Saturday, March 17, 2018

Dancing Feet

15 -- Playhouse on Park -- Through March 25

            “Gotta dance! Gotta dance!”

            So sings Gene Kelly in the “Broadway Rhythm Ballet” sequence in “Singin’ in the Rain.” The phrase could just as easily be the mantra of the members of Stop/Time Dance Theater, which is celebrating its 15th year up at Playhouse on Park with its production of, appropriately, “15.”

            The show was conceived, directed and choreographed by Darlene Zoller, who is also co-founder and co-artistic director of the Playhouse. As with previous productions, the story-line is paper-thin, created, as Zoller explained after the opening-night performance, to just provide a reason for the cast to, well…dance, and dance they do, creating moments of exuberance  heightened by the proximity of the audience to what is occurring on the thrust stage. The intimacy demands that no one phones in a performance, and nobody does.

            If it matters, the show focuses on a young woman, Victoria (Victoria Mooney) who, beset by the demands of social media, is, akin to Alice in her trip to Wonderland, swept up into a strange world ruled by Eon (Rick Fountain) and Millenia (Amanda Forker), a world that apparently controls the use, or abuse, of time. Victoria first appears searching for clues…to what is not exactly clear but, again, it really doesn’t matter, for the opening number, “Another Stop/Time Show,” brings the entire cast on stage for a robust dance number that sets the tone for the entire evening.
The cast of "15." Photo by Curt Henderson

            Many of the numbers borrow from other musicals – “West Side Story” (“Something’s Coming”), “Damn Yankees (“Two Lost Souls”), and “Wicked” (“Dancing Through Life”), to name just three, plus a witty re-working of “I Can’t Say No” from “Oklahoma (in this case, Victoria can’t say no to responding to text messages).  The use of these familiar songs provides a certain comfort level to the evening, anchoring the production within the well-established American musical theater gestalt.

            However, it’s dance that drives the evening, and one might think that over the course of the almost two-hour show the hoofing might become a bit tedious. Such is not the case, for Zoller’s choreography, supported by evocative lighting by Aaron Hochheiser and a multitude of costumes by Lisa Steier, is inventive and diverse, incorporating tap, modern dance and ballet in a constant whirl that utilizes every inch of the stage (and a bit of the aisles as well).

            What really shines forth is the unbridled enthusiasm the cast exhibits. They – many of whom have apparently been dancing before they learned to walk – may have day jobs, and quotidian concerns may sometimes conflict with rehearsals, but their commitment to the production is patently obvious. Seldom do you have the opportunity to see, close-up, passion personified, and these dancers are passionate about what they are doing. Electricity sparks throughout the evening, no more so than in the final number from “Hairspray,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”  It’s a fitting comment on the commitment these fine dancers have to an art form they obviously love.

            “15” runs through March 25. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Setting the Season

The Upcoming Season at Ivoryton Playhouse

            It takes a lot of time, talent and perseverance to put on a show (and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt), but what if the onerous task of producing not just one but seven shows in a single season falls on your shoulders? Would you, like Ayn Rand’s Atlas, shrug, let the weight fall from those shoulders? Well, Jacqueline Hubbard is not one to shrug, and she hasn’t for close to two decades as she has boarded plays and musicals at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse, where, as the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, she is hip-deep in the details of creating the venue’s 2018 season.
Jacqueline Hubbard. Photo by Peter M. Weber
            I met with Hubbard at the Playhouse’s offices, which thankfully had power – the theater itself, down the road, was still dark after a Nor’easter had recently blown through the town. As I walked into her office she was fielding a phone call and giving directions to an assistant – something about the code for the alarm at the theater. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was also juggling three multi-colored balls in the air and tap dancing.

            In a British accent shaded and softened by her years in the States, Hubbard explained the process of bringing seven shows to Ivoryton.

            “As soon as the last season is finalized,” she said, “I set up a big board for the next season and I start moving different plays around. We have plays that plop in different slots over the course of the year. We know that we’re going to put musicals in the two big summer slots and we know where we’re going to try a comedy or a drama.”

            The Ivoryton Playhouse has a supportive board of directors, but over the years Hubbard has earned the board’s trust, so what goes where in the season and what finally occurs when the curtain rises is really her call – and she agonizes over the selection, and it’s not just a simple matter of material to produce.

