Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Compelling "Cat"

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof -- MTC Mainstage (Norwalk) -- Through November 18

Front: Andrea Lynn Green, Cynthia Hannah, Robert Mobley
Back: Michael Raver, Frank Mastrone, Elizabeth Donnelly
               
             Well, Tennessee Williams certainly knew his Tolstoy (I assume), for in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play (1955). “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” he confirms that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Over the course of the play’s two acts, which is currently being staged at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk under the very capable direction of Kevin Connors, the Pollitt family proves that there are multiple ways to be unhappy but, fortunately, that unhappiness doesn’t extend to the audience’s experience, for Connors has crafted an excellent rendition of what is reportedly thought to be Williams’ favorite play.
            The “cat” in the play’s title is Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), a poor girl who married-up when she wed Brick (Michael Raver), youngest son of Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone) and Big Mamma (Cynthia Hannah). The Pollitts are looked upon as Mississippi royalty, for Big Daddy owns the biggest plantation in the state. However, his wealth does not guarantee happiness, for as the family, including eldest son Gooper (Robert Mobley) and his pregnant wife Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly), has gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday they keep from him and his wife the truth about Big Daddy’s recent medical check-up. He believes he has gotten a clean bill of health but, in fact, he is dying of cancer. Thus, his wealth will soon be up for grabs, and this grabbing fuels much of the play, as does one of its stated themes: mendacity.

            The play’s first act (and the necessary exposition) is basically driven by Maggie, who early on reveals that all is not well in the bedroom with her husband. He sleeps on the sofa. Why? Well, Brick, an ex-football player, had a close relationship (Brick claims it was “pure”) with Skipper, another football player, a young man who committed suicide after…well, see the play to find out. In any event, soon after Skipper’s death Brick eschews his marital duties and takes to the bottle. For the duration of the play he uses a crutch, having injured himself while attempting to leap hurdles in a late-night run – yes, it’s all heavily metaphoric, but it doesn’t get in the way of or dominate the human wants, desires and frustrations that propel the play.

            Green gives Maggie multiple levels of humanity – yes, she’s a “cat,” a creature driven by physical needs, but she’s also a perceptive human being who understands the dynamics of the Pollitt family and suspects the reasons for Brick leaving their marriage bed. She, as with the rest of the family, has secrets that will be revealed over the course of the play. It’s an intriguing, multi-level performance.
          Raver really doesn’t have much to do in the first act other than mope and drink, but his character comes to full life in the second act with Brick’s extended “conversation” with Big Daddy, an outstanding Mastrone. This extended set-piece is at the heart of the play and it’s vital to understanding why this family is so unhappy, for Big Daddy, still unaware that he has terminal cancer, revels in the idea of 20 or so more years of life and the possibilities inherent, including relationships with women other than his wife. His son, on the crutch, views his own life as basically terminated. The scene runs for many minutes and is absolutely riveting, for the audience knows that so much more is being implied than is being verbalized.]\
            The play wends its way towards multiple revelations in a final family gathering (with excellent blocking by Connors) that includes a preacher (Jim Schilling) and a doctor (Jeff Gurner). As Big Daddy’s pending demise is finally acknowledged there is a less-than-subtle battle for control of the family’s wealth, with Maggie attempting to motivate Brick to defend his patrimony. It’s a truly well-staged set-piece that Connors has blocked to emphasize the flow of emotions and the shifts in power-positions. Who is the ultimate winner? Well, cats often figure out a way to get what they want.
            Given the relative intimacy of MTC’s stage, you can’t help but be drawn into the passions and frustrations of these characters, and Connors (and whoever else was responsible) has put together a fine cast that ably brings to life the unhappiness that rules the Pollitt family. As mentioned, Mastrone is a superb Big Daddy, and Raver shows his acting chops in the second act in the extended father-son confrontation. Hannah, as Big Mamma, ably personifies matriarchal denial and, in the second act, Connelly and Mobley portray mendaciousness itself as they, as Mae and Gooper, attempt to take control of Big Daddy’s wealth.
            All in all, this is an intense, intelligent production of an American theatrical classic. It’s gripping and subtle and, above all, thanks to Green’s performance, sensual on a level that bespeaks both need and desire. Yes, Maggie is a “cat,” but she’s a feline that yearns to be petted and yet a “cat” that knows how to defend her territory. She purrs when appropriate, but she has claws.
            There are different versions of the play, and Connors has chosen the version that ends with Brick contemplating the possibility, as his father does at the end of the first act about his own marriage, that his wife actually loves him. The last line -- "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" – captures the hurt, confusion and underlying deep need that make the Pollitts such an unhappy family.
            “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” runs through November 18. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.
 

