Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of "The Moon and Sixpence" by Somerset Maugham - Painting An Unflattering Portrait of A Genius Artist



In this acclaimed novel, Somerset Maugham has painted a very unflattering portrait of Paul Gauguin in the person of the fictional Charles Strickland.  In "The Moon and Sixpence," the author takes the reader through an arduous journey following the impassioned odyssey of an painter in search of himself and the ultimate expression of his art.  The collateral damage that Strickland/Gauguin left in his wake is almost unimaginable.  He walked away from the life of a London stockbroker with a wife and two children, leaving them destitute and at the mercy of his wife's sister and brother-in-law.

Having fled London, the painter lived a life of penury and poverty in Paris while scraping together enough money to reside and paint in a grubby atelier  With the exception of a Dutch ex-pat painter of dubious artistic reputation, no one who saw Strickland's paintings saw any merit in them, yet he soldiered on.  He almost died of fever, but was nursed back to life by the Dutchman and his wife.  His thanks for that act of kindness was to steal the Dutchman's wife and drive her to commit suicide.

His itinerary to find himself took him next to Marseilles, where he ran afoul of a tough master of the docks who threatened to kill him, so he hired himself out to a ship heading to the South Pacific and finally landed in Tahiti.

It was of course his pictures from the Tahiti period that prompted the art world to eventually pronounce him a genius.  He took a common law Tahitian wife who bore him two children, one of whom died as an infant.  He lived the last years of his life knowing that he was dying of leprosy, yet painted some of his best work during that period of his life.

Maugham tells an unvarnished story in a way that is fascinating.  He purports to make no moral judgments on the choices that Strickland made, but at the end of the novel, I could not help but be repulsed by the type of human being that Strickland turned out to be. Does artistic genius justify inhuman behavior towards others?  The novel asks the question implicitly.  It is clear that despite his having found his own paradise in the South Pacific, living with Strickland/Gauguin was no Garden of Eden picnic.

Along the way, the author indulges in a wonderful and lyrical philosophical disquisition on the nature of beauty:

"Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul.  And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know.  To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist.  It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination." 

Amen!

Mini-Review of "Theatre" by Somerset Maugham



As I get into the rhythm of reading several Somerset Maugham novels in a row, I begin to sense some of his persona leaking through the narrative of his stories.  We now know that he lived as a closeted bisexual for much of his life, and that fact of biographical history sheds some light on the female characters he portrays whose libido often exceeds that of their more passive male companions.  We have such a pair on display in "Theatre."  Julia has become the most celebrated stage actress in London.  Her husband Michael, a former mediocre actor and now her manager and theater owner, seems to be living a repressed and celibate life within their marriage after the union had produced a son who follows a well-worn path to Rugby and Cambridge.  Julia, on the other hand, has a long running affair with a callow youth who steals her heart and uses his closeness to her fame as a stepping stone to meet influential society people and beautiful young actresses.

As he does in many of his novels, Maugham uses the action in which his colorful characters engage to comment upon aspects of society that he finds boring and odious.  The behind the scenes gossip from the world of the London stage is intriguing and titillating, and his observations on the nature of love and of fame make this novel an entertaining read.

Enjoy!

Al

New Rep Theatre Continues Its 30th Anniversary Season With "The Little Prince"

Nick Sulfaro as The Aviator
"The Little Prince"
New Rep Theatre
Through December 21


When Antoine Saint-Exupery published his novella and sketch book, "The Little Prince," about the mysterious boy who travels from a distant planet to the Sahara, critics were mixed in knowing how to categorize the work.  Was it a children's book or a philosophical work for adults?  The best comprise description seems to be that it is "a parable for grown people in the guise of a simple story for children."  Over the years there have been many dramatic adaptations of this tale on screen and on stage.  The current adaptation being presented by the New Rep Theatre uses Music by Rick Cummins and Book and Lyrics by John Scoullar.  The production is Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins.  The Set design by Matthew Lazure is beautifully rendered, using elements that suggest airplane instruments, compasses and other astronomical devices, with a space for shadow projection, a rotating disc and hidden spaces that become volcanoes and wells.  Costumes by Chelsea Kerl are creative and effective, Lighting by Karen Perlow is just right as is Sound Design by Michael Policare.

The cast of four work hard during this show that feels a bit too long, partly because with a few exceptions, the music and lyrics are largely vanilla and forgettable.  The exceptions are the Prince's song "44 Sunsets," Conceited Man's "Admire Me," and the duet between the Fox and the Little Prince "Day After Day."



The Little Prince is portrayed by young Wil Moser.  He has a very pleasing singing voice and an engaging presence.  On opening night, his movements seemed a bit mechanical and deliberate, but he seems to have good stage instincts, so I expect that he will settle more comfortably into that aspect of the role as the run of the show progresses.

Nick Sulfaro as The Aviator stranded in the Sahara also has a very nice singing voice.  I would have wished for a bit more emotional range from his character, but I sense that some of that limited range is due to the way in which the character is written.  He shines in the number "Some Otherwhere."

Laura Jo Trexler shows flexibility in portraying both the  stationary Rose and the slithering Snake. She conveys heartbreak in singing her adieu to The Little Prince in "I Love You Goodbye."

Andrew Barbato plays a variety of Men of the Planets in Act I and The Fox in Act II.  He flat out steals the show.  His versatility in portraying a succession of solipsistic solo inhabitants of tiny planets is a delight.  I roared with laughter at his antics as a King, a Conceited Man and a Business Man.  As The Fox, he toggles back and forth between appearing ferocious one second and cuddly the next.  His interactions with The Little Prince as they negotiate whether or not the boy should undertake to "tame" the fox is a highlight of the show.

The theme of taming takes on a new form as the relationship between the Little Prince and the Aviator matures.  It is at this point that the story hones in on the metaphysical themes of the story as the fox imparts his wisdom to The Little Prince, who in turn shares it with the Aviator: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

There is much to delight the eye and ear in this show.    It can be a good holiday treat for the family.

"The Little Prince" will run at the Arsenal Center for the Arts trough December 21st.

New Rep Theatre Website

Enjoy!

Al

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mini-Review of "The Razor's Edge" by Somerset Maugham



I have long been aware of the works of Somerset Maugham, and knew that I needed to add him to my list of authors whose works I have read.  It took the recommendation of an acquaintance to prompt me to pick up "The Razor's Edge."  Mr. Maugham sets himself as the narrator of the tale of an unconventional life lived by Larry after returning from WWI as a wounded aviator whose best friend died saving Larry's life. What was then called "shell shock, and is now referred to as "PTSD," provides a backdrop for Larry's refusal to take a conventional job and to "loaf."  What he lightly dismisses as "loafing" consisted of many years of arduous study - self-directed and eclectic - in London, Paris and India.

