New Plays by Women Will Get Productions at Ivoryton Playhouse’s First Women’s Playwrights Imitative

ivoryton-playhouse-front-2015_editedBy Karen Isaacs

 Politics, love, betrayal, power and powerlessness, redemption, coming of age, motherhood. These and more were the subjects of plays submitted for the new Ivoryton Playhouse Women’s Playwright Initative.

Ivoryton Playhouse is undertaking the new program to help women playwrights develop new works.  As Jacqui Hubbard, the Playhouse’s artistic director said, developing new plays was “something I always wanted to do.” She added that the typical Ivoryton audience is more comfortable with more familiar works.

The idea of the women’s initiative came because she believed that women often feel a need for empowerment.  She had recently met with Laura Copland, a former actress, college professor/administrator and a lawyer who recently relocated to Ivoryton, and discussed ways Copland could become involved. From that meeting, the Women’s Initiative was born.

“We thought it would be a good idea, so we put out a call for submissions through the League of Professional Theatre Women and the call was quickly spread,” she said.

While Hubbard and Copland, the newly appointed director of play development at the Playhouse, expected maybe 20 or 30 submissions and mostly from nearby, they were amazed when 183 scripts arrived. They came from all over the country – and Canada and even one from Israel.

Copeland said she read every single script. In addition to her reading the scripts, a group of actors, other playwrights, directors, critics and other theater professionals were each asked to read between 5 and 20 scripts.

The 183 scripts were finally narrowed down to 14 finalists, Copland said. A final selection committee read the finalists and chose the four plays that will be rehearsed and presented, Friday March 3 and Saturday March 4. The final committee included Copland; Hubbard; Ivoryton box office manager Sue McCann; director, theatre critic and academic Brooks Appelbaum and Margaret McGlone Jennings, a director, teacher and actor.

Due to limitations of time and funding, Huibbad said, there are two one-act plays and two very short plays (10-20 minutes). “We had really almost no money for the expenses of this initiative.” They were unable even to provide travel money for the playwrights to attend; yet, Hubbard said, all four are attending, one from California.

In addition to the subjects mentioned above, Copland said, the submissions dealt with “Beauty, aging, sex, sexuality, the military, need and yearning. The passion rippling through all these works was astonishing. Reading them was a gift.”

This first iteration of the initiative will include one week of rehearsal for each play, workshops for the playwrights plus a semi-stage reading of the work in front of a live audience. In addition, there will be “talk-back” after the performances so the audience can provide more feedback to the playwrights.

Lauren Yarger, critic and co-founder of the newly formed Connecticut chapter of the League of Professional Theater Women, has organized a panel discussion for Saturday, March 4 prior to the evening’s productions. The panel will feature a discussion with the four women whose works were selected for the iniatitive.

Moderating the panel discussion is Shellen Lubin, co-president of the Women in the Arts & Media, as well as vice president for programming for the League of Professional Theater Women. Lubin who has extensive experience as a director, songwriter/playwright, and vocal/acting coach, will be directing one of the plays.

Brooks Appelbaum, PhD who is both a member of the Quinnipiac University English Dept., stage director and theater critic, served on the final selection committee and will direct one of the plays.

She said that of the group of plays she read, some “shared the overtly feminist theme of women who were oppressed. Others were female-centered comedies.”  But she added while the themes varied, most contained “strong female characters.”

Directors applied and were selected to direct. Open auditions were held to find actors for the various roles.

Appelbaum will direct Apple Season, one of the two one-act plays presented. The play by Ellen Lewis from California. Copland described the play as “to make arrangements for her father’s funeral, Lissie returns to the family farm she and her brother fled 26 years ago. Billy, a neighbor and school friend, comes by with an offer to buy the farm. As memories, needs and passions are stirred, we learn what happened to the siblings as children, and of Lissie’s startling price for the farm.”

“What immediately drew me to the play was the subtle delicacy with which the playwright handled the plot’s disturbing elements and the beautiful theatricality she employs in revealing, through flashbacks, the characters’ struggles at different ages,” Applebaum said.

She went on to say that this one of the few scripts she read that pulled her in immediately. “I forgot I was reading to assess it; I was completely in the Apple Season world.”

While it is not a finished work, Applebaum said the play “is, to my mind, at the perfect stage for a workshop such as ours. All the important script elements are in place.”

Apple Season will be the longer piece on Friday, March 3. The shorter play is Guenevere by Susan Cinoman. Copland described that play thusly: “Guenevere and Arthur are best friends—a fierce competitor, she always bests him in sword fights. What will be the outcome when confronted with Excalibur in the stone?”

“My play is the first part of a full length play called, Guenevere  about a  fictional character of my own, inspired by the Arthurian legends. In my play, Guenevere pulls the sword from the stone, and though entitled to the leadership of England, she must overcome many obstacles to try to claim her place,” Cinoman said. “It’s something of a political allegory but also a personal story about love and sacrifice. And comedy.”

Like most of the playwrights attending, Cinemon, who lives in Woodbridge, hopes to get ideas for the play’s development.  She has extensive writing credits writing plays, films and for TV (The Goldbergs). The play will be directed by Hannah Simms who works with HartBeat in Hartford.

On Saturday, March 4, the evening will open with Buck Naked by Gloria Bond Clunie directed by Lubin. This works is described: “Two daughters are thrown into a tizzy when they discover, Lily, the 60+ year-old mother has decided to spice up life by tending her backyard garden, au naturel!”

Clunie who is travelling from Illinois, also have extensive credits as well as multiple awards.

The final work will be Intake by Margot Lasher. It is described as “an arrogant young psychiatrist meets and 80 year-old woman for what he assumes will be a routine examination. During the course of their relationship, he comes to realize how little he knows; as she reveals her deep love and understand of her two aging dogs, both doctor and patient learn about life, love and hope.”

Lasher is from Vermont. Her play will be directed by Sasha Batt, literary manager of West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park.

Tickets are available for each evening or a package for both days. Call the box office at 860-767-7318 to book the 2-day pass. Individual evening tickets can be purchased at ivorytonplayhouse.org.  Each evening begins at 7 p.m.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06ivoryton-playhouse-front-2015_edited

“Book of Mormon” Returns to Hartford

Book of Mormon

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 The Book of Mormon is making a return visit to the Bushnell in Hartford through February 19. The show, which won a slew of Tonys including best musical, best direction, best book and best score, is still doing big business on Broadway.

From audience reaction on Wednesday evening, the musical is still amusing and delighting audiences. It is irreverent and silly; just what you might expect from the creative team (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of South Park) and Robert Lopez who wrote Avenue Q.

 Yet at least one audience member, felt the show is more like a series of South Park like sketches that don’t make for a coherent whole.

Your response to the show may be influenced by whether you are a fan of South Park and similar humor, how much scatological humor you enjoy and how you feel about satire of religion.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of two young men going on their 2-year mission. Elder Price is the one everyone expects great things from while Elder Cunningham is the slightly nerdy, screw-up who exaggerates and fabricates stories. Instead of being assigned to Elder Price’s dream place — Orlando — they are assigned to Africa (Uganda) and a mission that so far has had no success. In fact, the local saying about the residents of the village is curse to God. In addition, the village is being menaced by a ruthless warlord.

As you might imagine, things do not go as planned for either Elder Price or Elder Cunningham. There are crises of faith, a little romance, and a lot of foolishness.

This Equity touring production does an excellent job at recreating the Broadway version with a large cast and outstanding costumes and sets. Gabe Gibbs is appropriately stalwart, eager and earnest as Elder Price and Conner Pierson is excellent as the needy Elder Cunningham. Leanne Ronison has a great voice and brings vitality to the role of Nabulungi, the love interest.  One of the running jokes is how Elder Cunningham keeps mangling her name. Another running joke include a maggot infestation in a specific part of the body.

The show features a typical Broadway musical score with several excellent songs, although the program does not list the musical numbers. You may have heard “Hello,” and “I Believe” “Hello” satirizes the Mormon’s habit of ringing visiting neighborhoods and seeking converts. Another funny song is “Turn It Off” about the ability to turn off one’s emotions; apparently the Mormon way. Many of the songs include lyrics that are not appropriate for younger children and might shock some older adults as well.

The production number, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” will delight you with its multiple references. In fact the entire show has reverences to Star Wars, Star Trek, and other cultural phenomena.

The main flaw in this production is the sound. It is too loud so that words blue – and the lyrics are part of the humor – and it is sometimes difficult to understand. This is a common problem of shows stopping at the Bushnell. Yet every so often, such as A Gentleman’s Guide and An American in Paris the sound is so good, that you realize this isn’t a problem inherent to the theater.

So — depending on your point of view — you may find this absolutely hilarious, somewhat amusing or borderline offensive.

It is at the Bushnell through February 19. For tickets visit The Bushnell.

“Yours Unfaithfully” – Mint Gives It a Charming Debut

By Karen Isaacs 

 An unproduced play from the 1930s. Why would someone produce it now? Is it worth producing?

I am very glad that off-Broadway’s Mint Theater, which specializes in lesser known works of the early part of the 20th century decided that Yours Unfaithfully by Miles Malleson was worth producing. They have done a terrific job with this play that falls in the “drawing-room comedy” genre.

It’s easy to understand why the play was not produced at the time. In England, the Lord Chamberlain who “licensed” productions would never have approved of the subject matter: open marriage. Audiences would have been shocked by this play that masquerades as a typical drawing room comedy.

Creatives    Directing Jonathan Bank
    Sets Carolyn Mraz
    Costumes Hunter Kaczorowski
    Lights Xavier Pierce
    Original Music & Sound Jane Shaw
    Projections Katherine Freer
    Props Joshua Yocom
    Casting Stephanie Klapper, CSA
    Product

Max von Essen and Elizabeth Gray. Photo by Richard Termine

The play opens in the country drawing room of Stephen and Anne Meredith.  They have been married, happily, for some time; he is a writer and she runs a private school they established. But Stephen is suffering from writer’s block and Anne thinks she has the perfect remedy: an affair with their friend Diana Streatfield, who was widowed a year ago and has just returned from a long trip abroad.

You see, Stephen and Anne hold “progressive” ideas about marriage and fidelity. They do not believe that the occasional affair (either a few trysts or something longer) is bad for their relationship.  Now you see why the Lord Chamberlain would have been apoplectic

Before Diana arrives, Anne suggests that Stephen has had an attraction for Diana. Once she arrives, Anne conveniently leaves them alone. Also arriving soon after is the local doctor and friend, Dr. Alan Kirby. Later, Stephen’s father, an Anglican minister arrives – he represents the voice of accepted morality.

As the play progress, what Anne suggested comes to pass; hut she finds herself feeling emotions she did not expect. She may have encouraged both her husband and Diana, she still can’t feel a mixture of jealousy and hurt.

Complications, of course, abound. Anne, as she tells Diana, has taken advantage of their philosophy and Stephen has reacted with perfect equanimity. She faults herself for not been able to follow suit. So she suggests, that the couple got to Paris for a weekend.

Act three takes place in the room (bed/sitter) that Stephen and Anne have maintained in London. Stephen and Diana are in Paris, and Anne has come up to town to allow Stephen to return home without having immediately to see her.

The ending won’t be a surprise; it is relatively predictable.

What makes this production so good is the cast. Max von Essen, who was nominated for a Tony for his role in An American in Paris, plays Stephen with the perfect attitude. He’s irritated by his father’s views, he’s debonair without seemingly overly sophisticated, and he believes totally in their philosophy. So much so that he is surprised by his reaction to the trip to Paris.

As Anne, Elizabeth Gray, shows her confusion as her intellectual commitment to their agreement begins to conflict with her emotional ease. Mikaela Izquierdo gives us a Diana with sophistication, while Todd Cerveris is the loyal friend Dr. Kirby. Stephen Schnetzer plays the father with the bluster and the assurity you might expect of a minister.

The show is blessed with an outstanding set by Carolyn Mraz and appropriate and elegant costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski.

The direction by Jonathan Bank is absolutely spot on.

You probably have not heard of Malleson, as his work did not cross the Atlantic often. He was a playwright who was best known for his screenwriting (The Thief of Bagdad). He was also a skilled character actor who appeared in numerous British films and on stage, including playing Polonius to John Gielgud’s 1944 production of Hamlet.

 It may not reach the brittle sophistication and dialogue of Nöel Coward, Yours Unfaithfully gives us more realistic characters. This is a play worth seeing.

 It is at the Mint Theater at the Beckett Theater, 330 W. 42nd St. For tickets visit Telecharge.

Creatives    Directing Jonathan Bank
    Sets Carolyn Mraz
    Costumes Hunter Kaczorowski
    Lights Xavier Pierce
    Original Music & Sound Jane Shaw
    Projections Katherine Freer
    Props Joshua Yocom
    Casting Stephanie Klapper, CSA
    Product

Elizabeth Gray and Todd Cerveris. Photo by Richard Termine

The Ideas in “Imogen Says Nothing” Worth Reflection

Imogen Says Nothing

From left: Daisuke Tsuji, Ashlie Atkinson, Ricardo Davila, Christopher Grant, Christopher Geary. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes I see a play, walk out perplexed, think about and end up still perplexed by the work. Imogen Says Nothing now at the Yale through Feb. 11 is just such a work.

It would be easy to dismiss it as “much ado about nothing” since the beginning of the play makes reference to that Shakespeare work.

But I keep trying to make sense of it – to understand fully the author’s point of view.

If you understand several things about this period, though they are not explained in the play, it can help you. Theater, including Shakespeare’s theater, was just one form of entertainment in Elizabethan England. It competed with other attractions that included bear and bull baiting and public executions.

Two, in one of the first folios (1600) of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, early in the play, there is a stage direction that indicates that when Leonato, the Duke of Messina, enters, he is accompanied by his wife, Imogen. She never is mentioned nor appears later in the play and has no lines. In later editions, still under the supervision of Shakespeare, that stage direction is removed.

Third, there is a very famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s later romance, A Winter’s Tale. The direction says “exit bear.”

These three facts form the inspiration for this new play by Aditi Brennan Kapil and commissioned by Yale

We meet Imogen at the beginning of the play; she has come to London from a very small village to find Chris Saxton a map maker. It seems where her village (North Burcombe) should be he wrote Quaere. It has caused a number of complications.

What strikes you when first meeting Imogen, played marvelously by Ashlie Atkinson, is that she doesn’t look quite “right.” One of the actors calls her a “troll.”  Her head projects forward and her shoulders are slumped.

She comes across some members of Shakespeare’s company – they are arguing about the desirability of printing their own folios to keep the money “in house” so to speak – and they tell her that the mapmaker is long since dead. But she joins the troupe as a behind the scenes person and even begins to develop a relationship with one of the actors.

She actually gets to go on stage which was unheard of. You may remember that all female roles were performed by younger boys. But in a production of Much Ado, the actor playing Leonato is so drunk someone needs to hold him upright on stage. The company grasps at that stage direction and has Imogen go on as “Imogen”.

This seems relatively straightforward even if Imogen seems to reason and think well beyond what you would expect of an uneducated person of the period.

But the play then goes off in some unusual directions which are both difficult to explain and would take away some of the surprise and pleasure in seeing it.

Let’s just say that we learn that Imogen isn’t exactly what we think she is and that bears held captive for the bear-baiting aren’t exactly how we think of them either.

Imogen Says Nothing

Ahlie Atkinson. Photo by Joan Marcus

First of all, Atkinson is terrific as Imogen. In her body, face and tone she conveys the plain, country girl with surprising flashes of intelligence and knowledge. In fact, in general the entire cast if very good, often being asked to play multiple roles. Christopher Geary and Ricardo Dávila play the actors who portray Beatrice and Hero. They are particularly upset when Imogen goes on stage.  Christopher Grant is the drunk actor who plays Leonato, while Thom Sesma plays Burbage (Shakespeare’s leading actor) and Daisuke Tsuji plays Shakespeare.

The entire production is well directed by Laurie Woolery with particularly effective work by Haydee Zelideth (costumes) and fight direction by Rick Sordelet.

So what’s it all about? Woolery is using Imogen, the ghost character, to discuss the disenfranchised. If Imogen has no words to say, then it is easy to remove her and forget her. It is as if she does not exist. So any group that is not heard – figuratively or literally – does not really exist.

At the end of the play, Imogen says “It is a fearsome thing to be absent. To be void.”

Imogen Says Nothing is not my favorite play, but after pondering it for a while, its core idea is one that is relevant for today’s society. Particularly in an environment that seems to be silencing and therefore erasing people and ideas.

For tickets contact Yale Rep.

Imogen Says Nothing

Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Some May Find “Sunset Baby” Depressing

sunset-baby-3-nagler_edited

Tony Todd and Brittany Bellizeare. Photo by Lonny Nalger

By Karen Isaacs

 Sunset Baby now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Feb. 19 may shock you, upset you or leave you with mixed emotions.

At the heart of this play is a father-daughter relationship that has been fractured, probably beyond repair. But it also about how some people survive by hardening their hearts and abandoning the better side of themselves. In the program notes, the playwright asks “how can my generation be so brilliant and so self-destructive at the same time?”

The play opens with the father, Kenyatta, who serves occasionally as a narrator or commentator. But soon we are in the small apartment that Nina and Damon share. It is definitely in the low rent district, apparently in Brooklyn but it could be any large city. We see her getting dressed and from her apparel – short, short skirt, thigh-high boots, we can assume that she is a prostitute. Kenyatta rings the bell and she lets him in.

It is clear that they have not seen each other for many, many years and that they have practically no relationship. In fact, she is quite angry with him. Where has he been all these years? For some of the time he was in jail. It’s not clear exactly why he was in jail, but there are hints that he was imprisoned for some sort of black radical or revolutionary actions. Nina’s mother (and his wife) has recently died and Nina has inherited some letter that her mother had written him while he was imprisoned. He wants to read them.

Unanswered are why the mother had the letters – were they never mailed? Returned by prison authorities? What is also unclear is why these letters apparently are worth a good deal of money. Was Kenyatta well known for his actions? Was his wife also an activist and well known?  But apparently publishers are making Nina various offers for thousands of dollars.

The apartment buzzer keeps ringing as Damon, her current boyfriend, is waiting for her. Eventually she goes down to meet him. As the play progresses we learn more, but not enough to make this play totally successful. Nina and Damon are hustlers who rob men who think she is a prostitute. But they have a dream of getting enough money to leave and perhaps settle in a foreign country. Nina, however, keeps changing where she would like to live based on the Travel Channel, and the stash never seems sufficient.

The two don’t totally trust each other either. Damon doesn’t understand about the letters and their supposed value; he is shocked to find that Nina has appropriated some of their savings. But they do have a true relationship; Damon was with her as she took care of her mother – who had become a crack addict – as she was dying.

Kenyatta appeals to Damon to try to talk Nina into letting him read the letters. In the climactic scene Nina and Kenyatta meet yet again. Adhering to Chekhov’s purported statement that if a gun appears in act one it must be used; she robs him instead.

So much is left unanswered in this play. From why Kenyatta was jailed, to why the letters are valuable and to what the letters contain. This missing information makes Sunset Baby less satisfying.

Yet playwright Dominique Morisseau has some nice touches. Nina either doesn’t remember or has blocked various memories of her and her father. Late in this one-act play, Kenyatta recounts some of these including taking her to see sunsets in San Francisco. Earlier, Nina has claimed to never have seen a sunset.

Nina is fueled by anger at her father for everything from not being there to not providing child support. It’s clear she blames him for her mother’s descent into addiction.

Another problem is that this play tries to touch on so many issues. One is guilt; Kenyatta seems to feel guilty about what has happened. Another is dreams – are they possible to have when you are in difficult circumstances or do they hurt you too much?  A third issue is fatherhood and fatherly love. What does it mean and how do you make up for a lack of it?

Director Reginald L. Douglas and his talented cast have compensated for the many unanswered questions by giving us a taut and dynamic production. The set design by Alexander Woodward puts us immediately in the run down, small walk up apartment. I also liked the sound design by Julian Evans and the selection of recorded music – most sung by Nina Simone – that he and the director used.

Tony Todd as Kenyatta shows us a man who is aging, trying to atone for past actions and is surprisingly unguarded. Brittany Bellizeare as Nina combines the hardened woman trying to survive with the child wishing that things had been different. Carlton Byrd’s Damon is part street hustler and part caring friend and lover.

Morisseau has created complex characters – all three of them are intelligent and well read, yet Nina and Damon have selected a life that preys on others. At one point she juxtaposes two terms: ‘social junk” and “social dynamite;” it brought to mind the Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem” that opens with “what happens to a dream deferred.”

Some will find the language raw – the “N” word is used frequently as well as multiple swear words. Others will find the play depressing; after all it does not seem that the dreams of any of the characters will come true.

Yet, Sunset Baby, despite the language and the unanswered questions, is a play that you will think about after you leave the theater.

Sunset Baby is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through February 19. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorks.

susnet-baby-2-nagler_edited

Carlton Byrd and Brittany Bellizeare. Photo by Lonny Nagler.

 

August Wilson’s “Jitney” Getting Terrific Broadway Production

 

Jitney

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Jitney, which is getting a belated Broadway production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is August Wilson’s play about the 1970s.  While it has many similarities with other plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle, there are also significant differences. Perhaps that is because Jitney was the first play in the cycle Wilson wrote (1979) though he extensively revised in in 1996. It debuted off-Broadway in 2000.

We are looking at the experience of mainly African-American males in Pittsburgh in the ‘70s. Most of these men have seen the changes wrought by the Civil Rights movement. Also several have served during wartime, either WWII, Korea or Vietnam often leaving residual scars.

Jitney

Keith Randolph Smith and Harvy Blanks. Photo by Joan Marcus

 

Jitney takes place in a run-down office in the Hill neighborhood where Becker runs a jitney car service. (Mainstream cabs would not go into the Hill neighborhood at the time.) Between calls the various drivers hang out and talk. In the group are some obvious types: Turnbo who is into everyone’s business and has an opinion on everything; Youngblood the Vietnam Vet, who is the youngest of the group; Fielding who is perhaps the oldest and drinks excessively; and Shealy who runs numbers out of the office as well as drives. We also have Rena, Youngblood’s girl friend and mother of his son and Booster, Becker’s son.

The play revolves around three things that are occurring. The first is Youngblood’s attempt to buy a house for Rena and his son. Unfortunately since he wants to make it a “surprise,” Rena suspects he is unfaithful particularly when Turnbo tells her he has seen Youngblood often with her sister.

Once again the city administration is dispossessing businesses and residents and boarding up buildings for “urban renewal” which never seems to occur. The jitney office is threatened and all the drivers are unsure where they will go.

The third major issue is that Becker’s son Booster is being released from the penitentiary where he has served 20 years for killing his girlfriend. During that time, Becker never visited him.

Wilson is known for his spectacular use of language –creating almost poetic jazz-like riffs for the various characters. He is also known for invoking the supernatural; often one or more characters seem to be conduits to other spirits or worlds.

Both of these elements are minimized in Jitney. This lack doesn’t hurt the play, but it does make it seem different from other Wilson works.  Here the conversations are more natural dialogue and the individual speeches are shorter and less poetic. As for the supernatural, in this staging there is just one minute where it appears and is never talked about.

Just as in Fences, this is a play that at its heart is about father and son relationships as well

Jitney

Andre Holland and Carra Patterson. Photo by Joan Macus

André

as understanding and forgiveness. Youngblood (a rather obvious name) is like a son or younger brother to the other drivers. Becker as the owner/operator of the jitney service is like a father to many of the men, particularly when he must tell Fielding that he can’t continue drive if he is drinking.

The main father-son relationship is between Becker and Booster. Booster threw away a promising future (he was a freshman in college) for what he explains was a need to stand up for himself. When his white girlfriend told the police he had car-jacked and raped her rather than acknowledge their relationship, he killed her. Becker believes his son’s conviction and sentence of execution (which was later commuted) killed his wife.

The ensemble of actors that director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has assembled seem to know these character and they have tremendous skill in letting us know them also. At the center of the ensemble is John Douglas Thompson as Becker. This is the up-standing man who wants to do what is right, who controls his emotions and his anger, at least most of the time. He is also the average man who is trying to run a business and provide for his family. But he is haunted at what happened to Booster; like all fathers, he wanted him to have a better life, to achieve more than he has. Thompson shows us this with every gesture, every vocal intonation and every movement.

Fielding, the older driver who drinks, is played by Anthony Chisholm with a mixture of regret and cunning. He knows that no matter what Becker says, he will not truly fire him. Michael Potts plays Turnbo, the driver who stirs the pot with his gossip and opinions on everything. Potts manages to avoid making him malicious; he is just the man who enjoys riling people up whether it is with opinions or gossip. Harvy Blanks also shows us the humanity of Shealy – the hustler.

The three younger characters are portrayed equally well. Carra Patterson as Rena combines the doubts of a woman who is afraid her man is cheating, the confused mixture of resentment and gratitude when she learns he has bought her a house but that she did not have say in selecting it and love. It is all there in her expression and her tone.

André Holland is Youngblood and shows us this complex man with the impetuousness of youth as well as the good intentions and the sometimes thoughtless behavior.

As Booster, Brandon J. Dirden may be older (40ish), but his past has also kept him young. When we first see him, he looks like a professional, until we realize he is the son who spent 20 years in jail. Dirden lets us see this duality – in some ways he has never grown up and is still back in his late teens rebelling against his father and the compromises Becker made in his life. But by the end of the play, Dirden shows us a man who has seemingly grown-up overnight.

The climax of the play is the scene between father and son where each explains his perspective and the reasons for his actions. It is angry moment but it so clearly illustrates the generational difference.

Santiago-Hudson has kept the play moving; it’s about two and a half hours, but seems shorter. He is aided by the outstanding scenic design of David Gallo of the jitney office. It looks absolutely authentic. The production elements – costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Jane Cox, sound by Darron L. West and original music by Bill Sims, Jr. all add to the overall affect.

Do see Jitney at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., through March 12. Tickets available through Telecharge.

Jitney

Brandon J. Dirden and John Douglas Thompson. Phot by Joan Marcus

The Riotous Side of Shakespeare Is at Hartford Stage

the-comedy-of-errors-hsc-1-17-192_edited

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Want silly fun?  Then head up to Hartford Stage for Darko Tresnjak’s production of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors running through Sunday, Feb. 12.

An early work by Shakespeare, it draws on Roman comedies. It’s all about mistaken identities, slapstick and puns.

The plot is complex yet simple. A couple had twin sons and within days of their birth, purchased from a poor woman her twin sons to grow up as the servants of the boys. Soon after, during a sea voyage the ship is damaged – the wife with one son and one servant is picked up by another boat while the father with the remaining son and servant manage to return to Syracuse, a Greek city. It is now many years later when the father arrives in Ephesus (now part of Turkey) to search for his son who had left home seven years ago to try to find his brother.

But there is a law in Ephesus that forbids people from Syracuse from entering; the punishment is death but the duke gives the father (Aegeon) one day to raise the fine that will buy his freedom. Next we meet Antipholus of Syracuse who has just arrived with his servant, Dromio, to search for his brother.  Before we can blink an eye, the confusions begin to occur because his brother Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio are also in the city. Soon everything is confused. Adriana, the wife of the Ephesean Antipholus finds the Syracusian one; Antipholus of Ephesus thinks Dromio of Syracuse is HIS servant, and the reverse also happens.  Antipholus of Syracuse finds himself attracted to the sister (Luciana) of the wife of the local Antipolus; Luciana returns the attraction but is conflicted about letting her supposed brother-in-law woo her.

the-comedy-of-errors-hsc-1-17-055_edited

Adriana (Jolly Abraham) and Luciana (Mahira Kakkar). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Of course, by the end of this short play – even shorter in this production – everything is straightened out. The two brothers and the two servants are reunited, the father is saved and finds his long lost wife, and the two women are about become not only sisters but sisters-in-law.

Tresnjak has capitalized on the comic elements. Unlike many Shakespeare comedies this really does not have any message about relationships, courtship or marriage. It is all exuberant fun.

Entering the theater, you see the spectacular set designed by Tresnjak. It shows a village in typical Mediterranean colors, three boats, the appearance of a canal (with real water!) and a walkway around it. It is all bright and cheerful and it signals you are in for a rollicking good time.

The play begins with two sailors making music; soon a courtesan comes down to the pier and sings and dances the popular Greek movie song, “Never on Sunday.” It gives us a clue to Tresnjak’s inspiration. He  has moved the play to the 1960s – thus the cigarettes, the allusions to films like “Never on Sunday,”  “Tokapi” and “Zorba, the Greek.”

We are off to the races. We have chases, scuba divers, courtesans and more. We have “beatings” that look like burlesque fights with rubber cudgels and more.

The one flaw in this fast paced production is that some of the Shakespeare gets lost. With the Greek accents and the multiple things going on, it is sometimes difficult to understand the lines.  This may not be Shakespeare’s greatest poetry but it deserves to be heard.

The highlights of this production are the visual elements. In addition to the set, you have the 1960s costumes by Fabio Toblini as well as the wigs by Tom Watson and the makeup by Tommy Kurman.  Matthew Richards’ lighting gives us the feeling of that Mediterranean sun. It makes you feel warm.

In addition we have terrific music composed and arranged by Alexander Svoronsky and choreography by Peggy Hickey. This isn’t a musical comedy – Rodgers and Hart did that with The Boys from Syracuse – but there is music and dance.

the-comedy-of-errors-hsc-1-17-213_edited-hatanaka-and-schmuckelr

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The cast is overall excellent from Paula Leggett Chase as Mercuri-like courtesan through the more shrewish wife (Jolly Abraham) and the more staid sister (Mahira Kakkar). But it really all depends on the two Dromios and the two Antipoluses. Alan Schmuckler (Dromio of Syracuse) and Matthew Macca (Dromio of Ephesus) totally embrace the burlesque aspects of their roles. Ryan-James Hatanaka plays the put upon husband, Antipholus of Syracuse and Tyler Lansing Weaks an as the bewildered Antipholus of Ephesus. Each are basically the straight men to the physical comedy of the Dromios.

This may not be the perfect production of this play, but it does capture all of its laughter and its colorful sets and costumes will make you think of the warm Mediterranean coast. What more could we want in the middle of winter?

A Comedy of Errors is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through Sunday, Feb. 12. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

the-comedy-of-errors-hsc-1-17-059_edited

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Beckett’s Endgame Is Spinach for the Mind

endgame-3_edited

Brian Dennehy and Reg E. Cathey. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Any serious student of theater acknowledges that Samuel Beckett is a major playwright of the 20th century. The Irish born Beckett lived for many years in France and wrote many of his plays originally in French only later translating them into English.

Yet, it is sometimes hard to anticipate with pleasure seeing a Beckett play. It is rather like eating spinach or kale – good for you but not necessarily enjoyable. His works express a view of the world that can be disheartening and can force you to think about ideas that you would rather avoid. So, like spinach, Beckett is good for the intellect even if we would prefer to avoid it.

Endgame, which is now at Long Wharf Theater through Sunday, Feb. 5, is one of his greatest works. This production, directed by Gordon Edelstein delivers the goods. He manages to find both the humor and the humanity in the work while not subverting Beckett’s point of view. Beckett, by the way was very insistent that his works be presented as written (including stage directions and casting) often causing productions that attempted liberties to receive “cease and desist orders.” The Beckett estate continues the practice.

The first character we meet is Clov, an elderly servant who enters what appears to be basement filled with the detritus of life – broken furniture, books and other things scattered on the floor. He proceeds through a ritual of opening the curtains on the two high, small windows, then returning to look out each clouded window.  He reappears pushing a large object covered in a sheet, on a wheeled base.

After finally removing the sheet, we meet Hamm – an elderly blind man seated on a dilapidated arm chair. Hamm is obviously the master; he cannot move and is therefore dependent on Clov, who he summons with a shrill, loud whistle. These two have been together a long time. We learn that the two large boxes on the side of the stage are where Hamm’s elderly parents reside – Nell, his mother and Nagg, his father. By the way, Clov and Nagg are all words for nails in different languages.

The action that occurs is much less important than the conversations. In reality not much occurs. Hamm orders Clov about, and Clov sometimes retreats to “the kitchen;” Nagg and Nell reminisce and Nell dies and Clov finally leaves for good.

What causes some literary experts to consider Endgame the greatest play of the 20th century is the dialogue. It includes humor, elements of poetry, literary and biblical references and philosophy.

It forces us to confront a myriad of questions we would prefer to avoid – is life simply a replication of meaningless activities? What is life? What is death? What is the relationship between people? Is the world ending?  The title, which is only an approximate of the original French title refers to the term used for the strategies and moves made at the end of a chess game. So are we all just part of a chess game played by God?

endgame-lwt-1-17-069_edited

Lynn Cohen and Joe Grifasi. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Each audience member will find his or her own meaning in this work. Certainly it was influenced by the events of the 1940s and 50s; the atrocities of WWII, the development of the atomic bomb and weapons of mass destruction, existential philosophy, and even the “God is dead” idea. (Beckett only began writing plays after WWII which he spent in France working as an ambulance driver in in Saint-Lȏ, near Omaha beach. It was one of the hardest hit cities during the war; few buildings survived.)

The set by Eugene Lee is brilliant, but we can argue what it is: simply a basement in a home, a prison, a morgue, a bomb shelter, or even purgatory. It seems no one populates the outside world – we know that from one window Clov can see water and from the other land. But there is no mention of other living things except a possible flea and a rat.

What is the meaning of the various disabilities the characters have. Hamm is blind and cannot rise from the chair; he depends on Clov to move the chair around. Clov can stand but apparently cannot sit. Nagg and Nell seem almost disembodied – they do not have legs?  Even though their crates are side by side, it is almost impossible for them to reach or touch each other.

Each is dependent on the other – Hamm needs Clov for food, water and movement; Clov needs Hamm for food, and Nell and Nagg need each other from scratching as well as need Clov and Hamm for food.

The plot is simply will Clov leave Hamm?

Any production needs excellent performances and direction to hold the audience’s interest. In addition to Edelstein’s fine direction we also have excellent performances. Lynn Cohen gives us a flirtatious and optimistic Nell while Joe Grifasi gives us a sometimes exasperated Nagg with an occasional touch of an Irish accent. While Cohen only appears in one short part of the play, Grifasi is in several scenes; each time you can’t take your eyes off of him.

endgame-2_edited

Brian Dennehy. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

 

But the majority of the play rests of Reg E. Cathey as Clov and Brian Dennehy as Hamm. Again, it is hard to fault either’s characterization.  Cathey shows us Clov as resigned and subservient but with a spark of rebellion within.  Dennehy who has the most dialogue is imperial and impervious to those around him.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design gives us clues to the outside world – is it sunny, cloudy, day or night.  Kaye Voyce designed costumes that look well worn. I was surprised to see no credit for sound design because sound plays an important role in the production. From the piercing opening sound to the shrill whistles to the slamming doors, sound is an essential part of this universe.

Endgame is fascinating because it is open to so many interpretations. Just check the internet and you will find a wide variety of interpretations, but it is more fun to discuss it with someone and develop your own meanings.

Endgame is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, Feb. 5. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-7282 or 800-782-8497.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publicatons and http://www.zip06.com

Go See “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” – It is TERRIFIC

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited-3

Josh Groban. Photo by Chad Batka

By Karen Isaacs

 The Imperial Theater (aptly named) has been transformed into a café/club of Imperial Russia in the 19th century for the magnificent production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. This is a production I want desperately to see again.

First done off-Broadway in October 2012 the show ran in various locations from March 2013 to 2014, but has finally made it to Broadway.

Certainly, that Josh Groban was interested in playing Pierre made the Broadway production more financially feasible.

The Great Comet  is based on Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace, about the Napoleonic War against Russia. It focuses. though on just one small part of the novel that deals with the two title characters.

Let’s start with the setting. Off-Broadway this was an immersive production; at one point it was performed in a tent with all of the audience seated at tables. The Imperial Theater has undergone extensive reconstruction. There is NO stage, per se. The audience is all around the performing space – some seated at tables and others in more conventional seats. Expect that a cast member might sit down next to you. The decorations feature the plush reds and other colors associated with the period and the setting. They are lush.

Don’t be afraid of the Russian names and the multiple interconnections. Dave Malloy who wrote the book, lyrics, composed the music and orchestrated the show has helped you out. The opening number, “Prologue” – introduces us to each character with one or two easily remembered facts about the character in a “Twelve Days of Christmas” style. It is helpful as well as the synopsis and family tree in the program.

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited-4

Denee Benton. Photo bt Chad Batka.

Natasha is a young girl engaged to Andrey, who is in the army. She comes to Moscow accompanied by her cousin, Sonya, to spend the winter with her godmother, Marya. She is soon drawn into a circle of people that include Pierre, an unhappily married man; his promiscuous wife, Hélène; and her equally promiscuous brother, Anatole. Anatole decides to seduce Natasha, bewitching the naïve girl and promising to marry her. Natasha breaks off her engagement and plans to elope with Anatole, which will ruin her. Marya asks Pierre for help and he manages to save the situation.

While this is not a totally sing-through musical, there are over 25 songs in the show with some being called “arias.” Some propel the story forward and others express the emotions of the characters.

Probably the best example of that is “Dust and Ashes” which is new to the show; it was written for Groban as Pierre and in fact, he has performed it in concerts for a number of months.

The big question in this production is Josh Groban as Pierre. Let’s say immediately that he

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited-6

Josh Groban. Photo by Chad Batka.

is terrific. It may have been his name that convinced producers to bring the show to Broadway, but he proves himself totally. It is clear from various interviews that he threw himself into preparation for the show including learning to play the accordion. He has hidden his good looks with a beard and padding to make Pierre somewhat overweight. While a title character, Pierre is not the romantic lead of the show, Pierre is more a character part. In fact, this man is unhappy, depressed and a cuckold.

Much of the cast has been with the show from early incarnations. But Denée Benton is a comparable newcomer as Natasha; she joined the show at the American Repertory Theater in December 2015. Her Natasha is charming, naïve and very young. She has a clear voice that fits the character.

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited

Lucas Steele and Denee Benton. Photo by Chad Batka

Lucas Steele is excellent as the seducer, Anatole. He combines suave manners with an undercurrent of total amorality. Amber Gray plays his sister (and Pierre’s wife) Hélène with a delicious sense of depravity and voluptuousness.

As in any good musical, there should be one number that may not be strongly related to the plot but is still good fun. In this show it is “Balaga” led by a character of the same name, who is the troika driver that Anatole has engaged for the planned elopement.

The ensemble are asked to play a variety of roles, interact with the audience and even play musical instruments. (John Doyle who did that in successful revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd) can be blamed for this trend that keeps popping up. Isn’t it enough that they sing, dance and act? )

In addition to the accordion, Gorban occasional substitutes for the pianist/conductor Or Matias. He even does that well.

For this type of immersive show to work, the entire production team must be outstanding and overcome unusual challenges. Mimi Lien has created the opulence of the club as well as well the period. Yet the audience must always be able to see the action.

Bradley King’s lighting design must illuminate the multiple playing space yet not blind the audience and sound designer Nicolas Pope must allow us to hear everything no matter where we are seated or where the actors are. Each meets the challenges in a superb way.

Added to this are the lush costumes of Paloma Young.

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited-7

Denee Benton and Amber Gray. Photo by Chad Batka

Obviously this requires an experienced and creative director. Rachel Chavkin, has been with the project since it began, and has mastered how to tell the story with little scenery and an audience sitting in the middle of the playing space. Connecticut theatergoers saw her talent when she directed Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls at the Yale Rep.  She is aided by Sam Pinkleton’s choreography that must recall Russian dances but operate in very limited spaces.

For me the star was the music of Dave Malloy. He has skillful combined many genres to create a show that is modern yet seems true to the period. He blends hints of Russian melodies and rhythms with rock, jazz and more modern genres. Yet they are never jarring.

The only thing that would improve this show is some vodka passed out to the audience.

Go see Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. If possible sit in the orchestra or the first rows of the mezzanine. It is worth it.

The show is at the Imperial Theater, 249 W. 45th Street, NYC. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka-1_edited

Photo by Chad Batka

The Question with “The Present” Is Why?

the present 5_edited.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 The Present which is now at the Barrymore Theater through March 19 is an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s early play Platonov.

 Even the title of Chekhov’s original work is a misnomer; he never titled the play and it was seldom produced. The fact that it was five plus hours in length may have something to do with that. The play itself was not published until the 1920s.

Yet it has fascinated many playwrights and directors in the last 30+ years. They have undertaken adaptations of the play – reducing it to a more reasonable three hours and trying to clarify both the plot and the issues the young Chekhov (he was 20 at the time) was trying to explore. Such well-established playwrights as Michael Frayn (Wild Honey) and David Hare have tackled adaptations. The Yale Rep produced a new adaptation by Ilya Khodosh in 2013 which received a lukewarm reception.

Now Andrew Upton has tried another such adaptation which is now on Broadway in the Sidney Theatre Company’s production.

Undoubtedly the reason for its journey to NYC is due to its star: Cate Blachett who is a former artistic director of the theater.

Upton has made a number of changes in the setting and characters

But despite all the changes and fine acting, the question remains “why bother?”  It was clear the night I saw this three hour production that many theater-goers agreed; there were many empty seats after the intermission.

The Present is about the 40th birthday party of Anna (Blachett) at a country estate. It is definitely Russia but not the 19th century. It is set in post-Peresroika Russia during the rise of the oligarchs.

In order to understand the story, we need to understand the backstory that comes out in drips and drabs. Anna was a young woman when she married “the General” who had a son not much younger than her; he was 18. He was surround by his friend and his charismatic tutor. The General died ten or so years ago. Now they and some others have gathered for the birthday party.

So what happens during this long (three hour) and slowly paced play?  The summer evening at the dacha reveals old loves, new infatuations, despair and need for money. Alcohol fuels the evening that lasts into morning and at one point, Anna threatens to literally “blow the place” up.

The Present

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh. Photo by Joan Marcus

It seems that Anna and Mikhail had a “thing” back when she was first married;  now Mikhail seems to be attracted by and attractive to every woman including Sergei’s wife and Nikolai’s girl friend.  Anna also needs money, hoping to get it from the summer estate or through a marriage with either of two older suitors.

The problem is that it is hard to care about any of these characters, unlike other Chekhov plays where you become invested in one or more characters. About the only character that is vaguely worthy of our sympathy is Sergei.

Yes, there are some fascinating moments – a chess game in which Anna displays her total disinters, a wild party that ends Act 1 and some other moments.  Unfortunately that does not satisfy you for the entire of the play.

So for this work to be partially successful, it will depend on the performers. Here, The Present is blessed with Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh as Anna and Mikhail. They have worked together on stage – and in Chekhov—before and they interact beautifully. You can hardly take your eyes off of Anna and it is not just because she is stunningly attractive. She does manage to hold your attention. Her actions while sitting at the dinner table and becoming increasingly bored is priceless and surprising.

Roxburgh as the supposedly irresistible Mikhail matches her even if it never was clear to

The Present

Toby Schmitz, Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan. Photo by Joan Marcus.

me what made him so desired by all the women.

The rest of the cast, all members of the Sydney Theater Company acquit themselves well even if they don’t make you forget the short-comings of the play. But even Blanchett and Roxburgh can’t do that.

The set and costumes by Alice Babidge don’t necessarily stand out except for a few of Blanchett’s costumes and that may be because she inhabits them so wonderfully.

The title, The Present, is obviously meant to be taken in two ways – the gifts that are expected at birthday celebration  as well as the need as one character puts it to ignore both the past and the future and concentrate on the present.

The Present is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street through March 19. Tickets are available Telecharge.

The Present

Photo by Joan Marcus

%d bloggers like this: