Tag Archives: Rob Ruggiero

“The River” at TheaterWorks is a Puzzle You May Find Interesting Solving

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Jez Butterworth, whose play The River is at TheaterWorks through Sunday, Nov. 11, is one of the “hot” British playwrights and screenwriters.  Jerusalem won plaudits on Broadway, winning multiple awards; Broadway is now awaiting the opening of The Ferryman which won acclaim (and awards) in London last season.

Sometimes I wonder if the emperor is wearing any clothes. I saw The River when it had a limited engagement run on Broadway a few years ago, starring Hugh Jackman. At the time, I felt Jackman’s box office appeal was the reason for its success. It did not get critical acclaim.

But apparently Rob Ruggiero who directed this production loved the ambiguity of it and has now brought it to Hartford. It’s a fine production with very good actors. Ruggiero and the actors make the most of the material in this 70-75 minute play.

Certainly there is ambiguity about almost everything in the play and enough possible symbols and metaphors to keep you puzzling over it for hours. The question remains, is it worth the intellectual effort?

Once again, we have nameless characters – The Woman, The Man, The Other Woman. The play is set in a well-designed (by Brian Prather) cabin that The Man’s family has used as a fishing cabin for years. It’s all wood and natural. The cabin – which shows the back room (probably the bedroom) takes the center of the stage, with tall trees on each side.

It’s clear that The Man has brought The Woman here for a special few days. It is August, there is no moon and it seems that at this time of year the sea trout return to breed. It is the best time to capture them. So we learn that The Man has spent the afternoon teaching The Woman to cast; now she doesn’t want to go to the fishing spot.

We see him return to the cabin and frantically call for help – she is missing! But the woman who returns to the cabin – with a fish is not The Woman but The Other Woman, an earlier woman he had brought to the cabin.

Every time one of the women leaves the stage you can be sure that the other will be the woman to return.

So the questions begin to pile up. Are these the only two women he’s brought there? Why does he bring them there? It seems like well-rehearsed scene with both he and the women repeating the same lines. He tells each there is a box under the bed and something is in it he want to give to each; something he has never shared with anyone. The Woman seems alarmed because she thinks it is a ring – it is obvious that she isn’t that interested in him.

The mood gets eerie when The Woman finds a drawing of a woman in a red dress in the room: her face is scratched out and a red dress is hanging in the closet. The scene is repeated with the earlier Other Woman. So what is going on?

In Ruggiero’s notes in the program, he certainly points out many of the possible meanings and symbols in this play. The metaphor of fly fishing – baiting, hooking, capturing, releasing. The idea of the sea trout (which apparently evolved from river trout) returning each year but instead of dying after procreating, returning to the sea stronger. The ephemeral nature of love which can come and go in an instant.

In fact the characters say lines like “you can’t go back,” “I’m not entirely sure what love is” and more.

You can also wonder if The Other Woman actually exists – is she real, a memory/flashback, a ghost? Is either woman real or figments of his imagination?

In one section, The Man guts a sea trout and cooks it for The Woman. It is a quiet scene with no dialogue just some background music. But why? Is it also a symbol?

Billy Carter plays The Man as more dangerous than Jackman did. You keep wondering what his game is and what he will do next. He may not have Jackman’s charisma (who does?) but his performance is nuanced and solid.

The Woman is played by Andrea Goss. At times she came across as what could be called “a spoiled brat” – you don’t really see why they are attracted and you don’t feel much chemistry between them.

That’s not the case with Jasmine Batchelor as The Other Woman. She seems to have created a fuller character and some real chemistry with The Man.

One of the better parts of the production is the music by Frederick Kennedy which emphasizes both woodlands and the eerie qualities of the play.

How you will rate The River will be a factor of how you interpret the piece and how much you enjoy solving the mysteries.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Many may feel the same about The River. I was not intrigued enough to try to untangle it all. You may be.

The River is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

“Oliver!” at Goodspeed Features a Fine Cast and Terrific Direction

Oliver!

Fagin (Donald Corren) and his gang. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

By Karen Isaacs

 When Oliver! was first produced as a musical, in 1963, it must have seemed paradoxical. The Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist is a typically dark portrait of the conditions in England for the poor, compounded by the impact on small children.

Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, found a way to combine the tawdry and dispiriting world of the poor in London in the 1830s with enough hope and goodness to have theatergoers leave feeling uplifted.

Director Rob Ruggiero has done the same thing with this production of Oliver! now at Goodspeed Musicals through Sept. 13.

Perhaps you have forgotten or never knew the basic plot of the show. Oliver Twist is a young orphan who escapes from a workhouse where food was scarce and love non-existent, into an underworld of pickpockets and worse. But he finds a kind of acceptance from the other boys, the leader, Fagin, and the “head boy,” the artful dodger. He also finds a mother substitute in Nancy, who loves the ruthless Bill Sikes. Oliver’s first attempt at crime goes all wrong yet Mr. Brownlow, a well-to-do gentleman, takes him home. But he is not yet destined for a happy ending. With Fagin and Bill Sikes afraid that Oliver will reveal too much about their activities, they kidnap him and bring back to the group. Yet all ends well, or almost so. Oliver is reunited with Brownlow to anticipate a much happier life.

The novel, which as many Dickens novels were, was actually a newspaper serial, has multiple complications to keep buyers anxiously awaiting the next installment. The musical’s book has been streamlined, removing many of the harrowing events that befall Oliver.

A good production of the show requires that the boy playing Oliver must seem pure of heart and winsome. He must project an inner goodness that will bring out the best and the worst in people. Elijah Raymond almost succeeds in all of this; but somehow his Oliver doesn’t really grab the stage. As too often happens with young singers nowadays, he goes for belting sounds where a softer, gentler tone would make the songs more effective and in character. This was particularly true in the haunting “Where Is Love.”

Also needed are excellent actors in the roles of Fagin, Dodger, Nancy and Bill Sikes. Again, this production mostly succeeds. Donald Corren absolutely rules the stage as Fagin in all of his numbers but particularly in “Reviewing the Situation.” He is truly the star of the show.

Gavin Swartz displays really talent and charm as Dodger, the leader of the gang of pickpockets and a sort of protector of Oliver.

The villain of the play, besides the officials who enforce the horrendous laws governing poor orphans and other poverty people, is Bill Sikes. He is a cruel, almost sadistic killer who has no sympathy or love for anyone, including Nancy. Brandon Andrus doesn’t try to humanize him; he is the epitome of pure evil. He also doesn’t try to make him so over-the-top that he is a caricature; instead he exudes evil through every pore. He may only have one song, “My Name” but his deep baritone makes the most of it.

EJ Zimmerman is less successful as Nancy. She is a complex figure: she is a  “graduate” of Fagin’s “school,” she still leads a criminal life, she loves (and fears) the abusive Sikes, but Oliver brings out her maternal instincts. Zimmerman is very good, but misses excellence. She’s great in the ensemble numbers – “It’s a Fine Life,” “I’d Do Anything,” and the music hall “Oom-Pah-Pah.”  Where she comes up short for me is her first rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me,” the torch song that explains her feelings for Sikes. In that first rendition, she sounds more angry than regretful. In the second act reprise, she conveys the emotions more effectively.

Ruggiero has gathered a talented cast of actors for the smaller roles and directed them so effectively that each creates a wonderful moment or two. James Young as Mr. Brownlow shows us the caring and forgiving side of the world. He is almost the only one. Young creates a character that is both reserved but loving; he too recognizes Oliver’s goodness.

Richard R. Henry and Joy Hermalyn are both funny and disgusting as Mr. Bumble the beadle of the work house and the widow of the workhouse, who has her eyes on him. Jamie LaVerdiere is terrific as Mr. Sowerberry, the owner of the funeral home who “buys” Oliver to serve as a mute mourner at the funeral of children.

As usual with Goodspeed productions, all of the production elements are top notch from the scenic design by Michael Schweikardt, the lighting by John Lasiter, sound by Jay Hilton and the costumers bv Alejo Vietti though those may seem a bit too nice for the level of poverty.

James Gray has infused the show with expressive choreography that makes the most of the small stage.

Ruggiero, who once again, does a terrific job directing this piece and the numerous children in it, has said the show is “about a desire for family, community, class, oppression, facing adversity, change – but at the center of all these things is one little boy, whose innocence and pure soul alters the lives of the many people he encounters.”

Certainly, Ruggiero has brought out all of these elements in his vision of the show especially the desire for community, home and a sense of belonging.

I had just one quibble with his direction. Fagin, the paterfamilias of the gang of pickpockets, has always been controversial. In the original novel, he is Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent. While on stage, this Fagin does nothing to promote that idea, Ruggiero does have him at times followed upstage by a violinist, recalling the violinist in Fiddler on the Roof. I’m not sure why made this choice but I found it both puzzling and at times distracting. Why in the middle of the slums is the fiddler suddenly appearing?

Both you and children (probably eight or older) will have a very good time at Oliver!.

For tickets visit Goodspeed or call 860-873-8668.

Oliver!

EJ Zimmerman as Nancy. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

It’s Pure Fun with TheaterWorks’ “The Legend of Georgia McBride”

By Karen Isaacs

 You will have a laugh-filled, delightful time at The Legend of Georgia McBride now at TheaterWorks through Sunday, April 29. This work by Matthew Lopez has flaws but it also provides a gigantic dose of pure entertainment.

Lopez is an established playwright who has created serious works such The Whipping Man and Reverberation which premiered at Hartford Stage. In this play, he has written a broad comedy.

The basic plot is simple. In the Florida panhandle, a local bar is not doing business with its young Elvis impersonator, Casey. On the home front, his wife, Jo isn’t happy about his lack of responsibility. He used the debit card to buy pizza which caused the rent check to bounce for the second month in a row. Even his friend Jason from whom they are renting, isn’t happy. Jason’s wife is on his case about it. To make matters more difficult, Jo has just learned they are expecting a baby.

If the home front is difficult, it is even worse on the job. As he is preparing to go on, Miss Tracy Milles and Rexy show up, two drag queens. Tracey is the nephew of Eddie, the bar; the bar is changing formats to a drag show, only Eddie has forgotten to tell Casey. He’s fired as an entertainer but is allowed to stay on as a bartender.

It doesn’t take genius to figure out where this is going. One night Rexy consumes way-too-much alcohol and passes out; Eddie and Miss Tracy push Casey to fill in, doing Rexy’s Edith Piaf number. If this reminds you a bit of the last third of Gypsy so be it. Yet it is still hilarious, particularly for the phrase that Miss Tracy tells Casey to mouth to the Piaf French lyrics.

Again, it is predictable. Casey begins to get into the role of Georgia McBride but neglects to tell his wife how he making so much money. Of course, she comes to the club one night and is shocked to see him as his drag persona.

Do I need to tell you that it all ends happily, with some tidy moral messages about finding and accepting all parts of yourself?

Yet even with the predictability of the plot and the somewhat simplistic messages, this is great fun.

A good part of the fun is the multiple drag numbers that Casey and Miss Tracy perform. They lip sync to everything from old tunes to modern ones. Casey eventually finds his “persona” as a sassy, country-western singer. Musically you get everything.

If the plot is predictable and the almost 2 hour show is padded with the many musical numbers, it is still a delight. That is due to many factors, foremost is the performances of Austin Thomas as Casey and Jamison Stern as Miss Tracy Mills. Stern was a spectacular ZaZa in Goodspeed’s production of La Cage aux Folles a few season back, also directed by Rob Ruggiero. But he has numerous other credits.

Both of these actors turn in top-notch performances. They are totally believable in both their drag queen and “real” personas and create non-stereotyped characters.

They are aided by the other three cast members. J. Tucker Smith is fine as the small town, brusque bar owner, Samaria Nixon-Fleming is Casey’s wife, the more mature, responsible half of the couple.  Nik Alexander plays both the landlord Jason (who is also Casey’s friend) and the drag queen Rexy, who has a definite attitude.

Rob Ruggiero pulls on all of his skills as a director of both plays and musicals to make the show flow beautifully.

Costume designer Leon Dobkowski has risen to the occasion with appropriately sequined, sexy and outrageous costumers.  Ralph Perkins has choreographed the numbers with flair. A special shout out must be given the backstage crew, many of whom are interns from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School for the many quick changes that the actors make.

This is great fun. It might be somewhat predictable but it a wonderful entertainment.

