Monday, July 06, 2015

Gloucester Stage Presents "Out of Sterno" by Deborah Zoe Laufer - Fueling An Examination of What Makes A Real Woman




Gloucester Stage continues its season with the fascinating "Out of Sterno" by Deborah Zoe Laufer. The play deals on several levels with questions of identity and journeying toward a mature level of self-awareness.  We follow the arc of Dotty, played superbly by Amanda Collins.  As a sixteen year-old girl, she is smitten with love at first sight infatuation with Hamel, a service station attendant.  They marry in a matter of weeks, and she lives for the next seven years under virtual house arrest because, "Hamel wants to keep me all to himself."

Hamel, played with macho bravura by Noah Tuleja, is both abusive and neglectful of Dotty, as he conducts a steamy affair with Zena,  owner of Zena's Beauty Emporium. Jennifer Ellis is pitch perfect as the brassy and declasse cosmetologist.  All of the other roles, mostly female, are played with arch humor by veteran actor Richard Snee.  He portrays several costumers at the Emporium, as well as a parade of "bus buddies" that Dotty encounters as she breaks out of her apartment to clean toilets and do nails for Zena.


Amanda Collins as Dotty (Peaches)
Jennifer Ellis as Zena
"Out of Sterno"
Gloucester Stage
Through July 18


The plot is filled with silly sight gags that underscore the serious nature of the questions being addressed in this play.  What does it mean to be a real woman?  What role do the media - especially beauty magazines - play in shaping a woman's self-image and view of her place in the world?  How do the influence of a mother and father carry over into adulthood?  "As my father always said . . . "  "As my mother always said . . . "  How does a mature individual learn to put external influences in perspective and see oneself in a balanced and healthy way?  What masks do we wear - and then take off?

Using the playwright's stage directions as a starting point, Director Paula Plum and Set Designer Jon Savage have created a world that Dotty might have created for herself - made up of a motley assortment of items she would have scrounged from her trips to the basement to do laundry, supplemented by knickknacks that Hamel would have brought home to her from the service station.  Costumes by Lisabetta Polito, Lighting by Russ Swift and Sound Design by David Wilson all work together to create an external world that gives us a glimpse into Dotty's mind as she begins to emerge as a real woman.  A butterfly occupies a place upstage, symbolizing for me Dotty's emancipation out of Hamel's cocoon.


Noah Tuleja as Hamel
Amanda Collins as Dotty (Peaches)
"Out of Sterno"
Gloucester Stage
Through July 18


In the Tallk Back session that followed Sunday's matinee, Playwright Laufer shared that the genesis for this play can be traced to an experience she had as a young student at Julliard.  Raised in a remote and isolated town, she came to NYC never having worn a dress or makeup.  Her Movement teacher told her mother that she needed to learn to present herself as a more feminine figure, so she went to the cosmetics counter at Macy's and was roundly abused by the harridan who worked there.  Thus was born the character of Zena, who began life as part of Laufer's stand-up comedy routine.

Amanda Collins as Dotty (Peaches)
Richard Snee as Beauty Customer
Jennifer Ellis as Zena
"Out of Sterno"
Gloucester Stage
Through July 18


This is a play well worth seeing and wrestling with.  The writing is such that as we observe the real Dotty emerge, we as audience members are challenged to think of our own journey towards authenticity and self-awareness.

The play will run through July 18

Gloucester Stage Website

Enjoy!

Al

"Little Shop of Horrors" Encore Presentation at New York City Center - An Historic Moment

Jake Gyllenhaal as Seymour
Ellen Greene as Audrey
Eddie Cooper as Audrey II
"Little Shop of Horrors"
New York City Center

"Little Shop of Horrors" has been an intimate part of my life since I first sat in the audience to watch a performance of the original Off-Broadway production starring Ellen Green as Audrey. As the performance ended in the Orpheum Theater, vines fell from the ceiling into the laps of the audience members.  I have been entangled in those vines from the "strange and interesting plant" ever since that evening.

A few years later, I found myself cast in the role of Mr. Mushnik in my first professional role on stage.  It was magical in so many ways.  One of the enduring relationships that came from that summer of doing "Little Shop" was with the fine actress who played our Audrey, Marla Sucharetza..In the intervening years, I have seen a number of productions of the musical, and Marla remains the actress who best embodies the character of Audrey.  When I learned that New York City Center would be mounting an Encore presentation of the classic musical, starring Ellen Greene and Jake Gyllenhaal, I knew that I had to find a way to see it in the company of Marla.  So I booked the tickets and surprised Marla by inviting her as part of the prolonged celebration of her recent milestone birthday.

It was a magical day at the theater.  The audience that packed the City Center for the three performances was composed of many New York City theater professionals and serious fans of musical theater.  In many ways, it was like attending a midnight showing of "Rocky Horror"; every word and note was anticipated by the cognoscenti in the crowd.  Ellen Greene's initial entrance was electric.  Mr. Mushnik's snide greeting took on a double meaning, given the fact that it has been many years since Ms. Green last graced a New York stage: "So, you finally decided to come to work!"  The crowd went wild and the ovation washed over Ellen like a warm wave of adulation and affection. Similar love fests occurred after each of her two familiar solos - "Suddenly, Seymour" and "Somewhere That's Green."  Her curtain call - as Jake Gyllenhaal graciously retreated and left Ellen alone to bask in the applause - was a continuation of the love affair.

Did Ms. Greene hit every note perfectly? No  Did she milk each iconic moment for all it was worth? Of course!  But none of that mattered.  We were there to celebrate her and to celebrate the return of a brilliantly written show that still thrills audiences more than 33 years after if first opened and took New York by storm.

This concert version of the musical was deftly directed by Dick Scanlan, whose choice of Eddie Cooper to play the plant, Audrey II, was a stroke of genius.  Young charmer Anwar Kareem played the young version of the plant, and won the hearts of every audiences member with his facial expressions and clever dance with Seymour.  Gyllenhaal proved to any doubters that he has the vocal chops to pull off a role like Seymour, and was perfect in the chemistry that he and Ms. Greene developed between their characters. SNL veteran Taran Killam was hilarious as the dentist and other characters.  Joe Grifasi was a wonderful Mushnik.  The  urchins were played by a trio of gifted singers who really made this Greek chorus an integral part of the telling of this whacky tale.  They are Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller.

As I allowed the cavalcade of emotions to gallop over me as I listened and watched, it occurred to me yet again what a well written and ingeniously conceived work of art Alan Menken and Howard Ashman created when they put their heads and talents together to bring this plant to full flower. Every corny line and allusion to 1950's pop culture brought a knowing smile, nod, laugh and even the occasional tear.  I had wondered how young audience members might react to a show that is so firmly rooted in a specific time period.  I was reassured when a young friend told me that in Japan, songs from this show are among the songs most favored in karaoke by young singers.  This is a show that has turned into a perennial and is ever new and ever fresh.  Given the reaction to this brief return of "Little Shop of Horrors" to a New York stage, it is the dream of many of us that it may prompt a team of producers and investors to mount a long run of the show in a fully staged revival.

As it was, this brief return of Audrey and Audrey II to NYC was an event to be savored for a long while to come.  I felt blessed to have had a chance to be there for this historic moment.  This particular spot in my memory bank will long remain "Somewhere That's Green."