The novel has at its center the tension that arises from the inability of Larry's fiancee, Isabel, to understand Larry's failure to take a respectable job and lead a normal life in the new money society of Chicago.  The author uses this conceit to offer brilliant and arch commentary on the vapid nature of society in Chicago, London, Paris and the Riviera.  In sharp contrast to the empty society "Season" is Larry's long season of study and reflection, leading into a search for philosophical and spiritual meaning to life.  Having seen his friend die before him, he wants to know the true nature of life and death.

Maugham calls himself an author who sits "in the first row of the second tier of writers," yet masters of the art of writing, from Theodore Drieser to Gore Vidal, have hailed him as a source of inspiration for their own writing.

This was such a satisfying read that I immediately launched into his novel, "Theatre."  Review to follow soon.

Enjoy!

Al

Mini-Review: ArtsEmerson - The World On Stage - Presents "The Old Man and The Old Moon" by Pigpen Theatre Company

"The Old Man and The Old Moon"
Photo by: Liz Lauren

If your tastes run toward engaging folk tales told in a warm and cozy low-tech way that is simply mesmerizing, then keep your eyes open for the next time that Pigpen Theatre Company comes to town. They have just finished a limited engagement, presented by ArtsEmerson - The World On Stage, of their acclaimed production of "The Old Man and The Old Moon."

Simply put, the show is a folkloric tale of how the moon waxes and wanes, told by the troupe of seven actors/musicians, using song, narrative, shadow puppetry, and a dizzying array of clever stage craft using simple props.  One of my favorite was a lovable dog fashioned from a Clorox bottle and some white yarn.  It was a treat to suspend disbelief!

The performers, who met one another during their freshmen year at Carnegie Mellon, have been creating shows and music together ever since, and presenting them to an ever-growing and enthusiastic throng of followers and fans.  You can certainly add me to that list of those who have come to appreciate their artistry and their spirit..  The troupe are: Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi and Dan Weschler.  Their energy is infectious.  It was a fell good evening at the theater.

The performers were ably assisted by the Direction of Stuart Carden, Scenic Design, Puppetry and Costumes of Lydia Fine, Lighting by Bart Cortright and Sound by Mikhail Fiksel.

If you are regular reader of The White Rhino Report, it should be readily apparent by now that anything that ArtsEmerson presents - plays, films, concerts - is worth seeing.  So, why not save yourself the regret of missing something fantastic and the hassle of having to frequently visit the ArtsEmerson website to see what is coming up and buy a Season Subscription for yourself and someone special.

ArtsEmerson Website

Pigpen Theatre Company Website

Enjoy!

Al



Cicely Tyson Stars in ArtsEmerson's Presentation of Horton Foote's "The Trip To Bountiful" - A Pearl of Great Price

Blair Underwood as Ludie Watts
Cicely Tyson as Mother Watts
Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae Watts
"The Trip To Bountiful"
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre
Through December 7
Forgive me if I struggle for words in trying to describe just how transcendent Cicely Tyson is as Mother Watts in Horton Foote's timeless odyssey play "The Trip To Bountiful."  ArtsEmerson has scored another coup in bringing this illustrious production to the stage of the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre.

As I was processing what I had experienced in the moments and hours following the last curtain call of "The Trip To Bountiful," it occurred to me that I had struck gold on two successive nights as an audience member.  On Thursday, I experienced the genius of cellist Yo-Yo Ma as he played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  On Friday evening I was transported by the very different genius of Ms. Tyson.  It was like sitting down to a meal of oysters and finding a Pearl of Great Price in two successive mollusks.  What are the chances of that happening?


Upon further reflection, I came to the conclusion that even though Yo-Yo Ma and Cicely Tyson practice very different art forms, the dynamics that explain what makes their performances rise to the level of virtuosity are remarkably similar.  Permit me to plagiarize myself and draw from my reflections on Yo-Yo Ma's recent performance at Symphony Hall.

  • Respect for the Integrity of the Text - Whether playing the works of Bach, Dvorak, Prokofiev or a more modern composer, he respects the composer's intent and applies all of his skill and artistry to offering a legitimate interpretation of the music as intended by the composer.
  • The Quality of His Instrument - Mr. Ma plays a rare Stradivarius cello, a Venetian cello, known as the Montagnana, which was made in 1733 by Antonio Stradivari.  That classic instrument adds a warmth of tone that cannot be achieved with a lesser instrument.
  • His Technical Brilliance - He has spent many more than Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours perfecting the technical aspects of his craft, and he knows how to extract every nuance of sound from his cello.
  • The Genius of His Artistry - Layered on top of the scaffolding of his technical proficiency are fine brush strokes of interpretation and artistry that transcend the mechanics of making the cello's string vibrate, but also cause a stirring in the soul.
  • His Obvious Joy and Passion For The Music and Its Presentation - While playing or resting on stage , he engages the orchestra members with his smiles, his eyes, his nods, saying, in effect, "We are on this journey together."
  • His Humility and Lack of Pretense - During curtain calls, he always defers to the conductor and orchestra members, acknowledging them, standing with them, sharing the glory.
I would like to examine these same six characteristics as they apply to Ms. Tyson's portrayal of Mother Watts in "The Trip To Bountiful"
  • Respect for the Integrity of the Text - There is a back story that I will relate below that demonstrates how deeply moved Ms. Tyson was when she first saw the film version of "The Trip To Bountiful" starring Geraldine Page in an Oscar-winning performance.  She was moved by the story, and seeks to be faithful to Mr. Foote's vision each time she steps on stage to tell the story.
  • The Quality of The Instrument - In the case of an actor, her instrument is her voice, her body, her soul and her whole person.  Like a rare Stradivarius stringed instrument, Ms. Tyson's instrument has mellowed through the years to produce more rich, warm, lush and subtle tones and overtones.
  • Her Technical Brilliance - A actor friend who accompanied me to the performance commented on the precision with which Ms. Tyson moved her feet to convey different shades of mood and of meaning.  She also modulated her voice and her physical movements to reflect what Mother Watts was thinking, feeling and planning at any given moment.
  • The Genius of Her Artistry - Technique without artistry can feel mechanical and hollow.  Into the empty vessel of technical brilliance she poured the nectar of her je ne sais quoi and her joie de vivre.
  • Her Obvious Joy and Passion For The Telling of This Story - Mother Watts sings hymns - to lift her spirits and to drive her embattled daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, to distraction.  She dances with elan, she swoons into a near faint at the news of the death of her dear friend.  She wrings every ounce of energy out of her soul in showing us that even at an advanced age, Mother Watts is a woman of deep passion and formidable prowess hiding inside a deceptively frail physical frame.
  • Her Humility and Lack of Pretense - During the final curtain call, she allowed herself to be hoisted in the air and carried off stage by her co-stars, Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. She is more Velveteen Rabbit than China Doll. 
Cicely Tyson as Mother Watts
Photo by Joan Marcus



But "The Trip To Bountiful" is not a One Woman Show, so there are other accolades to be accorded. Michael Wilson provides superb direction to this very fine cast.  The Scenic Design of Jeff Cowie is worthy of its own paragraph.  From the curtain that suggests the humble skyline of Houston in the 1950s, to the two Colored Waiting Rooms in the Greyhound stations of Houston and Harrison, Texas, to the pre-Rosa Parks "Back of the Bus" interior that Mother Watts shares with young Thelma, to the dilapidated yet bucolic homestead in Bountiful - each element coalesced to enhance the telling of this powerful story.  The Costume Design of Van Broughton Ramsey, Lighting by Rui Rita and Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada all contributed their own brush strokes to this living and breathing masterpiece.

