"Tea at Five": Luck Be a Lady

Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

 “Before I tell you anything about myself, I would like to tell you, or at least identify for you, the        world into which I was born. My background. I mean of course my mother - my father. My two parents.
Mother died when I was forty-odd.
Dad died when I was fifty-odd. Thus I had them as my...Well, they were always for over forty years- there. They were mine.
From where I stood:
Dad at the left of the fireplace.
Mother at the right of the fireplace.
Tea every day at five.
They were the world into which I was born.
My background.”

So begins the autobiography by Katharine Hepburn “Me: Stories of My Life”, which was the basis for a 2002 one-woman play, a monologue, entitled Tea at Five. In its revised shorter form by playwright Matthew Lombardo, now being presented at the Huntington Theatre, it's a more focused piece that shows what happens when one force of nature inhabits the role of another.

Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

That would be Faye Dunaway, now commanding the stage as the celebrated actress when she was 76. The earlier two-act version portrayed Hepburn's Fenwick Estate in Old Saybrook, Connecticut; Act I (September 1938) dwelt on her childhood in Hartford, education and start in show business; and Act II (February 1983) dealt with her recovering from a car crash, and reflected upon her career and “heart-breaking” romance with Spencer Tracy. It was produced by Hartford Stage, American Repertory Theatre, and the Shubert in Boston, among others, by several leading actresses and one leading actor in drag, Charles Busch (that would've been fun to see). Now Dunaway conveys the memorable lucky lady in 1983, without resorting to cheap impersonations, in what can certainly be viewed as a tour de force, a spot-on recreation of one star by another. She has received many accolades over her long career, honored with an Academy Award, three Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards and an Emmy. Her filmography alone covers a wide and deep range of roles from her breakout performance in Bonnie and Clyde to The Thomas Crown Affair, Mommie Dearest and of course Network.

As a biographer, Hepburn made an excellent actress. Her writing style, or lack thereof, is staccato and blunt, but becomes a more complex treatment in the hands of Lombardo. As cleverly Directed by John Tillinger, with simple Set Design by Scott Pask, Lighting Design by Kevin Adams, Costume Design by Jane Greenwood, and Sound Design by John Gromada, it's an engrossing and enjoyable ride. And, yes, there are even calla lilies, but that famous oft caricatured line is wisely unspoken.

Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five"
(photo: Neil Scott Studios)

Hepburn ends her autobiography thus: “Yes, I was lucky I had people. Memories- all there- Oh, thank you. Yes, lucky!” The same could be said for another formidable talent by the name of Faye Dunaway. Earlier in her book, Hepburn also declaimed: “Courage- that's what you have to have to come out on top”. On this scale as well, Dunaway is at the top of her game and not afraid to show it. It amounts to a master class in performing.

By all means, make room in your schedule for Tea at Five, now extended though July 14th.


BMOP's "Fantastic Mr. Fox": A Cautionary Tail

The Cast of "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
(photo: BMOP)

Tobias Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox is the official title of a new compact disc release of the opera by Picker, the current Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera, who pulls off the almost impossible feat of composing an opera that is aimed directly at families, not just children; that is, children of all ages. With his welcome use of melodic tonal lyricism, even though a modern piece, and the caustically witty Libretto by Donald Sturrock, this work is sure to charm listeners of any vintage. Performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) under the direction of Gil Rose, the recording features members of Odyssey Opera, the Boston Children's Chorus, and a host of well-known vocalists. Commissioned and premiered in 1998 by Los Angeles Opera, this recording was made during its performance period in Boston in 2014, and just released this month on CD.

Based on the revered children's novel by Roald Dahl, the fable centers on the efforts of the eponymous fox (baritone John Brancy), the antihero who's on a food-finding mission on behalf of his family, contemporaneously thwarting the aim of three mean farmers, Boggis (bass- baritone Andrew Craig Brown), Bunce (tenor Edwin Vega) and Bean (baritone Gabriel Preisser) to kill the varmint that's been eating their chickens and geese and drinking their cider. Mr. Fox enlists his forest friends, including Mr. Porcupine (tenor Theo Lebow), Miss Hedgehog (soprano Elizabeth Futral), Rita the Rat (mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis) and others. The remaining characters include Mrs. Fox (mezzo-soprano Krista River), Agnes the Digger (countertenor Andrey Nemzer), Mavis the Tractor (soprano Gail Novak Mosites), Badger the Miner (baritone John Dooley) and Burrowing Mole (tenor Jonathan Blalock). There are also four fox cubs: Abigail Long, Abi Tenenbaum, Zoe Tekeian, and Madeleine Kline. The story is accessible as is the music (this despite the fact that Picker was trained by a trio of Modernist composers, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen).