            “I really wanted to do a new play – we ended up going for two new plays, both by women, which is kind of nice. It never really settles until November – there might be five or six shows that I’m definite about but there’s always one or two that I go backwards and forwards on until something pushes it over the edge.”

            What gives the push? Well, consider the last show slated for the 2018 season, the world premiere of “Queens of the Golden Mask.” The play was originally submitted for consideration for Ivoryton’s Women’s Play Festival, but it was two acts and the festival limited the submissions to one act. Hubbard called the playwright, Carole Lockwood, complimented her on the play, explained why it couldn’t be considered for the festival but suggested that it might make a wonderful movie. Lockwood told her a deal might be in the works. Fast forward two or three months – the deal had fallen through over script changes the playwright didn’t want to make.

            What’s the play about? Well, it’s set in the early Sixties and deals with women involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Current events – specifically the Charlottesville protest and its aftermath – brought the play back to Hubbard’s mind. “I re-read it and I met with the writer,” Hubbard recalled, “and I said to her that I was going to do a special reading of the play during the festival. She was very excited. That was in September, and in October I woke up one morning and said to myself: ‘What am I doing? This play should be produced.’ And that was it.”

            Hubbard is an actor, a director and a producer. She has been involved, one way or another, with theater since she was a young girl and, given her years at Ivoryton, she is painfully aware of the economics that often determine what is and is not produced, and yet the theatrical seasons she creates are by and large also determined by her gut instincts. These instincts are extremely important when selecting the two musicals that will run at Ivoryton over the summer.

            “Often with the big musicals it’s availability,” Hubbard explained. “We are a small theater. People who hold the rights to plays want to make the most money that they can. So, when I apply for the rights to a play, and I have 280 seats, and another theater applies and they have a thousand seats, and it’s at the same time and we’re within a hundred miles of each other, I will lose.”

            It often all comes down to money as to whether or not Hubbard can “lock something down.” It all depends on what’s in the Ivoryton coffers at the moment. “Rights to do a big musical,” she pointed out, “usually run around $30,000, and they usually want $5,000 or $10,000 up front, which is a lot of money for us. If we’re doing well at the start of the year, with subscriptions and whatever, then I can lock down some of the bigger musicals.” However, “lock down” isn’t an absolute – sometimes it’s a “Yes” followed by a “No, sorry.” Those who hold the rights to the plays giveth and taketh away on a regular basis, especially when there’s a national tour in the offing.

            Although she may not want to admit it, Hubbard has a certain “nanny” mentality when it comes to scheduling some of the shows for the season. By that I mean she senses what her audience – and not just her subscribers – might be needing, that spoon full of sugar that might help the medicine of current events go down just a bit easier. Hence, the decision to schedule “The Fantasticks” as the opening production of the season.

            “I thought… feeling extremely…weighed down by the complete mess the world is in,” Hubbard said, shaking her head, “and feeling that we had to open the season after months of hibernation and overdosing on CNN with something that had a bit of a fairytale quality but  also a touch of realism…’Fantasticks’ has that.” It also doesn’t hurt that David Pittsinger, who will play El Gallo (and, yes, sing “Try to remember”) and his wife, Patricia Schuman, were available for the show. Over the past few years, Pittsinger, a world-renowned bass-baritone, and Schuman, a diva known for her stunning portrayals of operatic heroines, have graced the Ivoryton stage.
David Pittsinger
           Pittsinger and Schuman, along with R. Bruce Connelly, who will play Henry, have become Ivoryton favorites, but Hubbard understands that Ivoryton’s future must rest with expanding the venue’s audience, even at the risk of possibly alienating some of the “old-timers” who still help fill the house.

            “I think that, twelve or fifteen years ago when we were still in the process of building a subscriber base our demographics heavily influenced what we put on. Less so today. Of course, I have to think about them, but I also know that we have to attract a new audience, so we try to let them know,” meaning the old guard, if you will, “that that is our plan, that we want to produce theater that they will enjoy but also we are going to produce things that may not be their first choice…but please come, and let me know…and they let me know!”

            Hubbard has received letters from subscribers suggesting that what the Playhouse is producing doesn’t appeal to them. She responds to them, politely, but points out that the times they are a’changing.

