Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Lot of Openings, a Lot of Shows

For avid theater-goers, there are a host of choices in the offing over the next three or four weeks.
Here’s the menu:

Motherhood Out Loud opens at Stratford’s Square One Theatre on May 12. It’s a series of monologues and vignettes dealing with the joys, sorrows and confusions inherent in being Mom. It runs on weekends through May 29. Tickets can be purchased by going to squareonetheatre.com or calling 203-375-8778.

Out at Ivoryton at the Playhouse, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks opens May 4 and runs through May 22. It deals with a lady of a certain age who hires a private dance instructor. She’s formidable, he’s acerbic and their personalities immediately clash, but over lessons in swing, tango foxtrot and the waltz they eventually learn from each other things of greater importance that proficiency in terpsichore. Tickets are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting our website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org 

For those willing to drive a bit, New Milford’s TheatreWorks will be offering The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife starting May 6 and running for three weeks. This dramedy offers playgoers entry into the life of a lady who structures her life around trips to the Whitney, MOMA and BAM until a mid-life crisis and a childhood friend appear at the same time to shake up her life. For tickets go online at theatreworks.us or call the box office at (860) 350-6863.

And for those who thrive on star power, two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest will be at the Yale Rep in New Haven, starring in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Wiest will play Winnie, a lady of unbridled optimism who must face a marriage that is calcifying and a world that seems eager to swallow her whole. It’s Beckett, so you can expect just a touch of the absurd to liven up the evening. It opens April 29 and runs through May 21. Tickets for Happy Days range from $20 -- 99 and are available online at yalerep.org or by phone at (203) 432-1234.

Long Wharf Theatre, also in New Haven, wraps up its current season with My Paris (May 4 – 29), an imaginative retelling of the life of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, directed by Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall, with music from the legendary French performer Charles Aznavour, and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry. If you wish to visit Montmartre, the can can, and the world of Le Moulin Rouge, tickets can be purchased at longwharf.org or by calling 203-787-4282.

And then there’s “Porn!” which we all know is what the Internet is for, or so Trekkie Monster would have us think. You’ll learn more about porn plus prejudice and Schadenfreude when you travel to Norwich for Avenue Q, which runs through May 1 at the Chestnut Street Playhouse. Tickets: $25 and available online or by calling the box office at 860.886.2378

On April 29, The Sherman Playhouse will open its 2016 Season with its premiere of Noël Coward's classic comedy, Blithe Spirit, a comic masterpiece that playwright Noël Coward described as an "improbable farce." It concerns Charles Condomine, country gentleman and author, who invites the spiritualist Madame Arcati to his home for a séance. Madame Arcati unwittingly brings Elvira, Charles' first wife, back from "beyond." Elvira cannot be seen or heard by anyone except Charles and wreaks havoc with Ruth, Charles' present wife. And, of course, mayhem ensues. The show runs weekends through May 22. Reservations can be made online at shermanplayers.org or by calling the box office at (860) 354-3622.

Finally, the Suffield players are offering up a madcap mix of murder and mayhem with The 39 Steps, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the Hitchcock classic with a dash of film noir and just a touch of Monty Python. It opens May 5 and runs weekends through May 21. For reservations, call 800-289-6148 or 860-668-0837 or visit www.suffieldplayers.org    

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Death Be Not Proud

Wit -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru May 8

Elizabeth Lande. All Photos by Rich Wagner

“Holy Sonnet 14,” by the seventeenth century metaphysical poet John Donne, begins: “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; / That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” These lines could easily stand for the inspiration for Wit (often billed as W;t), the one-act, Pulitzer-winning play by Margaret Edson that recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. An exercise in existential angst and physical agony, the drama takes the audience into the mind, and heart, of Professor Vivian Bearing (Elizabeth Lande), an expert on Donne’s poetry who, at the beginning of the play, has been diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of an hour and a half (which, at times, seems a bit longer), the imperious Bearing is overthrown, bent, burnt, almost broken and, in an epiphanic close, is made new. There’s both agony and ecstasy to experience in this exposition of the human journey towards the end of life.

In terms of plot, not much really happens, for after the diagnosis of ovarian cancer, Bearing, under the care of Dr. Harvey Kelekian (David Gautschy) and one of Bearing’s former students, Dr. Jason Posner (Tim Hackney), agrees to go through a series of experimental chemotherapeutic treatments involving a drug that is more a curse than a cure. As Bearing’s health deteriorates, there are a series of flashbacks that include her dawning fascination with words as a 5-year-old, her gestation as a Donne scholar under the demanding tutelage of Professor Ashford (Waltrudis Buck), and her somewhat stern and aloof handling of her own students.
Harrison Greene, Sara Detrik, Lande, Tim Hackney and Julia Ekwall

Hovering over all of this is Donne’s poetry, oftentimes abstruse lines (some of which are projected onto side and center screens) that seem to hide the poet’s humanity behind a wall of metaphysical wit. As one of Bearing’s students (Sara Detrik) suggests, perhaps Donne made his poetry so difficult to mask the agony of his search for the ineffable. The poetry is also a metaphor for Bearing’s life – unmarried, childless, with no living relatives. She has built her life around her mind and is now forced to confront and deal with a body that is failing. In doing so, she reaches out for human contact and receives it from Susie Monahan (Chuja Seo), a nurse who provides the professor tender loving care in her last days.

