Sunday, June 30, 2013

World Premiere of "Arms on Fire" by Steve Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik - At the Chester Theatre Company

Like an artistic Colossus of Rhodes, the creative team of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik stands astride the breadth of Massachusetts casting a long shadow from the Berkshires to Bass Rocks.  Last Sunday I took in the current Gloucester Stage Company's fine production of the team's 2006 Broadway sensation, "Spring Awakening." (See link below to my review)

White Rhino Report - Spring Awakening

This Sunday I headed west to the sleepy town of Chester, Massachusetts (population 1,308) to the World Premiere production by the Chester Theatre Company of "Arms on Fire."  The new work is described as a "play with music," in contradistinction to a "musical play."  I found this description to be accurate, for the music, for most of the play, proves to be atmospheric.  In a sense, the music, when sung by the ghostly presence of Josephina, serves several purposes.  For the deracinated Ulysses, a former Honduran DJ now washed up on the rocky shores of Hell's Kitchen, the music serves either as a gentle breeze that stirs painful memories of his days with Josephina, or it functions as an ineffectual and swirling puff of wind that leaves him becalmed in the doldrums of regret and self-recrimination.  He lives a life of quiet - almost monastic - desperation toiling as a factory worker and retreating at the end of his shift to a bleak walk-up flat filled only with old record albums and memories of his lost love.

Into his life stumbles Smith, a failed singer and street hustler. Smith is looking for one last chance to succeed as a musician.  Somehow, he and Ulysses are strangely drawn to each other and develop a friendship that is classic New York dysfunction and hard scrabble toleration of each other, spiced with just enough mutual intrigue and affection to keep the audience wondering where all this may be leading.  Ulysses is teaching Smith to play chess, and it speaks volumes about Smith's character that he is most intrigued with the abilities of the Knight to move in an L pattern, and for the Bishop to move diagonally.  There is nothing strait forward about Smith.   In pawing through some of Ulysses's LP's, he finds some recordings of Josephina from her days as a lounge singer in Honduras.  He, too, falls under the spell of her Siren's song.

Director Byam Stevens, who also serves as Artistic Director for this gem of a theatre company, has assembled a remarkable trinity of actors to tell this story.  As an ensemble, they function as a three-pronged trident, piercing the hearts of audiences members as they interact with one another.  The nods to the myth of Odysseus are richly distributed throughout this modern tale. We learn early in the story that Josephina has died, so there is no Penelope to whom Ulysses can return.  His Penelope/Josephina has fallen prey to suitors - human and chemical - that have lain waste to her beauty and talent.  He and Smith are two men desperately trying to find new homes for their wounded hearts and souls.  Their clumsy and halting search for meaning and mutual understanding is accompanied by ghostly ballads and torch songs - sung by Josephina, who sometimes haunts them from behind a scrim and at other points in the story weaves in and out of the apartment - so close and yet so unattainable.

Ulysses (Guiesseppe Jones), Josephina Natalie Mendoza)
and Smith (James Barry)
Photo by Rick Teller

Natalie Mendoza brings a haunting physical beauty and an alluring and lyrical voice to the role of Josephina.  Guiesseppe Jones is the almost sphinx-like Ulysses, a steady rock who observes Smith closely, and gradually begins to thaw from his stony silence to reveal some of the pain of his past.  As he explains to Smith as they do their dance of getting to know each other, "I was a DJ and I talked for a living, so now it is time for me to listen.  But it has been a long time since I have had anyone to listen to."

James Barry is simply a tour de force as Smith.  The last time I remember seeing a performance as riveting as his depiction of Smith was when I watched Tony-Award winning actor, Mark Rylance, in "Jerusalem."  Smith is a bundle of complexities and contradictions; he is a hustler in need of nurture, a frenetic and twitchy junkie who is comforted by his stuffed animals, a psycho-babble spouting street philosopher who keeps an aquarium with fish named Depak Chopra and Ghandi.  Just when it appears he has squandered his artistic gifts  - much as Josephina had done years before - he sings and records a song based on a poem that Ulysses had written in memory of Josephina.  The gorgeous song "A Boat on the Sea," is a high point of the show and of the dramatic arc of the story.  Barry's singing chops are given full expression here, and the moment evoked in me chills and tears (my personal measure of a story that has touched me deeply!).  Ironically, in the wake of laying down some "tracks" for this recording, Smith also co-opts Ulysses into injecting him with dope - laying down needle tracks that can only be leading into a dark tunnel.  Early rehearsals for this play took place a few blocks from the theater, in the old Chester railroad station, next to tracks that are still used for freight and Amtrak service - evocative of the journey theme of this play.

During much of the play, Smith address Ulysses as "U-man."  This moniker comes across both as typical  NYC street "dude talk," but also as "human," turning the ex-DJ into an Everyman.  He is every man who has been crushed and silenced by life's battles and failed loves, but who also harbors a human need to reach out and connect - even to the point of hungering to offer nurture and rescue - even to a "Smith" - another Everyman name.  Drawing from lessons he had learned as a boy from his Abuela in Honduras, U-man cooks up healing recipes of cafe con leche and soup to bring to Smith, who suffers from chronic breathing difficulties.

The audience was universally enthusiastic over this new play and its flawless execution.  It is a play that needs to be seen by a broad audience.  It runs for one more week in Chester.  I encourage you to plan a post-4th of July road trip out the Massachusetts Turnpike and US Route 20.  It will prove to be an odyssey worth taking.

As an interesting aside, a new restaurant has just opened up down the street from the theater in Chester.  I happened upon Wyld Thyme on 30 Main Street, and had a delicious and very affordable lunch prior to the Sunday matinee.  When you make the trip, double your pleasure and plan to stop by.

Wyld Thyme



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by Steven Sater, with Music by Duncan Sheik

Tony Award Winning Creators of SPRING AWAKENING

Running June 26 ­ July 7

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