Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Year in Theater

Looking Back
                         David Christopher Wells and Liv Rooth. Photo by Lanny Nagler

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as it is most years with Connecticut theater, although the good did outweigh the mediocre and the bad. Some chances were taken that succeeded beyond expectations, while others sent me out of the theater shaking my head and looking for the closest watering hole.

                                  Maureen Anderman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” was, indeed magical. The Westport Country Playhouse production, starring Maureen Anderman and directed by Nicholas Martin, was gripping from start to finish, all the more so since Anderman was able to milk some humor out of what is, in essence, an exercise in death and denial. 

                              Alexis Molnar, Bobby Steggert, Kate Nowlin and Paul Anthony 
                              Stewart. Photo by T. Charles Ericksom.

The Playhouse’s “Harbor” was a bit uneven, but it gave Connecticut audiences the opportunity to see the debut of Alexis Molnar as Lottie – those who saw her performance will, in years to come, be able to say that they were there when a star was born.

                           Charise Castro Smith and Jeanine Serralles in "Tartuffe."
                           Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Then there was “Tartuffe.” Purists quibbled, but under the direction of David Kennedy it was of a piece and enjoyable, especially given Jeanine Serralles’ performance as the saucy maid Dorine. Some found her performance a bit over the top, but I reveled in it. The Playhouse’s season ended with “A Raisin in the Sun,” which, quite honestly, left me flat. As directed by Phylicia Rashad, the production seemed captured in a time warp, striving to be more relevant than it was. Again, others found it moving, but I was never engaged.

Engagement was never a problem with Hartford Stage’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”  What a musical romp! Murder and revenge wrapped up in a frothy confection that was a treat to the eye and ear, especially given Jefferson Mays’ stellar performance as nine different characters (Mays reappeared on the Yale Rep’s stage late in the season in “Dear Elizabeth.”)

              Erin Scanlon, Liliane Klein and Virginia Bartholomew. Photo by Judy Barbosa.

There was some doubling-up this year, as there always is given how far in advance theaters have to plan their seasons. There were two productions of “Romeo and Juliet” that I saw: Shakespeare on the Sound opted to produce it as a play within a play. The frame didn’t work, but once we got to the Bard, things took a turn for the better. However, Connecticut Free Shakespeare’s production was something to wrap yourself up in: fast-moving and ribald, the tragedy came alive at the Beardsley Zoo, the play no longer a centuries-old tragedy but something vibrant, alive and of the moment.

                                            Kate Alexander as Golda Meir

I also saw two productions of “Golda’s Balcony,” William Gibson’s play about Golda Meir. TheatreWorks New Milford’s production was enjoyable, but lacked the spark and intensity of the production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, where Kate Alexander, broken foot and all, gave a multi-dimensional performance that held the audience spellbound. If I might, a word about Playhouse on Park. It’s a little jewel of a theater that deserves a larger patronage. I saw two other productions there – “Of Mice and Men” and “Driving Miss Daisy” – and both were strong, creative and theatrically sound.

                                  Antoinette LaVecchia. Photo by Lanny Negler

Staying in Hartford for a moment, I have to say the three plays I enjoyed most this season were all staged at Hartford TheaterWorks. First, there was the one-woman show, “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” in which Antoinette LaVecchia played a love-challenged woman who, while detailing the few ups and many downs of her love life makes a three-course dinner from scratch on stage and served it to audience members. You don’t see that every day.

                      Andrea Maulella and Mark Shanahan in Tryst. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Then there was Mark Shanahan and Andrea Maulella reprising their roles as a womanizer and a hat store worker in “Tryst.” Those who saw these two fine actors in the same play at the Westport Country Playhouse several years ago were in for several surprises, for the two actors, under the direction of Rob Ruggiero, re-imagined their characters as well as the staging of several key scenes that made this production not only riveting but shocking (there were screams from the audience the night I was in attendance, and Maulella, in a subsequent interview I had with her, said the screams continued night after night.)

Finally, my favorite, “Venus in Fur” the David Ives exploration of a casting call that goes horribly wrong, or right, depending on your point of view. David Christopher Wells gave a strong, multi-dimensional performance as Thomas, but all the lines are in Vanda’s corner, and Liv Rooth was absolutely amazing as the foul-mouthed actress who transmogrifies into…well, why spoil the play for those who haven’t seen it yet?

                                Juliet Lambert Pratt. Photo by Kerry Long

Ending on a musical note, Goodspeed’s “Carousel” was creative and engaging, and “The Pirates of Penzance,” as produced by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, was, to say the least, vigorous. Equally engaging was Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (saw it twice – once as a reviewer and once escorting my daughter). However, for sheer intensity, I’d have to go with Westport’s MTC Mainstage’s production of “Next to Normal!” Given the venue’s intimacy, Juliet Lambert Pratt’s Diana was searing – she was never more than three or four feet away from the audience the entire night, so her every gesture, every facial expression, registered. It was a bravura, visceral performance that left the audience (or at least one member of it) drained.

And so it goes. Long Wharf gave us an intimate look at the iconic Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” then followed up with “The Killing of Sister George,” with Kathleen Turner directing and starring. A study in contrasts, the good versus the bad and the ugly, but that’s what theater is all about, taking chances, interpreting, attempting to find the soul of characters, using sound and motion, sets and lighting, and sheer human presence to create a moment that will, hopefully, speak to both body and soul. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, because theater is a human endeavor, and we humans fail as often as we succeed, nowhere more than up there on the stage. 

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