Author Archive: Two on the Aisle

Ivoryton’s World Premiere Drama Has Promise

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Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

Bravo Ivoryton Playhouse! Brava Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard! It is a big risk to produce a new play about a subject many don’t really want to think about written by a playwright who is not widely known.

Yet that is what the Playhouse and Hubbard have done with the current world premiere of Queens of the Gold Mask now through Sunday, Nov. 18.

Playwright Carole Lockwood’s play while set in the past resonates much too much in today’s world.

When most of us think of the Klu Klux Klan, we picture the white robes and hoods, the burning crosses and the resulting violence. While the hoods don’t allow us to the see faces, we think of them as men. But anyone who has seen the footage of the Charlottesville demonstration last year, or other similar but smaller gatherings, must acknowledge that some of the attendees are women. Women who might be our neighbors.

Lockwood’s play is set in Celestial, Alabama in 1961 (act 1) and 1963 (act 2). Is the town’s name an ironic joke? It seems like it. This is small town Alabama not too far from Birmingham, and the Klan has never died. The resurgent civil rights movement is leading to a resurgence in Klan activities; everyone seems to belong.

Queens focuses on the women in this small town, particular a matriarch, Ida Sage or Moma as she is called by most, her daughter-in-law, and four other women. Each is married and each husband is involved in Klan activities though details are hidden from the women.

When writing about such emotional and explosive subjects, any playwright walks a fine line between drama and melodrama, which is usually defined as type of drama that exaggerates emotion, emphasizes plot or action over characterization and often does not observe the laws of cause and effect.

This play falls well over the line into melodrama.

Every melodrama needs a villain with no redeeming qualities and that role is Moma played very well by Ellen Barry. You do not have one iota of sympathy for this manipulative, determined, evil woman. She dominates everyone.

The first act of the play is about Moma’s desire to regain the charter for the “women’s auxiliary” chapter of the Klan in Celestial that was lost when membership fell below seven. So she is determined to recruit two new members and regain the charter. One candidate is easy: Kathy (Two) Boggs is a young woman married to the mayor’s son. Moma would have considered “trash” except for the marriage. Kathy is eager to join.

But the other possible candidate is more problematic. One of the local men has recently brought home his bride, a school teacher from Ohio, after a six month courtship. So could Rose be brought into the fold?

That is left to the local Avon lady, Faith, who talks to Rose about sisterhood, fitting in, making friends. She portrays this as just a group that talks and bakes cookies but does nothing more. She even implies that the men do little. Rose is uncertain; she says she had hoped to not have a conversation about race as Faith questions her about teaching black children and her home town. Her dad was prejudiced, and she and her new husband Buddy had never discussed the issue. But she is bored and lonely and is persuaded to join.

Act two, set in 1963 shows Rose as a contented member of the group; she has adjusted to the way of small town life. She’s also befriended Martha Nell, Moma’s daughter-in-law who she treats like a servant and even physically abuses. Martha played touchingly by Sarah Jo Provost is the most sympathetic character. It seems that in the last two years, a little spark of determination and spunk has developed.

Moma has become even more hateful, if that is possible. But while all the women give lip service to “the cause,” we learn that two have courageously been giving information to the FBI who are investigating Klan activities in the area. In fact, a bug has been planted in Moma’s house. Perhaps the FBI is closing in on her involvement in the bombing of a church in the black quarter and of the high school that was about to be integrated. We see her, make a phone call and then sit waiting until she hears sirens; her look changes to one of contentment and pleasure. One of the suspected informants has been killed.

When Rose finally confronts Moma and says she is leaving the chapter (and her marriage) to return to Ohio, Moma gloats that Ohio has one of the bigger Klan memberships, that the “kiss of death” and oath of secrecy will follow her and that the Klan will continue to grow even in thirty years.

Director Jacqueline Hubbard has handled the cast and show deftly; keeping it moving as much as possible, and the melodramatic moments (and there are many) as realistic as possible. She is aided by the scenic design, a kitchen, dining room and front door of a clean but shabby house; the lighting by Marcus Abbott; and the sound design by Tate R. Burmeister that includes traditional hymns such as “Shall We Gather by the River.”

Overall the cast is excellent, creating multi-dimensional characters even where the playwright didn’t. It is hard to pick just one or two out for praise but certainly Ellen Barry totally immerses herself in the unrelenting force that is Moma, and Sarah Jo Provost is also excellent as the downtrodden Martha Nell. Anna Fagan must make the cheerful and naïve Rose believable and for the most part she succeeds.

This play has promise and certainly the subject matter, the active role of women in the Klan is one that is rarely discussed. But the work needs trimming substantially and many of the characters need to be more developed rather than recognizable stereotypes.

Go see Queens of the Golden Mask. It is well worth your time.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 18. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Fascinating Look at How We Grieve and Recover

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Andrew Veenstra, Kelly McAndrew, Katie Ailion. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 I can’t stop thinking about and praising the world premiere play, Thousand Pines, at Westport Country Playhouse through Saturday, Nov. 17.

Playwright Matthew Greene and director Austin Pendleton have taken a subject that can be emotionally devastating and created a thoughtful and insightful study of how individuals and communities cope with unimaginable tragedy.

The play consists of three scenes with three different families in the same town and all on the same Thanksgiving Day. Six fine actors work as a well-oiled ensemble to create a variety of individuals so well that sometimes it takes a minute to realize who they played in an earlier scene.

This is first Thanksgiving following a shooting six months earlier at a middle school in town. Each of the scenes focuses on a different family who lost a son in the shooting.

You might think that this would be a tear-jerker. Greene and Pendleton haven’t minimized the horror but have kept the emotions under control.

It is an examination of how individuals grieve and how it affects family and community relationships. Research has shown that many couples whose child dies will divorce; the still living siblings are apt to suffer from a variety of psychological issues from guilt of survival to resentment of the family’s concentration on the dead child.

In the three scenes, each about 25 minutes in length, we see the entire range of options and of families.

In the first scene the mother is preparing to host Thanksgiving dinner, having invited her sister and husband, her late husband’s brother and her older son’s fiancée. When the son (Justin) arrives, he is angry that things are happening as usual; he thought he and his mother had agreed to “keep it simple” this year. Yet underneath the perky mother (played by Kelly McAndrew), is someone unable to truly accept the tragedy. Andrew Veenstra is excellent as Justin.

We move to another family; in this case the father sits passively in a chair wanting to eat, while the child’s stepmother (Sophie) is fixated on a law suit that they and some other parents have filed because “someone must be held responsible.” She is determined that other parents who are neighbors will give dispositions as will Deborah, a school teacher at the school, who is also a guest for dinner. An added guest is Oliver, Sophie’s ex-husband and the lead lawyer on the case. Even he is astonished at Sophie’s single-mindedness. Their daughter, Gretchen is also present, hoping for a traditional family meal only to find it so focused on the lawsuit that the meal becomes a minor distraction. She also resents Sophie’s late blooming maternal instincts that she never saw while growing up.

The third scene involves a single mom (Rita) who has invited her brother (Kyle) to dinner but he shows up in handcuffs with a police officer having punched a man at the grocery store. Also flitting around are two women (Evelyn and Tori) who volunteered to help her; though she really doesn’t want the help which she recognizes as survivor guilt. Later in the scene, a young man, perhaps a college student arrives bringing food and he and Kyle discuss the tragedy.

Each of the actors does a terrific job. Kelly McAndrews plays all three moms but they are so different and Andrew Veenstra is moving as the young men who are in the first and third scenes. This isn’t to slight William Ragsdale (Martin, Oliver and Frank) or Joby Earle (Charlie, Warren and Kyle) nor Anne Bates (Beth, Debbie and Evelyn) and Kate Ailion (Ashley, Gretchen, Tori).

Walt Spangler has created an upper middle class dining room which contains both elements of colonial style and more contemporary design. Ryan Rumery handled both the sound design and composed music for the show.

I found this moving and fascinating. As the playwright said, “to be honest, I’d love for this play to stop being ‘relevant.’”

Yes, it is a difficult subject but it is handled with such care by all involved that it is well worth seeing.

For tickets visit Westport Playhouse or call 203-227-4177.

“The Nap” Offers Multiple Twists and Eccentric Characters

By Karen Isaacs

 Sports, championships and betting shenanigans are often in the headlines, from legalizing sports betting, to the various point shaving scandals in college basketball, to “tanking” games and sets in tennis matches.

The Nap the British play by Richard Bean is now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to Nov. 11.

