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.
By Karen Isaacs
Lettice & Lovage is a play with a “cute” and confusing title that somehow reflects the play itself. Its current production at Westport Country Playhouse (through June 17) shows what is best in the play and also its weaknesses.
The original production of the play by Peter Shaffer (Amadeus, Equus and more) starred two of the great actresses of the British stage: the better known Dame Maggie Smith (as Lettice) and Margaret Tyzack. It was a tour de force for Maggie Smith.
Lettice Duffet is an eccentric older woman of limited means. The play opens with her giving a tour of one England’s National Trust properties, the very dull Fustian Manor House. Not much happened there except that Queen Elizabeth I almost fell down the stairs. The house itself is not very interesting either. The tourists are bored. But in a series of brief scenes, we see Lettice slowly expand on the facts about the house until they are scarcely recognizable. Each time we see the stories become more dramatic (to the point of impossibility) and additional stories appear. Of course, some tourists find her loose regard for the facts disturbing.
The personnel officer of the Trust visits and observes one of the more dramatic tellings of the house’s stories. Lettice is called on the carpet. But she doesn’t arrive in Charlotte Schoen’s office (another older, single woman) chastened or apologetic. Lettice is her own flamboyant self. She continually derails the conversation with stories of her mother, an actress who translated Shakespeare into French and toured the French countryside with a troupe of all women.
Nevertheless she is fired.
After the intermission (Acts 2 and 3 are combined), Lotte shows up at Lettice’s basement flat (equally flamboyant). Something Lettice had said about older women, has struck a chord with Lotte. She comes to offer the possibility of a job as a tour guide on one of London’s tourist boats. Lettice insists they toast with a liquor she has made from lovage (an edible member of the parsley family used in Elizabethan times.) The two women drink quite a bit and each reveals something about her life. Lotte had studied architecture and had been in love with an engineering student; they had planned on blowing up one of the examples of 1950s architecture which they viewed as particularly horrendous. They even called themselves the E.N.D. (Eyesore Negation Detachment). But she backed out and the romance ended. She was so upset, she failed her exams and instead became a personnel officer.
By the time we get to the third act, it is months later and Lotte and Lettice have become fast friends; except Lettice is charged with trying to murder Lotte. I’ll not spoil the scene with giving you the details of what happened, why or how.
It ends with the two of them going into the tour business: conducting tours of the most hideous examples of modern architecture.
Even with a last minute illness that forced a change in the central role, Mark Lamos has cast this excellently and directed deftly. But even he can’t overcome some of the problems.
First is that the play seems just too long and with too much talk. It is under two and half hours but it seems longer. The night I saw it, the production started late and the intermission seemed overly long. Still we were out of the theater by 10:20 (for an 8 pm show).
Why does it seem long? It’s just that each scene and each idea is over-talked.
So let us turn to the plusses of this production. Certainly some of the idea that Shaffer focuses on are still very current. Older women (and men) often have difficulty finding employment. Older women’s economic circumstances are more limited and precarious than men’s. Must of the architecture of the last 70 years is particularly graceless: huge concrete squares and rectangles often replacing much interesting older buildings. Prince Charles made a controversial speech in which referred to some of the post-WW II buildings as monstrous carbuncles.
But these ideas get lost in the extraneous activities of the eccentric Lettice and soon, Lotte.
Kandi Chappell stepped into the daunting role of Lettice late in the rehearsals after medical issue cause the original actress to withdraw; she will be fine. She has done a splendid job with a very long part that requires panache. She has it. Mia Dillon gives one of her regularly fine performances as Lotte. You see her liberate herself in so many ways.
Paxton Whitehead almost steals the entire show with a brief appearance as Lettice’s lawyer who must defend her on the attempted murder charge. It is hilarious, as you see him try to understand what went on and what is going on.
John Arnone has given us set that conveys the inner character of Lotte, Lettice and Faustian House. Jane Greenwood must have had a great time designing Lettice’s eccentric costumes.
Overall, Lettice and Lovage gives you fine performances in a play that you may find very enjoyable or a little long, depending on your mood.
It is at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. For tickets call 203-227-4177 or visit Westport Country Playhouse.
TheaterWork’s production of the musical “Next to Normal” led the nominations for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards event to be held Monday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield.
The show received a total of 10 nominations, including best musical. Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s play “The Invisible Hand” led the non-musicals, receiving seven nominations, including outstanding play.
Other outstanding play nominees are: “The Comedy of Errors” at Hartford Stage; “Mary Jane” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Scenes From Court Life” at Yale Repertory Theatre and “Midsummer” at TheaterWorks.
Also nominated for outstanding musical are: “Assassins” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Bye Bye Birdie” at Goodspeed Opera House, “Man of La Mancha” at Ivoryton Playhouse and “West Side Story” at Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
The awards show, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public.
Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be the master of ceremonies for the event. Mann joined the Connecticut theater community this year as artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
Last year’s top honorees — Yale Repertory Theatre’s play “Indecent” and Hartford Stage’s musical “Anastasia” — are currently on Broadway.
Also receiving special awards this year are James Lecesne for his work using theater as a way to connect with LGBT youths in works such as his solo show “The Absolute Brightness off Leonard Pelkey,” which was presented this spring at Hartford Stage, and Paxton Whitehead, for his longtime career in theater, especially in Connecticut
Receiving the Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement is Paulette Haupt, who is stepping down after 40 years from her position as founding artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
Other nominees are:
Actor in a play: Jordan Lage, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tom Pecinka, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Michael Doherty, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; Eric Bryant, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; M. Scott McLean, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks.
Actress in a play: Semina DeLaurentis, “George & Gracie,” Seven Angels Theatre; Emily Donahoe, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ashlie Atkinson, “Imogen Says Nothing,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Vanessa R. Butler, “Queens for a Year,” Hartford Stage; Rebecca Hart, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks
Actor in a musical: Robert Sean Leonard, “Camelot,” Westport Playhouse; Riley Costello, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; David Harris, “Next To Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Pittsinger, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Zach Schanne, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Actress in a musical: Ruby Rakos, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Christiane Noll, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Julia Paladino, “West Side Story.” Karen Ziemba, “Gypsy, Sharon Playhouse; Talia Thiesfield, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Director of a play: Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; David Kennedy, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Marc Bruni, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tracy Brigden, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks; Gordon Edelstein, “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Director of a musical: Rob Ruggiero, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Edwards, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Melody Meitrott Libonati, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Jenn Thompson, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kevin Connors, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk.
Choreography: Denis Jones, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Chris Bailey, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Doug Shankman, West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Patricia Wilcox, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Darlene Zoller, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.
Ensemble: Cast of “Smart People,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “Trav’lin’ ” at Seven Angels Theatre; cast of “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre; cast of “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; cast of “The 39 Steps” at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Debut performance: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Dylan Frederick, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Nick Sacks, “Next to Normal, TheaterWorks.
Solo Performance: Jodi Stevens, “I’ll Eat You Last,” Music Theater of Connecticut; Jon Peterson, “He Wrote Good Songs,” Seven Angels Theatre.
Featured actor in a play: Jameal Ali, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Andre De Shields, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Cleavant Derricks, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Steve Routman, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Paxton Whitehead, “What the Butler Saw,” Westport Country Playhouse
Featured actress in a play: Miriam Silverman, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Rachel Leslie, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Mia Dillon, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Christina Pumariega, “Napoli, Brooklyn,” Long Wharf Theatre
Featured actor in a musical: Mark Nelson, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theatre; Edward Watts, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; John Cardoza, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jonny Wexler, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Rhett Guter, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Michael Wartella, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House
Featured actress in a musical: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jodi Stevens, “Gypsy,” “Music Theater of Connecticut; Katie Stewart, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Kristine Zbornik, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kate Simone, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut.
Set design: Colin McGurk, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Michael Yeargan, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theater; Wilson Chin, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Adam Rigg, “The Invisible Hand,” “Westport Country Playhouse; Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage.
Costume design: Ilona Somogyi, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Marina Draghici, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theater; Fabio Toblini, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Gregory Gale, “Thorough Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Lisa Steier, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.
Lighting design: Matthew Richards, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; John Lasiter, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Matthew Richards, “Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Christopher Bell, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” Playhouse on Park, Hartford.
Sound design: Jane Shaw, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Fan Zhang, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Shane Rettig, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Karen Graybash, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Fitz Patton, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse.
2017 Nominations List
Outstanding Solo Performance
Jodi Stevens I’ll Eat You Last MTC
Jon Peterson He Wrote Good Songs 7 Angels
Maya Kelcher (Natalie) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Dylan Frederick Assassins Yale Rep
Nick Sacks Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Cast of… Smart People Long Wharf
Cast of… Trav’lin 7 Angels
Cast of… Meteor Shower Long Wharf
Cast of… Assassins Yale
Cast of… The 39 Steps Ivoryton
Michael Commendatore Assassins Yale
Jane Shaw Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Fan Zhang Seven Guitars Yale
Shane Retig Scenes From Court Life Yale
Karin Graybash Piano Lesson Hartford Stage
Fitz Patton Invisible Hand Westport
Outstanding Costume Design
Ilona Somogyi Heartbreak House Hartford Stage
Marina Draghici Scenes from Court Life Yale
Lisa Steier Rockin’ the Forest Playhouse on Park
Fabio Toblini Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Gregory Gale Modern Millie Goodspeed
Matthew Richards Invisible Hand Westport
Yi Zhao Assassins Yale
John Lasiter Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Matthew Richards Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Christopher Bell A Moon for the Misbegotten Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Set Design
Colin McGurk Heartbreak House Hartford Stage
Michael Yeargan Most Beautiful Room… Long Wharf
Wilson Chin Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Adam Rigg The Invisible Hand Westport
Darko Tresnjak The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Denis Jones Modern Millie Goodspeed
Chris Bailey Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Doug Shankman West Side Story STONC
Patricia Wilcox Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Darlene Zoller Rockin’ the Forest Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical
Mark Nelson (Carlo) Most Beautiful Room…. Long Wharf
Edward Watts (Trevor) Modern Millie Goodspeed
John Cardoza (Gabe) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Jonny Wexler (Action) West Side Story STONC
Rhett Guter (Birdie) Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Michael Wartella Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical
Maya Keleher (Natalie) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Jodi Stevens (Secretary/Mazeppa) Gypsy MTC
Katie Stewart (Anita) West Side Story STONC
Kristine Zbornik (Mother) Bye, Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Kate Simone (Louise) Gypsy MTC
Outstanding Featured Actress – Play
Miriam Silverman (Brianne/Chaya) Mary Jane Yale
Rachel Leslie (Vera) Seven Guitars Yale
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Ruby) Seven Guitars Yale
Mia Dillon Cloud 9 Hartford Stage
Christina Pumariega (Tina) Napoli, Brooklyn Long Wharf
Outstanding Featured Actor – Play
Jameal Ali (Dar) The Invisible Hand Westport
Andre De Shields Headley) Seven Guitars Yale
Cleavant Derricks Piano lesson Hartford Stage
Steve Routman (Coles) Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Rance) What the Butler Saw Westport
Outstanding Director – Musical
Rob Ruggiero Next to Normal TheaterWorks
David Edwards Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Melody Libonati West Side Story STONC
Jenn Thompson Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Kevin Connors Gypsy MTC
Outstanding Director – Play
Darko Tresnjak The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
David Kennedy The Invisible Hand Westport
Marc Bruni Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Tracy Brigden Midsummer TheaterWorks
Gordon Edelstein Meteor Shower Long Wharf
Outstanding Actor – Musical
Robert Sean Leonard (Arthur) Camelot Westport
Riley Costello (Finch) How to Succeed… CRT
David Harris (Dan) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
David Pittsinger (Don Q) Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Zach Schanne (Tony) West Side Story STONC
Outstanding Actress – Musical
Ruby Rakos (Judy) Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Christiane Noll (Diana) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Julia Paladino (Maria) West Side Story STONC
Karen Ziemba (Rose) Gypsy Sharon Playhouse
Talia Thiesfield (Aldonza) Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Outstanding Actor – Play
Tom Pecinka (Betty/Edward) Cloud 9 Hartford Stage
Michael Doherty (Black Stache) Peter and the… CRT
Eric Bryant (prisoner) Invisible Hand Westport
Jordan Lage (Garfinkle) Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Scott McLean (Bob) Midsummer… TheaterWorks
Outstanding Actress – Play
Emily Donohe Mary Jane Yale
Semina DeLaurentis (Gracie) George & Gracie 7 Angels
Ashlie Atkinson (Imogen) Imogen Says Nothing Yale
Vanessa R. Butler (Solinas) Queens for a Year Hartford Stage
Rebecca Hart (Helena) Midsummer TheaterWorks
Outstanding Production – Musical
Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
West Side Story STONC
Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Outstanding Production – Play
The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Midsummer (a play with songs) TheaterWorks
Scenes From Court Life Yale
The Invisible Hand Westport
Mary Jane Yale