Thursday, February 23, 2017

LaMama In Association With Magis Theatre Presents "Calderon's Two Dreams" - Through February 26th

There is a fascinating show running at LaMama's Ellen Stewart Theatre at 66 East 4th Street that you will not want to miss.  Act fast, for it closes this Sunday, February 26th. The play is "Calderon's Two Dreams," produced in association with Magis Theatre.

The play is based on two works by 17th century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca. "Life Is A Dream," first performed in 1635, deals with a Polish prince who has been imprisoned by
his father. Prince Segismundo is briefly released, goes on a rampage, and is re-incarcerated. His father tries to convince him that all that has been going on has been a dream. The main themes are
the conflict between fate and free will, and the nature of reality and our awareness of it. The play is very much an allegory that allowed the playwright to address changes taking place in Spain in terms of how people viewed the evolving relationship between faith and the state.

The second act of "Calderon's Two Dreams" is a classic morality play, telling the story of Creation and the Fall. Human characters, representations of Nature personified, and a Trinity of Power, Wisdom, and Love interact with Man, helping him to answer his question about who he is, where he came from, and why he has limitations. Imaginative puppetry helps in the telling of this stylized story. The production includes original music composed by the late Elizabeth Swados, who collaborated with Director George Drance in developing this project beginning 20 years ago. This second play, written much later in Calderon's life, looks again at human freedom through the eyes of age and wisdom. This production is the first time that these two Calderon plays have been performed together as a single piece.

The talented and energetic ensemble members play multiple roles in these two plays. They are:
  • Danielle Delgado as Shadow
  • Margi Sharp Douglas as Estrella/Water
  • Erika Iverson as Horn/Air
  • Leslie Lewis as Soldier/Wisdom
  • Joe McGranaghan as Astolfo/Free Will
  • Tsebiyah Mishael as Grace
  • Gilbert Molina as Segismundo/Fire
  • Gabriel Portuondo as Clotaldo/Earth
  • Rachel Murdy as Servant 1/Understanding
  • Ali Kennedy Scott as Servant 2/Prince of Darkness
  • Dan Solomon as Man
  • Ashley Setzler as Rosaura/Love
  • Dennis Vargas as Basilio/Power
The creative team includes Choreography by Shikego Suga, Set by Caitlyn Murphy, Lighting by Alex De Nevers, Costumes by Siena Zoe Allen, Puppet Design by Ashley Setzler and Jane Catherine Shaw, Music Direction by Uri Frazier.

Dan Solomon as Man with the Ensemble  
"Calderon's Two Dreams"
Magis Theatre Company
Ellen Stewart Theatre
Through February 26th
Photo by Theo Cote

I left the play intrigued, energized and inspired. I encourage you to make your way to the East Village between now and Sunday to catch one of the final performances of this unique treasure.

Magis Theatre Website



Boston Playwrights' Theatre Presents "The Honey Trap" by Leo McGann - Through February 26th

'Tis the season for Irish playwrights to challenge and to delight Boston audiences. ArtsEmerson has given us the Druid Theatre Company's stellar production of Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." A few miles down Commonwealth Avenue from the Theater District, Boston Playwrights' Theatre takes us to Ulster for "The Honey Trap," a new play by Leo McGann.

I had a strong personal visceral reaction this play and its subject matter - The Troubles and their aftermath. I first visited Northern Ireland and Belfast in the summer of 1968, when the Rev. Ian Paisley was spouting his sectarian venom that helped to inflame passions and violence between Protestant and Catholic neighbors. "The Honey Trap" revisits those troubled times, and toggles between the height of the conflict in 1979 and then forward in time a few decades to see what has become of some of the characters whose lives were forever changed by the events that happened one night in a Belfast pub.

Two off-duty British soldiers are sharing a pint in a pub when two Irish lasses (Maggie Markham and Grace Georgiadis) begin to flirt with them. One thing leads to another, and Bobby (Ben Swimmer) goes home with them, while Dave (Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos) returns to the barracks. Bobby was killed that night by IRA assassins, and Dave spends the next several decades trying to come to grips with the decisions that he and Bobby made that night. The older Dave (Barlow Adamson) eventually brings himself to do some deep research, and tracks down one of the young women who had set the "honey trap" that led to Bobby's death. She now calls herself "Sonia" (Maureen Keiller) and runs a small coffee shop. Sarah Whelan rounds out this excellent cast in the role of Kirsty.

Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos as Young Dave
Ben Swimmer as Bobby
The Honey Trap" by Leo McGann
Boston Playwrights' Theatre
Through February 26th

In a reversal of the ploy that the young women had used in 1979, Dave lures Sonia into a relationship, and then springs the trap, revealing who he really is. He pulls a gun, and tension reaches a fever pitch. The acting in this pivotal scene by Ms. Keiller and Mr. Barlow is powerful and cathartic. There is a memorable moment in this scene that evokes memories of the encounter in "Goodwill Hunting" between Robin Williams' character of professor and Matt Damon's character of his struggling young student. Also standing out in this cast are Mr. Swimmer as Bobby and Mr. Sundqvist-Olmos as young Dave.

Maureen Keiller as Sonia
Barlow Adamson as Dave
"The Honey Trap" by Leo McGann
Boston Playwrights' Theatre
Through February 26th
This cast is aided by strong direction from Adam Kassim, Scenic Design by Jeffrey Petersen, Sound Design by J Jumbelic, Lighting Design by Evey Connerty-Marin and Costume Design by Stephanie K. Brownell.

