Tag Archives: Hartford Stage

“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.

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



   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



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.


A New Scrooge Adds His Touch to “A Christmas Carol” at Hartford Stage

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By Karen Isaacs

 A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas has returned to Hartford Stage for its 20th year of performances through Saturday, Dec. 30. Over that time, Bill Raymond was Scrooge 17 years.

But now, the role is in the very capable hands of Michael Preston and director Rachel Alderman.

If this is the first time you are seeing this show, it is as wonderful as ever. For the long-time fans of this production, there are some subtle changes.

Preston is terrific as Scrooge. Calling on his background with the Flying Karamazov Brothers he throws in a bit of juggling and some judicious physical comedy to the delight of the audience. He also makes Scrooge sterner in the beginning. Though he prepares us for Scrooge’s well known redemption, he doesn’t soften the man at the beginning. When he begrudges Bob Cratchit a lump of coal, his wages or refuses to donate to help the needy, there is no sense that this is a game that we should be in on. It is the man.

Over the years, Raymond had added too many winks to the early scenes; he made it not only more difficult to believe Scrooge was so nasty, but also made the redemption seem less like a “miracle.”

With Preston you are amazed at the transformation. While some of the cast from previous years return to their roles, new cast has joined the group. Yet even the returnees have evolved their characters in response to the new Scrooge. Noble Shropshire is even more tart as Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and Robert Hannon Davis’ Bob Cratchit seems even more put-upon. Alan Rust returns as both Bert, the cider vendor and the Spirit of Christmas present. His good humor is in sharp contrast to Scrooge.

Added to the cast this year are Rebecka Jones as Betty Pidgeon, the doll vendor as well as the Spirit of Christmas Past and Old Josie. Her portrayals are spot on.

Director Rachel Alderman has used multi-racial casting throughout the production with Terrell Donnell Sledge playing both Scrooge at 30 and his nephew, Fred. His performance and those of Shauna Miles as Mrs. Fezziwig and Vanessa R. Butler as both Fred’s wife, and Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancé are good. Yet some audience members may be disconcerted by it all or wonder about the genetics involved.

It seemed to me that this production was crisper than usual; the credit goes to Alderman.

Once again the special effects – the lighting by Robert Wierzel, scenic design by Tony Straiges, costumes by Alejo Vietti, sound and original music by John Gromada and choreography by Hope Clarke are all excellent. And of course, the marvelous flying effects by ZFX, Inc. I hope they figure out a way to let Scrooge fly also. It is a matter of logistics since he is on stage so much but casn’t be in the flying harness the entire show.

Quibbles? That the voices of the children were hard to hear. But that is a minor complaint.

If you have never seen this production, remember the subtitle: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Ghosts play a major role in the piece and their masks and actions can be appropriately eerie. This may not be the right production for younger children or any child easily scared.

For all the rest of us, this is a wonderful gift to Connecticut. Even if you’ve seen it before, you should definitely see it again this holiday season.

It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street through Dec. 30. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06

Hartford Stage Introduces a New Scrooge

hartford stage Edit_Scrooge_Portraits_033_editedBy Karen Isaacs

 How do you take over a part that for 20 years has been play almost exclusively by one actor? Michael Preston is facing that dilemma as the new Scrooge in the Hartford Stage production of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas, which runs through Sunday, Dec. 30.

 Preston admitted that Bill Raymond, the former Scrooge who retired from the role last year, had been a hero of his. “It was great to work with him,” Preston said, referring to playing Mr. Marvel for several years in the production. But he admits it is a “little strange” taking over the part.

“I see Scrooge as a man who has turned away from any comfort and shut himself off,” Preston said. “It’s about loss and disappointment, which are human traits.”

“It’s the journey he (Scrooge) takes to reach a point of celebrating life and touching people,” he added.  “At any moment one of the ghosts could send him down.”

For both Preston and director Rachel Alderman, this adaptation by Michael Wilson (former Artistic Director at Hartford Stage) gets to the heart of the story and focuses on the dynamic relationships.

“Everyone is trying to get him (Scrooge) to change and reaching out to him,” Alderman said. This adaptation is so reflective of the heart and warmth of Michael Wilson; it just infuses the entire story, she added.

Preston views the role as “tremendously entertaining” which requires “great clowning,” “You have to prepare the audience for the ending; Scrooge is has very human traits that are unpleasant, but there is a small spark within him, that the ghosts and his associates manage to fan,” Preston said. “You have to find the moment when he changes.”

One of Alderman’s responsibilities is adapting the staging to the new cast members – not only are there three new performers in major roles, but three others are switching roles. Plus there are the students from Hartt School of the University of Hartford which comprise the ensemble and the numerous children in the cast.

In the space of just six weeks, the cast will perform the show almost 50 times – 34 regular performances and 14 school group performances. For those, Buzz Roddy plays Scrooge.

“The audiences are so enthusiastic that energizes the cast,” Alderman said. “For some it is an annual event, some have never seen live theater, and each year there are grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the show.”  The cast, she says, feels that and responds to it.

It’s the audience as well as the students and children who help keep the whole show renewed and alive, she said.

Once again, a sensory-friendly performance will be available at reduced prices on Saturday, Dec. 2. This is geared for families with autism or other sensory sensitivities. A variety of accommodations to the production are made. For information on this, contact hartfordstage.org/sensory-friendly.

Local craftspeople will fill the lobby of the theater on “Market Days” that begin Sunday, Dec. 3 and continue the following two weekends. It’s been a popular event for audience members who can shop the unique offerings and local businesses.

For tickets or information, visit Hartford Stage.



























A New Christmas Musical Offers a Local Take on “A Christmas Carol”

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By Karen Isaacs

 Two new Scrooges are gracing Connecticut stages this holiday season. Each will bring takes on the classic character and story of A Christmas Carol.

 A new musical version of the story is at Goodspeed Musicals through Sunday, Dec. 24. A Connecticut Christmas Carol is the brainchild of LJ Fecho and Michael O’Flaherty, Goodspeed’s longtime music director.

“We had the idea about two years ago,” O’Flaherty said. “We had done a very silly and fun Pennsylvania Dutch version a few years ago. Larry (the book is written by him) suggested setting it in Connecticut”.

The setting is the Goodspeed Opera House around 1925 and where William Gillette, the famous actor who lived up the river from the Opera House, planning a production of the story.

The unique part of this production – besides a totally original score that O’Flaherty characterizes as “pure musical” – is that the various ghosts are famous Connecticut residents – from Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and P. T. Barnum. These three play the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas yet-to-be.

This Scrooge, played by Lenny Volpe (he was Cap’n Andy in Goodspeed’s production of Show Boat) is not an ogre, O’Flaherty said. “We needed someone with strong comedic chops who could pull off the lightness of the ending.”

The show is being presented at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester. There’s a number of special events and promotions during the run. For information and tickets, visit Goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.

While the production is a favorite of theater goers throughout the state, a new Scrooge is taking over at Hartford Stage. The annual presentation of A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas which runs through Saturday, Dec. 30.

It’s the 20th year for this adaptation by former Artistic Director Michael Wilson; each year it sells out, despite many performances. For most of these twenty years, Scrooge was played by Bill Raymond. But last year, he announced his retirement.

Michael Preston, who had played Mr. Marvel has taken over the part.  It’s being staged by Artistic Associate Rachel Alderman. Alderman says this year’s production features some new costumes and new designs. While admitting to some hesitation at taking over from Raymond, Preston said he is looking forward to creating his own interpretation of the classic character.

In addition to all the usual performances, for the fourth year, a sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 2. Ticket prices are reduced by 50 percent to make the show more accessible for families with autism or other sensory sensitivities. Changes in the production include reductions in jarring Moises or strobe lights and startling effects. In addition house lights are only dimmed, audience members can move about and there is trained staff, volunteers and designated quiet areas and stress relievers available. For information about this performance visit hartfordstage.org/sensory-friendly.

A Christmas Story

One of the first holiday shows is a return visit of the Broadway musical, A Christmas Story, at the Bushnell in Hartford, Friday, Nov. 24 to Sunday, Nov. 26. The musical that had numerous Tony nominations is based on the Jean Shepherd essay which became a classic film. The creative  team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony Award for Dear Evan Hansen, Academy Award for La La Land), did the music and lyrics. It’s about Ralphie, his desire for a Red Ryder air rifle, and his family in an Indiana town in the 1940s. Though it is a short run, the show is terrific and it will get the holiday season off in a heart-warming but comic way. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

Radio Plays

Very few people remember the days when radio aired plays with live studio audiences watching as the actors played multiple parts, carried scripts and presented well works and created reality with the aid of sound effects.

Connecticut resident has adapted two famous Christmas stories into the radio play format. Each has become a holiday tradition, not just in Connecticut but throughout the country.

Ivoryton Playhouse is giving us It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play from Thursday, December 7 to Sunday, Dec. 17.  Inspired by the classic American film, five actors, directed by Sasha Bratt, perform the dozens of characters in the radio play as well as produce the sound effects. For tickets visit IvorytonPlayhouse.org or call 860-767-7318.

While you are attending the Playhouse you can also see the Ivoryton Illuminations which runs to Friday, Jan. 5. More than 350,000 lights are throughout the village and on Connecticut’s tallest Christmas tree.

MTC (Music Theatre of Connecticut) gives us the radio play version of A Christmas Carol from Friday, Dec. 1 to Sunday, Dec. 17. Again, you are the studio audience as actors play multiple roles and handle sound effects to create the perfect illusion for the radio audience who would be listening at home. For tickets, contact musictheatreofct.com or call 203-454-3883 MTC is located at 509 Westport Avenue (behind Nine West) in Norwalk.

Charlie Brown

We all love the cartoon of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but now you can see a live production on stage at the Bushnell. All the favorite Peanuts characters come to life in this all-new touring stage adaptation of Charles M. Schulz’s classic Emmy and Peabody Award-winning animated television special – all set to Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music. It runs Friday, Dec. 1 to Sunday, Dec. 3. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.

Another well-loved TV cartoon, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, makes a stop at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre. The show is new to the city though it played in Hartford for two years. It runs Friday, Dec. 8 to Sunday, Dec. 10. For tickets visit Shubert.com or call 203-562-5666

The Nutcracker

The holiday season would not be the same without productions of Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet, The Nutcracker.

A very original take on the classic, returns to the Bushnell in Hartford where it wowed audiences last year. That’s The Hip Hop Nutcracker, an evening-length production performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, DJ and violinist. The press materials says, “Through the spells cast by the mysterious Drosselmeyer, Maria-Clara and her prince, Myron, travel back in time to the moment when her parents first meet in a nightclub. Digital scenery transforms E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of a palace of sugarplums into a romance set in 1980s Brooklyn. The dance work celebrates love, community and the magic of New Year’s Eve.” It’s at the Bushnell on Sunday, Dec. 17.  For tickets contact bushnell.org.

You have your choice of more traditional takes on the classic. The Connecticut Ballet’s production, Saturday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, Dec. 17 is in Stamford and features guest arts from the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. For tickets visit palacestamford.org. The Bushnell has the Nutmeg Ballet’s production also on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16. For tickets visit burshnell.org. The New Haven Ballet at the Shubert Theatre features guest artists from major ballet companies. It’s Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16 and 17. For tickets visit the203-562-5666 or at www.shubert.com.

In addition, The Kate is broadcasting the Bolshoi Ballet’s Nutcracker in high definition on Tuesday, Dec. 19. Toyota Oakdale Theater is presenting The Great Russian Nutcracker on Saturday, Dec. 2. For tickets, call 800-745-3000.

More Adult-Oriented

If you are looking for something a little more cynical or adult, you have several choices.  The Shubert Theater is presenting The Santaland Diaries based on the essay by David Sedaris. This one person play is about the fictionalized experiences of Sedaris when he worked one Christmas season as an elf at Macy’s – 34th Street Santaland. It runs Friday, Nov. 24 to Sunday, Nov. 26.

TheaterWorks in Hartford is bringing back Christmas on the Rocks for the fifth year. This series of short one-act plays, shows us what all of those famous children from various holidays stories became when they grew up. So we see an adult Ralphie (A Christmas Story), Tim (A Christmas Carol), Clara (The Nutcracker), Charlie Brown (A Charlie Brown Christmas) and more. A new episode this year is based on the children from It’s a Wonderful Life. It runs Tuesday, Nov. 28 through Saturday, Dec. 23. For tickets visit theaterworksHartford.org or call 860-527-7838.

Sister’s Christmas Catechism is also returning to Connecticut stages this year. It’s at Long Wharf Theatre from Tuesday, Dec. 5 to Sunday, Dec. 17. It’s subtitled The Mystery of the Magi’s Gold and Sister uses science, local choirs and some audience members to find out what happened to the gold. There’s lots of audience interaction. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.

Playhouse on Park is again presenting what is billed as a “Burlesque Extravaganza,” Mama D’s Christmas Stocking: Where’s Santa?  What is it? The press material says it’s a celebration of “all things sexy in an evening of music, dance and comedy.” The material admits “We’re rude, we’re crude and we’re partially nude.” The event is scheduled the weekends of Dec.15-16, 22-23, 29-30 and a special New Year’s Eve show.  For tickets or information, visit playhouseonpark.org or call 800-523-5900.

With so many offerings, you are bound to find something that will fit your schedule and your taste.

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

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

Seder HSC 10-17 048

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.


A Magical, Almost Perfect Production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Hartford Stage

A Midsummer Night's Dream HSC 9-17 205_edited 5

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 You may feel that another production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be a bore; after all it is produced all the time.

But you would be mistaken. Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s artistic director has given us a magnificent production which mines all the humor and romance of this comedy. Make sure you see it before it closes on Sunday, Oct. 8.

Though A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play almost everyone seems to know, it is not an easy play to produce. It combines a variety of worlds and attitudes from the emotionally high strung love of young people, to a fairy kingdom which shows us a marriage that has lasted centuries, plus an adult “political” marriage. It combines the monarchs with the lesser nobility and the working men of the kingdom.

Too often, these disparate elements can be unbalanced with either the young love, the slapstick or the fairy kingdom taking over the play.

Not so in this production. Each element is given its appropriate weight and attention.

If you have forgotten this play, it features two sets of young lovers: Hermia who loves Lysander despite her father’s disapproval plus Demetrius who the father has said should marry Hermia and Helena who desperately loves Demetrius. The first and last acts are set in the kingdom of Duke Theseus who is about to marry Queen Hippolyta, a warrior queen whom he bested in battle.

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Jenny Leoona Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The middle part of the play is set during one night in a forest which is overseen by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies and their courts including Oberon’s ‘right hand person” Puck. But this old married couple is having a fight and Oberon want to embarrass Titania. Into these woods stray the four young lovers and through a mistake by Puck, soon find their infatuations all changed around. Also coming into the wood is a group of “mechanicals,” working men who are rehearsing a play to be presented in honor of the Duke’s wedding. Oberon uses one of these to trick Titania.

Of course, all is straightened out by the end of the play and all the lovers are happy.

As a theatergoer, you will also be happy from the moment you walk into the theater and see the beautifully stylized poster and program cover of an attractive woman in a 1930’s glamourous gown standing on a crescent moon.

Entering the theater you behold Alexander Dodge’s magnificent set: a European style Middle Ages gate house that would protect the city and the city skyline in the background. That gatehouse rotates and the other side, covered in foliage, makes a wonderful forest.

The costume design by Joshua Pearson continues this sense of the early 20th century, with servants in black dresses with white aprons and caps, and women in mid-calf length dresses. To stress the youth of the young lovers, the four are dressed as students with Lysander and Demetrius in short pants and blazers and the Helena and Hermia in skirts, blouses and blazers. Each carries a different piece of sports equipement.

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Photo by T> Charles Erickson

Add to the production the effective lighting by York Kennedy, the sound by Broken Chord and projections by Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley and you are transported into this magical world.

It’s interesting that Tresjnak has made no attempt to have the fairies soar around the stage or for the court of Titania and Oberon to be played by children. Instead he lets us use our imagination. We can easily recognize that Titania and Oberon are, in fact, Theseus and Hippolyta; that Puck is Theseus’ servant, Philostrate and that the fairies surrounding Titania are servants from the manor.

The entire cast is excellent.  Esau Pritchett and Scarlett Strallen are the adults in this play as both Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania. Though they play two pairs of “royals,” the characters are very different in both appearance and attitude. Just to see Hippolyta’s reaction to Theseus’ lack of sympathy for the young lovers is clear, understated and funny.  When the fairy king and queen they are more direct and sensual.

As the four young lovers, Tom Pecinka as Lysander stands out though all of them are excellent. Each Jenny Leona (Hermia), Damian Jermaine Thompson (Lysander) and Fedna Laure Jacquet (Helena) may be adult performers, but they totally captured the impulsiveness of teenagers.

Puck is an essential role in the fairy kingdom; he is part servant and part knave enjoying the havoc he creates. Will Apicella may not be the best Puck I’ve seen, but he captures effectively the duality of the character: good servant and mischievous goof-up.

The third major element in this play are the mechanicals. Here, both the casting and the direction is outstanding. Each of the men creates a recognizable character with just enough humor, never becoming so broad as to draw attention away from the larger play. John Lavelle has the meaty role of Bottom, the one used by Oberon to embarrass Titania. Lavelle gives him the ego that is required but also a humanity that is also necessary.

In the last part of the play, the mechanicals put on their play of Pyramus and Thisbe that bears a resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes this is drawn out too long or is played too broadly. This scene which can seem to go endlessly has been directed to perfection by Tresnjak. I can’t remember seeing it done any better in any of the many productions I’ve attended.

Shakespeare gave us some lines that reinforce the point of the play –“the course of true love never did run smooth” and Puck’s line “what fools these mortals be.”

Yes, but in this production the mortals may be fools, but they are also delightful.

For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151. Hartford Stage is at 50 Church Street, Hartford.

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

A Midsummer Night's Dream HSC 9-17 057_edited 1 T Charles Erickson

Scarlett Strallen. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Lots to Anticipate with Pleasure in Connecticut’s Up-Coming Theater Season

By Karen Isaacs

 Every year as theaters announce their up-coming seasons, certain productions pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation.

So what have I circled for this up-coming year? Connecticut theaters offer a good mixture of the new, the classics, the familiar, and the rare. I have circled some of each.

(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2018. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).

The Musicals:

RAGS poster Rags at Goodspeed Musicals (Oct. 6 –Dec. 10). This isn’t a new musical, but one of those shows that “failed” on Broadway but has developed a devoted following. Its authors, Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye Birdie,) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), have worked on the show extensively with a new book writer (David Thompson) and the revised version has been performed to good reviews. This show about turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants seems timely; the score is excellent.

Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story at Seven Angels Theater, (Feb. 15 – March 11). I’m not sure if this is a one-woman show or not, but it focuses on the life and career of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.

bridges of madison - imageThe Bridges of Madison County at MTC (Nov. 3-19). I love Jason Robert Brown’s score for this adaptation of the novel. I’ll be interested in how director Kevin Connors handles it on the smaller stage. I suspect it will increase the intimacy and emotional impact.

Oklahoma at Goodspeed (through Sept. 27). I’ve already seen this production and while it is quite good, it disappointed me. It didn’t live up to all I had hoped it would be.

The Classics:

I like Shakespeare and Connecticut is blessed with two directors who have a track record of outstanding productions of Shakespeare. Each is directing a work this fall.

Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19).  Artistic Director Mark Lamos directed one of the best productions of this tragedy at Hartford Stage years ago. I still remember it and hope this production will live up to his earlier one.

midsummerMidsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage (Sept. 7 to Oct. 8). Artistic Director Darko Tresjnak has given Connecticut an almost annual Shakespeare production including terrific productions of MacBeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and a riotous A Comedy of Errors. Now he is turning his hand to this classic comedy. It’s bound to be good.

It seems as though Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is having a resurgence; there were two productions in New York last season and now it is opening Yale Rep’s season (Oct 6 -28). This play is about individual responsibility, courage, economics, and environmental health, yet it was written almost 140 years ago.

Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)

 Matthew Lopez is a fine younger playwright, whose works I’ve enjoyed (The Whipping Man, Reverberation), so I’m looking forward to The Legend of Georgia McBride at TheaterWorks (March 15 – April 22). It’s about a young man, a former Elvis impersonator who becomes a successful drag queen.

fireflies posterFireflies (Oct. 11 – Nov. 5) at Long Wharf is featuring an outstanding cast including Jane Alexander. For that reason alone, it’s on my list.

The Connecticut Rep is doing Our Country’s Good (Nov.  30 – Dec. 9). It premiered at Hartford Stage many years ago and is a fascinating look at the founding of Australia and the power of theater to transform people.

 Almost all of Hartford Stage’s productions sound interesting, but if I am to pick just one it would be Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act, (May 10- June 3). Why?  Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights and this is an earlier work, plus it reveals more about life under apartheid in South Africa.

It’s also hard to pick which Yale Rep play will astound me: I am unfamiliar with many of them. But if forced to circle just one on my calendar, it would be Kiss, (April 27-May) by Guillermo Calederón. Why? The description sounds interesting: about people surviving in Damascus.

I did not get to see Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist off-Broadway, so I’m looking forward to the Playhouse on Park production, April 11-29. It’s about a young man who visits an elderly cousin in Warsaw who is a Holocaust survivor.

These twelve selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, including those at the Bushnell, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!

Great Music, Fascinating Performance Combined in “Our Great Tchaikovsky” at Hartford Stage

By Karen Isaacs

 Hershey Felder has combined his considerable piano skills, with acting, writing and directing, to create a series of theater pieces on the lives of great composers.

In each piece, he becomes the composer and helps to put the music into context of the lives and times of these men.  Hartford Stage audiences have seen him as George Gershwin in George Gershwin Alone and Frederic Chopin in Monsieur Chopin.

 Now he is returning to Hartford Stage through Aug. 27 in Our Great Tchaikovsky. It is an enchanting evening of music, biography and commentary on the life of the man who gave us not only symphonies and concerti but also ballets. Felder said after the show in a talk back, that Tchaikovsky is said to be the most played classical composer annually.

Surrounded by a scenic design  suggestive of a Russian living room (designer by Felder) and wonderful lighting and projections by Christopher Ash, you are transported to 19th century Russia.

Felder has the ability to tell the biographical details of Tchaikovsky’s life and comment upon them. He becomes not only him but a few other characters in his life.

Often he is playing Tchaikovsky’s compositions while telling the story of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who was, at the age of 10, left at boarding school in St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles from home to train to become a civil servant. Already he had shown great musical talent, but his parents did not view that as an appropriate career choice. His mother died four years later.

If there is a central focus to Felder’s presentation, it is twofold: that for most of his career he was more recognized and admired outside of Russia than within it. The musical establishment, including his contemporaries, consistently found little talent in his works. It wasn’t just at the beginning when his teacher and noted pianist Nicholai Rubenstein declared that the now famous first piano concerto needed to be totally rewritten, but it continued throughout his life even with critics seeing little of value in “The Nutcracker.”

The other focus is the impact of his sexuality on his life and music. He was homosexual (though the current Russian government has declared otherwise) and may have had pedophiliac tendencies. Felder hints at this obliquely. Much of his life was spent worrying about being “outed” to authorities and the larger world.  His patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, cut off support as a condition so that her family would not reveal the information. Though he married, in part to tamp down the rumors, they separated almost immediately. Later in life, his still-wife (who had born three children by lovers) blackmailed him for money.

Tchaikovsky was criticized in Europe for being “too Russian” in his compositions, but in Russia, he was accused of being “too Western.”

Felder’s performance includes a convincing accent and a conversational manner with the audience, as well as brilliant piano playing. He includes an excerpt from his arrangement for the piano of the famous Piano Concerto No. 1.  You would like to hear more.

If there a quibble to this very enjoyable and enlightening evening, it is his connection of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and fears of revelation with current Russian governmental policies regarding homosexuals. While the point is well taken, it pops up too often.

If you love music, this is a show you should definitely see. Tickets are available through Hartford Stage

The Hits & Misses of the 2016-17 Connecticut Theater Season

By Karen Isaacs

 Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.

So how did the season measure up?

My top plays:

The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse

Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage

Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep

A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage

The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage

Meteor Shower at Long Wharf

Endgame at Long Wharf

Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage

My top musicals:

Next to Normal at TheaterWorks

Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed

Gypsy at MTC

He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels

The top touring shows:

 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell

The King & I at the Bushnell

An American in Paris at the Bushnell

A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell

Shows that pleasantly surprised me:

Absolute Turkey at CRT

Bilox Blues at Ivoryton

Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels

Interesting Observations

Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..

Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.

The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.

Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.

Among the Disappointments.

Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities.  Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.

Assassins at Yale Rep.  I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.

The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.

Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf.  More soap opera than compelling drama.

Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.

 But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.


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