Friday, February 28, 2014

Building Bridges Across the Decades

"4000 Miles" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru March 16

                                            Zoaunne LeRoy and Micah Stock. 
                                           All photos by T. Charles Erickson

And so…?
What?
In literary theory, before it went schizophrenic and feral, deconstructing itself in a rush towards irrelevancy, there was a concept called the “intentional fallacy,” which basically posited that the author’s intent is essentially irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. As two of the mavens of what was then called the New Criticism, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, wrote in The Intentional Fallacy: “…the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”
Well, in the case of “4000 Miles,” a play by Amy Herzog that recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Eric Ting, the author’s intent is readily available in the program notes, but it is certainly not the standard to be used to judge the success of the production.
Referring to the Herzog interview in the program notes, we find the playwright saying that she was influenced by a cousin, a “transcendentalist, hippie,” who lost a friend in a rafting accident and was “suffering…a major loss.” She also references a grandmother and suggests that the elderly “can just disappear.” Further, she mentions riding cross-country on a bicycle after graduating from college, ending up in New York, and finding that “urban life was a difficult adjustment.” From all of this, and more, she crafted “4000 miles.” It remains to be seen whether her intentions have been fulfilled on the stage.
The “grandmother” is now Vera Joseph (Zoaunne LeRoy), a lady well up in years living in a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village. The “cousin” is now Leo Joseph Connell (Micah Stock), Vera’s grandson, who appears, ten-speed bicycle in tow, in Vera’s apartment after having dipped his bike’s rear tire in the Pacific Ocean and, following the tragic loss of his friend, Micah, on the bike ride east (Micah suffocated in mud when a truck hauling chickens overturned), wishes to complete the ritual by dipping the bike’s front tire in the Atlantic. Both characters carry much baggage.

                                                Leah Karpel

Baggage? Well, Leo once had a semi-erotic moment with his adopted sister Amanda, who is Asian, and the girl is now, reportedly, in therapy. Then there’s his relationship with his domineering mother, a woman Vera also has problems with. And then, of course, there’s the road death of Leo’s friend, Micah, overrun and smothered by a truck that, perhaps, is a metaphor for the capitalist system, which Vera, an avowed Marxist, has been (supposedly) fighting against all of her adult life. But Vera is old, forgets words, is lonely, and has a combative phone relationship with a female neighbor who is mere steps down the hall – they call each other every day just to make sure they still exist but never see each other. Then there’s Leo’s broken relationship with his girlfriend, Bec (Leah Karpel), also a Manhattan resident whom he has apparently cheated on, an action for which she cannot forgive him, and Vera’s unhappy love life – only one man ever turned her on, a man to whom she was never married. There’s more, but why burden you.
What Herzog makes of all this seems quite less than the sum of its parts. The fact that Vera is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party is acknowledged, but really doesn’t impact on the relationship between her and her grandson. She could just as easily be an avowed Goldwater Republican for all politics really matters in this play.