 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Death and the Children

Thousand Pines -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Through November 17

William Ragsdale, Katie Ailion, Joby Earle, Andrew Veenstra
Kelly McAndrew, Anne Bates. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Get your programs here. You can’t tell the players without a program.
            Those attending a performance of Matthew Greene’s Thousand Pines, which recently premiered at Westport Country Playhouse under the direction of Austin Pendelton, might legitimately engage in a bit of head-scratching and allow to arise such thoughts as “What the hell’s going on up on the stage?” and “Wait a minute, isn’t he her husband and isn’t she…?” Well, as a public service, and to decrease the amount of dandruff left behind in the theater after the head-scratching, I humbly offer this explication of what, I believe, Greene has concocted.
            The Thousand Pines in the title is a junior high school that has experienced a shooting episode somewhat similar to what occurred at Columbine. Children were killed, and three families attempt, six months later during Thanksgiving, to deal with the tragedy in their own ways. What may cause some of the head-scratching is that the family members in all three families are portrayed by the same actors, and even though costume designer Barbara A. Bell has attempted to distinguish the various members in the different families you can’t deny that, well, the family members – or neighbors – are, well, the same people.
            This is an important play dealing with a gripping issue. Because I was one of the head-scratchers on opening night, I went back several nights later to see if I could understand more clearly what the playwright was up to – and I did – mostly. I still have some questions that the staging of the production might answer – and the playwright might consider not being so coy about who is whom and their relationships, but that being said, there is much to admire about Thousand Pines.
            Much of the admiration must be directed towards Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), who plays the mother in each of the three families. In the first family, she creates a woman in total denial of what has occurred, someone who, with a wave of a hand and a mashing of potatoes can make the demons disappear, demons her family, via their son, is responsible for. Yes, this may be a spoiler alert, but it’s a necessary one: the first family we see first is that of the child who was responsible for the shootings.
            In the first family, Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6) is the son who can’t abide his mother’s approach to the tragedy – he will reappear, significantly, in the third scene to offer a resolution of sorts. Then there’s his fianc√© played by Katie Ailion (Actor 5) and Joby Earle (Actor 4) who (take notice!) has had a confrontation at a local grocery store – he claims it was with a woman who assaulted him when he attempted to buy the last box of butter – not true!
            There’s a fade-out-fade-in and we’re in another dining room in the same town, but this time it’s the home of one of the victims, and McAndrew, with a costume change and the deft use of eye glasses as a prop, is now a mother seeking justice, with her ex-husband, played by William Ragsdale (Actor 2), a lawyer, handling the case. This mother is all business and out for whatever vengeance she can obtain from the legal system. Her daughter (Ailion) is bitter about the attention her mother gave to the mother’s now deceased stepson and the daughter’s lover (this seems a bit gratuitous plot point, but, whatever…) is a teacher played by Anne Bates (Actor 3) who was at the school and…well…just listen up at the end of this scene to understand what happened. 
            In the final family – again, a family of one of the victims – McAndrew, now dressed in jeans and a man’s work-shirt, and with a distinct change of voice, is a mother who, through sarcasm, is simply trying to deal with the tragedy. Now, Earle is her brother, who comes home with a broken hand (see scene 1), having been arrested by a sheriff’s deputy (Ragsdale). This grieving family will eventually be visited by the brother of the shooter (again, Veenstra) who, over pieces of apple pie, will offer the possibility of closure.
Why my initial problems with understanding what was happening? Well, besides the fact that we have the same actors playing different roles, the set by Walt Spangler doesn’t change – in all three scenes it looks essentially like the same dining room, so one must pay close attention to the necessary exposition that begins each of these scenes to understand the relationships of the characters. There’s also the red herring about the assault described in the first scene – you have to pay close attention to connect what happens (or is described) in scene one with what’s going on in the third scene.
            Should audiences have to work this hard to comprehend what’s happening up on the stage? I don’t know (probably not, unless they’re waiting for Godot). Given the subject matter of the play, I don’t think it should be muted or left open to interpretation. The script might be tweaked a bit, and the production team might consider how to provide audio and visual cues to help the audience members orient themselves as we move from household to household.
            If there’s one clarifying and unifying element in this production it’s McAndrew’s outstanding, multi-faceted performance as the three mothers. The dining room may look the same, but she gives us three very distinct characters, each driven by different needs, desires, fears and coping mechanisms. I was fascinated by what she was accomplishing the first time I saw the play and remained in awe (with a greater understanding) with my second go-around. If you have a budding actor in the family, bring him or her to the Country Playhouse for an engrossing acting tutorial given by McAndrew. They will learn more in 90 minutes than they would in two semesters in acting school
            Thousand Pines runs through November 17. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Playing the Game