The title refers to the nap of snooker table; snooker is a British variation of billiards that is extremely popular. Like a billiard table, the fabric on the table’s surface has a nap – touch in one direction and it is smooth, but touch it the opposite direction and it feels rough.

It’s set in a smaller English town that is hosting a national championship match. A local boy, Dylan is an up-and-coming star of the sport who hopes to break in to the top tiers – and the top money with a win. He is surrounded by dysfunction: his father Bobby, and mother, Stella as well as the mother’s boyfriend, Danny, and Dylan’s so-called agent/manager, Tony, plus his backer, Waxxy, a transgendered person with a metal hand.

Bean is known for throwing curve balls at us and approaching subjects with an off-beat sense of a humor. His hit play, Young Marx, exhibited all of these traits, and One Man, Two Governors was pure farce.

These show up in The Nap. Tony the so-called manager/agent is a typical stereotype of British comedies: the twit.

Early in the play, Dylan is visited the two investigators (one from the police, the other from a sports agency) about possible collusion with gamblers. Dylan is shocked and vehement in his denials. As his mother arrives with her boyfriend in tow, it becomes possible that she supplied some information to Waxxy.  As the play goes on, we learn more about the alleged plot to fix a match while Dylan becomes charmed by the police officer. The stakes get raised substantially higher when his mother and her boyfriend are kidnapped by people working for Waxxy. It seems there are some Asian gamblers that are upset about some “mistakes.”

It’s hard to describe much more of what happens without spoiling the plot. Let’s just say that some things aren’t what they seem.

Bean has included many references to classic films, starting with Moonstruck and the Nicolas Cage character. How Bobby and Tony try to recall the names of the films from weird clues is a running joke. That’s just one example of the parallels to classic films.

The acting is excellent. Ben Schnetzer captures Dylan perfectly – he’s a young, naïve, and a snooker nerd. Johanna Day is the blowsy, garish mother, and John Ellison Conlee the profane father. The snooker opponents – yes, we do see parts of a game – are played by Ahmed Aly Elsayed, both an actor and a real life snooker champion. We can’t forget Max Gordon Moore as the agent/manager.

Alexandra Billings plays Waxxy as literally a woman with velvet glove  concealing steel underneath.

The production directed by Daniel Sullivan has a wonderful set that includes the seedy club where Dylan practices, the hotel room that is an altar to a snooker great, and Waxxy’s country house. Each is just right.

Sullivan might have upped the pace a bit at times: it seemed as though things were slower than this type of comedy should be.

Some of the humor is typically British which may not appeal to everyone. But you don’t have to know snooker to enjoy The Nap.

The Nap runs through November 11. For tickets contact Telecharge

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“The Roommate” at Long Wharf Is Hard to Define

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Tasha Lawrence and Linda Powell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 I wish I knew what playwright Jen Silverman intended with her new play, The Roommate now at Long Wharf through Sunday, Nov. 4.

It seems to follow somewhat in the footsteps of her earlier play The Moors which I thoroughly enjoyed at Yale Rep. That play was a mashup/satire of the novels of the Bröntes and other gothic romance writers of the period.

But this piece is harder to define. Yes, it descends into absurdity and seems to be somewhat a parody of the usual sit com set up: two people basically strangers living together. But is it meant to be more? Is something else intended?

It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, since the success of the piece depends on the surprises and unexpected twists.

In Iowa City (there are several jokes about Iowa), Sharon has taken in a new roommate (Robyn) who has just arrived from New York City. Sharon is naïve – or perhaps clueless – to an extreme. When asked if she works, she replies, “I’m retired from my marriage.” She calls her adult son who lives in NYC constantly though he seldom picks up; she has never considered the idea that he may be gay, after all when she visited he introduced her to a “date” who was a lesbian. She has apparently no friends, no hobbies, no real life. Why she is willing to share her house and why she selected Robyn to be the roommate is a mystery.

Robyn is also a mystery; why is she moving to a small town in the mid-West? But we quickly sense that Robyn and Sharon are like oil and water. Robyn is amazed by Sharon’s naiveté; she seems to want privacy- not the companion that Sharon was perhaps looking for. She smokes – not just cigarettes but marijuana! In fact, she even brought her own plants.

After a revelation – and later others – the two seem almost to swap roles. Sharon becomes adventurous and daring; Robyn seems more conventional.

But the transformation of Sharon is carried to such an extreme that all plausibility is lost. It may be funny to see Sharon react to her first inhalation of marijuana, but like much in this play, it goes too far, for too long.

Silverman also relies too much on the telephone to convey messages. Every time Sharon calls her son, she leaves a long message that is obviously intended as much for the audience as for him. Silverman and the director both have taken the easy way out. When Robyn moves in, boxes are piled by the door. Though they live together weeks or more, those boxes are never moved until they suddenly disappear, announcing Robyn’s departure.

Director Mike Donahue has helped the two performers get all the laughs that are in the piece, usually about Sharon’s lack of worldliness or her misconceptions about NYC and other things.

Tasha Lawrence as Robyn and Linda Powell as Sharon are both very good, working as hard as possible to make the implausible seem possible. Yet, in the end one wonders if the audience ever truly cares about either of these middle-aged women whose lives are being turned upside down.

Silverman seems to focus her works on women and she could bring a unique perspective to their lives; in this piece her mixture of absurdity and reality don’t blend well.

For tickets visit  Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zipo6.com.

Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett” Is Spectacular Acting

On BeckettBy Karen Isaacs

 If you don’t get the opportunity to see Bill Irwin in On Beckett at the Irish Rep, and I’m told that the remaining performances are sold out, you have missed a master class on fine acting.

Irwin conceived and performs this almost one person show (a young boy joins him on stage near end for the closing scene from Waiting for Godot). The rest of the time, it is just Irwin holding the stage.

The 90 minute show, is not, Irwin says and academic discussion of Samuel Beckett but an actor’s perspective on the Nobel winning author. He intersperse his thoughts and memories of Beckett and his works, as well as some personal memories, with performances of excerpts from Beckett’s works.

What is such a joy is that while he talks and does parts of Waiting for Godot, which Irwin has done twice on Broadway, he also brings to life \non-plays by Beckett.

I suspect that only someone who has studied the author extensively would have read the novels, The Unnamable and Watt. He gives us fine selections from each.

But three of the pieces are from Texts for Nothing, numbers 1, 9, 11. In each he brings the text to life and creates a character that you will identify with and be interested in.

Of course, Irwin connects Beckett to clowning and in addition to his fine acting, his incredibly skilled clowning is used effectively.

On Beckett is one of the finest performances I’ve seen in many years. Perhaps he will bring it back to the Irish Rep for a longer run.

Directorial Choices Lead to Disappointing “Henry V” at Hartford Stage

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Stephen Louis Grush as Henry V. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

y Karen Isaacs

 Where is Darko Tresnjak when we need him? Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage has, during his tenure consistently directed fine productions of Shakespeare. These have been imaginative and creative while illuminating the plays and helping a 21st century audience to appreciate them.

Even before he came to Hartford, the previous artistic directors, Mark Lamos and Michael Wilson had established the theater as a bastion of good Shakespeare productions.

Unfortunately this production of Henry V directed by Elizabeth Williamson breaks that string of successes. It is a production that neither engaged me nor interested me. A number of audience members obviously agreed; lots of seats that had been filled were empty after intermission.

Henry V follows the new king, who in Henry IV parts I and 2 had gone from a carousing, over-drinking rascal to a man slowly accepting his destiny and his responsibilities.

He is now the king of England in 1415, and he has embraced that role of leadership. He is also about to take the country to war with France over his claim to the French throne. (Remember that the English crown had a strong French ancestry after William the Conquer; not only did some of the kings speak French better than English, England had held territory in France.)  So in the midst of the 100 years’ war, he is once again about to send the men of England into battle.

If we accept that Shakespeare was also a playwright who introduced contemporary themes into all of his plays, not matter when they were set, England was facing some adversaries. The succession to the throne was in doubt since Elizabeth I was aging with no heirs; Spain was dangerous, the defeat of the Spanish Armada happened only a few years before; and Ireland was in turmoil.

In the prologue Chorus (a fine performance by Peter Francis James) invites the audience to imagine the various scenes that are to come – the court, the fields of France, the court of France, the battles. It is a famous speech that should set the mood for what is to come.

We begin in the English court where Henry is being urged to go to war; when the Dauphin (think Crown Prince) sends an insulting message, the die is cast. After overcoming a plot by three nobles to overthrow him, he and his army leave for France. In France, the army lays siege to the coastal town of Harfleur which eventual surrenders. After a march to Calais, the English and French prepare for battle; the English are weakened by illness and diminishing supplies; the French vastly outnumber them. But on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, Henry rallies the troops. It is an amazing victory as the outnumbered English destroy the French army, while losing very few men. Peace negotiations ensue; Henry doesn’t get the throne of France but he does get the Princess Katherine as a wife.

Now of course, Shakespeare always included subplots and usually one or more of these involve some lower class drunks and thieves. In this case it is Pistol, Bardolph and Nym who anticipate reaping profits from the war by joining the army. Pistol’s braggadocio adds a comic touch with his attempts to avoid battle at all costs while still insulting others.

Henry V has had two outstanding film versions with varied interpretations. During WWII, Lawrence Olivier directed and starred in version that emphasized the staunchness of the British and patriotism. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film focused more on the dirt, grime and horror of war. In the 1970s, director Michael Kahn produced a controversial anti-war Henry V at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

Among the many problems with this production is that Williamson’s point of view does not come across to the audience. It seems that many of the decisions she made did not result in an enlightening or effective production.

She sets the play in the round which means that at times, courtiers must turn their backs to the king in order to address all members of the audience; that would never be acceptable. Last year, New York Theater Works did a fine production of Othello that was almost in the round that was very effective; it also was a modern dress production,

A second choice was to minimize lighting effects. For most of the time, the lights are bright and sometimes even the house lights come up. While Shakespeare gives us many clues as to whether it is day or night, it is still disconcerting. Even more so, while the scene with the French on the night before battle is brightly lit and the scene with Henry visiting his men at night is more appropriately lit.

It is modern dress with occasional touches to differentiate characters; since many of the performers play multiple roles on both sides of the conflict, these help only some. It is easy to be confused seeing an actor who just a few minutes ago was a military leader for Henry, suddenly show up as a courtier to the French.

She also cast women in male roles and a man in one of the few women’s roles. While this type of casting can be effective, in this case it really did not work. Perhaps because the play is about rallying troops, the lighter timbre of the female voice makes it harder to accept.

The standout member of the cast is Peter Francis James who does justice to the well-known speeches of Chorus. Baron Vaughn who played multiple roles including Captain Fluellen of Wales and Mistress Quickly also was very good.

The major disappointment is Stephen Louis Grush as Henry. He has excellent credits but Williamson has not made it easy for him. In some of the most important speeches, sound effects or other actors make the first lines almost impossible to understand, even if you know they are coming. His Henry does not seem to have the charisma that would cause these men to win against over-whelming odds.

Even in the scene with Katherine (played by Evelyn Shahr) he misses the lightness and charm of  this famous scene.

In the program notes, Tresnjak makes a case for the play being relevant to our times; Williamson does not achieve that.

It is unfortunate when a production of Shakespeare, particularly a lesser known and produced play is botched; too many people already avoid the Bard and this production will not change their minds.

Henry V runs through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

 

A Joy to Have Janet McTeer on Broadway as Sarah Bernhardt

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Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Janet McTeer doesn’t appear enough on Broadway. This gifted actress always wins praise – whether it was as Nora in A Doll’s House, or in God of Carnage, Mary Stuart or other works. It’s great to have her playing famed actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is a new play by Theresa Rebeck that tries to capture both Bernhardt and comment on our modern era. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

But the joy is the splendid cast led by McTeer who captures all of what one suspect is Bernhardt’s mercurial temperament and artistic extravagance. It is a delight to watch an actress play an actress who was known for her acting, her outsized persona and her lavish and unconventional lifestyle.

 Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanor Duse were the two great theatrical stars of the 19th century and therefore, of course, they were rivals. Bernhardt started at the Comédie Française, she played Camille well into her middle age, toured the world and believed in carpe diem.

She also was a renegade for the times. She left Comédie Française when she realized they were making huge amounts of money from her performances but paying her little. She also had the audacity of running her own company (and directing) as well as playing male roles.

Bernhardt lived into the 1920s and we have motion pictures (silent, of course) of her.

But Rebeck has wisely not tried to give us her whole life: she sets her play in the 1897; Bernhardt is producing Shakespeare’s Hamlet with herself in the title role. It’s to be performed at a large theater and the financial risk is also huge. As usual she needs money.

Just one problem emerges during rehearsals – she absolutely dislikes and cannot understand the title character. She views Hamlet as a man of inaction which she finds annoying and impenetrable. A second problem is that she is having difficulty with the verse. So, she does what any diva might: she commissions a playwright to rewrite the play into prose and to make Hamlet more decisive.

That’s the background as we see Bernhardt with her current lover – the playwright Rostand and members of her company.

She has persuaded (bullied?) Rostand, who had yet to write Cyrano de Bergerac, to work on the adaptation. He fails but two other playwrights actually do create a version that she performed.

The plays action centers on the rehearsals, her dislike of Hamlet, her relationship with Rostand and his wife’s action to derail it.

But Rebeck has attempted to make Bernhardt a mouthpiece for women’s empowerment. Dialogue talks about women being ignored, being criticized for daring to take charge and having opinions. All well and certainly true particularly in Bernhardt’s time. But the dialogue doesn’t ring true. It seems more like Rebeck talking rather than “the divine Sarah.”

So while program notes say that the play “explores the sacrifices necessary to shatter centuries of tradition, take on the untouchable and command one’s own legacy,” the play itself does not achieve those lofty goals. It is more about the outsized ego of a celebrity actress who is determined to do whatever she wants to do with a character and a play.

For some reason, Rebeck has felt it necessary to include a scene from Cyrano which starred one of Bernhardt’s company in the title role. The purpose of this scene is puzzling.

Besides McTeer, fine performances are given by Dylan Baker as the actor Costant Coquelin, Jason Butler Harner as Rostand, and Matthew Saldivar as the artist Alphonse Mucha who designed the famous art deco posters for her shows. Only Ito Aghayere as Rostand’s wife seems to be in a different production.

The rotating set by Beowulf Boritt is terrific as are the costumes by Toni-Leslie James. Bradley King’s lighting is also very good.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s work melds the various parts of the plot together.

But the reality is that this a play that could be tightened to be more effective. It seems to lose focus between act one and two.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through Nov. 18. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre

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Janet McTeer. Photo by Joan Marcus

“The River” at TheaterWorks is a Puzzle You May Find Interesting Solving

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Jez Butterworth, whose play The River is at TheaterWorks through Sunday, Nov. 11, is one of the “hot” British playwrights and screenwriters.  Jerusalem won plaudits on Broadway, winning multiple awards; Broadway is now awaiting the opening of The Ferryman which won acclaim (and awards) in London last season.

Sometimes I wonder if the emperor is wearing any clothes. I saw The River when it had a limited engagement run on Broadway a few years ago, starring Hugh Jackman. At the time, I felt Jackman’s box office appeal was the reason for its success. It did not get critical acclaim.

But apparently Rob Ruggiero who directed this production loved the ambiguity of it and has now brought it to Hartford. It’s a fine production with very good actors. Ruggiero and the actors make the most of the material in this 70-75 minute play.

Certainly there is ambiguity about almost everything in the play and enough possible symbols and metaphors to keep you puzzling over it for hours. The question remains, is it worth the intellectual effort?

Once again, we have nameless characters – The Woman, The Man, The Other Woman. The play is set in a well-designed (by Brian Prather) cabin that The Man’s family has used as a fishing cabin for years. It’s all wood and natural. The cabin – which shows the back room (probably the bedroom) takes the center of the stage, with tall trees on each side.

It’s clear that The Man has brought The Woman here for a special few days. It is August, there is no moon and it seems that at this time of year the sea trout return to breed. It is the best time to capture them. So we learn that The Man has spent the afternoon teaching The Woman to cast; now she doesn’t want to go to the fishing spot.

We see him return to the cabin and frantically call for help – she is missing! But the woman who returns to the cabin – with a fish is not The Woman but The Other Woman, an earlier woman he had brought to the cabin.

Every time one of the women leaves the stage you can be sure that the other will be the woman to return.

So the questions begin to pile up. Are these the only two women he’s brought there? Why does he bring them there? It seems like well-rehearsed scene with both he and the women repeating the same lines. He tells each there is a box under the bed and something is in it he want to give to each; something he has never shared with anyone. The Woman seems alarmed because she thinks it is a ring – it is obvious that she isn’t that interested in him.