Although the action of the play is specific to the Ulster Troubles and their aftermath, the themes of revenge, regret, and reliving past decisions are universal.

This excellent new play runs through this Sunday, February 26th at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. Do not miss it.

Boston Playwrights' Theatre Website



"Billy Elliot" Soars on the Wheelock Stage - Through February 26th

The current Wheelock Family Theatre production of "Billy Elliot," with music by Elton John and Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, is a total delight. The blend of young talent with seasoned veterans of the stage has been wonderfully overseen by Director Susan Kosoff.

Here is the talented cast:

About the Actors

"Wheelock Family Theatre operates under contract with Actors Equity Association (AEA). AEA members in the cast include Neil Gustafson (Dad), Aimee Doherty (Mrs. Wilkinson), Jared Troilo (Tony), Cheryl P. Singleton (Grandma), Gary Thomas Ng (Mr. Braithwaite), Peter S. Adams (Big Davey), Robin Long (Dead Mum), Steve Gagliastro (George), Byron Darden (Posh Dad/ Scab), and Caroline Workman (Leslie). Featured in the ensemble are actors AJ Manuel Lucero, Ben Salus, Brad Foster Reinking, Edward Simon, Gian Raffaele DiCostanzo, Gigi Watson, Mark Dreher, and Mark Soucy. Will Christmann plays older Billy.

At WFT, young thespians have the opportunity to perform on stage with professional actors. WFT conducted an extensive search last spring for the lead role and is pleased to announce that Seth Judice, 13, of Houston, TX, will play Billy. Shane Boucher, 15, of New London, NH, will play Billy’s best friend, Michael, and Billy understudy. Maxwell Seelig plays Posh/ Tall boy and Ben Choi-Harris plays Small Boy. Lily Ramras plays ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter, Debbie. Other members of the ballet girl ensemble include Addison Oken, Aimee Coleman, Anabel Moda, Charlotte B. Um, Elizabeth Crawford, Emi Rodes, Haven Pereira, Isabelle Cotney, Joey Gold, Lily Park. Madi Shaer, Margaret McFadden, Natalie Hall, Phoebe Anthony, Tessa Bigelow, and Zoe Stewart."

Many readers are already familiar with this inspiration story of a young boy who grows up in a coal mining town in northern England, who reluctantly is drawn to the world of ballet. It is a story that lights a blaze of wonder and hope in audiences of all ages. Billy's family, struggling to eke out a living in the midst of a bitter strike against the government of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, is initially appalled that Billy would pursue such a sissy diversion, instead of using his weekly 50p allowance to pay for boxing lessons. Themes of acceptance are beautifully woven into this story. Billy must come to accept his ability to dance, and to acknowledge to himself his love for ballet. His family must find a way to reconcile his unusual giftedness with a rock hard image of what it means to be a real man or boy. Billy must struggle to figure out how to respond to his best friend, Michael, who reveals to Billy that he enjoys dressing up in women's clothing. In a pivotal scene, one can almost see the gears turning in Billy's brain as he performs the calculus of saying to himself, "Well, if I am asking people to accept me as a dancer, can I do any less than offer acceptance to Michael for his unusual choice of clothing?" Instead of judging Michael, Billy goes along and turns what could have been an alienating moment into a fun game.

Musical Director Jon Goldberg leads a lively 9-piece orchestra. Choreographer Laurel Conrad allows the cast to use every inch of space on the Wheelock stage to tell their story through movement. The Set Design by Matthew T. Lazure evokes the grittiness of the coal mining town, and Lighting by Franklin Meissner, Jr. and Sound by Eric Norris help to alert the audience to shifting moods. Costumes by Melissa Miller perfectly capture the ethos of the time and place.

Seth Judice as Billy Elliot
"Billy Elliot"
Wheelock Family Theatre
Through February 26th
  • As young Billy, Seth Judice carries the show. The actor takes his character through a journey of discovery, anguish, doubt and joy that is complex, combining technical proficiency in dance with nuanced acting and singing.
  • Aimee Doherty is her usual wonderful self as Mrs. Wilkerson, the ballet teacher who strikes a spark within Billy when she recognizes his extraordinary potential. Seldom has tough love been so convincingly been portrayed. Think of Miss Hannigan from "Annie" and Mary Poppins, and you will have a sense of the blend of tough and tender that Ms. Doherty brings to this role. She shows some fancy acting footwork in creating this memorable character. Her song "Shine" that she sings with Billy is a highlight.
  • As Billy' Dad, Neil Gustafson also must show a blend of anthracite-hard stubbornness and a malleable willingness to process new information to lead to new ways of thinking. It is a convincing performance.
  • Likewise, Cheryl D. Singleton as Billy's indomitable Grandma stands out. Her rendition of "Grandma's Song" is a delight.
  • The always steady Jared Troilo stands out as Billy's older brother Tony, a coal miner and labor organizer who worries about his peculiar little brother.
  • As Billy's friend Michael, Shane Boucher shows wonderful transparency and vulnerability as an outlier struggling to fit in and to gain acceptance from Billy. 
Seth Judice as Billy Elliot
"Billy Elliot"
Wheelock Family Theatre
Through February 26th
The play must close this Sunday. Come and bring your family and friends.



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

ArtsEmerson Presents The Druid Theatre Company Production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" - A MUST SEE - Through February 26

Aisling O'Sullivan as Maureen
Marie Mullen as Mag
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane"
by Martin McDonagh
The Druid Theatre Company
ArtsEmerson - Emerson Paramount Theater
Through February 26

As I contemplate my experience in watching the current Druid Theatre Company production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" by Martin McDonagh, two thoughts predominate. The first thought is that the leadership team at ArtsEmerson is unparalleled in their genius for finding far-flung world class story tellers and bringing them to Boston for local audiences to enjoy. The second thought is that Irish playwrights may also be unparalleled in their ability to weave a tale that perfectly meshes comedy with chilling tragedy. Such is the case with Mr. McDonagh's script that explores themes of mother-daughter alienation, loneliness, bitterness, the craving to escape boredom, and the challenge of breaking the bonds of societal role expectations. This production comes to us in Boston after a very successful run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The play first appeared on Broadway 20 years ago, and Director Garry Hynes, who helms this revival, was the first female director to win a Tony Award. To borrow a phrase from the script, she is the spoon who stirs together a remarkable cast, a quartet of actors who coalesce "without lumps" to tell this gripping tale. In the original Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, actress Marie Mullen won Tony and Obie Awards for playing the role of the daughter, Maureen. In this production, she now plays the role of the controlling and embittered widowed mother, Mag. The two roles offer very different challenges. Playing her repressed and reluctantly dutiful daughter is Aisling O'Sullivan. Maureen longs to fly off to Boston to start a life and perhaps a family, but she is the only daughter who can stand to be around the harridan that is Mag, so she is trapped into sharing a cottage and a life with a woman who plots every move and every word to be able to maintain tight control over her virginal 40 year-old former beauty queen daughter, who has had some mental health issues along the way. The Dooley brothers play significant roles in the story. Ray (Aaron Monaghan) is a socially awkward ne'er-do-well who serves as a messenger for Mag and Maureen, and his failure to strictly follow instructions has dire consequences. Pato (Marty Rea) is his older brother, recently returned from London for a visit. He and Maureen had eyes for each other many years ago when they were schoolmates, but neither had the courage to act on the attraction. Their attempt to make up for lost time is both laughable and poignantly tragic. A spark has been struck, but Mag plots to make sure that the spark never bursts into flame. She wants to keep Maureen around to be at her beck and call as she fades into senescence.

Marie Mullen as MagAisling O'Sullivan as Maureen
Marty Rea as Pato
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane"
by Martin McDonagh
The Druid Theatre Company
ArtsEmerson - Emerson Paramount Theater
Through February 26

The set and costumes by Francis O'Connor transport us to a rain soaked Old Sod. Lighting by James F. Ingalls and Sound by Greg Clarke help to establish the right tones, and original music by Paddy Cunneen completes the effect.

The writing is superb, the lilting rhythms of Irish dialogue painting a complex picture of frustration on every front. Boston looms as a haven to which Pato and Maureen long to escape. The acting is equally superb. An audience member who sits through this play without bursting into laughter, erupting with a gasp or two, and being moved to tears is simply not paying attention - to the script and to their heart.

The play runs at the Emerson Paramount through February 26. Do not miss this extraordinary treat.

ArtsEmerson Website



Friday, February 17, 2017

Weill Tunes For Vile Times - 2 Reviews Of 2 Revues In 2 Towns - "Brecht On Brecht" in Watertown & "Berlin To Broadway" in NYC

Across our land, the theater community is stepping up to the plate in ways that are gratifying and empowering to address the toxic miasma that is wafting its way from the swamp on the Potomac. Countless Artistic Directors have pivoted quickly to adjust their theater's schedules to address the current political climate. And others are finding that plays and musicals they had long ago scheduled into the current season now have a new and unanticipated relevancy, poignancy, and prophetic edge in these dark times.

In Watertown, New Rep, under the incisive direction of Jim Petosa, has taken the morose and shadowy worlds evoked by the lyrics of Bertolt Brecht and redirected them from their initial setting in the shadows of the Third Reich and pointed them squarely at the chilling prospect of a new Reich. Brecht's words and Kurt Weill's music have been plucked from their initial settings and woven together into a revue that is a cautionary tale for our times.

In the Program Notes, Mr. Petosa is explicit in using Brecht's words to make the leap from the strident tunes of Germany to our present political cacophony:

"In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times."

 "Art is not a mirror held up to reality
but a hammer with which to shape it."

"The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn't hear, doesn't speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn't know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depend on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics.  The imbecile doesn't know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies."

In reading these quotations, I got chills in imagining how pointedly they speak to our present circumstance. Mr. Petosa chose songs with Brechtian lyrics and vignettes that illustrate the point that Brecht was making in these quotations. He assembled a stellar quartet of singers led by Music Director, Matthew Stern, to bring these sentiments to life. This revue had been been arranged by George Tabori from various translations from the German of Brecht's words.

Christine Hamel portrayed Mature Woman, Carla Martinez played Young Woman, Jake Murphy played Young Man, and Brad Daniel Peloquin portrayed Mature Man. They offered some familiar tunes, like "Mack The Knife," and "Surabaya Johnny," as well as more obscure Brecht and Weill collaborations. The overall impact of this revue was powerfully thought-provoking.  It runs at the Black Box Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts through March 5th.

New Rep Website

In New York City, only a few blocks from the "very famous" Trump Tower, The York Theatre Company is presenting as part of their "Musicals In Mufti" series a revue entitled "Berlin To Broadway with Kurt Weill: A Musical Voyage." 

