Saturday, January 21, 2017

Comedy Tonight

The Comedy of Errors -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Feb. 12

Louis Tucci, Paula Leggett Chase and
Alexander Sovronsky

What does “Never on Sunday” (the song and the film) have to do with Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors? Well, not much, one would think. Why would the citizens of Ephesus break out into an extended Bollywood dance sequence? Well, for no particular reason. Is it true that it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings? Apparently. The Hartford Stage’s production of one of Shakespeare’s early comedies is an exercise in indulgence, specifically director Darko Tresnjak’s delight in such films as Never on Sunday, Zorba the Greek, various Bollywood musicals and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I might add Beach Blanket Bingo, though it’s not mentioned in an interview with Tresnjak printed in the show’s program. The question is, should a playgoer indulge Tresnjak? The answer is “Yes,” for The Comedy of Errors is 90 or so minutes of controlled insanity and mayhem that cries out: “Damn the logic, let’s go with it!” This over-the-top production vibrates with the excitement of never knowing exactly what Tresnjak and cast will do next.

If there’s one drawback to the production it’s that many of the lines are delivered in such a rapid-fire, frenetic manner that you might find yourself saying “Say what?” However, that doesn’t mean you won’t know what’s going on, for the acting is emotive in the extreme (something farce requires) and the body language of all concerned is sufficient to convey meaning when the dialogue sometimes becomes merely a stream of sounds, often in iambic pentameter.

As with previous Stage productions, director Tresnjak is also the scenic designer, and he has given the audience a pastel paradise that seems more Middle-Eastern (Istanbul?) than specifically Greek. In fact, it’s a Disney World environment that embraces the look and feel of the films mentioned in the program and allows for the various anachronisms that proliferate.
Jolly Abraham and Tyler Lansing Weaks

If you refer to Shakespeare’s text, here’s how the play opens:

SCENE I. A hall in DUKE SOLINUS'S palace.
(Enter DUKE SOLINUS, AEGEON, Gaoler, Officers, and other Attendants).
AEGEON: Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall / And by the doom of death end woes and all.

Well, that’s not good enough for Tresnjak. Instead, we get a Courtesan (Paula Leggett Chase) enticing the audience with a sultry version of “Never on Sunday,” accompanied by two Musicians (Louis Tucci and Alexander Sovronsky). Then there’s some background exposition that sets out the basic premise: Two twin brothers, along with their twin servants, were separated as children by a storm; one set, Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler) end up in, of course, Syracuse, and the other set, also named Antipholus (Ryan-James Hatanaka) and Dromio (Matthew Macca) land in Ephesus. The former set, now adults, arrives in Ephesus where Aegeon (the two Antipholuses’s – or is it Antipholi’s – father has been arrested because a Syracuse merchant ain’t supposed to be in Ephesus).
The cast
The boys from Syracuse are footloose and fancy free, but Antipholus of Ephesus is married to Adriana (a marvelously bitchy and inebriated Jolly Abraham) and his Dromio is attached to the rather rotund serving maid Nell (the athletic Tara Heal). To add to the mix, Adriana has a sister, the prim and proper Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) who will eventually let down her hair (literally and figuratively), as well as various policemen, prostitutes, fun-loving tourists, waiters and Ephesians.

Well, you know what happens. The Syracuse duo is mistaken for their Ephesian twins. Oh, the confusion – consider the possibilities (Shakespeare did). Who is married to whom? Who owes whom what? To who or to whom, that is the question. Does it all matter? Not really. In Tresnjak’s hands the basic play is like pizza dough – it all depends on what you put on top -- and Tresnjak has decided to use unexpected ingredients. You may not have tasted them before in concert, but after the initial “Does that go with that?” you realize that it all works and is altogether pleasing to the play-going palate.
Matthew Macca and Ryan-James Hatanaka
Take your pick as to what pleases your palate the most, but for my money the extended Bollywood dance scene (choreography by Peggy Hickey) near the end of the show is something I’d order up on a regular basis (and it would bring me back to the theater for a second serving). First, it is totally unexpected. Second, it’s extravagantly exuberant. And third, it’s just sheer fun, and the cast (it’s an ensemble dance number) just seems to have been waiting for this moment to let it all hang out. For those not familiar with this type of production dance number, you might want to check out Bride and Prejudice on You Tube.

On opening night the theater was packed, and it probably will be for the show’s run. We all go to the theater for different reasons, and one of them is just to have a hell of a good time, to not brood, despair or ponder but simply to revel in excess, to set aside our political-correctness for a moment and unabashedly laugh at the fat lady’s pratfalls. We may feel a bit guilty in the morning, but what the hell.

The Comedy of Errors runs through February 12. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Playing the Game to the Bitter End

Endgame -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Feb. 5

Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The detritus of life – chairs piled atop chairs, torn and dusty books, various small appliances – are what set designer Eugene Lee has chosen to frame the otherwise empty room where life is coming to an end or, horrors of horrors, never-ending. Such is the setting for Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, currently on the boards at Long Wharf Theatre. If you are in any way bedeviled by depression, this is perhaps not the play to see, for although there’s humor, it is mere punctuation to the despair that comes when life, at its end, gradually becomes meaningless and the stories you tell trail off into silence.

Originally written in French and translated into English by the playwright, Endgame, at least in its English title (the original title was Fin de partie), refers to the final moves in the game of chess when the outcome is all but apparent, as is the eventual outcome for all those alive is also apparent. As directed by Gordon Edelstein, this bleak look at the end of existence is both riveting and enigmatic. As a playgoer, if you demand meaning and message writ large you will be sorely disappointed.

This four-character, one-act play defies easy interpretation. There is a symbiotic relationship at its core, for Hamm (Brian Dennehy) is blind and confined to his wheelchair, while his servant (Slave? Ward?), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) cannot sit down. Hamm demands and Clov complies, but the relationship keeps both men alive. Then there are Hamm’s parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Lynn Cohen), both of whom live, if you can call it that, in what look like large laundry baskets, or perhaps dustbins. Then there’s a stuffed, three-legged dog, a flea and a rat. The stuffed dog, created by Clov, has yet to have its genitals added, but the flea and the rat are fully capable of rampant procreation, much to the distaste of both Hamm and Clov, for procreation means continuation, perhaps of hell on earth.
Lynn Cohen and Joe Grifasi

Many critics have taken a shot at interpreting what Beckett wrote. Some have suggested that the two small windows set high in the room are eyes and hence the set is really a cranium and what we are experiencing are the random, frightened, disconnected thoughts of a human slowly descending into oblivion, complete with rambling diatribes that are often little more than fractured bits of biography. Perhaps. And yet there is also an underlying aching need for human contact that runs through the play – Nagg wishes Nann to scratch an itch, down low, and they attempt, unsuccessfully, to kiss; near the end of the play, Clov, who swore that he could not touch Hamm, leans his head down on Hamm’s shoulder in a tentative embrace.

Whatever you think might be going on up on the stage, and whatever you suppose it might mean, is secondary to the delight to be found in watching and hearing these four fine actors ply their trade. Grifasi and Cohen, as the aged parents, are pitch-perfect, and even though you only see the top halves of their bodies their body language is wonderfully evocative. Cathey does wonders with a step-ladder and captures the frustrated need of a man who is both enslaved and in need, and Dennehy, without moving from his perch, creates a man who is in conflict with himself, eager for death yet clinging to life, his shield, his means of denial of the inevitable, an overt verbosity…and a whistle that, when blown, signifies his need for attention, for contact.

The program notes, written by dramaturg Christine Scarfuto, point out that during World War II Beckett did volunteer work in a hospital in Saint-Lo, a town that was essentially leveled during the Allied invasion of Normandy. She writes that there were “only a few shells of bombed out buildings left standing.” Perhaps that is what Clov is seeing when, at Hamm’s command, he looks out the two small windows in the room – nothing is moving, the sea is dead, a gray pall hangs over everything, the sun has been obliterated. Faced with such devastation, faced with the inevitability of demise, this dark, devilish play suggests that “And yet we go on” – to our credit or to our despair.

Endgame runs through Feb. 5. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Monday, January 16, 2017

[headline of review]

[title of show] -- Playhouse on Park -- thru Jan.29

Peej Mele, Miles Jacoby, Amanda Forker, Ashley Brooke,
Austin Cook. Photo by Photo by Meredith Atkinson

I am sitting at my desk at 6:54 a.m. writing a review of [title of show], which I saw on Sunday at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. I am drinking a cup of coffee and weighing whether I should call the musical a meta-musical, because it’s a musical about itself, about the writing of a musical. An image comes to mind – [title of show] is akin to an embryo writing about its own gestation, so maybe it’s an embryonic musical. That image is supplanted by the word “solipsistic,” because [title of show] is absorbed with itself. Right now I’m not sure what tag I will use.

It’s now 7:03 a.m. The elements of a review require that I now give a hint about what I think about the production being reviewed. That’s because most people don’t read beyond the first or second paragraph of a review. I want to do this, but what I really want to write about at this point is a lady with a walker who sat in the first row house left (there were many people with walkers at this matinee performance – as they gathered to enter the house it reminded me of that scene from The Producers when all the potential backers of Springtime for Hitler [all ladies of a certain age] do a chorus line number). In any event, about 30 minutes into the show this lady stood up and, hands on her walker, toddled to her left, then she turned and walked to her right, then turned and again walked to her left, then right, then left. Given that the Playhouse is configured as a thrust stage, the five actors, Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Peej Mele as Hunter, Ashley Brooke as Susan, Amanda Forker as Heidi and Austin Cook as the pianist, Larry, must have seen her and wondered, “What the hell is she doing?”

Well, 14 minutes have elapsed and I still haven’t given that hint. My bad. Okay, the production is enjoyable but the performances are a bit uneven and the last 10 or 15 minutes of this one-act show seem to go on forever. There, that’s done. Now, what’s next. Oh, yes, a little bit of exposition, background, etc.

Well – wait, I have to get a coffee refill ------------------- Hi, back again. Okay, so back in 2004 Hunter Bell learns that the New York Musical Theater Festival is seeking submissions. The only problem is, the deadline is three weeks away. Undaunted, Bell, with his friend Jeff Bowen, a composer and lyricist, proceed to create a musical about, well, doing what they’re doing: creating a musical. They enlist the help of two actresses, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, and the effort becomes a chronicle of their efforts. The musical gets six performances at the festival (lots of revisions), is work-shopped at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center (lots of revisions), finally makes it to Off-Broadway (Obie awards! Lots of revisions) and then – Broadway! Okay, enough of that.

What’s next? Well, I haven’t yet told you who directed this production. That would be David Edwards, a theater pro who is very familiar to Ivoryton Playhouse patrons, having starred in the Playhouse’s production of La Cage aux Folles and directed the outstanding staging of South Pacific. The challenge for Edwards is that [title of show] seems to cry out for presentation in a proscenium format, i.e., the audience members all staring in one direction at what is going on up on the stage. In blocking this production, Edwards had to take into account that the patrons are viewing the goings-on from three different directions. He succeeds up to a point, but there are moments – chief among them when Heidi does a quasi-nudity reveal and must turn so that the entire audience gets to see her juggling her brassiered breasts – that draw attention to themselves. Thus, the energy of the musical, which should be thrust forward out at the audience, is, by necessity, somewhat diffused.

Okay, another cup of coffee and a quick check of emails – just received my electricity bill and two people want to be Friends on Facebook (don’t know either one of them). Oh, look, a new version of Adobe Acrobat is available. Sorry. Back to the review. What’s up next? Oh, yes, the acting. Well, let’s just say it’s early days for this ensemble – the show runs through January 29 – and the disparate performances may very well find a common ground. Right now, these “friends” simply don’t seem to mesh in terms of energy levels. Mele, as the overtly gay book writer, seems to own the stage, challenged only by Brooke’s barefoot portrayal of Susan, who uses excellent body language to punctuate her lines and does a knock-out rendition of “Die, Vampire. Die!” Jacoby and Forker, at least at this point in production run, have yet to “find” their characters. They deliver their lines well but there’s yet no sense of who these characters are – in essence they’ve yet to find the “juice” that will allow Jeff and Heidi to come alive, though Forker does shine when she and Brooke have their moment alone onstage in “Secondary Characters.”

Now, what’s required is a wrap-up, and given the nature of a review I must return to how I opened and determine what as yet hasn’t been explained. Oops – a phone call – at 8:14 no less! – from a company that wants me to consider my electricity-supplier options. Okay, so what about the last 10 or 15 minutes of the show? Well, I search for an image or metaphor. None comes to mind (bad writer – bad writer). What am I trying to convey? At the end of the (heavily revised) show there’s just a lot a yackety-yack when there should be a “rush” towards a conclusion. It’s not the time for exposition – a litany of then this happened and then this happened. You know there’s something wrong when the audience has to be told that this is the final line of the show – that should be inherent in the line itself and the emotions that have led up to it.

[title of show], a meta-embryonic-solipsistic musical, runs through January 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to