Friday, February 24, 2017

So Many Issues, So Little Time

Napoli, Brooklyn -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru March 12

Christian Pumariega, Jordyn Dinatale, and
Carolyn Braver. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

An all-suffering mother. An abusive, racist father. A sharp-tongued daughter who’s been told to get thee to a nunnery, another daughter, this one earnest but a bit slow, and the youngest, a feisty, Scout-like imp testing lesbian waters. Sounds like a casting call for a soap opera, but it’s the line-up playwright Meghan Kennedy gives us in her Napoli, Brooklyn, which is receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

Set in Brooklyn circa 1960, this kitchen drama is the woeful saga of the Muscolino family, with Dad and Mom first generation Italian immigrants and their three daughters assimilated Americans. As might be imagined, the Muscolino home is not a happy one, nor does it provide for riveting drama, for the characters are stereotypical, their plights ripped from the pages of a Days of Our Lives script, and the vehicle for change is a deus ex machina in the form of an airliner that crashes into a church (although you have to give credit to Eugene Lee, set designer, and Ben Stanton, lighting designer, for the pyrotechnical crash – it certainly woke up the country folk).

The primary problems with Napoli, directed by Gordon Edelstein, rest with the script, which just lays on the problems a bit too thick and does little to get us to really care about these characters. Thus, the cast is faced with bringing to life a reality that just doesn’t connect. As the all-suffering mother Luda, Alyssa Bresnahan gives us a woman who, dominated by her husband, expresses her love through cooking (and prays to an onion since God doesn’t seem to be answering her prayers). Her performance is admirable, even though she’s asked, in the play’s coda, to make decisions and say lines you just can’t conceive of a first-generation Italian mother doing – at this point there should have been a sign above the stage flashing MESSAGE! MESSAGE!

As the abusive, ever-so-macho Nic, the pater familias, Jason Kolotouros manages to be both macho and menacing, although he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the Italian accent he has to use to deliver his lines. Somewhat of a cardboard character in the first act, he comes to life for the extended dining scene in the second act, a scene in which the three daughters also seem to come into focus and have their say: Vita (Carolyn Braver) gets to confront her father, Tina (Christina Pumariega) finally finds her voice and her courage (a moment that elicited applause from the opening-night audience) and Francesca (Jordyn Dinatale) ignites the fire that forces Nic to finally back away, or back out.

Kennedy has also written in two minor characters who are more statements than they are flesh and blood people. There’s Albert Duffy (Graham Winton), an Irish butcher who loves Luda from afar, and Celia Jones (Shirine Webb), a black woman who works with Tina at a factory. What are the statements these two characters stand for? Well, there was tension between the Irish and Italian immigrants, a love-hate relationship, and tension between the Italian immigrants and African Americans. Yup. That’s all true, but the characters seem to be after-thoughts, additions meant to make the play more “meaningful.”

Finally, there’s Albert’s daughter, Connie (Ryann Shane), love interest for young Francesca. Hers is perhaps the most difficult role to bring to life, for this love interest, or puppy-love interest, has two adolescents playing in a lesbian sandbox, not sure of their actions or desires. This relationship, such as it is, is one of the weakest elements of the play, mainly because it becomes the focal point of the play’s conclusion in which Luda issues a Declaration of Freedom for women to be who they are, whatever that might entail. Remember, this is 1960. Luda prays to her Catholic God (or her catholic Onion), yet she ultimately embraces Connie’s relationship with Francesca (it’s never made clear exactly how Luda discerns this relationship) and basically tells Connie as she hands her money: “Go for it, girl!” One might ask, “Really?”

Watching Napoli, Brooklyn you can’t help but hear Kennedy saying to herself: “I want to deal with this and I want to deal with that and then I want to deal with…” It’s the intention to deal with so many issues that keeps this play from soaring. It not only wears its issues on its sleeve, it wears them as shackles on its wings.

Napoli, Brooklyn runs through March 12. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.



Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Stories They've Never Told

The cast of War Stories. All photos by the author


Arms and the man I sing…

Thus begins Virgil’s The Aeneid, one of civilization’s first “war stories.” It seems that ever since man has taken up arms he has felt compelled to chronicle his experiences in the storm of battle and, in quieter moments, reflect on what he saw, heard, felt and contemplate his service, how it echoes in his soul.

