Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Devils Amongst Us

The Crucible -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru March 4

Cast of "The Crucible." Photo by Gerry Goodstein

                It may seem disturbing to some (perhaps many) that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is as relevant today as it was back in 1953 when it debuted at New York’s Martin Beck Theatre. It’s no secret that Miller wrote the allegorical play in response to the “witch hunt” that was riveting and the nation as the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and other self-righteous committees and organizations sought to rid the country of Communists and all those who travelled along with them – or had just had dinner with them. Loosely based on the Salem witch trials of 1692/93, the play is receiving a strong and perceptive revival at UCONN’s Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs, all the more so since most of the actors are UCONN students in the university’s theater arts program. Their participation cannot help but be a visceral civics lesson that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

                The story is familiar to most people: a group of young women, perhaps repressed by the Puritan society in which they live, sow a few wild oats by gathering in the woods and dancing, stimulated by the stories told to them by Tituba (Angela Hunt), a Barbadian servant. They are discovered by the local minister, Reverend Parris (Rob Barnes) and, to justify their actions, claim that they have been influenced by the Devil. The girls’ lies and subterfuge soon extends to them having fits and weird sightings that, they claim, have been brought upon them by those in the community who consort with the Devil. Thus, a witch hunt ensues with a tribunal made up of such worthies as Judge Danforth (a very effective James Sutorius) and Judge Hawthorne (Nick Nudler), with the Reverend Parris egging them on. The essence of the play is that the Devil has seduced many Salem inhabitants and the sinners are offered two options: confess (to a lie) and be saved or deny the charges and face death by hanging (or being pressed, i.e., having stones placed upon them until they are crushed to death). Of course, with confession comes the demand that those “saved” name names. Soon the jail is filled and the gallows bear the weight of those condemned.

Miller was a wise playwright who understood that assault on ideas, whether they be about social hysteria or the myth of the American Dream (see The Death of a Salesman) would fall on deaf or indifferent ears if the humanity behind and supporting the insanity was not revealed. Hence, we have John Proctor (a tremendously engaging Mauricio Miranda) and his wife, Elizabeth (a very accomplished Erin Cessna, a grad student in UCONN’s Acting MFA program) having to deal with John’s involvement with a servant, Abigail (the striking Rebekah Santiago Berger), who, driven by jealousy, is at the heart of the girls’ hysteria. We also have the Reverend John Hale (Tristan Rewald), a supposed expert in witchcraft and demonology who initially seeks to reveal the Devil’s workings in Salem but soon comes to realize that what is occurring has little to do with the Devil and more to do with human lust, greed and sense of self-importance.

The set, created by Pedro L. Guevera, and costumes by Brittny Mahan, are dominated by shades of brown and black, reflecting the drab and mirthless world in which the young girls are forced to exist, a world their youthful exuberance and burgeoning sexuality revolts against. Lighting, designed by Danielle Verkennes, is significantly subdued, creating a sense that this community is surrounded by darkness, the darkness of the forest where the Devil (and aborigines) lurk. The only way to push back against the darkness is to embrace a rigid belief in God’s word as found in the Bible.

Some critics have written off The Crucible as mere polemic, a thinly veiled ‘leftist’ response to conservative beliefs and “true Americans” desire to defend “truth, justice and the American way of life,” to quote the opening of the Superman TV series. Yet Miller’s play suggests that there are many “truths,” that justice can be perverted and “the American way of life” often embraces xenophobia and a need to attack and destroy what we do not understand.

There’s the cliché referring to tense, rapt attention that involves hearing a pin drop. As with all clichés, there is truth lurking somewhere in the background, and for this cliché it is proven during the pivotal scene in the second act when Judge Danforth, attempting to weigh whether the girls have been lying or are truly beset by demons and devils, brings Elizabeth Proctor into the room to ask her if her husband is “a lecher.” If there was some device, like a Geiger counter, that could measure audience attention and concern, its needle would have been in the red as Elizabeth struggles to answer Danforth’s questions. The power of this moment, and the subsequent scene between husband and wife, with Proctor’s life hanging in the balance, is what draws us to the theater, for it is in these scenes, so well-acted and deftly directed, that we experience emotions that cannot be generated by other media. Yes, we suspend our disbelief and accept that what we are seeing is real…and riveting…and important.