The mood gets eerie when The Woman finds a drawing of a woman in a red dress in the room: her face is scratched out and a red dress is hanging in the closet. The scene is repeated with the earlier Other Woman. So what is going on?

In Ruggiero’s notes in the program, he certainly points out many of the possible meanings and symbols in this play. The metaphor of fly fishing – baiting, hooking, capturing, releasing. The idea of the sea trout (which apparently evolved from river trout) returning each year but instead of dying after procreating, returning to the sea stronger. The ephemeral nature of love which can come and go in an instant.

In fact the characters say lines like “you can’t go back,” “I’m not entirely sure what love is” and more.

You can also wonder if The Other Woman actually exists – is she real, a memory/flashback, a ghost? Is either woman real or figments of his imagination?

In one section, The Man guts a sea trout and cooks it for The Woman. It is a quiet scene with no dialogue just some background music. But why? Is it also a symbol?

Billy Carter plays The Man as more dangerous than Jackman did. You keep wondering what his game is and what he will do next. He may not have Jackman’s charisma (who does?) but his performance is nuanced and solid.

The Woman is played by Andrea Goss. At times she came across as what could be called “a spoiled brat” – you don’t really see why they are attracted and you don’t feel much chemistry between them.

That’s not the case with Jasmine Batchelor as The Other Woman. She seems to have created a fuller character and some real chemistry with The Man.

One of the better parts of the production is the music by Frederick Kennedy which emphasizes both woodlands and the eerie qualities of the play.

How you will rate The River will be a factor of how you interpret the piece and how much you enjoy solving the mysteries.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Many may feel the same about The River. I was not intrigued enough to try to untangle it all. You may be.

The River is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Goodspeed’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” Is a Frothy Delight

The Drowsy Chaperone

The entire cast. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes you just want to have good time and The Drowsy Chaperone at Goodspeed through Sunday, Nov. 25 is providing that and more.

You may not recognize the title or know much about the show; it arrived quietly on Broadway in April 2006 and immediately captured multiple Tony award nominations. It won for best book and best score but was beat out for Outstanding Musical by Jersey Boys. Beth Leavel won the best supporting Tony. Chaperone had a substantial run but never toured in Connecticut. (The Connecticut Repertory Theatre Summer Series mounted a production a few years ago.)

Hunter Foster has ably directed this production which features a show-within-a-show. Most of his choices are excellent.

It starts in an apartment – not a luxurious or stylish apartment – just rooms with a worn chair and end table and a small basic kitchen. Out comes Man in Chair – who serves as narrator and more. He’ll speak to us directly throughout the show, but now he tells us that he loves musicals and is, as he describes, a little “blue.” When that occurs he likes to play one of his many LPs of old musicals. He tells us he has a two-LP set of the complete Drowsy Chaperone, a little known  1928 musical; it even includes dialogue.

As the overture starts, he gives us some background on the composers of the show and some gossip about some of the cast. He’ll tell us more as the show moves along.

Suddenly the characters in the show are in his living room, introducing themselves to us; each is a typical musical comedy stereotype of the period. There’s the Broadway leading lady who is giving up the stage for love (and money), her fiancé, a producer who wants to stop the wedding, his ditsy girlfriend with aspirations of stardom, two gangsters representing the “boss” to whom the producer owes money, and a Latin lothario (Aldolpho). If that isn’t enough, there is the slightly bewildered older woman who owns the mansion and her butler as well as an aviatrix who just happens to drop in. According to the Man, the star of the show was beloved leading lady who plays the chaperone, gets drowsy when she drinks, which is often. Hence the title of the show.

The plot features the usual complications – the gangsters threaten the producer, the producer urges Aldolpho to seduce the bride, but instead he seduces the chaperone. The bride meets the groom who is blindfolded and on roller skates (don’t ask why) and pretends to be a French girl. When he briefly kisses her, the wedding is off. As this is all occurring, the apartment becomes mostly the set of the musical.

What elevates this are the comments and obvious enthusiasm (perhaps too much in this production) of the Man.  He sets the stage, he tells us bits about the performers. The gangsters were the dancing stereotype frequently in shows of the period. The star, the drowsy chaperone had to have a big rousing number in each show. Aldolpho was played by an over-the-hill actor who liked to drink. Even the lady of the manor, Mrs. Totterdale and Underling (her butler) were a vaudeville team that might be reminiscent of Burns and Allen.

He gets so excited that occasionally he actually joins the cast in humming a few bars or doing a few dance steps; sometimes he even lifts the needle the record (the performers freeze) to give us more info.

 Yet, he is more than just a narrator – we also learn more him, he’s a lonely middle-aged man who finds solace in his LPs.

John Scherer turns the Man into the leading role of the piece. He projects warmth and pain, and makes it seem like he is truly having a conversation with us. His performance is much more animated than some I’ve seen; you may love it or you may find it way too much. I’m somewhere in the middle, I liked it a lot but wished it was toned down just a tad. By the way, on Broadway, Bob Martin, the co-book writer played the part.

Scherer’s performance results in attention being diverted from the characters in the musical. Each is good and each creates his or her own take on the characters. It is very hard to single one or two out – this is truly an ensemble. Stephanie Rothenberg as the bride (actress Janet Van de Graff) had the most difficult job: I’d seen Sutton Foster in the role who just glowed on stage. Rothenberg doesn’t have the same star power, but her Janet is touching and funny.

Robert Alves plays the fiancé, Robert as the superficial character he is with gleaming teeth. He, George (Tim Falter) the best man and of course the two gangsters have terrific tap numbers choreographed by Chris Bailey. James Judy plays the producer Feldzieg (a play on Ziegfeld) as a typical producer and Ruth Pferdehirt has Kitty, his ditzy chorine girlfriend down pat.

Jennifer Allen is excellent in the role of the Drowsy Chaperone, not over playing the inebriation.

As usual the Goodspeed production qualities are excellent. The scenic design by Howard Jones captures both the apartment and the multiple sets of the original musical.  Gregg Barnes has overseen the costumes which include many from the Broadway production. He won a Tony for them and you can see why; they are glamorous and over the top. (Goodspeed had acquired the costumes for its collection when the Broadway show closed).

Perhaps one of the goofiest and yet most fun moments, comes at the beginning of the second act. Suddenly we are seeing a number from musical set in the Far East. I won’t spoil the surprise of why that occurs.

For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

Primary Stages’ “Final Follies” Is a Delight

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By Karen Isaacs

If I had to name an underrated American playwright – A. R. Gurney would immediately be on my list. Yes, Gurney had a number of well received plays, yet the critics always seem to diminish his accomplishments because he is dealing with the WASP class.

You know, the old or older money, prep school, Ivy League people who are known for decorum (except when they aren’t) and keeping a tight lid on emotions. Somehow people fail to recognize that in showing that dying culture, Gurney is making some very meaningful points about the world today and are relationships.

Thus I was delighted to see Primary Stages’ production of Final Follies, three one act plays by Gurney from three different periods of his writing. If you can, see this show before it closes on Oct. 21.

The title piece, was written closer to his death in 2017. I enjoyed it the most. But the other two, written earlier are both very good. David Saint has ably directed each of the pieces.

Each exposes a different aspect of Gurney’s talent and world view. The middle piece, The Rape of Bunny Stuntz is one of his earliest plays, written in 1965. It has some typical Guerney elements – upper middle class, a woman who is proper and up-tight, but he takes it to a very different place than usual. Deborah Rush was excellent as Bunny who slowly reveals an entirely different side of her to us.

The Love Course, written in 1969 skewers certain types of academics. I certainly recognized the types – the artsy woman professor who slowly becomes unhinged, the male professor who is caught up in climbing the ladder, the young female student who is earnest and protective of the woman and the boyfriend who gets caught up in it all. Each actor was excellent but Piter Marek as the professor and Betsy Aidem as the other professor carry the piece. That doesn’t mean you won’t admire the subtle performance of Colin Halon.

The title piece was written late in his life; it returns to his themes of the extinction of the WASP class. It’s also the most fully developed piece – it has characters that you do care about. We have Nelson, the ne’er-do-well son of old money, his up-tight, conventional brother (Walter), grandfather (Greg Mullavey) who holds the purse strings and Tanisha (Rachel Nicks) who works for a film company. Saying too much would spoil the fun. Let’s just say that the brother is shocked and hopes he can use that to convince grandfather to cut the money flow. Colin Hanlon is terrific as Nelson as are all of them. The seen between grandfather and Walter is priceless.

So get yourself to The Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street, New York to see this delight.

For tickets, visit Primary Stages.

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