“Field Guide” at Yale Rep Challenges the Concept of Theater

By Karen Isaacs

Field Guide which is now at Yale Rep through Saturday, Feb. 17 is an example of exactly what a university based theater should be doing: presenting works that push the boundaries and challenge audiences.

You may find the work, a world premiere commissioned by Yale Rep and developed by the Austin, Texas based Rude Mechs company not to your liking, perhaps even puzzling, but it is different.

Rude Mechs is a collaborative company whose members work together to develop productions; at times it shows that “too many cooks” can definitely make the soup less tasty.

Field Guide is based roughly on Dostoevsky’s massive novel The Brothers Karamozov which is about three brothers, their illegitimate half-brother and the father. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the novel or remembered it. The program provides a listing of “Notable Species” in the novel with all the male characters portrayed as bears and the females as birds, either predators or preys.

The company raises the question if Dostovesky did more than just create the novel? Did he create “a story that might guide us through our lives, a field guide for living?”

It’s a fascinating idea but one that does not really come through in the work.

So let’s focus on some of the work. First of all the lighting by Brian H. Scott is excellent and the music by Graham Reynolds and sound design by Robert S. Fisher are also excellent. Each of these three highlight aspects of the play.

One concern with Field Guide is expectations. It’s billed as inspired by the novel and, in fact, about half the 90 minutes are devoted to aspects of the central plot: the mystery of who killed the father and the romantic entanglements among the three brothers and the father.

It’s the other half that will puzzle you and perhaps infuriate you as you try to put it into the context of the other works. The play begins with Hannah, one of the company members who also wrote the text and plays three characters, performing a stand-up comedy routine. Her delivery may remind those older people in the audience of Cher’s monotone in the opening of the Sonny & Cher show. Not only isn’t the humor particularly funny (only some audience members laughed), but you sit there trying to figure out what the point of it is.

These stand-up comic elements are repeated at times during the show by Hannah and others. Each time the same questions occur.

Once they get into telling a destructed version of the novel, things do move along better. The main characters are sketched in such a way that you have a sense of each individual but too often, you are told what they are or what they feel rather than seeing it. That’s a problem when you condense even the main story of a massive novel to 60 minutes or so.

You will be left wondering about some of the staging. It is definitely clever, as when a series of various sized and shaped cardboard boxes move about the stage (the actors are inside them). Yet, why? How does this relate to the plot or the supposed message?

The ending is funny and unexpected – you probably have never seen anything like it on stage, but connecting to the rest of the show is difficult.

The performers are devoted to their craft. All except Hannah Kenah play just one role. Each does what he or she can with the limited material the script provides. Instead of fully developed characters, we get one dimensional descriptions. We are told the father is both a drinker and a seducer of young women, but we really don’t see it.  Ivan (Thomas Graves) is supposed to go mad, and Dmiti (Lana Lesley) is supposed to be in desperate financial straits. But you just have to take their word for it.

I’m not sure whether the purpose of Rude Mech is to deconstruct theater, move into avant-garde or absurdist theater or spoof the entire idea of theater. In some ways, they do all three.

For a 90 minute show, it seemed to be much longer at times. Yes, there were some startling moments that were moving or funny. But overall, Field Guide did not do what its creators indicated they wanted to do.

Field Guide is at Yale Rep through Saturday, February 17. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

 

“Constellations” at TheaterWorks Can Confound and Frustrate You

constellatins - lanny nagler

Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Constellations, the brief play at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Thursday, February 22 is a frustrating work. It wants to be deal with the time/space continuum, the infinite possibilities of human interactions and quantum physics. To a limited extent, it succeeds with moments that are fascinating.

But too often, it seems repetitious, pretentious and like an exercise for an advanced acting class.

Yet the production is excellent. Rob Ruggiero who has directed this piece has gotten – with cast and production team – every nuance, every laugh and every thoughtful idea in front of us.

The two actors – Allison Pistorius as Marianne and M. Scott McLean as Roland – create as full characters as possible.

We meet Roland and Marianne — in fact we meet them multiple times as they meet each other in multiple scenes.  The gimmick of this play is that it is a series of very brief scenes that are played over and over again, sometimes with different outcomes.

So the two meet at a soggy barbeque multiple times — sometimes the exchange goes well and sometimes it doesn’t or the potential relationship is aborted because Roland is married or attached. The other scenes in this play about their relationship are also repeated.

But this is about relationships, so the two date. Again we see some possibilities of what might occur at the end of a first date: does she invite in to her flat, does she ask him then to leave, does he want to leave, or do they spend night?  And so it goes through stages of the relationship.

Which of these possibilities is reality? Or are all of them real in different universes? That is left up to each of us to decide.

TheaterWorks has been reconfigures to move the stage more into the center of the space, with audience on all four sides. This gives each of us a slightly different perspective on the actions and characters. Above the playing area, lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg has hung starlike lights. Billy Bivona composed and plays music throughout the piece; sometimes it sounds futuristic and other times almost atonal.

The play by Nick Payne attempts to talk about individuals and options. Marianne is a quantum cosmologist while Roland is a beekeeper. It certainly gives her the opportunity to talk a great deal about chance, the importance of what we do and what we don’t do and more.  And Roland is given the opportunity — at least twice — to explain the life cycle of the members of the hive.

It’s possible to draw significance from these two professions: Marie’s dealing with the abstract and the future and Roland’s grounded in nature and reality.

It’s given to Marianne to underline some of the points Payne is trying to make: that several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously and that there is a parallel universe. She also gets into the question of free will and does it exist.

Allison Pistorius and M. Scott McLean show us how tentative each of the characters is as they approach this romance. You hope that it goes well because you like them as characters; perhaps they remind us of our own tentative efforts at connections with others and how both transitory and accidental they be. But at times you don’t understand their motivations, sometimes they seem more like puppets. Even at 75 minutes or so, I checked my watch several times.

While I still wonder if Constellations isn’t more gimmick than play, I have found myself thinking about it ever since I saw it.  So that means it has interested and stirred me.

Constellations is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Thursday, February 22. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit TheaterWorks.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

Cho’s “Office Hour” at Long Wharf Forces Us to Confront Our Stereotypes

Office Hour LWT 1-18  0043.JPG

Jackie Chung and Daniel Chung. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

 

By Karen Isaacs

 How do our perceptions shape reality? How do we connect with people who seemingly avoid human interaction?

Julia Cho is attempting to explore these ideas in Office Hour at Long Wharf Theater through Feb. 11. This co-production will head to the Berkley Repertory Theatre after its run here.

The opening is somewhat clunky – it is obviously trying to set up the plot. We see three people standing around a bar top drinking coffee. They are, we learn, all English professors who teach writing courses. Two of them are discussing a male student that each has had and who is in the third teacher’s class this semester. They and the other students find him disturbing; they are both warning his instructor this semester and asking her to do something about him.

What is so disturbing? First of all his writing; it is always about violence, torture, rape, sexual assault and more. Second his actions. He always wears a jacket with the collar turned up, a cap, and sunglasses so that his face is barely visible.  Plus, he almost never speaks.

In the next scene we see the instructor, Gina, hastily moving a table in a quite empty space. She sets up her laptop, sits down and wait, facing a glass door. The clock moves and at 4:45, she gets up to prepare to leave. At that moment, the student enters, looking just as described by the other teachers and carrying a large back pack.

It seems that she has told him that all of her students must meet with her for twenty minutes. Is this just ruse? We’re not sure and Gina gives conflicting information during the course of the meeting.

Cho intertwines the mundane meeting between instructor and student, with outbursts that at first horrify us until we realize they are fantasies. These are projections of what the instructors fear the student is will do. Let’s just say that many of them involve guns and shooting, like so many episodes we’ve seen in high schools and on college campuses.

With this play that seems to switch between the mundane and the horrific, some of Cho’s points are clear: the perception of the student (Dennis) as dangerous and a potential shooter, not only distances others from him, but leads directly to their “worst case scenario” fantasies.

But Cho is also trying to explore ethnicity and the feelings of being “the other.” Not only Dennis but Gina are Asian-Americans, who do not necessarily feel comfortable in our society. And Gina, like the other two instructors are all viewed as “temporary employees” or adjuncts; their contracts could be ended any semester for almost any reason.

Cho’s play is often successful, yet the fantasies become less effective as the play goes on even though they are ratcheted up. One can question if Gina would really share that much personal information with a student, even in an attempt to make a connection with him. It is also questionable that the male instructor, David, would display such outright hostility bordering on both racism and aggression, to this student.

Yet despite reservations about the play, the production is excellent. Director Lisa Peterson has kept the play moving, and stages the fantasy scenes for maximum impact. In that she is aided by the excellent lighting by Scott Zielinksi and the sound design by Robert Kaplowitz.

Daniel Chung has the difficult task of being mysterious – barely seen nor heard for much of the play. When he does speak it is softly and in monotone. He depends on body language to convey Dennis’ alienation. But he does manage to create some spark of sympathy for him.

Gina, played very well by Jackie Chung, imbues this teacher with the desperate need to “reach” a student. She captures the sincerity of Gina which perhaps borders on naiveté as well as her own issues.

Jeremy Kahn has a one dimensional role as David and Kerry Warren has only the one scene as the third teacher.

Office Hour may terrify you, upset you or you may view it as a only partially successful attempt to explore this issue.

For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282.

 

 

MTC Features Three Acting Couples in “Love Letters”

loveletters

Chris Sarandon and Joanne Gleason

By Karen Isaacs

A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters often makes an appearance at this time of the year. It’s now at MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) in Norwalk through February 11.

The play, which premiered at Long Wharf in 1988 is an ideal Valentine’s Day show. It is only partially a love story but more about friendship and missed opportunities. It’s also easy to produce. Two actors, sit at a table and read the letters that each character wrote to the other. No blocking to learn, no props to handle, and no lines to memorize. It’s no wonder that acting couples are prone to do this show.

In fact, MTC has assembled three acting couples, one for each weekend the show runs. Each will undoubtedly bring a different perspective to the characters.

As so many Gurney plays, the characters are those well-to-do (but perhaps not wealthy), WASPs of the northeastern part of the country. We have Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner and we meet them while they are still in elementary school. Andrew has been made to write an apology to Melissa and her mother for some behavior offense. The written letters continue throughout their lifetimes, despite Melissa often proclaiming her hatred for writing letters.

We see them go from elementary school to high school (Andrew sent to a private boys school and Melissa got expelled from several girls schools) to college (Andrew goes to Yale) and then onto careers and marriage. The letters take us well into middle age.

Despite their similar backgrounds, their lives take very different paths. Melissa’s family goes through a divorce, remarriage and another divorce. There is a hint of sexual abuse. Her family may have more money than Andrew’s but it is much less stable.

While Andrew goes to law school (Harvard, of course), becomes a partner in a firm and starts a career in politics, Melissa’s life is more erratic. She is an artist, who divorces and experiments too much with alcohol, possibly drugs, and men.

Time may elapse between letters, but they continue to connect.

Was it possible for them to have a romance? Were they really true loves? Gurney leaves this open. It’s possible while loving they really weren’t suited for each other.

I saw Joanna Gleason and Chris Sarandon (Mr. & Mrs.) in the roles. Gleason’s Melissa seemed more restrained than some I’ve seen; she was quieter and sadder despite various escapades. Sarandon on the other hand let Andrew be more expressive. His ending to the play packed a big emotional punch.

This weekend (Feb. 2-4) features Beverly Ward and Kirby Ward; Feb. 9-11 stars Scott Bryce and Jodi Stevens.

Love Letters is a literate, touching play. For tickets visit MTC or call 203-454-3883.

“Feeding the Dragon” at Hartford Stage Misses Opportunities

feeding the dragon 2

Sharon Washington. Photo by T.  Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 One person shows may seem easy, but are notoriously difficult. Not just in the performing but also in the creating.  And when the performer is also the creator of the piece and it is biographical, the difficulties seem to multiply. The selection of the material, the editing and the drama is complicated by the fact that it is true and the author/performer is emotionally connected to the people and events.

Both the plusses and minus of this are on display at Hartford Stage’s production of Feeding the Dragon, written and performed by Sharon Washington.

Washington’s childhood was unusual due to where her home was located: in a custodial apartment in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on the upper west side of Manhattan. Her father was the custodian one of whose duties was to keep the old, coal operated furnace going: thus the expression “feeding the dragon.”

It was only for four years but these were obviously formative years. Unfortunately she never actually mentions how old she was during these years (1969-73) but from some of the episodes she recounts she probably was pre-teen or early teens.

In interviews, she has said that people encouraged to write her story because of the unusual location of the apartment. But certainly there is more that she wants to tell: the story of her working class African-American parents and their struggles; her sense of self as an African-American woman, and how she became an actress.

In this 90 minute play which will be heading to Off-Broadway’s Primary Stages, she is only partially successful. Leaving the theater, I was still puzzling over half told memories than left us hanging and things she never addressed at all.

She talks little about reading in the empty rooms of the Library after it had closed. But what books did she consume? How did they affect her? They obviously spurred her imagination but little is said. Did she have other adventures in the multiple rooms of the library?

The same thing happens when she tells a story about discovering some wrapped boxes in the bottom of her mother’s closet. The contents are unusual and puzzling. Later in the piece she briefly refers to it, but there is never a conclusion to the story. Why did her mother have those things? How had she gotten them? What was the significance?  I thought of multiple possibilities but would have liked to know which was true. It’s hard to believe that Washington never spoke her mother about it.

Focus is one of the problems with this piece; what is the story she’s trying to tell? It goes in several directions, but each seems unsatisfying. It’s not told from the point of view of her as a child, but it doesn’t really bring the insight of her adult self.

The ending seems like a trite summing up of platitudes.

Washington is a fine actress, but as she plays the multiple people in her story, including her mother, aunts, grandmother and others, her portrayals are good, but not great. These are people she knows well, so you expect her characters would be fuller.

The set by Tony Ferrieri is simple, but suggests a library with the high stained glass windows and the card catalogue drawers creating the steps. Ann Wrightson has done a fine job with the lighting and Maria Mileaf’s direction injects both movement and variety to it.

But at the end, I looked at the tag line on the poster “her story speaks volumes” and realized that these were very incomplete volumes. So much more should have been possible.

Feeding the Dragon is at Hartford Stage through Feb. 4. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.

John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” Is Acting at Its Best

John Lithgow Stories By Heart, photo by Joan Marcus_61.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 John Lithgow is one of America’s outstanding actors. He’s created numerous roles and won multiple awards, most recently an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on “The Crown.”

His wide ranging talent is on display at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where his one-man play, Stories by Heart is until March 4.

Go see it.

As an audience member said, “I could listen to him read his laundry list.”

A small part of the show is about his father, Arthur Lithgow who was an actor, director, artistic director and founder of various theater groups mainly in the Midwest. He founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (which continues to this day), worked with a group of actors who became well known, but always managed to have it end in disaster – feuds with boards of directors, financial difficulties, and more. But the family would pull up stakes, move on and start over.

Yet Stories by Heart is really Lithgow presenting two short stories to us.  The first is by Ring Lardner, “Haircut.” It is essential the thoughts and words of a small town barber, circa 1925 talking to his customer who sits silently in the chair. With no props, Lithgow recreates the old-time barbershop experience from the hot towels, to the stropping of the blade, the lather and more. He even creates wonderful sound effects. But the story which begins as a pleasant tale of small town America and one of the men of the town, slowly turns into something more. Before our eyes, we begin to realize that while the barber tells the story of this man who liked to play practical and cruel jokes on women and weaker men, rather than feeling disgust at his antics, sees nothing wrong in them. It becoming chilling to realize that he is complicit in the casual cruelty.

Lithgow gets it all right – the body language, the accent and more. He seems transformed; I began to picture him as this round-faced, medium sized, bald man with the white jacket. That is talent.

In the second half, he talks about his father’s last years and how, when his father was recovering from surgery and seemed to have given up, Lithgow stayed with his parents for several months, caring for them. He tells of finding the thick book of short stories from which his father had read to him and siblings, and his decision to reverse it: he would read to his parents.

It was with delight that he found parents chose the same light story that he and his siblings had loved: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. This silly comic story about a man whose uncle (Fred) always gets them into various pickles is a laugh fest. Here Lithgow gives us multiple characters from Uncle Fred, to the nephew, to the nephew’s friend and others.

Again he is marvelous. He does so much with his voice, his eyes, his gestures his posture. We see the characters and we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, all due to Uncle Fred.

This two hour production is delight for anyone who enjoys seeing talented actors demonstrate their skills.

For tickets, visit Roundabout Theatre.Lithgow poster.jpg

“The Parisian Woman” – Elegant Play of Political Manipulation

Parisian Woman 3 by Matthew Murphy

Josh Lucas and Uma Thurman. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes when I start to write my review, I feel torn. I know the work wasn’t that good or that some of the performances could have been better BUT I really enjoyed the show.

That’s the case with The Parisian Woman which marks Uma Thurman’s Broadway debut. The play won’t stand the test of time and her performance won’t go down in the history of Broadway greats.

YET….I am very glad I saw it.

The plot is familiar; a wife who will do almost anything to help her husband gain a position of prestige and power. In this case, it is Chloe (Uma Thurman) whose husband is being considered for a judgeship on the Court of Appeals, but things are not progressing as quickly or surely as both would hope.

In a series of scenes we see Chloe operate behind the scenes to ensure the appointment. From using charm (and more?) on a wealthy admirer to talking up an influential woman at a party to engaging in some not-so-subtle blackmail.

The play is by Beau Willimon, not only a playwright but the creator of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” It is loosely based on a French play la Parisenne by Henri Becque first produced in 1885. The play scandalized Paris.

So, if the plot isn’t really new, what makes it modern? First of all there is a twist which I don’t want to reveal about Chloe’s private life. Let’s just say it was an “open marriage.”)

But this is a play about politics. The politics of getting what you want and the political situation in the US today. The play is set in the Trump Administration and several of the characters are high powered Republicans who are trying very hard to convince themselves that all will be well.

This leads to lines that will make both supporters and detractors of the administration laugh.

What makes this play enjoyable is seeing a character so confidently and expertly maneuver and manipulate. Thurman may not be a great stage actress, but with gorgeous costumes, beauty and sophistication, it is a pleasure to watch her operate.

Director Pam MacKinnon has surrounded her with a cast of fine actors. Blair Brown is a delight as the woman, Jeannette, who becomes the ultimate target. Brown’s intonations and body language reveal both how uncomfortable she is with the administration but also how she hopes to benefit from it. It is a fine, well defined performance. Marton Csokas has the less interesting role of Chloe’s admirer. Playing a relatively boring businessman/millionaire is challenging; if you make him too interesting you defeat the purpose of the part. Philliipa Soo plays the daughter of Jeannette and the one who provides the “twist.”

Josh Lucas has the difficult job of helping us understand, Tom, the husband. He needs to convince us that the two are in love and couple, while at the same time, convincing us that he is accepting of Chloe’s admirers, many of admirer from very close range. It’s difficult and made more difficult because Thurman seems at times so remote. (Think Grace Kelly). It’s hard to feel that there is any chemistry. Lucas does the best he can with the role.

Derek McLane has given us a variety of sets including the very comfortable living room of Tom and Chloe. It reveals their economic status without being pretentious. Jane Greenwood has had the task of creating the elegant costumes for Thurman – which she wears beautifully – as well as the others.

The Parisian Woman is not a great play and Thurman’s performance is lacking, BUT (and this is a big but), I had a thoroughly enjoyable time seeing it.

It’s running through March 11 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W 44th Street. Tickets are available through TheHudsonBroadway.com.

Parisian Woman 2 by Matthew Murphy_edited

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown and Phillipa Soo. Photo by Matthew Murphy

‘Woody Sez’ at Westport Playhouse — You’ll Want to Sing Along

Woody Sez posterBy Karen Isaacs

“This Land Is Your Land” is a song almost all of us know. School children learn it.  But do you know who wrote it?  If you’ve forgotten, it was Woody Guthrie, a man who helped revive and popularize folk music in America.

Woody Sez- the life & music of Woody Guthrie — now at Westport Country Playhouse intersperses his life story, mostly told by David M. Lutkin as Woody, with renditions of the music he made so famous.

Guthrie lived a hard-scrabble life.  He was born in Oklahoma but lived in both Texas and California as well as New York City.  While he had brief periods of affluence, for the most part his life was the same as the farmers, oil rig workers and dust bowl refugees. He hopped rails, went to bed hungry, did whatever manual labor was available.

Yet while doing that Guthrie was a wandering minstrel who helped preserve classic folk songs as well as creating new ones that touched on social protest and political observation.  A staunch member of the political left — and a good friend to many who were blacklisted in the ’40s and ’50s, Guthrie also wrote a newspaper column, “Woody Sez” — hence the title of the show — that commented on political and social issues in a rural dialect.

He wrote of the dust bowl, the Okies and Arkies who went to California to try to survive, to the union members who fought the bosses and even the merchant marines who helped win World War II. He was one of them.

Along the way he collected folk songs and wrote hundreds of others.  Alan Lomax, the great folklorist recorded him for the Library Congress series.

When he came to New York he “hung out” with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Burl Ives and other great singer/writers.  He was a founding member of the Almanacs, a folk group that helped lead to the Weavers and the folk revival.

Woody Sez started life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and has since been performed in both the US and England where it was nominated for a “best musical” award. It recently finished a successful run at NYC’s Irish Rep.

David M. Lutken, who plays Woody, not only devised the show (with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and Andy Teirstein) but also serves as the music director. Lutken has the lean look that we associate with Guthrie and a casual friendly manner that brings the audience into the story of Woody’s life.

His life had many tragic elements.  His mother, who ended her life in a mental institution, is thought to have set several fires, one of which killed his older sister. She is believed to have suffered from the genetic neurological Huntington’s Disease. His father had both economic ups and downs and ended up leaving his children in Oklahoma while he went to work in Texas. Some people suspect the father also suffered from the disease, for which there is no cure. Woody himself developed Huntington’s Disease and died in 1967 after having spent years in a variety of mental institutions. The disease causes both physical ailments and mental disorders.

The show opens with “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and ends with “This Land Is Your Land’: but in between are over 20 other Guthrie songs from “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain”, “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Union Maid,” and “Do Re Mi” and lesser known works (to me) such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Oklahoma Hills,’ “Dust Storm Disaster” and more.

Lutken is joined by three talented musicians/actors who not only play a variety of roles — Will Geer, Guthrie’s mother and his sister, Pete Seeger and his radio partner Lefty Lou — but play multiple folk instruments including mandolin, banjo, violin and others.

David Finch, Leenya Rideout and Katie Barton all bring charm and musicality to the show. All have performed the show before, with Russell a member of the original cast.

The set by Luke Cantarella is flexible and simple — some large photos of Woody, instruments placed around the stage, and a barnlike feel.

This is a well performed and fascinating remembrance of an important man in American musical history.  It would be an excellent show for teens and young adults who would find the stories of America in the ’20s and ’30s more compelling than any history book.

Woody Sez runs through Jan. 20. For tickets visit Westport Country Playhouse

My Favorite NYC Shows of 2017

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By Karen Isaacs

 Of the 40 or so shows I saw in NYC in 2017, which were my favorites

 Musicals

Come from Away

COME FROM AWAY, Jenn Colella Photo by Matthew MurphyIn 2017, I needed a show that reminded me of people’s goodness and caring. Come from Away did just that without being manipulative nor saccharine. The show combined extraordinary direction by Christopher Ashley, fine cast with Jenn Colella as a standout and a enjoyable score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. I was delighted it was a hit.

 

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited-6 I had missed the various off-Broadway incarnations of this show, but the one at the Imperial Theater was amazing. I loved how the theater was totally transformed into a Russian café and the cast was all around me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of musical genres and was delighted with Josh Groban’s performance as the depressed and lonely Pierre. I only regretted the limited awards it won and the producers’ missteps that led to its early departure.

The Band’s Visit

           

THE BAND'S VISIT, Photo by Matthew Murphy the band

Tony Shalhoub and the band. Photo by Matthew Murphy

David Yazbek’s score and this sweet, gentle story—though occasionally slow – again reminds us of people’s innate kindness. Plus it featured an astounding performance by Katrina Lenk.

Hello, Dolly!

I won’t say this is a definitive production of this classic musical, and Bette Midler may not be the perfect Dolly, but what a show it was. She is an amazing performer and the rest of the cast was able to hold own against her star power. Brava!

My runner-up Musicals

War Paint 
Goodman Theater

 Of, the Broadway musicals that opened or were revived, I enjoyed War Paint the best. To see Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole together was wonderful. Plus I found the score delightful.

Off-Broadway, John Kander (with new partner Greg Pierce) tackled a tough subject in Kid Victory. The return of a teen boy who was abducted and held captive by a predator before being returned to his conservative, religious family. Karen Ziemba as the mother and Jeffrey Denham as the predator were terrific.

My Top Plays

 Oslo

         oslo _jenniferjefferson.jpg__50000x390_q85_subsampling-2 The back story of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accords signed in 1993 might not seem made for theater, but playwright J. R. Rogers, director Barlett Sher and a top notch cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle turned this into a fascinating and suspenseful drama.

Indecent

          

indecent topol and lenk rosegg

  I saw this play at Yale Rep and was entranced; the magic continued on Broadway with this spectacular ensemble cast and a fascinating look at a piece of forgotten American theater history.

 Sweat

           

Sweat 
Studio 54

Lynn Nottage play about blue collar workers losing their economic footing in 21st century America made me want to cry. It was real, it touched the economic issues and the personal ones.  It featured another terrific ensemble cast.

 

 

Jitney

           

Jitney

A strong ensemble cast led by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden plus superb direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and a great set by David Gallo brought out all the strengths in this August Wilson play.

Shadowlands (off-Broadway)

 

SHADOWLANDS 3 photo by Jeremy Daniel (2)

This revival of William Nicholson’s play about the unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. It also featured a fine cast and set – that easily would have garnered praise on Broadway.

The Little Foxes

        

LILLIAN HELLMAN’S THE LITTLE FOXES
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
With Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon
Darren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard Thomas
David Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner

    I saw Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie and wished I had also seen them in the opposite roles. They were terrific as were the entire cast including Richard Thomas as Horace. The production was both chilling in its depiction of greed and spell binding.

In the runner-up category, I’d include

The Price

           

The Price

Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht were all terrific in this revival of Arthur Miller’s play, directed by Terry Kinney.  I found that Danny DeVito was over-the-top as the antique dealer, detracting from the piece.

Present Laughter

           

Present Laughter
St. James Theatre

Kevin Kline made this revival a must see. He WAS the perfect actor to play Gary Essendine. Of course, the fabulous set and the strong performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel added to the fun.

The Home Place

It isn’t Brian Friel’s best play, but this production at the Irish Rep was so good and focused on such interesting topics that any failings of the play were easily overlooked.

 

The Man from Nebraska

          

MAN FROM NEBRASKA
By TRACY LETTS

Directed by DAVID CROMER

  Pitch perfect performances by Reed Birney and Annett O’Toole as a conventional man who loses his faith and his wife, made this Tracy Lett’s play at Second Stage riveting. Lett shows us what happens when those who always follow the rules, stop doing so, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. Birney and O’Toole also did not take the easy road in their performances.

My Top Ten Connecticut Shows in 2017 Plus the Runners-Up — What do you think?

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By Karen Isaacs

 Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.

next to normal 2You could criticize practically nothing in this production. Rob Ruggiero cast it brilliantly with Christiane Noll, David Harris, Maya Keleher (in her professional debut), Nick Sacks and John Cardoza. Ruggiero used the aisles to add to the intimacy; it was remarkable.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage

This Shakespeare play is done so often, it is easy to say “oh no, not again.” But Darko Tresjnak’s production was outstanding. He balanced all the elements and did not let any one of the multiple plots overtake others. His handling of the play put on by “the mechanicals” at the ends was terrific.

Fireflies at Long Wharf

 

Fireflies LWT 10-17 133

Jane Alexander, Judith Ivy and Denis Ardnt gave touching performances, creating real people in this sweet romance about an older, retired school teacher, her nosy next store neighbor, a drifter. Gordon Edelstein kept it moving and preventedit from becoming saccharine.

 

 

 

 

Rags at Goodspeed

            RAGS posterThis story of Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of New York was completely revamped for this production: extensive revisions of the book, lyrics and songs. The result wasn’t perfect but with Rob Ruggiero’s sensitive direction, this show touched the heart.

 

 

 

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Plekey at Hartford Stage

absolute brightness by matthew murphyThis may have been a touring show, but James Lecesne not only was brilliant in turning his novel into a one actor play but did so much outreach in the community on the issues of teens facing bullying due to sexual orientation.

Diary of Ann Frank at Playhouse on Park

anne frank 5David Lewis made full use of the large and sometimes awkward stage area to create the attic in which the Franks and others hid for many years. Director Ezra Barnes cast the show almost perfectly from Isabelle Barbier as Anne to the entire ensemble. It was touching and real.

 

 

 

A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage

the-comedy-of-errors-hsc-1-17-192_edited  It is perhaps Shakespeare’s silliest play and director Darko Tresnjak emphasizes it beginning with his own colorful Mediterranean village set, a canal with real water and more. Who cares if the lines sometimes gets lost in the process?

 Seder at Hartford Stage

Seder HSC 10-17 035How do you survive in a repressive regime? How do you make others, who have not lived through it, understand your choices? That was at the heart of this new play which thoroughly engaged me. Plus it had Mia Dillion once again showing her skills.

 

Wolves at TheaterWork

TW Wolves 2Wolves was a sensitive and insightful look into both the world of girls’ sports (in this case a soccer team) but also into the society that teenagers create for themselves. Though a few of the young actresses looked a little too old, we become totally engaged in them and their lives.

The Games Afoot at Ivoryton

Games Afoot Beverley Taylor as Daria Chase_editedSometimes just seeing actors have a great time with a so-so play is more than enough. That was the case in this comic thriller by Ken Ludwig. It succeeded because of director Jacqueline Hubbard, set designer Daniel Nischan and a cast that just had fun.

 

 

The runners up

  “Trav’lin’the 1920s Harlem Musical at Seven Angels.

travelling 2  It may not be a great musical, but this show introduced me to a lesser known composer – J. C. Johnson who wrote “This Joint is Jumpin’” and many others. The plot is simplistic but the cast was wonderful.

 

 

 

 

Noises Off at Connecticut Repertory Theater

            CRTNoisesPR5sm_edited by Gerry GoodsteinMy favorite farce got a fine production this summer with some inventive touches by director Vincent J. Cardinal, terrific casting and timing that was just about perfect.

 

 

 

 Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton

Million Dollar Jerry Lee Lewis_editedThis show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.

 

The Bridges of Madison County at MTC

Bridges of Madison -4-by heather hayesThe music is glorious and Kevin Connors created a production that worked very well on his three sided stage. While the chemistry didn’t seem to be there, musically the cast was strong.

 The Great Tchaikovsky at Hartford Stage

our great tchaikovsky 1_edited Hershey Felder combines his talents as pianist, actor and director to create shows about the lives for well-known popular and classical composers. This show about Tchaikovsky was a delight.

 Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage

Heartbreak House HSC 5-17 114_edited  Darko Tresnjak directed this version of Shaw’s masterpiece. It might have made the top ten BUT for one decision that Tresnjak made:  he decided to make Boss Mangan a Donald Trump look/act alike. The similarity would have been recognizable without it and it distracted from the play.

 Endgame at Long Wharf

         

endgame-4_edited

   Samuel Beckett writes difficult plays requiring an audience to understand his pessimistic world view and his abstract characters and plots. Gordon Edelstein directed a production that may not have been definitive but gave us outstanding performances by Reg E. Cathey, Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi.

 

Biloxi Blues at Ivoryton

This Neil Simon play, part of the Eugene trilogy got a fine production directed by Sasha Bratt that focused less on the laughs and more on the situation.

 Native Son at Yale Rep

           

NATIVE SON

This production boasted a terrific performance by Jerod Haynes as Bigger, an urbanset by Ryan Emens and jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy that produced a taut, film noir feel to this story about race and prejudice.

 

 

Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse

Romeo 2 Mark Lamos, who is a fine director of Shakespeare gave us a pared down version of this classic tragedy that featured some fine performances – including Nicole Rodenburg as Juliet, Felicity Jones Latta as the Nurse, and Peter Francis James as Friar Lawrence, plus a magical set by Michael Yeargan. Lamos emphasized the youth and energy.

west side story 6 - ivoryton by anne hudsonWest Side Story at Ivoryton

This production had many more plusses – Mia Pinero as Maria, Natalie Madion as Anita, good direction by Todd L. Underwood – than minuses.

 

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