Sunday, December 28, 2014

Good Times at the Theater

Looking Back at 2014

                                  The cast of "Sing For Your Shakespeare."
                                  Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Geary Danihy

Critics are lucky…and unlucky. We get to see some marvelous theater, but we also have to sit through productions that, if we weren’t charged with writing a review, we’d escape and go in search of the nearest watering hole.

Critics are (although may be arguable), also human, and although we are in the theater to evaluate the production, we are also there as members of the audience, just plain folk wishing to be entertained. With that in mind, and in no special order, here are some of the shows that, for one reason or another, entertained me.

I pull out the theater programs from the past season and right on top is Westport Country Playhouse’s “Sing for your Shakespeare.” Yes, there was a mismatch in casting, but the evening was, on the whole, a delight and Stephen DeRosa’s take on the Bard was worth the price of admission. It was joyful and tuneful, and I left the theater humming.

                             Rebekah Brockman and Tom Pecinka in Arcadia. 
                             Photo by Joan Marcus

Next on the pile is the program for Yale Rep’s “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s cerebral investigation of the past impinging on the present. It was a totally engaging production with a stellar cast – one of those evenings that demands you seek a quiet bistro after the performance to argue about the ideas the playwright offers up in a delicious pastiche of historical drama framed by modern misalliance.

                         Center: Steven Mooney (Barfee); L-R: Natalie Sannes (Olive), Maya 
                         Naff (Marcy), Scott Scaffidi (Chip), Kevin Barlowski (Leaf), and 
                         Hillary Ekwall (Schwarzy). Photo by Rich Wagner

Immediately beneath the “Arcadia” program are three programs from Playhouse on Park. This theater, now in its sixth season, continues to improve as it never fails to entertain. Many theatergoers in southwest Connecticut are used to making the drive up to Hartford to attend performances at Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks, but they should add this compact venue to their list. The three programs are for, in order, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Angels in America, Part One” and “Altar Boyz.” The “Spelling Bee” production was the best ensemble work I’ve seen all year, “Angels” was gripping and “Altar Boyz” a delight from start to finish.

Enough can’t be said for “Endurance,” a production of Split Knuckle Theatre that was boarded at Long Wharf Theatre. This troupe of four actors created an absolutely mesmerizing evening of theater that, with just basic props, evoked two completely different yet totally realized worlds: modern American business and an Antarctic expedition. I didn’t move in my seat from curtain to curtain and had to shove my jaw shut several times.

I flip several programs, and there is “Hamlet,” produced up at Hartford Stage. Under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, who is on a creative roll that one can only hope will not stop, this production was gripping, visceral theater from start to finish. I came away once again understanding what Aristotle meant when he posited tragedy can generate catharsis.

                              The cast of "Avenue Q" Photo by Richard Pettibone

Good things also happened in lower-profile venues. TheatreWorks New Milford’s production of “Avenue Q” was a sheer delight. I’d seen this show several times before, but this production just seemed to bubble with enthusiasm and wit – again, a wonderful ensemble of actors. The same can be said of the four actors in “God of Carnage,” produced by the Darien Arts Center Stage – what delightful venom, spit and suburban sniping.

                       Penny Balfour, David Margulies, Tom RiisFarrell, Dina Shihabi. 
                       Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Last, but certainly not least (only because the programs are on the bottom of the pile) are Long Wharf’s production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Goodspeed’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” MTC Mainstage’s “The World Goes ‘Round” and Westport Country Playhouse’s “Intimate Apparel.” Long Wharf’s “Picasso” was both witty and intellectually engaging, while Goodspeed’s “Fiddler” was perhaps the best production of this musical I have ever seen. Yes, MTC’s “The World…” had a weak frame, but you came away thoroughly entertained, and Westport Playhouse’s “Intimate Apparel” was sincerely moving.

All in all, lucky critics who got to see these and other productions. Someone recently asked me, “Don’t you get a bit jaded seeing all these plays and musicals?” No, I don’t. That’s like asking, don’t you get bored eating every day? Yes, sometimes the meals are consumed merely to sustain life, but there are other times when the meal is something more, something that makes you feel rather special for having been served such a delightful repast, when you sense the soul of the chef in the offering. Such is the case with going to the theater on a regular basis. Yes, sometimes you come away with indigestion, but there are other times when you end the evening not only satisfied but entranced…and happy that you have been able to feast at the table of consummate creativity. One “Fiddler” or “Hamlet” or “Arcadia” makes you forget all the stale or half-baked productions, and you hunger for more.          

