Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Somewhat Tedious Lesson

A Lesson From Aloes -- Hartford Stage -- Thru June 10

Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols

Do you want to hear a story? Make that stories? Well, if you do, then “A Lesson from Aloes,” currently on the boards at Hartford Stage, is the play for you, for there are stories galore. Here’s the problem (if there is one) – stories deal with what’s already happened, i.e., what’s in the past, and although much of modern theater has the past haunting the present, it should function as a backdrop to what happens on the stage in the present – think Stella’s past in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and how it drives the “present’ action. Unfortunately, there’s very little “present” in this play by Athol Fugard. Save for moments in the second act, the dialogue is essentially exposition, so much so that you may nod off a bit as the characters tell the audience “what happened” in the past.

As directed by Darko Tresnjak, the play does have a lot of physical movement, with actors well-balanced stage left or right, but there are many moments when one (or then two) of the characters must simply stand or sit and listen (rarely reacting) to another character’s dialogue, which often consists of little more than “this happened and then this happened.”
Andrus Nichols
The play is set in South Africa in the early 1960s, when protests against apartheid were rising. To handle the protests, the South African government, mainly via the police, jailed many protestors and vigorously investigated those associated in any way with the protests. Hence, we have Piet (Randall Newsome), an Afrikaner who, a failed farmer, allies himself with Steve (Ariyon Bakare) in the protests, much to the dismay of Piet’s wife Gladys (Andrus Nichols). We learn (again, in a “this once happened” moment) that the police raided Piet’s house and took, among other things, Gladys’s diaries. The event sent Gladys, who feels violated, over the edge and she has apparently been in and out of treatment (including, again apparently, electric shock therapy) for some time.
Ariyon Bakare
So, what’s the deal with the “aloes” in the title and what lesson is to be learned from them? Well, you may have to pay very close attention to be able to answer these questions. Piet, now living a somewhat isolated life, has become fixated on aloe plants, desperate to collect and learn the names of the various succulents. He mentions that these plants can often survive where others wither and die in a hostile environment. Since all three characters are having their various problems surviving in the South African environment, the plants can be seen as symbolic, although what “lesson” they offer remains to be seen. Adapt and survive at any cost? Or perhaps be transplanted? Your call on this.

Each of the three characters is given numerous set-piece moments to reflect and, at times, revolt. Most effective is Nichols, whose character drifts in and out of reality, and there are moments when she shoots sparks out into the audience. As written, Piet is a character very much under control of his emotions, so Newsome’s performance is, perforce, a bit restrained. Then there is Bakare, who must present a conflicted character and in doing so sometimes slips into histrionics.

Given that most of the play deals with the past, and what has happened in the past is a bit hazy, there’s really no resolution. There are accusations of betrayal that are left essentially unresolved, and motivations often seem somewhat cloudy, especially so in the second act when Gladys, in Trump-like fashion, accuses and then retracts the accusation – apparently she just wanted to roil the waters (Why? Well, she’s sick, I guess).

In watching “A Lesson from Aloes,” you get the feeling that this play is important, so you keep watching, but the play, at least for one audience member, never goes beyond the “watch this because it’s important” stage. Given that almost all of what has happened to these three characters has occurred before the curtain rises, you don’t really have much opportunity to engage in what is happening NOW.

“A Lesson from Aloes” runs through June 10. For tickets or more information call 860-520-7125 or go to

Thursday, May 17, 2018

An Invitation

Are you an avid theater-goer? Would you like to honor those who have made this past theater season in Connecticut vibrant and exciting? Well, here's your chance:

You’re invited to the 28th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards

Monday, June 11, at the Westport Country Playhouse

Ceremony: 7:30 p.m.

Free and open to all theater lovers. Come celebrate theater in Connecticut

Your masters of ceremony:

Jenn Harris

Matt Wilkas

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Awards Cremony MC's Announced

Jenn Harris, Matthew Wilkas To Host Connecticut Critics Circle Awards

Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks’ annual holiday comedy “Christmas on the Rocks,” will share master of ceremony duties at the 28th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards June 11, hosted by the Westport Country Playhouse.

The 7:30 p.m. event, which is free and open to the public, honors outstanding work by the state’s professional theaters during the 2017-18 season.

Among the honorees will be Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director for Goodspeed Musicals, who will be the recipient of this year’s Tom Killen Award , which pays tribute to longtime excellence and service on behalf of Connecticut theater.
Jenn Harris
Harris is an actor, writer and producer whose off-Broadway acting credits include “Silence!  The Musical,” “Modern Orthodox,” “All in the Timing” and “The Understudy.” Harris is also a writer for “Billy on the Street,” co-hosts the podcast ‘Touché” on iTunes and is the creator and host of "Offer Only,” a live show where actors come to recreate auditions for shows they did not get.

