Saturday, January 27, 2018

What if...?

Constellations -- TheaterWorks -- Through February 18

What if…you didn’t turn left but turned right, said “Yes,” rather than “No,” walked into that bar rather than walked by, held out your hand instead of turning away? We all play the “What if?” game as memories collide and we contemplate serendipity. Such is the stuff of Nick Payne’s “Constellations,” which recently opened at TheaterWorks up in Hartford, an exercise in contemplating alternative universes that has, at its heart, an old-fashioned love story with Schrodinger’s Cat thrown in for good measure.

What’s with the cat? Well, not to go too much into head-scratching detail, in 1935 Erwin Schrodinger came up with a paradox involving quantum mechanics. Among other things, quantum mechanics suggests that atoms or photons could exist in different states depending on observations. So, what’s with the pussy cat? Well, Schrodinger (to simplify) posited a cat in a metal box. Was the cat dead or alive? One didn’t know until one observed the feline. In other words, you never know. Of course, you could put your ear to the box and wait to hear a “Meow,” but that’s another story.

In any event, Payne’s “Constellations,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, investigates the possibility that the lives of Marianne (Allison Pistorius), a physicist, and Roland (M. Scott McLean), a bee-keeper, could take many different turns depending on, well, serendipity (and what the audience observes). To reinforce this conceit, the stage, designed by Jean Kim, is a circle (the universe?) with the audience surrounding it. A light ring (it’s a “Beam me up” effect) hovers above the stage (as the light changes color so does the lighting beneath the stage), and above it all are stars that twinkle on and off to signify life-altering (or alternative-life) moments. There are two black benches facing each other on the stage – and that’s it. As the 75-minute, one-act evening progresses, we are treated to multiple blackouts that signify we are about to see a “what if?” to what we has just previously seen. Marianne and Roland meet, then meet again, then meet yet again, all with slightly different results (sometimes the differences are slight).

The premise is a bit over-worked, and might have led to a somewhat “Yadda-Yadda” evening save for the skill and talent of the two actors who, with nary a prop, must, as the lights go down and quickly come back up again, morph into slightly different characters and convey nuanced differences in their characters’ relationships. In essence, the actors overcome the script’s banalities and create some memorable moments, not the least of which is, late in the show, when Marianne, diagnosed with a brain tumor, tells Roland all the things she does not want to have happen – then there’s a blackout – and the scene is reenacted, but now Marianne has, due to the tumor, lost the power of speech, so she must convey her wishes to Roland via sign language (kudos to Laurel Whitsett, the sign language coach). It’s a wonderful, extended moment that engages the audience for, as Roland attempts to interpret Marianne’s gestures so, too, does the audience. It’s a bit of dramatic irony, for the audience “gets it” before Roland does.

For all of the flash-bang lighting, compliments of Philip S. Rosenberg, and the premise based on quantum mechanics, this, in the end, is an old-fashioned love story based on the time-honored question of whether or not boy will get girl, complete with a “Love Story” spin that, for all of the flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-sideways, inevitably tugs at the heartstrings.

So, if you open that metal box is the cat alive or dead? Fortunately, it’s very much alive, for “Constellations” offers its audience a superb treat: the opportunity to see two actors performing in what might be considered a non-stop “Improv” environment. With each blackout you might imagine someone calling out from the audience: “Now do this. Now feel this way. Now act as if you don’t like each other.” Of course, it’s all scripted, but the “Improv” feeling is there, and it often creates mesmerizing moments, no more so than when Pistorius, after a tremendously emotional scene, must quickly wipe away tears to again play the scene with a different tone and attitude.

“Constellations” is interesting and engaging on many levels, not the least of which is how do you position your actors when the audience surrounds them? Ruggiero has answered this question admirably so that no matter if you are seated upstage or down, house left or right, where you are seated doesn’t matter – the emotional impact is there for all to see.
“Constellations” runs through February 18. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to

Monday, January 22, 2018

Tell Me a Story

Feeding the Dragon -- Hartford Stage -- Through February 4

Sharon Washington. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Storytelling existed long before writing came on the scene. There is, perhaps, something in our DNA that responds to the words: “Let me tell you a story” or “Once upon a time.” Well, give you DNA a treat and get up to Hartford Stage to see, and be enchanted by, Sharon Washington’s “Feeding the Dragon,” a gentle yet penetrating story of a young girl who essentially grew up in a library.

This one-woman show, written by Washington, co-produced with Primary Stages and under the perceptive direction of Maria Mileaf, has as its controlling image the dragon of the title, which is the coal-burning furnace in the basement of the library where Washington lives in the top-floor apartment with her father, who is in charge of maintenance, her mother and her dog, Brown. When the library is closed, Washington has the library to herself and she makes the most of it, reading fiction, non-fiction and reference works. She is essentially an autodidact, yet she is also a little girl in an adult world that often does not make total sense and holds surprises that will challenge her fairy-tale existence.