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Painter and the Physicist

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Dec. 21

                       Penny Balfour, David Margulies, Tom RiisFarrell, Dina Shihabi. 
                      All photos by T. Charles Erickson

So it’s 1904. We’re on the cusp of a new century, 100 years that stretch out like a road paved in silver, glistening, beckoning, and two young men stand staring down this road, wondering where it will lead them. Both men believe that greatness awaits, for they are full of themselves, of the achievements that tremble before them in their minds, the ideas that swirl. One is a painter, a hedonist, the other a physicist and, as the old joke goes, they walk into a bar one evening, the Lapin Agile, to be precise, a Paris bistro. The punch line to this particular joke is bathed in dramatic irony, for the painter is Picasso, the physicist Einstein, and the audience watching Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre, knows exactly where these two men are headed, what they will achieve, and what will happen once they begin walking down that road, the discoveries and creative insights that will change the world forever, and the darkness that will, at certain moments, threaten to lead to the abyss.

Yet, this is a comedy, but comedy and tragedy are familiar bedfellows, and both Martin and director Gordon Edelstein know this, so there are many laughs during the evening, but the humor is, at times, bittersweet, no more so than when the characters rise up to prophesy about what the future will bring and one of them suggests a bright future for the city of Hiroshima. Indeed, it will be bright, a death-delivering brightness created in no small part by the young Einstein.\

                                              Robbie Tann as Albert Einstein

The evening opens with the bistro’s owner, Freddy (Tom Riis Farrell -- is there any self-respecting Frenchman named Freddy?), dusting off tables and setting up chairs. He is soon joined by his first patron, Gaston (David Marguilies) , arriving in an uncommonly happy mood. Gaston immediately establishes that he has problems with his waterworks (it will be a running joke), and then Albert Einstein appears – too early. It’s one of the in-jokes that will, over the evening, break the fourth wall, because the character of Einstein is listed fourth in the program (which doesn’t say: “In order of appearance,” but, whatever). Freddy points out the young physicist’s mistake (by grabbing a program from one of the audience members), Einstein dashes off and Germaine (Penny Balfour), Freddy’s wife, appears to help him set up for the evening.

                      Grayson DeJesus (Picasso) and Robbie Tann (Einstein) in a draw-off

Soon Einstein is back (with one movement, Tann makes his character recognizable), immediately followed by Suzanne (Dina Shihabi), who makes a “stunning” appearance as she awaits the arrival of Picasso, whom she has slept with twice and hopes to repeat the performance.

Much of the early part of this one-act play is given over to Suzanne, who relates her initial meeting with Picasso and , in the process, outlines his character as well as establishes themes relating to creativity and time that will be touched upon again and again throughout the evening. The group will soon be joined by Sagot (Ronald Guttman), an art entrepreneur, Picasso himself (a brooding Grayson DeJesus), a sharp-talking huckster named Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Jonathan Spivey), a haughty countess and a smitten schoolgirl (both played by Shihabi), and finally, a character listed in the program only as A Visitor (Jake Silbermann), a stranger instantly recognized by the audience.

                                                  David Margulies as Gaston

Once both Einstein and Picasso are on stage, an argument between art and science ensues, with many allusions to the artist’s (future) work and the physicist’s (future) discoveries. In essence, it is an argument about time and ideas, for Picasso believes that the moment of creation is a merging of thought and action – if they can become instantaneous than what follows will be a work of genius. For Einstein, of course, time is relative, is a matter of perspective. The two finally find common ground and end embracing each other as fellow seers who have both seen and will craft the future.

Oddly enough, though the play’s emphasis is on the two famous men, it is, sadly, Schmendiman and the Visitor who best capture what the future will be like, a mixture of hype and crass commercialism that will make the beautiful tawdry and the ingenious menacingly mundane. For all of the laughter, the play’s final message is captured when all the characters rise to toast the future – most offer glowing predictions, with the Visitor adding a touch of melancholy with his: “…and regret.” Martin’s final, witty mind-tickler is to have the Visitor, at the play’s closing, stare up into the heavens and ponder the wonder that a play fits neatly into the exact time frame between when the lights come up and the lights fade – which can, of course, apply to the span of a person’s life.