CRT’s production of The Crucible is more than worthy of a trek up to Storrs. You may, initially, be aware you are watching a play but, very soon, you are drawn into the lives being portrayed on the stage. That is the magic of theater, and the magic – and the message inherent in this play – is something that we need now more than ever.

The Crucible runs through March 4. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to

All Aboard

Murder on the Orient Express -- Hartford Stage -- Thru March 25

David Pittu as Hercule Poirot. Photo by T. Charles Erickson


                Well, if you’ve read the Agatha Christie novel, or seen the 1974 Sidney Lumet film adaptation or the 2017 Kenneth Branagh re-make, you know damn well “whodunit.” Which leads to the question: why spend two hours watching the Ken Ludwig theatrical adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that recently opened at Hartford Stage under the direction of Emily Mann? After all, we work our way through mystery novels, by and large, to have the solution to the crime revealed; it’s why we accept pages of exposition and multiple red herrings. If we already know said solution, what’s the point? The answer to the question with regards to this current production is up for grabs.

                Could it be production values? Buy a ticket just to see how scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creates the fabled choo-choo on stage? Yes, that’s intriguing, and Boritt delivers using a sliding stage and horizontal-closing curtain to create the aura of the Orient Express and its movement. First reveal of the elegant coach and dining area garnered well-deserved applause. But then what?

                The plot is a variation on the locked-room murder mystery – in this case the locked room is a train stranded and immobile because of a snow storm. As an audience member who well knew who is responsible for the murder of an American gentleman named Samuel Ratchett (Ian Bedford) on the train, my main interest was in how the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Pittu) would be portrayed. As initially written by Christie, Poirot is persnickety and vain, and Pittu conveys both characteristics to a fault – he gives us a peacock strut as he walks and a simmering disdain for all those who are beneath his intellectual ability. In other words, Pittu’s portrayal of Poirot essentially holds together this somewhat uneven production that isn’t sure whether it wants to be melodrama or farce and, hence, falls between the cracks.

                So, back to the question of why attend? Well, there are bright moments to be enjoyed, chief among them is Julie Halston’s snarky portrayal of Helen Hubbard and Veanne Cox’s equally snarky rendering of the aged Princess Dragomiroff. Halston gets to do a true comic-relief scene in which she dances in her stateroom, an extended scene that delights the audience, and Cox rules as the queen (or is that countess?) of the one-liners. Then there’s a nicely blocked scene involving a gun, with the Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin) falling to the floor multiple times to avoid being shot, and the religiously inhibited Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz) also falling and cringing in a moment of extreme angst. Enjoyable as all of these are, the delightful parts do not add up to a delightful whole.

                Perhaps if I had done an extended post-show audience interview, searching for people who had had no exposure to the Christie novel or subsequent films, I might have gotten a different perspective on the evening, especially whether the solution to the crime was revelatory and worth the two-plus hours of theater. No such interview was held, so I can only say that most of the evening was akin to leafing through an album of old photographs, nodding in recognition, and remembering the initial interest—excitement—engagement the photos captured. For me, there really was no “Aha!” moment – the same might be true for most of the audience, and if not, then we are left with weighing the value of the material being presented. Yes, we go again and again to productions of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman and Doubt, knowing full well what will happen, but we are forever captured by the writing, the artful presentation of humanity’s foibles and follies. Murder on the Orient Express worked well as a mystery novel, and both film versions relied heavily on star-power. Alas, though there is fine acting to be seen in Hartford Stage’s production, it does not overcome the ‘been-there-done-that” of the evening. It’s akin to unwrapping a gaily decorated present whose contents you already know – you feign surprise and enjoyment, but you quickly toss the present aside in search of something else – something that will truly surprise and deliver unexpected enjoyment.