I mentioned the character of Thelma, played wonderfully by Jurnee Smottett-Bell.  When Mother Watts finally breaks away from Jessie Mae and Ludie to make her final trip home to tiny Bountiful, Texas, she is joined in the waiting room of the bus terminal and on the first leg of her journey by a young bride whose husband has just left for the military.  The chemistry between these two is the polar opposite of the vitriol that exists between Mother Watts and Jessie Mae, played with gleeful smirking venom by the lovely Vanessa Williams.  Mother Watts and Jessie Mae are no Ruth and Naomi from the Old Testament.  In that heart-warming story, the daughter-in-law so loves and respects her husband's mother that she proclaims, "Whither thou goest I shall go."  If Jessie Mae were to proclaim her intention towards Mother Watts, it would be: "Whither thou goest I shall go . . . and track you down and drag you back to Houston where you belong!"  Poor Ludie is caught in the middle of the two women he loves - his mother, the irresistible force and his wife, the immovable object.  Something's got to give!  Blair Underwood plays Ludie with a subdued mixture of quiet dignity, befuddlement, resignation and wistfulness.  Arthur French as the bus station attendant in Harrison makes a strong impression.  Additional ensemble members include Devon Abner, Pat Bowie, Wade Dooley, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr. and Desean Kevin Terry.

While the cast supporting Ms. Tyson are very fine actors, they are faithful acolytes at the altar as she presides over an act of theatrical transubstantiation - changing the savory wine of Mr. Foote's text into the life blood of a story of resurrection and redemption.

I promised a back story about Ms. Tyson's connection to this role.  When she saw the film version of "The Trip To Bountiful," she was so moved by Geraldine Page's performance, that she went to see her agent and said, "If you can find me a role like that, I will gladly retire.  Find me my Bountiful!"  Many years later, Horton Foote's daughter approached her and told her that they would be mounting an all-black production of the play that had been originally written about a working class white family.  She informed Ms. Tyson that her father had been a great admirer of her work, and it would be unthinkable to cast anyone else in the role of Mother Watts.  Finally, Cicely Tyson had her "Trip To Bountiful," for which she won the Tony in 2013 for the performance that she is now reprising here in Boston.

The play will be in Boston through December 7th.  To say that "The Trip To Bountiful" is a MUST SEE would be to understate the case.  I promise that there will not be another theatrical event in the next few months more worthy of your entertainment dollar than this play and this performance. Purchase a chance to observe the luster of this Pearl of Great Price.

ArtsEmerson Website

Enjoy!

Al

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Some Remarks On The Genius Of Cellist Yo-Yo Ma - Reactions To His Recent Appearance With the Boston Symphony Orchestra



I have long been one of the many fans that cellist Yo-Yo Ma has accumulated around the globe.  I have not only heard him play on numerous occasions, but have also spent time with him, and learned that the man is as impressive as the musician.

I was able to garner a Rush ticket to hear him perform the Prokofiev Cello Concerto this Thursday evening in Symphony with the BSO.  As always, I was deeply impressed and deeply moved by his playing.  As I have reflected on what it is about his playing that captivates so many music lovers, I have identified six elements that I think begin to explain the phenomenon that is Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the greatest cellist of his generation.

  • Respect for the Integrity of the Text - Whether playing the works of Bach, Dvorak, Prokofiev or a more modern composer, he respects the composer's intent and applies all of his skill and artistry to offering a legitimate interpretation of the music as intended by the composer.
  • The Quality of His Instrument - Mr. Ma plays a rare Stradivarius cello, a Venetian cello, known as the Montagnana, which was made in 1733 by Antonio Stradivari.  That classic instrument adds a warmth of tone that cannot be achieved with a lesser instrument.
  • His Technical Brilliance - He has spent many more than Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours perfecting the technical aspects of his craft, and he knows how to extract every nuance of sound from his cello.
  • The Genius of His Artistry - Layered on top of the scaffolding of his technical proficiency are fine brush strokes of interpretation and artistry that transcend the mechanics of making the cello's string vibrate, but also cause a stirring in the soul.
  • His Obvious Joy and Passion For The Music and Its Presentation - While playing or resting on stage , he engages the orchestra members with his smiles, his eyes, his nods, saying, in effect, "We are on this journey together."
  • His Humility and Lack of Pretense - During curtain calls, he always defers to the conductor and orchestra members, acknowledging them, standing with them, sharing the glory.

And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  I always walk away from a Yo-Yo Ma performance uplifted and somehow feeling transcendent.  What a gift it is for us in Boston and Cambridge to have him as a neighbor and permanent Artist in Residence.

Al

Review of "Side Show" - Freakishly Entertaining New Broadway Revival


Emily Padgett as Daisy Hilton
Erin Davie as Violet Hilton
"Side Show"
at the
St. James Theater

If you have been wondering what Broadway show to see next, put "Side Show" near the top of your list.  This revival of a 1997 musical with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger just finished a spectacularly successful run at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and has now moved into the St. James Theatre for what promises to be an extended run.  This production represents the Broadway directorial debut of Oscar winner Bill Condon, who directed the film version of "Dream Girls." 

Significant changes have been made to the original musical, and additional back story elements have been added that tell of the early days in the UK of the conjoined Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet.  What makes this telling of the Hilton sisters' stories so intriguing is its sympathetic treatment of the "Freaks" with which the Hiltons performed for much of their earlier career.  What is on display for the audience to gawk at - in addition to being intrigued by the wonders of nature and "God's mistakes" that made up "Sir's Freak Show" - are the various shades of  treachery and duplicity of those who seek to exploit the freaks.  If there is a politically correct way of considering freaks and their lot in life, this show has found the right formula.  It would be impossible not to be moved - while being thoroughly entertained - by this saga of Daisy and Violet.

Henry Krieger, who also composed the music for "Dream Girls" and "The Tap Dance Kid" has crafted some memorable and hauntingly beautiful songs for this show.  Bill Russell has written some very nuanced characters to complement the Hiltons.   It becomes obvious early in the show that although conjoined and physically identical, Daisy and Violet are polar opposites in terms of personalities and aspirations.  Violet lives up to her "shrinking Violet" name and is reserved and wants to find a way to live a private life out of the glare of the public's garish curiosity.  Daisy wants to shine as a star and be celebrated for her beauty and talent.  In many ways, they are a mis-matched pair.  One thing that they share in common is they both want to be loved.  They are paired - in business and to some degree in romance - with a couple of show business guys who cajole their way into their lives and hearts and free them from their indentured servitude to the abusive Sir and his freak show.  Each of these men is internally mis-matched. Terry Connor is externally charming and smooth and drop dead gorgeous handsome, yet on the inside harbors bigotry that comes out when he makes a proposal to Daisy that changes the nature of the game.  Buddy Foster teaches the girls to dance, professes love for Violet, proposes to her, but is deeply conflicted because the evidence shows that his passions lie in different directions.  So, in a sense, Mr. Russell has given us two sets of mis-matched twins whose fortunes we follow on the edge of our seats.


Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor
Emily Padgett as Daisy Hilton
Erin Davie as Violet Hilton
Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster
"Side Show"
at the
St. James Theater


The creative team in support of Mr. Krieger, Mr. Russell and Mr. Condon's work have done a wonderful job of creating an atmosphere that allows us to feel what the freak show life and Vaudeville must have been like for these colorful characters.  David Rockwell's scenic design is spot on, as are the costumes of Paul Tazewell, the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer  and the sound design of Peter Hylenski.  Worthy of special recognition is the incredibly creative work of Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey in turning ordinary actors into very credible freaks.

The producing team have assembled a freakishly talented ensemble of actors who make this such a special show.
  • Erin Davie as Violet and Emily Padgett as Daisy are simply stupendous - individually and as a duo.  Their on stage chemistry runs the gamut from tender camaraderie to disgust with being stuck with each other.  Their songs "I Will Never Leave You," "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "Stuck With You/Leave Me Alone" are each brilliant in their own way.  Their cumulative effect is almost overwhelming, and guaranteed to keep stock in the Kleenex Company soaring for the foreseeable future.
  • Ryan Silverman as Terry Connor is a wonder in this role that requires him to allow us to glimpse some of the slick con man showing through the pleasing veneer of his suave and debonair charmer.  His singing voice is impressive and he keeps the audience wondering if he is hero or villain up to the end.
  • Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Connor is a perfect "Yin" to Mr. Silverman's "Yang."  He shows Violet and Daisy how to dance, and shows Violet how to love - up to a point.  He plays the role as convincingly conflicted.
  • David St. Louis is one of the "Freaks" in Sir's show, portraying the "King of the African Cannibals."  He serves as a protector - both physically and emotionally - for the Hilton twins.  He also secretly loves Violet, yet that love is never requited or reciprocated.  His tragic and majestic aria, "You Should Be Loved," is a showcase for his sonorous bass voice, and is so moving that it almost stops the show.
David St. Louis as Jake
"Side Show"
at the
St. James Theater

  • Robert Joy is appropriately cast in the role of Sir, owner of the Freak Show and legal guardian for the Hiltons.  He is oleaginous and smarmy.
  • The rest of the ensemble portray the denizens of the Freak Show, as well as a host of other characters.  They are:
    • Brandon Bieber
    • Matthew Patrick Davis
    • Charity Angel Dawson
    • Lauren Elder
    • Derek HAnson
    • Javier Ignacio
    • Jordanna James
    • Kelvin Moon Loh
    • Barrett Martin
    • Con O'Shea-Creal
    • Don Richard
    • Blair Ross
    • Hannah Shankman
    • Josh Walker

The Freaks
"Side Show"
at the
St. James Theater


The opening number, "Come Look At The Freaks" serves the dual purpose of introducing each of the physical oddities that constitute the cast of Sir's Freak Show, and at the same time shines a glaring spotlight on the exploitation from which Daisy and Violet seek to escape.

Given the enthusiastic response from this week's audiences, this revival shows all the signs of having a long and satisfying run on Broadway.  With the holidays coming up, treat yourself and someone special to tickets to "Side Show."

As I was leaving the theater after the final curtain calls I ran into Mr. Bill Russell, writer and lyricist for the show.  As I offered my congratulations, he aptly had the look of a proud father who had just watched his child reach a new milestone of maturity, proficiency and public acclaim.

Side Show Website

Enjoy!

Al

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review of "Your Brand" by Michael Brito - Turning Your Company Into A Media Company



In the briskly paced "Your Brand," Michael Brito's approach to explicating what a Social Business Strategy is and how to execute one for your company is straight forward and comprehensive.  He offers a point by point explanation and step by step formula for executing on such a strategy of turning whatever business you may be operating into a media company that tells its own story effectively and in a dynamic and timely manner.

I was particularly gratified when I saw that a company that I know well, and use each day,GaggleAmp, was included in the list of necessary ingredients for a balanced diet of social media.  GaggleAmp enhances and amplifies a company's ability to use its own employees to tell the company's story to their own individual social networks. (pages 85-86)

GaggleAmp Website


This book is a "must have" for the persons who are responsible for organizing the way that their company authors its narrative and presents that ever-changing narrative to the world in a way that is consistent and compelling.

Enjoy!

Al

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review of "Haiti: The Aftershocks of History" by Laurent Dubois



Laurent Dubois has written a landmark book about Haiti - its past history, current dilemma and future prospects.  His extensive research has allowed him to present a comprehensive picture of the historical, cultural, racial, geopolitical, economic and anthropological tectonic plates that have been grinding against each other since before Haiti declared its independence in 1804.

I lived for a year in the mountains of Haiti from 1974-5, during the reign of Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.  I have studied Haitian history, language and culture, and have returned to this complex country three times since the earthquake of 2010.  I learned a great deal of new information about Haiti from this book, and gained a new understanding of how actions over the years on the part of France and the United States in particular have handicapped this island nation and made it virtually impossible to forge a sustainable economy and independent governance.  The section of the book that provides detailed description of the twenty years of US Marines occupation of Haiti early in the 20th Century was both enlightening and infuriating.

This book should be a Must Read for anyone planning to travel to Haiti, work in Haiti or who aspires to involve himself or herself in work that would seek to make a difference in this part of the world.  This book is a case study in unintended consequences.  The eradication of the indigenous population of black pigs to counteract an outbreak of swine flu, and replacing them with white pigs from the U.S. is a poignant case in point.  That sad chapter in paternalism also stands as an ironic metaphor for much that has been wrong in Haiti for over two hundred years - kill the black and replace it with the white!

I am already planning on giving copies of this book to Haitian friends and non-Haitians who are working for NGOs operating in Haiti.  "Haiti - The Aftershocks of History" is a valuable contribution to our understanding of this wondrous place many of us praise in song as "Ayiti cheri"!



Enjoy!

