Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Girls Have Their Say

Steel Magnolias -- Playhouse on Park -- Through January 28


             Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Osbourne, Susan Slotoroff, Liza Couser, Dorothy Stanley. Photo Curt Henderson.

What a difference 30 years can make. In 1987, “Steel Magnolias,” a play written by Robert Harling, debuted, followed two years later by a film of the same name. It’s now on the boards at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, and it’s something of a “girls-night-out.” with the “girls” gathering not at a cocktail lounge or a male strip club, but a beauty parlor in Chinquapin, Louisiana, an establishment, as one character notes, no male would ever dare enter.

Thus, in the confines of “Truvy’s” home-based emporium of coiffures and polished nails, women can let down their hair (both literally and figuratively) and say what’s on their minds. I would imagine that if the six characters in Harling’s play could transport themselves to eavesdrop on a modern feminine confab they would be perplexed, at times shocked, and often totally bewildered. So, what the hell is #MeToo? And yet…and yet…would they? Perhaps they just might be able to offer a certain calming perspective, for as much as Harling’s play seems rooted in a now fractured mind-set, at the same time it seems to touch on verities that can be captured in the phrase, “Girls will be girls.” That is, the ladies can be soft and lovely, like magnolias, but at the same time they are constructed of steel more well-tempered than that used to form the male of the species.

In terms of plot, “Steel Magnolias” is something of a one-trick pony: these women have a long-standing relationship – they are who they are (dare one say stereotypes?) – until Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), a young, somewhat rebellious woman with type 1 diabetes, announces that she is pregnant, much to the consternation of her mother, M’Lynn (Jeannie Hines), who fears the pregnancy will endanger her daughter’s life. Commenting on this, and other daily-life concerns, are the regulars at Truvy’s: the slightly acerbic owner, Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), her new assistant, a somewhat born-again Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairlee (Dorothy Stanley), the doyenne of the group and Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), the resident curmudgeon, all under the direction of Susan Haefner.

The pleasure to be found in “Steel Magnolias” rests in the presentation of character and, once this is done efficiently and economically, watching these characters interact as they comment on their loves, their lives, their husbands (and men in general) and various hairdos. The play is well-cast – there really isn’t a false note throughout the entire evening, and kudos must go to David Alan Stern, the play’s dialect coach, for these actors do sound, throughout the entire evening, as if they are truly Southern-fried.

One might question the decision of scenic designer David Lewis to leave so much center-stage open space on this thrust stage. The beauty parlor chairs are set extreme stage left and right, or upstage, which often creates a visual vacuum into which the actors enter and exit. There’s also a rather stunting of emotions during an emotional scene between M’Lynn and Shelby: given Haefner’s blocking, the actors seem to be locked into their chairs and there’s little or no eye contact between them. What’s being said and the accompanying body language (or lack of same) just don’t seem to mesh.

Setting aside such quibbles and concerns, there’s no denying that this is a warm and embracing production. It is of an era, but so is “Hedda Gabler” and “The Doll House.” Given today’s current battle and bashing of the sexes, you may find the concerns of the ladies in “Steel Magnolias” a bit mundane, but then, if you do then you would find discussions of love, friendship, nurturing and sheltering mundane, and they are not. Like it or not, we haven’t come very far from 1987 or, for that matter, 1887. Guys gather, often in bars or saloons, to bemoan how they are misunderstood and to kvetch; girls gather, often in beauty salons or (I’m dating myself here) Tupperware parties to bemoan how they are misunderstood and to kvetch. In the long run, it’s good for the soul, and so is “Steel Magnolias.”  

“Steel Magnolias” runs through September 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Spirit of an Era

"Woody Sez" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru January 20



There’s an entrancing production currently on the boards at Westport Country Playhouse that, at one in the same time, evokes the past yet gently comments on the present. It’s “Woody Sez,” a sort of country-folk jukebox musical that is a broad retelling of Woody Guthrie’s peripatetic life as well of a portrait of an era that became known as the Great Depression, with many allusions to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which chronicled that era through the eyes of the Joad family, Okies displaced to California, the hoped-for Eden that turned out to be a form of man-made Hades. Though the evening deals, mainly via song, with suffering, loss and the often ineffectual protest of the common man against capitalist hegemony, in viewing the performances you are less likely to feel the urge to storm the barricades than to nestle in front of a campfire as you listen to stories well-told.
Perhaps the disconnect – hearing songs of protest and tales of privation while feeling you are wrapped in a warm blanket – stems from the talent and sheer likeability of the four performers: Katie Barton, David Finch, David M. Lutken (who created the production and stars as Guthrie) and Leenya Rideout, each talented in multiple ways. The show had its debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and went on to replicate the performance in over 60 cities in England, Europe, China and the USA. In other words, there’s been a lot of time to make the evening seem seamless and, well, the creation of a family.

