Sunday, December 8, 2013

In Praise of Our Oh-So Liberal Selves

Accidental Death of an Anarchist -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Dec. 21

                         Steven Epp as the Maniac in "Accidental Death of an Anarchist"
                         All photos by Joan Marcus

Read the program.

In 1969, a bank in Milan, Italy, was bombed. The police blamed anarchists. An anarchist was duly arrested and, after three days of interrogation at a police station, the suspect jumped, or was pushed, out of a fourth-story window. Convoluted cover-ups ensued, Italy became enflamed, and in response, Nobel prize-winner Dario Fo wrote the farcical “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” intentionally pouring oil on the fire that was Italy in the 70s.

So, why read the Yale Repertory Theatre’s program for its current production of Fo’s effort? Well, the problem with this production was apparently sensed by those involved, for we have this comment: “Although we are not generally steeped in the Italian politics of the early 1970s, it is not a stretch for us to appreciate Fo’s barbed and pointed jokes.” Well, I beg to differ. It is a stretch, and even with Gavin Richards somewhat heavy-handed adaptation and update of Gillian Hanna’s translation, this is theater that cries out for its lost context.

I’m as liberal as the next reader of “In These Times,” but that doesn’t mean I will immediately give knee-jerk applause to a play that seeks to bash the conservative opposition with mace and war hammer. This is, if you will, an exercise in what might be called self-satisfied theater, and director Christopher Bayes seems to think that his audience will, by and large, be composed of those of a marked liberal bent predisposed to nod (and sometimes applaud) at what, at times, seems little more than left-wing rant.

                                              Liam Craig and Molly Bernard

The setting of the play is the aforementioned Milan police headquarters circa 1970, where several officers have gathered to interrogate the Maniac (Steven Epp). It’s an interesting collection of officers: Bertozzo (Jesse J. Perez), a Hispanic, Constable (Eugene Ma), an Oriental, and Pissani (Allen Gilmore), a Black man, soon to be joined by the Superintendent (Liam Craig), a blustering Caucasian, and a crusading journalist, Felletti (Molly Bernard) – the casting allows that fanaticism and neo-Facist tendencies know no ethnic boundaries. It also sets the stage for the characters to comment on just about every liberal whipping boy imaginable, from sexism and political corruption to police brutality, the more edacious aspects of capitalism and the Bush-Cheney non-existent WMDs, all in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner that takes on the aspect of preaching to the choir, no more so than in the Maniac’s final, bromidic soliloquy which ends with the challenge: “What are you going to do?” An appropriate response might be: “Yawn?” The whole effort comes off as a SNL skit with absurdist overtones.

                            Eugene Ma, Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore, and Liam Craig

Bayes, who directed the Rep’s outstanding production of “The Servant of Two Masters,” (what an opening scene!), as well as “A Doctor in Spite of Himself,” once again brings aspects of Commedia Del Arte to his staging of “Anarchist,” but this time it rings just a bit hollow. The characters’ antics and occasional breaking out into song and dance feel forced, and although there are moments when the silliness, taken at face value, is entertaining, it somehow seems disconnected from the true spirit of a play meant to be bitingly sarcastic.

Fo rewrote his play several times so that it would be au courant, but there was always the need to shine a light on the reality of what was going on in Italy at the time. Bereft of that context, Richards’ adaptation seems to be mere grist for conversational talking points at a soigné cocktail party, a drop-a-phrase event that allows all to nod their heads in acknowledgement of how horrid the times have become and how crude and boorish is the opposition as another canapé is consumed.    

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” runs through Dec. 21. For tickets, call Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven at 203-432-1234 or go to

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Dastardly Deeds at Baskerville Hall

The Hound of the Baskervilles -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Dec. 22

                                 Sean Harris, Brennan Caldwell and Rich Holman. 
                                 Photo by Rich Wagner

The game’s afoot up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, and so is the delightful silliness as Sherlock Holmes and the redoubtable (and somewhat confused) Dr. Watson puzzle out the mystery of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” adapted from the Conan Doyle story by Steven Canny and John Nicholson with an eye towards a poke in the ribs and a pie in the face.

As directed by Tom Ridgely, this humorous romp announces its intentions from the play’s opening moments – a thunderclap, lightening (courtesy of lighting director Adam Frank) and a man dressed in dark clothes and top hat opens a gate as fog swirls about his feet. He walks, hears strange sounds, gasps, is attacked by unseen forces and falls dead. Oh, the horror! But wait…the lights come up as Sean Harris (the Playhouse’s artistic director, who will play Watson and various other characters) strides onto the stage. You see, the pre-curtain warnings and caveats about cell phones and exits have not been announced. Anyone in the audience who was getting ready to suspend his or her disbelief is given a rude awakening as the actors are introduced (along with their credits)  and a warning is given that dastardly deeds will be depicted in what follows, so those faint of heart (or suffering from low self-esteem) are urged to depart before the evening continues. In other words, we’re going to play fast and loose with dramatic conventions. By and large, it all works.

Those familiar with “The Mystery of Irma Vep” or the more recent “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” will realize one of the draws of the “Hound” is to watch a limited number of actors take on multiple roles, often requiring rapid costume changes, but the “Hound” not only pokes fun at the Conan Doyle clichés, it also takes a swipe at its own theatrical sub-genre. Wishing to avoid ‘spoiler’ territory, let’s just say that quick costume changes require that the costumes are readily available rather than stored in a closet that also has the costumes and props for a children’s theatrical. Confused? It will all make sense as you watch the delightful confusion that opens the second act.

The play’s basic plot sticks fairly close to that of Conan Doyle’s story: there appears to be a curse on the male members of the Baskerville family – when wandering the moors (why they do so is a mystery in and of itself) they apparently fall prey to a huge hound from hell. The latest demise of one of the clan brings the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Brennan Caldwell), to 221 B Baker Street to obtain the services of the renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes (Rich Hollman). Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves in Dartmoor at Baskerville Hall, where they finally unravel the mystery but, of course, the whodunit aspect of “Hound” plays second-fiddle to the fun of watching the actors take on various roles, fall in and out of character, confuse each other with spoonerism and malaprops and, in general, appear to have one hell of a time…as does the audience.

                              Sir Hnery Baskerville (Brennan Caldwell) senses danger.
                              Photo by Rich Wagner

If there’s one drawback to  the evening it’s that the second act, fleshed out with the aforementioned costume quick-change romp, seems overly long – the play (with one intermission) runs well over two hours, a goodly amount of time to maintain the necessary farcical level. Some judicious editing might be called for here.

That being said, most of the evening flies by as the actors rush about creating a series of characters who never fail to tickle the funny bone. Along the way there are puns, jibes, witty asides, jests and some deft visual humor involving, among other things, a series of portraits, a window, Watson going on a shooting spree (listen closely to sounds made by his targets: everything from the Road Runner to Sarah Palin, no less)  and even some aggressive shrubbery.

If you’re looking to brighten up the winter drear, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” should do the trick. There’s nothing like a little bit of zany to warm the heart (several pre-show libations should get you into just the right mood).

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” runs through Dec. 22. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Fine Production of "Fences"

"Fences" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Dec. 22

                         Phil McGlaston, Esau Pritchett, Portia, G. Alvarez Reid, and 
                         Jared McNeill. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Some men’s spirits are simply too large to be encompassed by the lives they are forced to live. They may seem on the surface to have accepted their diminished realities but inside their souls writhe, yearn to break free, to, in the parlance of August Wilson’s “Fences,” stop standing on first base and, for once in their lives, steal second. Troy Maxson is such a man, and in Long Wharf’s fine production of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play, he comes fully to life, as do his family and friends under Phylicia Rashad’s strong and nuanced direction, creating a gripping, heart-wrenching theatrical experience.
            It’s Pittsburgh, 1957…the Hill District…and Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett) and Jim Bono (Phil McGleason) are coming home from hauling garbage, back to Maxson’s house, a ramshackle affair with a roof threatening to leak and a partially built wooden fence. They are two black men who met in prison and have found a way to survive in a world that will not see them for the men they are because of the color of their skin. Bono seems content with his lot but Maxson, a once superb baseball player, possesses large appetites and a well-defined if somewhat inflated sense of who he is and what he is capable of…and what he deserves from life. He is also a hyperbolic storyteller, at least when it comes to retailing his own exploits, both real and imagined (or mythical).

                                         Esau Pritchett and Phil McGlaston

            In marrying Rose (Portia) 17 years ago and siring a son, Cory (Chris Meyers), Maxson believes he has settled, and it rankles so that he has found solace and comfort in the arms of another woman A man beset by more than one demon, Maxson’s pride and need drive him to threaten the only stability he has known in his troubled life.
            There are no fabricated heroes or villains in “Fences,” just real people dealing with the questions that whisper in their souls, questions about loyalty, responsibility, dreams, desires, betrayals and failures, and this strong cast, which includes Jared McNeil as Lyons (Maxson’s son from a previous liason), G. Alvarez Reid as Gabriel (Maxson’s brother, wounded in the Second World War), and the adorable Taylor Dior as Raynell (Maxson’s illegitimate daughter), creates a dynamic that is difficult to turn away from yet, at times, painful to watch, painful primarily because of Maxson’s penchant for self-destruction.
            Pritchett gives a strong, highly nuanced performance as the conflicted father, easily and fluidly capturing the character’s pride, need and inner doubts. Whether he is once again telling the tale of his battle with the devil (read alter-ego), confronting his son about what he does or doesn’t owe the boy, or attempting to confess his philandering to his wife, Pritchett’s Maxson is mesmerizing. Yes, “larger then life’ is a cliché, but in this case it is apt.

                           Chris Meyers, Esau Pritchett, Portia and G. Alvarez Reid

            Confronted by such a dominating character, Portia more than holds her own, creating a Rose that is Maxon’s equal, a strong and resolute woman who, in the second act, confronts Maxson’s solipsistic view of their lives together and reveals the price Rose has paid to hold their marriage together while allowing Maxson to embrace his inflated sense of self. It’s a penetrating performance that pits Rose’s loyalty and firm convictions against Maxson’s bravado and bluster, a confrontation that eventually forces Maxson to confront his self-indulgent actions and, to a certain extent, feel shamed.
            If there is a weakness in the play it is in its final moments, a coda of sorts, a denouement that seems to last just a bit too long as Rose delivers what is, in essence, a soliloquy on her husband that borders on hagiography. After the emotional fireworks of the second act it seems just a bit anti-climactic.
            The play’s final moments aside, “Fences” delivers just about everything a playgoer might desire: a well-told tale dealing with complex characters created by actors well-honed in their craft. The show runs slightly over two hours but you won’t be aware of the passage of time, you’ll be totally diverted by what is happening on the stage. As the lady who accompanied me commented: “This is theater as it should be.” Absolutely.

            “Fences” runs through Dec. 22. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to