            As a nod to the Playhouse’s demographics, Hubbard has scheduled “Love Quest,” by Mary Maguire and Steven McGraw, to follow “The Fantasticks,” with Hubbard directing and starring Linda Purl. It focuses on two women, one in her 60s, the other in her 30s, who are both, well, questing for love in the strange new world of Face Book, speed dating and cybersex. “It’s a new play,” Hubbard said, “and [the playwrights] are open to working on it.” As to why she has chosen this particular vehicle: “I have to find something to connect with in a play. It’s always been to the detriment of the piece if I haven’t.” Hubbard has worked with the writers and she believes that Ivoryton can make the play fun, funnier “and have a few more layers.”

            And what if it isn’t fun? Well, that’s always a possibility, especially with a new play. You just never know until it’s on its legs and all you can do is hope that it doesn’t stumble. “I will know,” Hubbard said, “by the Thursday evening of the run, because I will have had my complete audience demographic by then for those three performances.” And if the show isn’t working? “My instinct is to run away,” Hubbard admitted, “but I rarely get farther than the tavern across the street.”

            Hubbard explained that minor adjustments can be made during the run of a show, but if major surgery is required the patient is left to gasp out its last stertorous breaths and then is silently put to rest. “We simply don’t have a long enough run to make major changes,” Hubbard said, then added: “I try to get directors I trust. There have been times…well…I won’t dwell on the past.”

            Following “Love Quest” on the schedule is “A Night with Janis Joplin,” a show that, after previews, ran for 141 performances on Broadway in 2013-14. Again, it’s a show that was lodged somewhere in Hubbard’s mind and she associated it, and the demographic that the show might appeal to, with the same demographic that had made “Million Dollar Quartet” such a hit at Ivoryton.
Janis Joplin
She wondered what had ever happened to the Janis Joplin musical and so she did a bit of research, sent an email, and then “my phone rings and it’s the guy who owns the show and he starts talking to me about the show, saying he’s putting together a tour.” Hubbard’s response: “Well, keep us in mind.” It turned out that the show ended up being staged by North Carolina Theatre in May, and so Hubbard opted to “piggy-back” the production with the North Carolina venue. “We cast it together,” Hubbard said, “and we’re bringing in the whole production – sets, costumes, everything. It’s not a little show – it’s got an eight-piece band! In costumes…and wigs.” Hubbard smiled waggishly: “I just love that music, so that’s going to be fun.”

            For the summer, undoubtedly the most important part of Ivoryton’s season, the venue will be boarding “Grease,” immediately followed by “A Chorus Line,” both to be directed by Todd Underwood, who has become the go-to man for staging many of Ivoryton’s musicals. To say that the run of these two shows will be make-or-break time for Ivoryton is an understatement.

            “These two productions represent the bulk of our revenue,” Hubbard explained, but then added a BUT: “”They cost us almost what we spend on them. They are our anchor shows – they bring people in and if somebody comes to one of them and says, “Hey, I’ll buy a three-play subscription,’ well…in some ways these shows are ‘lost-leaders,’ we sell out but they’re so expensive for us to produce – expensive for housing, for everything else that goes along with a big musical.” Hubbard paused, then shrugged. “Nobody will come out for small shows in the summer,” she said, “so we have no choice, but they give us the freedom to do, well, the other stuff.”

            The nanny in Hubbard influenced her choice for Ivoryton’s penultimate show, “Once.” Again, she’s offering that spoon full of sugar for a world she sees as somewhat weary and woebegone. “I saw it several times on Broadway,” Hubbard said, “and I thought it was a little gem but…well, nobody has heard of it,” the “nobody” meaning the folks who normally patronize Ivoryton. She sees “Once,” as she does “The Fantasticks,” as a bit of a fairytale, something that just might lighten the hearts, if only for a moment, of those who attend.