Picker has stated that there can be found in this work a “green message”, if one wishes to find one (with its portrayal of the barren land above ground and the warmer natural world below). There are instances of slapstick, European styles, and neoclassical Stravinsky-like sound. In several passages, including those utilizing the Children's Chorus, there is sublime music for adult and child listeners. In short, it's both relatively brief and compellingly approachable in its score with an ample supply of cleverness and wit in its libretto, with no evidence of being “dumbed down” for its target audience. What more could anyone want in an opera for the whole family?


Odyssey Opera's "Belle Helene": Near Myth

The Ensemble of "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

La Belle Helene, an 1864 opera bouffe with Music by Jacques Offenbach and Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is a parody of the myth of the historical Helen of Troy, taking place in Sparta just before the Trojan War. With a new English translation by Richard Duployen, this last production of the estimable Odyssey Opera wizards proved to be a true farce, with all of the lack of subtlety that implies. The story, with its large cast of characters, is a complicated one with a challenging book that almost defies description with a coherent synopsis.

Adam Fisher & Ginger Costa-Jackson in "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

So naturally one will try to synopsize it here. It features Paris (handsome tenor Adam Fisher), son of Priam, as he arrives with a message from Venus to the high priest Calchas (bass Ben Wager), commanding him to procure for Paris the love of Helene (beautifully-voiced mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson), promised him by Venus when he awarded the prize of beauty to her. Disguised as a shepherd, he wins three prizes at a contest of wit with the Greek kings under the direction of Agamemnon (baritone David McFerrin), then reveals his identity. Helene, convinced that circumstances have sealed her fate, crowns the Trojan prince as victor, to the disgust of Achille King of Phthia (tenor Christian Figueroa) and the two Ajaxes, the King of Salamis (tenor Steven Goldstein) and the King of Locris (tenor Gregory Zavracky). Invited to a banquet by Helene's husband, the king of Sparta Menalas (tenor Alan Schneider) bribed Calchas to prophesize that Menelas must at once proceed to Crete, to which he agrees.

Alan Schneider, Ginger Costa-Jackson & Adam Fisher in "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Witttman)

Paris, however, instead comes to Helene at night. After she stops his attempt at seducing her, he returns after she has fallen asleep. Helene believes that this is a dream, and so doesn't resist. Menelas, returning unexpectedly, finds the two in each other's arms. Helen tells him it's all his fault: A good husband knows when to arrive and when to keep away. Paris tries to keep him from being upset, but all the kings join in berating him, telling him to go back where he came from; he vows to return. Later, the kings and their followers have moved to Nauplia for the summer, with Helene still protesting her innocence. Venus has made everyone amorous, to the despair of the kings. A high priest of Venus arrives on a boat, explaining that he has to take Helene to Cythera. Menelas pleads with her to go with the priest, but she refuses, saying that it is he, and not she, who has offended the goddess. But realizing that the priest is Paris in disguise, she goes on board with him, and they sail away together.

Ben Wagner, David McFerrin, Felicia Gavilanes, Rachele Schmiege & Cast of "La Belle Helene"  
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Also in the cast are Loena (mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes), Oreste (mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos), Bacchis (soprano Mara Bonde), Parthoenis (soprano Rachele Schmiege), and Euthicles (Jesse Martin). Conducted by Gil Rose, with Stage Direction by Frank Kelley (in a fully staged production in English) and with an orchestra of thirty. The Chorus Master was Mariah Wilson, with Choreography by Marjorie Folkman, intentionally gaudy Costume Design by Brooke Stanton (notably the humorously striped women's swimwear) and Scenic Design by Janie Howland with Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (the last two happily familiar to local audiences from regional productions of plays and musicals). Clocking in at three hours, it cried out for surtitles, for, even though actually sung in English, a great deal of the spoken dialog and lyrics were unintelligible.

