By Karen Isaacs
The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck, the current production at Westport Country Playhouse, is a good example of how the balance in a play can shift based on the cast and director.
David Kennedy had directed this three person, 90+ minute backstage comedy which runs through Sept. 1 with a sure hand.
The play opens with Harry, a 30ish journeyman actor arriving at a theater; no one is there. So he addresses the audience in a humorous rant about the acting profession, the frustrations of the movie star salaries and, in his view, the stars’ limited abilities, all the while proclaiming that he “isn’t bitter.”
Soon Jake arrives; he’s a mid-level movie action star who is now on Broadway in a Kafka play. His co-star (whom we never see) is Bruce, a much older and much bigger action star.
Harry is there for an understudy rehearsal. The plan is that if Bruce misses a performance, than Jake will take his role and Harry will take Jake’s.
The last to arrive is Roxanne, the stage manager who will be overseeing the rehearsal. The kicker is that six years ago, Harry walked out on Roxanne two weeks before the wedding.
As the rehearsal begins and progresses, Harry wants to do more than just duplicate Jake’s performance; at first Jake is defensive but begins to see that some of Harry’s comments and suggestions are on target. Jake is also up for a major film role that he really wants and so is constantly checking with his agent about any news.
Roxanne is, naturally, still furious with Harry which makes it difficult for her to manage the situation – massaging Jake’s ego, getting Harry to just duplicate the existing performance, and dealing with an unseen production person who brings on the wrong sets, disappears, and calls the wrong lighting cues.
But if the theater is the creation of an “unreal” reality then Kafka also did that in many of his works. The actors in the theater have a role in the real world and the “unreal.”
An added source of humor (or maybe it is just too much coincidence) is the fact that even in the dressing rooms, the speakers are on so that anyone off-stage can hear anything that on stage discuss.
In previous productions I’ve seen, Roxanne seemed the center of the show while Harry, the struggling “serious” actor had my sympathy.
But with this cast, the center has changed to Jake. Brett Dalton has done a fine job in creating a character who is much more than the ego driven movie star. He seems genuinely though naively enthusiastic about the play which appears to be a mashup for Kafka’s other works. His Jake slowly reveals his insecurities, his jealousy of Bruce, and later his disappointment. This Jake is less macho star and more a little boy playing at confidence.
Eric Bryant gives us a less sympathetic Harry. This Harry is more obtuse and unaware of his affect on those around him, more eager to show off his knowledge than work as a team member. It’s clear that this Harry resents having to be an understudy and probably never go on in the part.
If in other productions, Roxanne seems the center, in this production Andrea Syglowski doesn’t grab the spotlight. Her Roxanne is too one-note and too shrill. It’s like she started at level 9 and had no really room to go up. How Roxanne feels about Harry after six years of silence is unclear.
Kennedy has used the aisle and the space just in front to the stage to good effect. When Jake gets an important phone call, he goes into the audience stage right to have some privacy. It allows us to see Dalton’s reactions which are superb. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce includes several sets for the show. Lighting designer Matthew Richards also creates interesting “in show” lighting.
The Understudy is an enjoyable comedy that even those not knowledgeable about theater will find funny.
For tickets contact Westport Country Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.
By Karen Isaacs
A Flea in Her Ear is a title that may have you scratching your head. What does it mean? The phrase has been around for centuries though it seems out of fashion in English today. It has had multiple meanings, but as used in the play, it is a French idiom meaning to put suspicion in your head. Playwright David Ives has written the adaptation of this Georges Feydou farce.
Mark Lamos has done a terrific job directing this farce with the help of a stellar cast. Now at Westport Country Playhouse through July 28, this co-production with the Resident Ensemble Company at the University of Delaware runs like a well-oiled machine. Certainly the fact that the play has already had a sold out run in Delaware earlier this year, means cast members have their timing down perfectly.
As in typical French farce fashion there are misunderstandings, sexual innuendo, doors which lead to near collisions and misidentifications.
The play is set in the late 1800s during what is called “La Belle Epoque.” It involves upper middle class people; infidelity or the appearance of it plays a major role.
Act one sets up the situation. Raymonde Chandebise is convinced her husband is having affair because that morning, she found a pair of suspenders returned to him from the Frisky Puss Hotel. She and her friend, Lucienne plot a way to find out for sure: Lucienne will write an anonymous love letter to him, setting up a rendezvous that afternoon at the hotel. But all is not as it seems; Camille, the nephew of Chandebise, is having an affair with the cook, Antoinette, at the urging of M. Chandebise’s doctor Dr. Finache. He also has a speech defect that means he can only say vowels – no consonants. Most have difficulty understanding him.
As M. Chandebise reads the letter, he is delighted that someone finds him attractive but he is sure the writer is mistaken, it must be his handsome friend, Romain who is the object of affection, so he tells Romain to keep the appointment. Then, Lucienne’s jealous husband, Don Carlos arrives; when M. Chandebise shares the letter, Don Carlos recognizes his wife’s handwriting and draws all the wrong conclusion.
We move to the hotel in Act 2 where the proprietor (a former Army man) abuses his new bellman (Poche) who was a soldier under him. Poche is the spitting image of M. Chandebise leading to multiple complications. Of course, all the characters show up at the hotel: Camille for his rendezvous with Annette; Raymonde to catch her husband; Romain to meet his adorer; Dr. Finache for his usual tryst. Of course, M. Chandebise also turns up (and is mistaken for Poche as Poche has been mistaken for him by almost everyone) to warn Romain that Don Carlos is coming to kill him. Even the butler arrives and discovers his wife there.
But as in most farces, no real sexual activity takes place. A mix up in the rooms occur so innocent strangers are caught up in the confusion, with lots of doors opening and closing, near misses and mistaken identities.
The play concludes in Act 3 in M. Chandebise’s apartment where all gets straightened out and the spouses forgive each other. Everyone is happy.
To carry this off requires absolute precision, speed and almost choreography so that the characters enter, leave, reenter, react with split-second timing. These performers carry it off perfectly.
You wonder how Lee E. Ernst who plays both M. Chandebise and Poche, can change costumes so quickly and reenter the set as the other almost simultaneously with the other leaving it. He also manages to change his total look, voice and attitude.
The entire ensemble captures the French flair. It is hard to single performers out because you could praise each and every one. But Elizabeth Heflin as Raymonde and Antoinette Robinson as Lucienne are both delightful. Michael Gotch is hilarious as the jealous Don Carlos as is Mic Matarrese as Camille. Robert Adelman Hancock makes the most of the small role of Rugby, a rather dense Englishman who is at the hotel awaiting a visitor.
All elements of the show are excellent: the scenic design by Kristen Robinson, costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, lighting by Matthew Richards and sound by Fitz Patton.
But in the end it was director Mark Lamos who made it all work so well.
A Flea in Her Ear is at Westport Country Playhouse through July 28. For tickets visit Westport Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.
The world premiere of Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence and a revised version of the musical Rags from Goodspeed Musicals took top honors at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Monday, June 11. (Complete list of nominees and winners).
The event, which celebrated the work from the state’s professional theaters during the 2017-18 season, was held at Westport Country Playhouse.
Among area theaters, Ivoryton received nine nominations for five different productions (West Side Story, Million Dollar Quartet, Saturday Night Fever, The Game’s Afoot and The Fantasticks).Connecticut native, Cory Candelet tied for outstanding featured actor in a musical for his performance as the Mute in The Fantasticks. He shared the award with Matt Faucher for his performance as Jud in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma!
Goodspeed received 14 nominations and four awards including Faucher, outstanding production of a musical, Samantha Massell for her leading role in Rags and Kelli Barclay for choreography in Will Rogers’ Follies.
Awards for outstanding actors in a musical went to Samantha Massell in Goodspeed’s Rags and Jamie LaVerdiere in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of 1776.
Awards for outstanding actors in a play went to Reg Rogers in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People and Isabelle Barbier in Playhouse on Park’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Top directing awards went to Terrence Mann for CRT’s 1776 and Ezra Barnes for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Outstanding ensemble award went to TheaterWorks’ production of The Wolves; the debut award went to Megan O’Callaghan for The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home, both at Music Theatre of Connecticut. The outstanding solo honor was awarded to Elizabeth Stahlmann for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded.
Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director for Goodspeed Musicals, received the Tom Killen Award for lifetime service to the theater from Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton, a producer at Goodspeed.
Receiving special awards were New London’s Flock Theatre for its production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Monte Cristo Cottage (O’Neill’s childhood home); the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of Constellations.
The outstanding featured actress award in a musical award went to Jodi Stevens for Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s Singin’ in the Rain. The award for outstanding featured actors in a play went to Peter Francis James for Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Romeo and Juliet, and to Judith Ivey for Long Wharf Theatre’s world premiere of Fireflies.
Design awards went to Fitz Patton for sound and Matthew Richards for lighting for Westport Country Playhouse’s Appropriate; Linda Cho for costumes for Hartford Stage’s The Age of Innocence; Yana Birykova for projections for Westport Country Playhouse’s Grounded and David Lewis, for set design for Playhouse on Park’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks, presided over the event.
Shore Publication writers Amy Barry and Frank Rizzo co-chaired the event.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.
By Karen Isaacs
Do you realize how many professional theatrical productions are seen in Connecticut each year? What would be your guess?
With the ending of the Connecticut theater season which runs from about June 1 to May 31, I attempted to count up the shows. I know I missed some. But including all the professional theaters (those that have some type of contract from Equity the actors’ union) plus the productions seen at the major “presenting” houses such as the Shubert, Bushnell and Palace in Waterbury – the total astounded me.
In all, you could see a professional production for 100+ nights a year. And that didn’t include the “workshop” performances at Goodspeed-Chester, the O’Neill Center and other places.
If you want to consider just the regional theaters – it numbers 70+ productions. (By the way, I saw about 75 percent of these, plus some others). So I was sitting in a theater in Connecticut at least 60+ evenings.
My favorites? Everyone’s list will be different. Mine includes plays that were thought-provoking or challenging. But my list also includes plays that were just pure fun. I’ve broken them down into a list of my “best” plays and “musicals”. These aren’t in any particular order. Some are by playwrights that I am very familiar with and others by playwrights new to me.
My Favorite Productions of Plays
Hartford Stage gave me three productions that I thoroughly enjoyed and would gladly see again. A Lesson from Aloes by Athol Fugard is a play that I saw first at Yale and found it brilliant. This production directed by Darko Tresnjak was equally so – thought-provoking, beautifully designed and marvelously acted. For sheer fun, nothing could be better than Tresnjak’s direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which opened the season. The direction of the Mechanicals’ production was the best I’ve ever seen. And in the middle was the McCarter Theatre’s production of Murder on the Orient Express. Stylish and delightful. Another production I would gladly see again was Grounded at Westport Country Playhouse last July. This one woman show is about a military pilot who is reassigned to operating drones over Iraq from the US. And Playhouse on Park gave Connecticut theater goers a magnificent production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Some plays were very good, but for one reason or another had something missing. Fireflies at Long Wharf was a charming, sweet play that is blessed with an outstanding cast. I’m not convinced that it would as enjoyable in the hands of lesser actors. Jane Alexander, Judith Ivey and Dennis Ardnt made this work. I also thoroughly enjoyed Seder at Hartford Stage, though some of my critic friends hated it. The questions it raised were fascinating and Mia Dillon was fabulous.
Also in this group would be The Game’s Afoot at Ivoryton which was silly, light but just fun, Noises Off at the Summer Series at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, The Chosen at Long Wharf, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3 at Yale Rep and Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage. Boyd Gaines was magnificent.
Some productions miss the mark – it may be a great idea that isn’t quite developed completely, or it wanders off topic, or the director or actors make some erroneous decisions. Or the play may not be that good, but one or two performances make it enjoyable.
Luckily most of the time, even if that happens there are elements that still make the production worth seeing.
But sometimes, to me the production seems so misguided in so many ways, that it disappoints me. This season there were a few that fit that description. Often my fellow critics disagree with me. Yale’s production of Enemy of the People was just such a production. I felt that both the director (James Bundy) and the leading actor (Reg Rogers) were totally off the mark. Office Hours at Long Wharf was a play that I felt didn’t really work on many levels.
