Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review of "The Man In The Rockefeller Suit" by Mark Seal - The Saga Of A Serial Imposter

I followed closely the unfolding story of Clark Rockefeller when he kidnapped his daughter and fled with her.  The event began just a few blocks from where I work.  Author Mark Seal takes the facts of Rockefeller's life and multiple identities and presents the story in a way that is as intriguing as any novel.  Mr. Seal has thoroughly researched every aspect of the life of the man who began his existence as Christian Gerhartsreiter in a small town in Germany.

One of the aspects of this complex sage that most interested me was the way in which Rockefeller was able to control and manipulate his otherwise very capable wife, Sandra Boss.  Ms. Boss rose to be a partner with the prestigious consulting firm, McKinsey, yet she allowed Clark to control all of the family finances, where they would live and how their daughter would be raised.  It is a study in how convincing and controlling a clever sociopath can be, even when faced with a very intelligent victim of his cons.

The cross-country aspect of Clark's pilgrimage was of interest to me because I have knowledge of almost all of the communities where he lived and where he plied his trade as serial imposter - Boston, Fairfield County Connecticut, Pasadena and San Marino California, Baltimore.

This book will delight any reader who enjoys true crime, investigative journalism and exploration of the human mind.



Mini-Review of Les Odom, Jr.'s CD - This Star of "Hamilton" Lets His Singular Voice Shine

Les Odom, Jr. gives us a very different sound than the one we hear from him in the cast album of Hamilton.  He shows his versatility as the simple production of this album allows his singular voice to shine through.  In "Song For The Asking," he is joined by his wife, Nicolette Robinson, and the harmonies are glorious.  Other cuts are rare gems that are not often performed.



Mini-Review of "The Invisible Hand" - A Play by Ayad Akhtar, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

I have systematically set out to read everything that Ayad Akhtar has written, and to see all of his played performed on stage.  This play, "The Invisible Hand," continues his exploration of the relation of America to Islam.  In this work, he combines his personal knowledge of Islam, having grown up as a Muslim Pakistani-American, with his understanding of global finance.

The narrative follows the relationship between big money and international terrorism, seen through the eyes of some memorable characters embroiled in a tense hostage situation in Pakistan.  As always, Akhtar's writing is laser-focused and eye-opening.  The arc of this story shines a light onto the question: "Why do the terrorists hate us?"



Wednesday, March 16, 2016

SpeakEasy Stage Company Presents The New England Premiere of "Booty Candy" by Robert O'Hara - Bold and Brutally Honest

Be forewarned - "Booty Candy," the current SpeakEasy Stage Company production, is not for the faint of heart or for the sexually squeamish.  The play contains full frontal male nudity and sexual topics and language galore.  Playwright Robert O'Hara tackles complex issues of sexuality and human connection from his perspective as a gay African-American.  This play began as a series of unrelated vignettes, drawn from O'Hara's personal experiences and observations of others.  He uses humor, sarcasm, parody and reductio ad absurdum to point a harsh spotlight on issues of sexuality as he perceives them impacting the Black experience.  Several years ago, someone suggested to the playwright that his vignettes all shared a common theme, and they should be mounted as a single play.  In a sense, it seems as if over time Mr. O'Hara had crafted colorful fabric squares from the remnants of his memory and placed these squares in a box.  Then he realized that these fabric square could be stitched together into a crazy quilt.

The threads that stitch these vignettes together into a quilt are threefold in the themes that unite the stories:
  • Delight in obliterating familiar labels and categories;
  • Choking on inappropriately applied misconceptions about individuals and groups;
  • The universal hunger expressed by the character Clint in one of the Second Act vignettes: "I just want to fell Human.  Contact.  Just for a moment."
These themes are expressed in a wide variety of ways as the vignettes are revealed.  A Black preacher, Rev. Benson (Johnny Lee Davenport), outs himself during a sermon.  In another sketch, two married and committed lesbians go through a ceremony of "De-Commitment."  The playwright seems to be asking, "If we can celebrate gay marriage, can we also learn to embrace gay divorce?" 

The one character who appears regularly in the majority of the vignettes is Sutter (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). In that sense Sutter is also a uniting thread that holds the quilt together. We first meet him as an awkward boy being given hygiene instructions by his mother. "Make sure you wash your booty candy" - her pet name for his penis.  In a follow-on vignette, we see him trying to engage his family members as he reveals that he is being stalked by an older man.  They are too wrapped up in their own worlds and limited perceptions to relate to him in any meaningful way. Instead, they begin to list "masculine" activities he should begin to engage in to be perceived as less of a sissy.  In a climactic scene quoted above, Sutter and another gay man pick up a straight white man in a bar and go back to the man's hotel room for "fun and humiliation."  Things turn very dark and tragic.

Family Dinner
Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis
Tiffany Nichole Greene, Maurice Emmanuel Parent
"Booty Candy"
by Robert O'Hara
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Calderwood Pavilion
Through April 9th
Photo by Glenn Perry Photography

In one of the most interesting vignettes, all five actors are on stage.  A White moderator (John Kuntz) is interviewing a panel of four Black playwrights (Johnny Lee Davenport, Jackie Davis, Tiffany Nichole Greene, Maurice Emmanuel Parent). The playwright uses this situation to poke fun at a wide variety of stereotypes that White people have about Black people in general, and Black playwrights in particular.  It is hilarious and disturbing, because it hits home so successfully.

