By Karen Isaacs
It’s the year of Hamilton arriving in Connecticut. That’s the big news.
As ever year, certain productions planned for Connecticut theaters pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation. Here’s my list for this year.
Connecticut is blessed with an abundance of fine professional theaters – from the major regional companies (Yale Rep, Long Wharf, Hartford Stage, Goodspeed, TheaterWorks, Westport Playhouse) to more locally oriented theaters (Ivoryton Playhouse, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn, Sharon Playhouse, Seven Angels in Waterbury, MTC in Norwalk and ACT-CT in Ridgefield). Plus there are the major presenting house that bring in national tours – the Bushnell in Hartford, Shubert in New Haven and the Palace in Waterbury.
One thing I have noticed in the last few years: more and more new plays are being produced while fewer classic works are done. Why? Sometimes it’s easier to get financial support or new works. New works allow theaters to reach out to more diverse audiences and present works by diverse playwrights. Even length may play a role; classic plays tend to be full-length (two plus hours) while modern audiences seems to prefer the 90+ minute play.
So what have I circled for this up-coming year?
(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2019. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).
Yet, looking back over a similar list I made last summer, some of them did not live up to my expectations and some that I had not circled, were outstanding.
Now Here Are My Most Anticipated Shows
A Chorus Line at Ivoryton closed Sept 2. It is a great show and I hoped they would do it well. They did.
Drowsy Chaperone at Goodspeed (Sept. 21-Nov. 25). This is just a delightful show; it won’t go down in the history of musicals as one of the best, but it is so much fun.
Man of La Mancha at Westport Country Playhouse (Sept. 25 –Oct. 13). It’s not my favorite musical (in fact it wouldn’t make my top 25), BUT Marco Lamos is directing and so that puts it on my list.
The Flamingo Kid at Hartford Stage (May 9 –June 2). This is the last show Darko Tresnjak will direct as artistic director. The brand new musical is aiming for Broadway just as A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Anastasia.
Henry V at Hartford Stage (Oct. 11 – Nov. 4). Hartford Stage has a track record of excellent Shakespeare and the play can be interpreted in so many ways. Plus, I like Shakespeare.
Flea in Her Ear at Westport (closed July 28) – I’m a sucker for Feydeau; I knew Mark Lamos would do a bang-up job directing it and I was right on all counts. This was overall a fabulous production.
Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)
Hand to God at TheaterWorks (closed Aug. 26). It was on my list out of curiosity. I didn’t see the show on Broadway and wanted to see why so many critics raved about it. I am not sure I would have.
The Prisoner at Yale Rep (Nov. 2-17). Why? It’s a US Premiere and it’s directed by Peter Brook. Need I say more?
Ripcord at Seven Angels (Nov. 8 – Dec. 2). This comedy about elderly roommates is on my list primarily because playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has written such interesting plays including Rabbit Hole which I loved.
Good Faith at Yale Rep (Feb. 1-23). I’m ambivalent about this world premiere which is based on the case some New Haven firefighters brought claiming civil rights violations. It could be just talking heads, but I hope playwright Karen Hartman can make it much more.
The Touring Shows
Hamilton at the Bushnell (Dec. 11-30). Who wouldn’t circle this show in RED???
Come from Away at the Bushnell (April 30-May 5). It would have won the Tony except for Dear Evan Hansen, it began at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals and it is well done. I enjoy the music and the story.
Lion King at the Bushnell (closed Aug. 16) – Amazingly I had never seen it. The concept and execution was terrific, but once is enough.
These selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!
By Karen Isaacs
When I first saw The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Hartford Stage in 2016, I was touched and totally immersed in this one-woman play. Seeing it again, I not only felt the same, but I felt the story of a young girl’s survival during WWII even more deeply.
Why? Perhaps it is the times we are currently living in – more incivility to each other, more hatred of those who are different from us, more turning away from those in need. Also the performance by Mona Golabek, the author, has deepened and become more alive.
For this is a story of a talented pianist, a teenage Jewish girl, who is one of the lucky ones to get out of Austria in 1938, who manages to survive in London and who becomes a concert pianist. It is reminder of how the arts – too often considered “frivolous expenditures” by schools and government, help the soul to survive.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a one-person play. Too often such shows rely on contrivance – a phone rings, someone is at an unseen door — to try to bring other people into what is basically someone telling us a story. In this case, the play was based on a book by the performer, who is not a professional actress. She is a concert pianist though she has been the subject of several documentaries and has hosted a radio program.
Yet both this story and this performance — which includes classical music — is compelling.
The story is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane that was co-authored by Mona Golabek. Her mother, Lisa Jura was a 14 year-old Viennese piano student in 1938 as the Nazis were tightening the restrictions on Jews in Austria. She has dreamed of making her concert debut playing the Grieg piano concerto, but her teacher is prohibited from teaching Jewish students. Lisa’s father has secured one ticket for the Kindertransport — the train that took Jewish children out of Nazi territory often to England and the parents select her — rather than her two sisters — to escape. At the train station, her mother tells her to “hold onto her music.”
We hear about Lisa’s journey to London — her cousin who was supposed to take her in but cannot — and her stay as a seamstress at a fine house outside of London. When she is told that no-one is allowed to play the piano, she packs and leaves arriving in London with no place to stay and no money. The Jewish Refugee Office places her in a youth home/hostel for young refugees on Willesden Lane. There she meets other teenage girls and boys who have also escaped. She works in a sewing factory but manages to play the piano, teaching herself. Her letters to her parents and sisters return marked as undeliverable. It is 1944.
And soon the implausible happens. The house mother sees a notice announcing auditions for the Royal Academy of Music. Lisa is urged to apply and her friends at the house help her prepare. The miracle is that she is accepted! While at the Academy she plays piano in a hotel where servicemen relax.
After the war, she is reunited with her two sisters. She goes to America, marries the French resistance fighter she had met while at the Academy, and later teaches her daughter, Mona, to play the piano.
As the play opens, Mona addresses the audience and tells us she will be telling her mother’s story. But from there on, she IS her mother. She manages a touch of a German accent, she transforms herself into a teenage girl, and she also becomes some of the other characters in her story. She intersperses the story with excerpts of the music that kept Lisa’s soul alive during the dark years — Beethoven, Chopin, the Grieg piano concerto and more. They remind us of the power of music for the soul.
Hershey Felder adapted the book and has directed this piece. Felder has previously performed at Hartford Stage in his one man show George Gershwin Alone and has also written one-person shows about other composers as well as composed classical music. He obviously has worked with Mona — and sent her to a fine acting coach — on her performance and it shows. As director and adaptor he has kept the story focused and touching, helping it to build to the climax of V-E Day.
He is ably assisted by a fine scenic design (Trevor Hay and Felder) which features several areas for performing as well as three large gold frames. Those are filled with photos and film by projection designers Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal. Jason Bieber has lit the piece well. Kudos to sound designer Erik Carstensen for his fine sound design; the piano is sufficiently loud and he has add appropriate sound effects that help us visualize the events we are hearing about.
You are bound to be touched by the last minutes of the 90-minute, intermissionless play. It reinforces the resiliency of the human spirit and the will to survive.
The Pianist of Willesden Lane is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through July 22. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
The world premiere of Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence and a revised version of the musical Rags from Goodspeed Musicals took top honors at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Monday, June 11. (Complete list of nominees and winners).
The event, which celebrated the work from the state’s professional theaters during the 2017-18 season, was held at Westport Country Playhouse.
Among area theaters, Ivoryton received nine nominations for five different productions (West Side Story, Million Dollar Quartet, Saturday Night Fever, The Game’s Afoot and The Fantasticks).Connecticut native, Cory Candelet tied for outstanding featured actor in a musical for his performance as the Mute in The Fantasticks. He shared the award with Matt Faucher for his performance as Jud in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma!
Goodspeed received 14 nominations and four awards including Faucher, outstanding production of a musical, Samantha Massell for her leading role in Rags and Kelli Barclay for choreography in Will Rogers’ Follies.
Awards for outstanding actors in a musical went to Samantha Massell in Goodspeed’s Rags and Jamie LaVerdiere in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of 1776.
Awards for outstanding actors in a play went to Reg Rogers in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People and Isabelle Barbier in Playhouse on Park’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Top directing awards went to Terrence Mann for CRT’s 1776 and Ezra Barnes for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Outstanding ensemble award went to TheaterWorks’ production of The Wolves; the debut award went to Megan O’Callaghan for The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home, both at Music Theatre of Connecticut. The outstanding solo honor was awarded to Elizabeth Stahlmann for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded.
Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director for Goodspeed Musicals, received the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater from Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton, a producer at Goodspeed.
Receiving special awards were New London’s Flock Theatre for its production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Monte Cristo Cottage (O’Neill’s childhood home); the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of Constellations.
The outstanding featured actress award in a musical award went to Jodi Stevens for Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s Singin’ in the Rain. The award for outstanding featured actors in a play went to Peter Francis James for Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Romeo and Juliet, and to Judith Ivey for Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere of Fireflies.
Design awards went to Fitz Patton for sound and Matthew Richards for lighting for Westport Country Playhouse’s Appropriate; Linda Cho for costumes for Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence; Yana Birykova for projections for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded and David Lewis, for set design for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks, presided over the event.
Shore Publication writers Amy Barry and Frank Rizzo co-chaired the event.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.
By Karen Isaacs
Do you realize how many professional theatrical productions are seen in Connecticut each year? What would be your guess?
With the ending of the Connecticut theater season which runs from about June 1 to May 31, I attempted to count up the shows. I know I missed some. But including all the professional theaters (those that have some type of contract from Equity the actors’ union) plus the productions seen at the major “presenting” houses such as the Shubert, Bushnell and Palace in Waterbury – the total astounded me.
In all, you could see a professional production for 100+ nights a year. And that didn’t include the “workshop” performances at Goodspeed-Chester, the O’Neill Center and other places.
If you want to consider just the regional theaters – it numbers 70+ productions. (By the way, I saw about 75 percent of these, plus some others). So I was sitting in a theater in Connecticut at least 60+ evenings.
My favorites? Everyone’s list will be different. Mine includes plays that were thought-provoking or challenging. But my list also includes plays that were just pure fun. I’ve broken them down into a list of my “best” plays and “musicals”. These aren’t in any particular order. Some are by playwrights that I am very familiar with and others by playwrights new to me.
My Favorite Productions of Plays
Hartford Stage gave me three productions that I thoroughly enjoyed and would gladly see again. A Lesson from Aloes by Athol Fugard is a play that I saw first at Yale and found it brilliant. This production directed by Darko Tresnjak was equally so – thought-provoking, beautifully designed and marvelously acted. For sheer fun, nothing could be better than Tresnjak’s direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opened the season. The direction of the Mechanicals’ production was the best I’ve ever seen. And in the middle was the McCarter Theatre’s production of Murder on the Orient Express. Stylish and delightful. Another production I would gladly see again was Grounded at Westport Country Playhouse last July. This one woman show is about a military pilot who is reassigned to operating drones over Iraq from the US. And Playhouse on Park gave Connecticut theater goers a magnificent production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Some plays were very good, but for one reason or another had something missing. Fireflies at Long Wharf was a charming, sweet play that is blessed with an outstanding cast. I’m not convinced that it would as enjoyable in the hands of lesser actors. Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Dennis Ardnt made this work. I also thoroughly enjoyed Seder at Hartford Stage, though some of my critic friends hated it. The questions it raised were fascinating and Mia Dillon was fabulous.
Also in this group would be The Game’s Afoot at Ivoryton which was silly, light but just fun, Noises Off at the Summer Series at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, The Chosen at Long Wharf, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3 at Yale Rep and Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage. Boyd Gaines was magnificent.
Some productions miss the mark – it may be a great idea that isn’t quite developed completely, or it wanders off topic, or the director or actors make some erroneous decisions. Or the play may not be that good, but one or two performances make it enjoyable.
Luckily most of the time, even if that happens there are elements that still make the production worth seeing.
But sometimes, to me the production seems so misguided in so many ways, that it disappoints me. This season there were a few that fit that description. Often my fellow critics disagree with me. Yale’s production of Enemy of the People was just such a production. I felt that both the director (James Bundy) and the leading actor (Reg Rogers) were totally off the mark. Office Hours at Long Wharf was a play that I felt didn’t really work on many levels.
My Favorite Productions of Musicals
I didn’t think there were really any outstanding musical productions this season. By that I mean productions where the work itself and all elements of the production hit the mark. Most had flaws of some kind.
Many productions were very good. Ivoryton Playhouse has shown it is capable of presenting very good productions. This season I thought Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story and The Fantasticks were all very good.
MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) has shown that a very small theater (under 120 seats) and an awkward playing area can be made to work for mid-sized musicals. Kevin Connor did a great job directing both The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home. The Summer Series at Connecticut Rep did a very good Newsies.
Goodspeed is held to a very high standard – it has wowed us so many times, that we expect perfection in each production. This year, it may have not have been perfection, but it was very, very good.
Rags was a major project: Taking a musical that had failed and working together with the composer and lyricist and a new book writer, to completely reshape the show. Characters were deleted, others added, major plot points changed, new songs written and lyrics revised for other songs. Working with the team was director Rob Ruggiero. This story of turn of the 20th century Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan, still isn’t perfect, but the show was done very well and was much improved.
Goodspeed also presented the classic Oklahoma! Again a very good production that I felt missed the mark in some ways.
The Big Theater Stories So Far This Year
Two major theatrical stories hit even the national press. The first was the firing of Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein after allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Later this spring, Darko Tresnjak announced he will leave Hartford Stage at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. This wasn’t a total surprise. While at Hartford, he had not only produced excellent theater but won a Tony award, directed two new Broadway musicals and was increasingly in demand.
Just as one theater season ends, another begins. I’m already marking my calendar for the shows that I’m most anticipating.
(Revised from a press release)
Hartford Stage’s world premiere of “The Age of Innocence” and Goodspeed’s “Oklahoma!” led the shows nominated for the 28th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. Yale Rep’s production of “Native Son,” Goodspeed’s production of “Rags,” and “Diary of Anne Frank” at Playhouse on Park also received numerous nominations.
The awards event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, will be held Monday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Westport Country Playhouse. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks holiday comedy perennial “Christmas on the Rocks,” will be masters of ceremony for the event which is free and open to the public.
“The Age of Innocence” earned eight nominations, including outstanding play, director and lead actor and three featured actresses, costumes and lighting while “Oklahoma!” received a total of seven nods, including best musical, director, lead actress and actor and featured actress and actor and choreography.
Other outstanding play nominees are: Yale Repertory Theater’s productions of “An Enemy of the People” and “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3.” Other nominees included Long Wharf Theatre’s “The Chosen” and the world premiere of “Fireflies” and West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Also earning outstanding musical nods are Goodspeed’s “Rags,” Connecticut Repertory Theater’s “1776,” Seven Angels Theatre’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “Fun Home,” Music Theater of Connecticut.
Receiving the annual Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement in Connectiocut theater will be Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director at Goodspeed Musicals.
Receiving special awards this year are New London’s Flock Theater for its production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home of Eugene ONeill; the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of “Constellations.”
Receiving an award for solo performance will be Elizabeth Stahlmann who starred in Westport Country Playhouse’s “Grounded.”
Other nominees are:
Actor in a play: Reg Rogers, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jerod Haynes, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jamison Stern, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks; Boyd Gaines, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Daniel Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Actress in a play: Jackie Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre; Isabelle Barbier, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Mia Dillon, “Seder,” Hartford Stage; Jane Alexander, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cecelia Riddett, “The Revisionist,” Playhouse on Park.
Actor in a musical: Jamie LaVerdiere, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Rhett Guter, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Jim Schubin, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; David Pittsinger, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Michael Notardonato, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Actress in a musical: Samantha Massell, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Mia Pinero, “West Side Story,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Juliet Lambert Pratt, “The Bridges of Madison County,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Samantha Bruce, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Annabelle Fox, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Director of a play: James Bundy, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Seret Scott, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ezra Barnes, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Eric Ort, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Doug Hughes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage.
Director of a musical: Terrence Mann, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Jenn Thompson, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Kevin Connors, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Rob Ruggiero, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Brian Feehan, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Choreography: Katie Spelman, “Oklahoma! ,” Goodspeed Musicals; Christopher d’Amboise, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Kelli Barclay, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Todd L. Underwood, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse
Ensemble: Cast of “Avenue Q” (Weston Chandler Long, James Fairchild, Ashley Brooke, Peej Mele, E J Zimmerman, Abena Mensah-Bonsu and Colleen Welsh ), Playhouse on Park; Cast of “The Wolves” (Shannon Keegan, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien, Carolyn Cutillo, Emily Murphy, Caitlin Zoz, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman, Karla Gallegos, Megan Byrne), TheaterWorks; Cast of “The Chosen” (Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz) Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “The Game’s Afoot” (Erik Bloomquist, Victoria Bundonis, Molly Densmore, Katrina Ferguson, Michael Iannucci, Craig MacDonald, Maggie McGlone-Jennings, Beverly J. Taylor), Ivoryton Playhouse.
Featured actor in a play: James Cusati-Moyer, “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre;
Peter Francis James, “Romeo and Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Tom Pecinka, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Dan Hiatt, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jason Bowen, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre
Featured actress in a play: Judith Ivy, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Darrie Lawrence, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Carly Polistina, “The Crucible,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Sierra Boggess, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Helen Cespedes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage
Featured actor in a musical: Matt Faucher, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Joe Callahan, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Sean MacLaughlin, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; David Garrison, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Cory Candelet, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Features actress in a musical: Jodi Stevens, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Gizel Jimenez, “Oklahoma!” Goodspeed Musicals; Nora Fox, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Megan O’Callaghan, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Kimberly Immanuel, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Projection design: Yana Birykova, “Grounded,”Westport Country Playhouse; Luke Cantarella, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Wladimiro A. Woyno R., “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre.
Set design: Emona Stoykova, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Alexander Dodge, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Andrew Boyce, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; David Lewis, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Martin Scott Marchitto, “The Fantasticks.” ,Ivoryton Playhouse
Costume design: Linda Cho, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals’ Linda Cho, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Joshua Pearson, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Fabian Fidel Aguilar, “Romeo & Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Leon Dobkowski, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks.
Lighting design: Ben Stanton, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Michael Chybowski, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Stephen Strawbridge, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Matthew Richards, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,”Yale Repertory Theatre.
Sound design: Frederick Kennedy, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Kate Marvin, “Grounded,” Westport Country Playhouse; Fitz Patton; “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Jane Shaw, “A Lesson from Aloes,” Hartford Stage; Robert Kaplowitz, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Debut: Shannon Keegan, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Megan O’Callaghan, “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Noah Kierserman, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre.
DIRECTIONS: Westport Country Playhouse is at 25 Powers Court in Westport, just off Route (Exits 17 or 18 off I-91 brings you to Rt. 1.) www.westportplayhouse.org.
By Karen Isaacs
Athol Fugard, the South African playwright has the ability to illuminate universal issues in a way that is both personal and touching.
His A Lesson from Aloes which is getting a stunning production at Hartford Stage through Sunday, June 10 is just one example of this talent.
I first saw Aloes at its U.S. premiere at Yale Rep in 1980 before it went on to Broadway where it garnered a number of awards and nominations.
At that time, I found it a thought-provoking and a deeply disturbing play. When Hartford Stage announced it was closing the season with Aloes (originally a different Fugard play had been announced), I wondered if my recollections would be reinforced.
Let me say immediately, that they were. This play is everything a good play should be. It has characters that you come to care about, it brings to our minds issues that are universal, and you will walk out of the theater thinking and feeling.
While Fugard provides in the text all the background you absolutely must know, like many of earlier plays, this deals with Apartheid in South Africa and the repressive governmental regime. He says he began the play in the early ‘60s and after sporadic work on it, abandoned it in the early ‘70s only to have it return to him in the later ‘70s. It had its world premiere in 1978.
Apartheid, which was institutionalized in 1948, was a system of strict racial segregation with all residents being classified as “White,” “Asian” (Indian or Pakistani in heritage), “Coloured” (bi-racial) or “African” (Black Africans). “Africans” were forced to move from their homes to what were called “homelands” and strict segregation was enforced between each of the groups. “Africans” needed a “passbook” to travel into non-African areas. Contact between the groups was minimized so that even friendships were illegal.
Remember that South Africa had first been colonized by the Dutch, (called Boers or “Afrikaners”) and later the British. The Boer War between two Boer states and the British colony in 1899-1902 was over the control of gold mines. The British ultimately won (Winston Churchill’s reporting on the war and escape from capture, made his name in England). The result was the creation of an independent dominion of Great Britain as the Union of South Africa.
By the early 1960s, various protests had been held against the system but quashed by the government who used imprisonment, torture, banning (a method of forcing no contact with the individual), and other methods.
Aloes is set in Port Elizabeth which had seen numerous protests against apartheid, including multiple bus boycotts.
Piet is an Afrikaner but one who has joined the protest movement. He and his wife, Gladys who is of English descent, live a lower middle class life. He seems to have nothing to do but focus on his newest hobby — aloes, those plants that look somewhat like cacti and survive in the arid, hot environment near Port Elizabeth.
As the play opens he is trying to identify a mystery aloe, while his wife sits in the sun staring ahead. It is late afternoon and they are expecting visitors for supper: Piet’s friend Steve with his wife and four children. Piet after leaving a failing farm had been a bus driver and one day, during a bus boycott had abandoned his bus and listened to the protestors. Steve was speaking.
Though quiet, Gladys seems unsettled; something appears “not quite right with her.” The idea of guests rattles her.
As the act progress through the interactions of these two people, we learn so much more. That Steve had been “banned” and had broken the banning order by attending a party where he was arrested and jailed. That after the party, the security police searched Piet and Gladys’ house; they discovered diaries that Gladys had been keeping for years and confiscated them.
It isn’t until act two that Steve arrives, without his wife and children. He is leaving South Africa in a week to live in Britain. The inhospitable atmosphere has made it impossible for him to flourish and he fears his children would face the same future.
This triangle of backgrounds and points of view all share one thing: they have each been perhaps fatally wounded by the political repression and actions of the government.
Piet is viewed by some of his political colleagues as possibly the informer that let the police know that Steve would be at the party. He says he can make the case that any of the attendees were the one.
Gladys had a nervous breakdown following the confiscation of her diaries and feels her very privacy violated. She was hospitalized and underwent electric shock treatment.
Steve see no alternative but to leave his country, despairing that change will ever happen. [It took until 1994 for the apartheid system to finally end though it had been modified in the ‘80s.]
Each in his or her way is like the aloes that were able to survive in the environment. As Piet says, “we all need survival mechanisms” and the aloes have survived. Gladys though wants more than just to survive; she would readily follow Steve’s path and relocate to England but Piet is an Afrikaner through and through. Like the aloes he will not give up.
In this domestic drama, Fugard manages to explore the issues of how humans adapt and survive; the various mechanisms we use to convince ourselves that either we can change things or that things will change or that we can survive. The three characters have faced issues of trust and commitment to each other, to the country of their birth and to their principles. The ability to trust others has been shaken to the core.
Of the three, Gladys, played beautifully by Andrus Nichols, is the most complex. It might be due to the mental illness brought on by the raid and the idea that some anonymous men are reading her private diaries OR by deep seated anger and resentment with Piet and his ability to go on without acknowledging the situation. Put she is the instigator of some of the more explosive conversation with both her husband and with him and Steve. In some ways, she sees things more clearly that Piet.
Ariyon Bakare’s Steve is a simmering volcano. You wait for him to explode with rage at his situation – having been persecuted, jailed, discriminated against and now, seeing no recourse but to abandon his home. It isn’t been the first time he has been forced out; he and his father had to leave their home for the newly established “homelands” far from the sea where his father loved to fish. That he suspects Piet is no surprise.
But it is Randall Newsome (Piet) who with a minimum of movement and controlled emotions is the center of this piece. Newsome projects a quiet dignity and sense of self that is both admirable and, to Gladys, infuriating. Is he the idealist? Or is he blind to realities?
Director Darko Tresnjak, who immigrated to America with his mother when he was 10 from the repressive Communist Yugoslavia (now Serbia), certainly must have an understanding of what fear can do to people. He has said he believed this play had particular relevance for the current world situation. It is not difficult to see what he means.
Adding to his powerful direction – he uses stillness to maximum effect, he is aided by superb lighting by Matthew Richards which often focus our attention on the aloes – those stubborn, determined to survive plants. The sound design by Jane Shaw occasionally punctures the silence with reminders of the world outside.
Some may find A Lesson from Aloes to talky and slow moving.
But for me, it is a thought-provoking exploration of how different individuals cope with their environment and, like the aloes, learn to survive.
For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage through May 6 is a stunning production. Yet, just like the characters, it is at times so controlled that real emotion is difficult to find.
Douglas McGrath has taken Edith Wharton’s novel of constricted high society in New York City in the 1870s and condensed it to 100 minutes. By focusing on specific scenes with little connection between them, at times it feels episodic and lacks flow. It also seems more difficult for the actors to develop their characters fully. It is like you are “dropping in” for a few minutes before leaving.
In some ways he and director Doug Hughes have tried to solve the problem with “the Old Gentleman” who serves as a narrator. He is actually the older version of the hero of the play.
Newland Archer is a young lawyer from a family well connected and a member of New York “high society”, what was sometimes known as “the 400.” He is engaged to be married to May Welland, the very conventional daughter of another wealthy society family. But before the marriage can take place – May insists on a year’s engagement – he meets her unconventional cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska who has returned to the City after leaving her husband and perhaps having a dalliance. All of society is horrified by her rejection of their rules and expectations, trying to ostracize her until one of the most prominent families declares that they can’t turn their backs on “one of their own.” Newland finds her both exciting and interesting as he meets her and later is assigned some legal work for her. Yet he goes through with the marriage to May which turns out to be as routine, predictable and dull as he had realized during the engagement. New things, new experiences, doing something different are all anathema to May.
With the Countess still in New York, the two are thrown together often both socially and because of the legal complications of her life. The relationship develops and both acknowledge their mutual attraction. He has even decided to run away with the Countess, who is returning to Europe (but not her husband) before May thwarts it.
The picture of society that Wharton and McGrath paint is damming. These are people who live by a strict set of rules that they have created about how one should behave, what is moral or not, and what is proper. They do not hesitate to ostracize any who violate them in even the slightest way, while viewing themselves as superior to all others, as shown by their causal prejudice and bigotry. They are snobs of the worst type.
That’s what makes most the characters so problematic; they lack any empathy or compassion, are smug in their certainty of their beliefs and feel they are the true leaders of not only society but also the country, or they should be.
So much of this production is excellent. The setting by John Lee Beatty is outstanding. It looks like a glass enclosed conservatory from the Victorian era replete with crystal chandeliers. It recalls a greenhouse or hot house where rare blooms are cultivated protected from any outside elements. A perfect metaphor for the society.
Add to that exquisite Victorian costumes by Linda Cho complete with bustles, boning and trains. No wonder the ladies had “the vapors” – they couldn’t take a deep breath. Add to that Ben Stanton’s fine lighting design.
Hughes makes good use of the piano at the back of the set; Yan Li is at the keyboard to provide background music – some of it recognizable and other parts written by Mark Bennet who also did the sound design. It is a perfect touch.
Boyd Gaines is magnificent as “the old gentleman.” He injects some humor as he mocks his younger self, empathy for the characters, and helps us understand these people. When he exits the stage, it hard not to feel pity for him and want to reach out to him.
Sierra Boggess plays the flamboyant countess who may be unconventional but seems to have the most developed sense of conscience and of proper behavior than any of the others. It’s a showy role and Boggess makes the most of it.
Andrew Veenstra plays Newland Archer, the very proper and conflicted young lawyer. Due to the unconnected short scenes, he has difficulty letting us really know this contradictory young man who begins to want to rebel against the expectations of the society.
Helen Cespedes plays Mae. She gives us hint that Mae has more cunning and awareness than we might think. It’s a difficult and unsympathetic role as she is so unwilling to break any convention.
Director Doug Hughes – would he please come back to Connecticut as an artistic director – sets a mood that doesn’t try to make these people easier to like than they are. He also stresses how contained they are in refusing to show emotions; these are people that you might characterize as “cold fish.”
Age of Innocence could be thought of us an “American” Masterpiece Theater drama. Certainly any who have seen “Downton Abby,” or the earlier “Forsyth Saga,” or the dramatization of the novels of Anthony Trollop or William Thackery will recognize these people.
For tickets visit Hartford Stage.
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.
By Karen Isaacs
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.
You 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
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
This 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
This 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
David 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
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
How 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
Wolves 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
Sometimes 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.
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
My 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
This 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
The 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
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
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
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 at Ivoryton
This production had many more plusses – Mia Pinero as Maria, Natalie Madion as Anita, good direction by Todd L. Underwood – than minuses.
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