Christian Figueroa, Steven Goldstein, Gregory Zavrachy & Cast of "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The end of Odyssey Opera's current season was a reminder that next season will feature six operas based on the reigns of the Tudors, another embarrassment of riches from this beloved company.


Huntington's "Yerma": The Dread Barren

Ernie Pruneda, Nadine Malouf & Christian Barillas in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The title says it all; the definition of the word Yerma is “barren”. A 1934 play by poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (written two years before he would be assassinated by Spanish nationalists), this has been adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez (whose own 2004 play Sonia Flew inaugurated the same Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavillion where this play is now being produced by Huntington Theatre Company, where Lopez is Playwright-in-Residence). This simple story is that of a barren woman in her village in Southern Spain where certain crops grow and graze (apples, sheep), where everything centers around an almost surreal need for water. Lopez notes that this is Lorca's least performed play, (way less than his Blood Wedding and House of Bernada Alba), primarily due to its previous poor translations (such as the awkward version by Graham-Lujan and O'Connell). As a closeted gay man living at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Spain, he desperately wanted to have children (whom he saw as conferring immortality), and could thus easily identify with what happens to a body and a soul when they can't fulfill society's expectations and, as Lopez adds, “what they think they were born to do, being denied the opportunity to be fully oneself, and perceived as in conflict with their fate.”

Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lorca's life is the inspiration for his cante jundo or “deep song” about an awesome question that has no answer. Lopez's role is to preserve his story with its mystery expressed in the poetry of the play (that is, to translate) while approaching the work with the questions and techniques of contemporary playwrighting (that is, adaptation). In so doing, she notes that she is preserving the basic pathos of the unknowable, by looking, listening, and surrendering to this deep song full of love, passion, and infertility which Yerma (Nadine Malouf) must face, as she wants nothing more than to have a child and become a devoted mother. Her husband Juan (Christian Barillas) is conflicted. Yerma watches as the women of the village (unnamed characters in the original) start their own families, including Maria (Marianna Bassham), Incarnacion (Alma Cuervo), Marta (Evelyn Howe) and Veronica/Rosa Maria (Alexandra Illescas), as well as the mysterious Dolores (with Lopez herself substituting for Jacqui Parker). There is one other character, the only other male, Victor (Ernie Pruneda), who is also conflicted. In this production, there is effective support provided by a Guitarist (Juanito Pasqual) and a Percussionist (Fabio Pirozzolo). Yerma's desperation becomes an all-consuming passion as she realizes her seemingly uncontrollable fate. In Lorca's most prescient observation, Yerma ultimately questions her own value as a woman, and Lopez conveys not only her flaws but also her strength and determination. It's more of an academic exercise, though, than an involving piece of theater.

Marianna Bassham & Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This reinvented tale is on view through June 30th. At 85 minutes with no intermission, it's a work to be reckoned with. Its success in the past has depended on the acting skills of the actress playing the title role, as Malouf proves yet again, backed up by remarkable acting all around. As beautifully Directed by Melia Bensussen, the creative team included movement and Choreography by Misha Shields, Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson (a bed among a field of flowers becoming more barren as the play progresses), Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal, Original Music by Mark Bennett, and Sound Design by Bennett and Brendan F. Doyle. There's a lot to admire and respect in this version, but the basic story still shows its three-quarters-of-a-century vintage, presenting tableaux that will most impress students of a particular tradition of writing and performing.

Ernie Pruneda & Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It should be noted that the adaptation, direction, choreography, costumes, and almost the entire cast, are women. It responds to the need for more diversity in all aspects of the theater, including the community of critics. No one could speak at this point in time with more cred than Rachel Chavkin, who just this past weekend won a Tony Award as Best Director of a Musical for the innovative Hadestown (the birthplace of which was community theater!).

Herewith is her heartfelt acceptance speech: “My folks raised me with the understanding that life is a team sport. And so is walking out of hell. That’s what is at the heart of the show: It’s about whether you can keep faith when you are made to feel alone. And it reminds us that that is how power structures try to maintain control: by making you feel like you’re walking alone in the darkness, even when your partner is right there at your back. And this is why I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too (italics mine). This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be. So let’s do it.”