Al

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review of "The Real Thing" by Tom Stoppard - Presented by Bad Habit Productions



"Loving and being loved is unliterary."  That phrase pretty much sums up the dilemma facing several of the characters in Tom Stoppard's classic play "The Real Thing."  This play is being revived on Broadway with an all-star cast, but the cast that Bad Habit Productions has assembled under the direction of A. Nora Long for this Boston production need not take a back seat to anyone, for they are universally excellent in their roles.

It was clear to me from the start why this play has had such a long shelf life, and why Bad Habit chose it as part of its 8th season.,  Stoppard's creative and poetic use of language and his insights into complex relationships have kept him near the top of the heap of playwrights writing in the English language.

Tom Stoppard


This is a production that must be seen.  Shelley Barish has created a simple and flexible set that is often quickly converted from a living room to a train traveling between London and Glasgow and back again to a living space without disrupting the smooth flow of Stoppard's compelling narrative.   Costumes by Bridgette Hayes, precise dialect coaching by Crystal Lisbon and sound design by Chris Larson create an ecosystem in which the actors flourish and their characters spring into vibrant life.

Here is how Bad Habit sets the scene for the action and premise of this two act play:

"In the business of show, the lines between fact and fiction are not always easy to navigate. When brilliant but dim writer Henry falls in love with dim but brilliant Annie (a married actress who is not his wife), he goes on a journey that constantly confounds his own understanding of the value of love, fidelity, and art. This backstage comedy is both smart and full of heart."


As interesting as is Stoppard's plot about the complexities of love and faithfulness, what really makes this play and this production soar is the chemistry that sizzles among the characters  Passions of lust and jealousy, distrust, empathy and forgiveness are stirred together into a boiling cauldron of smart dialogue and physical interactions that are sometimes shocking and always memorable.  The playwright has given these actors vehicles for driving home the many plot points, and they drive those vehicles with precision and ferociousness.  The scenes that represent mini-plays within the larger play add texture and levels of interest that I found fascinating - art imitating life imitating art.

The players are:
  • William Bowry as Billy/Brodie - We learn about this incarcerated Scottish firebrand long before he ever appears on stage, for Annie has decided to take him under her wing and help him become a writer.  Mr. Bowry's seething rage coupled with the ineluctable charm of a Lothario make his scenes indelible.  This is an actor who radiates the savage energy of a young Marlon Brando, and he promises to be a force to be reckoned with on the waterfront of the Boston theater scene for the foreseeable future.
  • Shanae Burch as Debbie - Her time on stage is short, but in her key scene in which the rebellious teenage daughter is about to run off with her sketchy boyfriend, she makes a strong impression.
  • Courtland Jones as Annie - As she toggles back and forth among the men in her life - Max, Henry and Brodie - she establishes a character who is enigmatic, bold and intriguing.  She commands our attention whenever she is on stage, and her performance is a highlight of this production.
  • R. Nelson Lacey as Max - He shines in the opening scene in which he accuses Charlotte of adultery.  We later learn that he is an actor playing a role in a play written by Henry.  In real life, he loses his wife, Annie, to Henry.
  • Gillian Mackay-Smith as Charlotte - She is powerful as the cynical and angry wife accused of adultery in the first scene.  Her character is totally different as the real life wife of Henry, who is about to leave her for Annie.  Ms. Smith shows great range in portraying women who are both tough skinned and vulnerable.
  • Bob Mussett as Henry - This is the best work I have seen this actor deliver.  As the playwright Henry, his long monologue about the importance of precise language in writing, using a cricket bat to illustrate his points, is another highlight of this production.
When it comes time to bestow awards for this season of Boston theater, this production should merit mention in several categories.  It can be seen through November 23 at The Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA.

Bad Habit Productions Website

Enjoy!

Al

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Ether Dome" by Elizabeth Egloff Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company



My take on the current Huntington Theatre Company production of "Ether Dome" at the Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA is a "Good News - Bad News story."  The good news is that the saga of how ether came to be used to eliminate horrific pain from surgical procedures is rife with drama, intrigue and colorful characters whose stories should be the stuff of gripping theater.  The bad news is that in its present form, this play written by Elizabeth Egloff and directed by Michael Wilson does not feel like a finished work, despite the fact that it has been performed by co-producing theaters Alley Theatre, Hartford Stage and La Jolla Playhouse.  Many of the scenes come across as static dioramas in a medical museum rather than dynamic vignettes in a living work of art.

Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Gould
Richmond Hoxie as Dr. Warren
Tom Patterson as William Morton
Bill Kux as Dr. Hayward
Greg Balla as Dr. Bigelow
Elizabeth Egloff's Ether Dome

directed by Michael Wilson
Playing through Nov. 23, 2014
at the South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

There are many praiseworthy aspects to this production.  Many years ago, I worked at MGH, home to the legendary "Ether Dome" in the Bullfinch Building designed by the same architect who graced us with the gold dome atop the Massachusetts State House.  I certainly knew something of the back story of what an important part ether had played in the history of MGH.  Back when MGH had hosted its own nursing school, the RN's nurse's caps were recognizable anywhere in the medical cosmos, for they were shaped as replicas of the original ether masks. Yet, I learned a great deal of the back story in watching "Ether Dome" unfold.  I wish that there had been some considered amputation of a few portions of exposition and text, for asking an audience to sit for three hours for the telling of this story felt a bit like enduring a long dental procedure without - well, without anesthesia!

The fine ensemble cast, listed below, soldiered on with the material, with action taking place in Hartford, Boston, Paris, New York City and Washington, D.C. The cast were helped enormously by the very effective set and projection designs of James Youmans, period costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by David Lander and sound by John Gromada and Alex Neumann.

Standing out among the cast for particular mention are:

  • Michael Bakkensen, a Hartford dentist who is betrayed by his former student and loses his way after becoming a laughing stock following a failed demonstration at MGH.
  • Tom Patterson as the conniving William  Morton who takes Dr. Wells' germinal idea for using gas for anesthesia and tries to strike it rich by commercializing his version of ether sulfate.
  • Amelia Pedlow as Dr. Wells' long suffering wife, Elizabeth.
  • Liba Vaynberg as Morton's wife "Lizzie"
  • Richard Hoxie as Dr. Warren (a building at MGH is named for him)
  • Greg Balla as Dr. Bigelow (a building at MGH is named for him)
  • William Youmans as Dr. Jackson (a building at MGH is named for him)
  • Ken Cheeseman as Dr. Gould

The ensemble cast of sixteen includes:

  • Michael Bakkensen (Noises Off) as Horace Wells
  • Greg Balla (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at The Lyric Stage Company) as Dr. Bigelow
  • Ken Cheeseman (Prelude to a Kiss at the Huntington) as Dr. Gould
  • Richmond Hoxie (I’m Not Rappaport on Broadway) as Dr. Warren
  • Bill Kux (The Best Man on Broadway) as Dr. Hayward
  • Karen MacDonald (Good People at the Huntington)as Mrs. Wadsworth
  • Tom Patterson (Streamers at 440 Studios in New York) as William Morton
  • Amelia Pedlow (The Heir Apparent at Classic Stage Company) as Elizabeth Wells
  • Lee Sellars (A Time to Kill on Broadway) as Dr. Colton
  • Liba Vaynberg (The Golem of Havana at La MaMa) as Lizzie Morton
  • William Youmans (The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway) as Dr. Jackson
  • as well as Matthew Barrett, Veronica Barron, Nile Hawver, Nash Hightower, Malcolm Young

The play will run through November 23 at the Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA.