Director Summer Williams pulls these five fine actors together in kaleidoscopic combinations, each of which throws a different light on the broad issues being addressed by Mr. O'Hara.  I was particularly interested in the diverse reactions on the part of members of the very heterogeneous audience.  I observed a mix of Black and White, young and old, gay and straight.  There was considerable interaction with the audience, as one would expect in a Black Gospel church service.  I heard other members of the audience proclaim during intermission: "I don't know what they are talking about.  I don't know this vocabulary." Fair enough. Mr. O'Hara's vocabulary - linguistic and visual - can be jarring and unfamiliar.  But it demands a response. There is no way to walk away from this play unaffected by what one has experienced.  For some, the result is confusion.  For others, disgust.  For still others, a commitment to continue pondering the ramifications of what has been presented.

Johnny Lee Davenport as Larry
John Kuntz as Clint

Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Sutter
"Booty Candy"
by Robert O'Hara
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Calderwood Pavilion 
Through April 9th
Photo by Glenn Perry Photography
Scenic Designer Jenna McFarland Lord has created a versatile and visually arresting set that allows the action to move from the 1970s to present day.  Costumes by Amanda Mujica suggest that same flow from the '70s to this decade.  Lighting by Jen Rock and Sound by David Wilson set a variety of moods and tones as the action morphs from one discrete vignette to another.T

This play causes quite a sensation when it ran in New York City in 2014.  I expect that there will be a similar buzz about this production.  It is worthy or our consideration and discussion.

Fasten your seat belt, and go along for a ride that has twists and turns and G-forces that will rock your world.  In other words - impactful theater.

Link to Tickets



Mini-Review of "The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough - Leading To A Deeper Appreciation of the Genius of Wilbur and Orville

I have become a big fan of the writing of David McCullough.  His biography of John Adams made our nation's second president come alive to me for the first time.  In the same way, this twin biography of the Wright brothers brought my appreciation of the genius of these men to a new altitude.  Writing in his very approachable style and integrating deep research, McCullough makes the reader feel like he or she is there with the brothers - in Dayton, at Kitty Hawk, in Paris and Berlin.

I had previously been unaware of the role that the Wright's sister Katherine played in supporting them and keeping things going at home while Wilbur and Orville travelled to test their evolving ideas of aviation.  What becomes crystal clear throughout this book is that the achievement of the brothers lay in their and wind tunnel  assiduous attention to detail, their willingness to work hard and to record with precision each lesson they learned from test flights.  I had also been unaware of the serious injuries that Orville sustained when a propeller broke during a test flight and he and a passenger crash landed.



Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Bridge Repertory Company of Boston Presents A New Play - "The Launch Prize" by MJ Halberstadt

I am familiar with the work of playwright MJ Halberstadt, having enjoyed last year's Boston Teen Acting Troupe's production of "I Don't Know Where We're Going, But I Promise We're Lost."  In this current production, "The Launch Prize," the playwright tackles issues of community and loyalty among a group of four artists, all talented Master of Fine Arts students who are preparing to hang their paintings for a capstone exhibit. While hanging their work, they anxiously await permission from an off-stage mentor to open envelopes that will reveal which one of them is the winner of the prestigious "Launch Prize." The winner of the prize will receive enough money to spend a life-changing year traveling the globe pursuing their art.

Mr. Halberstadt loads the dice by assigning a different ethnic origin to each of the four characters. Kim (Katherine Chen Lerner) is Asian, Sebastian (Bari Robinson) is Latino, Michelle (Angela K. Thomas) is African-American, and Austin (John Tracey) is Caucasian.  The arc of the play explores the tension that hangs in the air - as real as the canvases that are being hung - as to how each artist's ethnicity will inform how she or he reacts to either winning the prize, or losing out to one of their classmates. Halberstadt borrows a technique from the movies "Rashomon" and "Clue" by telling part of the story multiple times - each time through the eyes of a different character.  So, we witness the telltale envelope being opened four times, with a different winner each time.

Bari Robinson as Sebastian
John Tracey as Austin
Angela K. Thomas as Michelle
Katherine Chen Lerner as Kim
"The Launch Prize"
by MJ Halberstadt
Bridge Rep
Through March 20th.

Kim had tried to hide both her ethnicity and gender by signing her paintings enigmatically "Tuesday Next." If one of the ethnic minorities wins, will it because of a subtle bent on the part of the jury to impose some affirmative action sensibilities to balance a long tradition of the art world being dominated by European and American white males?  In each of the four scenarios that are played out, different combinations of relationships are strained and tested, as winners try to justify their victory, and losers rationalize their failure to win and accuse their friend of taking unfair advantage of their race, gender, name, etc. Director Tiffany Nichole Greene keeps the actors working together at a brisk pace, using the space wisely so that the action and dialogue is close to each section of the audience over the course of the play.  The ensemble is a strong one, with each of the actors creating a believable and sympathetic character.  I cared about the fate of each one, which is a powerful litmus test for me in judging how well written and well acted a play may be.

The play does a very fine job of capturing the dynamics of friendship amidst competition, with dialogue reflecting the complex constellation of relationships among this gifted quartet. In a delicious twist of irony, Bridge Rep's Producing Artistic Director, Olivia D'Ambrosio, offered some brief remarks following the play about how art should bring people together.  In "The Launch Prize," we see that art can also be a wedge to drive us apart if we allow petty differences to trump artistic and relational sensibilities.  The playwright does not insult the audience by offering facile answers, but he frames the questions well.

Scenic Design is by Ryan Bates, Costumes by Esme Allen, Lighting by Stephen Petrilli, and Sound by Skylar Burks.  The play run through this weekend - March 20 - at the BCA.

Bridge Rep Website



"God In My Head - The True Story Of An Ex-Christian Who Accidentally Met God" - An Intimate Memoir of a Very Personal Spiritual Journey

Josh Grisetti is a Broadway actor.  He is also a very fine writer.   His inaugural book opens a brutally transparent window into an intimate and mystical spiritual pilgrimage.  The title and sub-title provide an accurate preview of what a reader can expect to find in journeying through this book: "God In My Head - The True Story Of An Ex-Christian Who Accidentally Met God."

Mr. Grisetti tells of starting life as an ardent Christian - a hard-shell Southern Baptist to be more specific.  Then he began to sense that his heart-felt prayers and pleadings to God were being met by a longer and longer silence, and he glided toward a position of agnosticism.  This was the point at which Josh's life-long dental phobia played a role in God drilling holes in the author's agnosticism.  In order to handle his escalating panic over dental appointments, Josh had concocted an effective cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol to ensure that he would be completely out of it during his time on stage in the dental chair.  On one particular and memorable occasion, he over-medicated and his 45-minutes in the dental chair were spent in a state of altered consciousness in which he was aware of spending about 200 years in intimate communication with God.  During this mystical vision and encounter, he and God - who looked a lot like Josh Grisetti - toured the far reaches of the cosmos as Josh peppered the Almighty with all of the questions he had been storing up in his head and heart and spirit.

Josh Grisetti . . .
or, perhaps, God!

The very personal picture of God that Josh paints in his recollection of this one-time encounter is a mixed bag.  In some regards, it echoes many of the biblical themes that Josh embraced early in his life.  Josh knows the Bible well, and quotes liberally from it in this memoir. At other points, what Josh learned from God flies in the face of biblical revelation.  The Apostle Paul, for example, is identified as Antichrist!

Several things struck me about the author's writing and about the spirit in which he approached sharing his story.  Although he no longer embraces the fundamentalist Christianity that he grew up with, he never expresses bitterness toward his parents or those who influenced his early religious life. He is, in fact, much more gracious in his comments than are many Bible-thumping Christians.  In his spirit, he exhibits more of the "fruit of the Spirit" than any of the current crop of Bible-quoting political candidates and their minions.  He also does not try to convince the readers of this book that his vision of what he saw that day represents absolute truth.  He goes out of his way to explore whether his journey can be attributed to a classic Near Death Experience, a drug hallucination, or a projection of his own unconscious thoughts.  His attitude seems to be: "This is what happened to me, friends, Make of it what you will."

I must take issue with something that theis said in a blurb on the back of the book: "This memoir is his first book - and probably his last." I hope that this is not his last book, for his clear writing style and his gentle heart need to be shared with a world that is thirsty for such generosity of spirit. This audience member is asking for a curtain call and another bow!



Monday, March 14, 2016

Huntington Theatre Company Presents August Wilson's "How I Learned What I Learned" - A Rare Window Into The Soul Of An American Master

I have long enjoyed the plays of August Wilson.  His Century Cycle - ten plays each depicting a different decade of the Twentieth Century in Pittsburgh's Hill District - is one of the great achievements in drama in the past century.  The Huntington Theatre Company has championed these plays, presenting seven of the ten in Boston before they went to Broadway.  So it is fitting that this memoir of Wilson, co-conceived and directed his longtime dramaturg, Todd Kreidler, should appear on the Huntington stage.  The role of Wilson is played, appropriately enough, by the magnificent Eugene Lee, a friend of Wilson and an actor who has appeared in many of Wilson's plays.

The set by David Gallo is deceptively simple - sheets of what look like manuscript paper hung haphazardly from vertical wires across the back of the stage.  To signal the beginning of a new section of the play, the sound of a manual typewriter could be heard (Sound Design by Dan Moses Schrier), and individual letters would be projected onto the sheets of paper, spelling out the title of this section of the play.  It had a striking effect.  The set also featured a square raised platform - about the same dimension as a boxing ring, a coat rack, and a few scattered buckets and other detritus. Costume and Creative Consultation is by Constanza Romero and Lighting is by Thom Weaver.

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"
Huntington Theatre Company
Through April 3, Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As Mr. Lee moved about the set and meandered from topic to topic, I began to realize that we were being led on a tour through August Wilson's Memory Palace.  He would recount incidents from his life that turned out to be the raw material and fodder from which he had constructed his poems and his plays. It was like taking a tour through Thomas Edison's lab and mind. Particularly poignant was the story of how Mr. Wilson learned the importance of keeping his mouth shut when he watched a man being stabbed to death at a bar because he had said something disrespectful to the assailant's wife.

Also deeply affecting was a vignette told near the end of the evening of Wilson having been paid by a theater in LA.  The white woman serving as the bank teller initially refused to cash the check, even though Mr. Wilson has showed proper ID and the check had been written on an account from that same bank.  It took a manager to clear things up, but it was clear that this woman did not believe that a black man had any legitimate reason to possess a check in that large amount.  Once the cash had been counted out, August asked for an envelope in which he could carry the bills. "We don't have envelopes at this bank!"  In a subsequent trip to cash another check, Wilson encountered a more friendly teller who promptly provided him with cash  - and with an envelope.  But that first encounter, as insignificant as it may have seemed on the surface, ratcheted up the volcano of rage that simmered in his soul for much of his life.  It was that volcano that fueled his genius and his artistry, and Mr. Lee captures it all with vibrancy and artistry and dignity.

My companion at the theatre that evening was a young African-American professional who had never seen one of Wilson's plays performed.  He was mesmerized and moved, and as we were leaving the theatre, he said to me, "I need to get the manuscript of what we just saw.  I need to think about all these things."

In light of all that is happening these days in the political boxing ring in our nation, we all need to think about these things. The issues of racism that peppered Wilson's life and informed his plays about the century now past still rear their head in this present century - at every Trump, in the all-too-frequent displays of police , in quotidian looks of contempt and the absence of civility.  Although August Wilson is no longer with us, the lessons provided by his life and life's work still speak eloquently to the work that we still need to do to come together as a nation and as a community. Through this memoir, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Lee are offering us an envelope in which we can carry the currency of understanding that we need to spend to truly make a difference in this world.

This play will run through April 3rd.

Huntington Theatre Website



Sunday, March 13, 2016

Trinity Repertory Company Presents "To Kill A Mockingbird" - This Mockingbird Sings In A Whole New Key - Through April 3rd

The current production of "To Kill A Mockingbird" presented by Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI features some bold choices by Director Brian McEleny.  Based on the iconic novel by recently deceased Harper Lee, the story has been adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel. It might be tempting to think of this familiar story as an "old chestnut" reliving a fictionalized version of events that took place over eighty years ago. In a risky move that worked well for me as an audience member, the Director has inserted into the text brief personal bios spoken by many of the actors, in each case describing incidents from their own lives that made them intimately aware of the pain and reality of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia.  With that bold stroke, Maycomb County, Alabama of the 1930's becomes America of the 21st Century.

Most of us grew up reading the novel and luxuriating in the Academy Award winning performance of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.  Rather than try to recreate that timeless performance, Stephen Thorne has created his own fresh take on the intrepid country lawyer. His carefully modulated, yet passionate, closing argument to the jury in defense of Tom Robinson (David Samuel) is a tour de force.  Equally impressive among this solid ensemble are Angela Brazil as Scout, Jude Sandy as Jem, Mia Ellis as Calpurnia, Mauro Hantman as Dill, Ashley Mitchell as Mrs. Dubose, Sinan Eczacibasi as Boo Radley and Judge Taylor, Rachel Warren as Miss Maudie Atkinson, Rebecca Gibel as Miss Stephanie Crawford, Will Turner as Walter Cunningham and Mr. Gilmer, Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Heck Tate and Bob Ewell, and Alexis Green as Mayella Ewell.

Stephen Thorne as Atticus Finch
Jude Sandy as Jem
"To Kill A Mockingbird"
Trinity Rep
Through April 3rd

The Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater has been configured in the round for this production.  The effect is close to that of the audience observing an operation in a surgical theater, like the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital.  We get to watch Atticus carve up the Ewells in his cross-examination.  And, as is sometimes the case in life, "the operation was a success, but . . . . "

The set by Michael McGarty is a simple assemblage of movable student desks and tables, frequently re-configured to suggest the courtroom, the Finch home, a tree.  Liberal and effective use is made of the aisles and upper levels of the theater to recreate the neighborhood around the Finch and Radley homes, as well as to suggest the galleries of the court house.  Costumes by Toni Spadafora bring us back to 1935, Lighting by Byron Winn signals changing moods, as does Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz.

Several climactic scenes near the end of the play are particularly moving.  Boo Radley's rescue of Scout and Jem teaches them to see Mr. Radley in a new light.  Atticus is forced to wrestle with a moral choice that is hardly black and white when it comes to deciding how to proceed in handling the death of Bob Ewell.

This is a riveting and moving production of a work of art that has been transcribed in book, movie and stage forms. Ms. Lee's masterpiece is in very capable hands with this company.  This "Mockingbird" sings in a new key, and it is a song worthy of our attention.  It is well worth the trip down I-95 to Providence to take in this exceptional production.

Through April 3rd.

Trinity Rep Website



Thursday, March 10, 2016

"The Not So Starving Artist" by Stephen Cerf - Money Management And Investing For People In The Arts

Let me tell you just how timely is Stephen Cerf's very practical guidance to money matters for artists. I just came from having coffee with a friend of mine who is a young  professional musician. He was sharing with me the struggle to teach himself about the basics of financial matters now that he has transitioned from financial help from his parents to standing on his.own fiscal feet.  I was thrilled to be able to tell him about "The Not So Starving Artist."  After hearing my description of the book, my friend immediately went on line and ordered the Kindle version of this new volume.

Mr. Cerf is a New York-based actor who has worked steadily in National tours of "Spamalot, Jersey Boys, Motown" and others.  In this book, he gives his own personal history and background of learning to manage money matters, beginning with learning basic investing from his father, and beginning to invest in real estate properties with his brothers.  He offers fellow artists a step-by-step guide to understanding budgeting, saving, mortgages, closing costs, the proper use of credit cards, credit scores and many other topics of value to those in the world of the arts and theater.

I have known Mr. Cerf since his student days at Boston Conservatory, and I can tell you that he practices what he preaches in this book.  I am sure that this is not the last time that I will recommend this fine book to someone who needs a quick and comprehensive overview of how to gain control over financial issues as an artist with intermittent earnings.  The artistic community owes Mr. Cerf a debt of gratitude - but he won't charge interest on that debt!



The Hypocrites Sail Back Into Harvard Square Aboard The "H.M.S. Pinafore" - A Fun Pajama Party!

The Hypocrites
"H.M.S. Pinafore"
Through March 20th
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

Whenever the Chicago-based troupe, The Hypocrites, return to Boston, it is a red letter day for me. Their showmanship and antics remind me of every family's eccentric Aunt Tillie coming home from her ashram in Santa Cruz for an annual visit for the holidays. She is fun-loving, and does things with you that your parents would never countenance. She takes you to Brooklyn Boulders, goes Zip-Lining, leads you in sampling vegan food from Eritrea in Central Square, and urges you to join her in seeing an off-beat show at The Oberon!

Under the Direction of Saugus native Sean Graney, the Hypocrites have embedded their daring DNA into the usually button-ed-up Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre,  This is not your grandfather's D'Oyly Carte production of "H.M.S. Pinafore."  The gender roles have been reversed - sailors are now sail'resses - , and the entire operetta is set as a sea-going pajama party.  Intrepid audience members are invited to immerse themselves in the set and in the interaction with cast members.  I do not remember ever having more fun at a performance of "Pinafore" - not even when I played the role of Captain Corcoran many years ago. More risk averse members of the audience can choose to sit at tables in the mezzanine sections, avoiding the fun and disruption of pillow fights and throwing of stuffed animals.

