Monday, January 21, 2013

Jolting and Surreal

"January Joiner" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Feb. 10

                                    Anthony Bowden, Maria-Christina Oliveras 
                                    and Tonya Glanz. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Let’s talk about metaphors. Essentially, a metaphor says this is this but it’s also that, it’s two mints in one. Yes, that’s a tree, but it also represents a family, and as the tree rots so does the family. For metaphors to work, there has to be some underlying connection, some visual or sensory link – ah, a tree grows, spreads and dies, like a family, because the roots are infected. Got it. Think of Willy Loman, in “Death of a Salesman,” trying to plant a garden, new growth, in soil that will no longer support life. Got it. It works. Why this discussion? Well, when a metaphor doesn’t work, when there’s no association, no underlying connection, it leaves you scratching your head, asking what does a rutabaga have to do with insider trading, or space aliens have to do with weight loss? Hence the head scratching as you leave Long Wharf’s Stage Two after sitting through the premiere of “January Joiner,” a play by Laura Jacqmin that intrigues, entrances and...leaves one asking…what the hell?

This is a slick, stylized deftly staged and directed production of a play that should have been vetted, and by that I mean someone should have asked Jacqmin: “What are you really trying to say?” We are in Florida, at an up-scale weight-loss spa, where three people have come to lose weight or, in the parlance of the play, change their images. This will be accomplished through a rigorous regimen of exercise and the limited consumption of things most people don’t, on a regular basis, find edible, overseen by two slim trainers who have their own body issues.

Stage Two’s foyer is plastered with posters dealing with obesity and food obsession, and the program is littered with detailed information about body weight and eating disorders, but that really isn’t what the play is about. It’s about relationships, and when it deals with these relationships (sisters growing up “fat,” trainers obsessed with their bodies, physical attraction measured by weight and size), the production is intriguing and, at times, trenchant. Obesity and sizeism (is that a word?) are important, multidimensional topics on their own, but Jacqmin has chosen to add a layer of surrealism that simply confounds. We have a talking and vengeful vending machine, which stands, I imagine, for the advertising and marketing efforts of companies that wish to sell “food” as a release and cure for angst and anxiety. Understood. But then there are creatures who appear and wreak havoc – and who are they? It’s not clear. We tumble into a world that takes us far, far away from topic Jacqmin has chosen to deal with.

The program guide offers a quote from Thomas Sipos’s “Horror Film Aesthetics” that seeks to justify what goes on in this production, but horror films must, if nothing else, have an inherent logic, and “January Joiner” doesn’t. This is unfortunate, since the cast members are, by and large, stellar, and they work to create moments of magic – this is especially true of Terry (Ashlie Atkinson) and Myrtle (Meredith Holzman), two sisters, who share moments of intimacy and antagonism, and the two trainers, April (Tonya Glanz) and Brian (Anthony Bowden)), who deftly capture characters who are entranced by their body images and all that these images imply.

Director Eric Ting, who seems to get the nod when a Long Wharf plays is a bit off the beaten track, keeps things moving, and set designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, support the overall sense of danger inherent in focusing on body image above all else, but this is a play that stumbles over its own images, graphic as they may be. The first act ends with a “What just happened?” moment. The second act wanders into never-never land to offer an explanation of sorts, in the process losing sight of the basic tension, which is how does society influence how we view our bodies?

There’s a lot in “January Joiner” to chew on. Just be careful that you don’t try to bite down on something that’s a bit too hard to swallow.

“January Joiner” runs through Feb. 10. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4284 or go to 

-- Geary Danihy 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Life In Song

"Breath & Imagination" -- Hartford Stage

                         Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

How to pigeonhole “Breath & Imagination,” a play by Daniel Beaty that is receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage? Yes, it is a play, of sorts – there is dramatic tension and conflict -- but it can also qualify as a musical, since there are over 20 musical numbers in the two-act production. However, many do not directly relate to or move the action forward, so it also has the feel of a musical revue. As a hybrid, it often captivates as, under Darko Tresnjak’s direction, it tells the story of Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist – his rise from poverty, his battles with racism and his search for the true nature of his art, but then again, it also pontificates and, at times, seems underdeveloped, leaving one with more questions than answers. You come away having learned a lot about who Hayes was, but not really understanding the man’s soul. Perhaps that is too much to ask.

As Hayes, Jubilant Sykes, with his rich baritone voice, is called upon to portray the future international star as a child, a teenager, a struggling young adult, a conflicted artist and a man finally embracing his heritage and weaving it into his art. It’s a commanding performance, given that in both dialogue and song he must convey the growth and maturation of his character. There aren’t any false notes here, although I would question a repeated facial expression at the end of many of his numbers – at first it seemed to evoke a dawning awareness of his talent, but it is seen over and over again – eyes wide, almost as if in amazement, a somewhat lopsided grin; a look that seems to be asking for, begging for, approval. I’m not sure what it is supposed to convey.

Kecia Lewis plays against Sykes as Hayes’ mother, Angel Mo’. The daughter of slaves, Angel Mo’ is a strong-willed woman who holds firm religious beliefs that she passes on to her son, urging him to become a preacher. Some of the exchanges between mother and son, as written by Beaty, border on the cliché, and there are moments when you can almost see a neon sign flashing “Message! Message!” above the actors’ heads, but the interaction between Lewis and Sykes is strong enough that they overcome whatever weaknesses there are in the script and end up giving the audience some truly moving and humorous moments.

The play has Hayes interacting with, learning from, being supported by and/or humiliated by a host of characters, all played by the very versatile Tom Frey, who also accompanies Sykes and Lewis on the piano. Frey is able to realize most of the characters he is called upon to portray, save for a rather Monty Pythonesque “Miss Robinson” and a somewhat simpering King George V. He is most effective as a racist police officer, as Pa, Hayes’ father, Mr. Calhoun, a teacher who takes young Hayes under his wing, and, of course, as the accompanist.

Despite some repetitive blocking that has Sykes and Lewis walking around the limits of the stage perhaps once too often (always counterclockwise), Tresnjak keeps the action moving and, along with York Kennedy’s outstanding lighting design and some very effective sound design by Jane Shaw, deftly handles shifts in time and place as the story moves backwards and forwards. Perhaps the most riveting moments are those when Hayes is suddenly back in that Georgia police station, asking about his wife and child, being threatened – and eventually beaten -- by a baton-wielding cop. The scene is used as punctuation – when things are going well for Hayes, it crashes in like a visual dark night of the soul, constantly reminding the audience of the tightrope Hayes walked as he struggled to become a world-class artist while, at home, he and his family were always subject to the vicious whims of those who believed they held sway merely due to the color of their – and Hayes’ -- skin.

The music is a mix of classical (Faure and Schumann), traditional spirituals and new songs written by Beaty, and it is here that, oddly enough, the play seems to miss some major opportunities, especially with the integration of the African-American spirituals into Hayes’ repertoire. Time after time, the connection between what we are learning about Hayes’ life and what Sykes is singing is dangled out there, almost realized, waiting for a clearer frame. It almost seems as if the play is one character short, missing someone who might have provided a larger, more inclusive perspective on the life, times and art  of Roland Hayes.

“Breath & Imagination” intrigues, entices and entertains. What it doesn’t do is deliver the emotional punch that is promised (or perhaps desired) but never realized. That it is a mere half-step away from doing so means that you come away wanting more but not exactly sure what that “more” entails.

“Breath & Imagination” runs through Feb. 9. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Critic's Job

“In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”
-- Edgar Allan Poe

Several people who have accompanied me to plays I was reviewing have asked me why I don’t take notes. To be honest, when I first started I did take notes – scribbles in the dark, more comprehensible jottings written during intermission – but I soon realized I never used them and, in fact, the taking of notes was skewing my experience of the play. Pad and pen in hand, I was not a true member of the audience, I was a “judge,” waiting for something to happen that would justify a notation.

