Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Huntington Theatre Company Continues Its Stellar Season With "A Guide For The Homesick" by Ken Urban - Drama At Its Best

Ken Urban's new drama, "A Guide For The Homesick," the current Huntington Theatre Company production running at the Boston Center for the Arts, is a gripping drama that must be seen. I will offer little in the way of describing plot, for fear of ruining some wonderful twists. Simply put, two young Americans meet in a bar in Amsterdam and get to know each other over the course of a rocky night of drinking, talking, and much more.

Mr. Urban, currently in residence at MIT as a Senior Lecturer in Dramatic Writing, dips into the cistern of personal experiences and deep research to explore the phenomenon of what we experience when we travel overseas, hoping to do good, but not always succeeding. Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine) has fled Uganda after finding himself caught up in an escalating round of violence against gay men, including a young Ugandan man he has tried to help and to protect. He has attempted to intervene in his role as a volunteer nurse at a medical clinic in Uganda. But things get ugly, and he ends up asking, "What happened?" Teddy (McKinley Belcher III) is a Citi employee in NYC who has come to Amsterdam with his friend and co-worker Eddie to the groom-to-be a good time before his impending marriage. Things do not go as planned, Eddie goes off the deep end, and Teddy is in despair, asking himself, "What happened?"

Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III
Huntington Theatre Company
A Guide for the Homesick by Ken UrbanDirected by Colman Domingo
Playing October 6 - November 4, 2017,
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

As the action progresses, Teddy and Jeremy strip off layers of clothing, as well as layers of each other's masks - sometimes brutally - sometimes gently. Speaking of layers - the playwright deftly layers into the narrative additional characters. Some serve as off stage ghosts - Eddie's fiancee calling frantically to ask where he is. Eddie appears (also played by Mr. Levine), as does Jeremy's troubled Ugandan friend (portrayed by Mr. Belcher).
Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III
Huntington Theatre Company 
A Guide for the Homesick by Ken UrbanDirected by Colman Domingo
Playing October 6 - November 4, 2017,
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The artistry with which the multiple layers are treated - by the playwright, actors, lighting and set designers, and stage manager handling the split-second cues, is part of the genius of this play. There are rapid switches in time, place, and character that are initially disorienting to the audience, but which begin to make sense as the action unfolds. This is a complex and skillfully wrought production. Mr. Urban treats some of the themes addressed a few years ago at the A.R.T. with "Witness Uganda" (reborn in NYC as "Invisible Thread."

White Rhino Report Review of "Witness Uganda"

Mr. Urban uses a nuanced blend of humor and shock to draw us into the worlds of Teddy and Jeremy - and of their ghosts. The scenic design by Williams Boles brings us to dingy Amsterdam on a rainy night, but then invites us to visit the clinic in Kampala with the aid of Russell H. Champa's brilliant Lighting Design. Costumes are by Kara Harmon, Original Music and Sound by Lindsay Jones, and crucial Dialect Coaching is by Amy Stoller.

The themes of feeling unsettled in returning from a developing nation in turmoil hit close to home with me. I was reminded of my own pilgrimage after serving for a year in a hospital in rural Haiti, at roughly the same age that Jeremy is when the play takes place.

Eventually, Teddy and Jeremy hammer away at each other to unearth the demons, fears, and regrets that haunt each of them. They dig deeply to discover who they really are. I ended up caring deeply about the fate of each character. This is a telltale sign that I had been in the presence of great writing and equally great acting. Mr. Urban invites the audience to take a similar agonizing journey of discovery, asking,"What happened?" and "Who am I?" 

This is one of the finest dramatic pieces offered this season, and should not be missed. It will run at the BCA through November 4th.



Saturday, October 07, 2017

Heart & Dagger Productions Displays Its Plumage In A Revival of "Hair" - Through October 20th at Club Cafe

The original rock musical, "Hair," is back in all of its color, zest, and glory in the fun-filled revival by Heart & Dagger Productions - through October 20th at Club Cafe. I saw the original Boston production at the Wilbur Theater in 1970. Some may recall that it took a Supreme Court ruling to get the Boston production opened after the State Attorney General Garrett Byrne had ordered it shut down for desecration of the flag and lewd and lascivious content. This current version is tame by comparison, and the hippy-oriented content seems almost quaint all of these years removed from the protests against the war in Vietnam.

The show features book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with music by Galt MacDermot.

Director Joey C. Pelletier has attempted to make the content of the show contemporary by using projections that remind us that we are still fighting battles to protect the environment, and to avoid the scourge of nuclear war. A good example is the use of images of recent hurricanes during the singing of the anti-pollution anthem "Air."

