Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review of "Grit" by Angela Duckworth - The Power of Passion And Perseverance

I was carrying a copy of "Grit" with me as I visited recently with a professor in the Behavioral Sciences Department at West Point. I asked Colonel Ryan if she were familiar with Angela Duckworth's book, and especially the portion that discusses West Point's difficulty in predicting which cadets might drop out of the challenging Beast Barracks at the beginning of their Plebe year. She laughed, and said that her department had just had Dr. Duckworth on campus to discuss that very issue.

"Grit" fits wonderfully with two other powerful books I have recently read the deal with the pursuit of excellence: "Mindset" and "The Talent Code."

In "Mindset," Dr. Carol Dweck posits that one can learn to develop a growth mindset that allows each obstacle and setback in life to be viewed as an opportunity for growth and refinement of existing skills, and the development of new skills.

White Rhino Report Review of "Mindset"

In "The Talent Code," Daniel Coyle lays out a case showing that deep practice triggers growth in the myelin sheath that surrounds neurons, further insulating them and speeding up the rate at which signals are passed along the neural pathways. With an appropriate ignition event to allow a person to have the persistence to engage in deep practice, one can develop extraordinary levels of talent. The final piece of the triple ecosystem that Coyle describes is a world class coach to keep a person fully engaged in the ongoing process of improvement and refinement of talent.

White Rhino Report Review of "The Talent Code"

In "Grit," Dr. Duckworth emphasizes the importance of persistence, perseverance, and passion in determining success in life. She shares many examples and case studies, including the experiences of West Point cadets, and NFL players for the Seattle Seahawks under the coaching of Pete Caroll, whose philosophy of leadership is in harmony with Duckworth's premise.

Throughout the book, the author points out that achieving true grit results from a combination of inner drives and external impetuses. The most effective external dynamics include becoming part of a group or tribe in which all of the members are striving for excellence.  She quotes sociologist Dan Chambliss in describing how this works in practice: "It seems to me  . . .that there's a hard way to get grit and an easy way. The hard way is to do it by yourself. The easy way is to use conformity - the basic human drive to fit in - because if you're around a lot of people who are gritty, you're going to get grittier." (Page 247)

Dr. Duckworth devotes several key pages to the case study of Coach Anson Dorrance, who has led the women's soccer team from UNC Chapel Hill to many national titles. He inspires grit in his players in a number of ways, including having them memorize 12 key literary quotes that together define the culture of the team. I was struck by the quote about whining penned by George Bernard Shaw: "The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." (pages 257-8)

Finally, the author quotes Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, Superintendent of West Point. In describing the culture of West Point that inculcates leadership in the men and women who make it through the grueling four year curriculum, Caslen points to the words of one of his predecessors, General John Schofield: "The discipline which makes soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment." 

"Schofield goes on to say - and the cadets must memorize this, too - that the very same commands issued in a way that inspires allegiance or seeds resentment. And the difference comes down to one essential thing: respect. Respect of subordinates for their commander? No, Schofield says. The origin of great leadership begins with the respect of the commander for his subordinates." (Page 258)

This book and its insights will be the topic of several gatherings that I will be hosting in the next  few weeks. It is a treasure trove of wisdom, encouragement, and challenge.



Friday, April 14, 2017

Huntington Theatre Company Presents "The Who & The What" by Ayad Akhtar - Wrestling With The Role Of Women Within Islam

I have been fascinated by the work of Ayad Akhtar since I saw the Pulitzer Prize winning play "Disgraced" in New York and then at the Huntington. The current Huntington Theatre Company production of "The Who & The What" builds on some of the themes that the playwright introduced in "Disgraced." I became familiar with the current play by reading it before I had a chance to see it performed. Here is my brief review after reading the play.

White Rhino Report Review of "The Who & The What

With this play, Mr. Akthar, continues to dig deeply into his own heritage as a Pakistani-American born into a Muslim family.  As he has done with his play "Disgraced," and his novel, "American Dervish," he has created characters who wrestle with issues of identity.  This grappling mirrors the wrestling that Mr. Akhtar himself has engaged in regarding complex questions of how to maintain his embrace of his cultural heritage while questioning many of the theological and social tenets of his family's Muslim faith. In this drama, Zarina is writing a novel which examines the Prophet Mohamed's marriages, and the origin of women wearing the hijab - the veil.  Her traditional father and sister are shocked by her lack of devotion to the accepted hagiographic image of the Prophet, and her husband's career as an Imam is threatened. There is plenty of conflict to be fleshed out among the play's four characters as Zarina's questioning voice places a strain on her devotion to her faith and to her family.

Director M. Bevin O'Gara has melded the four actors into an ensemble that vibrates with passion and tension. The brilliant and stunning Scenic Design by Cristina Tedesco presents a gold box inside a larger gold proscenium frame. The box is flecked with splotches of red, and contains geometric patterns one might find in a mosque. Sliding panels allow the scene to change from kitchen to living room to coffee shop. The elegant box also sends the tacit message that reinforces themes from the action of the play: "No matter how beautiful the box, no one enjoys being boxed in and trapped inside someone else's definition of who you should be." Costumes are by Mary Lauve, Lighting by Annie Wiegand, Sound by M.L. Dogg, with Original Music by Saraswathi Jones.

Aila Peck plays the elder daughter in a Pakistani-American family in Atlanta. Zarina has been reluctant to marry, or even to date, while she works on her book on the role of women in Islam. Her younger sister, Mahwish (Turna Mete) is desperate for Zarina to marry so she can wed her long-time boyfriend. Father and daughter conspire to set Zarina up with an on-line date, and she eventually marries Eli (Joseph Marrella), an American from Detroit who has converted to Islam and has become an Imam. The father, Afzal (Rom Barkhordar) is a widower who has worked hard building a successful taxi company to support his two daughters. Ms. Peck is quietly militant in wanting to carve out her own path, examining the life of the prophet in ways that may debunk popular myths. There is a price to pay that is reminiscent of the strained relationship in "Fiddle on the Roof" between Tevye and Chava.

Aila Peck as Zarina
Turna Mete as Mahwish
Rom Barkhordar as Afzal
 Huntington Theatre Company's production of The Who & the What

Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara
Through May 7, 2017

South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
The play as written is deeply thought-provoking, and as acted in this production, is profoundly moving. It will run at the Calderwood Pavilion through May 7th.



"The Girl At The Bar" by Nicholas Nash - A Fast-Paced Debut Novel

"The Girl At The Bar" by Nicholas Nash is full of fascinating characters and disorienting plot twists. I found myself turning the pages to find out what might happen next in solving the disappearance of a brilliant young cancer researcher who vanished without a trace after a one-night-stand with a man with a checkered past. That man, Ragnar, was removed in disgrace from his Wall Street firm after losing a huge sum of money in risky investments that went south. He is a suspect in Rebecca's disappearance. He takes it upon himself to find out what happened to her - in part to clear himself, and in part because he has fallen in love with her after their one night of love. In getting out ahead of the police investigation, Ragnar employs former colleagues and friends to find clues. He finds himself enmeshed in a growing web of murders and deceptions.

Mr. Nash writes with a strong sense of place, with very specific locations around New York described so well that I was able to picture each of them in my mind's eye. The characters are colorful and complex, and the protagonist is sympathetic, although flawed. The pace is fast and the writing is clear and concise. I look forward to reading his next book.



Lyric Stage Company of Boston Presents "Barbecue" by Robert O'Hara - This BBQ Is No Sunday School Picnic!