Under the direction of Stevie Zimmerman, Bearing’s odyssey is, at times, somewhat slow to unfold, perhaps due to the minimal scenic design by Emily Nichols that is dominated by an up-stage set of semi-transparent sliding doors that, on opening night, seemed to confuse the cast as to which way the doors should slide. The scene changes require that these doors be opened and closed numerous times, often unnecessarily dictating pacing.

The emotional impact of the play rides on the shoulders of the actor playing Professor Bearing, and Lande delivers a multi-level, subtle and, in the play’s final moments, heart-wrenching performance. Perhaps due to the theater’s acoustics, some of her lines, especially in the opening scenes, seem muted, but there is no problem hearing her as she paces about or lectures her “students.” One especially touching moment Lande creates is in the flashback to her 5-year-old self – the delight the “child” experiences as she grasps what “soporific” means is palpable.
Elizabeth Lande

The problem with Wit, if there is one, is not so much with Playhouse’s production, which is enhanced by Marcus Abbot’s evocative lighting, but with the play itself. Given the perspective of several decades (it premiered at South Coast Repertory in 1995), it is essentially a one-trick pony that rises and falls on the conceit that a woman who has embraced and donned Donne’s intellectuality must, in the end, accept that she is mortal and in need of physical human contact…and love. Hence the juxtaposition of Donne’s poetry with the “bunny” stories that the 5-year-old Vivian is entranced by and the “bunny” story Professor Ashford reads to Bearing as Vivian succumbs.
Lande and Walpurgis Buck
Wit may not be to everyone’s taste. Several of my colleagues have opted not to see the play given what they have experienced recently in their lives. That is understandable, but it speaks to the visceral nature of the play, for at its heart it is about the dissolution of human consciousness and the question of where all the knowledge and experiences we have accumulated over a lifetime go when we no longer “are.”  

In his poetry, Donne posits an answer: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” The play’s final image suggests that when we leave our corporeal self we shall be raised to a higher plane. That, in and of itself, is sufficient to generate a lot of post-play conversations on the drive home. At the end of the journey, is there eternal darkness or a bright light that enfolds us and leads us to a higher, purer existence?

To quote the King James Bible, one thing is sure: “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither.”

Wit runs through May 8. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Sounds Like Fun


One day only: A brand-new show made of old stuff!

You can celebrate A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s first seven years of creative innovation at a grassroots gala (leave the tux at home) called Made of New Haven on Sunday, May 15 at 1pm and 5:30pm. Featuring spectacle and songs from all ten original theater adventures, you can raise the roof and raise the funds for their next New Haven-inspired production. Come dine on the iconic food and beverages that the Elm City is known for at this singular event.

This new musical, directed and penned by ensemble member Jes Mack, features songs from Broken Umbrella’s productions of SEEN CHANGE!, FREEWHEELERS, iMARVEL, and more, traversing the piano scale all the way back to the ensemble’s first show, A SHORT STORY BY A TREE. A Broken Umbrella’s signature whimsy will be out in full force with a team of cast, crew, and designers revisiting and re-envisioning all ten past original works into a one-hour new theatrical adventure. 

Food sponsor SMALL KITCHEN BIG TASTE will celebrate New Haven’s iconic culinary treats, with local beers on tap from Black Hog Brewing Company and Thimble Island Brewery, and much more to get this party started. Additional support for this special event is provided by Erector Square, Creative Growth New Haven, Alderman-Dow Iron and Metal, and Tyco Printing.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre is proud to participate in the City of New Haven's Made in New Haven campaign, featuring Broken Umbrella’s work alongside the diverse products, companies, and innovators that make the Elm City a destination for ingenuity and invention.

Made of New Haven -- Created and conceived by A Broken Umbrella Theatre -- One day only! Two performances! 1pm (Special kid price available, recommended for ages 6 and up) and
5:30pm (Leave the kids at home, come party!)

Both show times feature culinary Elm City-inspired cocktail hours and a brand-new musical adventure. Running time of entire event, including eats: 2 hours.
Location: Erector Square, 315 Peck Street, Building 5, Floor 2, New Haven, CT
Tickets + Info: https://www.artful.ly/store/events/9004. For more information, please visit www.facebook.com/brokenumbrella and www.abrokenumbrella.org.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Another "Festival"

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas is coming back to New Haven, and for those interested in intriguing, cutting-edge theater, it's a don't-miss opportunity.

Here's what's coming up:

"Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour" -- (Just gotta love that title!!) -- this is a production compliments of the National Theatre of Scotland and will be its only American appearance before it opens in the West End in London in August.

What's it about? Well, it's a musical featuring such swinging composers as Handel, Bach (Daddy, not the sons) and the Electric Light Orchestra, and "Our Ladies," well, they're a group of somewhat raucous young women who attend a Catholic school and...girls being girls...

The press release cautions that the play is "Recommended for ages 15 and over..." It will be playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre June 10 -- 25.

A U.S. Premiere of "The Square Root of Three Sisters"

It's a remix of Chekhovian themes produced by the Dmitry Krymore Lab and Yale School of Drama -- it's offers playgoers a world where love can sweep dishes off the table, memory can control a train and a single command can change the world. It will run June 21--25 at the Iseman Theater (1156 Chapel Street).

Another Premiere -- "The Money"

Billed as an "immersive theater experience," "The Money" has audience members buy in to participate as benefactors (or just sit back and watch). The audience has 90 minutes to decide how to spend the money. It will play at the Quinnipiac Club (221 Church Street) June 18 - 25.

And Yet Another Premiere -- "The Bookbinder"

Inspired by "The Polar Express" and "Coraline," this New-Zealand production is a story of mystery, mayhem and magic, a shadow-play that includes paper art, puppetry and music -- suitable for both children and adults who still have a bit of the child in them. It runs at the Yale Center for British Art on Chapel Street -- June 17 -- 19.

Finally, at Long Wharf, will be a production of "Steel Hammer" running June 16 - 18. The play takes a look at contemporary social issues and the African American experience via a traditional folk song -- "John Henry" -- that steel-drivin' man. Of the play the Los Angeles Times said "...it bangs out a spectacularly inventive social message," and the The NY Times had this to say: "...alternately clamorous, haunting and exhilarating."

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What's Happening

Avenue Q opens this Thursday at Chestnut Street Playhouse!

The irreverent take on Sesame Street, the winner of the TONY "Triple Crown" for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, is being boarded up at the Chestnut Street Playhouse in Norwich (the town that rivals Dublin for the most incomprehensible traffic patterns). The Playhouse warns: this is not Sesame Street and is not recommended for children. Why? Well, “PORN!” Performances April 14 - May 1; Thursday - Saturday, 7:30pm, Sunday, 2:00pm Tickets: $25 and available online or by calling the box office at 860.886.2378

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”

Up in Goshen, the Goshen Players will be offering the Bard Lite. It’s all Will’s plays done in less than 90 minutes (Hell, it takes longer than that to figure out what the hell is happening in “Cymbeline”). Obviously, it’s a spoof that will be running April 22, 23, 29, 30, May 6 & 7 at 8:00 pm; April 24, May 1 at 3:00 pm at the Old Goshen Town Hall, 2 North Street. All tickets are reserved seating at $22. Call 860.491.9988 or go to www.goshenplayers.org

Long Wharf Winds Down Season with “My Paris

Long Wharf Theatre travels back in time to the romance and fun of Montmartre in the late 1800s in its production of the musical My Paris, a imaginative retelling of the life of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, directed by Tony Award-winning director Kathleen Marshall, with music from the legendary French performer Charles Aznavour, and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry, and with English lyrics and musical adaptations by Tony-winner Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years).

The production runs from May 4 through May 29 on the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre. The press night is Wednesday, May 11 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are from $25 to $85.

My Paris sketches the life and times of the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who lovingly rendered the gaiety, color, and heartbreak of Montmartre, the can-can, and the world of Le Moulin Rouge.

The book is by Oscar, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of the Ballyhoo).

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Yale Rep Presents Two-time Oscar Winner Dianne Wiest in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy days”

The show runs April 29–May 21 at Yale Repertory Theatre (1120 Chapel Street). Opening Night is Thursday, May 5.

About the play: with her husband increasingly out of reach and the earth itself threatening to swallow her whole, Winnie’s buoyant optimism shields her from the harsh glare of the inevitable in this absurdly funny and boundlessly compassionate portrait of the human spirit.

Tickets for HAPPY DAYS range from $20–99 and are available online at yalerep.org, by phone at (203) 432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street). Student, senior, and group rates are also available.

A World Premiere

Lewiston” by Samuel Hunter opens Wednesday, April 13 at Long Wharf in New Haven.

Alice and Connor sit by their roadside stand selling cheap fireworks while developers swallow the land around them. Promised a condo in the new development, their future is secure. Enter Marnie, Alice’s long lost granddaughter, proposing to buy the land to save her family legacy. Marnie and Alice will become reacquainted with each other’s deeply held secrets, uncertain pasts, and hopeful futures. Hunter, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, explores the emotional frontiers of a family struggling to make a home in the vastness of the American landscape with affection, poignancy, and a profound sense of empathy.

Please call the Long Wharf Theatre Box Office:  (203) 787-4282.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Bittersweet Pas de Deux

"The Last Fiver Years" -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru April 24

Jennifer Malenke and Nicolas Dromard. All Photos by Joe Landry

When you’re in love, time seems out of joint, as it does when you’re also falling out of love. In either case, you seem to be in a world without clocks, a world where a moment seems to last a lifetime and five years, well five years seems to be but a moment. Such is the case with Cathy and Jamie, whose story is unfolding currently at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk. Their wooing, marriage and break-up is captured in The Last Five Years, a lovely production directed by Kevin Connors that can’t help but tug at the heartstrings.

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown (based on his own marital experience), this dance of two fragile, solipsistic hearts offers an interesting take on the deconstruction of a relationship, for Jamie’s story is told in sequence, while Cathy’s story is told in reverse, so the musical opens with Cathy (Jennifer Malenke) finding a note from Jamie (Nicolas Dromard) telling her that their marriage is over, which leads to the first song, “Still Hurting.” This is immediately followed by the exuberant “Shiksa Goddess,” sung by Jamie as he proclaims that he doesn’t give a damn about his Jewish heritage; his people have suffered enough and now he should be allowed just a little happiness to be found in Cathy’s arms. In a way, the evening is a study in the Buddhist concept of tanha, an attempt to hold on to an ungraspable experience.
Jennifer Malenke
MTC’s intimate thrust stage layout allows the audience to capture nuances that might be lost, or at least muted, on a larger stage, thus Dromard and Malenke don’t have to worry about playing to the balcony. As befits his character, a 23-year-old author who has made it big with his first novel, Dromard gives us a somewhat larger-then-life Jamie, with broad gestures and aggressive body language. Malenke, as the insecure, struggling actress, offers the audience a study of open-hearted delight mixed with self-doubt, and it is she who makes the most of the fact that the audience is mere feet away from her. Subtle hand gestures and eyes that at one moment glow with delight and then reflect her character’s insecurity all go towards a complete performance: engaging, beguiling and heartfelt.

Given the dual time-line of the musical, the two actors sing but one number together, when their characters’ stories intersect (“The Next Ten Minutes). Other than that, the numbers are set-pieces that allow the audience to experience the relationship from two different angles, and many of these set-pieces are little gems. There is Cathy’s attempt to tell herself that she is still a part of her husband’s life (“I’m Part of That”) and Jamie’s tale of Schmuel the tailor (“The Schmuel Song”) that he tells to her at Christmas, an interdenominational present.
Nicolas Dromard
Perhaps the strongest moments in the show are when Cathy is unsuccessfully auditioning (“Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence”) and, immediately following that number, “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” during which the frustrated Jamie tries to get his wife to accompany him to a publisher’s party held in his honor. Then there is Jamie and Cathy driving to meet her parents, during which Cathy explains her attempts to escape her small-town upbringing and, finally, the delightful “A Summer in Ohio,” in which Cathy describes the horrors of acting in summer stock in rural America.

The musical’s final number is an exercise in poignancy, for we have Cathy, ecstatic after the couple’s first date, singing “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” while Jamie laments that “I Could Never Rescue You.” As Cathy waves to him, a first-time goodbye, Jamie turns and, with his back, says goodbye for the last time.

 If there is one problem in the production, it is the dominance of the four-piece orchestra consisting of a piano (Nolan Bonvouloir), Violin (Rebekah Butler), Cello (Charlie Rasmussen) and Guitar (Mike Godette). Wonderful musicians all, they create a sound that, given the confines of the theater, often all but overwhelms the lyrics, even though the two actors are miked.

 That quibble aside, The Last Five Years is an intriguing, engaging evening of musical theater powered by two Broadway veterans who both know how to sell a song. For anyone who has felt the thrill of “true love” followed by the despair of lost love, the evening will resonate, and for those (poor souls) who have never had either experience, consider it a primer.

The Last Five Years runs through April 24. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.

MTC has announced its upcoming season, an eclectic mix of musicals and plays that will begin with a production of Gypsy. How will Connors et al pull this off in a theater more suited for a drawing room drama? Well, Connors scored big with his production of Cabaret in an even smaller venue, and last year staged an admirable Evita. One can only await with anticipation the boarding of Gypsy writ small.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

On The Road Again

The Road: My Life with John Denver -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru April 24

He recorded over 300 songs, with total sales of over $33 million. By 1974, he was America’s best-selling performer. He earned 12 gold and four platinum albums. He was named the Colorado poet laureate in 1974. Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., he’s know to the world as John Denver, and his story is being told in The Road: My Life with John Denver, which recently opened out at the Ivoryton Playhouse. This two-hander written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, and directed by Myler, tells Denver’s story through the eyes of a musician (Wheetman) who worked with the singer-songwriter over the years and, although there are some pacing and script problems, the magnetism, stage presence and musicianship of the show’s two stars keep you happily in your seat for the duration.

Less a juke-box musical, more a concert with anecdotes and asides, The Road offers the audience a ticket to travel down memory lane and the opportunity to listen to two tantalizing voices as they recreate an era – the 60s and 70s -- that, in hindsight, may seem a kinder, gentler time, though those of us who lived through it know the horror and heartbreak that was part of those years.

Although Denver, in his songs, never really dealt with the horror, he did deal with heartbreak, and some of the most touching moments of the evening are when Danny (David M. Lutken) and, as listed in the program, the Singer (Katie Deal) offer some of the songs Denver wrote chronicling his love, his loss and his loneliness.
Katie Deal

Lutken, as Danny, provides the framework, such as it is, for the evening, reminiscing about his own career and how it intersected and intertwined with Denver’s. Along the way, Lutken and Deal sing some of Denver’s most famous songs, including “Rocky Mountain High,” a rousing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “Sunshine on My Shoulder.” There are also some songs that may not be as familiar to the audience, and several, not written by Denver but were integral to the era, including a rip-roarin’ “Johnny B. Goode,” originally recorded by Chuck Berry.

Throughout the evening, Lutken and Deal interact intimately, with Deal, at times, assuming the persona of Denver’s wife, Annie, and at other moments as Penny, Danny’s wife. The interaction is such that the evening’s final moments seem a bit unbalanced, for Deal leaves the stage, allowing Lutken to sing the final song to the blackout alone. It seems to be an emotional misstep. Not wishing to re-write the show, it might be more appropriate (and emotionally satisfying) to have Deal reappear and the two offer the tender “Perhaps Love” before the curtain rather than earlier in the second act, but what do I know?
David M. Lutken

Deal does reappear with Lutken for an encore: probably Denver’s most iconic song -- “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The audience is urged to sing along (as they often are during the evening), and although it’s not a Mamma Mia dancing in the aisles response, voices are raised.

Although the script falls flat at various times, the evening is carried effortlessly by these two charismatic performers, who also worked together in Milwaukee, where the show premiered. Playing a range of acoustic instruments, and vocalizing and harmonizing as if they have been singing together since they were both in their cradles, Lutken, with his down-home manner wry smile, and Deal, a true “Geogia peach,” are a joy to just sit back, watch and listen to. And it would seem that the two just can’t get enough of what they are doing, for at the curtain call Lutken announced that after the Sunday matinee he would wander over to a local tavern for, of all things, a hootenanny (and drinks), and invited all to attend (bringing whatever instruments they so choose). Now, that’s a first.

The Road may not be perfect theater, but it is, in just about every other way, a perfect evening, especially for those who, at their weddings, chose a John Denver song to dance to as their first appearance as a couple.

The Road runs through April 24. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Art Isn't Easy

"Orange and Yellow" by Mark Rothko

Back in 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse’s inaugural season, several plays were presented in repertory, that is, several plays alternated daily. This also occurred in the 1932 and 1935 seasons, but the repertory concept was soon abandoned and wasn’t attempted again until the mid-1960s. That’s about to change this year, for the Playhouse will be opening its 2016 season with two plays in repertory, Red, by John Logan, and Art, by Yasmina Reza, in a translation by Christopher Hampton. Both plays won Tonys for Best Play, Art in 1998 and Red in 2010.

Yasmina Reza

John Logan

The idea of attempting this has been gestating for several years, and when Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director, who is also directing both plays, read the scripts he believed there was a compelling reason to present them in tandem.

Mark Lamos

In its simplest form, Art is about how we evaluate and quantify art as both commodity and possession, while Red focuses on the mystique of creating art.

In the style of Reza’s other well-known play, God of Carnage, Art begins innocently enough with Serge (to be played by John Skelley) buying a painting for an exorbitant amount, a painting created by an artist named Antrios (based on the real-life painter Robert Ryman).

"Series # 17 (White)" -- Robert Ryman

He believes his friends, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan), will approve of his acquisition. When Serge urges Marc to look at the painting “from this angle,” Marc’s response is: “You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?” The “shit,” as it were, is a painting that is, well, white, or white-on-white – think lines of milk poured on a field of snow. Yvan’s response is relative: when he is with Marc he agrees the painting is worthless, when he is with Serge he approves. This monochromatic work of art will be the catalyst for a testing of friendship and heated discussions about what we value and why we value it.

Mark Rothko in his studio. Photo by Henry Elkan
Set in the late 50s, Red brings us inside an artist’s studio – Mark Rothko’s studio, to be specific. Much like Ryman, Rothko is, although he shuns the description, an abstract expressionist, but his paintings are anything but monochromatic. As Serge urged Marc to see his prized painting from a different “angle,” Rothko (Stephen Rowe) asks his new assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews), “What do you see?”

The casts of"Art" and "Red," from left. Benton Greene, John Skelley, Stephen Rose, Sean Dugan, Patrick Andrews, and Mark Lamos, director. Photo by Peter Chenot 

Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals to be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant, which is to be nested inside the Seagram’s building currently under construction. Ken, an artist himself, is initially nothing more than a gofer, running out to buy cigarettes and mixing paints, but he soon begins to challenge Rothko’s artistic theories and the integrity of producing art for a commercial venue.

While the color white is central to Art, it is, as the play’s title suggests, red that is central to Logan’s play, for not only does Rothko provide both a philosophical and psychological evaluation of Matisse’s painting, “Red Studio,” in a revealing moment he tells Ken: "There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red."

"Red Studio" by Henri Matisse
It is challenging enough to board one play, but to prepare two at the same time can be somewhat daunting. Recently, I met with Lamos at Theatre Row Studios in Manhattan, where he is rehearsing both plays, to talk with him about the decision to return to the repertory format, the challenges inherent, and his take on the two plays’ synergy.

My initial question for Lamos was “Why?”

He smiled, shrugged, and said, “I though it would be interesting, that’s all.” He went on to explain: “We read both plays for season consideration over the years and somehow, two years ago, it just coalesced as an idea: why don’t we try to do them together and see if they speak to each other.” In essence, the decision, as Lamos put it, “was just a little bit of a caprice.”

The decision, however, was not without its challenges. Lamos initially downplayed the task. “It’s not yet as difficult as I thought it might be,” he said, “but I’ve been gearing up for it for quite awhile. I think the one area I’m feeling a little challenged is wishing we had just a little more rehearsal time for one of them.” Lamos declined to name which of the two plays he was referring to. “You know,” he explained, “it’s like having two children. One needs a little more TLC. I’m also finding it (referring to the play in need of a bit more “tender loving care”) just a little bit more of a challenge as a director, which I knew would happen, but I’m having to think about the play – I’m having to overturn how I thought about it and come to another understanding of it as we are working on it.”

The initial idea that the two plays would “talk” to each other is still in place, but as Lamos works with the actors, he has started to gain a greater appreciation for one of the plays. “I’m very impressed with Red,” he said. “I’m more impressed every day. I just find the themes of the play are very relevant to my work and the way I think about art and the way I think about making art, and the philosophy behind artists’ work. All of this I find very exciting to work on every day. Even thought it’s fictionalized, you’re in the room with Mark Rothko, this titan, who thinks about what he makes in such a powerful way and with so many ramifications: music and philosophy and religion. All of them come into play and they’re just great fun to ‘chew on’ with the actors as we get deeper and deeper into it.”

Turning to the other play, Art, Lamos noted that “what’s wonderful is the almost dance-like quality of the words. It’s ‘Boulevard,’ French theater,” he said, referring to a style of theater that emerged in France in the 18th century and became associated with the bourgeoisie, with dialogue that is realistic but often set in a somewhat hyper-realistic situation with the intent of surprising the audience.

“The dialogue is elegant, light of touch, and finding that tone is very exciting when it happens,” Lamos said, “and it’s a real chamber piece, it’s a trio. The actors have to understand that they are playing the same music all of the time even as the key changes and the rhythm changes. That’s fascinating. It’s much more of an ensemble play than Red is.”

As for the plays, so different in style, speaking to each other, Lamos made these points. “Red begins with the words, ‘What do you see?’ and the two characters are made to look, to constantly evaluate what they are making and what they are perceiving, and in Art the characters are made  to look as well, and they jump to conclusions. Both paintings – the painters in both plays -- are pretty much of the same school – creating overall abstractions that are very sensual and extremely abstract, for better or worse, and with lots of strange use of color here and there. So both plays are about looking at art and in both plays, art has this enormous effect on the five men in the two plays. It pushes them apart, it brings them together, it causes them to reevaluate what they are looking at, it causes them to reevaluate their relationships with each other; they’re constantly having to adjust themselves to art.”

 However, there’s something else going on in the two plays, which only have male characters. Lamos addressed this point as well. “Both plays are also very much about male relationships and how men react to each other, how they deal with each other, how their egos drive them. So a lot of what is very interesting to work on is the ‘maleness’ of the plays, the ‘maleness’ that the paintings bring forth in terrible ways or good ways.”

Both productions are in periods of gestation, and a lot of work still has to be done, some of it awaiting the moment when the rehearsals move from Manhattan to the stage at Westport. For example, it is there that certain decisions about how to handle the transitions in Art – there are no true scene changes – will be dealt with. Lamos’s original thoughts were to handle these changes with sound cues or subtle lighting changes. His tech crew suggested that the actors themselves will be able to handle it. It will be worked out in the tech rehearsals. At least for Red, one production decision has already been made, the “paint” that the actors will be sloshing about will be a mixture of corn starch and pigment powder.

 There was also the question of the sets for the two plays, a challenge for scenic designer Allen Moyer. Since the plays will be shown on alternate nights, the sets, perforce, have to be relatively simple. For Red, the entire stage will be Rothko’s studio, with one complete “Four Seasons” painting hanging and others representing works in progress. For Art, an enclosed space representing an up-scale apartment will be set within the studio format so, as Lamos described it, a “studio will hover around the apartment.”

 Although Lamos hopes that people will see both plays, he doesn’t offer advice about which play to see first – for him, apparently, the synergy works both ways. As for whether the Playhouse will attempt to present other plays in a rep format, that remains to be seen. Lamos did note, however, that everyone, from office staff to marketing to the production staff is “jazzed about” what they are attempting.

 So, if we stand back for a second and considers what we, in May, are about “to see,” we have two Tony-award winning plays with a cast of accomplished actors, directed by a man who has given a lot of thought about the ‘art’ he is creating. The two productions will deal with multiple aspects of art, the creating of art, the viewing of art, and the buying and collecting of art, as well as the emotions generated.

At the close of Red, Rothko puts his hand on Ken’s chest, where his heart is, and says: “Make something new.” That’s what Lamos and all involved at the Westport Country Playhouse are attempting to do.

The run is from May 3 -- 29, "Art" on even-numbered days and "Red" on odd-numbered days.
For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box office at (203) 227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529, or visit Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, off Route 1, Westport.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Love

Love Letters -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru April 10

The power of words.

Two actors sit at a table on a dimly lit stage and read letters that their characters have sent to each other over the years. They face forward. They do not interact, much less touch each other. Sounds like a recipe for a boring evening, right? Wrong.

Love Letters, by A. R. Gurney, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre, is a magical evening that is a tribute to the playwright and the two fine actors, Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, who easily have the audience in thrall for the full 90 minutes of the show.

As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bittersweet paean to letter writing and to a friendship that stands the test of time speaks to both the mind and the heart. The two characters, Andrew (Dennehy) and Melissa (Farrow), first meet each other in second grade, when they begin to pass notes to each other. The correspondence continues as the two characters mature, moving through the awkward stages of teen-dom, when both are sent to private schools, and then on to college and to life, with Melissa becoming an artist and Andrew going into law and then politics.

Their personalities are antithetical – Melissa is a free spirit, Andrew a somewhat repressed acolyte of the status quo – and yet they find in each other a synthesis that, though troubled over the years, is soul-satisfying.

Given his character, Dennehy is somewhat restrained through the first half of the evening, but Farrow is constantly moving in her chair: her feet turn in on each other in girlish insecurity, she plays with her hair nervously, and she pouts magnificently.

The beauty of this piece, from a theater’s point of view, is that its staging requires little more than a table, two chairs, and lighting sufficient for the audience to see the actors. There’s no set, no costume changes, no special effects or projections required.

From an actor’s point of view, however, it’s a challenge, for there are obvious restraints, the main one being that they are restricted to their chairs. Secondly, they cannot interact except vocally. Thus, they must bring their characters to life primarily through their voices and what limited body language they are allowed.

The intriguing thing about this play, given its restrictions, and this is much to Gurney’s credit, is that there is a very definite, old-fashioned dramatic arc to its construction: exposition (who these characters are), several waves of rising action (their on-again, off-again relationship through high school, college and into their separate married lives) culminating in a climax (they finally consummate their relationship), followed by a moving denouement (the passing of one of the characters).

Does it work? Yes. During the curtain call, I looked down to the row in front of me and saw a young lady, perhaps 16 years old, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, wiping tears from her eyes. As I exited, several patrons were also brushing at their cheeks.

One of the reasons it works is that there is something atavistic about this play – it evokes the mesmerizing quality of the storyteller, the shaman-like person who would sit in front of a fire and tell stories about the tribe, reminding those listening who they are and where they have come from. Andrew and Melissa’s story is of that nature, for it can’t help but evoke memories of first love, of thwarted love, of love that defies rationality. It calls up in each one of us moments of delight, of heartbreak, of loss, and the soft glow engendered by having shared a life with someone. Hence, the tears.

