favorite Kravitz, made for some very memorable moments.
Kevin Thompson, Kara Shay Thomson & Dominick Chenes in "Reine de Saba"
(photo: Keira Cronin)
Overall, considering the infidelity and final fate of the star-crossed lovers, the evening was one of just desserts, and not merely of the culinary sort.


ArtsEmerson's "Hamnet": A Typographical Era

Ollie West as "Hamnet"
(photo: Gianmarco Bresadola)

I'm not allowed to talk to strangers”, intones the titular hero before he starts an almost non-stop narrative of his brief and obscure life, one which must have been hard, you'd surmise, for a boy whose name was Hamnet, constantly having to live misperceived as a typo. This production by Ireland's Dead Centre Theatre, Co-Written by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd (as well as William Shakespeare), is Directed by Moukarzel and Kidd (without Shakespeare), and is its U.S. premiere (its world premiere was in 2017 in Berlin). It is the first ArtsEmerson offering of the season, on Paramount Theater's Robert J. Orchard Stage. At a mere sixty minutes, it covers quite a lot of presumption-shattering ground. It's the story of Will Shakespeare's and Anne Hathaway's only son Hamnet, played by Ollie West (nominated for Best Actor by the Irish Times Theatre Awards this year), who died at eleven years after his father fled to London. Presumed to have been named after the Stratford-on-Avon baker Hamnet Sadler (a witness to Will's will), just as his twin sibling Judith was named after the baker's wife Judith, Hamnet considers what it means and what it costs to be great, or at least to be related to greatness. “I'm not a great man yet; you have to be a great man to meet a great man” adds the quite remarkable young West. As the bard wrote in Hamlet, the purpose of drama is “to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature”. This production takes this literally at first, as the audience is faced upon entering with a televised onstage screen that will constantly change, and alter our perceptions of what is real and what is not, with brilliant uses of video not to be revealed here.

Ollie West as "Hamnet"
(photo: Gianmarco Bresadola)

Little is known of the real life of Hamnet other than that he died in 1596, and three years later the play “Hamlet” was written. Shakespeare never dramatized the loss directly, but probably alludes to it (in King John): “grief fills the room of my absent child”. This play addresses that loss with ample visual bits of comedy and numerous Shakespearean allusions and quotations. For a boy “one letter away from greatness”, what should perhaps remain unspoken portends the inwardness of Hamlet. As the authors note in the program, the boy remains trapped on the margins of great things, a celebrated father, literary fame, knowledge, life, and death. They further attest that Shakespeare had something of an obsession with parents compelled to tell their children how to live, and that “the dead haunt the living and the living haunt the dead”.

It's a cleverly profound piece that speaks of the father's writings to his only son, and conveys his theory that in his playwriting he was still writing to him. It manages to be timeless, as the presence of smart phones and allusion to the song “A Boy Named Sue” reveal. West is a wonder no matter his age; the part of Hamnet will be taken on by Aran Murphy in the last few performances here in Boston. The amazing Stage Design was by Andrew Clancy, with appropriate Costume Design by Grace O'Hara, dazzling Lighting Design by Stephen Dodd, eerily compelling Sound Design by Kevin Gleeson, and vitally important Video by Jose Miguel Jimenez. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet in the New York Review of Books: “who is more immortal, the one who lived mostly on stage, or the one who wrote the pages?”, and ultimately it tackles the question of being or not, and what makes a great man. Toward the end of the play, Hamnet proclaims: “in this harsh world, I did nothing”.

Yet, with his youthful directness, he answers the most disturbing existential question of all time: “I choose to be”.


SpeakEasy's "Riverside and Crazy": Rant Control

Lewis D. Wheeler, Maureen Keiller, Stewart Evan Smith,  Tyrees Allen
& Octavia Chavez-Richmond in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Leave it to SpeakEasy Stage Company to start off its twenty-eighth season with a Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Mother****er with a Hat). Guirgis is famous (or infamous) for unprintable titles and an unholy alliance of the sacred and the secular, as in his former works Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and Our Lady of 121st Street. This play is populated by his familiar types of con artists and misfits, living on the fringes of society, each with her or his little piece of dirt or secret they're covering up, each revealed with this playwright's uncanny ear for realistic dialog. Hailed as “the reigning poet of the obscene” or “bard of the underbelly”, Guirgis says he continually “swings for the fences”. This work arrives much heavier on plot than most of the plays being written these days, and thus more traditional in structure, more plot-driven, though riddled as usual with his discomforting mix of the philosophical and the profane. As Director Tiffany Nichole Greene sees it, the characters in this play share a deep-seated fear of failure, of being vulnerable, of realizing that what you finally see won't be enough; one's manhood and legacy are threatened, accompanied by broken intimacy and desperation. They fundamentally suffer from a fear of being seen, as they struggle to stay beneath the radar.