Though there is only one person on the stage, the evening is filled with characters: the father whose roots are in South Carolina and can count change in several languages, the mother who prides herself on being a “New Yorkah,” a grandmother who demands that Washington be “polite,” and a host of other relatives and acquaintances, including a bartender and a watermelon man.

Washington could probably just sit on a stool and still mesmerize the audience, but instead she roams the set designed by Tony Ferrieri that evokes a library but, with the three large, multi-paneled windows upstage, allows lighting designer Ann Wrightson to work some very subtle visual emphasis. All of this is supported by dead-on original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones. The technical aspects of the show are as subtle and low-keyed as the performance, but they all work together to create 90 minutes of magic.

Washington grew up in the early 70s, a troubled time that saw riots and strikes and a sense that the world was tearing itself apart. The library, and the books housed therein, were Washington’s shelter from much of the strife, but an extended piece late in the show, when she and her father travel to South Carolina to see relatives, hints at the tangled web of racism, as does a beautiful set-piece with Washington’s uncle, an artist who lost his leg in an accident and refused a prosthesis because it was not the right color. Then there are the boxes hidden in the back of her mother’s closet, boxes that contain dreams and aspirations never fulfilled – they evoke the world of “might have been.” As Washington reveals what those boxes contain, her words and body language transport the audience to that dark closet and what it reveals. It is a lovely, haunting moment.

Washington makes her points softly, gently, but she makes them. She eschews stridency and opts to create an atmosphere that draws in all members of the audience regardless of race or gender, for her story, as with all good stories, speaks to humanity, deals with the drams and fantasies of the young and the rude awakenings that must come to all of us.

Late in the one-act  performance I turned around from the second row to gaze up at the audience. No one was moving, there was no fidgeting, all had been captured by the art of Washington’s storytelling, and when the lights came up after her final line – “I am the story” – many audience members were wiping tears from their eyes.

Today, many theatrical productions opt to shock us with their messages. Washington has opted to “whisper” her message, and it is tremendously effective. She is a compelling, physically adroit actress whose stage presence cannot help but draw in the audience. She tells what appears to be a simple story, but if you pay attention, her story touches on what all good stories offer: the essence of what it means to be a human being and the “quest” that we have all experienced, that journey from child to adult containing moments of delight merged with moments of fear and ill-defined insecurity.

“Feeding the Dragon” runs through February 4. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Girls Have Their Say

Steel Magnolias -- Playhouse on Park -- Through January 28

             Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Cosgrave, Susan Slotoroff, Liza Couser, Dorothy Stanley. Photo Curt Henderson.

What a difference 30 years can make. In 1987, “Steel Magnolias,” a play written by Robert Harling, debuted, followed two years later by a film of the same name. It’s now on the boards at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, and it’s something of a “girls-night-out.” with the “girls” gathering not at a cocktail lounge or a male strip club, but a beauty parlor in Chinquapin, Louisiana, an establishment, as one character notes, no male would ever dare enter.

Thus, in the confines of “Truvy’s” home-based emporium of coiffures and polished nails, women can let down their hair (both literally and figuratively) and say what’s on their minds. I would imagine that if the six characters in Harling’s play could transport themselves to eavesdrop on a modern feminine confab they would be perplexed, at times shocked, and often totally bewildered. So, what the hell is #MeToo? And yet…and yet…would they? Perhaps they just might be able to offer a certain calming perspective, for as much as Harling’s play seems rooted in a now fractured mind-set, at the same time it seems to touch on verities that can be captured in the phrase, “Girls will be girls.” That is, the ladies can be soft and lovely, like magnolias, but at the same time they are constructed of steel more well-tempered than that used to form the male of the species.

In terms of plot, “Steel Magnolias” is something of a one-trick pony: these women have a long-standing relationship – they are who they are (dare one say stereotypes?) – until Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), a young, somewhat rebellious woman with type 1 diabetes, announces that she is pregnant, much to the consternation of her mother, M’Lynn (Jeannie Hines), who fears the pregnancy will endanger her daughter’s life. Commenting on this, and other daily-life concerns, are the regulars at Truvy’s: the slightly acerbic owner, Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), her new assistant, a somewhat born-again Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairlee (Dorothy Stanley), the doyenne of the group and Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), the resident curmudgeon, all under the direction of Susan Haefner.

The pleasure to be found in “Steel Magnolias” rests in the presentation of character and, once this is done efficiently and economically, watching these characters interact as they comment on their loves, their lives, their husbands (and men in general) and various hairdos. The play is well-cast – there really isn’t a false note throughout the entire evening, and kudos must go to David Alan Stern, the play’s dialect coach, for these actors do sound, throughout the entire evening, as if they are truly Southern-fried.

One might question the decision of scenic designer David Lewis to leave so much center-stage open space on this thrust stage. The beauty parlor chairs are set extreme stage left and right, or upstage, which often creates a visual vacuum into which the actors enter and exit. There’s also a rather stunting of emotions during an emotional scene between M’Lynn and Shelby: given Haefner’s blocking, the actors seem to be locked into their chairs and there’s little or no eye contact between them. What’s being said and the accompanying body language (or lack of same) just don’t seem to mesh.

Setting aside such quibbles and concerns, there’s no denying that this is a warm and embracing production. It is of an era, but so is “Hedda Gabler” and “The Doll House.” Given today’s current battle and bashing of the sexes, you may find the concerns of the ladies in “Steel Magnolias” a bit mundane, but then, if you do then you would find discussions of love, friendship, nurturing and sheltering mundane, and they are not. Like it or not, we haven’t come very far from 1987 or, for that matter, 1887. Guys gather, often in bars or saloons, to bemoan how they are misunderstood and to kvetch; girls gather, often in beauty salons or (I’m dating myself here) Tupperware parties to bemoan how they are misunderstood and to kvetch. In the long run, it’s good for the soul, and so is “Steel Magnolias.”  

“Steel Magnolias” runs through September 29. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Spirit of an Era

"Woody Sez" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru January 20

There’s an entrancing production currently on the boards at Westport Country Playhouse that, at one in the same time, evokes the past yet gently comments on the present. It’s “Woody Sez,” a sort of country-folk jukebox musical that is a broad retelling of Woody Guthrie’s peripatetic life as well of a portrait of an era that became known as the Great Depression, with many allusions to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which chronicled that era through the eyes of the Joad family, Okies displaced to California, the hoped-for Eden that turned out to be a form of man-made Hades. Though the evening deals, mainly via song, with suffering, loss and the often ineffectual protest of the common man against capitalist hegemony, in viewing the performances you are less likely to feel the urge to storm the barricades than to nestle in front of a campfire as you listen to stories well-told.
Perhaps the disconnect – hearing songs of protest and tales of privation while feeling you are wrapped in a warm blanket – stems from the talent and sheer likeability of the four performers: Katie Barton, David Finch, David M. Lutken (who created the production and stars as Guthrie) and Leenya Rideout, each talented in multiple ways. The show had its debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and went on to replicate the performance in over 60 cities in England, Europe, China and the USA. In other words, there’s been a lot of time to make the evening seem seamless and, well, the creation of a family.

Katie Barton, David Finch, David M. Lutken (as Woody Guthrie),
and Leenya Rideout. Photo by Peter Chenot
Part of the enjoyment of the evening is the musical talent of the four actors as they shift from guitar to fiddle, banjo, mandolin, jaw harp, harmonica, bass and dulcimer, all the while their distinct voices intertwining. There is also constant movement – this is not a static production with people just playing instruments – as well as just enough characterization to give you a sense of the real people who influenced Guthrie’s life.
For those of a certain age, there’s a somewhat bittersweet element to the evening, for as the production points out, Guthrie’s spirit and music became part of the 60s generation of protest and, to a certain extent, a solidification of a generational ethos. I can’t imagine a significant number of young people gathering together today to sing songs of protest or experience a camaraderie evoked by “This Land is Your Land” or “This Train is Bound for Glory.” Those songs, and others such as “If I had a Hammer,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” (not written by Guthrie but inspired by his spirit) were anthems of a sort for a mind-set that, at the time, seemed liberating…and hopeful…and now seems as antiquated as a belief in the music of the spheres.

Perhaps the most striking moment of the evening is when the cast offers the haunting ballad, “Deportees,” with lyrics by Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman. The song was written after a plane filled with deported Mexican farm workers crashed near Los Gatos canyon, killing all on board. Who was killed? Well, the song suggests, it doesn’t matter – they had no names, no history, no families – they were just “deportees.”

As I sat watching the show a thought arose: wouldn’t it be interesting if grandparents brought their grandchildren to this theater and then, after the performance, sat down with them to capture memories and evoke a time when many in a generation refused to remain passive in the face of bureaucratic insanity, a time when one’s high school GPA and the number of “Likes” you accumulated on Facebook didn’t matter? Well now, wasn’t that a time, the grandparents might say; the grandchildren would probably stifle an urge to yawn.

“Woody Sez” is in a limited run through January 20. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to