In this case, songs from Kurt Weill musicals have been extracted from their original context and presented as a way of portraying his geographical and political journey from Germany to America. Brecht was among the dozen lyricists with whom Weill collaborated for the songs in this revue. A stunning quintet of singers were supported by the Musical Direction and keyboarding of Eric Svejcar and the Direction of Pamela Hunt.

Karl Josef Co - Tenor
Meghan Picerno - Soprano
Michael Halling - Baritone
Rachel de Benedet - Mezzo
Brian Charles Rooney - Guide
"Berlin To Broadway"
The York Theatre Company
St. Peter's Church
Through February 19th
Selections were sung from eleven different Weill musicals. Among the standouts were the following:
  • The quartet of Karl Josef Co, Rachel de Benedet, Michael Halling, and Meghan Picerno offering their rendition of "Mack The Knife" from "The Threepenny Opera."
  • Rachel de Benedet's gut-wrenching "Surabaya Johnny" from "Happy End," as well as her cabaret style tour de force rendition of "The Saga of Jenny" from "Lady In The Dark."
  • Meghan Picerno's "My Ship" from "Lady In The Dark."
  • Karl Josef Co's "Hymn To Peace" and "Johnny's Song" from "Johnny Johnson."
  • Michael Halling's "September Song" from "Knickerbocker Holiday."
  • Brian Charles Rooney's "I'm A Stranger Here Myself" from "One Touch of Venus."
The impressive performance was followed by a fascinating talkback that included not only the cast, Director, Music Director, and Producer, but also Michael Feingold of the Village Voice. Not only is Mr. Feingold a longtime theater critic, it turns out that he had done the translation for "Happy End" when he was at Yale. His insight's into Weill's work and the curation of that work by his widow added a rich dimension to the proceedings.

"Berlin To Broadway" will play through February 19th at St. Peter's Church at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street.

If you are in NYC this weekend, come over to Lexington Avenue to be entertained and challenged by this brilliant sampling of Kurt Weill's prodigious oeuvre.

If you are in the Boston area, make the trek to Watertown to gain a sense of perspective on what is happening in our world.

Art heals, but it also is the hammer that can reshape harsh reality.



Thursday, February 09, 2017

Company One Presents The New England Premiere of "Really" by Jackie Sibblies Drury - Through March 4th

Company One can always be relied upon to offer provocative plays that push the boundaries of traditional theater. The current production of "Really" by Jackie Sibblies Drury follows that tradition, for it is being performed in the intimate Matter & Light Fine Art gallery in the SoWa Arts District. With support from neighboring Gallery Kayafas. Prior to the play, audience members wander through the two art galleries, examining and thinking about a collection of photographs. The play itself examines the intricate interplay between the science and art of photography and human memory.

I first became aware of Ms. Drury's work in 2014 when Company One produced her critically acclaimed play, "We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia Formerly Known As Southwest Africa From The German Sudwestafrika Between The Years 1884-1915."
The playwright looks at life through her own unique set of lenses and filters, offering a glimpse at situations, individuals, and relationships that cause the audience to see them in a new light.

In "Really," three characters interact in the small space of a studio apartment that had been shared by photographer, Calvin (Aleksandr Portenko), and his girlfriend (Rachel Cognata). Calvin is no longer there, and his girlfriend has remained in the apartment after it appears that Calvin has died - although the backstory of what happened to Calvin is left purposefully nebulous - or should I say "undeveloped." Calvin's mother (Kippy Goldfarb) drops by for an awkward visit, during which time she poses for a portrait by the girlfriend, who is also a budding artist and photographer. The girlfriend struggles to find just the right shot that might capture the mother in a moment of humanity, breaking through the mask of decency and propriety that she wears. The mother is struggling to suppress her grief, and apparent rage, somehow blaming the girlfriend for Calvin's demise. The apparently deceased Calvin interacts both with the girlfriend and the mother. The playwright is bending time in a way that a photograph alters our perception of time and memory, making the past present once again as we remember the substance behind the two dimensional image.

Rachel Cognata as Girlfriend
"Really" by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Company One
Matter & Light Fine Art
Through March 4th
Under the skillful direction of Shawn LaCount, the three actors are very effective in focusing our attention on the narrative and on the underlying philosophical and aesthetic questions that Ms. Drury is posing. A good artist uses blank space as well as solid imagery to tell a story. In the same way, the playwright uses silence and awkward pauses, interspersed by the sound of a camera's shutter clicking, to depict the passage of time. At the end of the play, the audience is invited to peruse a collection of photographic portraits, and to interact with the actors.

Supporting this production are Amanda Mujica with Costume Design, Jason Fok with Lighting Design, Ben Lieberson with Scenic Design, Misha Shields with Choreography, and Lee Schuna with Sound Design.

It was a unique and satisfying evening of theater art and graphic art wedded together and beautifully framed. The play will run through March 4th.

Company One Website



Monday, February 06, 2017

"When We Fall" by Emily Liebert - Starting Over Is Never Easy

Having recently read Emily Liebert's non-fiction book, "Facebook Fairytales," I decided it was time to check out one of her novels. At the outset, I must disagree with a blurb written by Jane Green about "When We Fall." She called this novel "A fun, insightful read. Liebert is a welcome addition to the world of women's fiction." I would argue that Ms. Liebert's writing goes well beyond the definition of "women's fiction." I am not a reader of "chick lit," and I found this the novel's themes and writing style appealed to this male of a certain age. I cared about the characters, and appreciated the embedded sociological analysis that the writer provided. This is serious fiction that should not be limited to female readers.