Murder on the Orient Express runs through March 25. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Threads That Connect

Intimate Apparel -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru March 4

Darlene Hope and Ben MacLaughlin. Photo by Curt Henderson

                Some plays seek to overwhelm, while others seek to seduce. Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” is of the latter variety, for if you wrote a plot outline of the play you probably wouldn’t fill half a page, yet in the play’s two-plus hours you are slowly drawn into a world of a fascinating, strong-willed woman who is basically searching for love, albeit in places that, for one reason or another, cannot satisfy. As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro, this tender, bittersweet play comes beautifully and tenderly alive on Playhouse on Park’s thrust stage with a cast that is just about perfect.

                Sean Harris, one of the Playhouse’s artistic directors, is usually charged with casting POP’s productions, and if he did so in this case he should get a medal, for the six actors on stage just don’t embody their roles, they seem to live and breathe them. Leading the cast as Esther is Darlene Hope, an actor of phenomenal talent who is able to convey emotions with just a cant of her head or a roll of her eyes. She plays a seamstress who has been saving her money, sewn into a bedspread, so she can eventually open a beauty parlor that caters to the needs of black women. She has been living in a boarding house in lower Manhattan(circa 1905) run by Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray) for close to two decades, sewing intimate apparel for various uptown ladies, chief among them Mrs. Van Buren (the striking Anna Laura Strider) whose husband has lost interest in her because she can’t conceive.

                Esther often travels to the garment district to buy material, primarily from Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin), a Jewish draper who is engaged to a woman he has never met who still lives in “the old country.” He dresses primarily in black (to honor God, as he explains to Esther) and is constrained from touching a woman by his religion. They are drawn to each other, but their contact is defined by the bolts of cloth he offers her for inspection – he caresses the cloth, she caresses the cloth. In these moments you can almost hear their hearts pounding.

                Given the structure of POP’s stage, scenic design is often a challenge, but Marcus Abbott, who also designed the lighting, gives the audience four distinct arenas: Esther’s room is downstage right; Mr. Mark’s shop is upstage right. Then there’s Mrs. Van Buren’s boudoir, which is downstage left and finally, upstage left, defined by a piano, is where Mayme (Zuri Eshun) plies her trade, a lady of soiled reputation who dreams of being a concert pianist.  Navarro has Esther travel easily and seamlessly from one world to another, although the director has opted to have props removed and placed by a stage hand, which, oddly enough, becomes a bit distracting – the job, not onerous, could easily have been done by the actors themselves during the blackouts and have been less intrusive. Also, an unresolved problem is how to handle the “bedding” scenes early in the second act – the absence of a bed presents certain problems, but they are minor.

                So we have Esther dutifully working towards her goal of opening a beauty parlor until her world is disrupted by George (a slick and tale-weaving Beethoven Oder) a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal who has run across a man from Esther’s church. The man suggests that George write to Esther, which he does. Esther is smitten and disregards Mrs. Dickson’s warnings. Never having seen George, Esther, with all of her restrained passion, falls in love with the idea of love. The first act (which probably could be snipped and cut – it does seem a bit long) ends with George appearing in Manhattan for their wedding.

                The second act, shorter and more intense, has Esther learn some age-old lessons about love, men and friendship. In the hands of less accomplished actors, this might all seem a bit overly melodramatic, but it works. This is much to the credit of Hope, who weaves her character’s transformation from that of a smitten, prim young lady to one who is, albeit heartbroken, wiser and stronger. Hers is a complete, engrossing performance that allows you to see the soul of a woman who rises above the failures and foibles of others, and though the play ends with Esther back where she started, there is no sense that she has been defeated.

                This is a play, and a production, that you have to stay with, that you have to allow to unfold in its own good time. Given that we are often treated to explosions or emotional fireworks erupting every two of three minutes in the films or TV shows we see, we have to be willing to shift gears to appreciate what the folks at POP have created and what Nottage has written. It is delicate and, if we allow it to be, subtly transforming, for we are allowed to enter into the world of a woman we might pass by on the street without giving her a second notice, yet she is a woman with hopes, dreams and passions that make her, in her own way, utterly captivating.