Matthew Wilkas

Wilkas, an actor-writer, was in Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and starred in the award-Winning indie film “Gayby.” Most recently he was nominated for an Ovation Award for his performance in “The Pride” at the Wallace Annenberg Center for the Arts in Beverly Hills. His TV credits include “Looking,” “Ugly Betty,” “Hope and Faith,” and the upcoming “Bonding” and “Boy Culture.

 Harris and Wilkas wrote and star in the online series “New York is Dead,” which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival this spring and which won Best Comedy at The New York Television Festival. It is on

 Nominees for 2017-18 Connecticut Critics Circle Awards will be announced in early June. Winners will be announced at the awards ceremony June 11.


 Directions: Westport Country Playhouse is at 25 Powers Court in Westport, just off Route  (Exits 17 or 18 off I-91 brings you to Rt. 1.)

PRESS CONTACT: CCC president, Geary Danihy --

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Killen Award

Goodspeed’s Michael O’Flaherty To Receive Critics Award

Michael O’Flaherty, Goodspeed Musical’s longtime musical director, will be the 2018 recipient of the Connecticut Critics Circle’s annual Tom Killen Award, recognizing his long service and achievement to theater in the state.

The award will be presented June 11 at the Westport Country Playhouse at the 28th annual event celebrating and honoring the state’s outstanding professional theater. The event, scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.

O'Flaherty has been the man behind the music -- and baton, too. Entering his 27th season as Goodspeed's resident music director, O'Flaherty has guided more than 100 shows at the East Haddam and Chester theaters, several of them ("By Jeeves," "Gentleman Prefer Blondes") to Broadway.

He’s also a key figure behind the Festival of New Musicals, as well as the composer for a new locally-rooted show: "A Connecticut Christmas Carol.”

 His expertise also goes well beyond Goodspeed being the musical supervisor for productions at Paper Mill Playhouse, North Shore Music Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, Ford's Theatre, the Kennedy Center,  and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, among others.

He's guided first class revivals, overseen new orchestrations and nurtured brand new work and young artists.

Previous Killen winners include Lloyd Richards, Michael Price, Michael Wilson, Lucille Lortel, Anne Keefe and Carmen de Lavallade. Last year’s winner was Paulette  Haupt, founding artistic director of the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference.

Nominees for 2017-18 Connecticut Critics Circle Awards will be made public in early June. Winners in each category will be announced at the awards ceremony.


DIRECTIONS: Westport Country Playhouse is at 25 Powers Court in Westport, just off Route  (Exits 17 or 18 off I-91 brings you to Rt. 1.)

PRESS CONTACT: CCC president, Geary Danihy --

Friday, May 4, 2018

Let's Get it Right

Kiss -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru May 19

Ian Lassiter, Sohina Sidhu, and Hend Ayoub
Photo by Joan Marcus
Yes, it’s three – three – three plays in one! Whether the three actually cohere remains to be seen, but “Kiss,” currently on the stage at Yale Repertory Theatre, does present some surprises and you certainly leave the theater with much to talk about.  Written by Guillermo Calderon and directed by Evan Yionoulis, this exercise in creative introspection has an intriguing premise – to wit, what if the actors and director misinterpret the playwright’s intentions? In other words, what if they get it wrong? How do you make amends?

It’s difficult to write about this play and not stumble into spoiler-land. In any event, the first third of the play deals with two couples living in Damascus (they could essentially be in any metropolitan area) who have love issues. There’s Hadeel (Sohina Sidhu), a rather confused (and emotionally malleable) young woman who professes heartfelt love for two suitors, Ahmed (Ian Lassiter) and Yousif (James Cusati-Moyer), and then there’s Bana (Hend Ayoub), an actress on a popular Syrian soap opera who is romantically involved with Yousif. It is, in essence, the stuff of soap operas (and it’s meant to be), with revelations and emotional upheavals flying about and a lot of “Who loves whom” and “How could you…?” making up much of the dialogue. It’s all pretty banal, and the thought arises: why did the Yale Rep decide to produce this play? Well, there’s more going on than meets the initial eye.

Blackout. The play, as shallow as it is, is over? Nope.  A door opens and Ayoub comes out to announce that there will be a talk-back of sorts, for they’ve arranged for a video link with the playwright, who is in a refugee camp somewhere in the tortured Middle East. Enter, supposedly, the playwright, listed in the program as “Woman” (Rasha Zamamiri) with an Interpreter (Abubakr Ali). The cast gathers and begins to ask questions. The answers are a bit disturbing, for a “kiss” is not just a kiss and a “cough” carries greater meaning. In other words, the director (Ayoub, playing Bana) and the rest of the cast have totally misunderstood what the play is about.

