Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review of "Where Nobody Knows Your Name" by John Feinstein

John Feinstein is a prolific writer who has a knack for embedding himself into whatever tribe he is writing about at the time.  His "Civil War" about the history of the Army-Navy football rivalry is a classic.  In this new volume, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name," he tackles the world of minor league baseball at the Triple-A level.  His approach here is to focus on a handful of individuals and to follow their fortunes throughout the 2012 baseball season.  He chose several ballplayers, several managers, some front office men, an umpire and a broadcaster.  Chief among the baseball personnel highlighted are players Nate McClouth, Chis Schwinden, Brett Tomko, Scott Elarton, John Lindsey.  Also featured are managers Charlie Montoyo and Ron Johnson, umpire Mark Lollo,and front office legend Dave Rosenfield.  

The dynamic that comes across loud and clear in this book is that the Triple-A level of baseball is a place of constant movement.  Young prospects almost ready for the major league level are waiting for the call to move up to "The Show."  Veteran plays who are rehabbing from injuries use the Triple-A level to get ready to return to the big club as they come off of the disabled list.  Former big leaguers who are trying to make a return to their glory days labor in conditions well below what they have become accustomed to in terms of travel, hotels, food, pay and the size of the crowds.  Injuries among players in the parent club often generate a phone call to the Triple-A manager to send up a player as a temporary replacement.  Movement of players - showing up as "agate" in newspaper account of transactions - is constant.  A case in point is that the Pawtucket Red Sox, winners of the Governors' Cup as Champions of Triple-A baseball in 2012, used over 70 players during the 144 game season.
Only 7 of those players were still on the roster when the team claimed their trophy in September.

If you are a fan of Feinstein, you will enjoy this book. If you are a fan of baseball, you will find this book fascinating.  What a great time to bone up on baseball just below the major league level as we are only a few days away from the first pitch of the 2014 season.



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Brilliant Start To A Literary Career - Review of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" by Darragh McKeon

Darragh McKeon is destined to become a household name in the literary world.  His inaugural novel, "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air," is a stunning achievement.  It is profoundly moving and deeply insightful, using a variety of metaphors to tell the story of the dissolving of the Soviet Union and what it meant to a sampling of citizens in Kiev, Minsk, Moscow and Chernobyl.

The title of the book is derived from a quotation by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto.  The author's intentions for this story become clear, even from the additional opening epigram in which he quotes H.G. Wells: "To my mind, radioactivity is a real disease of matter.  Moreover, it is a contagious disease.  It spreads.  You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence.  It is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions."

The author expands on this metaphor of the crumbling Soviet Union being a sort of radioactive isotope as he tells the stories of individuals and families impacted by the meltdown at Chernobyl.  We watch families forcibly pulled from their homes near Pripyat, we see them separated from each other and rejected in Minsk as dangerous "glow works."  We watch their deterioration from radiation poisoning. We also learn other aspects of the story through the eyes of Grigory, a surgeon who was drafted into providing emergency medical care at Chernobyl.  We feel his frustration at the myopic Party officials unwilling to listen to his warnings about the effects of radiation.  In the end, he dies as much from heartache and frustration as he does from the effects of the excessive dosage of radiation his body was subjected to as he strove to save countless lives in the contamination zone.

McKeon also weaves into the narrative an ultimately uplifting tale of a young pianist, Yevgeni.  As a nine year old, he was bullied and harassed by classmates.  A delicate finger was broken by the bullies, and he was treated by Doctor Grigory, thus tying together two strands of this epic tale.  He ultimately triumphs, wins a spot in the Conservatory and grows to become a world class concert pianist.  His story stands as another metaphor for the struggle that gifted artists have always undergone at the hands of tyrannical and oppressive regimes.  The young bullies and petty criminals they emulate stand as strikingly appropriate embodiment of the bullying aparatchiki and Party officials that served as toxic isotopes for so many years.