            As experienced as Hubbard is, she knows that she can be wrong and is willing to learn from her mistakes. She referenced the recent women’s play festival and, well, here’s how she explains it: “One of the writers came in with a piece and it ended with four minutes of silence, a couple just looking into each other’s eyes. That’s it. I said to the author, ‘You can’t do that. That’s death on stage,’ and she said, ‘I’d really like to try it.’ Well, this is the reason we bring these writers up here, to try these things. So the play was about a couple who was separated and the husband is trying to get the wife back, to get her to stay, and throughout the whole play, well, you just want her to stay, and he asks her to sit, just for four minutes, that’s all he’s asking for. And…you know…the audience held its breath for four minutes and at the end of it, when the lights went out, they were all on their feet and I thought, well, I’m happy to say I was wrong. I thought it would be disastrous. but it worked, so there are things we can do that I didn’t think were possible…and there you go.”

            Yes, it worked, and much of what Hubbard does at Ivoryton “works.” The lady doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses, but she, nested in the Connecticut hinterlands, does love theater, and loves what she does, and that is evident, and perhaps it all works so well because, quite simply, she cares…and can smile even when the power goes out.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Devils Amongst Us

The Crucible -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru March 4

Cast of "The Crucible." Photo by Gerry Goodstein

                It may seem disturbing to some (perhaps many) that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is as relevant today as it was back in 1953 when it debuted at New York’s Martin Beck Theatre. It’s no secret that Miller wrote the allegorical play in response to the “witch hunt” that was riveting and the nation as the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and other self-righteous committees and organizations sought to rid the country of Communists and all those who travelled along with them – or had just had dinner with them. Loosely based on the Salem witch trials of 1692/93, the play is receiving a strong and perceptive revival at UCONN’s Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs, all the more so since most of the actors are UCONN students in the university’s theater arts program. Their participation cannot help but be a visceral civics lesson that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

                The story is familiar to most people: a group of young women, perhaps repressed by the Puritan society in which they live, sow a few wild oats by gathering in the woods and dancing, stimulated by the stories told to them by Tituba (Angela Hunt), a Barbadian servant. They are discovered by the local minister, Reverend Parris (Rob Barnes) and, to justify their actions, claim that they have been influenced by the Devil. The girls’ lies and subterfuge soon extends to them having fits and weird sightings that, they claim, have been brought upon them by those in the community who consort with the Devil. Thus, a witch hunt ensues with a tribunal made up of such worthies as Judge Danforth (a very effective James Sutorius) and Judge Hawthorne (Nick Nudler), with the Reverend Parris egging them on. The essence of the play is that the Devil has seduced many Salem inhabitants and the sinners are offered two options: confess (to a lie) and be saved or deny the charges and face death by hanging (or being pressed, i.e., having stones placed upon them until they are crushed to death). Of course, with confession comes the demand that those “saved” name names. Soon the jail is filled and the gallows bear the weight of those condemned.

Miller was a wise playwright who understood that assault on ideas, whether they be about social hysteria or the myth of the American Dream (see The Death of a Salesman) would fall on deaf or indifferent ears if the humanity behind and supporting the insanity was not revealed. Hence, we have John Proctor (a tremendously engaging Mauricio Miranda) and his wife, Elizabeth (a very accomplished Erin Cessna, a grad student in UCONN’s Acting MFA program) having to deal with John’s involvement with a servant, Abigail (the striking Rebekah Santiago Berger), who, driven by jealousy, is at the heart of the girls’ hysteria. We also have the Reverend John Hale (Tristan Rewald), a supposed expert in witchcraft and demonology who initially seeks to reveal the Devil’s workings in Salem but soon comes to realize that what is occurring has little to do with the Devil and more to do with human lust, greed and sense of self-importance.

The set, created by Pedro L. Guevera, and costumes by Brittny Mahan, are dominated by shades of brown and black, reflecting the drab and mirthless world in which the young girls are forced to exist, a world their youthful exuberance and burgeoning sexuality revolts against. Lighting, designed by Danielle Verkennes, is significantly subdued, creating a sense that this community is surrounded by darkness, the darkness of the forest where the Devil (and aborigines) lurk. The only way to push back against the darkness is to embrace a rigid belief in God’s word as found in the Bible.

Some critics have written off The Crucible as mere polemic, a thinly veiled ‘leftist’ response to conservative beliefs and “true Americans” desire to defend “truth, justice and the American way of life,” to quote the opening of the Superman TV series. Yet Miller’s play suggests that there are many “truths,” that justice can be perverted and “the American way of life” often embraces xenophobia and a need to attack and destroy what we do not understand.