Musical highlights of this production include "Manchester, England" sung by James Sims, who is a very sympathetic Claude, the Tribe member most desperate to avoid the draft. Bailey Libby is terrific as Crissy in lamenting the loss of "Frank Mills." As Woof, Brad Reinking is sultry and sassy in "Sodomy." In the title song, "Hair," he is joined by Mr. Sims as Claude and Melissa Barker as Berger. "Easy To Be Hard" is another highlight as Tamani Jayasinghe portrays Sheila bemoaning mean girl Berger treating her cruelly.

Other members of the tribe, who hang out in the East Village protesting the war, scaring tourists, and looking for love in its various permutations, include:

  • Lauren Foster as Hud
  • Erin Rae Zalaski as Jeanie
  • Aaron Dill as Margaret Mead
  • Jessie Bull as Charlie
  • Elizabeth Battey as Helen
  • Doug Dulaney as Benny and Lead Guitar
  • Jane Ko as Daisy
  • Ava Maag as Natalie
  • Neon Calypso as Dionne
  • Jeomil Tovar as Ronny
  • Jocelin Weiss as Suzannah
Lighting is by Geoff Hoyt, Keyboard is Kenneth Griffin, Drums Evan Kesel, and Bass Guitar is Sam Chussid.

My one suggestion for improving the audience experience is to ask that members of the tribe project their voices more strongly and energetically. Sitting in the front row of the intimate Club Cafe space, I was not always able to hear clearly, especially during several of the segments that were being sung in falsetto. Sell it, folks!

There are four more opportunities to time travel back to the '60s: this Sunday and next at 3:00, Wednesday, October 18 at 7:30, and Friday, October 20 at 7:30.

Enjoy! And Let the Sunshine In!


Monday, October 02, 2017

Zeitgeist Stage Company Presents the Brilliant "Faceless" by Selina Fillinger - A MUST SEE

Kudos to David Miller and the Zeitgeist Stage Company for producing one of the most memorable and impactful plays of this excellent theater season in Boston. Young playwright, Selina Fillinger, first penned "Faceless" as an assignment for a class she was taking at Northwestern University, winning a commission from Northlight Theatre to develop the play. She shows remarkable insight and sensibilities for a writer still in her early 20s. This production represents the New England Premiere.

In "Faceless," the playwright explores deeply several important and timely issues:
  • Who is the face of Islam, and of terrorism?
  • How does the persistent xenophobia in America impact individual lives?
  • What happens when a Muslim prosecutor tries to gain a conviction against a young white girl who has converted to Islam?
  • What is the role of social media in influencing religious and political beliefs?
  • Who is the hero and who is the victim here?
  • How universal is the struggle for a meaningful relationship with a father?
The story is told through the eyes of five fascinating and well-developed characters. The five actors cast by Director Miller are powerfully effective in telling this complex story. They stand out individually and as an ensemble.
  • Victor Shopov brings his usual impressive tools to the role of Scott Bader, a politically ambitious Prosecutor who is intent on convicting young Susie Glenn of conspiring to travel to Syria to join ISIS. He cleverly coerces a female Muslim assistant prosecutor, Claire Fahti, to join him in this case. His closing statement at the trial of Ms. Glenn is particularly powerful and poignant.
  • Aina Adler is a dynamo as the conflicted Persian-American attorney, Claire Fahti. She initially wants no part of being used as the face of Islam at the trial, but she becomes passionate about bringing Susie to justice after meeting her. The always professional Ms. Adler is at the top of her game here, facing off against Bader and Glenn.
  • Ashley Risteen creates a very believable Susie Glenn. Naive, stubborn, rebellious, lost, determined - we see all of these traits in Ms. Risteen's eyes, voice and physical presentation. It is a strong performance.
  • David Anderson as Alan Glenn, Susie's widowed father, has lost a wife and is in danger of losing his daughter - "All he has left in the world." The scene in which this tough-as-nails first responder melts down over the prospect of losing his little girl represents some of the best acting I have seen on a Boston stage in a long while. It is a scintillating and award-worthy performance.
  • Robert Orzalli is perfectly cast as the Jewish defense attorney brought in to replace the ineffectual public defender. He spars - not only with the prosecution team - but with his own client.
Victor Shopov as Scott Bader
Aina Adler as Claire Fahti
Robert Orzalli as Mark Arenberg
Ashley Risteen as Susie Glenn
"Faceless" by Selina Fillinger
Zeitgeist Stage company
Boston Center for the Arts
Through October 7th

Mr. Miller's direction and blocking is flawless. The closing arguments by the two attorneys take place with them going from one side of the stage to the other in perfectly synchronized, countervailing movements. Another vivid image is the two Muslim women facing off opposite one another reciting prayers from the Koran - one in Arabic and the other in English.

Set design is by David Miller, Costumes Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, and Sound Design by Jay Mobley.

This is the final week of this production, beginning Wednesday and running through Saturday. If you see any play this week, it should be this one. This play and this production moved me to tears and caused me to think deeply about important issues.