                                 Micah Stock and Teresa Avia Lim

The same can be said for Leo’s free-spirited hippie-ness. It seems superficial, a matter of words inserted into the script. What we basically have here with these two characters is a lonely old woman and a callow young man – their political or metaphysical leanings don’t really come into play.
That being said, this old woman and callow young man generate a lot of warmth and humor over the course of the play, and this has a lot to do with LeRoy’s performance, which is faultless. She gives the audience a woman who is fighting the ravages of age: well-know words float away when needed, checkbook, glasses and false teeth are misplaced, and an aching loneliness hovers. In the face of her inevitable dissolution and demise she is essentially undaunted, running her fingers through her hair in frustration at her failings yet marching ever onward. Several scenes near the end of the play, when Leo is threatening to leave, are especially poignant, for LeRoy’s character clearly wants him to stay yet pride stops her from begging.
As the aimless young man, Stock does extremely well in his scenes with Leroy. They generate a lovely chemistry that sheds a warm glow over the theater, though one might have asked that said relationship might have been a little harder won – Leo slips a little too easily into Vera’ hermetic life. His scenes with Karpel and Teresa Avia Lim, who plays an Asian girl Leo picks up on a date, are another matter, and that possibly has to do with the dialogue these two female characters are given to work with and how the actors who portray them have been directed by Ting.
Bec, the irate girlfriend, is something of a nag, and as played by Karpel is not very sympathetic. Although she may have been sinned against, there comes a point in the play, as Leo tries to win here back and she continues to admonish him for sins of commission and omission, that you just want to say, “Boy, give it up. There are other fish in the sea.”
As for Lim, who also provides the voice of Leo’s sister, Amanda, she has the unfortunate task of playing a one-trick-pony character or, in Lit-Crit parlance, a flat character, and Ting’s direction here doesn’t help matters: Lily (whom Leo dates, it is implied, because of her ethnicity – that is, a reminder of Leo’s sister – here Herzog toys with the incest theme but never really develops it) enters hot and ditzy and stays the same throughout. She has some good lines which she delivers with brio, but after she exits, and on reflection on the drive home, you can’t help but ask yourself, how did her character’s extended scene with Leo advance the play? Maybe there was more there than met my eye.
There were also several other head-scratching moments.
The first is a scene late in the play in which Leo reveals to Vera how his friend died when they were on their bike trip. As called for in the script, it is performed in near darkness, the stage illuminated by only two top lights up stage. In other words, you really can’t see the actors at this highly emotional moment. Some may find this moving, the darkness enhancing the emotional impact of Leo’s revelations; others may find it a bit frustrating, since we can’t see the actors faces and body language. Horses for courses I guess. And then, whatever emotion has developed throughout the scene is deflated by Herzog, who gives Vera a punch-line that draws a great deal of laughter but, to my mind, ruins the moment.
The other head-scratching moment is at the play’s conclusion. Vera delivers a line, the lights go out, and immediately some audience members started applauding. Well, both I and the lady who accompanied me had the same reaction: how did the clappers know the play was over? There had been several other blackouts and Vera’s last line does not scream “closure.” As a matter of fact, the line seems beside the point.
After ceasing to scratch my head, I have to admit that “4000 Miles” offers many enjoyable moments, and Leroy’s performance is certainly worth the price of admission, but you get the feeling that the play could have been so much more. It lacks an edge and clear conflict that makes you want to care. The evening is like a pleasant visit to well-known relatives – you nod and smile at their idiosyncrasies yet sense that there’s a whole lot more going on beneath the surface that you are not privy to.

“4000 Miles” runs through March 16. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Putting it Together

"Art isn't Easy"

                                  Al Kulcsar and Gabriel Morrow in "Freud's Last Session," 
                                  directed by Tom Holehan. Photo by Richard Pheneger

There’s Broadway, and then there’s all the rest, all the regional and local theaters across the country fighting to stay alive, to bring the magic of live theater to what some would say is a steadily dwindling, ever-aging audience. For theater demands attention, attention that extends beyond 15 minutes, attention that requires engagement, commitment…and a sense of what it is to be human, a sense of what is conferred when humans gather together to see and hear a story told, to allow the lights to darken and enter a dream.


In this age of digital entertainment, when Hamlet can be watched by a simple stroke of keys, when diversion is at your fingertips, how does a local theater group survive…and thrive? Tom Holehan, founder and artistic director of Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, thinks he has the answer: keep it simple. Apparently, it’s a good answer, because Square One will soon be celebrating its 25th season.

                                                Square One Theatre Company
Square One? Well. The name evokes how the theater got its start…it started from, well, square one. Holehan, who grew up in Utica, New York, was bitten early by the theater bug, a pernicious creature that, once it gets its fangs into you, never lets go. Holehan initially went to Buffalo State to earn a degree in journalism, but the theater called to him and he eventually graduated with a degree in theater arts. Over the course of his four years of undergraduate work he had acted, but he sensed that wasn’t his calling.

                                                        Tom Holehan
                                                      
“In college,” Holehan said in an interview at the Stratford library, “I dreamed what everyone dreamed in the program, I was going to be an actor. Then I realized I was out of my depth because there were so many people better than me, and then we had these courses where you evaluate each other’s work.” This was when he realized his skill just might be in directing. As he put it, he was much better at criticizing, or improving, other people’s work. So he became a director.

