Monday, September 24, 2018

"Once" Shines at Ivoryton

Once -- The Ivoryton Playhouse -- Through October 14
Katie Barton and Sam Sherwood.
Photos by Jonathan Steele

                In the opening week of a live-theater production it’s normal to see some rough edges, minor problems with blocking or line delivery that the director, via notes or additional rehearsals, seeks to smooth out. Well, Ben Hope, the director of the delightful “Once” currently playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse, can put his feet up and relax, for this highly polished production is just about near-perfect. From the opening musical numbers that greet the audience as it enters the house to the final, heart-touching reprise of “Falling Slowly,” just about everything works, and works to perfection. This modern-day, somewhat bittersweet fairy tale (Yes, it’s “Once upon a time…” with a modern twist) is a show that simply embraces the audience from curtain to curtain.

            The fairy-tale quality of the show is established immediately, for the cast (save for the leads) is out front for all to see and performs several musical numbers that are either vivacious or contemplative. This approach is appropriate, for the show is as much about the joy of creating music as it is about boy meets girl. We then have the appearance of the characters who will be swept up in the fairy tale: the Guy (Sam Sherwood) and the Girl (Katie Barton). That’s how they are named – just a guy and a girl who happen, serendipitously, to meet on a street in Dublin, he a somewhat despairing musician who’s doing some corner-singing for small change and she a Czech émigré with a dysfunctional Hoover vacuum cleaner. This meeting occurs while the rest of the cast, all who play instruments, are sitting stage right and left and who will, at various moments, facilitate the growing relationship between the guy and the girl.

            Okay, so I’ve held off as long as possible (two paragraphs worth), but here comes the fulsome praise: Katie Barton as the Girl is, well, mesmerizing. Whether she’s playing the piano, singing, or creating a character, complete with a Czech accent that has her bite into her dialogue, Girl appears to be as tough as nails but hides a heart that aches, and in doing so Barton simply owns the stage. In the fairy-tale world of the show within a show, she is the driving force, compelling the Guy, ably acted by Sherwood, to ditch his despair and again begin to dream.

            As Barton glistens, there are numerous standout moments. In a scene in which the Girl forces the Guy to perform on a stage, the other cast members (the audience for the open mike show) slowly stand and begin, one after another, to respond to his song, playing instruments and then dancing in unison (compliments of Hope, who also choreographed the show). It’s a giddy moment, a delightful visual response to a performance that, I would think, tempted the audience to also rise and gambol.

            In another scene, Girl wants Guy to record his music, but renting a studio costs money, so they go to a bank to get a loan. They meet with a bank manager (Andreina Kasper) who is at first skeptical. After Guy sings for her she hauls out a cello, reveals that she, herself, is a songwriter, and proceeds to murder her own composition, “Abandoned in Bandon.” When she finishes, all Guy and Girl can do is stare at her in amazement. Finally, Girl gives her a terse piece of advice.

The supporting cast of "Once"
            The fairy-tale, quasi-romance of Guy and Girl is framed by the musicians – the rest of the cast – and they are supremely accomplished and, well, appear to take great joy in creating music. Since the show is based on a film written and directed by John Carney, there’s a certain filmic quality to this framing, not the least of which is that there is a “film score” that permeates the show. In several numbers that feature Guy and Girl singing, violins softly rise, percussion provides a back-beat, and guitars and a cello add their “voices.” Never once (at least for one audience member) does the question arise: “Where is this music coming from?” It’s all of a piece and integrated so artistically that it enhances the overall “Once upon a time…” trope, giving the audience the feel that they are watching events unfold in a musical Wonderland.

            A confession. At intermission I pondered whether this was a true Ivoryton production or whether it was a co-production with another company – that the cast might have been imported and been together for months. Such is not the case…and all I can say is “Wow!” Here we are in the hinterlands of Connecticut seeing a production that is worthy of a Broadway stage, a production that boasts talent galore and seems to take delight in its very being. What is more intriguing, and impressive, is that this is Hope’s directorial debut. Yes, he played the role of Guy on Broadway, but that’s not always a guarantee that an actor can make the transition to the responsibilities of director, that he can envision the production not from his own character’s point of view but from a very different perspective – the whole rather than the part, if you will. That “Once” is so polished is a testament that Hope is fully capable of making the actor-director transition.

            A final accolade. What Ivoryton has boarded makes me, a critic who got a free ticket to see the show, want to spend my hard-earned money to see the show again, if only to bask in the show’s exuberance and to once again watch Barton work her magic. There was a packed house at the matinee I attended and I only hope that the seats will continue to be filled throughout the show’s run, for it’s one of the best shows – and that’s saying a lot – that this venerable theater has ever produced.
            “Once” runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Sins of the Past

All My Sons -- TheatreWorks New Milford -- Weekends Through October 13

Noel Desiato and Thomas Ovitt

                Ghosts take many forms. There are those bed-sheeted wraiths who wander the streets on Halloween seeking candy, and there are those who supposedly haunt castles or ancient houses where evil deeds have been done. But the ghosts that most of us confront are those that lurk in our minds, memories of misdeeds, dishonorable actions that, though repressed, never spoken of, denied, rattle their chains and cannot be exorcised. Such hauntings are the subject of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford in a mostly gripping production under the balletic, sure-handed direction of Jane Farnol.

                Miller, one of the great American playwrights of the twentieth century, was initially unsuccessful. His first play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” ran for a grand total of four days on Broadway. However, his second play, “All My Sons,” which opened in 1947, was a success, earning him a Tony. Although dealing with topical issues, this play, as well as many of his other successful plays – “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible,” “The Price” – never loses sight of the fact that it is in the family that “great issues” reverberate, that it is, inevitably, not concepts or philosophies that rise or fall, that suffer, it is people.

                Set in 1947 in a middle-class American town, “All My Sons” introduces the audience to the Keller family and its neighbors and friends. There’s Joe Keller (Mark Feltch), the pater familias, a businessman who must gently deal with his wife, Kate (Noel Desiato), who is high-strung and clinging to the belief that their son, Larry, a pilot ostensibly lost in World War II, will somehow reappear. Their other son, Chris (Tommy Ovitt), actually made it through the war and now works with his father and has invited Ann Deever (Paige Gray) to visit them.

                Ann’s arrival comes with a tangled web of associations. The Deevers once lived next door to the Kellers and Ann’s father, Steve, was once Joe’s business partner but was sent to prison for selling defective airplane parts – Joe was exonerated. Then there’s the fact that Ann was once Larry’s “girl” and they were expected to marry after the war.

                Other neighbors often drop by – there’s Dr. Jim Bayliss (Jonathan Ross) and his somewhat disgruntled wife, Sue (Stacy-Lee Frome), and Frank Lubey (Rufus de Rham), an astrology enthusiast, and his wife Lydia (Meg Jones), who once was romantically inclined towards Ann’s brother, George (Deron Bayer), now a returned veteran who has become a lawyer.

                It would appear to be a typical, post-war suburban semi-paradise, captured by the trim rear of the Keeler house and back yard, compliments of set designer Jim Hipp. But, of course, there are ghosts in this American garden of Eden, and the play consists of the gradual calling forth of these ghosts, a dramatic séance of sorts that will lead to more than mere eerie knocks on the wall and tentative table shakings.

                I described Farnol’s directions as “balletic,” and that needs to be explained (I guess).  A graduate of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Farnol appears to be extremely sensitive to the “pictures” she creates in her blocking, none of which are static. If there’s more than one actor on the stage, if he or she makes a cross (a movement), many of the other actors will adjust their positions to create a new “scene,” a new balance that supports the dialogue that is about to be delivered and the tensions inherent. There are moments when there seems to be emotional distance between the characters and this is reflected in the blocking, and then there are moments when the distance is assaulted or destroyed and, again, the blocking supports and enhances what is occurring on stage. This subtle, chess-piece movement doesn’t call attention to itself and thus it is all the more effective.

                If there’s one somewhat distracting note to the production, it’s the casting of Ovitt as Chris. It’s not that Ovitt doesn’t deliver – he’s especially effective in the play’s final moments – it’s just, well, Chris is supposed to be 32 years old, a former Army company commander, a seasoned veteran, and Ovitt simply doesn’t look the part. A recent graduate of Western Connecticut State University, he is fresh-faced and, like it or not, exudes a visual innocence that belies his character’s history.

                However, there’s no miscasting involved in giving Desiato the nod to play the somewhat bedeviled Kate. In fact, although the play’s main focus is on the truth about the sale of the faulty airplane parts and how that bears on Joe Keller, it’s Desiato as Kate who draws the eye whenever she’s on stage. Her interpretation of Kate often suggests that her character just might explode into a million pieces at any moment. You believe that she believes that her dead son just might return, such is the strength of her performance. Desiato manages to convey mania as well as subtle moments of deep perception about human nature, no more so than in the final reveal that explains, amongst other things, why she has clung to her belief that her son will…must…return. It’s a mesmerizing performance.

                Although set in the early post-war years, what the play deals with still seems topical, for beyond the specifics of the sale of faulty airplane parts it, like “The Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” focuses on the “deals’ we make with ourselves to survive in a world that often demands we cut corners, embrace lies or succumb to the mob-psychology that blinds us to reality. These “deals” inevitably turn into the ghosts that haunt us and, more often than not, eventually force us to look into the mirror and acknowledge the phantom looking over our shoulder.

                Written six decades ago, “All My Sons” still has the power to move and engage an audience, and TheatreWorks’ production by and large does that. The play’s title says it all, though its true meaning isn’t revealed until the final moments. That meaning continues to have relevance, for as John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island”…what we do, the sins we commit, the falsehoods we embrace, take spectral form that haunt the lives of others.
                “All My Sons” runs weekends through October 13. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or go online to

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Past Haunts

Make Believe -- Hartford Stage -- Through September 30

All photos by T. Charles Erickson

                Okay, so lots of people think that theater critics are jaded misanthropes who take great delight, in trashing the endeavors of artistic, creative people who strive to bring beauty and meaning into the world. Well, perhaps, but not in this case. So here’s my review of “Make Believe,” which recently opened up at Hartford Stage.


                That should be sufficient, but I guess the exclamation needs to be clarified. So, under the astute and trenchant direction of Jackson Gay, Bess Wohl’s new play seduces you at the start and then, as the one-act play develops, delivers several body punches that made the audience gasp and moan. It’s smart, perceptive playwriting that carries the audience full circle and would bring a smile to Aristotle’s face, for I defy anyone to say that they do not experience moments of catharsis as “Make Believe” comes to its riveting conclusion.

                The entire play takes place in the playroom of a suburban, upper middle-class home. Scenic designer Antje Ellermann has created a children’s paradise with baskets of toys, posters on the wall, a play table with chairs, a tent upstage that serves as a fort, and cushions galore. Ah, childhood bliss.

RJ Vercellone, Sloane Wolfe, Alexa Skye Swinton,
and Roman Malenda
               Not exactly, for the four siblings in the house seem to have been left alone. In the background, the phone continues to ring and we hear the greeting message left by the children’s mother, but the mother is absent, so the children are left to their own devices – Kate (Sloane Wolfe) meticulously doing her math homework, Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) playing with her doll, Carl (RJ Vercellone), the youngest, doing his dog routine and Chris (Roamn Malenda), the oldest child, bouncing his soccer ball, until he viciously attacks Addie’s doll (the motivation for this violence will be revealed late in the play).