The answer? Well, let’s do it all again, and this time we’ll get it right. So, off they go, with a lot of cinematic-style quick-cuts and lighting pyrotechnics, compliments of Erin Earle Fleming, to reprise the play, but this time with a lot more angst, anxiety and pain, and with just about everyone coughing. In the process, as a statement of…well…I’m not sure exactly what…the cast proceeds to destroy much of the set (perhaps ripping at the soap opera façade?).That the audience now knows what a “kiss” and a “cough” mean is meant to add gravitas to the play’s final section. Maybe it does, but when you have to read the articles in the playbill to get an understanding of what Calderon is getting at – rather than it actually being up there on the stage – you have a less than satisfying theatrical experience. Soap operas and Syria? What’s that all about? Well, read the playbill article.

There’s no doubt that what has happened in Syria is horrific, and the play feeds off this, but in an off-hand and somewhat pretentious manner. By that I mean that it doesn’t generate its own center of gravity but relies on the audience’s awareness of the Syrian tragedy to fill in the blanks. Thus, the play’s final moments, when it seeks to draw on this awareness, seem somehow fraudulent, a borrowing that is not deserved or earned.

The odd thing about this play is that, for all of its portentousness, it has, in its underlying premise, the possibility for being a tantalizing farce: cast gets it wrong, writer sets them right, cast makes another attempt and, in the process, makes a hash of the whole thing. But that’s not “Kiss,” which strives to be more than it really is.
“Kiss” runs through May 19. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Thursday, May 3, 2018

No Man He Never Liked

The Will Rogers Follies -- Goodspeed Musicals -- Thru June 21


David Lutken as Will Rogers. Photos by Dianne Sobolewski

What’s a good old country boy doing amidst a bevy of sequined, scantily clad beauties? Well, he’s shrugging a lot and occasionally smirking. The down-home wit is Will Rogers, and the ladies are hoofers for the Ziegfeld Follies, and how they eventually came together is the stuff of “The Will Rogers Follies,” a pastiche musical that opens Goodpeed Musicals’ new season. Held together by the amiable stage presence of David M. Lutken, who plays Rogers, it’s best described as “Woody Sez” meets “42nd Street.” Under Don Stephenson’s direction, you get a dose of country common sense and a dollop of big city glitz in an evening that entertains but seldom gets past the eyes to influence the heart.
There are some big names involved in the creation of what is billed as “A life in revue.” Peter Stone wrote the book, the legendary Cy Coleman provided the music and Betty Comden and Adolph Green penned the lyrics. The show opened on Broadway, with Keith Carradine in the lead, in 1991 and ran for over two years. It loosely covers Rogers’ life as a humorist and star of Broadway, the radio, film and as a newspaper columnist. The biographical moments, with Lutken simply relating memories, often while twirling a rope, are punctuated by big production numbers that capture the over-the-top Ziegfeld style, often with the voice of Ziegfeld (James Naughton) dictating what should and should not happen.
Obviously, the show is a hybrid, and as such the biographical moments sometimes mesh uneasily with the Follies production numbers, with the latter often seeming all but gratuitous. Yet there’s no denying that when Goodspeed wants to do a production number it doesn’t hold back, and they do capture the spirit of the Follies.
As mentioned, Lutken, who created the “Woody Sez” show and has travelled the world as its star, is the stabilizing force in all of this. He has a genuinely affable manner that allows him, as it did Rogers, to offer some acerbic comments on the passing scene while seeming not to be offensive. An especially engaging scene is when Lutken, as Rogers, first glances at and comments on the news as it appears in the latest edition of the NY Times, then gets papers from decades ago to again comment, the point being that some things never change and fools will always be fools.

There are several other standout performances, the first being that of David Garrison as Will’s father, Clem (he will also appear is several other roles, pointing out Ziegfeld’s parsimonious nature). As Will’s long-suffering wife, Betty, Catherine Walker gives perhaps the most emotionally moving performance, especially in her second-act number, “No Man Left for Me.” She’s also key to the humor involved in a number, dictated by Ziegfeld, that takes place on, believe it or not, the moon.
David Lutken and Catherine Walker
Seeking an analogy, one might call this an accordion musical, for it expands and contracts on a regular basis. We have the intimate moments with Rogers as he relates his life history, often interrupted by a somewhat irritating Wiley Post (Dewey Caddell), and then we have the big production numbers. There’s a valiant attempt to mesh the two but it doesn’t always work, especially in the “Presents for Mrs. Rogers” number. However, switching analogies, each can be enjoyed on its own merits, something like taking a bite out of a corn dog and then spooning up a bit of crème brulee.
“The Will Rogers Follies” runs through June 21. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: