Westport’s “Romeo & Juliet” Is an Energetic, Ensemble Piece

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Romeo & Juliet is so familiar to most of us, that sometimes attending a performance gives you that “what, again?” feeling.

That vanishes in the production currently at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 19.

Director Mark Lamos has always had a sure hand with Shakespeare and he proves it once again. Many years ago, at Hartford Stage he directed a production that has remained in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever seen.

I wondered if he could do it again. This production may not reach the heights of that previous one – or my memory may be playing tricks on me – but it is a very good production in all its aspects.

You may be surprised at the emotional response you will have to this piece; after all we know the ending. You may also be surprised because Juliet, played wonderfully by Nicole Rodenburg, is not your usual petite, very slender Juliet. She still looks like teenager, but she is taller and has some substance to her. She’s not Calista Flockhart, who was Juliet in the Hartford production.

But Rodenburg convinces us that she is that willful teenager who so easily becomes infatuated and so determinedly opposes her father’s wishes.

But what I remember most about this production is the energy of the ensemble cast, the boyishness of Romeo’s friends, the violent anger of Juliet’s father.

This Romeo & Juliet is more an ensemble piece than one focusing only on the young lovers. Felicity Jones Latta is a garrulous and funny Nurse without seeming to milk the laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Friar Lawrence more anguished at the outcome. Peter Francis James isn’t your doddering old monk but a man of action who is dismayed when circumstances makes plan go all awry.

You can also point to the rough and tumble enthusiasm of James Cusati-Moyer as Romeo and his friends, Cole Francum as Paris and Tyler as Benvolio. These are truly teenagers who explode with energy and immaturity.

The fights and sword play were deftly choreographed by Michael Rossmy, the fight director.

Michael Yeargan has created a set that looks like a Renaissance tapestry or painting. It is filled with incredible detail and helps compensate for the minimal furniture on stage. One small complaint is that the balcony on the right of stage is so close to the front of the stage, that the view of anyone sitting on the side is partially blocked. I was craning my neck to see some of the balcony scene, despite sitting on the aisle.

To complement the set, Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created wonderful costumes that are inspired by the period.

Lamos has lighting designer Matthew Richard use soft, misty lighting at times, and bright sunlight at others. Only the balcony scene, a night scene, was too brightly lit. You did not sense that a moon was out.

Lamos has kept this play set in 15th-16th Italy. We aren’t transported to modern day or another country.

This Romeo & Juliet is a brisk, energetic and absorbing production. No, it isn’t the “best ever” but it is well worth a visit.

For tickets, contact Westport Playhouse.

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James Cusati-Moyer and Nicole Rodenburg. Photo by Carol Rosegg

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You and the Cast Will Enjoy Yourselves at Ivoryton’s The Game’s Afoot

By Karen Isaacs

 Watching actors have a terrific time is a delight for an audience. The cast of The Game’s Afoot now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 19 seems to be having a marvelous time.

You will too, just watching them. Ken Ludwig’s play – billed as a comic thriller – takes us back to those Agatha Christie plays (and movies) that don’t always make a lot of sense but keep you involved right up to the end.

This play is set at Gillette’s Castle, that large residence overlooking the Connecticut River in Hadlyme that is now a state tourist attraction. It was built by the well-known actor William Gillette who adapted Sherlock Holmes stories into plays and then toured throughout the county for years playing the great detective. The success of the role helped fund his eccentric home; he hoped the state would care for the property, when he died in 1937.

By the way, Gillette was a distinguished actor, playwright who had his own stage company, knew Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and also held several patents. It was he who popularized the deerstalker hat which is part any Sherlock Holmes costume.

The play is set in his home on Christmas Eve in the mid-twenties. He lives there with his mother and has invited cast members to spend the holiday with them: the ingénue Aggie and the juvenile, Simon; the older acting couple Madge and Felix; and a gossip columnist, Daria.

The play opens at the end of Gillette’s play; at the curtain call of the play, someone fires a shot which wounds Gillette in the arm. The police have not found the shooter.

So we have a classic set-up. A dark and snow night, an isolated location and a group of people who may have unknown motives.

The ante for the tension is upped when the group learns (Gillette had already heard) that the stage doorman had been killed that morning. What is going on?

Playwright Ken Ludwig prefers to gently spoof this genre of murder mystery rather than play it for chills. Let’s just say that after one of the guests is murdered, there are some funny antics about hiding the body. One of the unique features of the castle comes into play.

But mixed into the fun is romance – Simon and Aggie have secretly married though Gillette had fallen in love with her, there’s marital discord between Madge and Felix, plus a séance led by Daria. She is, of course, the nasty, ambitious gossip columnist who has the dirt on everyone and is willing to use it to get what she wants. During the course of the evening, she wants Felix.

After some amusing bits with the telephone operator, Inspector Goring (a woman!) arrives. It’s difficult to know who is doing the investigating – she or Gillette who strongly identifies with his character Holmes. Let’s just say that there are enough motives, accusations and surprises to keep everyone wondering.

Scenic designer Daniel Nischan has created a spectacular set that will remind you of the Castle, if you have every visited it. He did in fact get to tour it before designing the set. It has stone, medieval architecture as well as knight’s armor, and an assortment of old weapons, some of which come into play.

Jacqueline Hubbard has directed a fine cast who seem as though they are truly enjoying themselves. For the most part, they are playing actors who are never “off-stage” and can be outrageous.

It is hard to pick out just a few cast members to praise. Craig MacDonald plays Gillette as a man who is a leader but is also partly deluded. It’s clear he is an actor who enjoys the limelight. But then there is Michael Iannucci and Katrina Ferguson as Felix and Madge, the older actors with both resentment and envy of Gillette, the “star”. Erik Bloomquist (a two time Emmy winner as a director/writer) infuses Simon with a studied casualness that immediately makes you wary of him. Molly Densmore plays Aggie, the ingénue who is not quite as sweet as she appears. Maggie McGlone-Jennings gives us the slightly deluded Martha, Gillette’s mother.

It was nice to see Beverly J. Taylor, longtime associate at the Playhouse in the extravagant role of Daria. She chews the scenery with the best of them. Then of course there is Victoria Bundonis as the Inspector who reminds you of many Inspectors in English mysteries.

The Game’s Afoot is a thoroughly enjoyable though silly evening in the theater that is being performed with expert timing.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 19. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-787-7318.

MTC’s “Bridges of Madison County” Is a Tuneful Romantic Musical

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By Karen Isaacs

The Bridges of Madison County was a romantic tear-jerker book and movie that became an under-appreciated Broadway musical. When it opened in 2014 it featured a glorious score by Robert Jason Brown which won numerous awards and outstanding performances by Kelli O’Hara and Steve Pasquale.

Now MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) is giving the show a well-deserved Connecticut production through November 19.

This show is ideal for the small theater — the cast is limited and the sets don’t require a turntable.  There’s no chorus or ensemble. Plus the audience on three sides of the stage is close to the action which increases the intimate feeling that aids in adding emotional power to the piece.

Director Kevin Connors has created a production that for the most part works and is very well cast. I may have some quibbles about some elements, but overall it is worth seeing.

For those who don’t remember, Bridges is set in 1960s, in the farm country of Iowa. Robert, a photographer for National Geographic, is photographing the covered bridges in the area; he pulls into the driveway of Francesca, who was an Italian war bride who has lived on the farm for 18+ years. Her husband has taken their two teenage children (and the steer that the daughter has raised) to Indianapolis to the national 4H fair. So, she is alone.

Perhaps predictably, Robert is very attractive, Francesca is missing her Italian homeland, and for four days the two have a passionate affair. Is it true love? Who knows? They believe it is.

The romance ends when her family is returning home; despite Robert’s entreaties (and Fran’s serious consideration), she lets him go to remain with her husband and children.

The book and the movie had differences; the musical draws more on the book (it had something to do about the rights) and adds some original touches.

The score is the strength of this musical. Brown has written almost arias for the Italian Francesca and more country infused songs for her husband and children plus some romantic ballads for Robert.

The duets and interlocking songs between Robert and Francesca are beautiful.

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Julia Lambert Pratt. Photo by Heather Hayes

Juliet Lambert Pratt is fine as Francesca; she is has be lovely, supple soprano voice and, for the most part, maintains a trace of an Italian accent throughout the piece. It only slips occasionally. She handles the two long aria-like story songs, “To Build a Home” and “Almost Real” very well. At times though, her gestures are both too large for the small theater and too obvious. Subtlety would have helped.

Sean Hayden has the requisite romantic aura and handsome appearance for Robert. His baritone shows well in the score including “The World inside the Frame” and “Temporarily Lost”.  While both he and Pratt are good actors, they didn’t quite convince me of their grand passion.

Bud, Francesca’s husband is the realistic ballast to the affair. Greg Roderick gives us a convincing farmer, small town “salt of the earth” type. He takes his wife for granted and doesn’t really have the imagination to think she might miss her home country. He made this character both real and touching through small ways of showing his love for his wife. His big number,  “Something from a Dream” is well performed.

The other members of the cast are the ensemble, playing the townfolk, the son and daughter, Robert’s ex-wife, and others.

Kirsti Carnahan does an excellent job as Marge, their longtime neighbor. She may be a busybody at times, but Carnahan gives a dimension that shows her true affection for Francesca and her understanding of her feelings. She and Frank Mastrone, who play her husband Charlie remind us that this is a part of the country where neighbors keep an eye on each other – for good or ill.

Perhaps my most serious complaint about the staging is the handling of memory scene

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Julie Lambert Pratt, Sean Hayden. Photob by Heather Hayes

during Francesca’s “Almost Real” which recounts her early years during WWII in Italy. Francesca is toward of the back of the stage and the pantomime dance is performed in the front. It distracts from the beauty and impact of the song partly because it is not as well done as it could be.

Jordan Janota has created a fine set of the farmhouse kitchen, front yard, bedroom and Marge and Charlie’s house. It may look a little old-fashioned for the 1960s but it sets the proper mood.

Music director Nolan Bonouloir conducts the four piece group that includes a cello. Jason Robert Brown, who does his own orchestrations, often makes wonderful use of the rich tones of the cello.

At times I found the sound design by Monet Fleming unbalanced. Too often I felt the combo was too loud and not letting the beautiful songs and wonderful voices really be heard.

If you are in the mood for a romantic musical with lush songs, this is a production and a show that you will thoroughly enjoy.

For tickets, contact MTC or call 203-454-3883 MTC is located at 509 Westport Avenue (behind Nine West) in Norwalk.

“Seder”, a World Premiere at Hartford Stage Asks Challenging Questions

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Philosophers and theologians for centuries have written, discussed and argued, what should someone do in periods of repression, danger, war? Do you do what is necessary to survive? Do you take a stand no matter how dangerous to yourself and your family? What if the stand would purely be symbolic, that nothing you did could change what is going on?

During the 20th century, this discussion came to the fore with the rise of Hitler and the repressive Communist regimes. (It is interesting that in the western world, we often ignore similar situations in other parts of the world.)

This is at the heart of the fascinating world premiere, Seder, now at Hartford Stage through Sunday, Nov. 12. The play by Sarah Gancher has been developed at Hartford over the past few years.

It is 2002 in Budapest; Hungary has been free of Communist rule since 1989, but it is the year of an extremely divisive election between center right and center left parties. One of the issues that had recurred since the end of Communism is the role of former party members in society and government.

Gancher has illustrated this conflict over Hungary’s past and future by setting it within one family.  Erszike, the mother, has lived through the entire Communist era. Though born a Jew, she now views herself as non-religious. She had been a loyal Communist accepting the ideology, but she had had to make difficult decisions throughout her life.

We are in her apartment where her daughter, Margit has planned a traditional Jewish Seder – or as traditional as possible. Attending will be Margit’s brother, Laci, whose job is borderline criminal and David, an American Jew who seems to have only limited success at numerous professions – law, counseling, teacher and writer. Margit is obviously attracted to David. The older sister, Judit is also expected, though no-one is sure she will arrive. She and Erizike have not spoken nor seen each other since the downfall of the Party.

The play focuses on Erszike’s story which is told in flashbacks as the evening goes on. The memories are triggered because Margit had asked David to take her mother out for the afternoon while preparations were underway. Unknowingly, he had taken her to the museum that was established at the former headquarters of both the Nazi secret police and also the Communist police. Erszike has been a secretary there. In the basement of the building is a “Wall of Murderers” – photos of people who worked there and are accused of being complicit in the spying and torture that occurred. Her photo is prominently displayed.

Margit is upset that David had taken her there, because she knows that Judit is the curator of the museum. Judit has aligned herself with the more right wing political party.

The Seder beings without Judit who arrives late and barely speaks to her mother.

During the course of the evening, at various times, Erszike steps away to recall a vivid memory: The first meeting with Attila, a member of the secret police, who notices her as a janitor, other episodes in their relationship, the 1956 uprising and more.

We learn so much of her life. She was a girl alone; her parents had died in the war, her aunt and uncle had been considered “bourgeois” by the Communist regime. She believes in the party and its ideals.  She accepts the job of secretary which involves typing up transcripts of wiretaps and interrogations. Attila demands much of her and reminds her of how much she owes him when he demurs. He even arranges her marriage to another worker in the building, Tamás, when she becomes pregnant.

None of the family know any of this. Yet the animosity between Judit and Erzike eventually force most of this out. Judit resented her mother long before now in part because she blamed her mother for Tamás’ alcoholism and eventual desertion of the family.

During the course of the evening, as the Seder hesitantly continues revelations about the past occur. Judit finds that much of her sense of self is challenged by what she learns.

Director Elizabeth Williamson has assembled a fine cast. The play focuses most on the mother and her two daughters. Mia Dillon once again gives a superb performance, moving easily from the older woman to the young girl. You believe her in both roles. Last year, Dillon won the Connecticut Critics Circle award for supporting actress for playing dual roles (one a child) in Hartford Stage’s production of Cloud Nine.

 She gives us a woman who has made choices, many that she felt were no choice at all, and has seemingly seldom looked back or examined those choices. She believes she did the things she did were for the good of her family and her children.

She also believes she did what she could to help people and in fact was warned that her bosses were aware of her losing files and changing words in the transcripts. But she also claims to not know what was going on in the basement of the building.

Birgit Huppach plays the strident and determined Judit. She is just as righteous and ambitious as any of the Communists were. She is running for office and makes a play for David because she thinks he can help her. It is an unsympathetic role and Huppach does not try to soften this woman who seems to have a very hard heart.

Margit as played by Julia Sirna-Frest is the opposite. She is a soft woman, who tries hard to please and is so obviously interested in David. It is she who wants to explore her Jewish heritage, perhaps to please David, but also she wants a family.

The male characters are more incidental to the story, but each contributes something valuable.

Steven Rattazzi is David, who is obviously the comic relief in the play. To emphasize that he is attempting to speak Hungarian, he gives unusual and funny pronunciation to the vowels in some of the dialogue. Just enough to make the point but sometimes it also generates laughs. He is a confusing character; it seems he has failed at many things, yet he also is very confident. Rattazzi manages to balance the humor and the ego of the man.

As Laci, the brother, Dustin Ingram is the disillusioned and angry one in the family. He is ready to explode at how things have gone in the recent years. Ingram gives us his anger and the possibility of violence. The father, Tamás, played by Liam Craig has the least important role in the play. He is the “passive” man who does what he is told and slowly sinks into depression. Finally Jeremy Webb plays Attila as the menacing, controlling officer who is always looking out for himself.

Nick Vaughan’s set extends the playing space as much as possible which leaves room for the flashback scenes. It shows three areas of the apartment – the kitchen, dining room and the living room. The backdrop is the wall of murderers which as the play ends becomes multi-layered. Marcus Dilliard’s lighting helps the audience recognize the flashbacks, and Jane Shaw’s sound design sets us in the appropriate time period for the flashbacks.

As you leave the theater, you will be thinking about both Erszike and Judit. But don’t be surprised if you don’t consider what you would have done in similar circumstances. How many of us have the courage to risk all when there seems no possibility of winning?

Seder is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St, Hartford, through Sunday, Nov. 119. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.

 

“The Diary of Anne Frank” Is Getting Moving Production at Playhouse on Park

Anne frank 1By Karen Isaacs

Even if you have seen it before, Playhouse on Park’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank through Nov. 19 is worth getting tickets for. It is that good.

The intimate setting – you are never more than four rows from the stage – adds to the emotional impact. You can see every nuance of expression and gesture. Even the large stage itself is a benefit, permitting scenic designer David Lewis to create a realistic apartment where the Franks and others hide for two plus years. While it seems small for eight people, I’ve been told the actually space was even smaller.

Director Ezra Barnes has assembled a fine ensemble cast which works seamlessly together. Anne is the central character but in this production you are allowed to think about and feel for the other characters.

Barnes is using the adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, which was done a number of years ago. The original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was written in the 1950s; Otto Frank, Anne’s father on only survivor of the family, oversaw and controlled not only the play but also the editing of the diary.

Between the period, and a father’s protectiveness, certain aspects of Anne’s diary were played down or omitted. Kesselman has added these elements back in which gives us a more real Anne. After all, when the family goes into hiding, she is just 13 and when they are captured over two years later she is nearly 16. In addition the experiences of war time, she has gone from a child to a young woman going through puberty and discovering an interest in boys, fellow hider, Peter Van Daan.

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Isabelle Barbier

For those who have forgotten the details of the story, Otto Frank, a successful business owner, with his partner Mr. Van Daan go into hiding above the offices as the Nazis increase their round up of Jews in Amsterdam in 1942. They are aided by two people in the business, Miep Gies who handles all the daily logistics including finding ration books to provide food and other necessary items and Mr. Kraler who also assists and runs the business.  Seven people are crammed into the space: the four Franks, Otto and his wife Edith, their older daughter Margot and Anne. The Von Dann’s include the husband and wife and their son, Peter who arrives with his cat.

A year later, Mr. Dussel, a dentist also is taken in.

Not only is the space crowded, and food becomes both limited and scarce, but they must live with many restrictions because of the workers below: no talking and limited movement during the days among others.

Of course, tensions arise – between Margot and Anne, the Franks and the Von Daans, and the spouses of each family.

Anne, played by Isabelle Barbier, has a startling resemblance to pictures of the real Anne.  Though she is the title character and sometimes the narrator, she does not overshadow the other characters.

Barbier creates a realistic adolescent girl, in voice, gestures and tone. But she is not alone in her skill. Each member of the cast does the same. Lisa Bostnar is excellent as the more high-strung and terrified Mrs. Van Daan. Alex Rafala is right on as the teenage boy, Peter, who is shy and only seems to respond to Anne. And this is not to imply that any of the other actors aren’t excellent as well. It is truly an ensemble cast.

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Frank van Putten

Yet, some of the biggest praise must go to set designer Lewis, He has used every inch of the big square stage to create the apartment. As you look at the beds – Anne and Margot initially share one small room that includes a bed and a cot, the Van Daan’s sleep in the living area, and Peter has another small room, you can feel how on-top of each other they are. You also can see the attic where Peter and Anne sometimes go to escape the prying eyes of adults.  It is amazing that there aren’t more tension in the space.

Director Barnes has kept the cast on stage during the intermission which increases the feeling of being trapped.

Overall this is an excellent production. Of course, Otto Frank’s narration at the end reminds of just how close they all came to being saved. Unfortunately, he was the only survivor.

For tickets visit Playhouse on Parkor call 860-523-5900.  It is located at 244 Park Road, West Harford.

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Isabella Barbier, Jonathan Mesisca, Allen Lewis Rickman

Brian Friel’s Last Play Gets Touching Production at The Irish Rep

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Rachel Pickup and Ed Malone. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Brian Friel’s The Home Place, now at the Irish Rep through December 17, looks at a period of upheaval in Irish history, 1878. Once more the cause of independence has been rising to the surface with new leaders and movement called “New Departure.” Home rule was the goal.  British landowners are a target and a symbol of British domination of the country.

The play, the last Friel wrote,  takes place during a single day – the day of the funeral of Lord Lifford, an English landlord, hated by the Irish who has been mysteriously murdered. It is set in Friel’s often-used, semi-mythical town of Ballybeg in County Donegal.

Christopher Gore, played touchingly by John Windsor-Cunningham, is an English widower who has lived most of his life on his estate in Ballybeg. Yet he also speaking lovingly of the time he spent in Kent, England and where he went to school. He lives mostly alone in the house with Margaret, the head housekeeper, a youngish local woman whose father is the school master and choirmaster in the town. Christopher’s son, David also lives there, seeing to the land.

On the day of the funeral, Christopher’s nephew, Richard Gore is visiting with his assistant, Perkins. Richard is a scientist, apparently well-known who is there in order to conduct some scientific explorations. He works in the fields of craniology and phrenology, which are the science of the shapes of heads. He believes that by measuring numerous of aspects of the skull, one can determine the ethnic background of an individual and his or her character.

Phrenology and craniology were popular from the later 1700s to the mid-1800s and then were revived in the early part of the 20th century. Today, is a discredited as a “pseudo-science.” But it had many adherents who believed skull shape and size affected brain size and that specific areas of the brain were responsible for character, thoughts and emotions.

Christopher has encouraged his tenants to come to be measured. While Richard thinks the reward should be only the photograph his assistant takes of them, Christopher, who views himself as a benevolent landholder, offers them more. No one disputes that he is benevolent, yet there is a growing group of people who want to reclaim land they view as theirs.

Among these are the maid Sally and her boyfriend, Johnny, who is the local man for the agitator Con who is also there.

The Home Place is a study of contrasts. Richard has little respect for the Irish while Christopher views them as humans towards whom he has warm feelings. After all he basically grew up in  Ballybeg. Christopher who is aging, longs to go back to England which he sometimes refers to as “the home place” – he has spent most of his life in Ireland, so he also feels a connection to it and the people. So which is his “home place?” He also is a contrast to the murdered Lord Lifford who was viewed as harsh and unforgiving.

Other contrasts abound. His son, David seems more a man of the land than the refined Christopher but they are both drawn to Margaret. Just after we see a rendezvous between Margaret and David, Christopher announces his desire to marry her, primarily you think because he is lonely.

A recurrent element of the play is music – Margaret’s father leads a well-respected choir which we sometimes hear. While he may drink excessively, he is also an educated man who teaches school and admires Irish poetry.

The play ends with Christopher siding with his fellow Ballybeg residents over his kin, but with increasing awareness that his time in Ireland is limited.

The Home Place is beautifully directed by Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep’s Artistic Director. She has a fine cast to work with including Rachel Pickup as Margaret, John Windsor-Cunningham as Christopher and Ed Malone as David.  Christopher Randolph has the job of trying to make the supercilious Richard understandable and Stephen Pilkington provides some comic moments as his assistant Perkins.

The least developed characters are Con and Johnny, played by Johnny Hopkins (Con) and Gordon Tashjian (Johnny).

James Noone has provided a set that features the garden of the house. The lighting by Michael Gottlieb is excellent.

The Home Place is another fascinating play by one of Ireland’s best playwrights.

For tickets visit The Irish Rep or call 212-727-2737.

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Photo by Carol Rosseg

“Time and The Conways” Is More than a Just a Drawing Room Comedy

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Anna Baryshnikov, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Camp. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

By Karen Isaacs

The curtain rises on the first scene of Time and the Conways now at Roundabout’s American Airlines theater through Nov. 26 and you will assume you are in for a typical ‘20s-‘30s British drawing room comedy.

The set by Neil Patel is a large, well-furnished room with a door to a hallway. Sounds of gaiety emanate from off-stage. Soon four young ladies enter, the four Conway sisters who vary in age from late teens to mid-twenties. The occasion is Kay’s 21st birthday party and they are going through costumes for a charade. But all is not exactly as it seems. It is 1919, a year after WWI ended; their father has died a few earlier in a bizarre accident, and one of their brothers is about to be demobilized from the army.

Though this is a well-to-do family, they are not the “idle rich.”  One sister (Madge) is a school teacher and ardent socialist, Kay is an aspiring writer/novelist, only the oldest sister (Hazel) seems to live a life of ease; her goal is a successful marriage and living in London.  Carol, the youngest is still in her teens. Their elder brother (Alan) works as clerk for the township. It is clear he has the least ambition of them all.

When Mrs. Conway enters (Elizabeth McGovern) she seems almost as young and vivacious as her daughters. By the time the scene has ended, Robin has returned home and quickly decided to marry one of Hazel’s friends (Joan).  A dour young man (Ernest) who is new to town has been introduced brought by another friend, Gerald. Hazel recognizes Ernest as the man she has seen around town and has felt as though he was stalking her.

The scene changes with the help of a set coming down from above and moving forward. It is 1937 but the set looks exactly like the earlier one. Now the entire family has gathered again, well almost of them, the youngest daughter is missing. Life has not necessarily been easy for some of the Conways.

The reason for the gathering?  Mrs. Conway has money troubles and the question is what to do. The house is not worth what was it was (this is still the depression) and she has not necessarily been careful about her funds. We learn what has happened to the siblings in the almost twenty years. Madge is now head of a school and is not only adamant about not helping to support her mother, but seems very angry with her.  Kay is a journalist working on magazines without the illusions or ideals she had as a budding novelist. Alan is still working the town, He’s the one that has been keeping a watch on his mother.

The marriage between Robin and Joan has deteriorated; he drinks and has left her with minimal support for their children. His big dreams have come to naught. Gerald is now Mrs. Conway’s solicitor.

Hazel is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Ernest who is cold and sneering. She may have money but she is dominated by her husband who obviously has little regard for her or the family.

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Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Bloom, Charlotte Parry.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Act two takes us back to the 1919 party, as the guests leave and we see the seeds that will lead to the 1937 situation. Why Madge is so angry with her mother, why Ernest views the family so negatively and why Joan made the wrong choice.

J. B. Priestley is best known for his layered works that examine British society (and all societies) in both a political and philosophical framework. This play which was written in 1937, uses the Conways to illustrate the actions and ideas that led Britain to the situation it found itself. At the same time, he is also discussing the philosophical concept of time.

His theories of how different dimensions link the past, present and future are woven into the plot of this play. The ending, when Kay realizes that Alan is the happiest of them all – and had the least ambition, is fascinating. Alan tells Kay (they are still in 1919) that in the future he could tell her something that would help her.

Tony winner Rebecca Taichman has directed this play keeping it in both the time and style of the period and the drawing room comedy. She allows the audience to slowly explore the depths of Priestley’s play. In this she is aided by the period costumes by Paloma Young and the effective lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Matt Hubbs.

One of the attractions of this production is the return of Elizabeth McGovern to the New York stage. McGovern, who most recently played Lady Cora in Downton Abby, is an experienced stage actress. She handles the role expertly.  Her Mrs. Conway is almost as youthful (dare we say flighty) as her young daughters in the first act and by the time we get to 1937, she is still not truly mature. Her way to deal with difficulties is to ignore them or engage in wishful thinking.

It is hard to fault any of the supporting cast members. Gabriel Ebert has the challenge of imbuing the duller Alan with a sense of longing and quiet desperation. He does this so well, that your eyes are constantly drawn to him. Brooke Bloom as Madge, Charlotte Parry as Kay, Anna Barysknikov as Carol and Anna Camp as Hazel are all excellent. Steven Boyer as Ernest shows the lower class striver with a huge chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to have an ounce of humanity in him.

Time and The Conway is at Roundabout’s American Airline Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street through November 26. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.

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Matthew James Thomas, Alfred Narciso, Steven Boyer, Charlotte Parry. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

TheaterWork’s The Wolves Shows a Society of Teen Girls

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Teenagers are a gold mine for authors – they combine such conflicting elements in their personalities. Half adult and half child. They can be inquiring and well-informed while at the same time woeful ignorant. Emotionally they can leap from joy to despair in a second. The same teen can be kind and generous and in an instant become cruel.

It’s no wonder that playwright Sarah DeLappe looked to a group of teen girls playing soccer for the play The Wolves. The title comes from the team name. Just as William Golding and others have done, adults are missing from this society that the girls have created within their team.

These are very good players. They are playing indoors on a club team and are looking forward to their travel team come spring. For those not involved in youth sports and soccer in particular, this means that college scouts are looking at them as they play various tournaments and college “clinics.” (I have learned a great deal about this process with four granddaughters all of whom were recruited athletes and including two soccer players.)

This group of girls play in the Under 17 classification which means they are 16 or just turning 17. Most are high school juniors which is the year when the recruiting is in earnest and colleges can, under NCAA rules, sign players.

We see the girls before several games. As they warm up and do various drills, competing conversations take place. We only know the girls by their numbers, which can at times be confusing.

During the opening conversations, we learn that #7 is both the loudest, most self-assured and the most “advanced” as she swears often and talks about celebrating her up-coming 17th birthday by going away for the weekend to her dad’s ski lodge where her college-age boyfriend will meet her.  Then there is the “new” girl, #8 who has just joined the team. No one knows much about her, but she seems years younger than #7. The same is true for #46 who is trying desperately to fit in but has a tendency to make comments that don’t quite follow the conversational leads. In addition there is #11 who is the de facto leader of the group and runs the drills and #00, the goalie who is driven to seek perfection.

At times the conversations seem random. They talk about school work, particularly about a course some of them are taking on genocide. It’s interesting to hear them talk about the Khmer Rouge (one can’t pronounce it) and the Armenian genocide (#14 is of Armenian descent). But just as you are thinking how adult they are, the conversation will switch to menstruation and feminine hygiene products, boys and other things.

They are by turns kind to each other and cruel. Secrets emerge during the 90 minute play. One girl has had an abortion, another’s mother has breast cancer, a third girl is embarrassed that her mom is considered “hot”. There’s also talk of the stoner brother of one, and the fact that #00 vomits before every game.

Of course, they talk about the coach is who is apparently off on the sidelines. They view this coach as a “loser” and claim he is often inebriated or hung over; they long for their former coach, Patrick, who left the team to move  back with his mother who is battling cancer.

It all builds to a game at which a college scout (from Texas A&M) is there to scout a girl on the opposing team. But three of the Wolves are called over to speak with him; the others are crushed to be excluded and not considered “good enough”.

The climax of the play is the injury to #7 during a game; she blames the captain for not having them stretch before but it turns out that although her ankle was injured she went skiing during her birthday weekend. Now her ACL is torn, she will need surgery and could easily miss the up-coming season. And, perhaps predictably, there has to be a tragedy that is revealed in the last scene.

Although some of the conversations may be off-putting to some of the audience, you do develop a liking for these girls. You care about them.

Overall the cast is excellent. These young actresses do a terrific job, though a few of them look older than 16. In the case of Olivia Hoffman who plays brassy #7, that’s ok. She does an excellent job with this girl who is obviously rebelling. But Emily Murphy who plays the captain (#25) also seems older than her years in both appearance and manner. She is a “take charge” woman; her new haircut at the end of the play may be a form of “coming out.”

Rachael Caplan is excellent as #14 – she is shy and trying to fit in, but finally is willing to speak up for herself.  She is #7’s willing sidekick.  Karla Gallegos who plays the driven #00 is more off by herself than part of the total group. After all, the goalie does stand alone.  But each of the performers is excellent and it is hard to mention just one or two.

Eric Ort has directed this with a sure hand. The girls perform drills, stretch and job while talking. Mariana Sanchez has created a turf soccer field that slopes up in the back. It is the perfect backdrop for this play.

Overall The Wolves is a fascinating look at teenage girls and sports. Because of the language and some of the subject matter, the play may not be suitable for younger audiences; it is recommended for 14 and up though they may be somewhat embarrassed at times.

The Wolves is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Nov. 10. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.com

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey & Denis Ardnt Shine in Long Wharf’s “Fireflies”

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Judith Ivey and Jane Alexander.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 It’s all about the acting. Fireflies by Matthew Barber which is now at Long Wharf through Nov. 5 is a sweet romantic comedy that won’t break any new theatrical ground. But in this production, the thoroughly likable play is showcasing some of the best actors in the U.S.

Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Denis Ardnt are the three main characters. It’s a small

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

south Texas town and the never married Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) is busy making jam in her hot kitchen while her neighbor Grace (Judith Ivey) prattles on. Grace talks about everything, but she keeps returning to the “drifter” that has been seen around town. She is convinced that he is up to no good and is looking for women living alone like Eleanor and herself for some nefarious scheme.

Eleanor, a retired beloved school teacher puts up with the endless chatter, recognizing that Grace wants news that can be spread. Finally she has had enough and encourages Grace to go home.

Is it any surprise that soon the “drifter” – Abel Brown shows up at her doorstep? He’s an older man and says he has been traveling around for decades.  He tells her that her vacant cottage sustained some roof damage during a recent storm and offers to repair it. After checking out the cottage, Eleanor agrees.

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Denis Arndt. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Soon Abel has mowed the lawn and repaired the broken air conditioner. He brings dinner for the two of them and even plays – not very well – her father’s old violin. Both of her parents died years ago in a traffic accident. He makes her an offer; he would like to stay in the cottage, which he refers to as a “honeymoon cottage” for free while he renovates it for her. She has mixed feelings about the cottage; unsure whether to sell or rent it, but also wishing it would somehow miraculous burn to the ground.

While she accepts his offer to renovate, she tells him he can’t stay in the cottage because of the neighborhood gossip.

Eleanor is cautious but lonely (she had never married) and Grace, who is a widow is also lonely. Grace wouldn’t mind male companionship.

The question of course is, who really is Abel Brown? Is he just a scammer preying on lonely, older women? What is he hiding?

We get the answers to these and more as the play gently progresses. Predictably, Eleanor assumes the worst about Abel when he disappears for 36 hours, Grace isn’t sure if she wants to say “I told you so” and Abel is perturbed by the questioning.

We learn of Abel’s past, but not much about Eleanor’s or even Grace’s. Did Eleanor have a romance that went sour? Is that why she wouldn’t mind the cottage’s  destruction? Is the term “honeymoon cottage” fraught with meaning for her? Her father built the cottage for her.

We don’t ever learn this, but who cares? Sometimes it is more fun to make up our own stories about a character’s past.

What takes the gentle comedy to a higher level is the acting. Jane Alexander is well known both in Connecticut and the US for her talent. Judith Ivey also is well known to both Connecticut and New York audiences. But Denis Arndt is something of a surprise. A great deal of his work has been done in regional theaters particularly on the west coast. His appearance last fall on Broadway in Heisenberg opposite Mary Louise Parker earned him attention and a Tony nomination. I’m glad that he seems settled on the east coast.

Each of these actors develop fully formed characters that you absolutely believe in, from the somewhat “starchy” Eleanor, to the nosy Grace, to the mysterious Abel.

It is a pleasure to see them work – each movement, gesture and facial expression is perfectly aligned to the characters and the situation.

Gordon Edelstein has done a fine job directing these three, plus Christopher Michael McFarland who has a small role as a former student who is now a police officer.

Alexander Dodge has created a set that embodies Eleanor’s kitchen and dining area. Not new or modern, but reminiscent of any old house built in the 30s or 40s and never truly modernized. Jess Goldstein has given us costumes that totally suit each character. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting and John Gromada’s sound contribute to feeling the hot Texas summer.

The title, Fireflies, can have multiple meanings. The tiny lightening bugs are so much a part of rural summer nights, but they also flicker for such brief moments.

If you yearn for a sweet, romantic play, Fireflies not only fits the bill but will enchant you with its fine acting.

For tickets, visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282, 800-782-8497.

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Denis Arndt and Jane Alexander. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Yale’s “Enemy of the People” Mix of Styles and Ideas Confuses the Message

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE

Enrico Colantoni and Reg Rogers. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now at the Yale Rep through Saturday, Oct. 28 is one of the four great realistic dramas he wrote between 1879 and 1890. They include the better known A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler as well as Ghosts. These drama dealt with real people dealing with social issues that still reverberate today.

Yet, the show is relevant to today. It focuses on the rejection of scientific fact, the willingness to put economic benefit over the environment and people’s health and the public’s ability to be easily swayed. Could have been ripped out of the headlines.

Unfortunately, this production diminishes these issues rather than illuminates them.

Dr.  Thomas Stockmann, played overly manic by Reg Rogers, has returned to his home town and is the medical director of the recently created health spa/baths in this small coastal Norwegian town. It has proved to be a huge success attracting tourists from throughout Norway and helping the local economy. It’s also helped Stockmann as well; he had spent years in near poverty in a very small, isolated village.

His return to the town was partly engineered by his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann.

But as the play opens, Thomas is anxiously awaiting a letter as various local people gather in his drawing room. They include the young newspaper editor who wants to overthrow the establishment and the older people running the town; the young assistant on the paper; as well as Aslaksen who is the printer/typesetter and is a leader of the small merchants and home owners in the town. “Moderation” is his key word.

Tthe Mayor also drops in and it is clear that there is some between the brothers. Thomas may have suggested the baths, but Peter wants some of the credit for their actual construction and success.

When the letter arrives, Thomas seems surprisingly happy with the news. Some water samples he had sent to Christiana (now Oslo) to be tested have revealed that his hunch is correct: the waters in the baths are seriously polluted and are causing disease to the visitors. He can barely control himself, quickly outlining the problem to the guests, who all pledge their support.

He is sure that his brother, the Mayor, will immediately take the necessary steps which include shutting the spa down and totally redoing the pipes that bring the water to it. An added complication is that the main source of the pollution is the plant owned by the father of Thomas’ wife.

But as he counts on the editor and Aslaksen for support, the Mayor is quietly undermining him. To redo the pipes and eliminate the contaminated water would require shutting the spa down for a year or more, plus the outlay of large amounts of money. Conveniently the shareholders in the baths would not pay the bill; the taxpayers would. With the reduced tourism, the businessmen would see profits go down and real estate values as well. The Mayor even points out that neighboring towns might build their own baths.

Quickly the tide turns. All those who supported him, with the exception of Captain Horster, a ship’s captain, desert him. They are willing to question the science behind the test results, considering it conjecture or exaggerated. Certainly more moderate measures can ameliorate the problem with no need of alerting the public, shutting the baths, or raising taxes.

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE

Photo by Joan Marcus

As his supporters slip away, Thomas becomes more and more adamant, unwilling to consider even the slightest deviation from his ideas. With the help of Captain Horster, he schedules a meeting (at the Captain’s house) to explain his ideas, but the town leaders take it over. Eventually he does speak, but not about the pollution of the baths, but what he views is the moral pollution overtaking the country. He doesn’t blame it on the leaders but on what he calls “the compact majority” who are at fault. He says that the majority never has right on its side; the masses poison the moral values.

The play ends with Thomas defiant though he has lost everything. His fellow citizens have broken the windows to his house, he has been fired from his job, his daughter has been fired from her teaching position, and his sons have been asked to leave school. Even the inheritance that his wife and children would receive from her father, has disappeared. Yet rather than leave for America, the curtain ends with him determined to fight on.

One of the puzzling aspects of this play is Ibsen’s point of view. He has Thomas say that truths are changeable, and that ideas of morals and values are not absolute.  Thomas’s words could be construed to endorse an oligarchy of the educated.

But Ibsen is also clearly talking about the duty of professionals, the balance between economic well-being and doing good, the responsibility for honest communication (the visitors to the baths should know) and even the destruction of the environment. The waters have been polluted by run-off from the mines up-stream, which also provide an economic benefit.

Director James Bundy’s vision of this drama about an idealistic but rash man and his downfall seems to be that it is a somewhat raucous physical comedy. Laughter erupted from the audience in some of the most dramatic moments, somewhat like laughing as Othello strangles Desdemona.

He has also decided to stress the theatrical illusions of the play.  The set allows us to see into the wings of stage; so we can see actors waiting for the cues, stage personnel handing them props, etc. Instead of letting us immerse ourselves in the dilemma facing Thomas and his family, and the town, we are constantly aware that this is just make believe. Movement and dance has also been introduced for no obvious purpose.

The acting styles are also inconsistent. Some characters are played with minimal emotion or affect, seemingly uninterested in what is going on. This is particularly true of Setareki Wainiqolo who plays the ship captain, Captain Horster, the lone townsperson who is on Thomas’ side by the final curtain. But even Thomas’s wife, Catherine, played Joey Parsons seems devoid of most emotion.

Reg Rogers plays Dr. Stockmann in such an exuberant manner that as the play progress and he becomes more and more upset, determined and fanatical, he has no room to escalate his acting style. He becomes more and more hyper until you wonder if he will just collapse. He seems on the verge of a total breakdown. This grandiosity (at the beginning he wonders if the town will throw him a parade to reward him) makes him a laughable character rather than a man having his ideals crushed.

Enrico Colantoni plays the Mayor as the moderate man who considers all the angles before making a move. But he also does a good job of showing the sibling rivalry between the brothers. The Mayor is well aware that Thomas views him as stupid.

Petra, the doctor’s daughter played by Stephanie Machado manages to show us her devotion to her father and his ideals. She too wants to stay and fight.

As the trio of men who accept the Doctor’s hospitality, egg him on and then turn against him, each plays a specific type. Hovstad, the newspaper editor played by Bobby Roman, is the young firebrand who will switch sides when needed; Billing, his assistant, played by Ben Anderson, seems simply a follower. Aslaksen, played by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, is the “careful” man who is willing to make waves as long as no one gets water in the face. Henderson does the best job of the three in conveying his natural conservatism.

Jarlath Conroy plays Thomas’ father-in-law, the owner of the mill that is one of the sources of the pollution in a way that is much too soft at the beginning. He too has his motives to both back Thomas and later to turn away.

The set by Emona Stoykova, rotates for no apparent purpose. The sides show the off-stage areas which was undoubtedly requested by Bundy. The lighting by Krista Smith is unobtrusive. Sophia Choi has given us period costumes.

An Enemy of the People is a fascinating play that is relevant in so many ways to our 21st century world – even more so in the last year – that deserves a production that encourages discussion and thought, not laughter.

It is at the University Theater of the Yale Rep, 222 York Street, through Saturday, Oct. 28. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publication Weeklies and zip06.com

 

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