Si se puede.


SpeakEasy "Fun Home": Home Run Returns June 8-30

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

What would happen if we spoke the truth?”

Caption: That is the existential question posed by Alison Bechdel in her graphic novel based on her true-life story of growing up in a funeral home, (hence the title Fun Home), upon which the musical of the same name was subsequently based. This brilliant adaption, currently being performed by SpeakEasy Stage Company, is faithful to its sources. Its Broadway production in 2015 (after its off-Broadway successful run in 2013), with Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron and Music by Jeanine Tesori, was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical, Book, and Score. It holds the distinction of being the first musical in Broadway history to feature an out lesbian protagonist. The entire story is told in non-linear flashbacks by the adult 43-year-old character of Alison Bechdel (Amy Jo Jackson) via numerous songs, some of them quite brief and more like operatic recitative. Never fear, however, for this smart and insightful creation is very approachable, often true to the “fun” in its name, and irresistibly honest. As it was performed in its original productions in New York, this version is presented in the round (or more precisely, three-quarter-round), which is often a treacherous decision in the wrong hands that cannot prevent audience members missing action when faced with an actor's back.

Merissa Simeqi, Amy Jo Jackson & Ellie van Amerongen in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

Fortunately, we're on firm ground and in great hands in this production, as it's directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault, one of Boston's always-dependable creative minds. He meets the challenge of theater in the surround by and large without compromising any seat in the house, keeping his cast consistently alert and oriented. Alison is played by three actresses who present her story at three stages of her life: 19 year old Medium Alison (Ellie van Amerongen), 9 year old Small Alison (Marissa Simeqi), and the adult Alison who provides most of the narration. The rest of the family consists of her father Bruce (Todd Yard), her mother Helen (Laura Marie Duncan) and her brothers Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold). Also featured are Desire Graham as Joan and Christopher M. Ramirez in several roles, as Roy, Pete, Mark, Bobby and Jeremy. In the space of just one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission, we learn an uncanny amount of insight into this intimate community. Much of the success of this work is due to the extraordinary journey taken over five years by Kron and Tesori as they honed the storytelling and developed the musical medium in which to tell it, as an impressionistic memoir by an artist who rebelled by becoming a lesbian cartoonist.

Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

The story begins with a scene of a father/daughter airplane game. In emotional rather than strict chronology, we come to learn that Bruce is obsessed with renovation of his material world while unable to reconstruct or escape his closeted self, yearning for the courage that his daughter exhibits in her independence in his song Pony Girl: “some folks get the call to go, some folks are bound to stay.”  Helen has spent their married life in virtual denial, as she cries out to her daughter in the song Days and Days: “I didn't raise you to give away your days like me” and “chaos never happens if it's never seen". Small Alison longs to express herself as she becomes aware of another female with a “Ring of Keys” that simultaneously promise and threaten to unlock her developing desires. Medium Alison begins to accept who and what she is as she sings that she is Changing (Her) Major to Joan. The time frame (the 70's and 80's) in part defines how each character comes out or remains closeted. This father and daughter epitomize two very different people, one a prisoner of his times and generation; the other enjoying her new found freedoms and visibility. There evolves yet another existential question: how many times can the members of one cast in one performance break your heart?

The Cast of "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

And this well-knit cast does exactly that, time and again, with their bravery in sharing their perception and enlightened comprehension of what lies beneath the surface of cosmic issues in microcosm. The three Alisons and her parents, and their growth or stasis, are obviously crucial to realizing what's at the core of the story. None of them disappoints, and each gets a perfect aria to reveal what is at stake; Yard, Simeqi, van Amerongen, Jackson, and Duncan each give award-worthy turns, and Graham gives fine support. And attention must be paid to the exquisitely expressive work in the Music Direction of Matthew Stern, as well as the other creative elements, from the Set Design by Cristina Todesco, to the brief Choreography by Sarah Crane, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

Tesori spoke about these characters as real people who “could not find a way to sing, and children who were trying to sing the song of the parents who didn't have the form and structure to sing” but did have “the desire to acknowledge and accept one's truth.” And Kron described both Alison and her father as having “stood on the precipice of becoming the person they wanted to be...but in order to do that, you have to be willing to go through humiliation. If you're going to become a different person...you must become someone you cannot control, and that is humiliating...that's not bearable”. And there remains one last existential question: if one keeps noting that every SpeakEasy production is even more sublime theater than the last, will readers' eyes glaze over and eventually lose their trust, and thus if a review falls on deaf eyes, does it make a noise or any impact? Caption: it must be said that this is SpeakEasy and Daigneault at their best, making this the show you owe it to yourself to see, even as it breaks your heart too many times to count with its fierce and revelatory truth.