Despite the fun that the ensemble clearly has in re-framing this classical piece of theater, The Hypocrites are serious and solid musicians and performers.  They are: Dana Omar, Emily Casey, Christine Stulik, Erin O'Shea, Kate Carson-Gronier, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler, Erik Schroeder and Shawn Pfautsch.

Doug Pawlik as Joseph with his trusty clarinet
Dana Omar as Ralphina with her "oboe"
"H.M.S. Pinafore"
Through March 20th
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The ensemble members are universally excellent, but standing out in the performance I attended were Dana Omar as Ralphina, in love with Doug Pawlik as Joseph, son of Captain Cat Coran, played by Emily Casey. Kate Carson-Groner plays the hilarious Dot Dead-Eye, and Christine Stulik is Admiral Dame Jo-Anne Porter.  Matt Kahler is L'il Buttercup.

Mr. Graney shares directing chores with Thrisa Hodits, with Music Direction by Andra Velis Simon. The whimsical set is designed by Tom Burch, with Lighting by Heather Gilbert and Sound by Kevin O'Donnell.  Erin Kilmurray choreographs movement on land and sea.

Doug Pawlik as Joseph with audience members arrayed at his feet
"H.M.S. Pinafore"
Through March 20th
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The fun-filled shenanigans notwithstanding, there are some serious themes flowing just beneath the surface of this narrative.  The chasm between social classes was a serious issue in the days of Gilbert & Sullivan, and remains an issue in these days of Trump & Cruz.  The choice to switch gender roles in this production shines a light on issues of gender equality and gender expectations in society.

 Get ready to set sail for a rollicking evening of pure delight.  And I can guarantee that you will "never be sick at sea" "What, never?" "Hardly ever!"

Through March 20th at the Oberon.

American Repertory Theater Website



Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Stoneham Theatre Presents "Sorry" by Richard Nelson - Part 3 of the Apple Family Plays

When I walked into Stoneham Theatre in preparation for seeing "Sorry," I felt as if I had responded to an invitation to a family reunion.  For I very much have come to feel  at home with the Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York - and with their core values!  Crystal Tiala's wonderfully warm set always reminds me of family gatherings at the homes of my grandparents or great aunts - folding card tables hauled out to accommodate the overflow from the dining room table groaning with too much food and too many relatives.

Richard Nelson has written a four-part series that lovingly chronicles the vicissitudes of the Apple siblings and their aging Uncle Ben.  In this third segment of the tetralogy, the crisis is that Uncle Ben (Joel Colodner) has slipped so much that oldest sister Barbara (Karen MacDonald) can no longer care for him in their home. The family gathers to ratify the decision to move him into an elder care facility.  The time is Election Day 2012 with President Obama facing off against Mitt Romney. Divorcee Marian (Sarah Newhouse) has a new beau, who is working as a poll watcher at the polling place next door to the Apple homestead. Youngest sister Jane (Laura Latreille) is missing her actor boyfriend, Tim, who has found a paying acting gig in Chicago.  Baby brother Richard (Bill Mootos) is expected to give his blessing and final ratification to the decision to remove Ben to a home. Barbara is having second thoughts and feels awash in waves of guilt.

Ben and the nieces and nephew work on a jigsaw puzzle, and a memory is recounted of a long ago puzzle with a missing piece.  What a lovely metaphor, for soon it will be Ben who is the missing piece in the puzzle that is this loveable and quirky family.

The theme of what to do with an aging loved one strikes a chord with virtually every audience member.  Mr. Nelson has a keen feel for the vagaries of family strife that result from such a difficult decision, and Director Weylin Symes steers this wonderful cast through these rough waters.  We feel the turbulence, but the vessel remains sea worth.

The Puzzle
Bill Mootos as Richard
Joel Colodner as Uncle Ben
Sarah Newhouse as Mirian
Karen MacDonald as BarbaraLaura Latreille as Jane
"Sorry" by Richard Nelson
Part 3 of The Apple Family Plays
Stoneham Theatre
Through March 13th
Photo Credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots
The most poignant  moment in this play occurs when Uncle Ben is asked to read a passage that he may attempt to recite for an upcoming talent show.  He reads from Oscar Wilde's letter from prison, and the moment is heart-rending.  For Ben is reading from within his own prison of forgetfulness and confusion.

“I tremble with pleasure when I think that on the very day of my leaving prison both the laburnum and the lilac will be blooming in the gardens, 
[Barbara interrupts Ben's reading to remind him: "We have lilacs in our yard, Uncle"]
and that I shall see the wind stir into restless beauty the swaying gold of the one, and make the other toss the pale purple of its plumes, so that all the air shall be Arabia for me.” 
― Oscar WildeDe Profundis

Joel Colodner as Uncle Ben
Karen MacDonald as Barbara Apple
"Sorry" by Richard Nelson
Part 3 of The Apple Family Plays
Stoneham Theatre
Through March 13th
Photo Credit: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots
Mr. Colodner's reading of this passage and his mastery of the turbulent extremes of Ben's moods and states of mind are the stuff of masterful acting.  Although only an uncle, Ben is truly the pater familias of this clan and of this well-integrated cast who by this time can read each other's glances and finish each other's sentences.  I am only sorry that there remains only one more untold installment of this family's saga - to be staged in September by New Repertory Theatre.  I will miss them when the final curtain falls on The Apple Family Plays.

Lighting by Jeff Adelberg, Sound by David Wilson, Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley.

"Sorry" runs through this Sunday at Stoneham Theatre.  You will be sorry if you miss it.

Stoneham Theatre Website



Zeitgeist Stage Company Presents "Cakewalk" by Colleen Curran - Through March 19th

"Cakewalk" by Colleen Curran is a very curious choice for David Miller's Zeitgeist Stage Company.  In recent year's, I have come to expect bold and jarring productions of plays that explore the history or current state of the LGBT communities' struggles.  In contradistinction to such plays as "The Submission," "Bent" and "The Normal Heart," "Cakewalk" seems like a very light confection.  In many previous Zeitgeist productions, there have been conflicted characters challenged with the need to come out of the closet.  In the case of "Cakewalk," several characters are locked in an actual closet.

The closest that this play comes to touching substantive issues of sexuality is the plotline that involves a nun, Sister Vivien Leigh Cleary (Victoria George) finding herself attracted to the deliciously nerdy and absentminded archeologist, Taylor Abbott (Matt Fagerberg), who is the only male contestant in this very traditional New England 4th of July celebration in a sleepy Vermont town.  In other words, this reluctant religious really digs the young archeologist. In introducing the character of Taylor, whom everyone assumes must be a judge - because only women enter the Cakewalk - the play also very lightly touches on the issue of sexual stereotyping.  But it does so in a manner that is as airy as a slice of Angel food cake.  Ms. George and Mr. Fagerberg bring believable chemistry to their quirky roles. Maureen Adduci plays Augusta Connors Hancock, a long suffering wife and mother of a certain age who longs to establish her own identity by winning the Cakewalk.  She risks ruining what is left of her half-baked relationship with her ditsy tennis-playing daughter, Tiffany (Ashley Risteen), by submitting for the contest the outrageously over-the-top wedding cake she has prepared for Tiffany's wedding, scheduled for the day after the 4th.  Ms. Adduci is appropriately high strung, and Ms. Risteen is a dynamo of anger and angst in form-flattering tennis whites.  Ruby Abel (Kelley Estes) is married to the town's over-zealous tow truck driver, and she and her husband conspire to ruin the chances of every other Cakewalk contestant.  In her Cub Scout Den Mother Uniform and with her less than legal cake, the character is about as one-dimensional as one can find on stage.  Ms. Estes does her best, but the writing of this character lacks any semblance of nuance, and she is a cartoon from beginning to end.  The most nuanced character that the playwright has written is Martha Britch (Aina Adler), the hippy-esque owner of the local cafe.  She is best friends with the troubled nun, having grown up and gone to school together.  Martha undergoes several mood changes as she bemoans the loud ticking of her biological clock, longing for there to be something more than a cake in her oven.  Ms. Adler demonstrates a broad range of emotions as she brings together this interesting and relatable character.

Matt Fagerberg as Taylor Abbott
Victoria George as Vivien Leigh Cleary
Zeitgeist Stage Company
Through March 19th

The most likely explanation of the addition of this play to the Zeitgeist season is that David Miller and playwright Colleen Curran first collaborated together in 1980 in a production of "Man of La Mancha" in Vermont.  Mr. Miller directs and designed the set, a down-at-the-heels inn, replete with scorch marks above the stove and stains from a leaky roof.  Lighting is by Michael Clark Wonson, Costumes by Jess Huang and Sound by J. Jumbelic.

If you come to see "Cakewalk," have a substantial dinner before the theater, for this bill of fare is strictly light desert.  It will play at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Black Box through March 19.

Zeitgeist Stage website



"Straight" by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola - A MUST SEE at the Acorn Theater, Theater Row

Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola have written a three character play about sexuality that avoids stereotypes and invites the audience to consider sex and sexual identity in non-traditional ways. "Straight" is beautifully written, brilliantly directed by Andy Sandberg, and superbly acted by the trio of Jake Epstein, Jenna Gavigan and Thomas E. Sullivan.

The play opens and ends in awkwardness.  In the opening scene, Ben (Mr. Epstein) is sitting on his couch, with young Chris (Mr. Sullivan) occupying the other end of the sofa.  They have met on line and this is their first awkward face to face encounter, sipping beers and watching football. Macho monosyllabic dialogue ensues: "So," grunts Ben.  Chris retorts cleverly with his own tentative "So."
Fast forward to the other bookend - a moment at the end of the play that is well-conceived, perfectly directed and blocked, and acted by Mr. Epstein.  Fade to black.

Between these two bookend moments we are treated to a narrative of Ben, a 26 year-old successful financial professional (think Goldman Sachs or Bain Capital) who is in a long-term relationship with the lovely Emily, a Ph.D. student in genetic and bioinformatics research (Think Harvard, MGH or The Broad Institute).  They live separately in Boston, but she is pushing hard for them to move in together and take the next logical step in their relationship.  But the fly in the ointment is that Ben is surreptitiously exploring his "bi-curious" inclinations, and has meet Chris, a 20 year-old Boston College student.  What begins as a tentative on-line flirtation between Ben and Chris slowly evolves into a true friendship and love relationship.  But Ben also loves Emily.  What to do?

Primarily through conversations between Ben and Chris, the play explores whether having sexual feelings and occasional sexual acting out with a same sex partners necessitates one identifying oneself as gay. Are we more than the simple binary labels that society loves to stick on us? Ben is content to have it both ways, until Emily pushes hard for a decision about moving in together, and Chris foresees what that would mean for his relationship with Ben.  As I mentioned above, the writing avoids gay stereotyping, except for the times when it parodies stereotypes.   At one point, Chris coquettishly morphs into a pseudo-flamboyant queen and intones: "Not every gay guy, like, burps glitter."

Mr. Epstein is rock steady as the conflicted Ben.  We see him grow from experimental flirtation with Chris to a real and mutually needy relationship with the young man, all the while trying to keep Emily in the dark, but emotionally and sexually satisfied.  The juggling act seems to work - that is until Emily walks in on Ben and Chris one morning, and the three of them share an awkward breakfast together.  That tension-filled scene is one of the most powerful in the play, and I would have wanted more scenes like it.  My one criticism of this drama is that I would have preferred to see more time with the three characters on stage together, and the character of Emily fleshed out more fully.  Ms. Gavigan is lovely and winsome as Emily, and it is clear why Ben would be in love with her.  What is less clear is why she is drawn to Ben despite him giving her so little of himself. More exploration and exposition of these issues would make this an even stronger play.

But I quibble, for the overall effect of "Straight" is stunning in its power and nuance.  Mr. Sullivan is a recent Tisch graduate, and is making his Off-Broadway debut.  It is my understanding that this role will earn him his Equity card.  Yet he commands the stage like a Broadway veteran - his timing, physical presence, his mastery of myriad facial expressions and his overall charisma and vulnerability signal the beginning of a long and spectacularly successful career. By the end of the play, every audience member had fallen in love with him and his character. He has a way - with Ben, with Emily and with audience members - of gently luring us into his gossamer web of seduction.

Jake Epstein as Ben
Thomas E. Sullivan as Chris
Acorn Theater
Through May 8th

This troika of fine actors are supported by a creative team that includes a gorgeous set by Charlie Corcoran.  As a Bostonian, how could I not be enamored of a set that features, on the living room wall of what looks like a very nice Back Bay apartment, a framed Tom Brady #12 jersey!  Costumes by Michael McDonald help to define each of the three characters, Lighting by Grant Yeager signals the shifting moods, as does subtle Sound Design by Alex Hawthorn.

One litmus test I apply to all plays that I see is to ask myself the question: "Do I care about what happens to each character?"  In this case, I care very much.  In fact, I am hoping for a sequel that will tell me what adventures and misadventures these three human beings may share in the next chapters of their lives.

New Yorkers, there is no excuse of not going straight to the link below and ordering your tickets to "Straight," which will run at the Acorn Theater at Theater Row on 42nd St. through May 8th.  Bostonians, this play is worth making a trip to the Big City.  Boston has invaded 42nd Street with this great set and action set in the Hub.

Straight website



Saturday, March 05, 2016

Apollinaire Theatre Company Presents The Intriguing "Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise - Youth Is Not The Only Thing That's Sonic"

The current production at Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea is the intriguing drama "Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise" by Toshiki Okada, with English translation by Aya Ogawa.  Mr. Okada's play is inspired by a traditional Japanese tale, The Legend of Urashima Taro.  Here is a thumbnail summary of the legend:

"One day a young fisherman named Urashima Tarō is fishing when he notices a group of children torturing a small turtle. Tarō saves it and lets it to go back to the sea. The next day, a huge turtle approaches him and tells him that the small turtle he had saved is the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, Ryūjin, who wants to see him to thank him. The turtle magically gives Tarō gills and brings him to the bottom of the sea, to the Palace of the Dragon God (Ryūgū-jō). There he meets the Emperor and the small turtle, who was now a lovely princess, Otohime. On each of the four sides of the palace it is a different season.
Tarō stays there with Otohime for three days, but soon wants to go back to his village and see his aging mother, so he requests permission to leave. The princess says she is sorry to see him go, but wishes him well and gives him a mysterious box called tamatebakowhich will protect him from harm but which she tells him never to open. Tarō grabs the box, jumps on the back of the same turtle that had brought him there, and soon is at the seashore.
When he goes home, everything has changed. His home is gone, his mother has vanished, and the people he knew are nowhere to be seen. He asks if anybody knows a man called Urashima Tarō. They answer that they had heard someone of that name had vanished at sea long ago. He discovers that 300 years have passed since the day he left for the bottom of the sea. Struck by grief, he absent-mindedly opens the box the princess had given him, from which bursts forth a cloud of white smoke. He is suddenly aged, his beard long and white, and his back bent. From the sea comes the sad, sweet voice of the princess: "I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age ..."

In the Apollinare dramaturg's program notes, we read this quotation: "The princess had shut Urashima's life up in the box . . ." This phrase seems to perfectly capture for me the central message of this play: "Are we willing to allow ourself to be locked in a box - a TV, a computer screen, a room, a corporation, a job, a relationship. our limited imaginations, our fears, etc? Or, are we willing to listen to the voice inside of us screaming to be let out and to travel beyond quotidien boundaries and concerns?

Mr. Okada's play is set in the repressive corporate atmosphere of Japanese industry, yet this production takes this very particular setting, explodes it and makes it universal.  Each character begins the play sitting in front of a computer screen - a cog in a corporate machine.  Actor 1 (Trip Venturella) professes a desire to make something more of his life, and then confesses that it is a.ll a lie.  Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that each character is an interchangeable aspect of "Everyman/Everywoman," swapping roles as they represents various levels of consciousness and self-awareness. Due in part to Direction by Danielle Fauteux Jacques and the multi-ethnic casting, the tale does take on a universal application.  Becca A. Lewis, Deniz Khatreri, Paola Ferrer and Quentin James round out this five-person cast.  In the photo below, Becca A. Lewis sits in front of her "Box," a slack-jawed mouth breather going through the motions of working and living.  She represents the opposite end of the spectrum in which an earlier version of her character repeatedly bleats, "I want to travel."

Trip VenturellaPaola M. Ferrer Collazo,Becca A. LewisDeniz KhateriQuentin James
"Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise"
by Toshiki Okada
Apollinaire Theatre Company
Through March 13th
The play is a sort of journey in which the characters explore the quest for meaning and discover how honest they are willing to be with themselves and with one another.  The message is a prescription for us never to accept living "the unexamined life."
Scenic Design is by Nathan K. Lee, Sound Design by Ben Blier, and Costumes and Choreography by Susan Paino.