Alejandro Simoes & Tyrees Allen in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

This work features an extended family of sorts, headed by Walter “Pops” Washington (Tyrees Allen), a retired disabled cop and recent widower. “Pops” shares his rent-controlled apartment with his son recently released from prison, Junior (Stewart Evan Smith), Junior's girlfriend “student” Lulu (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) and Junior's pal Oswaldo (Alejandro Simoes). There is also a Church Lady (Celeste Oliva) and two police officers, Lieutenant Caro (Lewis D. Wheeler) and his girlfriend and colleague Detective O'Connor (Maureen Keiller). All are at one and the same time incredible but true characters, or as the playwright himself puts it, comprise a glorious mass of contradictions. As Lulu proclaims: “I may look how I look, but that don't mean I am how I look”. The same could be said for all these players, most notably “Pops”, a father figure yet stubborn and not above extortion in a battle to retain his dignity and pride, determined to hang on to his place because he's lost almost everything else. As is true for most of us, he wants something to symbolize that it was all worth it. In this hectic world of bologna ring dings, with a son not living up to his father's dreams (as Pops urges, “hurry up and become a man already, so I can break a hip and die”) and pressure from others for their own financial and political gain, the only response these tormented souls can muster is to rant. At the heart of the play is the fact that Pops can be more emotionally available to people unrelated to him, in whose histories he has no role or responsibility. How he finally stoops to conquer won't be revealed here, but it hinges on a high stakes game he refers to (ironically, in context) as “poker”.

Tyrees Allen & Stewart Evan Smith in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Greene, in her Speakeasy directorial debut, evinces profound understanding of these walking wounded and draws from this cast fascinatingly complex individuals, most notably Allen in a towering portrayal, with Smith, Chavez-Richmond, Simoes, Oliva, Wheeler and Keiller each giving memorable arias. The complicated Scenic Design is by Eric D. Diaz, with apt Costume Design by A. W. Nadine Grant, fine Lighting Design by Daisy Long and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh. Appropriately, credit is also given to the intricate Props Design by Jennifer Butler.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Stewart Evan Smith, Tyrees Allen, Lewis D. Wheeler
& Maureen Keiller in "Between Riverside & Crazy"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

It's no wonder that this excellent work, SpeakEasy's finest achievement in recent memory, has earned so many accolades elsewhere (which Guirgis eschews as meaningless). In all of his plays, God, fate and divine justice simmer beneath the surface in what he describes as meditations about trying to put away childish things. He asserts that what matters to him most are stories about people in pain (mostly in the New York City he knows best) who, against all odds, maintain faith in the possibility of their own redemption, believing that they are the victims of a cosmic joke.

If true, the joke's on them (and us). Find out at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 13th.


Zeitgeist's "Vicuna": Coats of Many Collars

Srin Chakravorty & Steve Auger in "Vicuna"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

For the opener of its final season, Zeitgeist Theatre Company is presenting the New England premiere of the revised play Vicuna by Jon Robin Baitz (Other Desert Cities), a choice that is as timely as it is “suitable”. A celebrated Iranian Jewish immigrant who has become a celebrity tailor, Anselm Kassar (Robert Bonotto) serves famous, wealthy, and powerful clients. He finds himself trying to accommodate a very unusual one: a real estate tycoon and reality television star conveniently named Kurt Seaman (Steve Auger), short on substance but long on bluster, who, to universal surprise, is nominated by a major party for the office of the President. As the campaign spirals out of control, including in its vortex the candidate's daughter and campaign manager Sri-Lanka Seaman (Srin Chakravorty) and conservative Senator (and RNC Chair) Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Evelyn Holley), Kassar and his Iranian Muslim apprentice Amir Masoud (Jaime Hernandez) are forced to examine their complicity (as confidants and image-makers) and whether just the right suit has the power to win a debate and ensure the presidency. There are serious choices to be made, from a set of possible collars to the luxuriousness of the fabric. The play received its world premiere in Los Angeles two weeks before the 2016 election. Afterwards, Baitz revised the work to reflect the horror that had transpired in the election, which he called The American Epilogue, in the form of a brief prologue and extensive epilogue. What can one say about this depiction of a national presidential campaigner whose slogan is, “Seaman loves women and women love Seaman”? But such sleaze could of course never happen here, right?

Jaime Hernandez & Srin Chakravoty in "Vicuna"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Though real names are eschewed, perhaps for legal reasons, it's never unclear about whom the playwright is expounding, with unsubtle references to a pant-suited female opponent and the like, and therein lies a problem with this work. One is never quite sure what is intended as commentary and what is meant as satire. Difficult as it is to satirize what is in reality already a parody, the play ricochets from serious political polemic to surreal fantastical farce. In fact, it could be said to be two distinct plays, or at least representing two distinct yet related points of view. The small but largely impressive cast of five are a treat to see and hear (though several could profit from an increase in volume), from Auger's horrific bombast to Bonotto's patient wisdom, to Hernandez's passion, to Chakravorty's conflict, to Holley's deal-making. While it's surely not on a par with his previous works, Baitz presents some intriguing and original twists and turns, none of which will be revealed here. Suffice it to say that the author has enough creative concepts for any two plays, including a sight gag or two and a modern take on The Emperor's New Clothes. And who knew vicuna was going for a couple thousand or three per yard these days?

Jaime Hernandez, Robert Bonotto, Srin Chakravoty & Steve Auger in "Vicuna"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Speaking of clothes, for this production, the crucial Costume Design was by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, with Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, and Sound Design by J. Jumbelic. As has been the norm for Zeigeist, the Direction and Scenic Design were by David Miller, the company's founding Artistic Director, who previously had announced that this will be the company's last season. It is fondly hoped that Miller will resurface in future directorial and other roles, as both he and his edgy and challenging repertoire will be sorely missed. This, their penultimate production, “bespokes” well for the one remaining offering this spring, Trigger Warning, a world premiere by Jacques Lamarre. In the meantime, one could ponder the warning which the character of Seaman bloviates: “There's only one American dream left, and that is to take what's left”.

Then why are we still laughing? Find out at the Black Box Theater through October 6th.

Greater Boston's "Earnest": Revisiting Victoria's Secret

The Cast of "Being Earnest"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Epigramatically speaking, Becoming Earnest, the season opener for Greater Boston Stage Company, is a Wilde romp, that is, it's based on Oscar Wilde's most popular play, the 1895 work The Importance of Being Earnest. Who anticipated that it would be turned into a new musical? And set in London in 1965? Intentionally Wildean comic quotations abound, presented very much tongue in cheek, which must make it awfully difficult to sing. In any case, it's actually not the first time the play was reworked as a musical comedy; it was also performed as an opera in 1961 by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco presented a couple of seasons ago in Boston by Odyssey Opera. In this iteration, Wilde's wise and witty words prove once more both their truths and their timelessness.

Kerry A. Dowling, Dave Heard & Will McGarrahan in "Being Earnest"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

The plot follows that of the original play. John/Jack Worthing (Dave Heard) visits his best friend Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Jennings Mahoney), who knows him as Earnest in the country, with the intention of proposing to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Sara Coombs). 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 (Ephie Aardema), with whom Algernon falls in love. Gwendolen and her mother Lady Bracknell (Beth Gotha) 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 (Will McGarrahan, who also plays characters named Lane and Merriman, butlers in the original), to be baptized as “Earnest”, 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 (Kerry A. Dowling), who lets the cat out of the bag, so to speak. And all ends relatively well as Jack declares he has discovered the “vital importance of being Earnest”.

Fortunately, the show's creative team has respected the original text by Wilde; the Book is attributed to Lyricist Paul Gordon, but the true authorship belongs to Wilde. Having been reduced from three acts to two, with an added musical score (by Gordon and Jay Gruska), it's most effective when utilizing Wilde's very words, which it consistently does. The text may have been edited down with a slight change in tone, but the verbal wit remains. The star of the creative team is fittingly Wilde himself. Or he's one of the stars, the other being the Director and Choreographer Ilyse Robbins, who's never been better (and that's saying quite a lot); the entire cast of seven expertly capture the era's fluid movements. The period Music Direction was by Steve Bass, with clever Scenic Design (including some ingeniously helpful pocket doors and an overhead fractured and faded Union Jack) by Nick Oberstein, crucial “mod” Carnaby Street Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, apt psychedelic Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and fine Sound Design by John Stone.

The Cast of "Being Earnest"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

The score is pleasant, rather like a cross between Burt Bacharach's 1968 work Promises, Promises and the more recent (2013) A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Some numbers end somewhat abruptly, such as the song at end of the first act, “Brothers” (Algernon and John) and the “Bad Behavior” finale to the show. It consists of a dozen original songs with no fewer than ten (thus too many) reprises, many of which serve to illustrate the lack of much variety in the composing of the score. The lyrics are more memorable, with allusions within the songs such as to the musical Man of No Importance which featured Wilde. The mix of the original text and the era of Carnaby Street's excesses too often come across as schizoid. That said, songs like “I Wish You Were Old” and visual references such as Algernon's singing of twisting while doing the twist, fit right in. It's not an easy task to pull off.

Fortunately this cast is up to that task. Mahoney is a master of movement, as is Heard, and they make a superb vaudevillian team. Aardema and Coombs are their perfect foils, and Gotha makes a memorable Lady Bracknell when pontificating about “style vs. sincerity”, or referring to Earnest as a “parcel”. It must be said that she's not the typical rendering of the pompous battleship that is Bracknell who commands a room merely by entering it, but one soon forgets this when she delivers those caustic barbs. And one can't overlook the welcome embarrassment of riches in the casting of two local favorites, Dowling and McGarrahan in supporting roles. Individually and collectively, it's a team cast in theatrical heaven.

As Algernon puts it about people in general, “some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go”. The former could equally be said overall of this show, a fresh and pleasantly enjoyable bon-bon.


Huntington's "The Niceties": Who Gets to Tell Herstory

Jordan Boatman & Lisa Banes in "The Niceties"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)


With a single Latin word, playwright Eleanor Burgess has revealed what is at the core of her play The Niceties, the smashing season opener for Huntington Theatre Company (in association with Manhattan Theatre Club and McCarter Theatre Center): “I have sinned”. Spoken by the character of Janine (Lisa Banes), an established professor at a New England university (easily recognized in context, though not explicitly, as Yale) to her student Zoe (Jordan Boatman), it's a potent piece of paternalism rather begrudgingly offered up by a supposed mentor judging her student's proposed written thesis. It rings hollow both in substance and delivery, and this will come to be seen to be Burgess' intent. While this teacher is content to express a somewhat facile act of contrition, her mentee will have nothing of it. Thus begins an extraordinary battle of conflicting visions, one that might at first be dismissed as just another two-hander presenting two opposite views (similar to David Mamet's recent work Oleanna in theme if not structure), about just who should be the voice of a historically oppressed people. Who, in the end, gets to tell herstory, the academic or the activist, especially if the conditions for their oppression are not merely historic but persist, is the author's fundamental question.

Jordan Boatman & Lisa Banes in "The Niceties"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Excavating the source of that quest consumes this ninety-minute verbal joust, filled with quite a few excoriating jibes at the assumed presuppositions and preoccupations of encrusted academia. The playwright (a Brookline native) wastes little time on the niceties of this teacher/student confrontation; it's a contesting moment, rapidly delving into what lies beneath their mutual role playing. As an exploration (or exhumation) of tacitly accepted hypotheses, it's a mind-expanding verbal roller coaster that questions more than it answers. Superficially, the work may be appraised as an examination of two diametrically opposite theses, initiating with a rather esoteric treatment of the impact of moderate versus radical revolutions, but soon evolving into a consideration of the typical exclusion of minorities from the stories. Some of the dialog, especially that written for Janine, is as esoteric as this sounds, but Banes, with a healthy measure of self-deprecating humorous defense mechanisms, makes her equally repressed character mostly believable, even in a basic story that at times strains credulity. It's a measure of how fine the acting and tight direction (by Kimberly Senior) are; not only Banes but also Boatman manage to present two fascinatingly complex (and not particularly likable) opponents. Neither character is presented as right or wrong, but even when admitting having made mistakes, each has been carefully taut.

Lisa Banes & Jordan Boatman in "The Niceties"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This production would be well worth attending just to see two consummate actors spar with the witty and wise creation by Burgess (a former Huntington Playwriting Fellow). But the creativity doesn't stop there. The Costume Design by Kara Harmon is ideal for the time (2016, as the national political debates were devolving) and the personalities presented by Banes and Boatman. The Lighting Design by D. M. Wood and Sound Design and Original Music by Elisheba Ittoop also contribute to the apt depiction of collegiate norms. But it is the Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson that grabs one from the first exposure to her slanted depiction of a more-than-slightly skewed, uneasily claustrophobic setting, every historical book artfully disarranged. If you've been paying attention to the d├ęcor, you might just realize what has gone missing from the set during intermission and tellingly reappears at the end.

So, do observe the niceties, at the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End, until October 6th.


New Rep's "Straight White Men": Monopoly Is Not a Bored Game

Michael Kaye, Shelley Bolman, Dennis Trainor Jr & Ken Cheeseman in "Straight White Men"
 (photo: Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
Upon entering New Rep's Mainstage Theater for a performance of Playwright Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men, (having just closed on Broadway), one is assaulted by irritatingly loud music; this pre-show music is just the first of several intentionally confrontational challenges to come. It's Lee's intention to create a feeling that the play is to be performed under the control of people who are not straight, white, or men. She states in the program that this is the goal not only of the music but also the “curtain speech” (appropriately not announced by the company's Artistic Director Jim Petosa). Even the transitions between the three “acts” (actually extended scenes without any intermission) are all under the supervision of the “Person in Charge” (Dev Blair), a non-binary performer of color (in the New York production, two persons). The setting is a rumpus room in an undisclosed locale wherein the Norton family gathers ostensibly to celebrate their traditional (secular) rituals of Christmas. These rituals include multiple incidents of immature horseplay that seem to be their primary means of intercommunication, along with synchronized dancing (yes, you read that right). What evolves is a surreal negative mirror of the old television sitcom “My Three Sons”, a family selfie that thrives on a sort of warped vision of basically toxic masculinity. It's apparent that this play is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, nor is it a tragicomedy, but a non-binary work along the spectrum of theater pieces.

The family consists of the father, Ed (Ken Cheeseman), his youngest son Drew (Michael Kaye), the middle son Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr), and the eldest sibling Matt (Shelley Bolman). Ed is intent on preserving the family rites, from the stockings hung by the chimney with care to their annual feast of Chinese takeout to the battered old Monopoly game repurposed by their late mother and rechristened “Privilege”, in an effort to instill in the good old boys the maxim once uttered by JFK, that of those to whom much is given much is required. Certainly that's still the view of Ed as he reminds Matt (who's seemingly going through a rough period and has come home to live with his father) that much has been “invested”. Drew, apparently the recipient of one too many psychotherapy sessions, castigates Matt for what he calls underachievement, of not sufficiently loving himself, while banker Jake accuses him of not successfully selling himself. Drew goes nastier with his declaration that Matt suffers from low self-esteem, a loser “for no reason”. Much of this familial angst goes unresolved, but that doesn't diminish its insights and thought-provoking challenges to an audience's predispositions. Matt (and we) are left with the quandary of “how to be useful”.

Much has been made of the fact that Lee is Broadway's first female Asian-American playwright with this (only her tenth) play. More impressive is the fact that such a relative newcomer could land so solidly on Broadway at all. As here Directed (and presumably Choreographed) by Elaine Vaan Hogue, with apt Scenic design by Afsoon Pajoufar and pluperfect Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, as well as efficient Sound Design by Lee Schuna, it's quite a debut. It's a true original, with considerable food for thought. Even with such a wondrous cast, one could wish for some trimming in the dancing scenes, allowed to continue long after making a point. Otherwise the direction and storytelling are brilliant.

Vann Hogue references Lee's position that straight men can't make the world more diverse by doing whatever they want; there are expectations on them that require them to do something. In the end, what values do we want straight white men to espouse? Do we wish Matt would align himself with the traditional patriarchal structure? What do we want anyone to do, what do we value, really? Find out at New Rep, through September 30th.



Lyric Stage's "Spider Woman": Verdad Is Still Verdad

Eddy Cavazos & Taavon Gamble in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"
(photo: Lyric Stage Company)

His name was Molina.

And as the central character in the many incarnations of the story Kiss of the Spider Woman, he has endured, from book to film to stage, arriving this season as Lyric Stage Company's opener. It all started back when Fred Ebb (of the show-writing team of Kander and Ebb) saw the 1985 film based on the 1976 novel and 1983 play by Manuel Puig, El Beso de la Mujer Arana, and first shared it with John Kander, then with the legendary director Hal Prince. They invited Puig to consider writing a libretto for a musicalized version, but he demurred, and the Book was eventually written by Terrence McNally. The musical premiered in Toronto in the summer of 1992, then opened in London's West End, with its ultimate Broadway premiere in 1993, when it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 7 including Best Musical, while running for over 900 performances. This current production should give theatergoers a unique opportunity to see this seldom-produced work.