Katie Barton, David Finch, David M. Lutken (as Woody Guthrie),
and Leenya Rideout. Photo by Peter Chenot
 
Part of the enjoyment of the evening is the musical talent of the four actors as they shift from guitar to fiddle, banjo, mandolin, jaw harp, harmonica, bass and dulcimer, all the while their distinct voices intertwining. There is also constant movement – this is not a static production with people just playing instruments – as well as just enough characterization to give you a sense of the real people who influenced Guthrie’s life.
For those of a certain age, there’s a somewhat bittersweet element to the evening, for as the production points out, Guthrie’s spirit and music became part of the 60s generation of protest and, to a certain extent, a solidification of a generational ethos. I can’t imagine a significant number of young people gathering together today to sing songs of protest or experience a camaraderie evoked by “This Land is Your Land” or “This Train is Bound for Glory.” Those songs, and others such as “If I had a Hammer,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” (not written by Guthrie but inspired by his spirit) were anthems of a sort for a mind-set that, at the time, seemed liberating…and hopeful…and now seems as antiquated as a belief in the music of the spheres.

Perhaps the most striking moment of the evening is when the cast offers the haunting ballad, “Deportees,” with lyrics by Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman. The song was written after a plane filled with deported Mexican farm workers crashed near Los Gatos canyon, killing all on board. Who was killed? Well, the song suggests, it doesn’t matter – they had no names, no history, no families – they were just “deportees.”

As I sat watching the show a thought arose: wouldn’t it be interesting if grandparents brought their grandchildren to this theater and then, after the performance, sat down with them to capture memories and evoke a time when many in a generation refused to remain passive in the face of bureaucratic insanity, a time when one’s high school GPA and the number of “Likes” you accumulated on Facebook didn’t matter? Well now, wasn’t that a time, the grandparents might say; the grandchildren would probably stifle an urge to yawn.

“Woody Sez” is in a limited run through January 20. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.weatportplayhouse.org. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Soul's Dark Journey

Native Son -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Through December 16

Jerod Haynes and Jason Bowen. Photo by Joan Marcus

Grim.
That’s the best way to describe Bigger Thomas’s life in 1939 Chicago. He is a black man trapped in a racist society, haunted by a voice that suggests that his life, perhaps, is forfeit. “Grim” also captures the tone and feeling of “Native Son,” an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel by Nambi E. Kelley that’s currently running at Yale Repertory Theatre that details Bigger’s descent into a hell partially of his own making. The tone of the production is reinforced by the skeletal evocation of an urban tenement by scenic designer Ryan Emens and the minimalistic, often stark lighting design compliments of Stephen Strawbridge.

As directed by Seret Scott, the play is an almost unrelenting analysis of the effects of racism on the psyche and soul of a human being, how prejudice defines and confines him and how it drives him to do deeds he would not otherwise contemplate.

Jerod Haynes, as Bigger, is a commanding presence on the stage. He exudes a pent violence and frustration that is compelling, a frustration exacerbated by The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), a haunting voice Bigger hears that comments on his life and questions Bigger’s attempt to find his place in a world as a man and as a human being.

In this surreal memory play, Bigger’s downfall begins with his accepting a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, an upper-class white family. Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman), who is blind, is gently patronizing, while the Dalton daughter, Mary (Louisa Jacobson), a “very modern” young woman, feigns an equality with Bigger that makes the black man uneasy. This unease is enhanced by Mary’s boyfriend, Jan (Joby Earle), a pseudo-Communist who proclaims his feelings of brotherhood with the confused Bigger.

After a night on the town, with Bigger chauffeuring Mary and Jan, Bigger has to deal with an exceedingly inebriated Mary, and it’s here that the play becomes a bit problematic. Bigger carries Mary up to her room only to have Mrs. Dalton appear. Bigger, worried that a black man will be found in a white woman’s bedroom, puts a pillow over Mary’s face. Remember, Mrs. Dalton is blind – she only smells alcohol and chastises her daughter, who is being unintentionally suffocated by Bigger. Mrs. Dalton leaves…and Mary is dead.

Yes, Bigger didn’t intend to kill Mary. Yes, racism, to a certain extent, is involved in Bigger’s actions. Yet there’s the matter of justification. This matter of justification – and guilt – is enhanced when Bigger kills again, this time silencing his girlfriend, Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), lest she turn Bigger into the police. It’s difficult at this point to sympathize with Bigger’s plight – the first murder was an accident, the second is a self-serving attempt to avoid arrest.