Edelstein directs this mélange of comedy and petite pathos with a sure hand, although there are certain scenes that could be best served by cutting some air out of the dialogue – often when there should be a tumble, a collision of words, there are pregnant pauses that retard a scene’s forward motion. For the most part, however, the actors create the mood and the comedic tension that the script demands, none more so than the cantankerous Marguilies, who serves as the comic antithesis to the theorizing of the two “geniuses,” the everyman who acknowledges that ideas are important but wishes to know which side his bread is buttered on. Kudos also to Spivey, who is the epitome of the infomercial salesman hawking his specious wares, and Shihabi (tasked with multiple costume and persona changes), who, as Suzanne, delightfully captures the nature of the sensuous female who, when confronted with reality, has an eye towards profit.

In “Picasso…,” Martin deals with serious ideas wrapped in a candy-coating of his own special brand of skewed, somewhat hyper-kinetic humor. It is to the credit of both the cast and the creative team that both are captured in this production. You come away with a smile and then as you drive home you start to think and the smile fades as you remember that the Picasso who painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is also the Picasso who painted “Guernica.”

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” runs through Dec. 21. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Boyz" Jazz it Up for Jesus

"Altar Boyz" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Dec. 21

                              Mark G, Merritt, Brandon Beaver, Adam Cassel, 
                              Nick Bernardi and Greg Laucella. All photos by Rich Wagner

Feel like being saved? Does your soul need a little dry cleaning? Do you want to feel the spirit move you? Well, if you’re craving to cavort with some Christians – Catholics, to be specific (except for one Jewish lad) – then get off your knees, praise the Lord and get thee up to Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, where “Altar Boyz,” with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and a book by Kevin Del Aguila, is playing until Dec. 21.

This sprightly, tongue-in-cheek musical comedy doesn’t take religion, or much of anything else, too seriously. As directed by Kyle Brand, who also provides some groovin’, get-down-get-funky choreography, it’s 90 minutes of salvation on the sly as five altar boys entertain on the last night of their “Raise the Praise” tour.

When it first appeared in 2004, the show won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a tuneful and fast-paced send-up of boy bands that takes gentle pokes at organized religion -- “Church Rulez,” a snappy stand-up-sit-down-kneel number, captures the choreography imposed by the rite of the Catholic mass on the faithful, movement that used to be made to the sound of clickers in the hands of eagle-eyed nuns (ah, those were the days!).

                                    Mark G, Merritt sings "Something About You"
                                    to a member of the audience 

The five altar boys – Matthew (Mark G. Merritt), Mark (Brandon Beaver), Luke (Nick Bernardi), Juan (Greg Laucella) and Abraham (Adam Cassel), overseen and motivated by God (Brock Putnam) – work well together as they run through their numbers, interspersed with dialogue that sketches in their various characters. Matthew is the strong, silent type, much admired by Mark, who eventually comes out of the closet to finally admit that he is…Catholic (in “Epiphany,” one of the high points of the evening and a definite  crowd-pleaser). Luke, the bad-boy hophead of the quintet, has been in rehab for “exhaustion,” and Juan is a Mexican orphan searching for his parents. As for Abraham, well he just wandered into the church one day and, along with the others, was commanded by a deep baritone voice that spoke from a blinding light (compliments of lighting designer Christopher L. Jones) to go forth and spread the word, at least to a certain demographic that responds to rock, rap and funk.

There’s really not a dull moment for most of the evening – Juan’s despair at learning about his parents may drag on just a bit but is saved by the group’s rendition of “La Vida Eternal” (a take-off on Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loco’), and the grand revelation of perfidy amongst the five lads that leads into the finale (the somewhat saccharine “I Believe”) is a bit too-message driven – but for the most part things move along apace. There are audience sins revealed…and purged, a young lady from the audience is brought down to the stage by Matthew for the opening number of the second act (“Something About You”) and the devil is cast out (a la in the “The Exorcist”) in “Number 918.”\

                                      "Luke" and "Matthew" hear the word of God

Backed by a quartet of Robert James Tomasulo and Luke McGinnis on keyboard, Benjamin Tint on guitar and Eric Hallenbeck handling drums and percussion, the five altar boys cavort, writhe, sing and dance, all while bathed in the pulsing light of two large crosses set stage left and right by scenic designer Christopher Hoyt. The hour-and-a-half seems to fly by as the five talented actors praise the Lord and pass the innuendos.

“Altar Boyz” runs through Dec. 21. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to