Now I simply plop myself down in the seat and watch, but that doesn’t mean my brain isn’t working on multiple levels, for, as I see it, my job as a reviewer is five-fold: I need to experience the production as an audience member – a human being responding to the efforts of other human beings, seen and unseen, to transport me to a world different than my own -- but I must also keep in mind that I will eventually have to write something about what I am seeing that will, ideally, instruct, inform, evaluate and entertain. I’ve thought quite a bit about these multiple aspects of reviewing and although I haven’t come to any final conclusions (perhaps there aren’t any), the cogitations have, if nothing else, refined what I write (whether for better or worse remains to be seen).

I am not impressed by critics who draw attention to themselves while in the audience, whether it’s by flashing a press kit or name-dropping loudly enough so those audience members within proximity know that they’re sitting near someone “special.” I was at a performance at the Yale Rep in New Haven, CT, several years ago when a critic sitting several rows in front of me used a pen with a built-in laser light to facilitate his note taking during the performance. Not only was it distracting it was a subtly self-defining statement: “The rest of you are mere members of the audience while I am charged with evaluating what you are watching; I am not one of the unwashed, I am a critic!”

As I sit waiting for the house lights to go down I try to cleanse my mind of the idea that I am hear to “evaluate.” I place the press kit (unread) on the floor beneath my seat and engage in one of my favorite pastimes: people-watching. As I do so, I try to generate the normal emotions of any playgoer: I wonder what I’m about to see? I hope it will be “good,” although what that word means is elusive. I am a person who is about to invest two to three hours in watching a world unfold. I hope that “world” will be enjoyable, meaningful, entertaining, engrossing, memorable…understandable.

In essence, I have the greatest of expectations -- even when there is a part of me, that critic that I can’t totally erase, that might have a doubt or two. However, over the years I have found that these doubts are often unfounded. Two productions at MTC MainStage in Westport, CT, come to mind. Before the lights went down I wasn’t sure how this venue, restricted only by size, could pull off “Cabaret.” It did, with a vengeance. Then there was “Next to Normal” – an emotionally charged musical that, I thought, was simply too high-powered to work within the confines of the theater. I was ready to squirm; instead, I was riveted.

Then there’s the “This is really going to be good” mind-set. If I hadn’t been disabused of that notion already, sitting through “The Killing of Sister George” at New Haven's Long Wharf was the cure. You just never know, which is as it should be.

So, at the outset I try to approach each production simply as another theatergoer but, of course, things happen that trigger other responses. What are they? They are myriad. It could be a lighting or sound cue not dead-on, a bit of blocking that just doesn’t seem to work, a cross that seems unmotivated, dialogue meant to convey passion delivered by two actors who lack chemistry, pacing that seems a bit off, choreography slightly out of sync. In essence, it is rare that there is not a moment when, try as I might, I don’t shift gears, that the audience member in me fades and the critic comes forth. These moments imprint on my mind and on the drive home they start to evolve into paragraphs that will eventually become an attempt to capture what was right and wrong with the production I have just watched.

Ah, “right” and “wrong.” Would that these terms could, in matters theatrical, be concretely defined, but beyond general guidelines, they can’t. Hence, I acknowledge that what I write is essentially subjective, backed only by whatever knowledge and actual experience I have of the theater and my trust in my “human” response to what I see, what it does to me, how it makes me feel. However, unlike the normal audience member, I have to explain these effects, explicate those feelings…in a review.

This brings me to the aspects of what we do, beyond being an audience member, that should be part of, in my opinion, any competent review: we must “instruct, inform, evaluate and entertain.” I’ll deal with “entertain” first, since it is perhaps not the most obvious.

A review is, in essence, an essay, and any essay worth its salt (i.e., one that a reader wants to read to the finish) must capture the reader’s attention and, using various rhetorical devices, cajole, amuse, challenge and divert. After all, the reader could just as well use the time it takes to read a review to eat a bagel, wash some cups or weed the flower box. A large part of entertaining, I imagine, comes down to that indefinite term “voice” or, in more technical terms, persona. Thus, each review must have a created “person” behind it, someone the reader can hear, someone with a certain attitude. Yes, it’s a pose, but a necessary one, vital, and that’s why the first two paragraphs of a review are so important, because they not only let the reader know what the “essay” is about and the reviewer’s general take on the production before he or she gets down to details, it also establishes the “voice” of the article, and it is the “voice” that entertains.