This book hit close to home for me. In the early 1990s, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a UN fact-finding team looking at long term effects of radiation on the health of the people around Kiev.  I saw with my own eyes the global and personal devastation.  I observed the lingering cluelessness of the government officials trying to explain away the "small problem" that occurred at Chernobyl.  I sat at the bedside of patients suffering from thyroid tumors and leukemia.

In the course of telling a very compelling set of stories, Mr. McKeon has ensured that the "half life" of the effects of Chernobyl and of the obscurantist policies of the former Soviet officials remains visible to the reading public.

One quotation midway through the narrative seems to perfectly encapsulate the author's reasons for writing this book: "Sometimes I hear these words, 'glasnost,' 'perestroika,' and they sound to me like the final breaths of an empire." (p. 255)

In reading this book, I heard the final labored breaths of an empire, but also the initial hearty exhalations of a new literary breeze sweeping the landscape.  McKeon will be with us for some time radiating truth and illuminating humanity.



Friday, March 14, 2014

"Brundibar" Is Simply "Wunderbar"!!! Underground Railway Theater Presents "Brundibar & But The Giraffe" @ Central Square Theater.

Something wondrous is afoot in Central Square.  Underground Railway Theater is presenting two companion pieces: "Brundibar & But The Giraffe."  This short play and children's opera combination is a "not to be missed" event.  Let me outline some of the reason why I am so passionate about this project.

  • Pultizer Prize Winner Tony Kushner has adapted a children's opera that originated in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation, composed by Hans Krasa and Adolf Hoffmeister. 
  • During the Holocaust, part of the score and libretto were carried to the Terezin concentration camp and recreated.  The opera was performed by children who were imprisoned there.
  • In order to provide some historical context for the opera, Mr. Kushner wrote a short play, "And The Giraffe," that explains how the manuscript of the opera made its way from Prague to Theresienstadt.  In the play, Eva, a brave and self-sacrificing little girl makes a decision to leave her beloved stuffed giraffe behind to allow room in the one suitcase she was allowed for the manuscript to be transported.  Young Nora Iammarino is particularly impressive in the role of Eva.  She demonstrates a mastery of complex dialogue and a range of emotions that would be the envy of many seasoned adult actors.
  • Under the Direction of Scott Edmiston and Musical Direction of Todd C. Gordon, the ensemble of young actors and singers performed flawlessly.  They were singing very complex music with great confidence and precision.
  • The opera is a morality play in which two penniless children attempt to sing to earn money to buy milk for their ailing mother.  They are prevented from singing by the bully, Brundibar (in a terrific portrayal by John J. King), a clownish organ grinder who feels he should have a monopoly on busking in the town square.  
  • In its original context, the opera had obvious political undertones regarding the Nazi regime.  It translates well into our present era in which we are focusing on teaching our children how to deal with bullying.
  • The creative team and the adult actors who have been teaching and supporting the children's ensemble have created an environment and atmosphere that allows the children to shine while they learn.  The individuals responsible are credited below.
  • At a meta-level, under the Artistic Direction of Debra Wise, Underground Railway Theater demonstrates its commitment to train a new generation of artists and audience members who learn early in life how integral the arts must be to a full and balanced existence.
I strongly endorse this production, and encourage you to come to Central Square between now and April 6 - and bring the whole family.  Come to support these gifted young artists; come to be uplifted by them.

". . . And a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6)


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About Director Scott Edmiston
Scott Edmiston (Director) makes his Central Square Theater debut directing Underground Railway Theater’s Brundibar & But the Giraffe! Mr. Edmiston has previously worked with The Nora Theatre Company (prior to the residence at Central Square Theater) having directed productions of Betrayal (2003 Elliot Norton Award Outstanding Production) and Molly Sweeney (1998). Mr. Edmiston has directed more than 50 Boston-area productions at American Repertory Theatre, Lyric Stage Company, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Huntington Theatre Company, The Nora Theatre Company, Opera Boston, Boston Midsummer Opera, New Repertory Theatre, and Gloucester Stage, among others.  Highlights include Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The History Boys, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Time Stands Still, Other Desert Cities, My Name is Asher Lev , Nixon in China, Five by Tenn, Sunday in the Park with George, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), A Marvelous Party, The Light in the Piazza, Happy Days, and Miss Witherspoon. Awards include the 2012 Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award, 2011 Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence in Theatre 2009 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The History Boys, and The Light in the Piazza), 2009 IRNE Award for Best Director of a Musical (The Light in the Piazza), 2006 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director (Five by Tenn), 2006 IRNE Award for Best Director (Five by Tenn and The Women), 2005 StageSource Theatre Hero Award, and the 1998 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director (Molly Sweeney). Scott has taught at Boston University and Brown University/Trinity Rep, and is currently the director of the office of the arts at Brandeis University.

Todd C. Gordon (Music Director/Pianist) Todd C. Gordon has served as music director for productions with New Repertory Theatre (The ThreePenny Opera, Into the Woods, Ragtime, Lippa’s The Wild Party, Dessa Rose, Cabaret, Gutenberg! The Musical, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, The Black Monk (reading), Side by Side by Sondheim, The Gold Rush Girls (reading), According to Tip with Ken Howard, Sophie Tucker, The Last of the Red Hot Mamas with Mary Callanan, And the World Goes ‘Round, Rent, Little Shop of Horrors), Publick Theatre (H.M.S. Pinafore), Gloucester Stage (Carnival, Jacques Brel….), Charles Playhouse (Tomfoolery), Brandeis Theatre Co. (Sunday in the Park with George), Stoneham Theatre (Gypsy with Leigh Barrett, Groucho with Gabe Kaplan, The Good War) and Emerson Stage (The Music Man, West Side Story, Children of Eden, Working and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).  For his musical direction Todd has received 2 (two) IRNE awards from the independent reviewers of New England and 5 (five) IRNE nominations. When not working on shows Todd maintains a private vocal studio in the prestigious Steinert Building in Boston.

Phil Berman (Father/Dog) makes his debut on the CST stage, having worked previously as the production dramaturg for Roots of Liberty: The Haitian Revolution and URT’s American Civil War and Ti-Jean and His Brothers. Previous roles include Eggo in The Embryos (Fresh Ink), Ed Bishop in Floyd Collins (Moonbox Productions), Deviser/Narrator in Lunar Labyrinth (Liars and Believers), and as a co-creator and performer in the ongoing weekly toddler series Puppet Playtime (Puppet Showplace Theatre). Upcoming: Astroboy and the God of Comics (Company One). Phil is a member playwright of Boston Public Works. An album of his original music will be recorded in August.

Christie Lee Gibson (Mother/Cat) is a multidimensional artist who also works as a director, writer, and as general director of OperaHub. Previous credits include Jeanne in Jeanne's Fantasy, Sue in Sunday with Joy, Narrator in La Grenouille à grande bouche (Fort Point Theatre Channel); Hamlet in English and Gertrude in Spanish in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Actress 2 in Enjoy (Apollinaire Theatre Company); Socrate, The Four-Note Opera, The Choose-Your-Own Opera, Der Zwerg, L'Incoronazione di Poppea (OperaHub); The Actress in The Blue Room directed by Paula Plum at the Roberts Studio Theater; Avigail in Shulamis with new English dialogue at Harvard's Agassiz Theatre; Mrs. Japhett in Noye's Fludde (Falmouth Chorale); Ensemble/Musician in A Christmas Carol (Hanover Theater).

John F. King (Brundibar) Previous credits include Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman (IRNE Award), Cosmic/Director Bob in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (SpeakEasy Stage Company); u/s Whizzer in Falsettos (Huntington Theatre Co.); Conductor Flanagan in On The Twentieth Century starring Alice Ripley (Overture Productions); Edward Rutledge in 1776 (Lyric Stage Company of Boston); Carnival, Most Happy Fella (Gloucester Stage Company); Rooster in  Annie (Wheelock Family Theatre); Spamalot, Singing in the Rain The Producers, Spelling Bee, The Fantasticks, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Miss Saigon (IRNE nomination), Aida, Show Boat, Company, Smokey Joe’s Café, Chess, Last Night of Ballyhoo, Ragtime, The Rocky Horror Show, Cabaret , 42nd Street, La Cage Aux Folles, The Who’s Tommy, Blood Brothers , and Jesus Christ Superstar (The Company Theatre).  

Rebecca Klein (Aninku) Previous credits: The Diary of Anne Frank (Quannapowitt Playhouse); Spring Awakening (The Firehouse Center for the Arts); Les Misérables, Into the Woods, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; Snow White, Shrek the Musical (Peacock Players); Rent (The Performing Arts Connection); Footloose, Once on this Island, Grease (Bedford High School); and Fiddler on the Roof (John Glenn Middle School). She is a senior at Bedford High School. Awards: EMACT DASH Best Youth Actor/Actress (2012), EMACT DASH Best Ensemble Performance (2012), New Hampshire Theatre Awards Best Supporting Youth Actress (2013).

Jeremiah Kissel (Grandpa) makes his Central Square Theater debut in Brundibar. Previous Boston-area work includes productions at Huntington Theatre Co., American Repertory Theatre, Commonwealth Shakespeare Co., Lyric Stage Co. of Boston, New Repertory Theatre, and The Charles Playhouse. In New York, he has worked with West Side Rep and Abingdon Theater. Film and television credits include The Fighter, The Town, The Great Debaters, and Body of Proof. He was a recipient of the Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence in 2003.

Alec Shiman (Pepicek) Alec Shiman returns to CST after playing Jessie in last season’s Distracted (URT), for which he was recently nominated for the 2014 IRNE award for Most Promising Young Performer. Other credits include Gavroche in Les Misérables, Michael Banks in Mary Poppins, Gypsy (Maine State Music Theatre); Ragtime (Fiddlehead Theatre Company); To Kill a Mockingbird and James and the Giant Peach (Boston Children's Theatre). Alec received two IRNE nominations for Best Performance by a Young Actor for Ragtime and To Kill a Mockingbird and a BroadwayWorld Nomination for Les Miserables. In his spare time, Alec enjoys playing sports and spending time with friends.

Patrick Varner (Rudy/Brundibar Conductor) Theatre: The Comedy of Errors (Anthem Theatre), Winans Family Musical Workshop (dir. Charles Randolph Wright, ArtsEmerson), Fred! The Musical (Cutler Majestic), Hamlet, The Country Wife (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), Shining City, Buried Child, Camille (Boston University). Television: I (almost) Got Away with it (Discovery Networks). BFA Acting, Boston University; London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

Debra Wise (Grandmother/Sparrow; Artistic Director, Underground Railway Theater) is a founding member of Underground Railway Theater (URT) and has served as artistic director since 1998.  She has been involved in the creation of over 30 new works, as performer, playwright, director, and/or dramaturg. Wise is also artistic co-director of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, the ongoing science theater project between CST and MIT. She has appeared in six CC@MIT productions, including Einstein’s Dreams (based on the novel by Alan Lightman), Melinda Lopez’ From Orchids to Octopi: An Evolutionary Love Story and Wes Savick’s Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. Wise has received three Best Actress IRNE nominations (2012-The How and the Why, The Nora Theatre Company; 2011-Breaking the Code, URT/CC@MIT; 2010-A Christmas Memory, URT). She has performed at The Public in NYC (The Haggadah, by Elizabeth Swados and Julie Taymor) and with other Boston-area companies (New Rep, SpeakEasy, Súgán, and the Revels).  From 1997 to 2003, Wise co-directed the Women on Top Theater Festival of new works by New England women theater artists. She is a theater specialist for Art Works for Schools, a collaboration with Harvard’s Project Zero. She has taught at Tufts (Theater and Active Citizenship), MIT, and Northeastern.  She has led URT collaborations in non-traditional venues, including with the National Park Service, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Museum of Science, New Center for Arts and Culture, Mary Baker Eddy Library, and Mount Auburn Cemetery.  In 2001, Wise spearheaded Art InterACTions, using performance to engage audiences with visual art, which has played at the MFA, the ICA, and on the streets of Cambridge in dialogue with public art.

The creative team for BRUNDIBAR & BUT THE GIRAFFE! includes Choreography by Illyse Robbins, Scenic Designer Jenna McFarland Lord, Costume Designer Leslie Held, Lighting Designer Karen Perlow, Sound Designer Kyle Olmstead, and Puppetry Design by David Fichter. Joe Stallone is the Properties Master and Dominique D. Burford is the production Stage Manager, and Misaki Nishimiya is the production Assistant Stage Manager.

BRUNDIBAR & BUT THE GIRAFFE! plays at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, now through Sunday, April 6, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 3PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets may be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111, at the Central Square Theater box office, or online at For box office hours, group discounts, and more information call (617) 576-9278 x210.  

Central Square Theater (CST) opened in 2008 through a groundbreaking partnership between The Nora Theatre Company (The Nora) and Underground Railway Theater (URT). This collaboration has been called a model for the arts community (The Boston Foundation, Culture is our Commonwealth, and The National Collaboration Prize), as it has paired two like-minded performing arts organizations in a strategic alliance with the City of Cambridge and MIT, resulting in the development of a state-of-the-art performing arts center in the heart of Central Square. CST has a mission to support its two theaters-in-residence while maintaining a shared vision of artists and audiences creating theater vital to their communities. The Nora and URT have a combined track record of over 50 years producing award-winning theater. Located in Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and steeped in its multiracial, intergenerational, ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods, the CST theater experience exudes a democratic energy where classes, races and age groups come together to be inspired, entertained and energized.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Pearl Theatre Company Presents A Lustrous Production of "No Exit" by Jean Paul Sartre

The current production of "No Exit" presented by The Pearl Theatre Company was my first exposure to this group that regularly produces stage classics.  It will certainly not be my last visit.  This production is stunning in its design and execution.  Directed by Linda Ames Key, the cast of two men and two women are flawless in their interpretations of Sartre's hellish characters who serve as one another's tormentors in the embodiment of the author's iconic line: "Hell is other people."

I must also add that the rest of the creative team have done a "hell of a job" in creating an ecosystem in which the actors are able to tell their stories.  The set designed by Harry Feiner, lighting designed by Ann Wrightson, costumes by Devon Painter and the sound designed by Jane Shaw all work together synergistically to welcome the audience into the deceptively bland space that looks like a three-star hotel suite or a dentist's waiting room.

When he wrote it in 1944, Sartre's drama was deeply influenced by the experience of his France being occupied by the Nazis, and by his own seven months of confinement as a prisoner of war.  But the philosophical and existential elements of the play are universal and transcend his personal experience and his nation's fate.

A man and two women are thrown into a room that is clearly meant to portray hell.  Their destiny is to serve as one another's tormentors for eternity.  The set looks like a normal and banal hotel room, but behind scrims along the three walls are apparently random collections of broken objects from everyday life.  At the outset of the action of the play, the objects can be perceived only dimly by the audience.  I quickly determined that for me they represented the wreckage of the lives that the three characters had lived on earth before being condemned to spend eternity together in this space.  As the action unfolds and they begin to tell each other about the lives they had lived that had led to their condemnation to this place, the lights on the "wreckage" slowly brighten, and we see more and more details of what lies behind the scrims.  This is a brilliant artistic choice, and adds to the depth of this production's impact.

Bradford Cover is Cradeau, an intellectual journalist.  Pete McElligott is the valet who ushers each occupant into the room.  Jolly Abraham is Inez, a high society coquette who flirts shamelessly with Cradeau.  Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris is Estelle, a sharp and sharp-tongued working class woman. These four are perfectly cast in their respective roles.  At various times, the three occupants of the room taunt, tease, challenge, torment, seduce and attempt to comfort each other.  They slowly begin to come to terms with the inconceivable concept that they will be together like this forever.  They are stuck with each other.  And that seems to be Sartre's ultimate message and challenge to us all: We are stuck with one another on this planet from which there is no exit, so let's try not to make it hell for one another.

This is theater at a very high level of professionalism.  It comes with my strong recommendation.

The show will run through March 30 at 555 West 42nd Street.

Pearl Theatre Company Website: No Exit

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mini-Review of "Inside Marine One" by Col. Ray "French" L'Heureux and Lee Kelly

USMC Colonel (Retired) Ray "Frenchy" L'Heureux has written a wonderful memoir about his distinguished career flying four U.S. Presidents aboard the helicopter known as Marine One.  Lee Kelly served as his co-writer in telling the story of an illustrious career as a Marine aviator.

Despite the fact that I did not serve in the military, I found much to relate to in Col;. L'Heureux's richly told account.  He begins the story of his fascination with aviation in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, a quick helicopter flight from where I am sitting in Cambridge.  His first flight was from Beverly Airport, where I would sometimes rent single engine planes during my graduate school days on the North Shore.  His base of operations as part of HMX-1 was Quantico, Virginia.  A few yeas ago, I was among a group of citizens given a tour of the HMX-1 facilities.  He also describes riding inside a C-17 transport in moving a "lift load" of helicopters and personnel in support of a Presidential trip overseas.  Having had the experience myself of riding in the cargo bay of one of the amazing C-17s, I was able to picture the long journey across the Atlantic.

The tone of the book is humble in terms of describing his own prodigious achievements, and respectful in terms of describing his fellow Marines and the Presidents he was privileged to serve. While he is fair and even-handed in relating positive things about each of the Presidents he served - Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama, it is clear that he formed the strongest personal bond with George W. Bush.  The anecdotes about riding mountain bikes with the President at Camp David and at the ranch in Crawford, Texas reveal a great deal about Col. L'Heureux and the President who called him affectionately "The Frenchman."

In the course of sharing the story of his personal career, he throws a light on a part of our military that is often visible to the public, but little appreciated.  The complexities of running HMX-1 and serving as the President's personal helicopter pilot involve a dizzying coordination of overlapping systems and teams of support personnel - on the ground and in the air. As someone who has lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. area, I became accustomed to seeing Marine One flying to and from the White House.  Until reading this book, I had little understanding of what it takes to keep it and the President flying safely and securely.

This is a book that will be enjoyed by anyone who loves aviation, the military and a good yarn.

In an earlier Blog piece, I recounted my visited to HMX-1 Headquarters in Quantico.  The link to this article can be found below:

White Rhino Report.: HMX-1



"The Whale" by Samuel D. Hunter - SpeakEasy Stage Company Takes a Deep Dive At Some Complex Issues

Charlie on the Walker
John Kuntz, Georgia Lyman, and Ryan O'Connor 
in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "The Whale."
 Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.
SpeakEasy Stage Company is currently presenting the New England Premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's engrossing play, "The Whale."  This play is known -  on the surface, at least -  as the play about the 600 pound house-bound man who is eating himself to death.  But the play is only tangentially about obesity.  The author invites the audience to join him in a deep dive exploring many complex issues.  Many of those issues are interwoven with themes from the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, and from Herman Melville's take on that story in his ionic novel "Moby Dick."

Under the direction of David R. Gammons, a remarkable cast of actors brings Mr. Hunter's characters to life.  Using the artistry of Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco, Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelbeg and Sound Designer David Remedios, Mr. Gammons has created a claustrophobic world in which Charlie has imprisoned himself.  His self-imposed prison is a series of concentric shells - his decaying apartment, his ever-expanding chrysalis of flesh, the growing mound of trash that he and his caretaker refuse to clean, and his penumbra of grief all serve to imprison him in some manner.

Charlie's deep dive into despondency was triggered when his gay lover starved himself into an early grave after having been coerced into listening to a sermon at the Mormon church where he had grown up.  Charlie's response, in a fascinating bit of psychological reaction formation, is to do the opposite and eat himself to death.  As it becomes clear to him and to his caretaker that he has succeeded in inducing a terminal case of congestive heart failure, he feels the need to reach out to the teenage daughter he has not seen since she was a toddler.  To say that complications ensue would be an understatement. The daughter is profoundly angry at the world and at her absentee father.  Played powerfully by Josephine Elwood, Ellie emits death ray looks and verbal outburst, and only agrees to spend time with her father when he bribes here.

A young Mormon missionary, played with great dramatic range by Ryan O'Connor, serves as a foil for the author's desire to make some strong statements about the deleterious effects of religion in general, and on Charlie's life in particular.  Warming to that same theme is Liz, an ex-Mormon who provides care for Charlie while at the same time enabling his eating disorder by bringing him multiple meatball subs and buckets of fried chicken.  Played by Georgia Lyman with great sensitivity, Liz is a study in contrasts - caring for Charlie while being disgusted by him.  As the plot develops, we learn of her relationship to Charlie's departed lover, Alan.  Appearing late in the play is the character of Mary, Charlie's ex-wife, played artfully by Maureen Keiller.  Mr. Hunter clearly revels in presenting juxtapositions of stark contrasts, for Mary embodies anger and disgust at Charlie's past choices and present condition, but also falls into a moment of touching tenderness that comes almost as a coup de theatre.

John Kuntz is stunning in his complex portrayal of Charlie.  We as an audience quickly suspend disbelief and put away the notion that we are looking at an actor employing the artifice of a fat suit. Charlie becomes real to us though Kuntz's nuanced portrayal of Charlie's pain, his conflicting emotions of wanting to reach out while walling himself in.  As written, the character of Charlie is both the White Whale and Captain Ahab, in a fruitless quest to find revenge and retribution for the part of him that has been taken away.

This is a play that is difficult to "enjoy" because it evokes so many conflicting emotions within the audience members, but it is an important play to experience and to ponder..The author offers no facile answers to complex questions, nor does he always try to resolve the pairs of opposites that are presented throughout the drama.

SpeakEasy Stage Website

The play will run at Boston Center for the Arts through April 5.

Monday, March 10, 2014

In "Mount Terminus" David Grand has written a novel about the early days of Hollywood that has many of the elements of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic.  The Rosenbloom family  - father and son - has decamped from the East Coast to the wild canyons of Los Angeles to escape the aftermath of a complex family tragedy.  Jacob has become a recluse who tinkers with optical devices.  His son, Bloom, lives in enforced isolation on the family estate atop Mount Terminus overlooking the growing City of Angels.

As the complicated plot develops, Bloom discovers the existence of a half-brother who is a Hollywood mogul in the making.  The many layers of family history and family scandal emerge as if they are scenes from a silent film.  The relationship between the two brothers changes when the father dies, leaving a vast estate to Bloom, and revealing long-hidden secrets about deals that have been made and coerced bargains agreed to.

The biblical shadows are everywhere in this story - Rachel and Leah sharing the same lover.  The brothers Rosenbloom developing a love hate relationship not too different from that of Jacob and Esau.  There is even a flood of Noahic proportions.  Several versions of paradise are pursued and described.

The author kept me turning the pages to find out what would happen next to a growing cast of characters about whom I cared despite their quirky natures.



George Will loves to write and he loves baseball. The combination of those passions has resulted in a little gem of a book about Wrigley Field as that grand dame enters her second century of service on Chicago's North Side. He calls the book, "A Nice Little Place On The North Side - Wrigley Field At One Hundred"

I grew up a Red Sox fan, and to me Fenway Park will always be my baseball cathedral of choice. But I went to school in the Chicago area, and I quickly adopted Wrigley Field as my baseball home away form home. It makes sense. Red Sox fans and Cubs fans are like kissing cousins sharing much of the same family history of frustration, curses and cozy little ballparks that make it all worthwhile.