Love Letters runs through April 10. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

The Be Male, or not to Be Male, That is the Question

Cymbeline -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru April 16

Michael Manuel and Christopher Michael McFarland.
All photos by Carol Rosegg

Yes, it’s true that in Shakespeare’s time men and boys played women’s roles on stage (because, by law, they had to) and, yes, as the Yale Rep’s playbill notes, women have had occasion to dress as men and, yes, there have been stagings of Shakespeare’s plays that have used cross-gender casting. All of this is noted in the playbill, and as one reads it one gets the feeling that the authors perhaps protest too much as justification for the current casting of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later plays that has defied pigeonholing (tragedy? comedy? Perhaps a “romance”?). The play is, at best, problematic, and scenes and plot devices echo many of those used by the Bard in earlier plays, so much so that one gets the feeling that Will might have been running out of gas. In any event, Yale Rep’s current production, under the direction of Evan Yionoulis, reflects, if unintentionally, the problems in the play itself, compounding confusion as to how the audience is supposed to respond to what it is seeing.

 In the 18th century, Dr. Johnson, the inestimable poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer, had this to say about Cymbeline: “This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.” Well, now – tell us what your really think, Sam!

Sheria Irving
Are there plot problems? Yes, indeed. If you tried to diagram who is related to whom and who did what, where and why, you would end up with a spider’s web. As for characters’ motivations, some are clear, some are not. A plot summary would take up too much space – suffice it to say we have a king, Cymbeline (Kathryn Meisle) with a second wife (Michael Manuel), and a daughter, Imogen (Sheria Irving), who has married Posthumus (Miriam A. Hyman), a man not of the royal blood. Oh, yes, there are also two royal sons, Guiderius – a.k.a. Polydore (Robert David Grant) and Arviragus, a.k.a Cadwal (Chalia La Tour), who were kidnapped some twenty years ago by Belarius (Anthony Cochrane). Oh, and yes, there are also some envoys from Rome, three ghosts and the god Jupiter…everything but Yul Brynner!

 Okay, let’s stop right here. As you have probably gathered, the king and Posthumus are played by women, and the queen is played by a man. One might well ask, to what purpose, other than that’s how Yionoulis and company wanted to do it. Yes, in Shakespeare’s time the female roles would have been played by males, but would the male roles have been played by females? Yale Rep’s artistic director, James Brady, offers this: the casting captures “both the authenticity and the artifice of the Bard’s aesthetic…” Really? We seems to be comparing what was done out of necessity with what has been done out of choice.

Miriam A. Hyman and Sheria Irving
So, the plot is murky at best, and the gender-bending will have some audience members often focusing more on the “Is that a man or woman?” game than attending to what is happening on stage. What statement is being made by the casting decisions escapes me. Yes, there are many lines that deal with gender, that question the true nature of men and women, but are these enhanced, as the playbill suggests, by being delivered by men playing women and women playing men? Perhaps, but now we have gone well beyond the confines of the play as written. Is Posthumus’s rant about women, motivated by his belief that Imogen has been unfaithful, any more effective because it is being delivered by a woman playing the role a man? The playbill notes would have us believe so. And what are we to learn from the fact that the First Lord (Sofia Jean Gomez) and Second Lord (Monique Barbee) are also played by women?

 Another question arises. If you decide to go non-traditional with the casting, why opt for a representational set (designed by Jean Kim). Walking into the theater you are confronted by a stone behemoth – a castle with lancet windows, stairs that will be illuminated by candles (and enveloped in smoke – lots of smoke) and walls covered in dead vines. It’s impressive, it’s realistic, and it’s all of a piece and must function as a British castle, Roman baths, and a cave deep in the woods. A more fluid, presentational set might have worked to enhance the casting decisions and the apparent intent of the director, and not left the audience wondering “Where are we now?”

Christopher Geary and Sheria Irving
As for the effectiveness of the cross-gender casting (beyond whatever message was intended), it works fairly well with one exception, that of Cymbeline’s queen. Manuel is a rather husky man, and dressed in the costumes and adornments created for him by Asa Benally, he looks (and, unfortunately, acts) as if he has wandered off the set of Hairspray – he is Edna waiting for Wilbur to burst on the scene to proclaim his adoration of her feminine pulchritude. It’s camp, as is Christopher Geary’s take on the queen’s son, Cloten – a gay blade given to rants, sulks and hissy-fits.

 Back to the playbill. Bundy has written: “This production is also a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare’s work for the hundreds of high school students from New Haven and across Connecticut [who] will join us for this production…” Hmmmm? And what will these hundreds of students take away from this production? One can only wonder. It would seem to me that the best introduction to Shakespeare is to play it straight and then, if you wish, do variations on the theme. Know the rules, and then break them. The reverse, it would seem to me, only leads to confusion.

 There are many fine moments in Yale Rep’s production of Cymbeline, but they are overshadowed by the “vision” or “concept” that the creative team has burdened it with, and an audience member may come away feeling that he or she has been pummeled by unclear ancillary messages that have little or nothing to do with the play.

 Cymbeline runs through April 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org