Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Chekhovian Hells-a-Poppin'

Square Root of 3 Sisters -- Int'l Festival of Arts and Ideas -- Iseman Theater -- Thru June 25

Annelise Lawson and Annie Hagg

Think of Chekhov as rewritten by Kafka and directed by the Marx Brothers. That will give you some idea of the tone and tenor of The Square Root of 3 Sisters, part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas currently playing at the Iseman Theater in New Haven through Saturday, June 25.

The basis for the play, written and directed by Dmitry Krymov, is, of course, Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, but there’s more than a touch of The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya thrown in for good measure, most of it played for laughs as Chekhov’s various themes are turned and twisted to fit the moment.

The mood is set before the curtain as the actors rush about setting the stage, which consists of nothing more than plywood sheets placed on the floor and cardboard boxes (the box designating the cherry orchard has “For Sale” stenciled on it), plus toilet paper and paper towels unrolled from the balcony to designate white birches.

The play itself really doesn’t unfold, it takes staggering steps as scenes are interrupted, lights come up and down, an unseen stage manager makes various comments and commands in a stentorian voice, various props are introduced, including a railroad which is built of ladders and stretches high up into house left with audience members supporting the “tracks.” A teapot slides back and forth across a table of its own volition and costumes have labels sewn into their necks that provide brief character descriptions. Trains, huffing and puffing steam, arrive and depart and, yes, alas, the three sisters are finally dispossessed, all of their worldly goods carted off, including a horse.

There are moments of slapstick and other moments of cerebral comedy, including jabs at Method acting a la Stanislavsky and Chekhovian angst. One of the finest and funniest extended moments is when Shaunette Renee Wilson, playing Olga, uses forks, spoons and saucers to create an “I don’t need love” rant.

There’s also an extended sequence when the cast dances with audience members to a waltz written by the actor, Anthony Hopkins, and another when Melanie Field, playing Irina, breaks out into “Someone to Watch Over Me,” supported by the cast playing various instruments including, I do believe, a kazoo.

Roles are not secure. Annelise Lawson is fired as Masha and replaced by Annie Hagg, who’s not sure of her lines so tries to stay on book; Niall Powderly gets the hook as Vershinin and is replaced by Kevin Hourigan, who is so excited at the opportunity that he gleefully races around the audience. Aubie Merrylees plays Trigorin – the only problem is, he’s in the wrong play – while Julian Elijah Martinez gets to destroy the scenery (such as it is) as the overly passionate Solyony and Bradley James Tejeda takes on a rather confused Tuzenbach (such confusion is understandable, since he is half-German, half-Russian).

Do you have to be up on your Chekhov to enjoy this exercise in controlled insanity? Well, it wouldn’t hurt, but if you can’t tell a seagull from a cherry orchard you will still enjoy this two-hour, intermission-less romp. It’s staged with style, flair and just a touch of wild abandon, a bit of magic (thanks to puppet designer Matt Acheson), some impressive lighting work by Elizabeth Mak, and obvious delight by all involved.

For tickets or more information go to the Festival’s web site:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Tale of Two Obsessions

Buyer and Cellar -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru July 3

Michael Urie. Photo by Carol Rosegg

It’s a fiction. It’s a fantasy. Playwright Jonathan Tolins gets that out of the way right from the start of Buyer and Cellar, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse. Well, yes, all plays are fictions, are fantasies, so you might think the playwright is stating the obvious, but given the subject matter he wants to make it perfectly clear that he made all of this up (well, most of it). It’s a one-man, “What if…?” play that starts with a well-documented fact: Barbra Streisand’s basement in her Malibu home is basically a mall populated by quaint shops and boutiques where she displays her “stuff.” The fantasy? Well, what if Streisand required a shopkeeper to work at the mall, dust the doo-dads and assist her when she “shops”? That’s the basic premise of this hilarious confection that’s a send-up of materialism, fame and fortune, and perhaps something more.

Alex More (Michael Urie), an out-of-work actor, gets a call from a former paramour alerting him to the job opportunity. He answers the ad not knowing who “the lady of the house” actually is and lands the job. What follows is a series of interactions between More and Streisand in the surreal world of her basement, interspaced with More’s conversations and confrontations with his boyfriend who, at first, is agog that More has landed this job but eventually begins to snipe at the Streisand legend.

Urie, who starred in the Off-Broadway production of the play, as well as on tour and in London, received numerous awards and nominations for his performance, and it’s easy to see why, for he not only creates a believable Alex, he also gives us “Sharon,” Streisand’s major domo, “Barry,” Alex’s excitable boyfriend, a touch of “Jim” (Streisand’s husband, James Brolin) and a moment or two of Broadway legend Arthur Laurents, all in a non-stop monologue that has him leaping, spinning and darting about the stage with only a table, a chair and a coffee table with which to work. You never actually see the “mall” he works in, but Urie, under the direction of Stephen Brackett (who directed the original productions), is able to bring it to life – the doll shop, the dress shop, the whole strange world Streisand has created.

Although the evening generates a lot of laughter, there’s an underlying theme that gives the play weight, and that is loneliness, for if people really do need people, then the acquisition of “stuff” cannot adequately fill that need. Then there’s the self-doubt about one’s physical beauty, a theme that has run through many of Streisand’s films, no more so than in The Mirror Has Two Faces, a movie that “Barry” does an incisive critique of, suggesting that it’s a take on Beauty and the Beast, with Streisand playing both parts.

Finally, the play deals with, and is itself a representative sample of, what we expect of those who achieve stardom, and the perverse enjoyment we get when the idol is found to have, if not feet of clay, at least human feet that often stumble or turn in the wrong direction. Thus, there’s a certain bittersweet quality to Buyer and Cellar, for we may come away chuckling but, in retrospect, we might pause to consider the thin line between comedy and tragedy.

Buyer and Cellar runs through July 3. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Singular Sensation

A Chorus Line -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru July 31

The cast. Photo by Meredith Atkinson

There’s an upside and a downside to Playhouse on Park’s current production of A Chorus Line, which opened on Friday, June17 and runs through July 31. The upside is that for most of the evening you are there, up close and personal, in a rehearsal studio, watching the dancers go through their steps while handling their emotions, most of which have to do with hoping to be cast in an upcoming production and questioning why they have chosen this particular profession.

Given the venue’s intimacy, you see the sweat, both physical and metaphorical, and it makes for a visceral understanding of the life of the theatrical gypsies, those in the chorus line who travel from one show to another, always in the background. Essentially, you are the casting director, evaluating and pondering the possibilities as the hopefuls tell their stories, often revealing more about themselves than they mean to. The downside is that the “big finish,” the final number, calls out for the breadth and depth of a Broadway stage, a distancing that the Playhouse just can’t provide.
Photo by Rich Wagner

Fortunately, save for the final number, this is essentially an intimate show built on vignettes, and it is here that the Playhouse’s thrust stage provides an excellent frame for the talent that directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller have brought together.

As you enter the house prior to curtain, many of the cast members are already on stage warming up, just as they would prior to an audition or show. They are called to order by Zach (Eric S. Robertson) and, in the opening number, are taught steps for one of the numbers in the show for which they are auditioning (“I Hope I Get It”). Zach then asks them to tell him a little about themselves, and thus begins the set-pieces that are the heart of the show.

First up is Alex Polzun playing Mike, a young man who proclaims “I Can Do That,” and he does. He doesn’t look like a dancer, but first impressions can be deceiving. He’s light on his feet and, wonder of wonders, acrobatic. His number is quickly followed by probably the most poignant moment in the show, “At the Ballet,” in which Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Bebe (Kayla Starr Bryan) and Maggie (the appropriately haughty Sarah Kozlow) reminisce about their childhood experiences with ballet lessons, lessons that served as a diversion from the darker aspects of their young lives. It’s a lovely, extended ballad touchingly performed by the three actresses.

There are several standout moments during the evening, and Bobbi Barricella is involved in two of them. She absolutely nails “Nothing,” a song that details her travails at a performing arts high school under the tutelage of a draconian teacher, and then kicks off “What I Did for Love,” the show’s signature tune.
Andee Buccheri, Jared Starkey, Tino Ardiente, Bobbi Barricella
Mallory Cunningham and Jeremy Seiner.
Photo by Meredith Atkinson

Then there’s Mallory Cunningham as Kristine, who explains her tone deafness in “Sing,” assisted by Jeremy Seiner as her husband, Al. It’s a wonderfully comedic moment that is enhanced by Cunningham’s body language (you get the feeling she just might have been the class clown in high school), and Cunningham and Seiner have their timing down perfectly. It demanded an “Encore!”

Saving the best for last, there’s Andee Buccheri, who is making her professional debut. She plays Val, a young lady who discovered that if she wanted to get ahead she had to attend to her “tits and ass,” mainly because at an audition she caught sight of her dance card, which stated: “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three.” She’s a compact dynamo who sells the number with verve and a great deal of unabashed delight.
Michelle Pruiett. Photo by Rich Wagner

Finally, we have Michelle Pruiett playing Cassie, a dancer who broke out of the chorus line only to fall on hard times and is now looking for a job. “The Music and the Mirror” is the showcase number of the show, and Pruiett delivers, giving the dance number a certain desperate, almost frantic quality that conveys just how much Cassie needs this job. It’s vibrant and gripping, all the more so because it happens mere feet from the audience members sitting in the first row.

 If you have aspiring thespians in the house, this is the show you should take them to (“tits and ass” notwithstanding – trust me, they won’t be shocked). Perhaps no other venue in Connecticut, save for Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk, offers the audience such a close-up look of actors plying their trade. You can’t phone in a performance at the Playhouse, and this cast doesn’t.

As for the final number, well, it’s meant to be BIG, and it is, given the constraints of the theater. Zoller, as choreographer, has used the space she’s been given. Would that the theater’s walls could have magically disappeared and the house risers bearing the audience been pulled back, but that wasn’t going to happen (just imagine if it had!).

All in all, this is a smart, sophisticated production of a Broadway classic, with a stellar cast of young actors who don’t miss a beat…or a step. Backed by an eight-piece orchestra that sounds bigger than it is, A Chorus Line entertains and, at moments, entrances…and it also gives you insight into the lives of people who, for one reason or another, have opted to respond to the siren’s call of “Gotta Dance!”

A Chorus Line runs through July 31. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Marvelous Moma Rose

Gypsy -- Sharon Playhouse -- Thru July 3

Karen Ziemba. All photos by Randy O'Rourke 

“Mama is gonna see to it!”

If you are at all familiar with American musical theater, then you know that’s a line from Gypsy’s first act closing number, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” sung by the indomitable Mama Rose. Well, in the current Sharon Playhouse production of what has often been termed the quintessential musical of the 20th century, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Mama certainly does “see to it.” In a somewhat uneven presentation of this classic, Karen Ziemba rules as Rose in a performance that merits positive comparison to those who have taken on the role: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Better Midler.

The musical, loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, is billed as a “fable” to cover the divergence from actual fact, but although the musical bears the name of the famed striptease artist it is really Rose’s story, a story that creates a portrait of the ultimate “stage mother,” a parent who just doesn’t hover over her progeny, she lurks like a predator in constant search of prey.

In the often chilly confines of the Playhouse (it was in the low 60s outside on opening night but the air conditioning was on), the saga of Louise, the stage-struck ingĂ©nue who becomes the queen of burlesque by always leaving the audience thirsting for more, trundles along under the direction of Richard Stafford, who also choreographed the show. The first part of Act One features a lot of kids, and although they are adorable, they really don’t exude the pseudo-sophistication of true Broadway babies, those who entered the world tap dancing, emoting and asking to see their agents.
Karen Ziemba and Rufus Collins

The adults fare a bit better. Rufus Collins, who plays Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering love interest, handles the dramatics well but is a tad vocally challenged when called upon to sing. Such is not the case with Julia Hemp, who plays “Dainty June,” Rose’s elder daughter (who, in real life, would go on to become the actress, June Havoc). Hemp’s singing voice is clear as a bell, and she performs a lovely duet (“If Momma Was Married”) with Louise (Kyra Kennedy) late in act one.

The then there are the three strippers who show Louise the ropes. Emily Soell (Electra) seems a bit lost as the illuminated stripper, Electra, thought she seems more in stride as Miss Cratchitt, a feisty secretary to Mr. Grantziger, owner of a struggling vaudeville house. However, Sara Cline (Tessie Tura) and Carly Sakolove (Mazeppa), have all the right moves.

Another standout performance is that of Alex Dorf, who as Tulsa has his moment in the spotlight when he is called upon to fantasize a dance number: “All I need is the Girl.”
Kyra Kennedy

Watching him create the number is Louise, and up until the young woman transforms into Gypsy, Kyra Kennedy is dead on, delightfully awkward and innocent. A problem arises when she is called on to become the stripper, for although her first “strip” on stage is meant to be tentative, immediately after there are series of quick scenes-in-one that are meant to capture Gypsy’s growing sophistication and, ultimately, the reason she became a star. Although the book says it’s so, Kennedy remains tentative and never really captures the allure that brought fame to Gypsy Rose Lee.

Whatever questions or qualms certain performances may engender, they are all erased whenever Ziemba is on stage, which thankfully is often. This actress knows how to belt out a song in the best Merman tradition, but just as important, she knows how to act. Some critics have likened Mama Rose to the American musical’s answer to King Lear. That might be stretching it a bit, but Ziemba does give Rose a multi-layered depth that lets the woman’s fear and fragility peek through the tough outer shell composed of brassiness and chutzpah.

Whether she is trying to con her father out of eighty-eight bucks (“Some People”), forestalling Herbie’s departure (“You’ll Never Get Away From Me”), rising phoenix-like from the ashes (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) or showing what she might have become (“Rose’s Turn” – which she absolutely nails), Ziemba delivers a faultless, nuanced performance worthy of a Broadway turn (not surprising, since she received the TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for her portrayal of The Wife in Contact at Lincoln Center Theatre). Her presence and performance make the drive up to Sharon well worth the trip.

Gypsy runs through July 3. For tickets call (860) 364-7469 (ext. 201 in the summer / ext. 100 in the winter) or go to     

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

2016 Critics Circle Awards

"Anastasia" Takes Home Seven Awards

Christy Altomare. Photo by Joan Marcus

Hartford Stage's Broadway-bound "Anastasia" and Yale Repertory Theatre's "Indecent," which is currently playing in New York, received top honors as outstanding musical and play, respectively, at the 26th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards show held June 13 at Hartford Stage, which co-hosted the event with TheaterWorks.
Tina Fabrique. This and all following photos by Mara Lavitt
Tina Fabrique, who starred in the musical "Ella" in productions in theaters across the country, was master of ceremonies and performed at the show, which honors outstanding achievements in the state's 2015-16 professional theater season. Also performing was David Pittsinger, nominated in the Outstanding Actor in a Musical category for "South Pacific" at Ivoryton Playhouse.
The evening began with a reception for over 150 guests, a mingling of theater critics, creative and artistic directors, actors and actresses and theater enthusiasts. Over 300 guests then gathered to view the proceedings.
Christy Altomare
"Anastasia" also took home honors for director Darko Tresnjak, leading actress Christy Altomare, choreographer Peggy Hickey, costumer Linda Cho, lighting designer Donald Holder and projection designer Aaron Rhyne.
Paula Vogel and Yale Rep's James Bundy
"Indecent" by Paula Vogel, now playing at Vineyard Theatre after a run at the La Jolla Playhouse, also took home honors for director Rebecca Taichman and an award for outstanding ensemble.
Lisa Gutkin
A special award was presented to Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, co-composers who created the Klezmer music for the production.
Bobby Steggert
Mara Davi
The world premiere of the musical "My Paris" also received awards for outstanding lead actor Bobby Steggert, featured actress Mara Davi and Paul Tazewell, who tied with Cho for costume design.
Rajesh Bose

Erika Rolfsrud
Teren Carter
In other acting categories, awards went to Rajesh Bose for lead actor in a play for "Disgraced" at Long Wharf Theatre; Erika Rolfsrud for "Good People" at Hartford's TheaterWorks for lead actress in a play; Charles Janasz for featured actor in a play for "Romeo and Juliet" at Hartford Stage; Birgit Huppuch for featured actress in a play for "The Moors" at Yale Repertory Theatre and Teren Carter for featured actor in a musical for"Memphis" at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Mohit Gautman
Mohit Gautman was the recipient of the Outstanding Debut award for his work in Long Wharf’s “Disgraced.”
Other awards went to set designer Alexander Dodge for "Rear Window" at Hartford Stage; and sound designer Darron L. West for "Body of an American" at Hartford Stage.
Anne Keefe
Anne Keefe, stage manager of New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre and Broadway for more than 25 years and part of the leadership team that saved and transformed Westport Country Playhouse, received the Connecticut Critics Circle's Tom Killen Award for lifetimes achievement in the theater. Longtime colleague Alison Harris presented the award and read congratulations from former Long Wharf Theatre artistic director Arvin Brown and actor John Lithgow.
Cathy Malloy and Gov. Dannel F. Malloy
Among the award presenters at the event which attracted more than 320 theater fans, were Gov. Dannel F. Malloy and Cathy Malloy, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, O'Neill Theater Center founder George White, animal trainer Bill Berloni and Tony Award-nominee Tony Sheldon.
Bill Berloni and friends
The Connecticut Critics Circle is comprised of theater critics and writers in the state's print, radio and on-line media.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

They're No Angels

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour -- Int'l Festival of Arts & Ideas @ Yale Repertory Theater
Thru June 25

The cast. Photo by Manuel Harlan

You know how teenage girls can be – angelic one moment, hellions the next – and it doesn’t matter if they are under the supervision of nuns, the girls find ways to be, well girls. Such is the case with the six young ladies who are about to represent their school at a choir competition in Edinburgh, Scotland in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, one of the featured shows at this year’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, which recently opened at the Yale Repertory Theater and runs through June 25.

The girls, under the direction of Vicky Featherstone, start out being well behaved, singing a Scottish folk tune, but as soon as the song is over cigarettes and chewing gum appear, and it all goes downhill from there. As adapted by Lee Hall from Alan Warner’s The Sopranos (no, not the one with Tony), the show chronicles the girls’ trip to Edinburgh and the devilment they get up to, with the six often bursting out into songs that range from rock and heavy metal to more sedate ballads and an occasional hymn.

The girls – played by Caroline Deyga, Karen Fishwick, Joanne McGuinness, Kirsty MacLaren, Frances Mayli McCann and Dawn Sievewright – are all blessed with wonderful voices which often harmonize to perfection, they have energy to spare, and they certainly know how to project the frustrations and surface bravado of girls on the brink of womanhood (as well as other characters many are called upon to create – in this area, Sievewright is especially deft in capturing the essence of a cocky young Scottish lad on the make).

There are, however, some problems, the first being that these lassies are from Scotland, and although I am sure they have all been trained to deliver lines in faultless English, they are playing lower middle-class Scottish girls and hence deliver their lines in a patois that is often difficult to understand.

The second problem is the “F’ word, which is frequently used as a noun, a verb, an adjective and adverb and, if I am not mistaken, a conjunction. Its repetition is not shocking, it just becomes a bit tedious.

Then there’s the book itself, which has the girls experience just about every torment and travail available, from pregnancy to cancer, while consuming massive amounts of liquor and other consciousness-altering substances and dealing with raging hormones. It’s a heady mix – some might say overwhelming while others, less kind, might label it forced and unbelievable. There are revelations galore and a lot of pubescent soul-searching, much of which seems to have been inserted for its supposed shock value. It might have been shocking four or five decades ago, but it comes off today as rather banal.

All that being said, these young actors certainly do put on a show, a show that can best be enjoyed by simply disregarding the plot line, such as it is, and just sitting back and watching six very talented young actors do their stuff.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Climbing Those Steps

The 39 Steps -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru June 19

Dan Fenaughty, Jonathan Brody, David Edwards and
Larissa Klinger. Photo by Roger U. Williams

The question is, is The 39 Steps, which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a play or an exercise designed by some acting school to test the mettle of its students? This farce by Patrick Barlow, a take-off on the novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s film, can appeal to audience members on different levels: as pure farce, as a display of acting skills, or merely as a “catch the allusion” game. Whether it satisfies as a play remains to be seen.

As directed by Erik Bloomquist, this story of the travails of Richard Hannay (Dan Fenaughty), caught up in a somewhat convoluted plot to steal information from Great Britain’s Air Ministry (the info Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin”), is played as broadly as possible, with a lot of pregnant pauses to make sure the audience “gets” the jokes (a man sitting behind me got them, and verbalized them before the actors delivered the punch lines). If you buy Bloomquist’s direction, which seems to consist of a “let it all hang out whenever possible” philosophy, then you will blithely sail along on this somewhat troubled sea.

Over the course of the evening, Fenaughty gets to play just one character, the somewhat supercilious Hannay, and he does it quite well, coming across (intentionally) as a 1930s actor in a B-Grade movie. The other cast members are called upon to create multiple characters, often with but slight changes of costume. Larissa Klinger is first seen as a German femme fatale who delights in glottal stops (think of someone with a severe case of catarrh trying to clear her throat). Next she’s a perky miss that Hannay comes across on a train to Scotland, and then she’s a Scottish farmer’s wife, and then back to Miss Perky for the remainder of the evening. As mentioned above, if you delight in watching an actor effectively create multiple roles (disregarding the catarrh), then Klinger’s performance will make you smile.

Then there are the two “Clowns,” played by Jonathan Brody and David Edwards, who create too many characters to be completely listed. To say that they wear multiple hats is an understatement, but there’s the aforementioned Scottish farmer, several policemen, railroad porters, hotel owners (husband and wife), a villain and his wife, and the focus of all this running around, Mr. Memory. It should be noted that Edwards gets to deliver the funniest line of the evening: “I thought there was only four of us.” You’ll understand if you see the play. If you are not geographically inclined, you might also want to look up the definition of “crotch,” which figures in a sight gag in the second act. If you’re not a Hitchcock aficionado, you might also want to check his filmography and search YouTube for the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest (yes, Hitch does make a cameo appearance in the play).

What you make of all of this depends on your ability to suspend disbelief, your proclivity for re-runs of The Benny Hill Show, and your tolerance for characters cast in the vauldevillian mode. It also wouldn’t hurt to imbibe a glass or two of your favorite wine before attending, if only to prime the giggle part of your medulla oblongata.

The 39 Steps runs through June 19. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to