There’s the cliché referring to tense, rapt attention that involves hearing a pin drop. As with all clichés, there is truth lurking somewhere in the background, and for this cliché it is proven during the pivotal scene in the second act when Judge Danforth, attempting to weigh whether the girls have been lying or are truly beset by demons and devils, brings Elizabeth Proctor into the room to ask her if her husband is “a lecher.” If there was some device, like a Geiger counter, that could measure audience attention and concern, its needle would have been in the red as Elizabeth struggles to answer Danforth’s questions. The power of this moment, and the subsequent scene between husband and wife, with Proctor’s life hanging in the balance, is what draws us to the theater, for it is in these scenes, so well-acted and deftly directed, that we experience emotions that cannot be generated by other media. Yes, we suspend our disbelief and accept that what we are seeing is real…and riveting…and important.

CRT’s production of The Crucible is more than worthy of a trek up to Storrs. You may, initially, be aware you are watching a play but, very soon, you are drawn into the lives being portrayed on the stage. That is the magic of theater, and the magic – and the message inherent in this play – is something that we need now more than ever.

The Crucible runs through March 4. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to

All Aboard

Murder on the Orient Express -- Hartford Stage -- Thru March 25

David Pittu as Hercule Poirot. Photo by T. Charles Erickson


                Well, if you’ve read the Agatha Christie novel, or seen the 1974 Sidney Lumet film adaptation or the 2017 Kenneth Branagh re-make, you know damn well “whodunit.” Which leads to the question: why spend two hours watching the Ken Ludwig theatrical adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that recently opened at Hartford Stage under the direction of Emily Mann? After all, we work our way through mystery novels, by and large, to have the solution to the crime revealed; it’s why we accept pages of exposition and multiple red herrings. If we already know said solution, what’s the point? The answer to the question with regards to this current production is up for grabs.

                Could it be production values? Buy a ticket just to see how scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creates the fabled choo-choo on stage? Yes, that’s intriguing, and Boritt delivers using a sliding stage and horizontal-closing curtain to create the aura of the Orient Express and its movement. First reveal of the elegant coach and dining area garnered well-deserved applause. But then what?

                The plot is a variation on the locked-room murder mystery – in this case the locked room is a train stranded and immobile because of a snow storm. As an audience member who well knew who is responsible for the murder of an American gentleman named Samuel Ratchett (Ian Bedford) on the train, my main interest was in how the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Pittu) would be portrayed. As initially written by Christie, Poirot is persnickety and vain, and Pittu conveys both characteristics to a fault – he gives us a peacock strut as he walks and a simmering disdain for all those who are beneath his intellectual ability. In other words, Pittu’s portrayal of Poirot essentially holds together this somewhat uneven production that isn’t sure whether it wants to be melodrama or farce and, hence, falls between the cracks.

                So, back to the question of why attend? Well, there are bright moments to be enjoyed, chief among them is Julie Halston’s snarky portrayal of Helen Hubbard and Veanne Cox’s equally snarky rendering of the aged Princess Dragomiroff. Halston gets to do a true comic-relief scene in which she dances in her stateroom, an extended scene that delights the audience, and Cox rules as the queen (or is that countess?) of the one-liners. Then there’s a nicely blocked scene involving a gun, with the Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin) falling to the floor multiple times to avoid being shot, and the religiously inhibited Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz) also falling and cringing in a moment of extreme angst. Enjoyable as all of these are, the delightful parts do not add up to a delightful whole.

                Perhaps if I had done an extended post-show audience interview, searching for people who had had no exposure to the Christie novel or subsequent films, I might have gotten a different perspective on the evening, especially whether the solution to the crime was revelatory and worth the two-plus hours of theater. No such interview was held, so I can only say that most of the evening was akin to leafing through an album of old photographs, nodding in recognition, and remembering the initial interest—excitement—engagement the photos captured. For me, there really was no “Aha!” moment – the same might be true for most of the audience, and if not, then we are left with weighing the value of the material being presented. Yes, we go again and again to productions of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman and Doubt, knowing full well what will happen, but we are forever captured by the writing, the artful presentation of humanity’s foibles and follies. Murder on the Orient Express worked well as a mystery novel, and both film versions relied heavily on star-power. Alas, though there is fine acting to be seen in Hartford Stage’s production, it does not overcome the ‘been-there-done-that” of the evening. It’s akin to unwrapping a gaily decorated present whose contents you already know – you feign surprise and enjoyment, but you quickly toss the present aside in search of something else – something that will truly surprise and deliver unexpected enjoyment.

Murder on the Orient Express runs through March 25. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Threads That Connect

Intimate Apparel -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru March 4

Darlene Hope and Ben MacLaughlin. Photo by Curt Henderson

                Some plays seek to overwhelm, while others seek to seduce. Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” is of the latter variety, for if you wrote a plot outline of the play you probably wouldn’t fill half a page, yet in the play’s two-plus hours you are slowly drawn into a world of a fascinating, strong-willed woman who is basically searching for love, albeit in places that, for one reason or another, cannot satisfy. As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro, this tender, bittersweet play comes beautifully and tenderly alive on Playhouse on Park’s thrust stage with a cast that is just about perfect.

                Sean Harris, one of the Playhouse’s artistic directors, is usually charged with casting POP’s productions, and if he did so in this case he should get a medal, for the six actors on stage just don’t embody their roles, they seem to live and breathe them. Leading the cast as Esther is Darlene Hope, an actor of phenomenal talent who is able to convey emotions with just a cant of her head or a roll of her eyes. She plays a seamstress who has been saving her money, sewn into a bedspread, so she can eventually open a beauty parlor that caters to the needs of black women. She has been living in a boarding house in lower Manhattan(circa 1905) run by Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray) for close to two decades, sewing intimate apparel for various uptown ladies, chief among them Mrs. Van Buren (the striking Anna Laura Strider) whose husband has lost interest in her because she can’t conceive.

                Esther often travels to the garment district to buy material, primarily from Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin), a Jewish draper who is engaged to a woman he has never met who still lives in “the old country.” He dresses primarily in black (to honor God, as he explains to Esther) and is constrained from touching a woman by his religion. They are drawn to each other, but their contact is defined by the bolts of cloth he offers her for inspection – he caresses the cloth, she caresses the cloth. In these moments you can almost hear their hearts pounding.

                Given the structure of POP’s stage, scenic design is often a challenge, but Marcus Abbott, who also designed the lighting, gives the audience four distinct arenas: Esther’s room is downstage right; Mr. Mark’s shop is upstage right. Then there’s Mrs. Van Buren’s boudoir, which is downstage left and finally, upstage left, defined by a piano, is where Mayme (Zuri Eshun) plies her trade, a lady of soiled reputation who dreams of being a concert pianist.  Navarro has Esther travel easily and seamlessly from one world to another, although the director has opted to have props removed and placed by a stage hand, which, oddly enough, becomes a bit distracting – the job, not onerous, could easily have been done by the actors themselves during the blackouts and have been less intrusive. Also, an unresolved problem is how to handle the “bedding” scenes early in the second act – the absence of a bed presents certain problems, but they are minor.

                So we have Esther dutifully working towards her goal of opening a beauty parlor until her world is disrupted by George (a slick and tale-weaving Beethoven Oder) a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal who has run across a man from Esther’s church. The man suggests that George write to Esther, which he does. Esther is smitten and disregards Mrs. Dickson’s warnings. Never having seen George, Esther, with all of her restrained passion, falls in love with the idea of love. The first act (which probably could be snipped and cut – it does seem a bit long) ends with George appearing in Manhattan for their wedding.

                The second act, shorter and more intense, has Esther learn some age-old lessons about love, men and friendship. In the hands of less accomplished actors, this might all seem a bit overly melodramatic, but it works. This is much to the credit of Hope, who weaves her character’s transformation from that of a smitten, prim young lady to one who is, albeit heartbroken, wiser and stronger. Hers is a complete, engrossing performance that allows you to see the soul of a woman who rises above the failures and foibles of others, and though the play ends with Esther back where she started, there is no sense that she has been defeated.

                This is a play, and a production, that you have to stay with, that you have to allow to unfold in its own good time. Given that we are often treated to explosions or emotional fireworks erupting every two of three minutes in the films or TV shows we see, we have to be willing to shift gears to appreciate what the folks at POP have created and what Nottage has written. It is delicate and, if we allow it to be, subtly transforming, for we are allowed to enter into the world of a woman we might pass by on the street without giving her a second notice, yet she is a woman with hopes, dreams and passions that make her, in her own way, utterly captivating.

                “Intimate Apparel” runs through March 4. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Friday, February 2, 2018

There's a Bear in My Vodka

Field Guide -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru February 17

The cast of "Field Guide." All photos by Joan Marcus

Theatre of the Absurd may be an outdated term, but its spirit appears to be alive and well at Yale Repertory Theatre, which is currently offering the world premiere of Rude Mechs’ “Field Guide,” a somewhat surreal take on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” The one-act evening has the feel of a graduate seminar on Russian Lit with the students and professor all on LSD. If you’re looking for linear coherence in your theater-going experience, don’t hold your breath as you settle in to watch “Field Guide.” However, if you can go with the flow, or flows, and simply accept, say, a Russian bear doing a stand-up comedy routine, you’re in for an evening directed by Shawn Sides that will surely generate a loft of post-curtain conversation.
Lowell Bartolomee as the Russian Bear.

After the delivery of the usual pre-curtain “Do’s and Don’t’s,” (that seems to have been recorded by Kermit the Frog), a door opens house right and six characters, all wearing white parkas, tromp up onto the stage. Five disappear back-stage; the sixth, Hannah Kenan, who will play Grigory and Katya, stands in front of the curtain and begins a stand-up routine. If nothing else, this lets you know that you will be called upon to readjust your expectations, a task you will be charged with throughout the evening.

Kenan exits, the curtain rises, and we are into Dostoevsky land, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. The set, compliments of Eric Dyer, consists of large, tan shapes – mostly rectangular, though there is one shape that looks like a wedge and another that towers above the rest, a wormlike configuration that could have escaped from the pages of “Dune.” Over the course of the evening the set “elements” will often rearrange themselves. Why? That’s open to interpretation, as is much of “Field Guide.”

With the initial reveal of the set we meet Dostoevsky’s main characters: there’s Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), the bibulous father, Alyosha (Mari Akita), consumed by spiritual rapture (the character often levitates), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor’s bastard son, Ivan (Thomas Graves), the pompous philosopher, and Dmitri (Lana Lesley), smitten by love for Katya. Their relationships, and detestation of the father-figure, are often outlined by Kenan, who seems to be running the seminar.
Thomas Graves as Ivan, explain the "Grand Inquisitor"

Familiarity with Dostoevsky’s novel is helpful but not mandatory. However, if you’ve ever puzzled over the justly famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, Ivan’s summary mid-way through the play is perhaps the best, and funniest, exegesis you will ever come across. There are other set-pieces that are equally enjoyable, including a scene where Dmitri is trying to cajole Fyodor into giving him his inheritance – Dmitri rushes from character to character multiple times offering analyses that would serve well in a Spark Notes entry.

Then there are moments when you willingly watch but are unsure of what you are viewing and its import. Chief among these is an interpretive dance sequence late in the play performed by Akita that is both emotive and evocative but defies interpretation – perhaps it is Alyosha going through a dark night of the soul. Your guess is as good as mine. There there’s the aforementioned Russian bear stand-up sequence – yes, it’s about the difficulty dealing with fathers, but it lacks focus and just seems to, well, end with a whimper.

Perhaps the most head-scratching moment is the play’s conclusion, a coup de theatre of sorts that has the Karamazov family sharing what looks like a “last supper,” followed by – well, why spoil the reveal. And then, Dmitri appears to deliver a final stand-up routine but, Lesley breaks character, gives her own name, and, as Lesley, makes a dead-pan, Sylvia-Plath-like comment about her father’s death. It’s chilling and discomforting. And then, well, given what now dominates the set you just know what the Dmitri character will do to end the play.

To a certain extent, “Field Guide” defies description. There are moments of high seriousness, followed by moments that could have been lifted from a Marx Brothers film. Perhaps a close scrutiny of the script will reveal the connections between the stand-up routines and the Karamazov story-line, perhaps not. There’s a sense that some of what the audience is offered is done just for the hell of it. Maybe it would all seem perfectly logical if, when the audience is seated, each member is offered a tab of LSD. After all, Disney’s “Fantasia” is purported to be much more enjoyable if you are one toke over the line. In any event, whatever your interpretation of the goings-on, you will certainly come away knowing that you have had an experience. What have you experienced? Well, go out for a post-play glass of Chardonnay and discuss.

“Field Guide” runs through February 17. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to  

Saturday, January 27, 2018

What if...?

Constellations -- TheaterWorks -- Through February 18

What if…you didn’t turn left but turned right, said “Yes,” rather than “No,” walked into that bar rather than walked by, held out your hand instead of turning away? We all play the “What if?” game as memories collide and we contemplate serendipity. Such is the stuff of Nick Payne’s “Constellations,” which recently opened at TheaterWorks up in Hartford, an exercise in contemplating alternative universes that has, at its heart, an old-fashioned love story with Schrodinger’s Cat thrown in for good measure.

What’s with the cat? Well, not to go too much into head-scratching detail, in 1935 Erwin Schrodinger came up with a paradox involving quantum mechanics. Among other things, quantum mechanics suggests that atoms or photons could exist in different states depending on observations. So, what’s with the pussy cat? Well, Schrodinger (to simplify) posited a cat in a metal box. Was the cat dead or alive? One didn’t know until one observed the feline. In other words, you never know. Of course, you could put your ear to the box and wait to hear a “Meow,” but that’s another story.

In any event, Payne’s “Constellations,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, investigates the possibility that the lives of Marianne (Allison Pistorius), a physicist, and Roland (M. Scott McLean), a bee-keeper, could take many different turns depending on, well, serendipity (and what the audience observes). To reinforce this conceit, the stage, designed by Jean Kim, is a circle (the universe?) with the audience surrounding it. A light ring (it’s a “Beam me up” effect) hovers above the stage (as the light changes color so does the lighting beneath the stage), and above it all are stars that twinkle on and off to signify life-altering (or alternative-life) moments. There are two black benches facing each other on the stage – and that’s it. As the 75-minute, one-act evening progresses, we are treated to multiple blackouts that signify we are about to see a “what if?” to what we has just previously seen. Marianne and Roland meet, then meet again, then meet yet again, all with slightly different results (sometimes the differences are slight).

The premise is a bit over-worked, and might have led to a somewhat “Yadda-Yadda” evening save for the skill and talent of the two actors who, with nary a prop, must, as the lights go down and quickly come back up again, morph into slightly different characters and convey nuanced differences in their characters’ relationships. In essence, the actors overcome the script’s banalities and create some memorable moments, not the least of which is, late in the show, when Marianne, diagnosed with a brain tumor, tells Roland all the things she does not want to have happen – then there’s a blackout – and the scene is reenacted, but now Marianne has, due to the tumor, lost the power of speech, so she must convey her wishes to Roland via sign language (kudos to Laurel Whitsett, the sign language coach). It’s a wonderful, extended moment that engages the audience for, as Roland attempts to interpret Marianne’s gestures so, too, does the audience. It’s a bit of dramatic irony, for the audience “gets it” before Roland does.

For all of the flash-bang lighting, compliments of Philip S. Rosenberg, and the premise based on quantum mechanics, this, in the end, is an old-fashioned love story based on the time-honored question of whether or not boy will get girl, complete with a “Love Story” spin that, for all of the flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-sideways, inevitably tugs at the heartstrings.

So, if you open that metal box is the cat alive or dead? Fortunately, it’s very much alive, for “Constellations” offers its audience a superb treat: the opportunity to see two actors performing in what might be considered a non-stop “Improv” environment. With each blackout you might imagine someone calling out from the audience: “Now do this. Now feel this way. Now act as if you don’t like each other.” Of course, it’s all scripted, but the “Improv” feeling is there, and it often creates mesmerizing moments, no more so than when Pistorius, after a tremendously emotional scene, must quickly wipe away tears to again play the scene with a different tone and attitude.

“Constellations” is interesting and engaging on many levels, not the least of which is how do you position your actors when the audience surrounds them? Ruggiero has answered this question admirably so that no matter if you are seated upstage or down, house left or right, where you are seated doesn’t matter – the emotional impact is there for all to see.
“Constellations” runs through February 18. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to