The action of "When We Fall" is set in a fictitious suburb of New York City. it could be any of the tony towns in Westchester or Fairfield Counties - Westport, Greenwich, Darien, Scarsdale, Chappaqua. The denizens of this privileged burg are people we easily recognize - well-heeled, fashionable, ambitious, catty and flawed in ways that make a novelist lick her chops and sharpen her claws.

Having lived for many years in New York City, Allison Parker has lost her husband and moved back to her childhood hometown with her son to try to start a new life. She begins to form a friendship with Charlotte, who confesses to having some serious problems in her marriage, and struggles with a complicated relationship with her wayward sister. Things get complicated, with Allison caught in the middle between Charlotte and her husband, Charlie. Allison's late husband and Charlie had been best friends in summer camp, and Charlie feels the need to take Allison under his wing now that she is a needy widow.  Sabrina is the village gossip and agent provocateur, and she finds insidious ways to plant seeds of distrust and doubt in the mind of Charlotte about the friendship that is developing between Allison and Charlie.  Things get ugly and interesting as those seeds sprout and take root.

In offering an incisive look at the machinations of small town New England politics and relationships, Ms. Liebert has concocted a fascinating and delicious tale. The book reads like a mash-up of "The Stepford Wives" meets Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch," with a nod to John Updike's sensational "Couples" from fifty years ago. In that novel, Updike turned his home town of Ipswich, Massachusetts into the fictional town of Tarbox, and exposed the lives of the unhappy suburbanites who populated the place. Emily Liebert has done something similar. She writes with a vibrancy that captures a strong sense of place. I was able to close my eyes and picture places I know well that are just like the Wincourt Diner or the cozy art gallery where Allison's work was on display. The author also uses a laser wit and an acerbic voice to poke fun at the superficial ethos that exists among the occupants of these enclaves where Birkin bags and Manolo Blahnik shoes are de rigeur. Here is a wonderful quotation drawn from a scene in which the big charity auction for the town's school is underway, with Charlotte having replaced Sabrina in the prestigious role of chairperson: "After all, in this group, where would philanthropy be without fashion?"

Having been drawn in by the author's style and substance, I look forward to exploring more of her fiction in the near future.



"Facebook Fairytales" by Emily Liebert - Modern-Day Miracles To Inspire The Human Spirit

What an inspiring book! Author Emily Liebert has collected some fascinating and heart-warming stories of how individuals have used Facebook in creative ways to connect with others. In some cases, the stories are of families being reconnected.  In one story, a life-saving kidney transplant happened because an appropriate donor was found through a Facebook appeal.

One of the vignettes that grabbed my attention has to do with Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Bob Jones has a reputation for being an extremely conservative, fundamentalist Christian school with very strict codes of conduct for students and faculty.  It also has a longstanding reputation for racism. Black students were not admitted until 1971, and a ban on interracial dating persisted into the twenty first century.

Bob Jones alumni working in the "real world" found that their school's reputation for racism and bigotry was widespread, and was causing problems for them in their careers. One of the graduates started a Facebook page for "Bob Jones University Survivors." Out of that group came a consensus opinion that the group should lovingly address their concerns to the university's president. They did so, and not long afterward, the Bob Jones website added a statement by the Board of Trustees apologizing for past failures in race relations over the course of the school's 81 yr history. It was a stunning capitulation by a very entrenched institution, and Facebook was a catalyst for fomenting this minor revolution.

I was thrilled to read one of the final stories about an enterprising man, a recent MBA grad, who used Facebook ads to get on the radar of companies like Amazon, Google, IDEO, and Industrial Light and Magic. One reason for my interest in this vignette was that it described Eric Barker, someone I have come to know in the past few years. He continues to be an innovator, writing a weekly Blog entitled "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" that has amassed a loyal readership of close to a quarter million people. It is a small world, and Facebook makes it even smaller!

This book is a testament to the fact that Facebook can be a very positive and useful tool for those who choose to employ it in ways more creative than merely chronicling the latest exploits of their cat or their precocious niece.



Sunday, February 05, 2017

"Hillbilly Elegy" by J. D. Vance - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - A MUST READ

J.D. Vance published "Hillbilly Elegy" before the most recent presidential election, yet his memoir perfectly explains the phenomenon of young, white, blue collar workers from the Rust Belt embracing Donald Trump. Writing with the distance and perspective that a Yale Law degree has given him, Mr. Vance looks back on his upbringing in the hollers of Kentucky and the steel mills of Middletown, Ohio with insights that have relevance far beyond his family's saga.

The book's subtitle is "A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis." And this gem of a New York Times Bestseller delivers just what it promises. The author is ruthless in examining himself and his family of origin to plumb the depths of why those of Scots-Irish heritage who settled in Appalachia have had such a difficult time succeeding economically and culturally. His great -grandparents were tied in with the Hatfield and McCoy feud, and his grandmother in her younger years had killed at least one person who had crossed her. Vengeance, drug-abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, unemployment, and underemployment were all part of the tapestry of Vance's life as he grew up between Kentucky and the steel mills of Ohio.

Vance was close to flunking out of high school his freshman year - following the well worn path taken by many of his peers and relatives. His grandmother, sensing that J.D. was somehow different from the others, intervened and took him into her home. She kept a close watch on school attendance and study habits, and he pulled himself out of the downward death spiral. Despite the improvements, his grades were not good enough for him to gain admission to Ohio State, so he joined the Marines. He credits the USMC - along with his grandmother - for instilling in him discipline and a broader view of the world. After his time as a Marine, he matriculated at Ohio State and eventually found his way to Yale to study law.

Vance makes it clear that he was very fortunate to have been given the chance to catapult himself out of the doldrums of Hillbilly culture - with a lot of help and encouragement along the way. He examines with an unblinking eye the culture that turns young steel workers into victims who show up late or quit work, and then blame "the system" for holding them back. He opines that no government program or intervention can reverse the tide until individuals learn to take responsibility for themselves, for their actions, and for their economic well being. It is a riveting and well considered sociological analysis of what is happening in our land.

I have been recommending this book to anyone who will listen. Vance speaks across ideological and political chasms. His is a powerful and importance voice that should be heeded.



Saturday, February 04, 2017

"The Habits of Hope" by Jeff Caliguire - Self Leadership Strategies to Unleash Your Bigger Purpose

Author, entrepreneur and coach Jeff Caliguire has penned a helpful and very readable book in "The Habits of Hope." Rather than presenting a laundry list of strategies for giving life more meaning and purpose, he couches his insights inside of a wonderful parable.

Gus is a man in the midst of a life crisis. His job is less than satisfying, his marriage is stale, and he seems to be spinning his wheels in life - no joy and no purpose. Out of the blue he receives a letter from someone he has not seen or heard from in many years - someone from a summer camp in the Adirondacks in New York.that he had attended as a young man. He waits until there is an opportunity to combine a business trip with a road trip to New York and drives many hours to a place called Hope.

There he meets up with his old friend, Mr. Turnquest. Together they embark on a series of adventures that allow Mr. Turnquest to make Gus aware of the 12 Habits of Hope that infuse the spirit and the ethos of every inhabitant of the sleepy little hamlet of Hope, New York.

These 12 Habits can be easily accessed and remember through the acronym: Habits of Hope:

Hearing you are blessed
Appreciating the good
Believing God is at work and joining him
Investing in yourself and your dreams
Trusting in God's timing
Surrounding yourself with positive people

Offering your gifts generously
Fueling your brain

Hydrating continually
Overcoming setbacks
Progressing toward your vision or dream
Empowering others to hope

The author not only takes the reader on a fascinating journey leading to Hope, but is transparent in sharing that Gus's pilgrimage echoes many of the struggles that Jeff Caliguire himself has faced in his own journey toward purpose and fulfillment.

The book is both practical and inspirational. If you have read and enjoyed "The Shack," you will find this book to be a nice companion piece to that story.



The Nora Theatre Company Presents "Intimate Exchanges" by Alan Ayckbourn - Through February 12th

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard as Female
Jade Ziane as Male
"Intimate Exchanges"
by Alan Ayckbourn
The Nora Theatre Company
Central Square Theater
Through February 12th 
The current production by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater is the two-hander "Intimate Exchanges" by Alan Ayckbourn. The conceit of the play is that two actors portray multiple characters, and that at intermission the audience gets to vote on whether Act Two will follow the arc of the life of Sylvie or of Celia.

The play is directed by Olivia D'Ambrosio. Lighting is by John R. Malinowski, Sound and original music by Nathan Leigh, Scenic Design by Anne Sherer, Costumes by Chelsea Kerl.

The advantage of having two actors play multiple roles is that we get to see on display the remarkable versatility of Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane. Each actor is tested in playing characters of different ages and social classes, and each character is nicely differentiated in the acting. The down side to this approach is that the characters change so quickly and frequently that is was difficult to create any degree of emotional attachment to any of these characters. I simply did not come to care about the fate of Celia or Sylvie or anyone on the stage. And if I do not care, then I am not engaged. This lack of engagement can be laid at the feet of the structure of the play, and not attributed to any failure on the part of Ms. Bedard or Mr. Ziane. They played the roles as written, and played them well. Watching them struggle within this structure was a treat and was the best part of the experience of watching a less-than-intimate play.

"Intimate Exchanges" will run at Central Square Theater through February 12th. Come out and vote.



Boston Playwrights' Theatre Present "The Atheist" by Ronan Noone - Must Close On Sunday

The current production running at Boston Playwrights' Theatre is the provocative "The Atheist" by local playwright Ronan Noone. When he originally conceived the play, it was written to be performed by a solo male actor. In bringing the play up to the present time, Mr. Noone decided to re-imagine the play and cast the extraordinarily talented Georgia Lyman in the role of the Machiavellian journalist Augustine Early. What a brilliant creative decision! Ms. Lyman is chilling in her portrayal of this complex woman. She makes us care about a character who is patently unlikeable. That is great acting and impressive story telling.

Georgia Lyman as Augustine Early
"The Atheist" by Ronan Noone
Boston Playwrights' Theatre
Through February 5th
Here is the basic plot description that the theatre provides on their website:

"The Atheist" 

Written and directed by Ronan Noone.

Through February 5

 "Augustine Early, a crooked journalist, has made an art of clawing her way up the professional ladder. When she turns a politician’s tawdry predilections into front-page news, the scandal threatens to undo the one person she thought was immune. A searing and hilarious play about the perfect headline, whatever the cost."

But this play is about so much more than the plot. It is a brilliant examination of multiple levels of themes, questions, and conundrums:
  • What happens to a person when they abandon faith and decide that there is no God?
    • The protagonist Augustine Early is the very embodiment of the truth that is spoken by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's masterpiece, "The Brothers Karamazov": "If there is no God, then everything is permitted."
    • The journalist has nothing to limit her behavior other than her own imagination and willingness to take risks. She betrays everyone blocking her path to fame and fortune.
  • In the absence of an absolute God, who calls the shots and acts as creator?
    • It is clear that Augustine sets out to create her own success and to determine her own fate.
    • The playwright's choice of her name is no accident. I was reminded of St. Augustine and his famous treatise"Confessions." In a sense, this play is the young journalist's confession about where her life has taken her.
  • What role does the media play in this post-truth world we inhabit?
    • Throughout the play, an iconic pixelated image of Walter Cronkite looms over the theater - reminding us of a time when we trusted him - and his co-anchors - like a God to tell us the truth and to provide a sense of context of what is happening in the world. Those days are long gone. This is no "alternative fact"!
    • An over-arching theme is that of the need to be mad at what is happening in the world. We are reminded - through projected image and chalk scrawls on the wall - of the 1976 film "Network." Actor Peter Finch portrays a news anchor at the end of his rope. He rants: "I want you to get mad. I want you to get up and stick your head out of your window and scream: 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!'"
    • Noone is inviting us to have a similar response to the idiocy that is unravelling around us every day.
  • Where do you turn when you have ejected God from your life, usurped his place of sovereignty, and everything begins to unravel?
This play is thoughtfully written and directed by Mr. Noone, and brilliantly executed by Ms. Lyman in a tour de force performance.

The show must close this Sunday. Go see it. It is an artistic Super Bowl! And if you miss it, you will be "mad as hell"!

Boston Playwrights' Theatre Website



Friday, February 03, 2017

Trinity Rep Presents A Powerful Production of "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall - Through February 12th

The timing of Trinity Rep's current production of "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall could not be more fortuitous. The play is a fictionalized imagining of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's last night on earth in the motel in Memphis where he would later be shot. I saw the play on a day that was close to the date of Dr. King's birthday and on the eve of the inauguration of POTUS #45 (I try to avoid speaking or writing his name). The poignancy of the subject matter in juxtaposition to the current political climate was not lost on me or on other audience members. These are sobering times to contemplate sobering events from the past.

Ms. Hall's play is no exercise in hagiography. Dr. King (Joe Wilson, Jr.) is portrayed as a flawed human being and no plaster saint.  We see him struggling with exhaustion, self-doubt, frustration, fear, and no small amount of attraction for the winsome Camae (Mia Ellis), the play's other character.

It is raining in Memphis, and Dr. King calls for room service to deliver coffee to him in Room 306. Camae appears, her first night on the job. We eventually learn that she has a job that is much broader than that of someone serving coffee at the Lorraine Motel. She challenges Dr. King on many fronts, causing him to think about many complex issues, including his own mortality, and to give voice to these thoughts and feelings.

These two impressive actors carry the action through an escalating arc of conflict and discovery. They are directed with a firm hand by Kent Gash. The set by Jason Sherwood recreates the claustrophobic tawdriness of a low budget motel in 1968.  Late in the play, the set transforms and is aided by powerful projections designed by Shawn Duan. Several images have been added that were not part of the original design of this play, thereby catapulting the action to the present day. Lighting by Dawn Chiang and Sound by Justin Ellington complete the illusion that we are witnessing a rainy night in Memphis.

Mia Ellis as Camae
Joe Wilson, Jr. as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall
Trinity Rep
Through February 12th

Mr. Wilson and Ms. Ellis offer up powerful and moving characterizations of Dr. King and Camae. They combine in subtle ways fragile humanity and transcendent otherworldliness. The content of the play and their nuanced interpretations of their complex characters left me in tears. "The Mountaintop" reminds us of how far we have come, and how far we still have to go to realize Dr. King's dream. This is a play that is worthy of your attention, and worthy of a trip to Providence. The play runs through February 12th.

Trinity Rep Website


Al Chase

Huntington Theatre Company Presents "A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen - A Vibrant New Translation

The current Huntington Theatre Company production of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" must close this Sunday. Get there to see it if you can. The play, directed with clarity and strength by Melia Bensussen, features a vibrant new translation from the Norwegian by feminist Bryony Lavery. Although Ibsen claimed that he was not writing a feminist play, the themes of this controversial work have been embraced by feminists ever since the play opened in 1879. The heroine, Nora (Andrea Syglowski), goes through a journey from "female to human being." The culmination of that pilgrimage sees her leaving her home, her unhappy marriage and the children that it produced. Her independence has been hailed by some and condemned by others. Ms. Lavery's translation and adaptation of this classic play beings some 21st century sensibilities and language to the stage without betraying the underlying Ibsen framework and ethos.

As is most often the case with Huntington production, the production design aids and abets the telling of this compelling story. The flexible set designed by James Noone undergoes a transformation that echoes Nora's liberation. It is a stunning and effective design. Costumes by Michael Krass help to establish the identity of each character. Lighting by Dan Kotlowitz and Sound and Original Music by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen enhance the effect of specific time and place.

Elise Rose Walker, Marinda Anderson, Gavin Daniel Walker as the Helmer children
Adrianne Krstansky as Anne-Marie
Huntington Theatre Company's production of A Doll's House

Directed by Melia Bensussen
playing through February 5, 2017
Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson
 Ms. Syglowski presents a complex and ever-changing Nora. Her initial presentation is that of a light and somewhat silly young wife, playful with her husband and a bit naughty in wanting to spend money on fancy clothes and amusing things. He scolds her as if she were a petulant child. Yet as the story progresses and we learn what actions she has secretly taken to protect her husband, she proves to be much stronger than we had been led to believe. In interacting with characters other than her domineering husband, she begins to develop a sense of herself and her potential independent identity. It is a powerful performance.

As Torvald, Sekou Laidlow is the very embodiment of masculine confidence and irreproachable rectitude. He is emotionally tone deaf to his wife's real needs, and is perplexed when she proclaims that she is leaving the home and abandoning their failed marriage.

Andrea Syglowski as Nora
Sekou Laidlow as Torvald
Huntington Theatre Company's production of A Doll's House

Directed by Melia Bensussen
Playing through February 5, 2017
Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre.
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Marinda Anderson is a strong presence as Mrs. Linde, a recently widowed friend of Nora from their days as school girls together. She is in need of a job, and serves as a sounding board for Nora.

Jeremy Webb is effective as Dr. Rank, a family friend who frequently visits the Helmer household. He is secretly enamored of Nora, and is slowly dying. His slow death echos in the physical realm what is happening internally to Nora's marriage. Torvald is equally oblivious to both deaths happening before his eyes.

Nael Nacer is appropriately desperate as Krogstad, a man who lent money to Nora. He now hopes that in Torvald's new role as head of the bank where Krogstad works, he may be given a chance to recover from an early misdeed that has branded him. He makes demands on Nora to repay the loan. His demands precipitate a crisis that brings to the surface many of the smoldering tensions.

Adrianne Krstansky as Anne-Marie and Lizzie Milanovich as Helene are servants who run the household and care for the children, who are played by Zoe Adams Martin, Elise Rose Walker, and Gavin Daniel Walker.

The plays remains timely and thought-provoking. It runs through this Sunday, February 5th.

Huntington Theatre Website



Wednesday, February 01, 2017

BroadwayCon 2017 Was A Huge Success - Offering Hope And Healing for Such A Time As This

The initial BroadwayCon event in January of 2016 will always be remembered by those of us who attended as the event that forced us to huddle together to survive the blizzard that shut down all of NYC for several days. That natural disaster created an even deeper sense of community and togetherness than could have been possible had things gone according to plan. This year, there was no natural disaster to bring us together, but rather a man-made disaster emanating from Washington. And the need to huddle together to encourage, support, and challenge one another in the face of the POTUS 45 chilling blizzard of bigotry and oppression was the theme that underscored every aspect of BroadwayCon 2017. No one spoke his name; no one needed to. His shadow lurked over every panel, performance, and personal conversation. Given the besetting darkness, we encouraged one another to shine lights of affirmation, hope, inclusion, resistance and creativity into the universe.

The Opening Ceremony set the tone for the weekend. An original musical offered up a parable as a tyrannical Mayoress decreed that all of Broadway must go dark. In the sketch, artists converged, convened and connived to figure out how to respond to the all-out attack on art and creativity. A rousing rendition of "Run, Freedom, Run" from "Urinetown" showed just how "pissed off" we all are. Late in the program, Carolee Carmello brought down the house with a soul-stirring interpretation of "Don't Rain On My Parade." We all knew who she was really addressing herself to.

Saturday's Lesli Margherita Variety Hour proved to be a huge hit as the star of "Matilda" and "Zorro" raised the roof. The Queen was in rare form, and her rendition of "Don't Poop On My Pathway" was a nice way to reinforce the theme of not giving in to bullying and oppression.

The weekend offered something for every flavor of Theater Geek. There were plenary sessions featuring panels with Broadway casts - present and past. The current casts of "In Transit," "Hamilton," "A Bronx Tale," and "Dear Evan Hansen" proved to be particularly popular.

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen
"Dear Evan Hansen"
Music Box Theatre

There were preview performances from upcoming shows, including "The Bandstand," "Amelie," "Anastasia," "Miss Saigon," "Significant Other," "Come From Away," "Indecent," and others. There were break-out sessions that spoke to every aspect of the world of Broadway - from the business side, producers, critics, creatives, and performers. All generations were well represented - from a four year-old tap dancer to octogenarians sporting Hamilton T-shirts. Fans of Cosplay displayed creativity and courage as they paraded in full regalia, and had a chance to strut their stuff in a fashion show. Young performers were able to get tips from professionals and also to have their moment in the spotlight on the Main Stage. Those who hankered for autographs and photos with their favorite Broadway stars were able to sign up via lotteries.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center proved to be a wise choice by the BroadwayCon organizers. There was plenty of room for all events, and ease of mobility throughout the space. There was very little waiting in long lines, and the opportunity to move quickly from one event to another was unhindered. For those who wanted to take home merchandise and memorabilia, there were lots of vendors hawking their wares.

BroadwayCon did a nice job of celebrating Broadway's past, highlighting the current shows running on the Great White Way, and inflaming the passions of future generations of Broadway fans and performers. This was a knowledgeable crowd. No matter how obscure a song may have been that was being aired, I always saw dozens of people mouthing the words or singing along. If the attendees at this event are any indication, the future of Broadway is bright.

As things wound down, the messages that resonated most effectively with the departing throng were "Stay strong," and "See you next year." It was clear that we were not just celebrating Broadway as a form of entertainment. We were embracing it as a necessary force in keeping our nation civilized and sane in the face of strong countervailing forces.

I can't wait until BroadwayCon 2018!