Sunday, December 28, 2014

Good Times at the Theater

Looking Back at 2014

                                  The cast of "Sing For Your Shakespeare."
                                  Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Geary Danihy

Critics are lucky…and unlucky. We get to see some marvelous theater, but we also have to sit through productions that, if we weren’t charged with writing a review, we’d escape and go in search of the nearest watering hole.

Critics are (although may be arguable), also human, and although we are in the theater to evaluate the production, we are also there as members of the audience, just plain folk wishing to be entertained. With that in mind, and in no special order, here are some of the shows that, for one reason or another, entertained me.

I pull out the theater programs from the past season and right on top is Westport Country Playhouse’s “Sing for your Shakespeare.” Yes, there was a mismatch in casting, but the evening was, on the whole, a delight and Stephen DeRosa’s take on the Bard was worth the price of admission. It was joyful and tuneful, and I left the theater humming.

                             Rebekah Brockman and Tom Pecinka in Arcadia. 
                             Photo by Joan Marcus

Next on the pile is the program for Yale Rep’s “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s cerebral investigation of the past impinging on the present. It was a totally engaging production with a stellar cast – one of those evenings that demands you seek a quiet bistro after the performance to argue about the ideas the playwright offers up in a delicious pastiche of historical drama framed by modern misalliance.

                         Center: Steven Mooney (Barfee); L-R: Natalie Sannes (Olive), Maya 
                         Naff (Marcy), Scott Scaffidi (Chip), Kevin Barlowski (Leaf), and 
                         Hillary Ekwall (Schwarzy). Photo by Rich Wagner

Immediately beneath the “Arcadia” program are three programs from Playhouse on Park. This theater, now in its sixth season, continues to improve as it never fails to entertain. Many theatergoers in southwest Connecticut are used to making the drive up to Hartford to attend performances at Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks, but they should add this compact venue to their list. The three programs are for, in order, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Angels in America, Part One” and “Altar Boyz.” The “Spelling Bee” production was the best ensemble work I’ve seen all year, “Angels” was gripping and “Altar Boyz” a delight from start to finish.

Enough can’t be said for “Endurance,” a production of Split Knuckle Theatre that was boarded at Long Wharf Theatre. This troupe of four actors created an absolutely mesmerizing evening of theater that, with just basic props, evoked two completely different yet totally realized worlds: modern American business and an Antarctic expedition. I didn’t move in my seat from curtain to curtain and had to shove my jaw shut several times.

I flip several programs, and there is “Hamlet,” produced up at Hartford Stage. Under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, who is on a creative roll that one can only hope will not stop, this production was gripping, visceral theater from start to finish. I came away once again understanding what Aristotle meant when he posited tragedy can generate catharsis.

                              The cast of "Avenue Q" Photo by Richard Pettibone

Good things also happened in lower-profile venues. TheatreWorks New Milford’s production of “Avenue Q” was a sheer delight. I’d seen this show several times before, but this production just seemed to bubble with enthusiasm and wit – again, a wonderful ensemble of actors. The same can be said of the four actors in “God of Carnage,” produced by the Darien Arts Center Stage – what delightful venom, spit and suburban sniping.

                       Penny Balfour, David Margulies, Tom RiisFarrell, Dina Shihabi. 
                       Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Last, but certainly not least (only because the programs are on the bottom of the pile) are Long Wharf’s production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Goodspeed’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” MTC Mainstage’s “The World Goes ‘Round” and Westport Country Playhouse’s “Intimate Apparel.” Long Wharf’s “Picasso” was both witty and intellectually engaging, while Goodspeed’s “Fiddler” was perhaps the best production of this musical I have ever seen. Yes, MTC’s “The World…” had a weak frame, but you came away thoroughly entertained, and Westport Playhouse’s “Intimate Apparel” was sincerely moving.

All in all, lucky critics who got to see these and other productions. Someone recently asked me, “Don’t you get a bit jaded seeing all these plays and musicals?” No, I don’t. That’s like asking, don’t you get bored eating every day? Yes, sometimes the meals are consumed merely to sustain life, but there are other times when the meal is something more, something that makes you feel rather special for having been served such a delightful repast, when you sense the soul of the chef in the offering. Such is the case with going to the theater on a regular basis. Yes, sometimes you come away with indigestion, but there are other times when you end the evening not only satisfied but entranced…and happy that you have been able to feast at the table of consummate creativity. One “Fiddler” or “Hamlet” or “Arcadia” makes you forget all the stale or half-baked productions, and you hunger for more.          

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