What’s missing in Kelley’s adaptation is a major character in Wright’s novel: Boris Max, a left-leaning lawyer who defends Bigger (there is no trial in the play). It is Max’s defense of Bigger that presents the social and psychological underpinnings of Bigger’s actions. Without Max, the play’s audience is left to come to its own conclusions, and these conclusions may not be what Wright intended. Thus, the moral and social issues Wright attempted to deal with become a bit blurred, and it’s easy to simply condemn Bigger as a murderer rather than a victim of a twisted society. In this production, it’s pretty clear who the victims are.
“Native Son” is an engrossing, stylized theatrical experience that, perhaps, may leave audience members with more questions than answers. Is prejudice and racism sufficient justification for Bigger’s actions? It would be an interesting exercise to poll the audience as a jury after the curtain: is Bigger guilty or innocent?

“Native Son” runs through December 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

Monday, December 4, 2017

Mashed Mistletoe

Christmas on the Rocks -- Theaterworks -- Through December 23



Did Charlie Brown ever grow up? And what about Zuzu Bailey, the little girl in “It’s a Wonderful Life”? And what’s with Clara and her dreams of the handsome nutcracker and did Tiny Tim’s life become a bed of roses once Scrooge intervened and how did Ralphie really feel about the bunny pajamas given to him by his aunt? If you’ve lately been pondering these and other questions, the answers await you up at Hartford’s Theaterworks, where “Christmas on the Rocks” is currently running. If you’re already starting to get a certain queasy feeling about candy canes and roasted chestnuts (does anyone still roast chestnuts?), then the medicine you need to take is the 90-minute laugh fest that pokes a finger in the eye of our most cherished holiday stories.
In its fifth iteration, “Christmas on the Rocks,” conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, is a “Bah. Humbug” response to the often over-sentimentalized holiday that demands, nay commands that we be of good cheer. The seven skits, written by different playwrights, all suggest that there’s a darker (and hilarious) side to “Merry Christmas.”

The premise is that it’s Christmas Eve and we are in a local bar overseen by a somewhat phlegmatic bartender (Tom Bloom). Business is not brisk – as a matter of fact there’s no one in the bar until the door opens and in walks…well, one after the other, characters from our childhood reappear, albeit somewhat worse for wear and time. The playwrights, and Ruggiero, take great delight in bursting treasured bubbles of holiday memories…and it’s great fun.

Much of the pleasure in basking in the icon-bashing of “Christmas on the Rocks” is watching the two other actors, the marvelous Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, take on diverse roles. Wilkas is called upon to portray Ralphie, who comes out of the closet re. his bunny pajamas, as well as a somewhat depressed Tiny Tim, a henpecked Charlie Brown and, in his most over-the-top role, an aggressively gay elf who has a love-hate relationship with Rudolph and his red nose.

Tom Bloom and Jenn Harris as Clara

Then there’s Harris who is, quite simply, astounding. Whether she is portraying a bell-haunted Zuzu, a Frosty-hating Karen, a Clara who is having relationship problems with her “nutcracker,” or a red-haired girl who actually had deep feelings for a bald-headed kid, Harris is mesmerizing and totally hilarious (her Russian accent alone is worth the price of admission) and her Karen’s monomaniacal fixation on Frosty is a devilish delight from start to finish.

“Christmas on the Rocks” is a no-holds-barred assault on sentimentality and yet, in the final scene, there’s just a touch of hope for all of us – maybe we will, one day, all get a chance to dance with the red-haired girl, to hold her in our arms.

Kudos to Ruggiero not only for coming up with the idea for this assault on treasured memories but also for direction that is deft and subtle. There are so many fine little moments in the seven scenes that they are too numerous to count. Whether it’s an elf leaping up onto a bar stool or Clara grabbing a vodka bottle out of the bartender’s hand, the blocking and stage business Ruggiero has created make for a rich visual accent to the fine writing of his playwrights. It’s obvious that everyone involved in this production – writers, actors and director – are all on the same page, and it makes for 90 minutes of highly entertaining theater that will, if remembered, help you stand in line at the check-out counter at your local store-in-a-box as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” are played over and over and over again.

“Christmas on the Rocks” runs through December 23. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org.   