Many memoirs have been written about a soldier’s life, but on Friday, March 31, and Saturday, April 1, the voices of those who have served their country will “sing” their own particular stories at the Wien Experimental Theatre located in Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Performing Arts.

Billed as “War Stories: A Veterans Project,” a creation of Peter Van Heerden, Nina Bentley, and Sonya Huber, it has been underwritten by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the CT Office of the Arts and Fairfield’s Quick Center. The evening will feature 13 men and three women in a performance work that will allow them to give voice to what they experienced during their time of service and, perhaps more important, what they have had to deal with since they left the service.

Most of the participants are homeless veterans from ARBI/Homes for the Brave in Bridgeport, an organization that, since 2002, has provided safe housing, vocational training, job placement, and life skills coaching to help more than 1,000 individuals -- primarily veterans -- leave homelessness behind. 
 
Sign posted on a rehearsal table
 

As Van Heerden explained at a recent rehearsal at the black box theater, the production is an effort in “courageous story telling,” for many of the actors are “at war every single day of their lives.” They are men and women who served their country and who, after their service, “are not supported by the system.”

Before beginning rehearsal the actors, none of whom have ever acted before, gathered together to speak about why they had chosen to become involved and what the project means to them. Kenny, who did not serve but has become part of the project, said that he did so “to learn something new,” to prove to himself that it’s “something I can do.” Nate, a former Marine, said he enlisted in the service because his brother was killed in Viet Nam. “I enlisted because I wanted vengeance,” he said. Participation in War Stories is “something to keep me active.”
 
 

These are primarily homeless men and women whose days can seem to stretch on to eternity and whose lives have perhaps lost meaning. Ricky, who served in the Army, signed on with War Stories because it was “something new, challenging.” As the former GI fell silent, Van Heerden emphasized that one of his goals, a goal he is imbuing in his actors, is that he wants them – and their stories – “to connect with the audience.” He would come back to that theme later on in the rehearsal.

Ronald, who also served in the Army, was also intrigued by the possibility of experiencing something new. “It’s all about expressing myself,” he said, “talking about what I’ve experienced in my life.”

For Ronald and the other members of the cast, it would also seem to be about the opportunity simply to be heard, to have someone listen, attentively, and perhaps understand. Too often they are seen as mere statistics, faceless shadows, forced to be mute in a society that has neither the time nor the interest in hearing their stories.

Romano (“You know, like the cheese.”), who served in the National Guard, said that being involved in War Stories was interesting because he “liked to be creative.” Aubrey, who served in the Army, put a different spin on why they were all there. “Many veterans,” he said, “never step out of the box,” meaning that they can’t break out of the constrictions that they find themselves defined by, either by society or themselves. Acting is Aubrey’s effort to step out of that “box.”

James, a Coast Guard veteran, said that Van Heerden and Bentley came to Homes for the Brave to speak about the project and he thought, well, “I can talk about the issues.” Then he added, “Maybe this will be my big break,” a comment that elicited laughter and a bit of joshing from his fellow actors.

Although the atmosphere in the theater was convivial, there was also an underlying tension, not so much about the upcoming show but, it would seem, the very fact that the production was urging these veterans to open up, to verbalize, to confront what many of them may have kept bottled up. Christina, sitting in the back row, the only woman of the three in the show who made it to this rehearsal, referenced an earlier remark made by Van Heerden. “It’s like what Peter said, about how we fight a war every day.” She tussled her hair and smiled. “I wanted to get involved with this group, to get myself out into the world.” She said she had gone through a rough patch over the past three months, didn’t elaborate, but there was a sense that the cast knew what she was referring to, if not the specifics then the general sense of dealing with chimeras.
 
Peter Van Heerden at rehearsal
 

Her words stirred Felix, an ex-marine, to speak up. He said his story, the one he would tell in the show, was “very deep.” He paused, considering his words, then said, “They turn you on, they flip a switch, and then when you get out,” meaning out of the service, “they don’t turn you off.” Asked to explain, he said, “The trigger is always there.” He shrugged. “A lot of vets get into trouble.” Joseph, also an ex-marine, spoke up: “I had war stories in me before I even enlisted – inside of me. This,” gesturing at his surroundings, the black box theater, “is therapeutic.”