The God Game -- Square One Theatre Company -- Through November 18

Danielle Sultini, Kiel Stango and David Victor

                Good writing, good acting and good direction -- not much more you can ask for in an evening of theater, and that’s what Square One Theatre Company delivers in its production of Suzanne Bradbeer’s “The God Game” under the direction of Tom Holehan. This is the season for openings at theaters here in Connecticut – I’ve been to several and have three more scheduled for this week -- but, so far, this two-act play has been the most engaging. It’s an intelligent look at the world of politics and, even more important, a look into the hearts and souls of three people who struggle to maintain their beliefs and their integrity.
                The play is set in the suburban Virginia home of Tom and Lisa. Tom (a tremendously convincing David Victor), is the junior senator for the state and Lisa (an engaging Danielle Sultini) is his wife. It’s their wedding anniversary, and Tom has, almost, agreed to go to church with Lisa. Their plans are disrupted by the arrival of Matt (an intense Kiel Stango), who is one of the political operatives working to get the Republican candidate for the presidency elected. He is also the former lover of Tom’s brother, who died a year ago in a car crash. Yes, it sounds like the stuff of a soap opera, but it isn’t, because Bradbeer deals with ideas and emotions that run deeper than that.
                Matt has shown up to see if he can get Tom to agree to be the vice-presidential candidate, to balance the ticket. Of course, Tom will have to be vetted to see if there are any skeletons in the closet. Tom is essentially a straight-arrow – the only problem might be his religious convictions, for although Lisa is a devoted Christian Tom is an agnostic.
                What follows is an intriguing exercise in the discussion of values and, in the current political climate, the challenge to say what you believe rather than what is politically expedient (or simply not true). This may all sound a bit pretentious, but it isn’t, because Victor, Sultini and Stango deftly create flesh-and-blood characters who, as we all do, wiggle on the hooks of moral choices, prejudice and the quandary of achieving personal gain (and power) versus maintaining a sense of dignity and, well, being true to yourself.
                As the senator, Victor gives us a man who is tempted to make a devil’s bargain, and the actor does so with a great deal of style and grace, and with body language and intonation conveys the internal dilemma Tom faces. As Tom’s wife, Sultini is not a simple, born-again Christian – she believes in God but also believes in her husband and fights to have him be the man she knows him to be. Stango, playing the political activist, a dedicated ‘spin doctor,’ the front man for the presidential candidate, must, over the course of the play, face certain decisions he has made, especially with regards to his homosexuality and his relationship with Tom’s brother.
                “The God Game” is essentially about the games those in politics must play, but it’s also about the games they must play – or choose not to – with their own beliefs. In essence, the play is about integrity, or the lack thereof, and goes well beyond red-state-blue-state antagonisms. The simple set designed by Robert Mastroni is dominated by a portrait of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence. It’s an iconic reminder of our country’s basic values and the decisions – most of them wise – that they arrived at after contentious discussions and bitter debates.
                “The God Game” is presented on a single set in a relatively small theater (which limits, to a certain extent, the actors’ movements), but the size of the theater and the lack of bells and whistles doesn’t matter, because Victor, Sultini and Stango ably create characters that you care about – you care about their trials and tribulations, the decisions they must make, and the personal relationships that affect those decisions. Thus, the senator’s final moments, with his wife by his side at a press conference, tell us all we need to know about his character and the values he has opted to uphold. Quite simply, this is good theater and well worth the trip to Stratford to be given the opportunity to think about what we are not willing to sacrifice – no matter the possible gain.
“The God Game” runs through November 18. For tickets or more information call the box office at 203.375.8778 or go to squareonetheatre.com

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Sterile "Cuckoo"

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- Playhouse on Park -- Through November 18



So, you decide to bake a loaf of bread. You gather the best ingredients you can find, mix them all together, form the loaf and pop it in the oven. Unfortunately, you missed one ingredient, and that was yeast. Thus, the ingredients don’t interact the way they should and you end up with, well, matzah, something palatable but essentially flat and flavorless. Such is the case with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which just opened up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. All the ingredients are there, save for the yeast – what gets all the ingredients interacting.

The play, based on Ken Kesey’s iconic 1962 novel, was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman and later turned into a 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson. Set in an Oregon sanitarium, the play deals with the conflict between the individual, as personified by Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and the institution, as personified by Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell). The latter character’s name suggests “ratchet,” that is “a bar or wheel with a set of angled teeth,” a functioning part of a machine.

McMurphy is a rebel, a man who bridles when constrained by rules; Nurse Ratched thrives on rules. Hence the inherent conflict as McMurphy enters a ward where the “patients,” all males, have been cowed, brow beaten and essentially emasculated by Ratched. The Playhouse production, as directed by Ezra Barnes, captures this idea, but what is missing -- the yeast – is the psycho-sexual tension between McMurphy and Ratched. It’s just not there, and its omission basically emasculates the play.

Willinger and Randell, both admirable actors with impressive stage credits, simply don’t seem to connect on a kinetic level. Yes, they ably convey the idea of the battle between man and machine, but there should be something else going on, a love-hate relationship, if you will, that leads to the final confrontation when McMurphy attacks Ratched. Without this underlying tension the play is one-dimensional.

There’s also a lack of a sense of “triumph” in the final scene, when Chief Bromden (Santos), one of the inmates, finally breaks free and realizes he is big enough to again confront the world. It should be a signifying moment emphasizing humanity’s triumph over the machine, but in this production it doesn’t play that way – there are a few sparks, but their significance is probably lost on most of the audience. The play should end with a bang but, alas, it’s more of a whisper.

Running well over two hours, this production does feature some fine moments, chief among them Adam Kee’s portrayal of Dale Harding, one of the patients, the ostensible leader of the patients. Equally engaging is Santos’s take on the supposedly mute Chief Bromden and Alex Rafala as the sexually repressed, mother-dominated Billy Bibbitt. But it all comes down to what’s going on between McMurphy and Ratched, and here one might question director Barnes’ hand in all of this. One never really knows what went on in rehearsals, what notes or suggestions the director might have given, but there’s a sense that Barnes either disregarded or missed the essence of the “yeast” that would make “Cuckoo’s Nest” rise to become gripping drama.

A case in point. Near the end of the second act, McMurphy has orchestrated a “party” that involves bringing two prostitutes into the ward and fueling the evening with a concoction of alcohol and medications. One of his goals is to, well, get Billy laid. The ensuing ruckus draws the staff’s attention, including the appearance of Nurse Ratched, who, once she realizes what Billy has been up to, proceeds to send him on a guilt-trip that leads to his suicide, but Ratched’s attack is also about her own sexual frustrations vis-√†-vis McMurphy, who, from the start, has confronted her super ego with an indomitable id. The scene, as staged by Barnes, seems to miss the underlying point, and thus lacks the gravitas and depth it should have.

The Playhouse’s production of “Cuckoo’s Nest” presents the Kesey story-line but doesn’t seem to wish to grapple with the underlying tensions that motivate the main characters. Yes, McMurphy is an idiosyncratic rebel and Ratched is the essence of systematic conformity, we get that, but there should be something else going on. As antagonistic as McMurphy and Ratched are, they should be the yin and yang of a dynamic that can lead to a fulfilling relationship or mutual destruction. Rathched’s final moment with a lobotomized McMurphy should embrace both her victory over him and her sublimated desire. It doesn’t.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” runs through November 18. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org