In this book, Will ties together the history of Chicago, the history of baseball, the history of the Cubs and the two-edged sword that Wrigley Field has been for Cubs fans down through the years. It has been a comfortable place to take in a day game, to sip beer and to sing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game." It has been too comfortable for the Cubs' owners, according to Will. Since fans come out to see the ball park as much as they do to see the Cubs, there has been little financial incentive to invest in a winning team or farm system.

The book is eye-opening and delightful. Mr. Will is a lover of the Cubs who sees the flaws in his home town team, and chooses to love her despite those flaws. As the ball park on the corner of Addison and Clark enters its second century, the ivy continues to grow and cling to the bricks in center field just as the fans continue to cling to the hope that someday the Cubs will return a World Series Championship banner to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.



Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Review of "Nothing On Earth Can Hold Houdini" Presented by the Axis Company

Randall Sharp has both written and directed a play about the famed Harry Houdini's impassioned campaign to debunk the spiritualists of his day whom he felt were taking advantage of naive individuals desperate to communicate with loved ones beyond the grave.

My evening at the theater began in an interesting manner.  I had invited as my guest a friend who literally lives around the corner from Sheridan Square, and has been in the neighborhood for over 20 years  So, it did not occur to me that we would have trouble finding 1 Sheridan Square, especially since I pass by 3 Sheridan Square each time I visit my friend.  We circumnavigated the block, asking everyone we could find if they knew where 1 Sheridan Square was located.  Blank stares.  We finally found the Axis Theater at the end of the charming little vest pocket Sheridan Square Park.  How ironic that Axis Theater had "escaped" my friend's notice all these years.

The recreation of Houdini's illusions were among the highlights of the evening.  The actors were all very professional and well cast in their roles. The box in which Houdini required the medium to be enclosed in order to prevent her from receiving clues was well executed and built according to Houdini's original plans.  In an earlier scene, Lynn Mancinelli was particularly impressive as she channeled the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle's departed son.  Her over-the-top histrionics were exactly what was called for in this situation.

While I found the show entertaining and worthy of attention, I found Mr. Sharp's script to be a bit muddled in some places.  When there was action - Houdini escaping the straight jacket or chains or the medium channeling spirits - the show was engaging.  When the characters engaged in long speeches and dialogues, I found that the pace lagged a bit.

My overall impression is that this acting company works at a polished level.  I look forward to returning often to this hidden jewel of a theater in the West Village.

The cast features George DemasSpencer Aste, Lynn Mancinelli, Brian Barnhart, David Crabb, Brian Linden. The production includes lighting design by David Zeffren, sound design by Steve Fontaine, costume design by Karl Ruckdeschel and dramaturgy by Marc Palmieri.

Axis Company Website

Can Hold Houdini

Written & Directed by Randall Sharp

February 27 - Apris 5, 2014
Thursdays - Saturdays at 8pm
Additional performances on Monday, March 3; Wednesday, March 5 and Wednesday, April 2 at 8pm

Adults: $40 Adults; $30 Seniors & Students
Running Time approximately 1:45
Nothing on Earth, written and directed by Randall Sharp, examines Houdini's driven crusade to expose fraudulent mediums and his crossing paths with the avid spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Both men are catapulted to the center of The Scientific American Magazine contest to find the first-ever provable clairvoyant, a battle that destroyed their friendship and left Houdini to continue his search for a true psychic to contact his mother. He was not successful. 

Axis Company has worked closely with William Kalush, Executive Director of the Conjuring Arts Research Center, Houdini scholar, and author of The Secret Life of Houdini, to re-create some of Houdini's most famous illusions and bring the audience on a journey to the strangest part of his life story. 

Featuring: Spencer Aste, Brian Barnhart, David Crabb, George Demas, Brian Linden and Lynn Mancinelli 

Lighting Design by David Zeffren
Asst. Light Design by Amy Harper
Sound Design by Steve Fontaine
Costume Design by Karl Ruckdeschel
Set Design by Chad Yarborough and Randall Sharp
Prop Design & Construction by Lynn Mancinelli
Dramaturgy by Marc Palmieri
Stage Management by Regina Betancourt