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
Watching actors have a terrific time is a delight for an audience. The cast of The Game’s Afoot now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 19 seems to be having a marvelous time.
You will too, just watching them. Ken Ludwig’s play – billed as a comic thriller – takes us back to those Agatha Christie plays (and movies) that don’t always make a lot of sense but keep you involved right up to the end.
This play is set at Gillette’s Castle, that large residence overlooking the Connecticut River in Hadlyme that is now a state tourist attraction. It was built by the well-known actor William Gillette who adapted Sherlock Holmes stories into plays and then toured throughout the county for years playing the great detective. The success of the role helped fund his eccentric home; he hoped the state would care for the property, when he died in 1937.
By the way, Gillette was a distinguished actor, playwright who had his own stage company, knew Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and also held several patents. It was he who popularized the deerstalker hat which is part any Sherlock Holmes costume.
The play is set in his home on Christmas Eve in the mid-twenties. He lives there with his mother and has invited cast members to spend the holiday with them: the ingénue Aggie and the juvenile, Simon; the older acting couple Madge and Felix; and a gossip columnist, Daria.
The play opens at the end of Gillette’s play; at the curtain call of the play, someone fires a shot which wounds Gillette in the arm. The police have not found the shooter.
So we have a classic set-up. A dark and snow night, an isolated location and a group of people who may have unknown motives.
The ante for the tension is upped when the group learns (Gillette had already heard) that the stage doorman had been killed that morning. What is going on?
Playwright Ken Ludwig prefers to gently spoof this genre of murder mystery rather than play it for chills. Let’s just say that after one of the guests is murdered, there are some funny antics about hiding the body. One of the unique features of the castle comes into play.
But mixed into the fun is romance – Simon and Aggie have secretly married though Gillette had fallen in love with her, there’s marital discord between Madge and Felix, plus a séance led by Daria. She is, of course, the nasty, ambitious gossip columnist who has the dirt on everyone and is willing to use it to get what she wants. During the course of the evening, she wants Felix.
After some amusing bits with the telephone operator, Inspector Goring (a woman!) arrives. It’s difficult to know who is doing the investigating – she or Gillette who strongly identifies with his character Holmes. Let’s just say that there are enough motives, accusations and surprises to keep everyone wondering.
Scenic designer Daniel Nischan has created a spectacular set that will remind you of the Castle, if you have every visited it. He did in fact get to tour it before designing the set. It has stone, medieval architecture as well as knight’s armor, and an assortment of old weapons, some of which come into play.
Jacqueline Hubbard has directed a fine cast who seem as though they are truly enjoying themselves. For the most part, they are playing actors who are never “off-stage” and can be outrageous.
It is hard to pick out just a few cast members to praise. Craig MacDonald plays Gillette as a man who is a leader but is also partly deluded. It’s clear he is an actor who enjoys the limelight. But then there is Michael Iannucci and Katrina Ferguson as Felix and Madge, the older actors with both resentment and envy of Gillette, the “star”. Erik Bloomquist (a two time Emmy winner as a director/writer) infuses Simon with a studied casualness that immediately makes you wary of him. Molly Densmore plays Aggie, the ingénue who is not quite as sweet as she appears. Maggie McGlone-Jennings gives us the slightly deluded Martha, Gillette’s mother.
It was nice to see Beverly J. Taylor, longtime associate at the Playhouse in the extravagant role of Daria. She chews the scenery with the best of them. Then of course there is Victoria Bundonis as the Inspector who reminds you of many Inspectors in English mysteries.
The Game’s Afoot is a thoroughly enjoyable though silly evening in the theater that is being performed with expert timing.
It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 19. For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-787-7318.
By Karen Isaacs
Politics, love, betrayal, power and powerlessness, redemption, coming of age, motherhood. These and more were the subjects of plays submitted for the new Ivoryton Playhouse Women’s Playwright Initative.
Ivoryton Playhouse is undertaking the new program to help women playwrights develop new works. As Jacqui Hubbard, the Playhouse’s artistic director said, developing new plays was “something I always wanted to do.” She added that the typical Ivoryton audience is more comfortable with more familiar works.
The idea of the women’s initiative came because she believed that women often feel a need for empowerment. She had recently met with Laura Copland, a former actress, college professor/administrator and a lawyer who recently relocated to Ivoryton, and discussed ways Copland could become involved. From that meeting, the Women’s Initiative was born.
“We thought it would be a good idea, so we put out a call for submissions through the League of Professional Theatre Women and the call was quickly spread,” she said.
While Hubbard and Copland, the newly appointed director of play development at the Playhouse, expected maybe 20 or 30 submissions and mostly from nearby, they were amazed when 183 scripts arrived. They came from all over the country – and Canada and even one from Israel.
Copeland said she read every single script. In addition to her reading the scripts, a group of actors, other playwrights, directors, critics and other theater professionals were each asked to read between 5 and 20 scripts.
The 183 scripts were finally narrowed down to 14 finalists, Copland said. A final selection committee read the finalists and chose the four plays that will be rehearsed and presented, Friday March 3 and Saturday March 4. The final committee included Copland; Hubbard; Ivoryton box office manager Sue McCann; director, theatre critic and academic Brooks Appelbaum and Margaret McGlone Jennings, a director, teacher and actor.
Due to limitations of time and funding, Huibbad said, there are two one-act plays and two very short plays (10-20 minutes). “We had really almost no money for the expenses of this initiative.” They were unable even to provide travel money for the playwrights to attend; yet, Hubbard said, all four are attending, one from California.
In addition to the subjects mentioned above, Copland said, the submissions dealt with “Beauty, aging, sex, sexuality, the military, need and yearning. The passion rippling through all these works was astonishing. Reading them was a gift.”
This first iteration of the initiative will include one week of rehearsal for each play, workshops for the playwrights plus a semi-stage reading of the work in front of a live audience. In addition, there will be “talk-back” after the performances so the audience can provide more feedback to the playwrights.
Lauren Yarger, critic and co-founder of the newly formed Connecticut chapter of the League of Professional Theater Women, has organized a panel discussion for Saturday, March 4 prior to the evening’s productions. The panel will feature a discussion with the four women whose works were selected for the iniatitive.
Moderating the panel discussion is Shellen Lubin, co-president of the Women in the Arts & Media, as well as vice president for programming for the League of Professional Theater Women. Lubin who has extensive experience as a director, songwriter/playwright, and vocal/acting coach, will be directing one of the plays.
Brooks Appelbaum, PhD who is both a member of the Quinnipiac University English Dept., stage director and theater critic, served on the final selection committee and will direct one of the plays.
She said that of the group of plays she read, some “shared the overtly feminist theme of women who were oppressed. Others were female-centered comedies.” But she added while the themes varied, most contained “strong female characters.”
Directors applied and were selected to direct. Open auditions were held to find actors for the various roles.
Appelbaum will direct Apple Season, one of the two one-act plays presented. The play by Ellen Lewis from California. Copland described the play as “to make arrangements for her father’s funeral, Lissie returns to the family farm she and her brother fled 26 years ago. Billy, a neighbor and school friend, comes by with an offer to buy the farm. As memories, needs and passions are stirred, we learn what happened to the siblings as children, and of Lissie’s startling price for the farm.”
“What immediately drew me to the play was the subtle delicacy with which the playwright handled the plot’s disturbing elements and the beautiful theatricality she employs in revealing, through flashbacks, the characters’ struggles at different ages,” Applebaum said.
She went on to say that this one of the few scripts she read that pulled her in immediately. “I forgot I was reading to assess it; I was completely in the Apple Season world.”
While it is not a finished work, Applebaum said the play “is, to my mind, at the perfect stage for a workshop such as ours. All the important script elements are in place.”
Apple Season will be the longer piece on Friday, March 3. The shorter play is Guenevere by Susan Cinoman. Copland described that play thusly: “Guenevere and Arthur are best friends—a fierce competitor, she always bests him in sword fights. What will be the outcome when confronted with Excalibur in the stone?”
“My play is the first part of a full length play called, Guenevere about a fictional character of my own, inspired by the Arthurian legends. In my play, Guenevere pulls the sword from the stone, and though entitled to the leadership of England, she must overcome many obstacles to try to claim her place,” Cinoman said. “It’s something of a political allegory but also a personal story about love and sacrifice. And comedy.”
Like most of the playwrights attending, Cinemon, who lives in Woodbridge, hopes to get ideas for the play’s development. She has extensive writing credits writing plays, films and for TV (The Goldbergs). The play will be directed by Hannah Simms who works with HartBeat in Hartford.
On Saturday, March 4, the evening will open with Buck Naked by Gloria Bond Clunie directed by Lubin. This works is described: “Two daughters are thrown into a tizzy when they discover, Lily, the 60+ year-old mother has decided to spice up life by tending her backyard garden, au naturel!”
Clunie who is travelling from Illinois, also have extensive credits as well as multiple awards.
The final work will be Intake by Margot Lasher. It is described as “an arrogant young psychiatrist meets and 80 year-old woman for what he assumes will be a routine examination. During the course of their relationship, he comes to realize how little he knows; as she reveals her deep love and understand of her two aging dogs, both doctor and patient learn about life, love and hope.”
Lasher is from Vermont. Her play will be directed by Sasha Batt, literary manager of West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park.
Tickets are available for each evening or a package for both days. Call the box office at 860-767-7318 to book the 2-day pass. Individual evening tickets can be purchased at ivorytonplayhouse.org. Each evening begins at 7 p.m.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06
By Karen Isaacs
Liberace! now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, Nov. 15 is a new play written by Brent Hazelton about the famed entertainer. It is an enjoyable evening in the theater but could use some major cutting.
Much of the credit for the success of the show is due to Daryl Wagner as Liberace and director Jacqueline Hubbard.
With any one-person show, you need a “hook” – why is the character on stage and who is he or she talking to. In this show the premise is that Liberace, who died in 1987, has returned from heaven for one day and is telling us his life story.
Liberace, a native of Milwaukee, was a classically trained pianist who was always interested in entertaining and so turned his talent and his flamboyant personality into a career that made him millions. He had a popular TV show, Vegas shows and concerts. Among his biggest fans were middle aged and older women, who seemed to delight in his sequins, his candelabra, his pearly white smile and his devotion to his mother. In fact, for almost 20 years he was the highest paid performer in show business.
The show opens with a rendition of “Boogy Woogy;” let’s say right off that Wagner is a fine pianist, though like Liberace he can be a little “sloppy” in his playing. He tells us about his youth – his French horn playing father who worshipped classical music and disdained popular music, his early piano training, his meeting with the great pianist Paderewski, and his early jobs (this was the depression) playing in speakeasies and strip joints. He also tells us about his years at the conservatory and the teacher that influenced him. Interspersed are both classical and popular music; sometimes he talks while playing.
On the story goes – how he began to create his stage persona, who he calls “Mr. Entertainer,” then on to LA, Vegas, TV until by the late ‘40s he was one of the best known performers in America.
Of course, there were the problems – whispers that often hit the tabloids that he was gay, at a time when that was career suicide. He won several libel suits against tabloid media, but his career took a nose dive in the late ‘50s though he resurrected it by becoming even more flamboyant.
He continued to thrive with Las Vegas long term contracts and other TV shows as he became more and more outré – hot pants costumes, lavish furs, and more.
In Liberace! he barely discusses his private life. Only towards the end of the show and his life, does he talk a little about “the love of his life” which ended badly.
But it must have been difficult to be Liberace. His persona was stereotypical “gay” – with smiles, winks, a sweet voice, and some double entendres directed at both sexes. At a time when homosexuality was career death, Liberace denied his sexuality – even suing a London paper and winning. When he died in 1987, an autopsy revealed his death was caused by an AIDS-related illness.
Recently, Michael Douglas played Liberace with Matt Damon as Scott Thorson in a well-received HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra. It was based on Thorson’s autobiography; he was Liberace’s chauffeur and lover and had sued him in the 1980s for palimony.
Daryl Wagner stars a Liberace. He certainly has had plenty of experience playing him. In addition to being a composer and pianist, Wagner was actually hired by Liberace to perform in the entertainer’s Tivoli Gardens in Las Vegas. After Liberace’s death, Wagner played him in the Vegas “Legends in Concert” show and later starred in his own Liberace tribute show.
He’s on stage for over two and half hours – never breaking character and playing numerous pieces on the grand piano. He has captured Liberace’s persona, gestures, smiles and winks, and voice. He shows us the “Mr. Entertainer” voice that is an exaggerated version of his own voice. Wagner also does a good job playing a few other characters, though these are very brief.
This Liberace is at times angry: angry at his father for not accepting the showmanship and popular music Liberace preferred, the media for the insinuating stories, and particularly the NYC critics who, until the ‘80s, bashed him whether he was playing at Carnegie Hall or Radio City Music Hall. He is also angry at Thorson and the coroner who decided to do an autopsy on Liberace’s body which confirmed the rumors of AIDS and therefore his sexual orientation.
Hubbard does an excellent job in keeping this over long show moving with effective lighting by Marcus Abbott, scenic design by Daniel Nischan and sound design by Tate R. Burmeister
What about the costumes? Wagner does not do multiple costume changes which would be difficult. Most of the first act he is in a tux and in the second act he is in a dressing gown and later an over-the-top mink coat and sequined tux. But you won’t miss out on some of the elaborate costumes. They are on mannequins – covered until Wagner unveils each of them in turn.
Let’s hope Liberace! is a work in progress. It certainly needs cutting; perhaps some of the musical numbers including a long Gershwin medley near of the end of the show could be shortened or omitted. Certainly, it would help if Liberace could be more honest with the audience about his life. This show is all about, “and now I did this…” It must have been difficult to deal with the innuendos and rumors and knowing his reality.
But it seems as though, he barely acknowledges the realities of his life after his childhood.
Liberace! is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Sunday, Nov. 15. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publilcations and zip06.com