And what, exactly, is the therapy? Well, part of it is learning how to be an actor. James commented: “I didn’t realize it would be as hard as it is. It’s not just about reciting lines. It’s all the little details that make the show.” No, perhaps it’s not just about the lines, but maybe it is. Nate looked around at the group and said “If it wasn’t for this we wouldn’t be communicating the way we are with each other. I call it fellowship.” With that, Romano chimed in: “It’s like getting stuck in a fog, but every time you talk it gets a little better.”

With that, Van Heerden sat forward and spoke directly to his cast. “Everyone is on stage,” he said. “Everybody will have their moment.” He turned to expand on what the cast has been preparing. There will be ‘The Telephone Call,’ which explained all of the phones sitting on the chairs and tables. “It’s the first call you make when you get on base – who you call – and maybe it’s the last call you will ever make.
 
 
 
Then there’s the ‘Flag Sequence.’ Everyone made their own flag.” Apparently there’s been discussion about a proposed sequence in which the American flag will be allowed to fall to the floor. The cast was silent as Van Heerden became more animated. Perhaps the audience will react negatively to allowing the flag to hit the floor. “We want to make the audience complicit,” Van Heerden said. If they react to the flag falling, a symbol, then “how could you let that man fall on the ground?”

“We want the audience to ask that question themselves,” Christina said.
 
 

These actors – this cast – are all venturing into an unknown world, not just the world of the theater but a world that will allow them to say what they have to say, to confront an audience that represents a society that has often chosen to disregard or deny the pain and suffering they have gone through, the dismissal of their humanity. The trust they have placed in Van Heerden is palpable. As Gerald pointed out, “It’s like two prize fighters – you go into the ring and all you see is the other fighter, but when the round is over and you go to your corner there’s the trainer, the coach, telling you what to do. He can see more than what you can see. You gotta trust your coach, do what he tells you to do.”

Why do they trust Van Heerden? Because he doesn’t hide his concern and his anger. “Everyone here is telling the ultimate truth,” he said. “These are stories you may not want to hear but these are stories you have to hear.”

After speaking about what they were doing and what it meant to them, the group got down to the business of rehearsing. Specifically, Van Heerden started to run though the opening moments of the show when the cast members will be sitting in chairs ringing three sides of the theater. As the audience walks in the actors will be talking amongst themselves, quietly. Van Heerden urged them to go for restraint, to create a tension without any overt movements or gestures so that the audience will get a sense that there are stories being withheld, stories they can’t quite hear yet. Yes, it’s theatrical, but it looks like it will work. This will be followed by each one of the cast members being called to the microphone.

At this moment in the rehearsal the transformation in the cast was electrifying, and spoke volumes. As the cast members’ names were called, each stood, executed a sharp left or right turn, strode confidently to the microphone and in a military voice, a voice not heard before that day, announced their names and their military affiliations, if there were any. It was a roll call and they were responding as they had been trained to do. These homeless veterans knew about discipline, knew about duty, knew about camaraderie and dedication to the service. They were once again standing proud and tall and answering the call of duty.

During a break in the rehearsal, Berice, an Army veteran who had arrived late, was asked why he had chosen to become involved in the show. He smiled. “Well I volunteered,” he said. “A while ago, I became an electrician because I was scared of electricity.” He looked out at the stage and his fellow actors. “I want to do this,” he said.
 
 

For tickets or more information go to http://center.com or call the box office at 203.254.4010.     

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Comedy Tonight

The Comedy of Errors -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Feb. 12

Louis Tucci, Paula Leggett Chase and
Alexander Sovronsky

What does “Never on Sunday” (the song and the film) have to do with Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors? Well, not much, one would think. Why would the citizens of Ephesus break out into an extended Bollywood dance sequence? Well, for no particular reason. Is it true that it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings? Apparently. The Hartford Stage’s production of one of Shakespeare’s early comedies is an exercise in indulgence, specifically director Darko Tresnjak’s delight in such films as Never on Sunday, Zorba the Greek, various Bollywood musicals and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I might add Beach Blanket Bingo, though it’s not mentioned in an interview with Tresnjak printed in the show’s program. The question is, should a playgoer indulge Tresnjak? The answer is “Yes,” for The Comedy of Errors is 90 or so minutes of controlled insanity and mayhem that cries out: “Damn the logic, let’s go with it!” This over-the-top production vibrates with the excitement of never knowing exactly what Tresnjak and cast will do next.

If there’s one drawback to the production it’s that many of the lines are delivered in such a rapid-fire, frenetic manner that you might find yourself saying “Say what?” However, that doesn’t mean you won’t know what’s going on, for the acting is emotive in the extreme (something farce requires) and the body language of all concerned is sufficient to convey meaning when the dialogue sometimes becomes merely a stream of sounds, often in iambic pentameter.

As with previous Stage productions, director Tresnjak is also the scenic designer, and he has given the audience a pastel paradise that seems more Middle-Eastern (Istanbul?) than specifically Greek. In fact, it’s a Disney World environment that embraces the look and feel of the films mentioned in the program and allows for the various anachronisms that proliferate.
 
Jolly Abraham and Tyler Lansing Weaks
 

If you refer to Shakespeare’s text, here’s how the play opens:

SCENE I. A hall in DUKE SOLINUS'S palace.
(Enter DUKE SOLINUS, AEGEON, Gaoler, Officers, and other Attendants).
AEGEON: Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall / And by the doom of death end woes and all.

Well, that’s not good enough for Tresnjak. Instead, we get a Courtesan (Paula Leggett Chase) enticing the audience with a sultry version of “Never on Sunday,” accompanied by two Musicians (Louis Tucci and Alexander Sovronsky). Then there’s some background exposition that sets out the basic premise: Two twin brothers, along with their twin servants, were separated as children by a storm; one set, Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler) end up in, of course, Syracuse, and the other set, also named Antipholus (Ryan-James Hatanaka) and Dromio (Matthew Macca) land in Ephesus. The former set, now adults, arrives in Ephesus where Aegeon (the two Antipholuses’s – or is it Antipholi’s – father has been arrested because a Syracuse merchant ain’t supposed to be in Ephesus).
 
The cast
 
The boys from Syracuse are footloose and fancy free, but Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana (a marvelously bitchy and inebriated Jolly Abraham) and his Dromio is attached to the rather rotund serving maid Nell (the athletic Tara Heal). To add to the mix, Adriana has a sister, the prim and proper Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) who will eventually let down her hair (literally and figuratively), as well as various policemen, prostitutes, fun-loving tourists, waiters and Ephesians.

Well, you know what happens. The Syracuse duo is mistaken for their Ephesian twins. Oh, the confusion – consider the possibilities (Shakespeare did). Who is married to whom? Who owes whom what? To who or to whom, that is the question. Does it all matter? Not really. In Tresnjak’s hands the basic play is like pizza dough – it all depends on what you put on top -- and Tresnjak has decided to use unexpected ingredients. You may not have tasted them before in concert, but after the initial “Does that go with that?” you realize that it all works and is altogether pleasing to the play-going palate.
 
Matthew Macca and Ryan-James Hatanaka
 
Take your pick as to what pleases your palate the most, but for my money the extended Bollywood dance scene (choreography by Peggy Hickey) near the end of the show is something I’d order up on a regular basis (and it would bring me back to the theater for a second serving). First, it is totally unexpected. Second, it’s extravagantly exuberant. And third, it’s just sheer fun, and the cast (it’s an ensemble dance number) just seems to have been waiting for this moment to let it all hang out. For those not familiar with this type of production dance number, you might want to check out Bride and Prejudice on You Tube.

On opening night the theater was packed, and it probably will be for the show’s run. We all go to the theater for different reasons, and one of them is just to have a hell of a good time, to not brood, despair or ponder but simply to revel in excess, to set aside our political-correctness for a moment and unabashedly laugh at the fat lady’s pratfalls. We may feel a bit guilty in the morning, but what the hell.

The Comedy of Errors runs through February 12. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Playing the Game to the Bitter End

Endgame -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Feb. 5

Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The detritus of life – chairs piled atop chairs, torn and dusty books, various small appliances – are what set designer Eugene Lee has chosen to frame the otherwise empty room where life is coming to an end or, horrors of horrors, never-ending. Such is the setting for Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. If you are in any way bedeviled by depression, this is perhaps not the play to see, for although there’s humor, it is mere punctuation to the despair that comes when life, at its end, gradually becomes meaningless and the stories you tell trail off into silence.

Originally written in French and translated into English by the playwright, Endgame, at least in its English title (the original title was Fin de partie), refers to the final moves in the game of chess when the outcome is all but apparent, as is the eventual outcome for all those alive is also apparent. As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bleak look at the end of existence is both riveting and enigmatic. As a playgoer, if you demand meaning and message writ large you will be sorely disappointed.

This four-character, one-act play defies easy interpretation. There is a symbiotic relationship at its core, for Hamm (Brian Dennehy) is blind and confined to his wheelchair, while his servant (Slave? Ward?), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) cannot sit down. Hamm demands and Clov complies, but the relationship keeps both men alive. Then there are Hamm’s parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Lynn Cohen), both of whom live, if you can call it that, in what look like large laundry baskets, or perhaps dustbins. Then there’s a stuffed, three-legged dog, a flea and a rat. The stuffed dog, created by Clov, has yet to have its genitals added, but the flea and the rat are fully capable of rampant procreation, much to the distaste of both Hamm and Clov, for procreation means continuation, perhaps of hell on earth.
 
Lynn Cohen and Joe Grifasi
 

Many critics have taken a shot at interpreting what Beckett wrote. Some have suggested that the two small windows set high in the room are eyes and hence the set is really a cranium and what we are experiencing are the random, frightened, disconnected thoughts of a human slowly descending into oblivion, complete with rambling diatribes that are often little more than fractured bits of biography. Perhaps. And yet there is also an underlying aching need for human contact that runs through the play – Nagg wishes Nann to scratch an itch, down low, and they attempt, unsuccessfully, to kiss; near the end of the play, Clov, who swore that he could not touch Hamm, leans his head down on Hamm’s shoulder in a tentative embrace.

Whatever you think might be going on up on the stage, and whatever you suppose it might mean, is secondary to the delight to be found in watching and hearing these four fine actors ply their trade. Grifasi and Cohen, as the aged parents, are pitch-perfect, and even though you only see the top halves of their bodies their body language is wonderfully evocative. Cathey does wonders with a step-ladder and captures the frustrated need of a man who is both enslaved and in need, and Dennehy, without moving from his perch, creates a man who is in conflict with himself, eager for death yet clinging to life, his shield, his means of denial of the inevitable, an overt verbosity…and a whistle that, when blown, signifies his need for attention, for contact.

The program notes, written by dramaturg Christine Scarfuto, point out that during World War II Beckett did volunteer work in a hospital in Saint-Lo, a town that was essentially leveled during the Allied invasion of Normandy. She writes that there were “only a few shells of bombed out buildings left standing.” Perhaps that is what Clov is seeing when, at Hamm’s command, he looks out the two small windows in the room – nothing is moving, the sea is dead, a gray pall hangs over everything, the sun has been obliterated. Faced with such devastation, faced with the inevitability of demise, this dark, devilish play suggests that “And yet we go on” – to our credit or to our despair.

Endgame runs through Feb. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Monday, January 16, 2017

[headline of review]

[title of show] -- Playhouse on Park -- thru Jan.29

Peej Mele, Miles Jacoby, Amanda Forker, Ashley Brooke,
Austin Cook. Photo by Photo by Meredith Atkinson

I am sitting at my desk at 6:54 a.m. writing a review of [title of show], which I saw on Sunday at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. I am drinking a cup of coffee and weighing whether I should call the musical a meta-musical, because it’s a musical about itself, about the writing of a musical. An image comes to mind – [title of show] is akin to an embryo writing about its own gestation, so maybe it’s an embryonic musical. That image is supplanted by the word “solipsistic,” because [title of show] is absorbed with itself. Right now I’m not sure what tag I will use.

It’s now 7:03 a.m. The elements of a review require that I now give a hint about what I think about the production being reviewed. That’s because most people don’t read beyond the first or second paragraph of a review. I want to do this, but what I really want to write about at this point is a lady with a walker who sat in the first row house left (there were many people with walkers at this matinee performance – as they gathered to enter the house it reminded me of that scene from The Producers when all the potential backers of Springtime for Hitler [all ladies of a certain age] do a chorus line number). In any event, about 30 minutes into the show this lady stood up and, hands on her walker, toddled to her left, then she turned and walked to her right, then turned and again walked to her left, then right, then left. Given that the Playhouse is configured as a thrust stage, the five actors, Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Peej Mele as Hunter, Ashley Brooke as Susan, Amanda Forker as Heidi and Austin Cook as the pianist, Larry, must have seen her and wondered, “What the hell is she doing?”

Well, 14 minutes have elapsed and I still haven’t given that hint. My bad. Okay, the production is enjoyable but the performances are a bit uneven and the last 10 or 15 minutes of this one-act show seem to go on forever. There, that’s done. Now, what’s next. Oh, yes, a little bit of exposition, background, etc.

Well – wait, I have to get a coffee refill ------------------- Hi, back again. Okay, so back in 2004 Hunter Bell learns that the New York Musical Theater Festival is seeking submissions. The only problem is, the deadline is three weeks away. Undaunted, Bell, with his friend Jeff Bowen, a composer and lyricist, proceed to create a musical about, well, doing what they’re doing: creating a musical. They enlist the help of two actresses, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, and the effort becomes a chronicle of their efforts. The musical gets six performances at the festival (lots of revisions), is work-shopped at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center (lots of revisions), finally makes it to Off-Broadway (Obie awards! Lots of revisions) and then – Broadway! Okay, enough of that.

What’s next? Well, I haven’t yet told you who directed this production. That would be David Edwards, a theater pro who is very familiar to Ivoryton Playhouse patrons, having starred in the Playhouse’s production of La Cage aux Folles and directed the outstanding staging of South Pacific. The challenge for Edwards is that [title of show] seems to cry out for presentation in a proscenium format, i.e., the audience members all staring in one direction at what is going on up on the stage. In blocking this production, Edwards had to take into account that the patrons are viewing the goings-on from three different directions. He succeeds up to a point, but there are moments – chief among them when Heidi does a quasi-nudity reveal and must turn so that the entire audience gets to see her juggling her brassiered breasts – that draw attention to themselves. Thus, the energy of the musical, which should be thrust forward out at the audience, is, by necessity, somewhat diffused.

Okay, another cup of coffee and a quick check of emails – just received my electricity bill and two people want to be Friends on Facebook (don’t know either one of them). Oh, look, a new version of Adobe Acrobat is available. Sorry. Back to the review. What’s up next? Oh, yes, the acting. Well, let’s just say it’s early days for this ensemble – the show runs through January 29 – and the disparate performances may very well find a common ground. Right now, these “friends” simply don’t seem to mesh in terms of energy levels. Mele, as the overtly gay book writer, seems to own the stage, challenged only by Brooke’s barefoot portrayal of Susan, who uses excellent body language to punctuate her lines and does a knock-out rendition of “Die, Vampire. Die!” Jacoby and Forker, at least at this point in production run, have yet to “find” their characters. They deliver their lines well but there’s yet no sense of who these characters are – in essence they’ve yet to find the “juice” that will allow Jeff and Heidi to come alive, though Forker does shine when she and Brooke have their moment alone onstage in “Secondary Characters.”

Now, what’s required is a wrap-up, and given the nature of a review I must return to how I opened and determine what as yet hasn’t been explained. Oops – a phone call – at 8:14 no less! – from a company that wants me to consider my electricity-supplier options. Okay, so what about the last 10 or 15 minutes of the show? Well, I search for an image or metaphor. None comes to mind (bad writer – bad writer). What am I trying to convey? At the end of the (heavily revised) show there’s just a lot a yackety-yack when there should be a “rush” towards a conclusion. It’s not the time for exposition – a litany of then this happened and then this happened. You know there’s something wrong when the audience has to be told that this is the final line of the show – that should be inherent in the line itself and the emotions that have led up to it.

[title of show], a meta-embryonic-solipsistic musical, runs through January 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Alter Egos Meet and Mingle

Meteor Shower -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Oct. 23

Arden Myrin and Patrick Breen. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Deep inside, does the lamb shelter a tiger, does the hummingbird repress an eagle? What might happen if, one day, the lamb and the hummingbird were confronted by their inner tiger and eagle, forced to deal with their alter egos? Such is the premise of Steve Martin’s new comedy, Meteor Shower, which is having its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of the theater’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein. This light comedy, heavy on word play and sexual innuendo, is a diverting parlor game that works its premise for all it’s worth, generating a lot of laughs but somehow leaving one wanting just a bit more, a final moment, perhaps, that comments on the human condition as the century turned rather than relying on a sight gag.

As the lights go up we are introduced to a couple that has “worked out” their marriage by learning to express their feelings and thanking each other for doing so in a hand-holding ritual that is scripted by all of the “How to Save Your Marriage” manuals. There’s Corky (the delightful Arden Myrin), whose head occasionally “explodes,” but otherwise sincerely…oh so sincerely…appreciates her husband’s willingness to express his feelings and admit, contritely, when he has said something that might shatter her tender ego. Then there’s Norm (Patrick Breen), who is, well, “normal,” a true marital mensch who has learned to confess his sins instantaneously. They live in a neat, stylishly appointed home in Ojai, California, compliments of scenic designer Michael Yeargan, that will revolve to allow the couple and their alter egos to alternately spar in the living room and stand out on the patio to observe a meteor shower, a cascade of flaming interstellar visitors that will disrupt Corky and Norm’s “happy” home.

The doorbell rings, and the contented couple welcome Gerald (Josh Stamberg) and Laura (Sophina Brown) into their home – of course, Gerald and Laura have always been lurking in the home, for they are the tiger and the eagle that Norm and Corky have repressed, but now here they are, in the flesh, the exact opposites of the happy couple. Whatever Norm has chosen to bury deep in his psyche Gerald wears as a badge of honor; whatever Corky has hidden from herself Laura flaunts. The dichotomy is enhanced by Jess Goldstein’s costumes: Norm is dressed in what might be called country casual and Corky has apparently taken her couture clues from The Donna Reed Show. Gerald is dressed all in black, all muscle and motor-cycle toughness, and Laura is the ultimate femme fatale, wearing a red dress that makes love to her body. As an aside, it’s seldom that a costume change (perhaps “enhancement” might be the better word) elicits one of the biggest laughs in a show, but Norm’s entrance in the second act required the entire cast to hold on line delivery until the audience members ceased their chuckles and guffaws. Remembering that entrance now, a day later, still engenders laughter.  

 So, the confrontation, which is the sum and substance of the play. Gerald and Laura flaunt their carnal desires in language that Norm and Corky would not think of using. While Norm and Corky speak to each other with controlled politeness, Gerald and Laura tell each other to…well…fuck off! The tame couple is nonplussed by the heat, passion and vulgarity of the man and woman they have invited into their home but, then there’s the meteor shower, which will allow the gods to intervene. A meteor – okay, well a meteorite – lands on the patio and in the resultant smoke and fire eyes are opened and personas are shed, leading to a delightful second act in which the tables are turned and the lamb accepts his inner tiger and the hummingbird embraces the eagle lurking within.

All four actors work wonderfully to bring this transformation to life, chief among them Myrin, whose hummingbird-to-eagle conversion is a joy to watch, especially once her character realizes that the meteorite has opened up a new world for her. Equally engaging is Breen’s seduction of his alter ego as he unmans the man’s man.

Playing characters that are dominant and dominating in the first act, Stamberg and Brown deftly pull in their horns in the second act as Gerald and Laura become somewhat nonplussed by what the meteor shower has wrought. Oddly enough, although set in 1993, there is a strong element of 30s madcap comedy in Meteor Shower -- the classic battle of the sexes complete with zingers and double entendres, albeit the battle is an internal one as repressed psyches come to the fore.

If one were to chart the transformation that occurs during the play, there might be some quibbles with regards to logic, but Edelstein has wisely opted for a fast-paced delivery that does not allow for reflection – you just go with the flow, sit back and enjoy.

Meteor Shower runs through Oct. 23. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Rocky Road to Oz

Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Thru Nov. 27

Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. All photos by Diane Sobolewski


One can become a bit conflicted watching Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a new musical that recently opened at Goodspeed Musicals. This amalgam of songs from the 30’s, many made famous by Judy Garland, interspersed with original music by David Libby and Tina Marie Casamento Libby (who also “conceived” the show), with a book by Marc Acito, is often tremendously engaging and, at other times, just a bit of a snore.

There are echoes here of other “stage-struck” musicals and films, chief among them “Gypsy, with just a touch of “Little Voice,” for Chasing Rainbows tells the story of Francis Gumm, a little girl with a big voice who would become Judy Garland, a story that picks up when she is little more than a toddler (the “Baby” in the family), then fast-forwards to her at 13 years old and ends with her landing the lead role in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. There’s a stage mother (though not exactly the Mama Rose dragon), and a doting father who fills young Francis’s days with songs and dreams of glory. And then there’s Francis herself, a conflicted teenager who has some self-confidence issues (many of them dealing with her physical appearance – Louis B. Mayer will refer to her as “the fat one”), yet feels she needs to carry the needs of her entire family on her shoulders.

Thus, we have the evolving story of the Gumm family, and then we have “Judy” evolving. The family story line is, though based on fact, the stuff of soap operas, with a wandering wife and a husband who is a closeted homosexual, and the period songs that Libby has selected to accompany this dramatization aren’t, with some exceptions, exactly toe-tappers. Thankfully, such is not the case with the “Judy” evolution, for here the audience is treated to “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a riotous rendition of “All Ma’s Children,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, “Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn,” “You Made Me Love You” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”

The “Gumm” story provides the frame – and justification – for the “Judy” story and, of course, it’s Judy the audience has come to see, and the audience won’t be disappointed, for Ruby Rakos, who plays the more mature Judy (starting at 13 years old) does a marvelous job in capturing the “star quality” the propelled Garland to show business fame. Rakos bears a more than passing resemblance to Garland, and her voice, well, it’s “big,” capable of knocking out the hottest swing number, but also subtle enough to capture the essence of the more intimate ballads. Yet Garland was beset throughout her career (which was altogether too brief – she died at age 47) by a haunting insecurity, and this Rakos is also able to portray with an understanding tenderness that, for those who watched Garland go through her many transitions (and battle with, among other things, weight – do you remember her in Judgment at Nuremberg?) certainly evokes some bittersweet memories.
 
Michael Wartella and Ruby Rakos
 

As is to be expected from Goodspeed, the supporting cast is excellent, chief among them Michael Wartella, who transforms the wise-cracking Joe Yule into the irrepressible Mickey Rooney, and in the process dances up a storm. Then there’s Sally Wilfert as Judy’s mother, Ethel Gumm, and Kevin Earley as her conflicted father Frank. Yes, they both play second fiddle to Rakos’s Judy (as was true in real life), and are deeply involved in the soap opera goings-on, but they both manage to create believable characters, with Earley most effective as he attempts to both shield and yet prepare his youngest daughter for stardom, and his “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is haunting on multiple levels.
 
Karen Mason and Michael McCormick
 

Kudos also to Michael McCormick as the studio boss L. B. Mayer (just the right amount of bullying bluster) and the lithe Karen Mason as Mayer’s secretary, Kay Koverman and the acting teacher, Ma Lawlor. She’s an actor who proves that you can take supporting roles and turn them into audience-pleasing star turns. Also worthy of mention are Andrea Laxton and Lucy Horton, who play Judy’s older sisters, and, along with Wilfert and Earley, end the first act with an engaging “Everybody Sing.” Finally, there’s little Ella Briggs, who plays the very young Frances. She’s a pro when it comes to stealing scenes (and belting out songs), which reinforces W. C. Fields’ dictum: "Never work with children or animals."
 
Ella Briggs and Kevin Earley
 

Though Chasing Rainbows’ book is a bit scatter-shot, there’s no denying that when “Judy” is on stage the audience is riveted. One might have asked for a bit more spectacle and “screen magic” in the closing number (video projections now being commonplace in productions – look what Hartford Stage did last year with Anastasia), there’s no denying that the magic that was Judy Garland still captivates, and it’s to Rakos’ credit that the magic lives on.

Chasing Rainbows runs through Nov. 27. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.