It is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Sunday, April 29.  For tickets,  call 860-527-7838 or visit  TheaterWorks  

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zipo6.com

“Constellations” at TheaterWorks Can Confound and Frustrate You

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

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

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By Karen Isaacs

 Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage

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

Fireflies at Long Wharf

 

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

 

 

 

 

Rags at Goodspeed

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

 

 

 

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Plekey at Hartford Stage

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

Diary of Ann Frank at Playhouse on Park

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

 

 

 

A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage

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

 Seder at Hartford Stage

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

 

Wolves at TheaterWork

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

The Games Afoot at Ivoryton

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

 

 

The runners up

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

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

 

 

 

 

Noises Off at Connecticut Repertory Theater

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

 

 

 

 Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton

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

 

The Bridges of Madison County at MTC

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

 The Great Tchaikovsky at Hartford Stage

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

 Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage

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

 Endgame at Long Wharf

         

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

 

Biloxi Blues at Ivoryton

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

 Native Son at Yale Rep

           

NATIVE SON

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

 

 

Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse

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

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

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

 

“Christmas on the Rocks” Is a Comic Look at “What Ever Happened to?”

 

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By Karen Isaacs

Christmas on the Rocks has become a holiday staple at TheaterWorks. This year it runs through Saturday, December 23; additional performances already have been added.

Why the appeal? At first glance it simply seems like a clever twist that adds a bit of cynicism to the usual holiday fare. But after seeing it several times, I’ve realized that there are hidden depths in these delightful pieces.

Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero called upon a number of playwrights with whom he had worked and gave them a challenge. To write a short scene about whatever happened to some of the classic children characters from various Christmas movies, TV shows and literature. Most of these works ended on an up-beat note. But what really happened afterwards?

The playwrights created a series of short scenes – many of them mainly monologues. And along the way they added in not only humor but lessons of how we go on and how we can always recapture the optimism of youth.

It is set in what is described as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve.” This is your typical run-down neighborhood bar, worn and out of date. The bartender is switching between Christmas films on TV as the bar is empty.

In seven scenes, two talented actors become some of the very well-known children from these stories and occasionally a lesser known character. In the last two years, two of the stories have changed. One original piece, based on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and about Cindy Lou Who, was turned into a longer piece by its playwright Matthew Lombardo and is now playing off-Broadway.  It’s been replaced by piece written by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas.

That piece, “My Name is KAREN!” is about the girl who created Frosty and saved him. She’s now a self-involved, angry young woman with her own live internet show. She resents all the attention that Frosty has gotten and her own obscurity. Even on her show, her followers mostly ask questions about Frosty and not her. She has taken her revenge.

New this year is a scene by Connecticut’s own Jacques Lamarre called “A Miserable Life”. You can guess that it is about one of the Bailey children, in this case ZuZu Bailey. It seems that she has been traumatized by the notion that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

John Cariani has written an ironic piece about Ralphie from A Christmas Story while Jeffrey Hatcher has a hysterically funny piece about Hermie, the elf who wanted to be a dentist in the TV version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

 In a piece by Theresa Rebeck, we see a cynical Tiny Tim who believes that Scrooge had a mental breakdown; Tim also seems to have adopted some of Scrooge’s miserly attitudes. Then there’s the piece about Clara, from The Nutcracker.  She is now an aging beauty still in love with the ageless Nutcracker. And the show ends with a tender piece by Lamarre about Charlie Brown. His revelations are surprising, but the ending is sweet.

Ruggiero has directed this with a sure hand. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkes are returning for the third or fourth year playing all of the famous characters. It is remarkable how they use voices and gestures to create totally different characters. Harris goes from the self-involved Karen, to the neurotic Zuzu and ends as the tender “Little Red-Haired Girl.

Wilkes is funny and over the top as Hermie. After that, you almost don’t recognize him when he is Tiny Tim or later as Charlie Brown.

Tom Bloom has joined the cast this year as the bartender. Like any good bartender, he listens, he reacts and occasionally he adds a succinct comment or suggestion. He is part therapist and part grandfather. It is this character that often helps the others to leave more optimistic than when they came in.

As you leave Christmas on the Rocks, you may ponder the ideas that what we assume will happen often doesn’t, but that other possibilities open to us, if only we will take advantage of them.

This show is geared to adults or near adults.

Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications Weeklies and zip06.com.

“Relativity” – Judging the Genius as a Family Man

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Christa Scott-Reed, Lori Wilner, Richard Dreyfuss. Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Einstein was a genius; everyone agrees. But Relativity the new play by Mark St. Germain now at TheaterWorks through Nov. 23, explores Einstein the husband, father and man.

In particular, the play deals with Einstein’s daughter Liserl who has been a mystery to Einstein biographers. Liserl was born before he and his first wife, Mileva Maric married. No definite proof seems to exist as to what happened to her; some believe she was raised by Maric’s relatives and others believe she was adopted.

Relativity – an obvious play on Einstein’s famous theory as well as the idea of relatives – opens in Princeton in the late ‘40s or early ’50.  Einstein is now elderly though still working at the Institute while the FBI snoops around. Apparently J. Edgar Hoover was convinced Einstein was a security risk, possibly because he became active in anti-war and anti-bomb causes. His housekeeper/mistress Helen looks after him and regards most visitors with suspicion.

The play begins with Einstein meeting Margaret Harding who says she is a new reporter for a Jewish newspaper and wants to interview him. He finds the woman attractive and invites her home; Helen is immediately on guard.

What starts as a relatively normal interview soon veers off. It seems that Helen has done her homework and has talked with Einstein’s sons who don’t view him as “warm and fuzzy.” When he wants to cut short the interview she whips out a form that promises to let him review and reject anything she writes.

If you are convinced she isn’t who she seems to be, you are right. Her questions become more and more pointed; she seems to have lots of questions about Einstein’s parenting and marriage. The implication is that while Einstein may have been a genius, he was not a very nice man – an uninvolved father who wanted quiet and ignored his sons, and a philandering husband who demanded that the household revolve around his needs and desires.

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Christa Scott-Reed. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

It may not be a surprise that Margaret Harding is Liserl, the daughter who was given up for adoption. Though she claims her adoptive family was terrific and her father “a great man” who sacrificed a potentially life-changing commission as an artist to care for his wife – she seems intent on trying to get some acknowledgement from Einstein of his paternity and his failings. He admits the paternity.

St. Germain, whose plays often deal with historical characters, is attempting to raise a bigger issue here, which can be phrased in two ways. One, why do we assume that geniuses should also have sterling characters and moral compasses? The other question is related: do character flaws diminish the accomplishments of genius?  After all Mozart wrote sublime music that can lift our spirits and thoughts yet he was a drunk, selfish, promiscuous man. Does the latter diminish or negate the former?

Richard Dreyfuss is Albert Einstein. Dreyfus know his way around a stage and it shows. But

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Richard Dreyfuss. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

this Einstein at times seems more like a cherub that the genius. He is by turns flirtatious, defensive, charming and remote. His moods swing and he can make an easy joke or give a cold stare. At times he reminds me of an almost Santa-like figure. He is both naïve and very aware; gullible and guarded.

If Dreyfuss gives us an Einstein who is less scientific genius and more playful old man, Christa Scott-Reed gives us a Margaret who seems both cruel and needy. She often plays the role as a prosecuting attorney. You can’t always buy her story of a happy adoptive family; the axe she has to grind is too huge.

Lori Wilner is Helen, whose role is to be both protective and at times the humorous foil for all that is going on around her.

The cast works superbly together. It is a minuet that is skillfully danced, thanks in large part to director Rob Ruggiero.

Brian Prather has created a wonderful set that shows Einstein’s office in his home with windows that look out onto snow-covered tree limbs. It feels warm and cozy.  Alejo Vietti’s costume design are perfect for the period and remind us of how much more formal that period was.

In truth, Relativity is really a family drama about a daughter who feels deprived of her father’s love. What makes it unusual is that this father was Einstein.

While St. Germain toys with the larger issues, too often these are sacrificed for the domestic drama and the consoling ending. It seems that Einstein has a heart after all.

Relativity is an enjoyable 90 minutes in the theater in part due to the fine direction and acting. Yet, it could have been more.

It is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Nov. 23. For tickets, call 860-527-7838.

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Richard Dreyfuss.  Photo by Lanny Nagler.

CT Critics Announce Award Nominations

By Karen Isaacs

Anastasia (Hartford Stage), My Paris (Long Wharf), La Cage aux Folles (Goodspeed Musicals), Hair (Playhouse on Park), South Pacific and Memphis (Ivoryton Playhouse) were among the top nominees in the musical and production categories for the Connecticut Critics Circles.

The plays receiving multiple nominations included Disgraced (Long Wharf), Good People (TheaterWorks), Indecent (Yale Rep), Red (Westport Country Playhouse), Happy Days (Yale Rep), The Moors (Yale Rep) and Broken Glass (Westport Country Playhouse.

The award recipients will be announced at the ceremony at Hartford Stage on Monday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. The ceremony is free and open to the public; the general public can RSVP at hartfordstage.org. For information on the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, visit ctcritics.org.

The awards recognize outstanding achievements from the state’s 2015-’16 professional theater season by the group comprised of theater critics and writers from the state’s print, radio and on-line media.

Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Nominations 2015-16 Season

Outstanding Production of a Play
Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Good People – TheaterWorks
Happy Days – Yale Rep
Indecent – Yale Rep
Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Outstanding Production of a Musical
Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Hair – Playhouse of Park
La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Outstanding Ensemble
Cast of Art – Westport Country Playhouse
Cast of Hair – Playhouse on Park
Cast of Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Cast of Measure for Measure – Long Wharf Theater
Cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Outstanding Director of a Play
Gordon Edelstein – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Jackson Gay – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Mark Lamos – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Rob Ruggiero – Good People – TheaterWorks
Rebecca Taichman – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Director of a Musical
David Edwards – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Sean Harris – Hair – Playhouse on Park
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Rob Ruggiero – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
Darko Tresnjak – Anastasia – Hartford Stage

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Rajesh Bose – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Ward Duffy – Good People – TheaterWorks
Conor Hamill – Third – TheaterWorks
Stephen Rowe – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Steven Skybell – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Felicity Jones – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse
Brenda Meaney – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Elizabeth Lande – Wit – Playhouse on Park
Erika Rolfsrud – Good People – TheaterWorks
Dianne Wiest – Happy Days – Yale Repertory Theatre.
Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Riley Costello – Peter Pan – Connecticut Repertory Theater
Carson Higgins – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
David Pittsinger – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Bobby Steggert – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Jamieson Stern – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Christy Altomare – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Adrianne Hicks – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Renee Jackson – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Katerina Papacostas – Evita – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Rashidra Scott – Anything Goes – Goodspeed Musicals
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Benim Foster – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Charles Janasz – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Richard Kline – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Michael Rogers – The Call — TheaterWorks
Richard Topol – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Shirine Babb – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Megan Byrne – Good People – TheaterWorks
Kandis Chappell – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Birgit Huppuch – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Jodi Stevens – Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theater of Connecticut
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
John Bolton – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Teren Carter – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Christopher DeRosa – Evita  – Music Theater of Connecticut
Tom Hewitt – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
William Selby – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Mara Davi – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Caroline O’Connor – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Mary Beth Peil – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Patricia Schumann – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Jodi Stevens – Legally Blonde – Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Outstanding Choreography
David Dorfman – Indecent
Peggy Hickey – Anastasia
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris
Todd Underwood – Memphis
Darlene Zoller – Hair
Outstanding Scenic Design
Alexander Dodge – Rear Window
Alexander Dodge – Anastasia
Derek McLane – My Paris
Allen Moyer – Red
Alexander Woodward – The Moors
Outstanding Costume Design
Fabian Fidel Aguilar – The Moors
Linda Cho – Anastasia
Michael McDonald – La Cage aux Folles
Paul Tazewell – My Paris
Outstanding Light Design
Christopher Akerlind – Indecent
Andrew F. Griffin – The Moors
Donald Holder – My Paris
Donald Holder – Anastasia
York Kennedy – Rear Window
Outstanding Sound Design
David Budries – Red
Peter Hylenski – Anastasia
Brian Ronan – My Paris
Jane Shaw – Rear Window
Darron L. West – Body of an American
Outstanding Projection Design
Rasean Davonte Johnson – Cymbeline
Alex Basco Koch – The Body of an American
Sean Nieuwenhuis – Rear Window
Aaron Rhyne – Anastasia
Olivia Sebesky – My Paris

 

Sex with Strangers at TheaterWorks Demonstrates the Generation Gap

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Courtney Rackley and Patrick Ball. Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Watching Sex with Strangers, now at TheaterWorks in Harford through Sunday, April 17, I suddenly felt very old. This play written by Laura Eason, has had seven productions throughout the country this year, making it one of the ten most produced plays. Eason in addition to having written 20 plays, is a writer and producer on the acclaimed TV series House of Cards.

The appeal of this relationship comedy-drama is clear.  It speaks to the generation now in their 20s and 30s, and every theater is trying to attract them. Whether it also will appeal to an older audience is somewhat questionable.

So what is this play about?  We have Olivia (Courtney Rackley) a writer/teacher in her late 30s at a remote inn or B&B. It is snowing outside and she is editing a manuscript; her second novel we learn later.  It is evening and when the bell rings, she is startled.  At the door is Ethan (Patrick Ball) who was expected earlier in the day and was assumed not to be coming. He too is a writer, but he is about 25 and full of the arrogance and cockiness of youth. He is also a “hunk.”

As all good relationship plays start, the two are not compatible. Ethan is brash, insensitive, and very taken with himself.  He reveals to Laura that he has had two books on the best seller list; each semi-true accounts of his efforts to have sex with strangers (thus the title) and write about them. So he picked up various girls in bars and other places, charmed them, bedded them, and then wrote about them – often nastily—in his blog which led to the books. He is at the cabin to work on the screenplay which was due last week.

Olivia is more serious and insecure.  Her first novel was published a number of years ago, did not do well and she has decided to write only for herself. The thought of negative reviews and disappointments are too much for her to contemplate.

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Courtney Rackley. Photo by Lanny Nagler

The first act details their three days at the house.  Yes, Ethan kisses Olivia and though she initially rejects it, she is soon in his arms.  She becomes another of his “sex with strangers” conquests.  In the next two days, they have sex and talk of books and goals.  Ethan pushes her for information and pushes to read her new book; he had actually read and liked her first novel because a mutual friend who had really liked the book, had given him a copy. She does not want to let him read it, but while she is sleeping he takes it and reads it.

He convinces her – or semi-bullies her – into allowing him to post on an “app” that he has created her first novel under a nom de plume.  He tells her this a way to get the book “out there” without the personal vulnerability.

Act two takes place in the following weeks in Olivia’s Chicago apartment.  The relationship is continuing but cracks are beginning to appear.  Ethan has introduced Olivia to his agent who loves the new book, and a big deal is in process.  But it is as though Ethan seems a little jealous of Olivia’s pending success.  He tries to convince her to let him publish the book on line, not using the prominent publisher who is interested, is offering a major advance, and will market the novel aggressively.

After a fight about Ethan’s probable infidelity, he storms out and when he returns the next day, he reveals he has once again broken Olivia’s trust.  The play ends 18 months later with Olivia having moved on.

It is surprising that a woman would create a character such as Olivia.  She too easily succumbs to the “body beautiful” of Ethan and ignores all the signs that he is a self-obsessed man used to getting his own way.  She deludes herself that the man who wrote “sex with strangers” is not the Ethan she knows.  She ignores warning sign after warning sign.  Was the sex that good?

Courtney Rackley creates a believable Olivia – vulnerable and somewhat unsure of herself. She is afraid of being hurt yet puts herself into harm’s way. When the warning signs appear, she ignores them or only weakly protests.

Patrick Ball totally captures the self-assurance, ego and at times, the anger of Ethan.  He is one of those twenty-somethings – who becomes jittery at the thought of not having cell phone service or wifi.

Eason makes some clear points about the willingness of Ethan’s generation to live their lives on social media, telling anyone and everyone personal details of their lives.  All is available for consumption. Ethan is proud that some of the women he bedded have written about their encounters with him in their own blogs and other social media outlets.  Details that most of us might want kept hidden because we might feel embarrassed or ashamed are broadcast and become fodder for making money.

Certainly the actors spend a lot of time taking off and putting on clothes.  Almost half of the scenes end with the two undressing for sex, or dressing after it.  The play also features quite a bit of language that one expects in a David Mamet play.  From Ethan’s self-description as an a**hole, to terms for sex, swear words, etc. are frequent.  In fact if the sex scenes and language were toned down, the play would run at least 15 minutes shorter than its two plus hour length.

Rob Ruggiero has done a good job both with casting and direction.  The play moves – though it might move faster – and each actor develops the characters fully.

Brian Prather has created two realistic sets for the cabin and the apartment with a wall of books. The efforts of sound designer Fitz Patton and lighting designer John Lasiter are particularly effective in the first act.

Sex with Strangers is not for everyone.  Certainly it is not for anyone under 18. How you feel about the play may be a reflection of how you feel about the characters. I kept wanting to tell Olivia to develop some backbone and not be taken in by the immature Ethan.

Sex with Strangers is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, through Sunday April 17. For tickets. For information visit theaterworkshartford.org or call 860-527-7838.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and http://www.zip06.

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Courtney Rackley and Patrick Ball. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Christmas on the Rocks Takes a Humorous Look at Holiday Kids

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Matthew Wilkas as Herbie the Elf and Ronn Carroll as the bartender. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

By Karen Isaacs

 Three years ago, Rob Ruggiero, artistic director of TheaterWorks in Hartford, had a brilliant idea for an adult holiday show:  a series of sketches featuring the adult versions of those kids that won our hearts in holiday stories and movies. This year it is returning through Wednesday, Dec. 23.

So he enlisted seven contemporary playwrights with connections to the theater, to write the sketches.  The setting?  “A local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve” the program tells us.

We have the requisite elderly bartender who listens carefully and occasionally responds.

Who wanders into this bar?  The characters that “became real” because we have loved them so.  Each is now an adult and each life has taken some unexpected turns. The pieces themselves range from heartfelt to farcical but each is in keeping with the original work for which it is a sequel.

Some of the characters are less easily recognizable.  I heard some audience members checking with neighbors about the second playlet:  this one features Susan, the daughter in the movie Miracle on 34th Street. Those who know the film will recognize the subtle references to the film that Jonathan Tolins incorporated including the house on Primrose Street,  but Susan is perhaps the least familiar character.  Yet, this one is touching as Susan reveals to the bartender, played by Ronn Carroll in his third year in the role, how she has become almost a replica of her mother – guarded, untrusting, demanding.

The show opens with “All Grown Up” which gives us one of the most iconic holiday characters: Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Here the adult Ralph reveals not only what happen to the Old Man and his mother but also to him.

The third and fourth playlets are more broadly comical: “Say It Glows” features an obviously gay Herbie the Elf from the TV animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Herbie dishes the dirt about Rudolph and how Herbie got some revenge but also suffered.

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Matthew Wilkas as Herbie the Elf and Ronn Carroll as the bartender. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

Following Herbie is “Going Green” featuring Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas which Matthew Lombard has written in Seussical rhyme.  Cindy Lou is disheveled and possibly alcoholic.  Her life is a mess.

Tiny Tim appears – does anyone need to be reminded of the work he appeared in? – looking like a Victorian London street person.  He has become cynical, and talks of Scrooge’s “psychotic break.”

Maria from The Nutcracker arrives next in a scene by Edwin Sánchez. Her life is also a mess. She is attempting to stay young for her never aging, handsome nutcracker prince who seems attracted to her brother.  She projects a desperateness as she sits at the bar, drinking vodka and crushing peanuts with nutcrackers.

The evening ends with a sweet piece by Jacques Lamarre (of Hartford) about Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. It is the only piece where all three cast members are together on stage. This has always been my favorite piece, striking just the right combination of humor and pathos that was so much a part of Peanuts.

I was particularly impressed this year with Ronn Carroll as the bartender.  Each year he has deepened his performance.  As he listens to these stories, his reactions fit perfectly – uncomfortable as Herbie makes a move on him, irritation as Clara keeps making jokes about his age.  He delivers his comments and often sage advice with warmth and gentleness.  He cares!

Matthew Wilkas is new to the male roles, yet he bring his own style to each character.  I found his Herbie more physical than last year but my memory may be faulty.  I enjoyed his physicality as he jumps on bar stools and the bar itself and strokes the bartender, to his obvious discomfort.

Jenn Harris is returning as the women in the piece. Two of these women – Cindy Lou Who and Clara – are broader characters and more obviously dysfunctional than the male characters.  She is comfortable with the broader comedy and makes Cindy Lou Who really slutty. But I was most taken with her performance as the red-haired girl in the last scene.

Rob Ruggiero has directed this with great talent – each scene moves and none go on too long.

A quick warning:  This is not for children or perhaps even younger teens.  The humor sometimes involves sexual references and the idea that even some of these iconic families end with divorce and unhappiness might be disturbing. Last year, though, my 13-year-old granddaughter did enjoy it.

What is particularly nice about these playlet is that while each of the characters has problems and may be cynical about the holiday season, each leaves the bar with renewed hope thanks to the bartender.

So if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Cindy Lou Who, or did the fairy tale of Maria and the Nutcracker end happily or even if you wondered about Ralphie, his BB gun and his family, you will find Christmas on the Rocks an enjoyable 90 minutes.

Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Wednesday, Dec. 23. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and Zip06.com.

 

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