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Bah-Humbug" With a Twist

A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play -- MTC Mainstage -- Through December 17



On the heels of “A Christmas Carol” opening at Hartford Stage comes “A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play” opening at MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) Mainstage in Norwalk. Yes, they’re both based on the same Dickens story, but the experience is totally different. Relying on the same spin he gave to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” playwright Joe Landry has given us a hybrid “Christmas Carol,” the conceit being that we are in a radio studio watching a live production of the play, so it’s sort of a play within a play within a production of Dickens’ tale. It may sound confusing, but it isn’t, and the result is a delightful evening that allows you to enjoy the Dickens’ story while, at the same time, enjoy watching actors do their thing, with scripts in hand, as they create characters who, well, create characters while generating their own sound effects using a wind machine, thunder sheet, chimes and various and sundry other noise makers.
The cast consists of five – Mike Boland, Elissa Demaria, Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe and Jacob Sherburne – but, as you well know, there are a host of characters in Dickens’ story, so the five take on many guises as they rush from microphone to microphone and adjust their accents and delivery to conform to the characters of the moment. Again, it sounds confusing, but director Tim Howard keeps things easy to grasp.
Since it’s a radio show, there must be commercials, and Landry, with tongue in cheek, provides several, including one for a massive fruit cake (five- and ten-pound varieties available) that elicited chuckles from the audience.

There doesn’t need to be much explanation of the plot – just about everyone knows the tale of Scrooge’s miserliness and eventual epiphany, so the fun here is watching the actors shift, sometimes in mid-sentence, from one character to another. The basic set, created by Jordan Janota, is on multiple levels, which allows for Howard to move his actors around so there’s no visual ‘lock-down’ (i.e., actors in the same position throughout the show). In fact, given that the stage microphones (not live) are positioned on the different levels (something that wouldn’t actually occur in an actual broadcast), there’s almost constant movement.

The basic trick here is that the actors actually perform the play. By that, I mean that there are a lot of emotive gestures and character interactions that wouldn’t be necessary in an actual radio broadcast. So, the audience gets two plays for the price of one – the actors playing their roles as the radio personalities (with some rather humorous credits) as well as the characters in the Dickens’ story.

All in all, it’s a lighthearted, jolly evening of theater, and a good seminar on the art of acting. If you have any budding thespians in the house, bring them over to MTC so they can see, up close and personal, what the craft is all about – and how an actor can, in but a moment, go from a sophisticated gentleman to a young boy with a crutch who proclaims, “God bless us all.”

“A Christmas Carol – A Live Radio Play” runs through December 17. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.   

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Bah! Humbug!

A Christmas Carol -- Hartford Stage -- Through December 30

 
There are many different ways of measuring and evaluating a theatrical production. With regard to the current production of “A Christmas Carol” up at Hartford Stage under the brisk direction of Rachel Alderman, I will use the “Bounce/Gasp/Giggle” method. This method is seldom used because it requires that you have two or three young ladies, basically in their tweens, sitting in the row in front of you. Alas, they are seldom available when attending a production of “Hedda Gabler” or “Mother Courage,” but I was fortunate to have said tweens sitting in front of me at a Friday night performance of Dickens immortal story, so I am glad to report that the show gets a “12-Bounce, 10-Gasp, 6-Giggle” rating. For those not familiar with this system, that translates to: it was an engaging, eye-filling, sumptuous production of a Christmas classic that will warm the hearts (right down to the cockles – whatever they are) of even the most jaded theatergoers.
This is the 20th year that the Stage has offered this particular Christmas present, and there are vestiges of earlier productions merged with some new twists (and turns), the newest being Michael Preston taking on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge (Buzz Roddy will also play the role at select performances). For those not familiar with the Stage’s take on the Dickens’ novella, there’s an emphasis, as the program’s sub-headline indicates, that this is “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” and ghosts there are aplenty, ghosts that dance and whirl and fly through the air, demons that rise from the fiery pits, ghosts that tease and tantalize, the most impressive being that of Scrooge’s deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), who is exceptionally spry given that he has been dead for seven years.
Since most people are familiar with the plot, attending a performance of “A Christmas Carol” offers little dramatic tension – you know what’s going to happen – you probably already know most of the dialogue. So, much of the entertainment is to be found in the show’s production values and how the lead actor handles the role of Scrooge.
Returning to the Bounce/Gasp/Giggle theory of critical evaluation, this show’s production values meet all expectations. The Bouncing quotient began to rise with the first appearance of the ghosts, choreographed by Hope Clarke, and lighting designer Robert Wierzel ably moved the Gasp needle up several notches, especially when hell opens up and Marley’s ghost appears (flying effects courtesy of ZFX, Inc.). The Giggle aspect was noted to first take effect when Mrs. Dilber (also Shropshire), Scrooge’s dyspeptic servant, makes her first appearance. As the evening progressed, the Bounce-Gasp-Giggle meters maintained their upward ascent, spiking with the appearance of the three Christmas spirits: Christmas Past (Rebecka Jones), Christmas Present (Alan Rust), and the bicycle-riding Christmas Future (no attribution provided).
Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As for Scrooge, you couldn’t ask for a more curmudgeonly, bah-humbuggedly miser than what Preston provides. At least the Grinch wanted to steal Christmas – Scrooge will have nothing to do with it and, of course, begrudges the fact that he must give his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis), the day off. For 10 years a member of the ensemble known as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Preston brings an agile, quirky presence to his creation of the fabled disdainer of festivity in any form. Because he emphasizes Scrooge’s cold-heartedness his character’s epiphany is all the more moving.
There’s a reason Hartford Stage has stayed with this production for 20 years, and it can be seen in the demographics of the audience, for it’s an opportunity for grandparents to introduce grandchildren to the theater (and for the grandchildren – especially the little girls -- to dress up), and for families to share a visually exciting experience. Spinning clocks, flying ghosts, flames and smoke and rattling chains – it all makes for a delightful evening of theater that registers high on the Bounce/Gasp/Giggle metric of critical evaluation.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 30. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.       

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A World of Difference

The Chosen -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Through December 17



Can two objects exist in the same space? Nature says no, and yet…? Can two opposing ideas both be true? Logic says no, and yet…? Can there be both this and that? We are uncomfortable with the possibility, and yet this is what “The Chosen,” a play by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, based on Potok’s novel of the same name, wrestles with in a very strong production currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. This tightly written play, deftly directed by Gordon Edelstein, deals with multiple ideas but never loses sight that ideas are generated by human beings who, as they ideate, also feel, hurt and must confront the confusions that life presents.

Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the end of WW II and following, the play focuses on two families, both motherless. There’s the Malter family, David (Steven Skybell), a writer and Zionist and his son Reuven (Max Wolkowitz), hoping to become a college professor, and the Saunders family, Reb Saunders (George Guidall), a tzaddik, leader of a Hasidic sect, and his son, Danny (Ben Edelman), destined to take his father’s place within the tight-knit community. The families, though they live only five blocks apart, do not interact until there is a baseball game between a team of intense Hasidic young men and Reuven’s team of more casual Jews. Late in the game, Reuven is pitching and Danny is at bat. Danny hits a ball back at Reuven. The ball hits Reuven in the head, smashing his glasses and wounding one of his eyes. Following this, Danny visits Reuven in the hospital seeking a form of forgiveness and thus a tentative friendship begins between two young men who are complete opposites.

Beyond the religious differences between the two families, there is how Reuven and Danny have been raised. Reuven’s relationship with his father is warm and extremely verbal, while Danny lives essentially in a world of silence, his father speaking to him only when they are studying the Talmud. Danny tells his father that he has met Reuven and that they have become friends, and Reb Saunders allows the friendship, which will become the heart of the play as the two young men seek their place in life, Israel struggles to be born and two distinct and divergent views of Yiddishkeit confront each other.

“The Chosen” is a play of both ideas and emotions, and one of its primary strengths is that Posner and Potek have interwoven the two so that beliefs and emotions, often conflicting, must exist in the same space. It makes for often compelling moments.

With the aid of set designer Eugene Lee, and supported by subtle yet evocative lighting overseen by Mark Barton, Edelstein utilizes the Theatre’s thrust stage to great effect, often blocking his actors to emphasize the divide between the two families. His job is made all the easier by the strength of the four actors playing the primary roles.

Wolkowitz, who is charged with providing the narration that knits the scenes together, is entirely believable as a young man on the brink of adulthood who must find a moral center in a world that often seems to be composed of irreconcilable opposites. Equally engaging is Edelman as the alienated son, though one might have wished Edelstein had allowed the actor not to be locked into a submissive, Uriah Heep posture throughout the play – there were moments, especially in the plays denouement, when Danny should have stood a bit taller than he was allowed to.

Then there are the two fathers, and Skybell and Guidall create contrasting portraits of fatherhood that are, each in its own way, exceptionally effective, though it is Guidall who comes close to stealing the show, especially with his second-act monologue that evokes the tenderness he has hidden and the reason for his silence with the son. As Danny rushes into his father’s arms there was more than one hand in the audience raised to wipe away a tear.

“The Chosen” may be, at moments, a bit long on polemics, but it delivers a satisfying emotional arc, bolstered by dialogue that never fails to engage. One true benchmark of a play is whether or not you care about what happens to the characters, and this production of “The Chosen” allows you to develop emotional ties with all four primary characters, so much so that the two hours you are in the theater seem to fly by.

“The Chosen” runs through December 17. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.