                Ah, but listen to the messages that are left on the answering machine – they embrace the conflicts of an adult world that impinge on these four children and taint their lives, even though the children appear to disregard the angst, anger and anxiety that these messages convey (the parents are heard but never seen). Instead, the children proceed to act out what they perceive to be normal family relationships, complete with a dominant, abusive (perhaps alcoholic) father, a somewhat subservient mother, a dutiful daughter and an extremely repressed (he doesn’t speak) son. What first appears to be four children simply playing slowly becomes an analysis, albeit subtle, of how adult actions influence children’s lives. It’s to Wohl’s credit that here she doesn’t moralize or become didactic, she just lets the children do what they want (have to) to survive and allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

The “kids in the playroom” part of this one-act play also involves the four children gathering in the tent/fort, their forms silhouetted by Paul Whitaker’s lighting. While inside, Chris tells them a ghost/monster story that should be closely attended to, for although it seems the stuff of childish imagination it will play a large part as the play draws to its conclusion.

                Eventually, after some more acting out, the children disappear back into the tent, and we flash-forward to the present day as some of the children, now grown, appear. First to show up is the adult Kate (Megan Byrne), followed by Addie (Holly Ward) who has been sharing a romantic moment in the children’s tent with Chris (not her brother – the new Chris played by Chris Ghaffari), a man who has worked with the brother, Chris, at a fitness gym.

Molly Ward, Megan Byrne, Brad Heberlee
                It’s difficult to discuss the latter section of the play without a spoiler moment, but…whatever. The siblings have gathered for the funeral of their brother, Chris, who apparently died of an overdose. Carl (Brad Herberlee), whose flight was delayed by weather, eventually appears – so we have three of the four siblings gathered in the playroom, plus Chris from the gym. What follows is something of a memory game, with fallacies and falsehoods falling away and revelations that give an entirely different perspective on much of what happened earlier in the play, all leading up to a riveting reveal that sends a shudder through the audience.

                What makes this all work as well as it does is the superb casting. The four young actors, while ably depicting how children move and talk, seem to be very much aware of who they will grow up to be, and the personalities of the adult siblings are reflections of what the audience has already seen. It’s a deft piece of directing, for Gay never loses sight of where she wants this play to go and how she has to make the audience believe that the children they see in the first part of the play turn into the adults they see in the play’s conclusion. There’s even a nice moment at the curtain call involving how the young actors are brought back on stage – it initially seems “cute” but, when you think about it, it delivers a message that dovetails with what the play is all about.

                As for the adult actors, there’s not a false move or a suspect line throughout the entire time they are on stage. We saw them as children, and the characteristics that were made manifest early on have hardened into psychological cinder blocks, and the audience grasps how these adults have become who they are.

                Special mention must be made of Herberlee’s performance as Carl, the sibling who arrives late to the funeral. Carl had planned to give a speech at the funeral ceremony, but instead delivers it to his siblings in the playroom. It’s a moving, mesmerizing, heart-tugging monologue that brought the audience to a tense, palpable, painful silence.

                Watching “Make Believe” reminds us of why we go to the theater, and why live theater has existed for millennia and will continue to exist. Yes, it’s a cliché, but when you see a play that grabs you, belief is suspended – you travel into the world of the play and forget you are in a theater. In the case of “Make Believe,” for the 90 minutes or so that the play runs, you are in that playroom, first with the children and then with the adults, and for that time there’s nothing make believe about “Make Believe.”
                “Make Believe” runs through September 30. For tickets or more information call 860-520-7125 or go to

Less Than Stellar

Peter and the Starcatcher -- Playhouse on Park -- Through October 14

The cast of "Peter and the Starcatcher"
Are all pirates inherently hard of hearing? It would seem so, at least based on Playhouse on Park’s current production of “Peter and the Star Catcher,” which is under the direction of Sean Harris. In fact, at least based on the somewhat incomprehensible first act, most of the cast seem to be in need of hearing aids. That’s because, quite often, lines are delivered as if cast members are in different rooms, and even when the decibel level is lowered, the actors sound like they have been asked to chew on nouns and gnaw on verbs. This is especially irksome since the plot, as laid out in the first act, is somewhat (unnecessarily) convoluted. Thus, if you can’t understand what the actors are saying you are essentially adrift on a rough sea.
                Based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, “Peter” is basically a prequel to J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” As scripted by Rick Elice, with music by Wayne Barker, what might have worked in the novel, since a reader has the opportunity to pause and ponder, becomes somewhat opaque as a play, especially given the aforementioned dialogue problems.
                As best as I could make out, it’s the late nineteenth century and Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson) has been charged with delivering a gift from Queen Victoria to some foreign leader whose name and provenance I missed. With him is his daughter, Molly (Natalie Sanners), an apprentice star-catcher. What’s a star-catcher? Well, it has something to do, obviously, with stars, or shooting stars, but what, exactly, remains to be seen. There are two ships waiting to sail – the Wasp and the Neverland – and two crates, one of which carries the gift for the foreign potentate – it’s starstuff. What does the other contain? I believe it’s sand. Why the two crates? Beats me. In any event, for reasons lost in the garbled dialogue, Lord Aster demands that Molly sail on the Neverland while he sets forth on the Wasp. Oh, yes, the two crates are switched. Why? Again, beats me.
                Things quickly become more confusing, for it turns out that the crew of the Neverland harbors pirates, including their leader, Black Stache (Matthew Quinn) and his henchman, Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo). We now, at least for one audience member, enter terra incognita involving three orphan boys on the Neverland to be sent to the potentate as dinner entrees (one of the boys [Jared Starkey] will eventually be dubbed Peter and, then, in the second act, be given the surname Pan). There’s a chase at sea, a violent storm that casts all crew members of both ships into the drink, along with the crate that has been sailing with Molly (yes, the starstuff). They all end up on the island of Mollusk. Thus, thankfully, ends the first act.
                Perhaps their time in the briny ocean has affected the cast members’ vocal chords, for there is little yelling in the second act and the dialogue, by and large, becomes understandable. The second act also brings us to more familiar territory, for it suggests the origin of the Peter Pan legend, the eternal conflict between Pan and Captain Hook, and the source of the Lost Boys.
                It’s also in the second act that many of the characters emerge from the first act’s foggy plot and munch-crunched dialogue, chief among them Black Stache. Quinn has been licensed by director Harris to play Stache as broadly as possible, and Quinn makes the most of it, preening and posing and reveling in his character’s many malapropisms, corrected by Smee. It turns out that the starstuff has magic qualities. Peter gets to shore atop the crate that contains the starstuff, but it leaks out, working wonders, especially to some sea creatures – fish of various varieties – that are all turned into mermaids, leading to the second act’s rather entertaining opening number, “Mermaid Outta Me.” It is here that we are also introduced to the island’s potentate, Fighting Prawn (Elena V. Levenson) who, for no special reason, speaks with an Italian accent. Levenson vies with Quinn to see who can best stay just this side of an over-the-top performance – if nothing else, it’s fun to watch them milk their respective roles for all they are worth.
Sannes, as Molly, is an engaging young actress, but her character is ill-defined by the playwright, especially as it pertains to the exact function of a star-catcher and why she has been required to sail on the Neverland (it all may be there in the first act and I just missed it). Thus, although she is in many scenes, and develops a relationship, of sorts, with Peter, we never truly understand what is at stake for this main character – yes, she’s a plucky young lass but…so what? However, it’s nice to know that she will eventually return to England, marry and give birth to…you guessed it, Wendy.
“Peter and the Star Catcher” could have been an enjoyable trip down Memory Lane, a satisfying explication of how Peter Pan and Captain Hook came to be, much as the 2009 “Star Trek” film revealed how Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty first came to be associated with each other. Alas, although the second act does offer some “Aha!” moments, the first act attempts to do too much that is, quite simply, not relevant, and although the starstuff may eventually explain Peter’s ability to fly, it remains a mysterious substance.
I saw the show on opening night, so maybe Harris, who was in attendance, will consider reining in his cast a bit, lowering the “Aarrggh” level of the dialogue and allowing the audience to grasp what the hell is going on in the first act. Maybe not. As I slipped back to my seat before the start of the second act I took a very random sampling of audience members, simply asking them if they had understood much of the dialogue in the first act. Most had not. One lady of a certain age said to me: “I don’t know what’s going on but I’m staying because my ride’s not available until after ten o’clock.” Not exactly a rave review.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” runs through Oct. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to