Lisa Yuen & Cast in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"
(photo: Lyric Stage Company)

The time is the recent past. Molina (the appealing Eddy Cavazos), a homosexual window-dresser is imprisoned in an unnamed South American country (Argentina would be a safe bet) for allegedly corrupting a minor. He maintains his sanity by re-imagining scenes from films made by his goddess the actress Aurora (Lisa Yuen). Suddenly one night into his cell is thrown an unconscious, brutally beaten political prisoner named Valentin (the dynamic Taavon Gamble). When this new prisoner, a Marxist revolutionary, regains consciousness, he rejects Molina's attempts to befriend him. Instead he visualizes his girlfriend Marta (Katrina Sofia). Molina continues to extol his movie star, in all her roles save one, The Spider Woman, in which Aurora played the figure of death. Molina develops serious stomach cramps and is taken to the infirmary where he visualizes his mother (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda) who assures him he could never bring shame on her. When Molina returns to his cell he starts to succeed at entertaining Valentin and in fact begins to fall in love with him. Valentin, hoping to convince Molina to contact his compadres, seduces Molina and gets him to promise to phone his conspirators once he is freed. The Warden (Luis Negron) tells Molina his mother is very sick and that he will be freed to visit if he reveals the names of Valentin's peers, which he pretends to do. Once in his mother's house, Molina does call Valentin's friend, is caught and re-imprisoned. Refusing to compromise Valentin and reveal his fellow rebels, Molina declares his love. Aurora, in the guise of the Spider Woman, finally gives him her kiss. Molina declares he walks “in Technicolor now”, having experienced true and pure love with Valentin.

Eddy Cavazos & Taavon Gamble in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"
(photo: Lyric Stage Company)

And therein lies the major problem with this production. In program notes, Rachel Bertone (Director and Choreographer) ominously states: “I hope my interpretation of the ending shows how this partnership can teach us to love”. Unfortunately what this does (not to revealed here) is subvert the fundamental message of many kinds of love, including non-sexual ones that convey the generosity sometimes needed to recognize basic human needs. With a terribly wrong-headed tacked-on ending, not only does fantasy obliterate reality but you end up with a drastically sluggish second act. Having read Puig's original novel and the play he wrote based on it, as well as seen the film version and the original Broadway version (each of which has slightly differing endings, but none of them as misguided as this mounting), one has to conclude that somewhere along the evolution of this current show, the sexy and seductive subtext has been lost, along with dramatic tension. Some of the strengths of the original remain, notably the Tony-winning score, which includes the lovely music to “Dear One”, the energetic “Where You Are”, Molina's mother's plaintive “You Could Never Shame Me”, and the prisoners' anthem “The Day after That”. That said, it's one of those scores that registers in context, not as stand-alone numbers. Some of them, no doubt originally added to support the casting of a well-known dancer (Chita Rivera) in the title role, come across as intrusive and redundant. What this version fundamentally lacks is an acknowledgment that Valentin offers Molina what he craves, in an almost noble and kind gesture, albeit one with some political motives. It's complicated by its arbitrary ending here. Nonetheless, if one hasn't had the chance to see this show before, get thee to Lyric Stage Company.

The production has Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, Costume Design by Marian Bertone, Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr., Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, and Projection Design (so important in a work so focused on visual fantasies) by Johnathan Carr. Also featured in the cast are the roles of Estaban (Diego Klock-Perez), Marcos (Davron S. Monroe), Emilio (Arthur Cuadros), Gabriel (Ricardo Holguin), and the Ensemble including Bernie Baldassaro, Arthur Gomez, Felton Sparks and Lance-Patrick Strickland.

Eddy Cavazos & Luis Negron in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"
(photo: Lyric Stage Company)
The two men uphold what has been described as the triumph of the human heart, as they progress from mutual mistrust to an offbeat kind of love, as they learn to live together or die, all the time facing torture and death. While Ebb claimed that his and Kander's “only aim is to move people, and to entertain them”, this show, as with their Scottsboro Boys, is all about power, or its abuse. As the Warden puts it: “first define human, then we'll talk about human rights”. It's a message that should shake us up, that verdad is still verdad.