And then there’s the American Shakespeare Theatre, that moribund, rotting theater in Stratford, Connecticut, that once was a New England theatrical glory. After graduation, Holehan wended his way southward, eventually landing a job at the Theatre. He worked there for seven years, during which time he met his life partner, Richard Pheneger. Richard and the other people he met at the Theatre would form the basis of Square One.

So too would his job at the Stratford Library. Though he had no formal library training, Holehan caught the attention of Edie Landes in 1985, then the institution’s director. She sensed that Holehan, with his background in theater and acting, could reach a larger audience for the library and benefit programming. She was right. Soon, he was in charge of the library’s adult programs and coordinating ‘readings’ of plays at the library. As the American Shakespeare Theatre’s light dimmed, Square One’s kindled. Those who had labored so hard to keep the Shakespeare venue alive now needed another outlet, and the Stratford library’s readings filled the bill.

                                              John Bachelder and David Victor in
                                              "Black Tie," directed by Tom Holehan 


And then there was a movie theater in the heart of Stratford running second-run films. It closed, and a fraternal organization, the Scottish Rite Masons, bought the property. Through friends, a question was asked: would Holehan like to stage plays in the venue when the Mason’s weren’t meeting? Yes, he would. And so, Square One Theatre was born, the child of library readings, the demise of a theater dedicated to Shakespeare, the closing of a movie theater and a man’s love of theater that does not blind him to the reality that boarding a plays costs money.

The Mason’s charity – free space – lasted three months, then rent was charged. “We pay a fortune to use that space,” Holehan said. “I’m not complaining, but they do very well by us being the resident tenant.” He paused and then said, “This is a business. We have to pay our bills.” And such is the reality of regional and local theater. Though the dreams are on the stage, money…funding…makes those dreams a reality.

Given access to the space, Holehan realized that nothing was going to happen if there wasn’t money to cover costs, so he drew on his experience at the library and took a chance. “We took a page out of the readings we’d done at the library,” Holehan explained. “We had a built-in following at that point. I called all my actor friends and we did a one-night benefit at that space – scene readings – and we charged $10 a ticket and we had maybe 200 people show up. We raised $2,000 – that was our seed money. That’s what got us started.”

Given Holehan’s philosophy, he started small and simple. The first year they did “A Walk in the Woods,” a two-actor play about two diplomats, Russian and American, trying to avoid nuclear war. “That really put us on the map,” Holehan said. “We got all sorts of press. It went on to theater festivals and our actor kept winning the best actor awards. It was really a great way to start. And…” Holehan added, ever cognizant of the bottom line, “it was really inexpensive to produce: only two characters and a very simple set.”

Holehan’s experience working with many theater groups taught him many things, chief among them was, “that they try too many things too soon.”  What he learned from that was to keep his productions “small and beautiful.” His philosophy is, “grow slowly.” He eschews the big, 40-character musicals. They have their place, but not at Square One. “I refuse to go crazy,” he said. “We keep our expenses low but we also pay all of our actors.”

                                  Lillian Garcia and Pat Leo in "Distracted," directed by
                                  Tom Holehan

Square One’s season encompasses three plays, and Holehan leans towards “plays with ideas,” for he wishes to both entertain and enlighten. But there are constrictions. “Our space is very limited,” Holehan said. “It’s a platform stage. There’s no fly space,” referring to scenery that can be stored above the stage and lowered when necessary, “and we can’t nail anything to the floor. That’s why we’re not going to do Oklahoma or Phantom of the Opera, we’re going to be reasonable given our space limitations.”

And then there’s the audience. Go to a Square One production and you’re not going to find many teenagers filling the seats. Square One faces the same dilemma that most regional and local theaters face – the demographics skew, well, elderly. “We pander to them,” Holehan said, “but they take chances with us. They trust us, for the most part, but they know what they like. They really like the period dramas, something solid and classical. A lot of older plays with a ton of characters and a lot of costumes, and it’s usually just one set.”

Holehan hesitates from calling them “comfort food” plays, but there’s a solidity to them that harkens back to a time when most plays developed characters over three acts and the audience became involved rather than confused…or shocked.

“They’re good, old-fashioned, well-constructed, beginning-middle-end plays,” Holehan said. “Those are great to do every once in awhile.”

When weighing what his season might consist of, Holehan often scours the coverage of off-Broadway productions in The New York Times. “That’s where I’ve discovered a lot of the plays we consider,” Holehan said, “because off-Broadway is sort of our size.” Case in point, a recent Square One production was Freud’s Last Session, which won the Best Play Award from the Off Broadway Alliance.

Still, it’s a balance, a very delicate balance. “The space, the type of play what we can afford to do. They’re not all going to be winners. It’s very hard. One thing I’ve learned,” Holehan said, “you’re only as good as your last play. We always try to end with something that will leave the audience with a good feeling so they will subscribe for the next year.” Hence, the reality. Unless you have donors with deep pockets you have to play to the audience…but, without the audience, what is theater? What actor wants to emote to empty seats, what playwright wants his or her words echoing in a vacant theater? As Holehan noted early in the interview, it’s a business and the bills must be paid. Do you stage Waiting for Godot or Doubt, No Exit or Freud’s Last Session? There’s a time, a place and an audience for every sort of play, and Holehan, though he possibly would like to direct Godot, wisely opts for Doubt.

“It’s just business,” Holehan said, “and it’s been working pretty well.” He’s been able to keep subscribers. He’d like more, but he’s happy with what he’s got.

Well, it is business…and yet it isn’t, because there’s the creative side, the bringing together of actors and script and scenery and…everything that constitutes theater.

“I know what I like to work with,” Holehan said. “There are just people you trust and when you don’t have much time between shows…we don’t have a lot of time. We have about a dozen people that we use regularly because I trust them and they like working with us and, in rehearsals, it’s like short-hand. That said, every year we have at least a couple of new people and it often works out but it often doesn’t. You want to give people a chance, but…I’ve had experiences where I took a chance and look what happened. It’s so hard to get everything right, there are so many factors that go into making a successful show that, well, I don’t want to work that hard.” In other words, Holehan would rather work with those he is comfortable with. “One of my mentors in college told me,” Holehan said, “casting is 90% of your work. You get the right cast, the right people in the right roles, and the play just plays itself.

Holehan mentioned one of Square One’s recent productions, Freud’s Last Session. “I had one of the easiest times, ever directing Freud, because those two guys (referring to Al Kulcsar and Gabriel Morrow) just knew what they were doing. Gabe was brand new to us and he’s terrific.”

It was fortunate that Kulcsar and Morrow were so easy to work with, for Freud opened Square One’s season, a time always fraught with many distractions, most of which have little to do with boarding a play but have everything to do with survival.

“The set was so complicated,” Holehan said, “and whenever you open the season there’s all this…the program, ads to be sold. There’s a ton of work to be done, so you’re hoping the show will go smoothly so you can give time to everything else.”

When a play opens at Square One it runs for three weeks, not a long time for the actors to mature into their roles. Holehan is there for every performance, watching what is happening on the stage but also listening to the audience, often surprised by the reactions from the house.

“The audience tells you so much,” Holehan said. “You work for weeks on a piece and then the audience laughs at moments you never dreamed they would find funny. I love when that happens. I love discovering things like that and the actors do as well. We don’t have long runs – the actors do it in front of an audience maybe 10 times, and at the end of the run you feel like the cast is just hitting its pace – wouldn’t it be great to run just a few more weeks. For the most part you always want to run a little longer just to see what direction the production takes. I don’t know if we run long enough to see dramatic changes – I know actors get more comfortable, they find laughs, they learn how to hold for things. Every performance is different.”