Huntington Theatre Website

Huntington Theatre Company Revives Clifford Odets' "Awake And Sing!"



Whenever I walk into the BU Theatre on Huntington Avenue for a production by the Huntington Theatre Company, my first thought is always: "I wonder what the set will look like."  In the years that I have been attending plays in this venue, I have never been disappointed by the sumptuous and evocative sets that have created consistently memorable  mise-en-scène for Huntington produced plays.  That record is still intact, for the soaring cityscape designed for "Awake And Sing!" by James Noone reaches up into the rafters, and includes brick walls, I-beams, and endless doors leading to endless tenement flats in a Depression Era New York City Bronx neighborhood.  When the action begins, the compnent parts of the Berger family's flat come flying in from the wings, and we are sitting in a perfectly reconstructed 1930's era urban home with the crooning of Enrico Caruso providing a fitting aural backdrop.  Period costumes by Michael Krass, lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen complete the technical foundation for the telling of this story that sometimes feels like an urban "Grapes of Wrath," with the Berger family standing in as a clan of Jewish Joads.


James Noone's set
Clifford Odets’ stirring American classic 
AWAKE AND SING!,
Directed by Melia Bensussen, 
Playing November 7 – December 7, 2014 
at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts. 
Photo: T. Charles Erickson


This early Odets play is very much an ensemble piece with a multi-generational family talking and fighting and scrambling to survive in a very Chekhovian way.  Director Melia Bensussen, whose own family history parallels many of the themes played out in "Awake and Sing!" has the cast members interacting with one another in complex and changing arrays of alliances and secret plans and plots. While there are economic and political themes that reverberate well with our current era, some of the speech patterns are dated, making the play at times feel like a museum piece still redolent of mothballs. The energy of the cast, however, often infuses this old chestnut with new life.

Cast:

Michael Goldsmith as Ralph Berger
David Wohl as Myron Berger
Annie Purcell as Hennis Berger
Will LeBow as Jacob
Lori Wilner as Bessie Berger
Kevin Fennessy as Schlosser
Eric T. Miller as Moe xelrod
Stephen Schnetzer as Uncle Morty
Nael Nacer as Sam Feinschreiber

Will LeBow as Jacob
 Stephen Schnetzer as Uncle Morty
Michael Goldsmith, as Ralph
Lori Wilner as Bessie
,Eric T. Miller as Moe
 in Clifford Odets’ stirring American classic
AWAKE AND SING!,
Directed by Melia Bensussen,
Playing November 7 – December 7, 2014
at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Standing out among this excellent cast is Boston stage icon Will LeBow, whose role as left-leaning pater familias Jacob is subtly powerful.  When his character departs in the dramatic ending to Act II, his absence is keenly felt in the final act.  Michael Goldsmith as his grandson, Ralph, is a strong presence, striving to find a way to make a life for himself in a failing economy and a decaying family. Annie Purcell is convincing as his older sister who wrestles with the extremes of maintaining decorum and following her heart.  Nael Nacer is perfect in his role as her much-maligned and entrapped immigrant husband. Lori Wilner is the prototypical kvetching Jewish mother, doling out coins and complaints as she seeks to control every aspect of her family's life.  Eric T. Miller is the odd man out as the WWI wounded vet who loves Hennie and hangs around the Berger family insinuating himself into a variety of imbroglios.  David Wohl as Myron is the perfect schlemiel of a henpecked husband.

This play is a piece of American history and theater history, and is well worth taking in.

"Awake And Sing!" is playing through December 7, 2014 at the BU Theatre / Avenue of the Arts. 

Huntington Theatre Website

Enjoy!

Al


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review of "An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny" by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski



"An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny" by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski


I found this book to be profoundly moving and very relevant to the life I live.  My home is in Boston and I spend quite a bit of time in New York City.  Both urban areas have so many homeless panhandlers that most residents have put up a shield against them, and they are thereby rendered virtually invisible.  Such was the case with successful advertising executive Laura Schroff when she walked by an 11-year-old boy who asked, "Excuse me lady, do you have any spare change?  I am hungry."  She walked by, but halfway across the street, something prompted her to turn around and walk back to the boy.  Later in the book, Laura credits the spirit of her mother as the impetus for her change of heart.  Instead of giving money to the boy, whom she would soon learn was named Maurice, she offered to buy him lunch at McDonald's.  In this simple way the arcs of two lives were forever changed.

What makes this book so remarkable is the transparency with which Laura tells the story of her enduring friendship with Maurice, told with the very able assistance of Alex Tresniowski.  Much to the surprise of both Laura and Alex, they shared similar family dynamics of abuse that one would never suspect looking at their outward appearance.  As Laura was giving to Maurice - food, time, attention, new life experiences, a view of a healthy family - she was receiving from him just as abundantly.  Their relationship began as an unlikely friendship and evolved into a kind of mother-son bond that continues strong to this day as Maurice is raising his own family.

The book is masterful in drawing the reader into the growing web of complications that surrounded the developing friendship between Maurice and Laura.  Friends and family on both side were fearful of the dangers.  His grandmother once advised Maurice: "Stay away from that white bitch."  Laura's friends often asked if she really knew what she was doing.  The path to a long and mutually enriching friendship was not a smooth or linear one, and the book is unblinking in talking about the flaws that both Laura and Maurice brought to the table.

I do much of my reading on the subway during my morning and evening commutes.  I frequently found myself taking off my glasses to wipe my eyes as I worked through the narrative of this intriguing tale.  This is a "Pay It Forward" story that is challenging and inspiring.  I am heading to NYC in a few days, and will be bringing the book with me to offer as a gift to one of my friends - a New York executive who is among the millions who have learned to treat panhandlers as invisible.  This story just may change his way of seeing the world - and seeing himself in that world.

The holiday gift giving season is almost upon us.  This book would make a terrific gift to give to anyone who walks the streets of any of our nation's cities and struggles with how to respond to the less fortunate.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hub Theatre Company of Boston Celebrates Its Second Birthday With "6 Hotels" by Israel Horovitz - Horovitz Attending The Party Was Icing On The Cake!



