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“In the Heights” at Playhouse on Park Well Worth Seeing

In The Heights-85 (1)_edited

Photo by Kurt Henderson

By Karen Isaacs

 In the Height by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (book) made Broadway sit up and take notice.

Now Playhouse on Park is producing this breakthrough show through July 29. Go see it!

Miranda has acquired more awards quicker than almost any composer/lyricist – and he’s a talented performer as well: the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, multiple Tony Awards AND a MacArthur Foundation Grant (often referred to as the Genius Award).

In case you don’t know, the “Heights” referred to in the title are NYC’s Washington Heights, the area of Manhattan (north of Harlem) that has become well known for a large Dominican population.

Like many such neighborhoods, gentrification is creeping in, displacing the longtime residents.

The musical introduces us to just such a block. The hair salon is moving to the Bronx due to rising rents; the car service is getting offers from real estate people to sell out so that gentrification can occur. The bodega is hanging on. But they are a community that knows each other and takes care of each other.

We meet a group of hard-working people. Usnavi who seems almost like the “mayor” of the block, owns the bodega that employs his cousin; both are young. His Abuela Claudia (grandmother) is there to lend support. The girl he wants to court, Vanessa, dreams of moving into her own apartment downtown. She works in Daniela’s salon along with Carla. The Rosario family owns the car service; Nina, their daughter had been given a scholarship to Stanford, but as she finally admits when she returns after the spring semester, there have been difficulties. Despite scholarships the cost of books and incidentals caused her to work two jobs, fall behind on her course work and ultimately drop out. She hasn’t found the courage to tell her proud parents.

Miranda created a unique musical style which he carried over into Hamilton; it is a mixture of rap and more typical ballads, though you may not leave the theater humming any of the tunes.

In the Heights is a complex musical for smaller theaters. Not only does it have a relatively large cast, but it requires careful casting or the theater may be criticized. Only one character in the work is not from a Dominican background and that character (Benny) is African-American. It is clear that many in this cast are from Hispanic backgrounds.

Scenic designer Emily Nichols has done a fine job in recreating the street scene that encompasses the work: the bodega, car service office, the stoop in front of Abuela Claudia’s house and more.

The show opens with the rousing “In the Heights” which sets both the location and the mood. But it is also this number which reveals one of the problems in this production: the sound design/system. It wasn’t too loud, which can often be the case. Instead, it sounded blurry; the words were difficult to understand. In a show where rap is a major element and conveys a great deal of information, this is a problem. It was particularly evident in group numbers but even in individual songs it was present. Many audience members were talking about not being able to hear at intermission, despite the small theater size: it wasn’t that so much as not being able to hear the sounds but to understand what was being said or sung.

Niko Touros, a relative newcomer, is excellent as Usnavi our hero and narrator. He brings confidence and assurance to the role.  Also excellent were Sophia Introna as Vanessa, Amy Jo Phillips as Abuela Claudia and JL Rey and Stephanie Pope as Kevin and Camila Rosario. While Analise Rios sang beautifully as Nina, she never projected enough of her feelings of failure and despair.

In fact, often it seemed too much like the cast was “acting” rather than inhabiting the characters.

Sean Harris’ direction needed a little more zip; at times the show dragged with the first act 95 minutes and feeling longer. Darlene Zoller made good use of the stage with the choreography which the cast performed well.

If you have never seen In the Heights, this production is well worth seeing. It is also a show that we will study to see the early stages of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s development as a theater artist.

For tickets visit Playhouse on Park or call 860-523-5900.

“Invisible Hand” at TheaterWorks Is Engrossing Political/Financial Thriller

Invisible Hand TW 1

Anand Bhatt, Eric Bryant, Fajer Kaisi. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Money is the subject of many adages – from “money is the root of all evil” to “money makes the world go round” to the biblical lines about the difficulty the rich have in entering heaven. In the 1980’s the motto seemed to be that “greed is good.”

The very talented playwright Ayad Akhtar has combined all of these viewpoints with a political thriller to create the compelling The Invisible Hand now getting an excellent production at TheaterWorks through Sunday, June 24.

The play opens with Nick Bright (is the name a little too symbolic?) handcuffed in a small room with an obviously Muslim guard, Dar. During the exposition we learn that Nick works for Citibank in Pakistan and has been kidnapped partly by mistake; the group wanted his boss. They have demanded a $10 million ransom but nothing is happening. The group led by Imam Saleem; wants to use the ransom to fund economic and health projects to help the country. Saleem’s lieutenant is Bashir, whose parents left Pakistan for England years ago.

Nick is a brilliant trader in all sorts of financial instruments, able to determine how to make money in almost any situation and to find “the edge.” He is also very knowledgeable about Pakistani politics, in fact he has advised the minister of water.

As the first act unfolds we see the gratuitous cruelty (Bashir kicks Dar in the groin), the despair of Nick and the intricacies of the relationship between Bashir and Saleem.

Since the bank seems in no hurry to pay the ransom, Nick and Saleem negotiate a deal. If Nick can make his ransom within one year, using money he has stashed in a Cayman Island account to start, he will be released. Bakshir will be his assistant and Nick is charged with teaching him how the markets operate.

Thus the title: The Invisible Hand. The term was coined by the Scottish economist Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits that arise from individuals pursuing their self-interests; that they balance out each other for the good of the whole.

Nick and Bakshir set to work; soon Bakshir gains some knowledge of an impending political assassination by another group and Nick parlays that into a $700,000 gain. But fissures start to appear. Barkshir feels he is being used as an errand boy, not a student and the Iman takes $400,000 from the working capital account to purchase vaccines. Nick suspects a large part of that went into the Iman’s pockets.

The three men clash with Nick often forgetting that he is their captive and at their mercy. He believes they need him for his ability to “create” money. The Iman, while autocratic and ruthless, seems more practical than the younger Bakshir who is filled with resentment for the Western world and its values. He remembers the numerous slights and insults he endured in England.

At times the dialogue may seem like a class in economics with the discussion of the Bretton Woods agreement after WWII that made the American dollar the de facto monetary standard for the world, to the meanings of stock market terminology such as “put” and “calls.” Yet it is clear and helpful to understand the types of financials deals that Bright is doing.

Yet, it never becomes dry or boring. We are caught up in the suspense. Will Nick succeed in raising his ransom?  Will his captors actually release him? As Bakshir gains knowledge will he challenge either Nick or the Iman?

In keeping with the political thriller genre, I won’t tell the answers to any of this. Let’s say some of it was predictable and some was not.

Playwright Akhtar, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced has again created a play that will have you leaving the theater thinking. While American born and raised, Akhtar has an almost innate understanding of the perceptions and philosophy of the Islamic world. He is able to let us into a world that to Americans seems strange and perhaps “wrong.” He also articulates how the third world sees the dominant political and economic powers, of which the US is the most powerful.

The production at TheaterWorks is a revision of the award winning production presented at Westport Country Playhouse in 2016. The director and most of the cast have returned. That production was honored as the outstanding production of a play in Connecticut, as well as outstanding direction and outstanding leading actor from the Connecticut Critics Circle.

Director David Kennedy has kept the pacing tight and helped the actors delineate their very different characters. Working in the more intimate TheaterWorks space, Kennedy has made the work seem even more intense and suspenseful.

His direction helps us look at the various viewpoints presented. The set by Kristen Robinsen gives us the confined, concrete cell that is Nick’s world. In addition, Fitz Patton has created a sound design that lets the outside world infiltrate into Nick’s prison. Special mention must be given to Louis Colainni, who as the dialect coach, helps all of the actors to be both understandable and “in character.”

Rajesh Bose, who played the lead in Akhtar’s Disgraced at Long Wharf (and won awards) plays the Iman. He has to convince us that this pragmatic man who will let Nick manipulate money so that the Iman can use it, is also naïve enough to misjudge the results. The playwright has given him a difficult task. Fajer Kaisi is very effective as Bashir, the younger and both angrier and more idealistic follower of the Iman. It is he who carries the burden of presenting the third world view of America. The performances of both of these men has deepened since the last production.  Anand Bhatt plays Dar, the subservient member of the group. Bhatt conveys the careful waiting and watching the Dar does so that he survives in an ever-changing political and power landscape.

Eric Bryant is even more outstanding as Nick. His posture and gestures show us what may have happened (abuse?) before the play opens, but also his confidence as he gets into job. This is a multi-dimensional, layered performance that encourages us to be protective of him while also at times amazed at his sometimes dangerous outbursts. Being closer to the action, you see more of his eyes conveying a range of emotions from alertness to fear to despair.

The Invisible Hand through Sunday, June 23 will both have you on the edge of your seat and questioning some of your assumptions. It is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838

This content is courtesy fo Shore Publications and zip06.

This is a revision of the review of the Westport production in 2016 that was posted on 2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.

Complete List of Nominees & Winners for the 28th Annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards

Outstanding Solo Performance

Elizabeth Stahlmann Grounded -Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Debut

Shannon Keegan –The Wolves -TheaterWorks

Megan O’Callaghan –The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home -Music Theatre of Connecticut

Noah Kierserman –Newsies -Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Outstanding Ensemble

Cast of Avenue Q – Playhouse on Park – Weston Chandler Long, James Fairchild, Ashley Brooke, Peej Mele, E J Zimmerman, Abena Mensah-Bonsu and Colleen Welsh

 Cast of The Wolves -TheaterWorks – Shannon Keegan, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien, Carolyn Cutillo, Emily Murphy, Caitlin Zoz, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman, Karla Gallegos, Megan Byrne

Cast of The Chosen -Long Wharf Theatre – Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz,

The Cast of The Game’s Afoot -Ivoryton Playhouse – Erik Bloomquist, Victoria Bundonis, Molly Densmore, Katrina Ferguson, Michael Iannucci, Craig MacDonald, Maggie McGlone-Jennings, Beverly J. Taylor

Outstanding Projections

Yana Birykova –Grounded -Westport Country Playhouse

Luke Cantarella –Rags -Goodspeed Musicals

Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley –A Midsummer Night’s Dream -Hartford Stage

Wladimiro A. Woyno R. –Kiss -Yale Repertory Theatre

Outstanding Sound

Frederick Kennedy –Native Son -Yale Repertory Theatre

Kate Marvin  –Grounded -Westport Country Playhouse

Fitz Patton –Appropriate –Westport Country Playhouse

Jane Shaw  –A Lesson from Aloes -Hartford Stage

Robert Kaplowitz –Office Hour             -Long Wharf Theatre

 Outstanding Costume Design

Linda Cho –Rags         Goodspeed Musicals

Linda Cho –The Age of Innocence -Hartford Stage

Joshua Pearson –A Midsummer Night’s Dream –Hartford Stage

Fabian Fidel Aguilar –Romeo & Juliet -Westport Country Playhouse

Leon Dobkowski –The Legend of Georgia McBride– TheaterWorks

Outstanding Lighting

 Ben Stanton –The Age of Innocence -Hartford Stage

 Michael Chybowski –1776 – Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Stephen Strawbridge –Native Son -Yale Repertory Theatre

Matthew Richards –Appropriate -Westport Country Playhouse

Yi Zhao –Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 -Yale Repertory Theatre

Outstanding Set Design

 Emona Stoykova –An Enemy of the People -Yale Repertory Theatre

Alexander Dodge –A Midsummer Night’s Dream -Hartford Stage

Andrew Boyce –Appropriate -Westport Country Playhouse

David Lewis –The Diary of Anne Frank -Playhouse on Park

Martin Scott Marchitto –The Fantasticks -Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Choreography

Katie Spelman –Oklahoma! Goodspeed Musicals

Christopher d’Amboise –Newsies – Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Kelli Barclay –The Will Rogers Follies -Goodspeed Musicals

Todd L. Underwood –Saturday Night Fever -Ivoryton Playhouse

 Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical

Matt Faucher –Oklahoma! -Goodspeed Musicals (tie)

Joe Callahan –Million Dollar Quartet -Ivoryton Playhouse

Sean MacLaughlin –Rags -Goodspeed Musicals

David Garrison –The Will Rogers Follies -Goodspeed Musicals

Cory Candelet The Fantasticks -Ivoryton Playhouse (tie)

Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical

 Jodi Stevens –Singin’ in the Rain– Summer Theater of New Canaan

Gizel Jimenez –Oklahoma! -Goodspeed Musicals

Nora Fox –Saturday Night Fever -Ivoryton Playhouse

Megan O’Callaghan –Fun Home -Music Theatre of Connecticut

Kimberly Immanuel –The Fantasticks -Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Featured Actress – Play

Judith Ivy –Fireflies -Long Wharf Theatre

Darrie Lawrence –The Age of InnocenceHartford Stage

Carly Polistina –The Crucible -Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Sierra Boggess –The Age of Innocence – Hartford Stage

Helen Cespedes –The Age of Innocence -Hartford Stage
Outstanding Featured Actor – Play

James Cusati-Moyer –Kiss -Yale Repertory Theatre

Peter Francis James –Romeo & Juliet -Westport Country Playhouse

Tom Pecinka –Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 -Yale Repertory Theatre

 David Hiatt –Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 -Yale Repertory Theatre

Jason Bowen –Native Son -Yale Repertory Theatre

Outstanding Director – Musical

Terrence Mann –1776           – Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Jenn Thompson –Oklahoma! – Goodspeed Musicals

Kevin Connors –Fun Home – Music Theatre of Connecticut

Rob Ruggiero –Rags – Goodspeed Musicals

Brian Feehan   –The Fantasticks – Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Director – Play

James Bundy – An Enemy of the People-Yale Repertory Theatre

Seret Scott  – Native Son -Yale Repertory Theatre

Ezra Barnes The Diary of Anne Frank -Playhouse on Park

Eric Ort – The Wolves -TheaterWorks

Doug Hughes – The Age of Innocence -Hartford Stage

Outstanding Actor – Musical

 Jamie LaVerdiere – 1776 -Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Rhett Guter – Oklahoma!-Goodspeed Musicals

Jim Schubin – Newsies -Connecticut Repertory Theatre

David Pittsinger –The Fantasticks -Ivoryton Playhouse

Michael Notardonato –Saturday Night Fever -Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Actress – Musical

Samantha Massell – Rags – Goodspeed Musicals

Mia PineroWest Side Story – Ivoryton  Playhouse

Juliet Lambert Pratt – The Bridges of Madison County – Music Theatre of Connecticut

Samantha Bruce  – Oklahoma! – Goodspeed Musicals

Annabelle Fox  – Singin’ in the Rain – Summer Theatre of New Canaan

Outstanding Actor – Play

 Reg Rogers – An Enemy of the People -Yale Repertory Theatre

Jerod Haynes – Native Son -Yale Repertory Theatre

Jamison Stern –  The Legend of Georgia McBride -TheaterWorks

Boyd Gaines – The Age of Innocence – Hartford Stage

Daniel Chung Office Hour – Long Wharf Theatre

Outstanding Actress – Play

 Jackie Chung Office HourLong Wharf Theatre

Isabelle Barbier The Diary of Anne Frank – Playhouse on Park

Mia Dillon – Seder – Hartford Stage

Jane Alexander Fireflies – Long Wharf Theatre

Cecelia Riddett – The Revisionist – Playhouse on Park

Outstanding Production – Musical

Oklahoma! – Goodspeed Musicals

Million Dollar Quartet – Seven Angels

Rags – Goodspeed Musicals

1776 – Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Fun Home – Music Theatre of Connecticut

Outstanding Production – Play

An Enemy of the People – Yale Repertory Theatre

The Diary of Anne Frank – Playhouse on Park

The Chosen – Long Wharf Theatre

Fireflies – Long Wharf Theatre

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 – Yale Repertory Theatre

The Age of Innocence            – Hartford Stage

Killen Award (Contriubutions to Connecticut Theater)

Michael O’Flaherty- Musical Director – Goodspeed Musicals

Special Awards

Musical score by Billy Bivona for Constellations at TheaterWorks

Broadway Method Academy, Westport

Flock Theater, New London

 

 

The Age of Innocence, Rags Tops 28th Annual Connecticut Critics Awards

2018_06_11 CT Critics Circle Awards_Lavitt_1.jpgThe world premiere of Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence and a revised version of the musical Rags from Goodspeed Musicals took top honors at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Monday, June 11. (Complete list of nominees and winners).

The event, which celebrated the work from the state’s professional theaters during the 2017-18 season, was held at Westport Country Playhouse.

Among area theaters, Ivoryton received nine nominations for five different productions (West Side Story, Million Dollar Quartet, Saturday Night Fever, The Game’s Afoot and The Fantasticks).Connecticut native, Cory Candelet tied for outstanding featured actor in a musical for his performance as the Mute in The Fantasticks. He shared the award with Matt Faucher for his performance as Jud in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma!

 Goodspeed received 14 nominations and four awards including Faucher, outstanding production of a musical, Samantha Massell for her leading role in Rags and Kelli Barclay for choreography in Will Rogers’ Follies.

Awards for outstanding actors in a musical went to Samantha Massell in Goodspeed’s Rags and Jamie LaVerdiere in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of 1776.

Awards for outstanding actors in a play went to Reg Rogers in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People and Isabelle Barbier in Playhouse on Park’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Top directing awards went to Terrence Mann for CRT’s 1776 and Ezra Barnes for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.

Outstanding ensemble award went to TheaterWorks’ production of The Wolves;  the debut award went to Megan O’Callaghan  for The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home, both at Music Theatre of Connecticut. The outstanding solo honor was awarded to Elizabeth Stahlmann for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded.

Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director for Goodspeed Musicals, received the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater from Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton, a producer at Goodspeed.

Receiving special awards were New London’s Flock Theatre for its production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Monte Cristo Cottage (O’Neill’s childhood home); the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of Constellations.

The outstanding featured actress award in a musical award went to Jodi Stevens for Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s Singin’ in the Rain. The award for outstanding featured actors in a play went to Peter Francis James for Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Romeo and Juliet, and to Judith Ivey for Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere of Fireflies.

Design awards went to Fitz Patton for sound and Matthew Richards for lighting for Westport Country Playhouse’s Appropriate; Linda Cho for costumes for Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence; Yana Birykova for projections for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded and David Lewis, for set design for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.

Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks, presided over the event.

Shore Publication writers Amy Barry and Frank Rizzo co-chaired the event.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.

 

Is “Three Tall Women” an Albee Classic? Glenda Jackson’s Acting Is

Three-Tall-Women-Billboard-2By Karen Isaacs

 Funny? Edward Albee?  For many people, that isn’t the adjective that first comes to mind when thinking of playwright Edward Albee’s work. Yet the revival of his 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Three Tall Women, has a great deal of humor in it.

It also raises interesting questions about how we become the people we are.

The play opens on a scene with the three characters: A – an elderly woman, B- a middle-aged woman and C- a young, professional woman. We aren’t sure of the relationship between the three. A is in a wheelchair and seems to have difficulty not only walking but also remembering things. She is obviously wealthy. B seems to be her paid care-giver; she is accustomed to A’s ways and demands. C is a young lawyer who was sent by the firm to work with A; it appears that she is not paying her bills. A also does not seem to trust anyone even though her mental faculties are declining.

In the second scene, we see A apparently in a hospital bed. In this production, the bed is behind a scrim facing away from the audience. In front of the scrim are the three women – but now it is clear that all of them are the same woman, just at different stages of her life. As such they talk and argue. How did C (the younger version of A) become B and A? What led B (in her middle fifties) become A? What was A’s life like?

As with any Albee play, one can spend hours dissecting the lines and the characters. Was A based on his mother, who from all reports was about as negative and destructive as any parent could be to a child. Yet he has said, that the audience tends to love her.  It is not necessarily the person he wanted to create, but the fine actresses who have played the part, have managed to infuse a humanity that perhaps his mother lacked.

In this case, it is the splendid Glenda Jackson who plays A. In the first part, she is irritable, stubborn and difficult, yet you sense that much of it is due to the normal fear of losing control that aging and illness brings.

In the second part, when she is elderly but heathy, Jackson creates a character that has lived her life her own way with few regrets. Others may not have approved, but she didn’t care. She doesn’t care if you like her, accept her or admire her.

As B, Laurie Metcalf offers us a woman in part one who is well aware of A’s idiosyncrasies and has learned how to deal with them. Even when being ordered about or reprimanded, she stays calm. In the second part, Metcalf doesn’t seem as focused, perhaps because I found that this character seemed less developed; we learn less about her.

Alison Pill as C gives us a woman who, in many ways, has her life before her. She is confident and capable, but unaware of the choices and compromises she will make. In her portrayal you see glimpses of the woman she will become.

Miriam Bleuther has created an effective set which is enhanced by the lighting by Paul Gallo.

The question remains if director Joe Mantello got the most from this play. Like many Albee plays, the merits of the work itself is hotly debated. Mantello doesn’t seem to convince the doubters that this is a major work; so in that way he failed to an extent.

Three Tall Women is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St,   to June 24. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

 

 

“Disaster!” Spoofs All Those –‘70s Films,Disco Music & Polyester at the Connecticut Rep

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By Karen Isaacs

 Even if you don’t remember all those disaster movies from the 1970s, you will find the musical spoof “Disaster!” now at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre through Sunday, June 16 very good fun.

Creators Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick have taken the disaster film formula and combined it with pop music from the period.

It’s set at the opening of Casino 54 in NYC, built next to a pier to get around limitations on gambling. But the owner (Tony) has cut every corner imaginable. Attending this grand opening are the usual cast of characters: a once famous Disco diva; a middle-aged, middle-class husband and wife; the person dying of a rare disease with weird symptoms; a waiter trying to get a date; a man crashing the party to meet girls; the girl friend who is being strung along by the proprietor; a nun handing out leaflets on the evils of gambling and more.

Of course, there is an intrepid reporter who know about the various safety violations AND the “voice of doom” in this case a geology professor who is trying to warn everyone of a coming earthquake.

So like all disaster films, act one is spent setting up the characters and getting them to interact. The act ends with the earthquake. Act two is about the escalating disasters occurring and the efforts of the group to get out alive.

It isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

For a show like Disaster! to succeed, the cast must play it seriously. They have to create believable characters and make the absurd situations seem real.

This cast, led by several Broadway veterans, absolutely does it. Rudetsky himself is here playing “the professor” – a part he played both off and on Broadway. He is the typical serious, determined academic who also has the optimism of a Pollyanna.

Anne L Nathan who plays Shirley, the wife in the long married couple, was offered the part for the other productions but always had a scheduling conflict. Now she gets the chance to play this woman with the strange and fatal disease.

The comic highlight among the characters is Sister Mary, the gambling addicted nun. Maggie McDowell who was in the Broadway cast, is a delight. She never loses a sense of realism in the role. Angie Schworer is excellent as Jackie, the chanteuse at the disco who keeps waiting for Tony to “pop the question.”

But the students who round out the cast are also excellent. Nick Nudler plays Tony as a John Travolta look-alike right down to the “Saturday Night Fever” moves.

Tim Brown has done an excellent job creating the set that goes from glamorous to destroyed in just moments. He’s aided by the very good work by sound designer Michael Vincent Skinner and light designer Alan C. Edwards.

Fan Zhang has perfectly captured the 1970s disco look in the costumes. You know they are polyester.

The music – everything from “Hot Stuff,” “Torn Between Two Lovers,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Nadia’s Theme,” “Reunited,” “I Will Survive,” and even “I Am Woman” and “Feelings” is used to good advantage. Those of us who lived through the period will remember it and the younger members of the audience will find the beat infectious.

Disaster! is a really fun and funny production. My teenage granddaughter – while not being familiar with the films or the music — had a great time.

For tickets, call 860-486-2113 or visit Connecticut Rep

Looking Back at My Nights in Connecticut Theaters This Season

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By Karen Isaacs

 Do you realize how many professional theatrical productions are seen in Connecticut each year?  What would be your guess?

With the ending of the Connecticut theater season which runs from about June 1 to May 31, I attempted to count up the shows. I know I missed some. But including all the professional theaters (those that have some type of contract from Equity the actors’ union) plus the productions seen at the major “presenting” houses such as the Shubert, Bushnell and Palace in Waterbury – the total astounded me.

In all, you could see a professional production for 100+ nights a year. And that didn’t include the “workshop” performances at Goodspeed-Chester, the O’Neill Center and other places.

If you want to consider just the regional theaters – it numbers 70+ productions. (By the way, I saw about 75 percent of these, plus some others). So I was sitting in a theater in Connecticut at least 60+ evenings.

My favorites?  Everyone’s list will be different. Mine includes plays that were thought-provoking or challenging. But my list also includes plays that were just pure fun. I’ve broken them down in to a list of my “best” plays and “musicals”.  These aren’t in any particular order. Some are by playwrights that I am very familiar with and others by playwrights new to me.

My Favorite Productions of Plays

 Hartford Stage gave me three productions that I thoroughly enjoyed and would gladly see again. A Lesson from Aloes by Athol Fugard is a play that I saw first at Yale and found it brilliant. This production directed by Darko Tresnjak was equally so – thought-provoking, beautifully designed and marvelously acted. For sheer fun, nothing could be better than Tresnjak’s direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opened the season. The direction by the Mechanicals was the best I’ve ever seen. And in the middle was the McCarter Theatre’s production of Murder on the Orient Express. Stylish and delightful. Another production I would gladly see again was Grounded at Westport Country Playhouse last July. This one woman show is about a military pilot who is reassigned to operating drones over Iraq from the US. And Playhouse on Park gave Connecticut theater goers a magnificent production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Some plays were very good, but for one reason or another had something missing. Fireflies at Long Wharf was a charming, sweet play that is blessed with an outstanding cast. I’m not convinced that it would as enjoyable in the ends of lesser actors. Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Dennis Ardnt made this work. I also thoroughly enjoyed Seder at Hartford Stage, though some of my critic friends hated it. The questions it raised were fascinating and Mia Dillon was fabulous.

Also in this group would be The Game’s Afoot at Ivoryton which was silly, light but just fun, Noises Off at the Summer Series at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, The Chosen at Long Wharf, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3 at Yale Rep and Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage. Boyd Gaines was magnificent.

Some productions miss the mark – it may be a great idea that isn’t quite developed completely, or it wanders off topic, or the director or actors make some erroneous decisions. Or the play may not be that good, but one or two performances make it enjoyable.

Luckily most of the time, even if that happens there are elements that still make the production worth seeing.

But sometimes, to me the production seems so misguided in so many ways, that it disappoints me. This season there were a few that fit that description. Often my fellow critics disagree with me. Yale’s production of Enemy of the People was just such a production. I felt that both the director (James Bundy) and the leading actor (Reg Rogers) were totally off the mark. Office Hours at Long Wharf was a play that I felt didn’t really work on many levels.

My Favorite Productions of Musicals

 I didn’t think there were really any outstanding musical productions this season. By that I mean productions where the work itself and all elements of the production hit the mark. Most had flaws of some kind.

Many productions were very good. Ivoryton Playhouse has shown it is capable of presenting very good productions. This season I thought Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story and The Fantasticks were all very good.

MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) has shown that a very small theater (under 120 seats) and an awkward playing area can be made to work for mid-sized musicals. Kevin Connor did a great job directing both The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home. The Summer Series at Connecticut Rep did a very good Newsies.

 Goodspeed is held to a very high standard – it has wowed us so many times, that we expect perfection in each production. This year, it may have not have been perfection, but it was very, very good.

Rags was a major project: Taking a musical that had failed and working together with the composer and lyricist and a new book writer, to completely reshape the show. Characters were deleted, others added, major plot points changed, new songs written and lyrics revised for other songs. Working with the team was director Rob Ruggiero. This story of turn of the 20th century Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan, still isn’t perfect, but the show was done very well and was much improved.

Goodspeed also presented the classic Oklahoma! Again a very good production that I felt missed the mark in some ways.

The Big Theater Stories So Far This Year

 Two major theatrical stories hit even the national press. The first was the firing of Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein after allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Later this spring, Darko Tresnjak announced he will leave Hartford Stage at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. This wasn’t a total surprise. While at Hartford, he had not only produced excellent theater but won a Tony award, directed two new Broadway musicals and was increasingly in demand.

Just as one theater season ends, another begins. I’m already marking my calendar for the shows that I’m most anticipating.

 

My 2018 Tony Award Picks & Predictions

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By Karen Isaacs

Sunday night, the Tony winnesr will be announced. So I thought I would indicate not only HOW I would have voted — I’m not a voter BUT also who I think has a good shot at winning.

I didn’t see all the shows, so in some categories I don’t have preference but I do have a prediction.  My choices are indicated with *.  My predictions of who will win are in blue

Best Play
The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood
Farinelli and The King, by Claire van Kampen
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, by Jack Thorne 
Junk, by Ayad Akhtar
Latin History for Morons, by John Leguizamo

Best Musical
*The Band’s Visit
Frozen
Mean Girls
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Revival of a Play
Angels in America
*Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
Lobby Hero
Travesties

Best Revival of a Musical
*My Fair Lady
Once On This Island
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

Best Book of a Musical
The Band’s Visit, Itamar Moses
Frozen, Jennifer Lee
Mean Girls, Tina Fey
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Kyle Jarrow

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Angels in America, Adrian Sutton
*The Band’s Visit, David Yazbek
Frozen, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Mean Girls, Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, Music & Lyrics: Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., and Domani & Lil’C

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Andrew Garfield, Angels in America
*Tom Hollander, Travesties
Jamie Parker, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Mark Rylance, Farinelli and The King
Denzel Washington, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
*Glenda Jackson, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Condola Rashad, Saint Joan
Lauren Ridloff, Children of a Lesser God
Amy Schumer, Meteor Shower

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Harry Hadden-Paton, My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
*Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Ethan Slater, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Lauren Ambrose, My Fair Lady
Hailey Kilgore, Once On This Island
LaChanze, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
*Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Taylor Louderman, Mean Girls
Jessie Mueller, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Anthony Boyle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Michael Cera, Lobby Hero
Brian Tyree Henry, Lobby Hero
*Nathan Lane, Angels in America
David Morse, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Susan Brown, Angels in America
Noma Dumezweni, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Deborah Findlay, The Children
Denise Gough, Angels in America
Laurie Metcalf, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Grey Henson, Mean Girls
Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
*Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Ariana DeBose, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
*Renée Fleming, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Lindsay Mendez, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Ashley Park, Mean Girls
Diana Rigg, My Fair Lady

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Miriam Buether, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli and The King
Christine Jones, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Santo Loquasto, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
*Ian MacNeil and Edward Pierce, Angels in America

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
*Dane Laffrey, Once On This Island
Scott Pask, The Band’s Visit
Scott Pask, Finn Ross & Adam Young, Mean Girls
Michael Yeargan, My Fair Lady
David Zinn, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Best Costume Design of a Play
Jonathan Fensom, Farinelli and The King
Nicky Gillibrand, Angels in America
Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Ann Roth, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Ann Roth, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Mean Girls
Clint Ramos, Once On This Island
Ann Roth, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
David Zinn, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
*Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

“Oklahoma!” “The Age of Innocence” Lead In Connecticut Critics Nominations

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(Revised from a press release)

Hartford Stage’s world premiere of “The Age of Innocence” and Goodspeed’s “Oklahoma!” led the shows nominated for the 28th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. Yale Rep’s production of “Native Son,” Goodspeed’s production of “Rags,” and “Diary of Anne Frank” at Playhouse on Park also received numerous nominations.

The awards event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, will be held Monday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Westport Country Playhouse. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks holiday comedy perennial “Christmas on the Rocks,” will be masters of ceremony for the event which is free and open to the public.

“The Age of Innocence” earned eight nominations, including outstanding play, director and lead actor and three featured actresses, costumes and lighting while “Oklahoma!” received a total of seven nods, including best musical, director, lead actress and actor and featured actress and actor and choreography.

Other outstanding play nominees are: Yale Repertory Theater’s productions of “An Enemy of the People” and “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3.” Other nominees included Long Wharf Theatre’s “The Chosen” and the world premiere of “Fireflies” and West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Also earning outstanding musical nods are Goodspeed’s “Rags,” Connecticut Repertory Theater’s “1776,” Seven Angels Theatre’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “Fun Home,” Music Theater of Connecticut.

Receiving the annual Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement in Connectiocut theater will be Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director at Goodspeed Musicals.

Receiving special awards this year are New London’s Flock Theater for its production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home of Eugene ONeill; the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of “Constellations.”

Receiving an award for solo performance will be Elizabeth Stahlmann who starred in Westport Country Playhouse’s “Grounded.”

Other nominees are:

Actor in a play: Reg Rogers, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jerod Haynes, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre;  Jamison Stern, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks; Boyd Gaines, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Daniel Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.

Actress in a play: Jackie Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre; Isabelle Barbier, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park;  Mia Dillon, “Seder,”  Hartford Stage; Jane Alexander, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre;  Cecelia Riddett, “The Revisionist,” Playhouse on Park.

Actor in a musical: Jamie LaVerdiere, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Rhett Guter,  “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Jim Schubin, “Newsies,”  Connecticut Repertory Theatre; David Pittsinger, “The Fantasticks,”  Ivoryton Playhouse; Michael Notardonato,  “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse.

Actress in a musical: Samantha Massell, “Rags,”  Goodspeed Musicals; Mia Pinero, “West Side Story,”  Ivoryton  Playhouse; Juliet Lambert Pratt, “The Bridges of Madison County,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Samantha Bruce, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Annabelle Fox, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.

Director of a play: James Bundy, “An Enemy of the People,”    Yale Repertory Theatre; Seret Scott, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ezra Barnes, “The Diary of Anne Frank,”  Playhouse on Park;  Eric Ort, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Doug Hughes, “The Age of Innocence,”  Hartford Stage.

Director of a musical: Terrence Mann, “1776,”  Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Jenn Thompson, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Kevin Connors, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Rob Ruggiero, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Brian Feehan, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.

Choreography:  Katie Spelman, “Oklahoma! ,” Goodspeed Musicals; Christopher d’Amboise, “Newsies,”  Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Kelli Barclay, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Todd L. Underwood, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse

Ensemble: Cast of “Avenue Q” (Weston Chandler Long, James Fairchild, Ashley Brooke, Peej Mele, E J Zimmerman, Abena Mensah-Bonsu and Colleen Welsh ), Playhouse on Park; Cast of “The Wolves” (Shannon Keegan, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien, Carolyn Cutillo, Emily Murphy, Caitlin Zoz, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman, Karla Gallegos, Megan Byrne), TheaterWorks;  Cast of “The Chosen”     (Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz) Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “The Game’s Afoot” (Erik Bloomquist, Victoria Bundonis, Molly Densmore, Katrina Ferguson, Michael Iannucci, Craig MacDonald, Maggie McGlone-Jennings, Beverly J. Taylor), Ivoryton Playhouse.

Featured actor in a play: James Cusati-Moyer, “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre;
Peter Francis James, “Romeo and Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Tom Pecinka, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Dan Hiatt, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,”  Yale Repertory Theatre; Jason Bowen, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre

Featured actress in a play: Judith Ivy, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Darrie Lawrence, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage;  Carly Polistina, “The Crucible,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre;  Sierra Boggess, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Helen Cespedes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage

Featured actor in a musical: Matt Faucher, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Joe Callahan, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Sean MacLaughlin, “Rags,”  Goodspeed Musicals; David Garrison, “The Will Rogers Follies,”  Goodspeed Musicals; Cory Candelet, “The Fantasticks,”  Ivoryton Playhouse.

Features actress in a musical: Jodi Stevens, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theater of New Canaan;  Gizel Jimenez, “Oklahoma!” Goodspeed Musicals; Nora Fox, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Megan O’Callaghan, “Fun Home,”  Music Theatre of Connecticut;  Kimberly Immanuel, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.

Projection design: Yana Birykova,  “Grounded,”Westport Country Playhouse; Luke Cantarella, “Rags,”  Goodspeed Musicals; Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Wladimiro A. Woyno R., “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre.

Set design: Emona Stoykova, “An Enemy of the People,”  Yale Repertory Theatre; Alexander Dodge, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Andrew Boyce, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; David Lewis, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Martin Scott Marchitto, “The Fantasticks.” ,Ivoryton Playhouse

Costume design: Linda Cho, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals’  Linda Cho, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Joshua Pearson, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Fabian Fidel Aguilar, “Romeo & Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Leon Dobkowski, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks.

Lighting design: Ben Stanton, “The Age of Innocence,”      Hartford Stage; Michael Chybowski, “1776,”  Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Stephen Strawbridge,  “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre;  Matthew Richards, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse;  Yi Zhao, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,”Yale Repertory Theatre.

Sound design: Frederick Kennedy, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Kate Marvin, “Grounded,”   Westport Country Playhouse; Fitz Patton; “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Jane Shaw, “A Lesson from Aloes,” Hartford Stage; Robert Kaplowitz, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.

Debut: Shannon Keegan, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks;  Megan O’Callaghan,  “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Noah Kierserman, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre.

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

 

Hartford Stage Ends Season with A Lesson from Aloes –How We Learn to Adapt and Survive

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Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Athol Fugard, the South African playwright has the ability to illuminate universal issues in a way that is both personal and touching.

His A Lesson from Aloes which is getting a stunning production at Hartford Stage through Sunday, June 10 is just one example of this talent.

I first saw Aloes at its U.S. premiere at Yale Rep in 1980 before it went on to Broadway where it garnered a number of awards and nominations.

At that time, I found it a thought-provoking and a deeply disturbing play. When Hartford Stage announced it was closing the season with Aloes (originally a different Fugard play had been announced), I wondered if my recollections would be reinforced.

Let me say immediately, that they were. This play is everything a good play should be. It has characters that you come to care about, it brings to our minds issues that are universal, and you will walk out of the theater thinking and feeling.

While Fugard provides in the text all the background you absolutely must know, like many of earlier plays, this deals with Apartheid in South Africa and the repressive governmental regime. He says he began the play in the early ‘60s and after sporadic work on it, abandoned it in the early ‘70s only to have it return to him in the later ‘70s. It had its world premiere in 1978.

Apartheid, which was institutionalized in 1948, was a system of strict racial segregation with all residents being classified as “White,” “Asian” (Indian or Pakistani in heritage), “Coloured” (bi-racial) or “African” (Black Africans). “Africans” were forced to move from their homes to what were called “homelands” and strict segregation was enforced between each of the groups. “Africans” needed a “passbook” to travel into non-African areas. Contact between the groups was minimized so that even friendships were illegal.

Remember that South Africa had first been colonized by the Dutch,  (called Boers or “Afrikaners”) and later the British. The Boer War between two Boer states and the British colony in 1899-1902 was over the control of gold mines. The British ultimately won (Winston Churchill’s reporting on the war and escape from capture, made his name in England). The result was the creation of an independent dominion of Great Britain as the Union of South Africa.

By the early 1960s, various protests had been held against the system but quashed by the government who used imprisonment, torture, banning (a method of forcing no contact with the individual), and other methods.

Aloes is set in Port Elizabeth which had seen numerous protests against apartheid, including multiple bus boycotts.

Piet is an Afrikaner but one who has joined the protest movement. He and his wife, Gladys who is of English descent, live a lower middle class life. He seems to have nothing to do but focus on his newest hobby — aloes, those plants that look somewhat like cacti and survive in the arid, hot environment near Port Elizabeth.

As the play opens he is trying to identify a mystery aloe, while his wife sits in the sun staring ahead. It is late afternoon and they are expecting visitors for supper: Piet’s friend Steve with his wife and four children. Piet after leaving a failing farm had been a bus driver and one day, during a bus boycott had abandoned his bus and listened to the protestors. Steve was speaking.

Though quiet, Gladys seems unsettled; something appears “not quite right with her.” The idea of guests rattles her.

As the act progress through the interactions of these two people, we learn so much more. That Steve had been “banned” and had broken the banning order by attending a party where he was arrested and jailed. That after the party, the security police searched Piet and Gladys’ house; they discovered diaries that Gladys had been keeping for years and confiscated them.

It isn’t until act two that Steve arrives, without his wife and children. He is leaving South Africa in a week to live in Britain. The inhospitable atmosphere has made it impossible for him to flourish and he fears his children would face the same future.

This triangle of backgrounds and points of view all share one thing: they have each been perhaps fatally wounded by the political repression and actions of the government.

Piet is viewed by some of his political colleagues as possibly the informer that let the police know that Steve would be at the party. He says he can make the case that any of the attendees were the one.

Gladys had a nervous breakdown following the confiscation of her diaries and feels her very privacy violated. She was hospitalized and underwent electric shock treatment.

Steve see no alternative but to leave his country, despairing that change will ever happen. [It took until 1994 for the apartheid system to finally end though it had been modified in the ‘80s.]

Each in his or her way is like the aloes that were able to survive in the environment. As Piet says, “we all need survival mechanisms” and the aloes have survived. Gladys though wants more than just to survive; she would readily follow Steve’s path and relocate to England but Piet is an Afrikaner through and through. Like the aloes he will not give up.

In this domestic drama, Fugard manages to explore the issues of how humans adapt and survive; the various mechanisms we use to convince ourselves that either we can change things or that things will change or that we can survive. The three characters have faced issues of trust and commitment to each other, to the country of their birth and to their principles. The ability to trust others has been shaken to the core.

Of the three, Gladys, played beautifully by Andrus Nichols, is the most complex. It might be due to the mental illness brought on by the raid and the idea that some anonymous men are reading her private diaries OR by deep seated anger and resentment with Piet and his ability to go on without acknowledging the situation. Put she is the instigator of some of the more explosive conversation with both her husband and with him and Steve. In some ways, she sees things more clearly that Piet.

Ariyon Bakare’s Steve is a simmering volcano. You wait for him to explode with rage at his situation – having been persecuted, jailed, discriminated against and now, seeing no recourse but to abandon his home. It isn’t been the first time he has been forced out; he and his father had to leave their home for the newly established “homelands” far from the sea where his father loved to fish. That he suspects Piet is no surprise.

But it is Randall Newsome (Piet) who with a minimum of movement and controlled emotions is the center of this piece.  Newsome projects a quiet dignity and sense of self that is both admirable and, to Gladys, infuriating. Is he the idealist? Or is he blind to realities?

Director Darko Tresnjak, who immigrated to America with his mother when he was 10 from the repressive Communist Yugoslavia (now Serbia), certainly must have an understanding of what fear can do to people.  He has said he believed this play had particular relevance for the current world situation. It is not difficult to see what he means.

Adding to his powerful direction – he uses stillness to maximum effect, he is aided by superb lighting by Matthew Richards which often focus our attention on the aloes – those stubborn, determined to survive plants. The sound design by Jane Shaw occasionally punctures the silence with reminders of the world outside.

Some may find A Lesson from Aloes to talky and slow moving.

But for me, it is a thought-provoking exploration of how different individuals cope with their environment and, like the aloes, learn to survive.

For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

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Ariyon Bakare and Randall Newsome. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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