                “Intimate Apparel” runs through March 4. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Friday, February 2, 2018

There's a Bear in My Vodka

Field Guide -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru February 17

The cast of "Field Guide." All photos by Joan Marcus

Theatre of the Absurd may be an outdated term, but its spirit appears to be alive and well at Yale Repertory Theatre, which is currently offering the world premiere of Rude Mechs’ “Field Guide,” a somewhat surreal take on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” The one-act evening has the feel of a graduate seminar on Russian Lit with the students and professor all on LSD. If you’re looking for linear coherence in your theater-going experience, don’t hold your breath as you settle in to watch “Field Guide.” However, if you can go with the flow, or flows, and simply accept, say, a Russian bear doing a stand-up comedy routine, you’re in for an evening directed by Shawn Sides that will surely generate a loft of post-curtain conversation.
Lowell Bartolomee as the Russian Bear.

After the delivery of the usual pre-curtain “Do’s and Don’t’s,” (that seems to have been recorded by Kermit the Frog), a door opens house right and six characters, all wearing white parkas, tromp up onto the stage. Five disappear back-stage; the sixth, Hannah Kenan, who will play Grigory and Katya, stands in front of the curtain and begins a stand-up routine. If nothing else, this lets you know that you will be called upon to readjust your expectations, a task you will be charged with throughout the evening.

Kenan exits, the curtain rises, and we are into Dostoevsky land, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. The set, compliments of Eric Dyer, consists of large, tan shapes – mostly rectangular, though there is one shape that looks like a wedge and another that towers above the rest, a wormlike configuration that could have escaped from the pages of “Dune.” Over the course of the evening the set “elements” will often rearrange themselves. Why? That’s open to interpretation, as is much of “Field Guide.”

With the initial reveal of the set we meet Dostoevsky’s main characters: there’s Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), the bibulous father, Alyosha (Mari Akita), consumed by spiritual rapture (the character often levitates), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor’s bastard son, Ivan (Thomas Graves), the pompous philosopher, and Dmitri (Lana Lesley), smitten by love for Katya. Their relationships, and detestation of the father-figure, are often outlined by Kenan, who seems to be running the seminar.
Thomas Graves as Ivan, explain the "Grand Inquisitor"

Familiarity with Dostoevsky’s novel is helpful but not mandatory. However, if you’ve ever puzzled over the justly famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, Ivan’s summary mid-way through the play is perhaps the best, and funniest, exegesis you will ever come across. There are other set-pieces that are equally enjoyable, including a scene where Dmitri is trying to cajole Fyodor into giving him his inheritance – Dmitri rushes from character to character multiple times offering analyses that would serve well in a Spark Notes entry.

Then there are moments when you willingly watch but are unsure of what you are viewing and its import. Chief among these is an interpretive dance sequence late in the play performed by Akita that is both emotive and evocative but defies interpretation – perhaps it is Alyosha going through a dark night of the soul. Your guess is as good as mine. There there’s the aforementioned Russian bear stand-up sequence – yes, it’s about the difficulty dealing with fathers, but it lacks focus and just seems to, well, end with a whimper.

Perhaps the most head-scratching moment is the play’s conclusion, a coup de theatre of sorts that has the Karamazov family sharing what looks like a “last supper,” followed by – well, why spoil the reveal. And then, Dmitri appears to deliver a final stand-up routine but, Lesley breaks character, gives her own name, and, as Lesley, makes a dead-pan, Sylvia-Plath-like comment about her father’s death. It’s chilling and discomforting. And then, well, given what now dominates the set you just know what the Dmitri character will do to end the play.

To a certain extent, “Field Guide” defies description. There are moments of high seriousness, followed by moments that could have been lifted from a Marx Brothers film. Perhaps a close scrutiny of the script will reveal the connections between the stand-up routines and the Karamazov story-line, perhaps not. There’s a sense that some of what the audience is offered is done just for the hell of it. Maybe it would all seem perfectly logical if, when the audience is seated, each member is offered a tab of LSD. After all, Disney’s “Fantasia” is purported to be much more enjoyable if you are one toke over the line. In any event, whatever your interpretation of the goings-on, you will certainly come away knowing that you have had an experience. What have you experienced? Well, go out for a post-play glass of Chardonnay and discuss.

“Field Guide” runs through February 17. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to