With each production I have seen that has been presented by Hub Theatre Company of Boston, I have noticed the level of professionalism being ratcheted up a notch.  They are a company worth paying attention to. Certainly prolific playwright Israel Horovitz is paying attention, for he graced their birthday celebration on Saturday evening with his presence at a Q&A following the performance of his play "6 Hotels."  Last season Hub had presented Horovitz's play "Lebensraum."  It is a fortuitous pairing.  Let's hope that Hub continues to present Boston audiences with more treasures from Horovitz's oeuvre.

"6 Hotels" is a compilation of six short plays, all set in some fashion in a hotel room.  Daniel Bourque and John Geoffrion shared directing duties, each one directing three of the short pieces. The common theme seems to be an exploration through comedy, farce and drama of how we as human beings connect or miss connecting with one another in the face of life's challenges and crises.  Four actors played multiple parts and each appeared in at least five of the plays.  The opening play, "Speaking of Tushy," was by far my favorite.  I laughed uproariously at the cleverness of the dialogue and banter as two men shared stories of love life gone wrong.  Johnnie McQuarley as Stanley and Matthew Zahnzinger as Jean-Philippe shared bottles of Stella Artois as they recounted their encounters with Stella and Veronica.  This play used the space at Club Cafe beautifully.  The two male actors sat on stools in front of an actual bar, while their memories of their times with Stella (Ashley Risteen) and Veronica (Lauren Elias) were enacted on a stage set to resemble a nicely appointed hotel room, The set was designed by Marc Ewart.

Matthew Zahnzinger as Jean-Philippe
Johnnie McQuarley as Stanley
"Speaking of Tushy"
"6 Hotels"
by
Israel Horovitz
Hub Theatre Company of Boston


This play is very well written, riding the "Street Car" of the concept of "Stella" and "Stanley" down some expected and unexpected tracks.

"Fiddleheads and Lovers," is a play set in an upscale restaurant.  This play provides Lauren Elias with her finest moments on stage, portraying a waitress who is a passionate foodie, who once had to support her waitress habit by taking part-time acting jobs!  The irony is rich and luscious.  Her detailed and breathy description of each item on the menu is almost pornographic in its sensuousness.

"Beirut Rocks" is the most political, serious and jarring of the short plays.  It depicts students taking shelter in a hotel in Beirut as the city comes under attack from Israeli bombs, missiles and mortars. One of the students is a Palestinian woman, played magnificently by Ashley Risteen.  Horovitz revealed during the Q&A session that this play was inspired by real events in 2006 that involved a student who was his son's roommate at Harvard.  The play is well written and very intense and moving, but did not seem to fit with the other five plays except for sharing the hotel theme.  The excellent work of lighting designer Michael Clark Wonson, sound and music designer Andrew Paul Jackson and costume designer Sara Tess Neuman were shown to great effect in this piece.

"The Audition Play" gave Ms. Risteen another opportunity to demonstrate her emotional range.  She portrays a struggling actress trying to get a break.  Her rant and plea aimed at Ed, played by Mr. McQuarley, was one of the highlights of the evening.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the one moment of disappointment in what was otherwise a very satisfying evening at the theater.  The final play, "2nd Violin," is the weakest of the six pieces. The writing and staging are not particularly interesting.  The play involves a second chair violinist suddenly thrust at the last moment into a soloist role.  The real problem with this piece is that much of it involves Ms. Elias on violin and Ms. Risteen on cello miming the playing of their instruments while the audience listens to the gorgeous music of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Ein Heldenleben."  The problem is that neither actor demonstrated the least bit of proficiency with their instrument. Bowing, fingering, lack of vibrato were all badly out of synch with the recorded music, to the point where it became both a distraction and an embarrassment.  At that point, an evening of theater that had maintained a professional level throughout suddenly devolved into what felt like bad community theater.  This cannot stand.  The director, in this case, John Geoffrion, should have either used actors who are also musicians, demanded deeper preparation from his two actors for this important aspect of their roles or cut the piece.

If Hub Theater Company of Boston can address the kind of weakness I just highlighted, their future is bright.  They are a company worth supporting, and this is a production worth seeing.  It will play at Club Cafe on Columbus Avenue through November 22.

Hub Theatre Website

Enjoy!

Al


Monday, November 10, 2014

Review of "True North" by Bill George and Peter Sims - A Practical Guide To Authentic Leadershp



"True North" by Bill George and Peter Sims, has been sitting on my "To Be Read" shelf for awhile.  I finally pulled it down and drank from the refreshing stream of wisdom and insights that flowed from the authors' minds and spirits.  Having served very successfully as Chairman and CEO of Medtronic, Mr. George has carved out another career as a much loved and respected professor at Harvard Business School, where I have had the privilege of interacting with him on several occasions.

The authors and their research assistants interviewed well over 100 successful leaders whose stories are profiled in "True North."  The resulting work is simultaneously inspiring and humbling.  Each chapter ends with an urging to take the relevant self-assessments that populate Appendix C.  The book is so powerful and so helpful that I am already figuring out which of those whom I coach and mentor will most benefit from receiving a copy.  The book is a step by step exposition of how truly authentic leaders got to be that way, beginning with telling their life stories.

The authors are very helpful in breaking leadership into three life phases:


  • Preparing for Leadership - up to age 30
  • Leading - 30-60
  • Giving Back - 60 and beyond 


One of the characteristics of the Preparing for Leadership phase is "bumping up against the world." Here is how Randy Komisar, former CEO of LucasArts, describes this phenomenon:

"We begin life on a linear path where success is based on having a clear target.  Life gets complicated when the targets aren't clear anymore, and you have to set your own targets.  By rubbing up against the world, you get to know yourself.  Either do that, or you're going to spend your life serving the interests and expectations of others." (Page 18)

The authors describe some of the bumps in the road that often confront young leaders, I was reminded of a recent conversation with a Special Forces officer who was about to lead his unit on a dangerous deployment.  He was facing some leadership challenges within the unit, and was brainstorming with me about how to overcome those frustrations and detours:

"You may reach the point in your journey when your way forward is blocked or your worldview is turned upside down by events, and you have to rethink what your life and your leadership are all about.  You start to question yourself: 'Am I good enough?'  'Why can't I get this team to achieve the goals I have set forth?'  Or you may have a personal experience that causes you to realize that there is more to life than getting to the top." (Page 44)

A crucial stage in the development of a leader is learning to transition from "I" to "We."  This transition is explained eloquently by my friend, Jaime Irick, West Point grad, Harvard Business School grad and President of GE Lighting:

"We spend our early years trying to be the best.  To get into West Point or General Electric, you have to be the best.  That is defined by what you can do on your own - your ability to be a phenomenal analyst or consultant or do well on a standardized test.  When you become a leader, your challenge is to inspire others, develop them, and create change though them.  If you want to be a leader, you've got to flip that switch and understand that it's about serving the folks on your team.  This is a very simple concept, but one many people overlook. The sooner people realize it, he faster they will become leaders." (Pages 44-45)

It is clear that mentoring is an important part of every authentic leader's journey.  And what may not be clear on the surface is that mentoring relationships must be a two-way street and both parties must benefit and grow the the relationship.

Through this book, Bill George has once again expanded the pool of those he is mentoring, for reading his inspiring account of the life stories of a rich variety of authentic leaders leads to growth, and places in our hands a tool that we can use and then pass on to those we in turn are mentoring.

Enjoy!

Al

Emerson Stage: A Launching Pad For The Next Generation of Theater Professionals



I often write in this space about how blessed we are in the Greater Boston area to have such a vibrant theater scene.  An under-appreciated aspect of that rich banquet of theater treats is the collection of schools where the next generation of theater professionals are honing their skills.  And that process of honing is often on display for the public at places like the A.R.T.'s EX and Loeb Stages, Boston Conservatory's stages, Boston University, Northeastern University, Brandeis University and Suffolk University student productions, and Emerson College's Emerson Stage.  Emerson Stage productions provide students in Emerson's Department of Performing Arts opportunities to develop their skills as actors, designers, stage managers, technicians, administrators and educators, working alongside faculty, staff and visiting artists.

I recently had an opportunity to attend a performance of Emerson Stage's "Dancing At Lughnasa." While I will not offer a formal review of a student production, I will make some comments and observations about what I experienced.

"Dancing At Lughnasa," is a memory play by Irish playwright Brian Friel.  The action is set in the depth of the worldwide depression in 1936, in the remote northwest corner of Ireland in County Donegal.  The hauntingly nostalgic play is autobiographical, narrated by the adult Michael remembering what life was life for him when he was seven years old.  He and his single mother (he was born a "love child") and a motley assortment of aunts and an uncle who is a de-frocked priest struggle to scratch out a living and an existence.  This is not an easy play to produce or to perform, yet the combination of Emerson students and faculty cobbled together a production that any professional theater company would be proud to call its own.

Dancing at Lughnasa
(Photo courtesy of Perspective Photo)

at Emerson College Semel Theater.

The set, designed by Julia Kreitman, was Broadway quality, richly evoking the warmth and sparseness of a country homestead of a simple extended family.  Costumes by Rebecca Carr, lighting by Marta Williams and sound by Arshan Gailus created just the right feel and atmosphere that allowed the cast to weave a compelling tale.  Amelia Broome did an amazing job in coaching the young actors in Irish brogues that were flawless and completely comprehensible.  There was also a Welsh accent befitting the provenance of Michael's biological father, Gerry.  Courtney O'Connor directed this troupe of very capable actors with a sure hand.

Dancing at Lughnasa
(Photo courtesy of Perspective Photo)

at Emerson College Semel Theater.

The cast included:

Jonathan Acorn as Michael
Brenna Sweet as Kate
Roisin Dowling as Maggie
Jamie Ahlborn as Agnes
Jamie Davenport as Rose
Austin Davis as Chris
Simon Kiser as Gerry
Nicholas Brownson as Jack.

Memorize these names, for it will not be long before you will be reading some of them again in Playbill and seeing them emblazoned on Broadway marquees, along with Emerson alumna and Tony winner, Andrea Martin!  This production was marked by many outstanding individual performances and a smooth integration and cohesion among the ensemble members that made one feel as if they really were members of the same family - loving each other as best they could under less than ideal conditions and a rapidly changing world.  They made us care about the fate of each of the characters, and at the end of the day, that is what good theater is about.

The next Emerson Stage production will be the Kander and Ebb revue, "The World Goes 'Round," featuring music from "Cabaret," "The Kiss of The Spider Woman," "Chicago," and other shows. Performances will be presented from November 20-23.  Get your tickets now.  Tickets are only $12. Broadway quality for community theater prices!

Emerson Stages Website

Enjoy!

Al


Friday, November 07, 2014

"Generations" at The Soho Rep - A Stirring Poem Play by Debbie Tucker Green



As soon as my feet touched the gritty surface of the floor of performance space at the Soho Rep on Walker Street, I knew that this innovative theater company had once again completely transformed its space to enhance the telling of a unique story.  The audience enters a working kitchen of a three generation South African family.

Here is the description of the poem play that is "Generations":

"You’re invited into a kitchen in a South African township where a fragrant meal is being prepared. As they cook, three generations of a close-knit family banter, share stories and food. Both urgent and exuberant, Debbie Tucker Green’s formally daring play tackles what’s transmitted and lost through generations of a family—and a nation."

A young man enters the family's home and asks a poignant question of an eligible young female member of the clan: "Can you cook?"  The consonants explode out of the young man's mouth like the popping of the onions that are being sauteed a few feet away in the kitchen where three generations of the family's women are each contributing to the cooking of the family dinner."He asked me if I could cook!"  It becomes clear as each member of the family chimes in with their repetition of the phrase - or a response to the phrase - that this question of whether a young woman can cook signals the beginning of the courtship ritual.  "That is how your grandfather began with me!"

The audience is seated in a variety of chairs similar to ones that would be available in a simple South African home, and interspersed among the audience are chorus members who occasionally break out in song, sung beautifully primarily in Zulu.  They sing a litany of names.  There is both celebration and mourning in their hauntingly lovely singing.

As the phrases about learning to cook keep being tossed from one family member to another like a game of poetic "Hot Potato" we notice that one by one, family members disappear and join the chorus on the periphery.

Thuli Dumakude as Grandmother
Jonathan Peck as Grandfather
"Generations"
Soho Rep

The picture shown above depicts a moment in the play when the good natured teasing that has gone back and forth between couples and among generations gives way to wistful reflection and tenderness as Grandmother sighs, "I really miss them."  And it becomes clear what has been happening.  While AIDS is never mentioned explicitly in this play, its shadow hangs in the air of the kitchen as pungently as does the aroma of the sizzling onions.This play poem is indeed both a celebration of what is transmitted from generation to generation and an ululation for what has been ripped away. 

"Generations" reunites playwright Debbie Tucker Green and director Leah C. Gardiner following their 2011 Obie award-winning production of "Born Bad" and features a 13-person choir led by
Bongi Duma (Broadway’s The Lion King).

Set Design by Arnulfo Maldonado, Lighting Design by Matt Frey, Sound Design by Matt Tierney, Costume Design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, Props & Set Dressing by George Hoffmann & Greg Kozatek, Dialect Coach: Ron Kunene, Musical Instrument Designer: Anne Demenkoff

Featuring: Shyko Amos, Mamoudou Athie, Khail Toi Bryant, Ntombikhona Dlamini, Thuli Dumakude, Jonathan Peck, and Michael Rogers.

Choir: Elijah Caldwell, Jasmine Holloway, Michael Howard, Darell Hunt, Jon Kirkland, Ismael Kouyate, John Lucas, Reitumetse

Soho Rep Website

Enjoy!

Al