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

In the end, what does Fun Home have to say to us? Find out now, through June 30th. For, as Small Alison puts it best, remembering the airplane game, at the end of the show: “Caption: every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”



"View Upstairs": On a Queer Day You Can See Forever

The Cast of "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Magical realism alert: Max Vernon, author of The View Upstairs, the current Speakeasy Stage Company production, loves it, and it permeates his work. This is the New England premiere (after mountings as widely offered as London and Australia) of the off-Broadway play based on a real incident, the 1973 suspected firebombing of the gay bar known as the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans. While no one was ever charged, arson was believed to be the cause of the tragic deaths of thirty-two people. Vernon not only wrote the Book for this work, but the Music and Lyrics as well. In so doing, he crafted a play with music that echoes his personal taste, with influences he notes as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, with a self-described emphasis on the “subversive, sexy and a little wild.” When you factor in the reality that this triple threat is only in his early thirties, it's a wonder. Vernon's expressed goal was to reach audiences who might feel distanced from what he views as traditional theater. Magical realism has never been more, well, magical.

Davron S. Monroe in "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

In this vein, Director Paul Daigneault has staged the piece in the intimate Plaza Theatre, with some audience members on stage, reflecting his view that the bar is the main character of the play. The story centers around Wes (J'royce Jata), a young fashion designer, who has just purchased an abandoned building, which he soon learns was the site of the Upstairs Lounge; he suddenly finds himself transported back in time to the Lounge before the horrific event. He discovers that the bar was a community, a place where a group was brought together, in a true mixture of interests and ages. The community included a minister, Richard (Russell Garrett), a married pianist, Buddy (Will McGarrahan), hilariously flamboyant Willie (Davron S. Monroe), manager Henri (Yewande Odetoyinbo), Patrick (the outstanding Eddie Shields), drag queen Freddie (Shawn Verrier), his supportive mother Inez (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), and hustler Dale (Jared Troilo). While all are fine, never out of character for an instant, one does end up wishing there had been more back story for players such as Buddy and Dale with their underwritten roles. There are also cops, then and now, well played by Michael Levesque.

The Cast of "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)
Daigneault has opined that Wes learns from this range of men what was lost and what was gained in the fight for equality, a cautionary tale for each successive generation to learn from one another. At just under two hours with no intermission, and what has been described as a “gritty glam rock score”, it's a spare but acute dissection of culture. As ably Directed by Daigneault, with excellent Music Direction by Adam Bokunewicz, minimal Choreography by Alessandra Valea, clever eclectic Scenic Design by Abby Shenker, amazingly varied Costume Design by Dustin Todd Rennells (including outfits just for the curtain call), Lighting Design by Abigail Wang and Sound Design by Elektra T. Newman, it's a fascinating slice of life.

Eddie Shields & J'royce Jata in "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

While one's exposure to this group makes for tantalizingly brief insights that cry out for more development (when's the last time you wished a play were longer?), it remains an engrossing display of imagination. Just when one thought good original theater might be on life support, along comes this fiercely in-your-face talent, which couldn't have been more timely. A short time before the real-life tragedy occurred, the patrons all sang “united we stand, divided we fall, and if our backs should ever be against the wall, we'll be together”. It was a short four years after the defiance of Stonewall, which makes this a fitting tribute to that signal event's upcoming fiftieth anniversary.

Walk right upstairs, (well, all right, downstairs), through June 22nd, at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. You'll discover yet another reason for a community to be proud.

ADDENDUM:  Note that SpeakEasy (from June 8th to June 30th) will be presenting a repeat run of its production from last fall of "Fun Home" at the Calderwood Pavilion.  This critic's review of same will be republished here soon, ahead of the run. You absolutely owe it to yourself to see it, either for the first time, or again.