Going back to the laundry list, “instruct” sounds a bit didactic, but most theater-goers really don’t know much about the mechanics and terminology of the theater, nor should they. It’s not necessary to know what “wash light” means, but its absence may be critical for a scene, and if it is, the reviewer should comment, defining the term and explaining why its lack affected a scene. If the “follow spot” lags or is shaky, explain its function and how said lagging or shakiness distracted.

Turning to “inform” gets us into the easiest (maybe) part of any review: the who and the what. The “who” involves telling the reader the names of the creative team: actors, director, choreographer (if there is one) and technical crew – essentially most of the people listed in the program. Mention is based on relevancy – the lighting director will be noted high in the review if there were problems with the lighting or, in turn, the lighting made a substantial impact on the experience. Alas, lighting directors will be add-on notations in the review if they simply do their job, which is to accent and underscore without drawing attention.

The “what” is, in essence, the plot of the production, and there are pitfalls here, for many reviews are “filled” with nothing more than summaries of the play or musical. You have to make a judgment call here. How much do you convey? Do you really need to go into an in-depth plot synopsis of “Camelot”? You have to make certain assumptions – if your reader is reading your review of “Camelot” you have to believe he or she knows, basically, what “Camelot” is about. Cut to the chase – heavy on how the production was staged, how the actors performed. Are you reviewing a new play entitled “Og Makes Love to Harpo Marx”? Well, then there’s a bit more about what the play is about – maybe a lot more. Comments about the actor’s interpretation of Og are meaningless if you don’t attempt to describe who Og might be, or is supposed to be, and why he might possibly want to make love to Harpo (and, of yes, remember the generations gap[s] – you may been to identify Harpo Marx for your audience).

Finally we come to “evaluate,” which is, perhaps, the most contentious requirement of all, for, as reviewers, we must suggest to our readers whether they should spend their hard-earned money and invest their limited time sitting in a theater watching a certain play or musical. Seldom, if ever, is it a blatant “Don’t go!” I can remember only one review in which I baldly warned audiences to head for the hills; it was for something called “Fan Dance,” and when the people running the venue sought me out and made sure to tell me before the curtain went up that they were not responsible for what I was about to see, I knew I was in for an interesting evening.   

A play or musical can disturb an audience, delight an audience, shock an audience…or bore an audience. Most productions fall in the middle range: seldom bad enough to warrant a warning, seldom outstanding enough to warrant a rave. All you can do is write what you hope is a balanced review, pointing out what went well and noting what went wrong, with the requirement that if you do comment on either a positive or a negative you must explain yourself. If an actor wowed the audience, tell your readers why; if an actress didn’t deliver, tell your readers why.

I can’t speak for other reviewers, but I don’t like to write a negative review. There have been times when I have been tempted to pull my punches, but every time that thought arises I have to tell myself that I am a potential audience member’s ombudsman. If I don’t write the truth (at least as I see it), then I’m not performing my function, I become merely a cheerleader. Why not just go ahead and re-type the press release.

I once was emailing a director soliciting an article from him for the Connecticut Critics Circle web site. In passing, he commented that although he didn’t always agree with me he respected my opinion, not only what I wrote by how I wrote it. That meant quite a lot to me. On the other hand, I got an email from a show’s creator commenting on my essentially negative review (the show was another iteration of what had become a franchise), telling me that no matter what I wrote I couldn’t harm the show. He missed the point. It was never my intent to “harm the show.” My intent was to write the truth, at least as I saw it. I would have respected his opinion more if he had addressed any of the points in my review. He didn’t.

So, read reviews. Read them because they are written, for the most part, by people who are passionate about theater. Is a review the ultimate “call” on a production? No, it is just one person’s (hopefully) informed opinion about an experience he or she shared with fellow human beings, an attempt to put into words what was seen and heard and felt. A brief look at the reviews posted on the CCC web site ( will reveal that not everyone sees, hears and feels the same things but, by and large, there is often more agreement than disagreement, and when my fellow critics disagree with me, well, of course, they’re wrong.

“’That was excellently observed,’ say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.
-- Jonathan Swift