Lyric Stage Company of Boston is presenting a play entitled "Barbecue" by Robert O'Hara, known to Boston audiences for his play "Bootcandy." Summer L. Williams directed that play for Company One, and she directs this production for the Lyric. She is a faithful and visionary interpreter of Mr. O'Hara's provocative work. This is a BBQ in which the meat does not fall easily off of the bones! There is a lot to chew on in this drama. There are challenging complications presented at many levels - addressing issues of racial stereotyping by using innovative staging and even a bit of reductio ad absurdum to hammer home the point. In the same vein as playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in "An Octoroon," Mr. O'Hara uses exaggeration of stereotypes to debunk stereotypes. He shows us that dysfunction is not limited to one race or social class. The author also asks us to struggle with the questions: "Can there be truth within a lie? Can there be beauty inside of horror?"

It is clear from the moment an audience member enters the theater that the whiff of something unusual cooking is in the air. Instead of a program, each patron is handed a single sheet of paper that reads: "Yes, we have programs. But you'll have to wit til intermission to get one. And it will be worth the wait! (We promised you surprises . .)" There are surprises galore. It is a bit luke ingesting meat from a turducken. First you taste the savory turkey flesh - white meat and dark - and then comes the very different flavor of duck, followed by chicken cooked in a very special way. The play we watch in Act One, Scene One differs from what we see in Scene Two, and differs yet again in Act Two.

It took me a while to warm up to this unusual play. But once I realized what the playwright was up to, I was hooked. The opening scenes are raucous, ribald and rollicking. Four siblings from the O'Mallery clan have reluctantly gathered in a public park ostensibly to give their sister Barbara - a.k.a. Zippity Boom - a treat of her favorite barbecue. But the real reason is to mount an intervention to persuade Barbara to go to rehab. The family has already lost two siblings to the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse, and Zippity Boom seems well on her way to becoming the next victim.

Cast Members
"Barbecue" by Robert O'Hara
Lyric Stage of Boston
Through May 7
But we learn near the end of Act One that all is not as it appears to be on the surface. To judge this play by the first act would be tantamount to having judged the results of Super Bowl LI by the score of 3-28 that greeted viewers halfway through the 3rd quarter. Like Belichick and Brady, Mr. O'Hara has some trick plays up his sleeve, and the formidable and diverse cast execute on that strategic plan without fumbling the ball.  Cast members are: Ramona Lisa Alexander, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Bryan T. Donovan, Jackie Davis, Adrianne Krstansky, Deb Martin, James R. Milford, Christine Power, Jasmine Rush.

Set design is by Jessica Pizzuti, Costumes by Tyler Kinney, Lighting by Jen Rock, Sound by David Wilson.

I have been told that several performances are already sold out, so I encourage you to click on the link below, order your tickets, and get ready to sink your teeth into a "Barbecue" unlike anything you have tasted before.

Lyric Stage Website



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Underground Railway Theater Presents The World Premiere of "Paradise" by Laura Maria Censabella - AN ABSOLUTE MUST SEE!!!

I had trouble sleeping last night - and that was a good thing. I could not stop replaying in my mind scenes from the extraordinary theatrical event I had witnessed last evening at Central Square Theater. With each passing hour, as I tossed and turned and ruminated, I became aware of more and more layers that the playwright and actors had woven into this play. My mental thread count on the fine tapestry that they had fabricated kept mounting. This is one of the finest works of art I have experienced in quite some time. I will not talk much about plot lines, for I hesitate to spoil some unexpected twists and turns, but I will discuss at length many of the themes that are explored and illuminated in this script that shimmers with brilliance.

This production of "Paradise" - A World Premiere - is part of the ongoing visionary collaboration between Underground Railway Theater and MIT known as the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT. Part of the vision of this partnership is to wed science and art, and no script does that job better than the one that Laura Maria Censabella has crafted for "Paradise."

The genius of this play is that every aspect of its creation has been executed at the highest level of professionalism and artistry - the writing, directing, acting, scenic design, costumes, props, lighting, and sound all coalesce together to offer the audience a journey into the interior of two different worlds and two different lives colliding in unanticipated ways.

Yasmeen al-Hamadi (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) is a Yemeni-American teenage girl, an observant Muslim who dreams of winning a scholarship to Columbia University. Her biology teacher is Dr. Guy Royston (Barlow Adamson), a disgraced former professor at Columbia who was dismissed because he committed an egregious professional indiscretion. They are thrown together in a crumbling classroom in a down-at-the-heels public high school in the Bronx. He does not want to be there, but has no other options. She is trying to earn a 4.0 GPA so she can escape to the Ivy League.  The arcs of their lives have placed them on a collision course, and neither life will be the same after they collide.

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy as Yasmeen
Barlow Adamson as Dr. Royston
"Paradise" by Laura Maria Censabella
Underground Railway Theater
Central Square Theater
Through May 7th
Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography
No aspect of this play is too small to ignore. The cracks in the wall of the school science laboratory foretell cracks that will appear in the emotional walls that both characters have erected in their lives. The shards of a beaker that is broken between scenes are swept up by Dr. Royston and Yasmeen - a subtle foreshadowing of fragile dreams and relationships that may shatter as the play progresses. Ms. Cassidy and Mr. Adamson are simply brilliant in embodying the contradictions that the playwright has embedded in these these two complex and fascinating characters. I found myself caring deeply about the fate of each one very early in the play. This is a tribute to great writing, great acting, and great directing by Shana Gozansky.

As the play begins, Yasmeen is distraught over a failing grade in her latest test, ruining her dream of a perfect GPA. Dr. Royston is unsympathetic, and she is appalled to learn that he does not even know her name. As the action progresses, he discovers that she is extraordinarily bright and persistent. They collaborate on an elaborate project to study the neurological manifestations of adolescent love. We learn that each character is trying to cope after suffering deep losses within their individual families.

Here are just a few of the savory themes that Ms. Censabella places before the audience:
  • Stereotypes are challenged. Dr. Royston is a brilliant scholar, but speaks with an accent of Poor White Trash. Yasmeen is a proud Yemeni-American, yet her accent screams of the Bronx and the #4 train.
  • Love has many layers and many complications - love for family, mentors, teachers, students, love for learning and for science and for those who collaborate with you in the adventure of learning.
  • The intersection of art and science. This teacher and his student unexpectedly discover that they can quote for one another Milton and Shakespeare. They are so different, yet share the same DNA as Renaissance Man and Woman.
  • Late in the play, teacher and student cooperate in setting up the lab for the day's classes - putting out petri dishes and protective eye wear. What hints lie here? Be careful what you study, for you may be infected by the very thing you seek to examine clinically, dispassionately, and sterilely. Can one study love without being infected by it? In the right incubating conditions, plating a single organism in the right medium can grow into something complex and uncontainable. This is a wondrous and subtle metaphor that the playwright offers
  • What happens when one rejects traditional Bible belt fundamental Christianity and replaces it with a combination of atheism and belief in science as God?
  • How does belief in American individualism live in harmony with a belief in the deep sense of community and tribalism that is part of the Muslim faith and the Yemeni culture?
  • How many subtle remnants of prejudice and Islamophobia persist in someone as educated as Dr. Royston?
  • Another wonderful example of foreshadowing involves a conversation about subatomic particle that are able to influence each other's spin - even when not in the same physical space. Do what extent will Yasmeen and Dr. Royston effect each other's "spin" when they are not together?
  • How many levels of "arranged marriage" are in evidence in this story?
  • How does one make a "Sophie's Choice" - choosing to sacrifice one beloved thing for another?
A memorable and deeply moving scene features Yasmeen singing to Dr. Royston a portion of the Qu'ran that describes paradise. Ms. Cassidy's singing is lyrical, poetic, and . . . .well, heavenly.

Jenna McFarland Lord's set is perfect, as is Lighting by Karen Perlow and Sound by Nathan Leigh. Costumes are by Gail Buckley and the crucial Props are by Lisa Guild.