This production will run in Chelsea through March 13th.  I suggest that you crawl out of your tortoise shell, make the very doable trek to Chelsea, and join this fine cast as they lead you on a journey of discovery.



Apollinaire Theatre Website

Actors' Shakespeare Project Presents A Regal Production of "Richard II" by William Shakespeare - At the Cambridge YMCA

I first became familiar with the seldom-performed "Richard II" when my tenth grade English teacher had us memorize the majestic speech by John of Gaunt as he lay dying.  I was enraptured by the speech, and have waited all these years to see a fully staged production of this play.  It was well worth the wait, for this current version presented by ASP under the very deft direction of Allyn Burrows is nearly flawless.

In responding to this play, one must begin with the beauty and poignancy of Shakespeare's language. It is among his most memorable and lyrical.  This company of actors have embraced the Elizabethan dialect as if it were their native tongue, and the rhythms, rhymes, and couplets roll off of their tongues as if lubricated by honey.  There is not a weak link in the cast, led by Doug Lockwood as King Richard II, Malcolm Ingram as John of Gaunt, Mary Lowry as Duchess of York, Paula Plum as Queen, Michael Forden Walker as Bolingbroke, Robert Walsh as Duke of York and Lewis D. Wheeler as Thomas Mowbray et al. Other roles are played by members of the ensemble.

Set Designer Janie E. Howland has created a very basic and serviceable set that utilizes the balcony and aisles at the Cambridge YMCA to good effect. Lighting is by Daniel H. Jentzen, Sound and Original Music is by Arshian Gailus.  Costumes by Tyler Kinney perfectly capture the period of the play.

As King Richard II, Mr. Lockwood is perfectly cast - tall enough to be regal, slender and pale enough to appear vulnerable.  A highlight of this production is the famous speech in which he catalogues his slef-imposed woes and those of monarchs who have gone before him:

 "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings; 
How some have been deposed; some slain in war, 
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd; 
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown 
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits, 
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, 
Allowing him a breath, a little scene, 
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks, 
Infusing him with self and vain conceit, 
As if this flesh which walls about our life, 
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus 
Comes at the last and with a little pin 
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!" (Act 3, Scene ii)

Another highlight was the aforementioned death speech by John of Gaunt, as he rails against Richard's egregious abuse of power, delivered with exceptional pathos by Malcolm Ingram and worthy of excerpting herein:

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

"King Richard II", Act 2 scene 1

Other memorable performances include those of Robert Walsh as Duke of York, trying to reign in Richard's excesses, and ultimately siding with his enemies.  Lewis D. Wheeler handles multiple roles and accents with nuanced precision, as does the always formidable Paul Plum as Queen and Duke of Aumerle.

ASP Richard II
(l to r) Northumberland (Marya Lowry),
King Richard II (Doug Lockwood), Bishop of Carlisle (Malcolm Ingram),
Bolingbroke (Michael Forden Walker), and Henry Percy (Lewis D. Wheeler).
At Cambridge YMCA through March 13th
Photo by Stratton McCrady
The play treats the primary issue of the abuse of tyrannical powers, as Richard eliminates enemies and steals another's inheritance for his own purposes.  We find ourselves in a season in which we seem on the brink of crowning a Republican candidate for President whose morals and values make those of King Richard seem, in comparison, like those of the Sisters of Mercy. This ancient drama serves as an all too timely cautionary tale reminding us that we had better be very careful into whose hands we place the sceptre, praying that reason and righteousness will Trump demagoguery and chicanery. For our hard-earned freedoms are fragile and far from "brass impregnable"!

Unless Mark Rylance were to return to our shores in the near future, one would be hard pressed to find any time soon a more beautifully wrought production of "Richard II."  Head to Central Square and take in the sublime poetry of The Bard and the superb mastery of the ensemble of The Actors' Shakespeare Company.  This production runs through March 13th.



Actors Shakespeare Project Website

ArtsEmerson Continues To Delight With "The Wong Kids In The Secret Of The Space Chupacabra Go!" by Ma-Yi Theatrer Company

ArtsEmerson has invited to Boston the innovative troupe of Ma-Yi Theater Company to present their play "The Wong Kids" by Lloyd Suh.  The play uses live actors and puppets to tell a story that is basically an allegory that addresses issues of bullying and being comfortable in one's skin.  Brother and sister Bruce (Alton Alburo) and Violet (Sasha Diamond) are both misfits in their own way, and express the usual amount of sibling rivalry and teasing.  But one day they discover that they have secret powers: the ability to lift objects with their minds and the ability to breath in outer space. These special gifts make them the perfect choice to be sent on a mission to save the universe and to battle the cosmically bullying villain, The Chupacabra.   Along they way, they encounter a number of persons and creatures, some of whom are there to help them, and others are intent on hindering them in their quest.

Playwright Suh and Director Ralph B. Pena have concocted a wonderful two-tiered story.  The basic lessons are accessible to even young children as good and evil collide.  But along the way, there are speeches and dialogues that use fancy vocabulary and nuanced concepts that tell the adults in the audience that this story is for them, as well.  The overall feel of the play is similar to that of a well-told Pixar tale - storytelling at its best.

The combination of puppetry and live acting makes for a delightful day at the theater.  In addition to Mr. Alburo and Ms. Diamond, cast members include George West Carruth, Matthew Gunn Park, Jon Hoche and Kate Marley.  Set design is by Meredith Ries, Costumes by Becky Bodurtha, Lighting by Paul Whitaker, Sound by Shane Rettig and Puppet Design by David Valentine.

The show must close this Sunday, so act quickly and treat yourself and your kids or grandkids to a memorable theater experience.



ArtsEmerson Website