Holehan believes that the ‘hard part” is the rehearsal period, bringing the play together, working out the blocking, interpreting lines, deciding what “business” will or won’t work, the abject boredom of tech rehearsals. Once the curtain rises, he tells his actors: “We’re through the hard part; let’s just enjoy it.” There is also a time when rehearsals provide diminishing returns – an audience is needed to see how the production plays. Holehan subscribes to the idea that plays aren’t meant to be read in the quiet confines of a study, they are meant to be performed. That’s when they come alive.

Holehan is also a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and writes reviews. Wearing two hats can, at times, present problems. For example, Hartford TheaterWorks recently staged Freud’s Last Session. Holehan attended the opening night performance but decided not to write a review. His own production of the same play was still fresh in his mind, perhaps too much so. Yet he is not loath to turn his critical abilities on himself.

“I’m pretty self-critical,” Holehan said. “I’m very critical of other people’s work and I’m very hard on myself. I hope I am. There have to be standards. You know, I think I’m a better director, work well with actors because I have acted. I understand where actors are coming from.” However, Holehan shies away from doing line readings, that is, coaching an actor on how to say a line. He often has to bite his tongue, but he understands that the actors “can’t do it like you would do it, they have to do it the way that’s comfortable for them.”

When a show closes, Holehan grades himself. He seldom gives himself anything higher than a B. “I don’t have a lot of A’s in my resume,” he said. “You can’t wear blinders,” he said. “You have to be self-critical.”

Square One has survived for 25 years while other theaters have come and gone. The theater’s longevity is due in large part to Holehan’s philosophy: do what you can do and don’t try to be anything other than what you are, and what you can accomplish.

“Be realistic,” Holehan said. “Start small. There’s nothing wrong with doing a two-character play with a minimal set. If you work very hard, if you get two wonderful actors and material that’s engaging, that’s theater. You don’t need a $500 costume or a $10,000 set. Those are initially interesting, but at the end of the day it’s the material you pick and the actors you’ve got doing it that people are going to remember. Who’s going to ‘hum the sets’ as they leave the theater? Start small, grow slowly and don’t waste money.”

Holehan is satisfied with Square One. He has a wish list – he’d like to have a thrust stage to work with, he’d like to have some fly space, he’d like to have the budget to do an occasional musical, but he’s realistic, and he’s aware of the demographics that dictate what he boards. Yet he’d like to see more young people in the audience.

“Kids are such great audiences,” he said. “They see a play and it’s like…magic.” Yet he is somewhat fearful about the future of live theater. He knows there is nothing like seeing a play, yet young people have so many distractions, so many demands on their time, that they may never get the chance to experience one of humanity’s most basic pleasures. As arts programs are cut in schools, as the bottom line becomes more important to judging the value of education, there is the possibility that Hamlet may be subject to cost analysis: “To be or not to be” changes to “To earn or not to earn.” Yet, though Holehan admits he subscribes to the half-empty glass philosophy, he soldiers on, and Square One has existed for 25 years. There is hope.

“Long live the theater,” Holehan said.

Amen. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

An aside

SNOW!!!



It's just one of those unexpected, special days. I knew there was a chance of snow, but not that it would shut things down. The college is closed, a tutorial I had scheduled has been cancelled. Yes, it's a SNOW DAY!

There's nothing else (as far as I know) that brings out the child in us than the legitimate, undeniable release from commitments -- free to do what you want for 24 or so hours. And the silence...the snow has muffled everything; the house is a womb....

There is heat, there is food, there is music, there is a fireplace with a fire snapping and crackling (no, there's no one to share it with -- that would make it perfection -- but that's another story -- actually, several stories, one sad, one confusing).

A great sense of peace flutters down with the white flakes -- I know there are those who have had to fight their way into work and who will fight their way home -- I feel for them. I have done the same many times. But there's a sense, egoistic though it may be, that I have earned this day, that it is a reward for fighting the good fight, for being a trooper.

I think I'll watch a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. Oh, yes, I'm puttin' on my top hat, tyin' up my white tie, brushin' off my tails.

Be safe, be warm, be happy, and let it snow, let it snow, let it snow..until we have to go to the theater.

Revealing the Inner Brat In All of Us

"God of Carnage" -- Music Theatre of Connecticut -- Thru Feb. 16

                     John Flaherty, Marty Bongfeldt, Cynthia Hannah and Jim Schilling
                     All photos by Joe Landry

We’ve all had playground confrontations, all faced the mini-bullies of the world. Sometimes we folded and other times we stood up to those who felt compelled to force their childish dominance and we gave as good as we got.

There were tacit rules to the confrontations, and the last thing we wanted was our parents intervening, because parents had, we innately understood, forgotten what it was like to be a kid, forgotten that a schoolyard tussle and its aftermath often taught valuable lessons. That’s because parents have their own issues that simply can’t be (or shouldn’t be) resolved by a quick punch or, in the case of the unseen children in Yasmina Reza”s “God of Carnage,” a blow with a bamboo stick. After all, parents have made commitments to each other and have signed up to raise, and protect, their children, even if the offspring may be bringing chaos incarnate into their lives. Ah, but the adult sophistication is a patina covering what lurks beneath: the childish urge to strike out, defy, taunt and condemn…to confront each other in life’s schoolyard screaming “You are too!” and “I am not!”

Reza’s exercise in adult dissimulation, regression and repressed aggression, originally titled Le Dieu du carnage and translated by Christopher Hampton, garnered multiple Tony nominations for its Broadway cast in 2009. It is now on the boards at Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut under the direction of Mark Torres, and in the theater’s intimate setting the anger, frustration and inner-childishness of two couples is on full, frightening and decidedly enjoyable display.

                                                       John Flaherty

The plot is relatively simple: two 11-year-olds, Benjamin and Henry, got into a fight at school and Benjamin knocked out two of Henry’s teeth with a stick. As the play opens, Benjamin’s parents, Alan (John Flaherty), a preoccupied lawyer, and Annette (Marty Bongfeldt) drop by to see Henry’s parents, Michael (Jim Schilling), a wholesale distributor of household goods, and Veronica (Cynthia Hannah), to make amends and calm the waters with a “Let’s be reasonable” attitude. After all they are adults. Yet each “adult” hides behind various masks and over the course of the 80-minute, one-act play, these masks are torn away, revealing the couples’ frustrations with their marriages, with their children and, in Michael’s case, with a parent, and with the demands of political and social correctness that supposedly keep in check the terrible-two-ness that lurks in all of us.

                                                       Jim Schilling

As Alan, Flaherty gives us a man consumed and made cynical by his profession who treats his cell phone as an extension of his body. Throughout the play, Alan constantly takes calls from a Big-Pharma client with recall problems. His attitude towards the possible injurious side-effects of his client’s product mirrors his attitude towards the children contretemps: dissemble and, when necessary, cut your losses.

Playing his wife, Bongfeldt creates a woman with a veneer of suburbanite sangfroid who, as her patience is tested by both her husband and the other couple, reveals an acerbic tongue and a willingness to cat-fight with the best of them.

Other masks fall away as the couples begin to snipe at each other. Schilling’s Michael soon reveals his inner-slob, while Hannah’s Veronica gradually shows her rational humanitarianism to be essentially self-serving, allowing her to taunt others with a “Holier-than-thou” attitude.

                                         Cynthia Hannah and Marty Bongfeldt

Director Torres treats the script as if it was the score of a symphony – the movements rising and falling yet increasing in tension and intensity. However, some of the blocking might be questioned. Often when the actors are stationary there are problems with line-of-sight, especially for those sitting house-right. Perhaps, given the size and configuration of the venue this was inevitable, as was Torres having his actors often deliver their lines with their backs to much of the audience. Such problems will hopefully be eliminated when MTC moves to its new, larger digs (130 seats) at the end of its season (you can view plans for the new site at www.musictheatreofct.com/newspace).

In this fully realized production, perhaps its most interesting aspect is the interaction of the characters as husbands turn on wives and vice-versa, as well as when allegiances shift and then shift again, all supporting one of Reza’s main themes: the costumes adults wear – maturity, sophistication, rationality – hide our need for ‘treats’ and, when we don’t get them, our willingness to bedevil each other with ‘tricks’ that often cut to the bone. Alas, Raza suggests, we are really all just little savages overseen by a god of carnage.

“God of Carnage” runs on weekends through Feb. 16. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A First-Rate Farce

"Lend Me a Tenor" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Feb. 9

                              Lilly Wilton, Mike Boland, Jeff Gonzalez, Corrado Alicata
                              and Donna Schilke. All photos by Rich Wagner.

Up in West Hartford, Playhouse on Park has opted to keep the silliness rolling. Following on the heels of its production of the delightful “Hound of the Baskerville’s” comes Ken Ludwig’s zany “Lend Me a Tenor,” directed by Jerry Winters. Although slightly less madcap than the “Hound,” “Tenor” has enough door-slamming and mistaken identities to please most fans of farce.

The play is set in Cleveland in 1934, where impresario Henry Saunders (Mike Boland) and his assistant, Max (Jeff Gonzalez) anxiously await the arrival or world-renowned tenor Tito Merelli (Robert Wilder), known as “Il Stupendo” to his adoring fans, a sobriquet to which he fully subscribes. Merelli is scheduled to sing the lead role in Verdi’s “Otello” to a sell-out crowd at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. Also awaiting Il Stupendo’s arrival is Saunders’ star-struck daughter Maggie (Lilly Wilton), an equally eager Bellhop (Corrado Alicata), the opera company’s conniving diva Diana (Katie Vincent) and Saunders wife, Julia (Donna Schilke). When Merelli finally arrives with his hot-tempered wife Maria (Ashley Ford), Max is assigned to shepherd Merelli, meet his every need, and get him to the opera house on time.

                                              Donna Schilke and Corrado Alicata

What follows are a series of misunderstandings, a faux suicide, two tenors running around dressed as Othello, and various assignations that, among other things, leave the Moor’s dark make-up smeared on the faces of both Maggie and Diana. The set, by Christopher Hoyt, provides four doors that the cast gleefully slams (often in sync) throughout the evening.

                                            Robert Wilde and Jeff Gonzalez

The first act drags a bit as all of this is set up, then kicks into gear with Merelli’s arrival. As long as Wilde is on stage (fortunately he is seldom off) there is a heightened energy that falls away whenever he exits. Such is the case with the second act – things don’t really start moving again until Merelli stumbles into the hotel room after being chased by the police. Some of Merelli’s best moments are when he attempts to kill himself with a fork and the scenes with Maggie and Diana, which are loaded with double-entendres.

                                              Lilly Wilton and Jeff Gonzalez 

This falling off of energy is in no way due to the rest of the cast, which is uniformly in sync with the requirements of farce, but rather because, as written by Ludwig, the role of Il Stupendo simply dominates, with the rest of the characters in his shadow. Given that, the overshadowing still allows the cast members to create a lot of hilariously shining moments.

                                    Katie Vincent, Lilly Wilton and Jeff Gonzalez

Boland knows how to bluster and babble, and is capable of both the slow and not-so-slow boil. His Saunders is suitably manic as he forges ahead with a show-must-go-on attitude. Playing against him with a nicely matched and complementary reserve is Gonzalez, whose best moments are when his character is a foil for either Saunders or Merelli. As the tenor’s wife, Ford is delightfully high-strung and deliciously jealous, while Vincent’s Diana is sensuous and devious in equal measures. When called upon, both Schilke and Alicata add to the merry confusion as there characters seek the attention of the world-renowned tenor.

                                     Ashley Ford, Mike Boland and Jeff Gonzalez

Of all the cast members in Il Stupendo’s shadow, Wilton as Maggie shines the brightest, for she gives us a young lady who is both na├»ve and romantically adventurous – bright, perky and totally believable.

Director Winters has his actors in perpetual motion, as is fitting for a farce. They pop up everywhere, through the doors and from the wings, creating a kaleidoscope of movement that adds to the fun. In all, “Lend Me a Tenor” is a quite enjoyable production, with enough laughs to fill its two-plus hours.


“Lend Me a Tenor” runs through Feb. 9. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org