Do whatever you must do to get to Central Square Theater between now and May 7th. The first thing I did in leaving the theater after seeing "Paradise" was to call a friend of mine who is a Broadway producer. I told him to get to Cambridge to see this play. Save yourself a future trip to New York and see this inventive work of art while it is still in residence in our neighborhood.

Central Square Theater Website



Sunday, April 09, 2017

Moonbox Productions Presents "Barnum" - A Total Delight For Children Of All Ages - Through April 30th

The current Moonbox Production of the delightful musical "Barnum" is timely on several levels. There is a poignancy to the fact that at the end of the musical, P.T. Barnum partners with James A. Bailey to create "The Greatest Show on Earth." The circus that still bears the names of these two men, as well as that of the Ringling Brothers, is folding up its tent. Its time has come and gone, replaced by other forms of family entertainment. Barnum began his career as a showman and flimflam artist during an era of populism in America that saw the election of political outsider Andrew Jackson. So there is a political relevancy to this story of the impresario who turned alternative facts and fake news into the foundation for an entertainment empire. We are tasting our own updated version of populism run amok.

Barnum was a self-proclaimed "Prince of Humbug," a master of the hoax of the first water. He knew the mind and the heart of the American people in the middle of the 19th century, and he made himself rich on their nickels, dimes, and quarters. The artists behind this musical biography have made this version of Mr. Barnum accessible, human, and almost loveable. The music of Cy Coleman, Lyrics of Michael Stewart and Book by Mark Bramble tell of Barnum's successes and setbacks, marriage and dalliances, dreams and disappointments. Director/Choreographer Rachel Bertone assembled a cast of actors who could act, sing, and dance, and then exposed them to the tutelage of circus professionals at Esh Circus Arts to teach them the rudiments of circus skills. The result is a troupe that delights in telling a compelling story, while delighting us with juggling, acrobatics, aerial displays, feats of leger de main and solid singing and dancing.

Leading this fine cast as Phineas Taylor Barnum is Todd Yard. By the end of Act Two, he has the audience eating out of his hand. He is especially effective in the songs "Out There" and "The Prince of Humbug."  Shonna Cirone is equally memorable as Mrs. Charity Barnum, enduring her husband's schemes and occasional wandering off of the reservation with firmness and forgiveness. She and Mr. Yard shine in their duets "The Colors of My Life" and "I Like Your Style." As Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale who landed in the Barnum nest and warbled her way into P.T.'s heart, Jessica Kundla brings a gorgeous operatic voice that is shown to great effect in "Love Makes Such Fools Of Us All." Zaven Ovian is a perfect Ringmaster, and Carla Martinez is wonderful as Joice Heth, purported by Barnum to be 160 years of age, joyously cutting up in "Thank God I'm Old." Branson Gates stands tall as General Tom Thumb in "Bigger Isn't Better." The rest of this versatile troupe include Dan Prior, Allison Russell, Matthew Kossack, Andrea Lyons, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Joy Clark, and Alexa Wang. The Ensemble is particularly impressive in the production number "Black and White," featuring Mr. and Mrs. Barnum, and Carla Martinez as Blues Singer.

Moonbox Productions
Calderwood Pavilion
Through April 30th
The colorful circus-themed set was designed by Cameron McEachern, Lighting by John R. Malinowski, Costumes by Marian Bertone, Sound by Brian McCoy. Musical Direction of the nine piece orchestra is by Dan Rodriguez.

There was not anyone who left the theater last evening who was not sporting a smile. So, I encourage you to "step right up and purchase your ticket." The play will run at the Calderwood Pavilion through April 30th.

Moonbox Productions Website



Friday, April 07, 2017

Bobbie Steinbach Shines In "Golda's Balcony" by William Gibson - New Rep Theatre

Seldom has a standing ovation been more richly deserved or more hard-earned than the one that greeted Bobbie Steinbach at the end of last evening's performance of William Gibson's powerful play, "Golda's Balcony." For 95 minutes, Golda Meir paced the levels of Jiyoung Han's minimal multi-level set, telling her story, chain smoking cigarettes as she ruminated on her remarkable life and career. The program claims that it was Bobbie Steinbach, but she so fully embodied the former Israel Prime Minister that it felt as if Meir had returned from beyond the grave to the Mosesian Center for the Arts  - much like Grandmother Tzeitel did in Tevye's dream earlier this season. The irrepressible and multi-talented Steinbach delivered a tour de force performance that illuminated the manifold message that the playwright sought to engender using the life of Mrs. Meir as a case study in the costs of leadership, passion and the cost of turning idealism into power. Judy Braha provides solid direction, enabling the actor to stay in motion, using all of the stage and keeping the audience fully engaged.

Bobbie Steinbach as Golda Meir
"Golda's Balcony" by William Gibson
New Rep Theatre
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Through April 16th
Photo by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures

The playwright provides an unblinking look at this complex woman. This is no fawning hagiography. In her own words, Meir describes the many costs of devoting her life to creating and preserving a Jewish state. She sacrificed her marriage and time with her children. The idealist socialist ended up as a hard-as-nails negotiator on the world stage staring down Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, forcing them to provide U.S. military support against Egypt and its four neighbors that were intent on wiping out Israel.

The balcony in the play's title is actually two balconies. The first is one from which Golda was able to look down on the pacific panorama of the Eastern Mediterranean; the second was a subterranean perch from which Golda peered into the bowels of hell and Armageddon at Israel's nascent nuclear capabilities being built.

The playwright invites us to ponder three questions that have relevance to our present geopolitical dilemmas:

  • Golda Meir dreamed of a Paradise. What went wrong?
  • "To save a world you create . . . how many worlds are you entitled to destroy?
  • "What happens when idealism becomes power?"
Aiding in the telling of this powerful drama, the Director has assembled a strong creative team. In addition to Set Designer Han, very effective Lighting by John Malinowski allows several areas of the set to serve as home, office, and military installation. Costumes are by Penney Pinette, very effective Sound Design by David Wilson and dynamic Projections by Seaghan McKay.

The play will run through April 16th. You do not want to miss this production and this egregiously good performance by Ms. Steinbach. It will be well remembered during next Award Season.

New Rep Website

Enjoy! and Shalom!


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Red Fern Theatre Company Presents "Rare Birds" - A Timely New Play About Bullying and Teen Suicide

Adam Szymkowicz has written a new play that addresses the epidemic of bullying that too often leads to teen suicide. In the deeply moving "Rare Birds," currently running at the 14th Street Y, Young Evan Wills (a very believable Jake Glassman) is obsessed with bird watching and collecting anything to do with birding. His bird-themed T-shirts make him the butt of many jokes in high school, and lead to escalating bullying by the duo of Mike (Dylan Guerra) and Dylan (George Colligan). They address Evan as "Bird Tits." All three of these students are mesmerized by the lovely Jenny (Joanna Fanizza), but she hardly acknowledges Evan, even though they share adjoining lockers at school. Evan's mother, Janet (Tracey Gilbert), is struggling as a single Mom and is trying to have a dating relationship with Ralph (Robert Buckwalter), but Evan does everything in his power to thwart the budding romance.

As the bullying at school increases, and turns to malicious cyber bullying, Janet is putting pressure on Evan at home to be more "normal" and to give up his obsession with birds. He comes close to suicide, provoked by Mike giving him a gun and telling him to kill himself to rid the world of a "worthless faggot." The tension mounts as Evan locks himself in his room intent on finding the courage to commit the deed.

The play opens with a foreshadowing metaphor - Mike and Dylan shooting an innocent bird that Evans finds and tries to nurse back to health. Playwright Szymkowicz has sensitively drawn each of these characters, and Director Scott Ebersold has molded this ensemble into a team that functions with passion and conviction. The overall impact is strong and sobering, getting across a message of anti-bullying without being preachy or polemical.

Dylan Guerra as Mike
George Colligan as Dylan
Jake Glassman as Evan
"Rare Birds" by Adam Szymkowicz
The Red Fern Theatre Company
14th Street Y
Through April 9

Scenic Design is by Andrew Mannion, Costumes by Izzy Fields, Lighting by Derek Van Heel, Sound and Projections by Andy Evan Cohen.

The play runs until this coming Sunday, April 9. I strongly encourage a trip to the 14th Street Y to see this fine Red Fern Theatre Company production of this powerful new work with a strong cast.

Red Fern Theatre Website



Pearl Theatre Company Presents A Rollicking Production of "Vanity Fair" by Kate Hamill - Extended Through May 14th

Playwright Kate Hamill and Director Eric Tucker make a great team. They collaborated on last season's successful adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility." This season they tackle Ms. Hamill's dramatic and comedic adaptation of William Thackeray's classic social satire of class consciousness and social climbing, "Vanity Fair." Using a troupe of seven actors to portray a multitude of characters, Ms. Hamill and Mr. Tucker bring to this production the same special sauce of playful seriousness that has distinguished their work with Bedlam. This play is a delight for the eyes and ears and soul from start to finish.

The actors have the privilege of being supported by a visionary team of creative artists. Sandra Goldmark has designed a sumptuous and adaptable set that gives the actors free rein to move around and to interact with one another in ways that are sometimes intimate and sometimes raucous. Seth Reiser's Lighting Design allows changes in scene and tone to occur with alacrity. Original music by Carmel Dean adds a fitting underscoring.

The action revolves around two very different young women. Becky Sharp (Kate Hamill) is a charity case and indentured servant at Miss Pinkerton's School for Girls. She is determined to overcome her humble origins by any means and trickery necessary. Her only friend is the kind Amelia (Joey Parsons), goodness personified who hails from a more noble lineage than Becky. They are the best of friends  . . . until Becky's machinations turn vicious at Amelia's expense. Their lives are intertwined with a menagerie of relatives and love interests, played with gleeful extravagance by the remaining members of the cast - Zachary Fine, Brad Heberlee, Tom O'Keefe, Ryan Quinn, and Debargo Sanyal. Mr. Fine is especially memorable as Miss Matilda Crawley, and Mr. Sanyal is distinguishes himself in multiple roles, including Miss Briggs and George Osborne.

Brad Herberlee, Joey Parsons, Tom O’Keefe and Kate Hamill
"Vanity Fair" by Kate Hamill
Adapted from the novel by William Thackeray
The Pearly Theatre Company
Through May 14th

Each character is flawed in ways that entertain and bring complexity to the shenanigans. Ms. Hamill's Becky, as written and performed by the playwright, is no heroine, but she must be admired for her grit and perseverance. Director Tucker has this cast incongruously break out into song and dance on several occasions. It is nonsensical and wonderfully appropriate for the ethos of this piece. The trio of Thackery, Hamill and Tucker collectively hold a funhouse mirror up to the hypocrisies of 19th century British society, and the reflection is not flattering.

Because of strong audience response, the run of the play has already been extended twice, with May 14 as the final announced performance. Come and enjoyed this classic reimagined.

Pearl Theatre Website



Sunday, April 02, 2017

Take Your Pick Productions Launches With A Powerful Production of "The Little Dog Laughed" by Douglas Carter Beane - A MUST SEE - Through April 8

Like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Take Your Pick Productions is a new company that has successfully launched its first product into orbit without a hitch: the hilarious "The Little Dog Laughed." Birthed after Happy Medium Theatre shuttered its doors after a final and successful run of "Brendan," Take Your Pick Productions is helmed by Audrey Lynn Sylvia. This initial spectacular production of Douglas Carter Breane's brilliant comedy of unrequited love is a promising beginning for the new theater company.

For this initial show, Ms. Sylvia had the good sense to enlist as Director the very capable Cassandra Lovering, and chose a brilliantly written script by the gifted Mr. Beane. She wisely cast herself in a role for which she is ideally suited, and then surrounded herself with a trio of Boston's finest young actors to round out the cast. The result is a powerful and very pleasing production that you will not want to miss.

The premise of the play is that a closeted actor, Mitchell (Victor L. Shopov) is about to be catapulted to Hollywood's A list with the help of his aggressive and fast-talking agent, Diane (Audrey Lynn Sylvia). The problem is that Mitchell has a "recurring case of homosexuality," and Diane is certain that Hollywood and Mitchell's adoring fans are not ready to accept him as a gay man. Diane plots and canoodles to keep Mitchell from becoming too attached to his latest "friend," Alex (Matthew Fagerberg), who is a gay-for-pay hustler. Diane has winked at past dalliances, as long as they remained discreet, but Mitchell seems to be losing his head over young Alex, and threatens to out himself, much to Diane's chagrin. Alex's sometime girlfriend, Ellen (Aina Adler) complicates matters in a variety of ways. Each character has difficult choices to make - within themselves and with regard to their relationships with one another.

The casting is letter perfect. If Mr. Beane had been in the audience, I think he would have said something like: "This is exactly what I envisioned for each of these complex characters."

As Mitchell, Victor L. Shopov brings his usual array of theatrical weapons to the exposition of this character. He is self-assured and self-deprecating, selfish and vulnerable, seduced and seductive, faithful and faithless, and torn between a desire for fame on the one hand and true intimacy on the other hand. It does not appear that he can have both, and he is tortured by the dilemma.

As Alex, Matthew Fagerberg is both innocent and world wise - alternating between stealing from Mitchell's wallet after the actor falls asleep in a drunken stupor, and later refusing to be paid for his amorous services. Accustomed to keeping emotions in check when he services his clients, he does not know how to respond to the strange feelings that Mitchell evokes in him. It is a bravura and heart-rending performance. The sparkle in his blue eyes as he begins to fall for Mitchell has a Paul Newman quality.

As Diane, Audrey Lynn Sylvia is brash without being off-putting. She handles with finesse Mitchell, Alex, and Ellen, as well as a playwright that they are courting to turn his play into a film. Her verbal acuity and rapier wit reminded me of a bullfighter fending off bulls charging from all quarters. She has quick and agile moves to stay one step ahead of her foes.

As Ellen, Aina Adler brings a softness to this character that is touching. She loves Alex, has recently been dumped by a rich sugar daddy, but finds a way to get even with the old man. She is hurt by Alex's infatuation with Mitchell, but finds a way to survive that uses Diane's cleverness as a surprising springboard to a new life.

Ms. Lovering has these four actors humming like a well-oiled machine. Their sparks of affection, distrust, and machinations with one another are all credible and plausible. The flexible set by Marc Ewart is well conceived, as is the lighting design by Michael Clark Wonson and Sound Design by Deirdre Benson. Mikey DiLoreto is listed as Costume Coordinator, and he has each character dressed in a way that enhances their personality and unique role in this comedy.

It is always a challenge for a new theater company to build a loyal following. I encourage you to check out this stellar inaugural production. This play will make you laugh and think. There remain only four more opportunities to see this show - Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoon and evening. Get to the Black Box at the Boston Center for the Arts - and hurry . . . before the dish runs away with the spoon!

For tickets, follow this link:

Boston Theatre Scene



Hub Theatre Company Presents Another Winner - "Coyote On A Fence" by Bruce Graham - Through April 15th

The Hub Theatre Company continues to offer intriguing and well produced plays. The latest triumph is the riveting drama "Coyote On a Fence." Based on the stories of two actual death row inmates, this play by award-winning playwright Bruce Graham asks some difficult questions about who has the right to live and who deserves to die.

John Brennan (Mark Krawczyk) is an articulate and arrogant writer who got caught up in a deadly drug deal gone wrong. He is a controversial resident on death row because he publishes and edits a newspaper that seeks to humanize the prisoners who await death by lethal injection. He is joined in a neighboring death row cell by Bobby Reyburn (Cameron Gosselin), who has just been released from a record-breaking six-year stint in solitary confinement. He is an ignorant and militant member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He committed arson against a Black church and was responsible for the horrific death of more than a dozen church attendees. He and Brennan could not be more different - yet they face the same fate at the hands of the state.

Cameron Gosselin as Bobby Reyburn
Mark Krawczyk as John Brennan
"Coyote On A Fence" by Bruce Graham
Hub Theatre Company of Boston
Through April 15th
Photo by Tim Gurczak

Sam Fried (Robert Orzalli) is a Jewish journalist from the New York Times who has taken an interest in Brennan's case, but refuses to engage in support of Reyburn because of the inmate's virulent anti-Semitism. Shawna DuChamps (Regine Vital) is a prison guard who purports to be callous about the inmates she watches, but who must anesthetize herself against the chronic horrors of her workplace with generous doses of alcohol.

This quartet of fine actors are directed with precision by Daniel Bourque. The growing, but strained, bond between Reyburn and Brennan is portrayed with nuance and tension by Mr. Gosselin and Mr. Krawczyk. Their performances are among the most powerful and memorable of this season. Mr. Orzalli and Ms. Vital are also strong in their pivotal supporting roles.

Megan Kineen has designed a very credible death row set. Lighting by Jeremy Stein and Sound by Grant Furgiuele add to the tension and verisimilitude of the stark setting. Costumes by Nancy Ishihara serve a similar purpose.

Hub Theatre Company is know as an organization that offers each performance as a "pay what you can" arrangement. Recently, an audience member was so moved by this production that upon exiting the theater, he wrote a check for a substantial amount. It was a generous and appropriate response to this gripping play and its multi-layered message about the value of life in the face of death. It was an appropriate gesture because Hub Theatre Company continues to make a substantial contribution to the arts scene here in Boston.

This play will run through April 15th. The house was full last evening, so you may want to go on-line now to reserve your place. I am not "on the fence" about this show: I loved it! I think you will, too.

Hub Theatre Website



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ars Nova and Women's Project Theater Present "Sundown, Yellow Moon" by Rachel Bonds - Through April 1st

Ars Nova and WP Theater present
Sundown, Yellow Moon
A nighttime play with songs by RACHEL BONDS
Music & Lyrics by THE BENGSONS
Additional Lyrics by RACHEL BONDS
@ the McGinn/Cazale Theater (Bway btw. 76th & 77th St.)
Now thru April 1.

You would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying theatrical experience than the one being offered by the current Ars Nova/WP Theater production of "Sundown, Yellow Moon" by Rachel Bonds. Described as a "nighttime play with songs," this drama follows the crepuscular activities of a divorced father, his two grown daughters, and various other individuals with whose lives they intersect. Each character in this quietly beautiful play is broken in some way, and has a song or a poem just busting to get out. These flawed individuals, in their brokenness, lean on one another to get through the night and into a new day.

The ensemble is top notch from top to bottom. Eboni Booth is Joey, Lilli Cooper is her sister, Ray, and Peter Friedman is their father, Tom, who is recovering from losing a wife and a job. Carver (JD Taylor) visits Tom to offer anger management coaching, but he brings his own baggage that relates to issues of abuse earlier in his life. He and Tom run into a snag in their relationship, and Carver withdraws into himself until he is coaxed by Ray to pick up a guitar and reprise a song he wrote and sang years ago at a prom. He comes to life as he gives himself permission first to touch the instrument, and then to allow the music that he and it produce together to touch him. A continuing motif in this play is the healing and saving power of music, a gentle balm amidst a variety of seeping wounds. The Bengsons have written original songs for this play that shape the action, the mood, and the characters.

Greg Keller portrays Ted Driscoll, a married minor poet with writer's block who stirs emotions within Joey that neither of them know how to handle. She is not sure she should go to Berlin to pursue the Fulbright Scholarship she has earned. Her frustrating friendship with Ted leads to a crisis which Carver is able to help to ameliorate. Michael Pemberton and Anne L. Nathan round out this fine cast as supportive friends of Tom.

Annie L. Nathan as Jean
Michael Pemberton as Bobby/DJ
Eboni Booth as Joey
Peter Friedman as Tom
Lilli Cooper as Ray
"Sundown, Yellow Moon" by Rachel Bonds
Ars Nova/WP Theater
Through April 1st
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Another theme is an almost Chekhovian failure to connect by people who are trying to show that they care for each other. "I am worried about you" is a phrase that echoes from daughter to father and back again. Physical touch is often awkward, tentative and misunderstood. Much that is communicated is communicated in silence and pregnant pauses. This is a gently told tale of flawed human beings trying to get by and to help one another as best they can.

The ensemble are artfully directed by Anne Kauffman. She orchestrates the interactions among the characters like a conductor leading an exquisite chamber orchestra. The rustic set is designed by Lauren Helpern, Lighting by Isabella Byrd and Matty Frey, Costumes by Jessica Pabst, and Sound by Leah Gelpe.

The sun will set on this production on April 1st. No fooling! You do not want to miss this deeply satisfying play.

Ars Nova Website



"The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle - Greatness Isn't Born; It's Grown

This brilliantly written book is one of the most impactful I have read this year. Author Daniel Coyle has done an outstanding job of taking research into myelin, a substance that insulates nerve cells, and turning that scientific breakthrough knowledge into a prescription for achieving greatness in a variety of fields, from music to athletics to business.

Using powerful case studies, Coyle has identified three distinct key elements that determine how individuals achieve greatness: Deep Practice, Ignition, and Master Coaching.

Deep Practice involves short burst of energy - perfecting, identifying errors, repeating. Each time an individual - violinist, tennis player, soccer player - engages in this kind of Deep Practice, the nervous system generates new layers of myelin to further insulate and streamline the flow of electrical energy within neural synapses.

In order for an individual to have the motivation, persistence, and determination to engage in this level of Deep Practice, there needs to have been an Ignition event. In the case of Korean women who now dominate the LPGA, the igniting event was Se Ri Pak winning the McDonald's LPGA Championship in 1998, and becoming a visible symbol and role model for young Korean girls. Five years later - enough time for Deep Practice to have made a significant difference - Korean women began to dominate women's golf.

The third key element is Master Coaching.. Mr. Coyle calls these master teachers "The Talent Whisperers." Common traits are patience, nurturing spirit and the ability to use years of observation and pattern recognition to know just the right word to say to encourage and motivate the person being coached. IConic UCLA coach John Wooden is cited as a prototype for this kind of Master Coach.

The implications of these three key elements that lead to greatness are far reaching. They can be applied to the realm of parenting, teaching, coaching, and business leadership. This is a MUST READ book for anyone who aspires to greatness or to lead others in achieving greatness.



Ophelia Theatre Group Presents "Some Night" - Live Theater in Astoria!

Last weekend, I jumped on the N train and made my way to Astoria to the home of Ophelia Theatre Group for their performance of the thoroughly delightful romp entitled "Some Night," written by resident playwright Sarah Victoria Bennett. Under the deft and playful direction of Eric Ruiter, the troupe of eight talented actors turned a wing of an active Boys and Girls Club on 21st Street in Queens into the realm of a fairy Queen and King. The action of the play centers on a band, The Canker Blossoms, getting ready for their biggest gig to date. But complications arise when the husband and wife team of Natalie (Megan Magee) and Theo (Nick Denning) split up during the dress rehearsal, and several key band members threaten to bolt and start their own outfit. It turns out that the husband and wife team are actually Fairy King Oberon and Queen Titania in mortal form, and their personal assistants, Rob (James Jelkin) and Faye (Elizabeth Scopel) are actually Puck, a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow, and Titania's Lady in Waiting.

The members of The Canker Blossoms are mash-ups of other characters from A Midsummer's Night Dream, including some of the memorable rude mechanicals. Den (Ethan Crystal) is the keyboard player who is feuding with Lon (Ashley Grombol), the lead singer and owner of the recently refurbished performance space. They have apparently irreconcilable creative differences. Haden (Landon Sutton) is the bass player and songwriter for the group, and Harry (Zach Rich) is the bemused drummer who appears to be stoned most of the time.

Elizabeth Scopel as Faye
James Jelkin as Rob
"Some Night" by  Sarah Victoria Bennett
Ophelia Theatre Group
21-12 30th Road, Astoria, Queens, NY
Through Saturday, March 25th

The loose plot follows much of the storyline of Shakespeare's original, with much artistic license being granted to these players as they use this play to celebrate their being together for several years in creative harmony. The eclectic set and lighting by Shelby Lee Loera includes items from past productions. The entire event is a loving Valentine to art, to the creative process, and to the relationships it engenders. Rebecca Joy Wallace designed the costumes, and Layla Sutton did the choreography.

The audience loved the proceedings, which included some fun fight sequences, as well as some impressive Meatloaf-style shredding by Mr. Jelkin. When called upon to play music, the members of The Canker Blossoms acquitted themselves wonderfully, with Mr. Crystal's voice being - well, crystal clear, and blending seamlessly with that of Ms. Grombol.

If you want to taste some of the magic, you have two more opportunities - this Friday and Saturday evening at 8:00.

Ophelia Theatre Website



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Flat Earth Theatre Presents "Silent Sky" by Lauren Gunderson - It Pulsates With Light & Life - Through March 25th

Simply put, live theater does not get much better than "Silent Sky," the current stunningly moving production by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. The writing by playwright Lauren Gunderson is flawless and poetic, and her elegance of style is matched by the superb cast of five actors directed with precision and grace by Dori A. Robinson.

The action of the play centers on three historical figures, Henrietta Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, and Annie Jump Cannon. These three pioneers of astronomy worked at the turn of the last century as "computers" at the Harvard College Observatory, home of the nation's largest telescope from 1847-1867. These women, initially relegated to the tedious work of mapping stars from the photographic plates taken by the telescope, broke through barriers of sexism and academic elitism to suggest new ways of cataloguing the stars. Ms. Cannon invented a way of categorizing stars by their spectra and temperature. Ms. Leavitt arrived at a way of timing the cycle of pulsating stars that led to a way of measuring distances between stars and galaxies.

The play is filled with esoteric and arcane astronomical information. In the hands of a less artistic playwright, it could have proved to be a dry evening of theater. But given Ms. Gunderson's artistry, there was not a dry eye in the audience by the end of the play. She managed to humanize the ideas and the characters, and to make us care about all of it. The playwright has added the characters of
Henri's sister, Margaret, and her boss and sometime love interest, Peter Shaw.

The themes of the play are manifold and challenging. Director Robinson states the case beautifully in her program notes: "Gunderson calls it a conversation between opposites:science and religion, life and legacy, men and women, hearing and deafness, fantasy and reality, memories and historical facts."

Part of the poignancy of this play is that Henri Leavitt is battling time. Her body is gravely ill as her mind is at its peak of creativity and discovery. She fights to hang on until she can prove that her theories are correct, and she can be recognized as a true astronomer, not just a "female computer." The themes of this play serve as a wonderful companion piece to the recent Academy Award winning film, "Hidden Figures," in which three Black women break barriers at NASA as "Computers."

In addition to the extraordinary writing by Ms. Gunderson, the cast of five are each memorable in their roles:
  • Erin Eva Butcher is luminous as Henri, a brilliant Radcliffe graduate who chooses to leave her Midwestern family to return to Cambridge and make her way in the world of science. It is a long slog, but she is wonderfully supported by her two female colleagues, who are very different in temperament and personality.
  • Brenna Sweet is solid as Henri's sister, who stays behind to care for her father and to raise a son. She eventually follows Henri to Cambridge and cares for her in her illness.
  • Marcus Hunter has a difficult row to hoe as the sole male in this cast of powerful women. He brilliantly walks a fine line between being the arrogant and chauvinistic academic on the one hand, but charming enough to make us believe that Henri would fall in love with him, on the other hand.
  • Juliet Bowler is a total delight as Williamina Fleming, who started her Boston career as a housemaid from Ireland, but was brought onto the staff of the observatory by her boss. She peppers her conversation with wise and often acerbic comments and withering glances. 
  • Cassandra Meyer is perfect as the straight-laced person who keeps order, structure, and protocol keenly observed in the observatory. But she is also passionate about women's rights, and becomes a marching Suffragette.

Debra Reich has designed a gorgeous set that sparkles and pulsates in harmony with the stars that the women are observing and trying to understand. Costume Design by Cara Chiaramonte places the characters in the correct historical period. Lighting Designer PJ Strachman dazzles with a complex universe of heavenly bodies, and Sound Designer Kyle Lampe punctuate the action with a soundscape that fits the themes of the play.

Cassandra Meyer as Annie Cannon
Juliet Bowler as Williamina Fleming
Brenna Sweet as Margaret Leavitt
Erin Eva Butcher as Henrietta Leavitt
Marcus Hunter as Peter Shaw
"Silent Sky" by Lauren Gunderson
Flat Earth Theatre
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Through March 25th
Photo by Jake Scaltreto

I often judge an outstanding evening at the theater if, during the course of the play, I have experienced chills and tears. This play hit the jackpot. I felt deeply. I thought deeply. I learned deeply. It was one of the most satisfying theater-going experiences of this current season led by one of the best ensemble casts. Bravo!

Audience response has been so overwhelming that an additional Saturday 2:00 matinee has been added for this final weekend. The play must close on the 25th, so act now to get one or more of the remaining tickets. They are not as plentiful as the stars in the sky!

Flat Earth Theatre Website



Monday, March 20, 2017

SpeakEasy Stage Company Presents The New England Premiere of "Grand Concourse"- Struggles with Faith and Forgiveness In The Bronx


The current production by the SpeakEasy Stage Company is the New England Premiere of the praiseworthy "Grand Concourse," written by Heidi Schreck and Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary. The play uses four actors, and is set in a Catholic parish soup kitchen in the Bronx. The themes of this drama center on issues of struggling with faith and forgiveness.

Shelley (the marvelous Melinda Lopez) is a nun who has gotten out of the habit of praying, her faith having grown cold as she struggles with the discouraging task of running a soup kitchen with few resources and a clientele that stretches her and her staff. While she feeds the hungry, she is suffering from spiritual anorexia. Family issues weigh on her heart. In order to try to force herself to pray to an ever-distant God, she sets the timer on the microwave to try to get through at least a minute of petition and intercession. She is able to pray sincerely only for "justice for the immigrants"! The microwave is not enough to reheat her faith or her sense of vocation. Events in the play, triggered by her troubled relationship with volunteer, Emma (Ally Dawson), prove to be the last straw, and she confronts her lack of faith in a bold and courageous denouement.

Teenager Emma arrives, asking to volunteer in the kitchen. She is hard to figure out, and eventually shares the news that she is in treatment for cancer. This revelation changes the dynamic of her flirtatious relationship with Oscar (Alejandro Simoes), the janitor/handyman for the parish. Emma's brazen seductions of Oscar create problems in his relationship with his fiancee. Emma's cancer news proves to be only the beginning of the surprises and complications she interjects into the soup that is the relationships among the soup kitchen denizens. Initially, she appears to be a saviour, offering ideas for getting jobs for some of the regulars in the soup line, especially the quirky Frog (Thomas Derrah), but things spin out of control as her failure to follow through has tragic consequences.

The writing is complex and layered. Each character has positive and negative attributes that present challenges to the other three members of this cast. Sister Shelley is faithful but cold. Frog is charmingly nerdy but volatile. Emma is eager but duplicitous, and Oscar is grounded but vulnerable to being misled. Questions are raised about who is worthy of trust - God, one another? And ultimately, the daunting question hangs in the air: "Are some deeds and some people beyond forgiveness?"

Mr. Derrah's character of Frog is memorable as a jumpy and edgy combination of Danny Devito and Woody Allen. Ms. Dawson navigates well the rough waters of appearing to be both needy and conniving. Mr. Simoes creates a very sympathetic Oscar, torn between lust for Emma and true love for Rosa. Ms. Lopez is spectacular as Sister Shelley. She reveals her barely contained rage and existential despair in the aggressive way she peels potatoes to reveal the rawness under the surface. Emma's multiple transgressions serve to peel away the surface spirituality that Shelley is struggling to maintain, and reveals the raw soul bleeding under the surface. Director O'Leary has these four gifted actors engaged with one another in ways that keep the audience in rapt attention as the action of the play unwinds at a steady pace.

Alejandro Simoes as Oscar
Melinda Lopez as Sister Shelley
Ally Dawson as Emma
Thomas Derrah as Frog
"Grand Concourse" by Heidi Schreck
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Calderwood Pavilion
Through April 1st
Glenn Perry Photography

The always resourceful Jenna McFarland Lord has created a very realistic set - a working soup kitchen that transports us to the Bronx, with able assistance from Lighting Designer Karen Perlow, Sound Designer Lee Schuna, and Costume Designer Chelsea Kerl.

Alejandro Simoes as Oscar
Thomas Derrah as Frog
Melinda Lopez as Sister Shelley

"Grand Concourse" by Heidi Schreck
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Calderwood Pavilion
Through April 1st
Glenn Perry Photography

This play is beautifully written and superbly well acted. The subject matter is deep and thought-provoking. It would be unforgivable to miss this excellent production - a venial sin at the very least! Through April 1st at the Calderwood Pavilion.

SpeakEasy Stage Website



Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Stealing Fire" by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal - Revolutionizing The Way We Live and Work

"Stealing Fire," written by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal is a follow-up to Kotler's bestselling "The Rise of Superman." In this current book, the authors chronicle the emergence and broadening acceptance of altered states of consciousness as a route to extraordinary levels of performance and creativity. They offer numerous case studies of Navy SEALS, corporate executives, and well-respected scientists who have used a wide variety of techniques and substances to achieve levels of performance that far exceed the norm, and that supercede prior personal standards of excellence.

The authors lay out a convincing case explaining why meditation, mind-altering drugs taken in appropriate dosages, and catalytic tribal events like Burning Man have taken the mind-altering movement from the realm of hippies and the Beat Generation to the Boardroom and Coronado, California, home of the Navy Seals. As they explain it, this revolution in enhanced performance has four components: Psychology, Neurobiology, Pharmacology, and Technology. Using the ancient myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to equip mankind to excel, the authors clearly explain how these four forces have allowed enlightened individuals and groups to achieve previously unimagined levels of sustained excellence and success.



Actors' Shakespeare Project Presents A Brilliant and Bawdy "Edward II" by Christopher Marlowe - Through March 19

This ASP production has a venomous bite with its palace intrigues, infidelities, betrayals, murders, and seductions. It is brilliantly conceived by Director David R. Gammons and boldly executed by a creative team and acting troupe that are not afraid to take risks and let it all hang out.

Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare who had a brief and meteoric career as a playwright. He died mysteriously in a barroom brawl at the age of 29, but he left behind an impressive body of work, which, while lacking in quantity, rivalled that of Shakespeare in terms of quality. "Edward II" was first performed at the end of the sixteenth century and was popular well into the next century, but then it was banned for the next 300 years because of the explicit homoerotic nature of some of its themes and actions. Director Gammons and his design team have created a set that recapitulates the ethos of a New York City bathhouse during the height of the AIDS epidemic when expressions of gay sexuality were driven underground, as they were in this Elizabethan play. The set, designed by Sara Brown, includes working shower, bath tubs, towel racks. It is a fitting platform upon which the actors can tell this ancient tale. The ambience is enhanced tremendously by the complex Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, pulsating Sound Design by David Wilson, and sumptuous Costumes by Rachel Padula Shufelt. Omar Robinson choreographed the fight and violence scenes.

The play opens seductively with Gaveston (Eddie Shields) returning from exile and emerging from a tub resplendent in the same garb with which he first greeted the world on the day of his birth. For the next several minutes, standing with only a skimpy towel draped over his shoulder, he soliloquizes about what it will be like for him to be reunited with his best friend and lover, King Edward II. Within the confines of that speech, we see a foreshadowing of many of the key elements that will be developed in this character, and in the play as a whole: naked ambition, passion, lust, vulnerability, coyness, charm, and petulance. It is an opening as powerful as any SNL Cold Open with Alec Baldwin pillorying #45. If Mr. Shields, a proud member of Actors' Equity, did nothing more in the entire play than to perform this brilliant scene, he would have more than earned his paycheck. But he does much more.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Edward II
"Edward II" by Christopher Marlowe
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Charlestown Working Theater
Through March 19t

As Gaveston's lover and protector, the formidable Maurice Emmanuel Parent creates an indelible Edward II. He too spends a significant part of the play naked in a bathtub, having been deposed by lords who resent his placing his hedonistic pleasure above the needs of the kingdom. He is so blinded by his love for Gaveston, that he rejects his Queen Isabella (Jennie Israel) and spurns the advice and warnings of his brother, Kent (Nile Hawver), Mortimer (Alex Pollock), and Lancaster (Nigel Gore). The royal court is scandalized and outraged by Edwards' open wooing of and canoodling with the conniving Gaveston. Their love and lust is made explicit in a beautifully choreographed scene in which Gaveston and Edward dance erotically like two vines wrapping themselves around each other. It is a powerful and almost balletic pas de deux.

Rounding out this stellar cast is David J. Castillo, as Prince Edward III. His stylized dance shows in his tortuous physical contortions how his soul is tormented by the prospect of his being shepherded by his uncle Kent and Mortimer after the Prince has learned that they were responsible for his father's death. Stewart Evan Smith plays the courtier Spencer with strength and dignity.

This response to this electrifying production has been so strong that two additional performances were recently added. You have only until the 19th of March to get the Charlestown Working Theater to see a play that is infrequently performed, but which will be talked about for many months to come, especially during next year's award season.

Actors Shakespeare Project Website



Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Nora Theatre Company Presents A Thought-Provoking "Precious Little" by Madeleine George - Through March 26th

Lee Mikeska Gardner
Karoline Xu
Nancy E. Carroll
"Precious Little" by Madeleine George
Nora Theatre Company
Catalyst Collaborative @MIT
Central Square Theater
Through March 26th
It should come as no surprise that a play produced by Nora Theatre Company, as part of its collaboration with the Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT, should require a great deal of intellectual effort on the part of the audience. Such is the case with the current production of "Precious Little," by Madeleine George

Before I share details about the play, allow me a slight diversion to discuss my reaction to this drama. I was initially unsure how the three separate threads in the narrative of the play related to one another. And I was wondering why the cast of three women were required to play so many different parts. On my walk home from the theater, a light bulb went on in my head, and it all began to make sense. But I had to work hard to arrive at this deep level of understanding. And I was immediately reminded of a point made so eloquently in a book I am currently reading: "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle. The author describes the cognitive and neurological dynamics by which we learn to master complex tasks, processes, or ideas. It involves a concerted and repeated effort at what he calls "deep practice." I labored very heard over the questions: "What is the common denominator in these three narratives in the play? Why are these actors cast to play so many different parts?" And as I struggled, the connections began to emerge out of the fog, and the playwrights' intent became clear - at least to me as a subjective observer of the play.

Here are the outlines of the three narrative threads:
  • Brodie (Lee Mikeska Gardner) is a linguist who is a lesbian in her 40s who has chosen to bear a child using sperm from an anonymous donor. She awaits the results of amniocentesis to see if her child may be at risk of birth defects. Things become complex when the results of the test are ambiguous and troublesome. A neophyte counselor (Karoline Xu) tries to lead Brodie through a decision-making process, but they clearly do not speak the same language, and fail to communicate at any meaningful level.
  • In her role as a linguists, Brodie is interviewing an "informant" (Nancy E. Carroll) who is one of the last living persons who has spoken a dying language from pre-Soviet Siberia. The informant's controlling daughter (Karoline Xu) makes it difficult to bring the project to its completion. At one point, we see a depiction of the sonogram of the fetus as Nancy Carroll crouches in the fetal position behind a scrim. 
  • A female gorilla (also Ms. Carroll) who is purported to possess rudimentary language skills is observed in her zoo habitat by a parade of gawkers (also Karoline Xu) who do not even understand that she is not "a monkey." Brodie reluctantly comes to see the ape, and is drawn into exploring the question of language.
The light dawned for me when I began to see connections among the three threads and the roles played by the three actresses.
  • Ms. Carroll plays three characters that are each encased in some kind of enclosure. She is the informant enclosed in a soundproof booth trying to recall the language of her childhood. She is also a gorilla imprisoned in her zoo enclosure occasionally using the language skills she has acquired to try to communicate. And she is also a fetus enclosed in the womb trying to communicate through her prenatal cells and amniotic fluid her genetic code and DNA language.
  • Ms. Gardner as Brodie is trying to decode three different kinds of linguistic clues: the DNA language in the reports from the amniocentesis, the memes and phonemes from the dying Siberian language, and the rudimentary attempts by the gorilla to communicate. In each case, the attempts to establish communication are both aided by and frustrated by a piece of machinery - an ultrasound machine, an electronic set-up to allow her to speak to and hear from the informant in the soundproof booth, and machinery that lights up symbols to communicate simple words to the gorilla. In each case, the same piece of equipment stands in for the three discrete instruments. Perhaps the message is that technology in its many forms may be necessary, but is not sufficient to establish meaningful communication.
  • Ms. Xu plays characters who impede the path to clear understanding. She is the recalcitrant daughter of the informant who stands in the way of her mother completing the project. She is the unsympathetic graduate student and lover of Brodie who refuses to support Brodie during her time of doubt and need. She is the ineffectual rookie counselor who makes it difficult for Brodie to make an informed decision because her communication is so convoluted and imprecise. She is the parade of gawkers at the zoo who look at the sentient ape without understanding.
These three women are outstanding in their multiple roles. Perhaps most impressive is Ms. Carroll's impassive physiognomy and posture as the gorilla.

Lee Mikeska Gardner
Karoline Xu
"Precious Little" by Madeleine George
Nora Theatre Company
Catalyst Collaborative @MIT
Central Square Theater
Through March 26th

All of this complexity is handled with clear direction by Melia Bensussen. The simple set by Judy Galen allows for versatility in moving among the various locales - lab, office, zoo. Costume Design is by Elizabeth Rocha, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao, and Sound by Nathan Leigh.

Then there is the issue of the clever title of the play:"Precious Little."

Brodie comes to see the life growing inside of her as her precious little daughter, who may be flawed if she is allowed to grow to full term. There is precious little that science or counseling can do to guide her in making a harrowing decision that will impact her life and that of her unborn child. And there is precious little that an audience member can make of all of this complexity and questioning unless one is willing to do the work of decoding the language of the drama, and apply that to one's own world view and set of life experiences.

The play ends in a moving tableau that seems to be sending the message that at the end of the day, our ability to communicate with one another and to find a common language must transcend technology and intellectual models, but must include meaningful touch.

My brain is still process the images and ideas that "Precious Little" presents. And one could not ask much more than that from a play.  You have until March 26th to get to Central Square Theater to ruminate on these questions, thoughts, and ideas.

Central Square Theater Website



Thursday, March 09, 2017

Lyric Stage Company of Boston Presents A Delightful Production of "Stage Kiss" by Sarah Ruhl - Through March 26th

Playwright Sarah Ruhl has been a Pulitzer Finalist on several occasion, and has been a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. So, it is no wonder that her romantic comedy, "Stage Kiss," is such a delight. It is clever, fast-paced and insightful about the complexities of love - both on and off stage.

The two main characters are simply called She and He - a strong signal from Ms. Ruhl that their struggles have universal application. As She, the enormously talented Celeste Oliva arrives on stage like a whirling dervish looking for a place to land. She is a frenetic actress late for an audition and frazzled beyond belief. Despite her concerns and foibles, she books the part, and returns to the stage after a long hiatus. She is shocked to learn that her leading man (Alexander Platt) is her ex-lover, from whom she had a painful breakup. Their initial attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of a stage kiss are hilariously awkward. Those kisses become more prolonged as they discover that, despite the baggage they carry, they still care for each other. But She is married, and He has a girlfriend from Iowa! Complications ensue.

The chemistry between Ms. Oliva and Mr. Platt is palpable, which makes their dilemma believable and relatable. The arc of the narrative goes from the comical and ridiculous to the sublime and touching. Along the way, the playwright asks us to consider the nature of commitment in marriage, forgiveness, and drawing clear boundaries when they may have previously been blurred.

The excellent Ms. Oliva and Mr. Platt are joined by a stellar cast comprised of:
  • Will McGarrahan as the oblivious director, Adrian Schwalbach. He is hilarious as he stumbles around trying to offer meaningful direction to his two lead actors.
  • Michael Hisamoto is perfectly cast in multiple roles, including an understudy whose overly literal interpretation of the Meisner Method of acting makes him look ridiculously robotic.
  • Craig Mathers plays the role of longsuffering husband to She with grace and dignity.
  • Theresa Nguyen plays several characters named Mille, as well as She's daughter, Angela. In that role, she is a petulant and very angry teenager who is not afraid to confront her mother with the damage she is doing to the family by her selfish mid-life crisis.
  • Gillian Mackay-Smith is spot on with her accent and affect of the school teacher from the Quad Cities. She had been ready to move in with He until he microwaved what was left of his relationship with She, and things that had been stale got hot again.
Will McGarraghan as Adrian Schwalbach
Celeste Oliva as She
Alexander Platt as He
Michael Hisamoto as Pimp
"Stage Kiss" by Sarah Ruhl
Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Through March 26th
Photo by Mark S. Howard
Director Courtney O'Connor has this fine ensemble meshing seamlessly on the versatile set designed by Matt Whiton. with Lighting is by Chris Hudacs, Sound and Original Music by Arshan Gailus, Costumes by Amanda Mujica.

The play is beautifully written and extraordinarily well executed by this cast and creative team. The play will run at the Lyric through March 26th. Make the effort to see this show. You will not regret it.