My Favorite Productions of Musicals
I didn’t think there were really any outstanding musical productions this season. By that I mean productions where the work itself and all elements of the production hit the mark. Most had flaws of some kind.
Many productions were very good. Ivoryton Playhouse has shown it is capable of presenting very good productions. This season I thought Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story and The Fantasticks were all very good.
MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) has shown that a very small theater (under 120 seats) and an awkward playing area can be made to work for mid-sized musicals. Kevin Connor did a great job directing both The Bridges of Madison County and Fun Home. The Summer Series at Connecticut Rep did a very good Newsies.
Goodspeed is held to a very high standard – it has wowed us so many times, that we expect perfection in each production. This year, it may have not have been perfection, but it was very, very good.
Rags was a major project: Taking a musical that had failed and working together with the composer and lyricist and a new book writer, to completely reshape the show. Characters were deleted, others added, major plot points changed, new songs written and lyrics revised for other songs. Working with the team was director Rob Ruggiero. This story of turn of the 20th century Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan, still isn’t perfect, but the show was done very well and was much improved.
Goodspeed also presented the classic Oklahoma! Again a very good production that I felt missed the mark in some ways.
The Big Theater Stories So Far This Year
Two major theatrical stories hit even the national press. The first was the firing of Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein after allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Later this spring, Darko Tresnjak announced he will leave Hartford Stage at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. This wasn’t a total surprise. While at Hartford, he had not only produced excellent theater but won a Tony award, directed two new Broadway musicals and was increasingly in demand.
Just as one theater season ends, another begins. I’m already marking my calendar for the shows that I’m most anticipating.
(Revised from a press release)
Hartford Stage’s world premiere of “The Age of Innocence” and Goodspeed’s “Oklahoma!” led the shows nominated for the 28th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards. Yale Rep’s production of “Native Son,” Goodspeed’s production of “Rags,” and “Diary of Anne Frank” at Playhouse on Park also received numerous nominations.
The awards event, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, will be held Monday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Westport Country Playhouse. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, stars of TheaterWorks holiday comedy perennial “Christmas on the Rocks,” will be masters of ceremony for the event which is free and open to the public.
“The Age of Innocence” earned eight nominations, including outstanding play, director and lead actor and three featured actresses, costumes and lighting while “Oklahoma!” received a total of seven nods, including best musical, director, lead actress and actor and featured actress and actor and choreography.
Other outstanding play nominees are: Yale Repertory Theater’s productions of “An Enemy of the People” and “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3.” Other nominees included Long Wharf Theatre’s “The Chosen” and the world premiere of “Fireflies” and West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Also earning outstanding musical nods are Goodspeed’s “Rags,” Connecticut Repertory Theater’s “1776,” Seven Angels Theatre’s “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “Fun Home,” Music Theater of Connecticut.
Receiving the annual Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement in Connectiocut theater will be Michael O’Flaherty, longtime music director at Goodspeed Musicals.
Receiving special awards this year are New London’s Flock Theater for its production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Monte Cristo Cottage, the boyhood home of Eugene ONeill; the Broadway Method Academy of Fairfield; and Billy Bivona, who composed and performed original music for TheaterWork’s production of “Constellations.”
Receiving an award for solo performance will be Elizabeth Stahlmann who starred in Westport Country Playhouse’s “Grounded.”
Other nominees are:
Actor in a play: Reg Rogers, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jerod Haynes, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jamison Stern, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks; Boyd Gaines, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Daniel Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Actress in a play: Jackie Chung, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre; Isabelle Barbier, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Mia Dillon, “Seder,” Hartford Stage; Jane Alexander, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cecelia Riddett, “The Revisionist,” Playhouse on Park.
Actor in a musical: Jamie LaVerdiere, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Rhett Guter, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Jim Schubin, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; David Pittsinger, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Michael Notardonato, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Actress in a musical: Samantha Massell, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Mia Pinero, “West Side Story,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Juliet Lambert Pratt, “The Bridges of Madison County,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Samantha Bruce, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Annabelle Fox, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Director of a play: James Bundy, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Seret Scott, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ezra Barnes, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Eric Ort, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Doug Hughes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage.
Director of a musical: Terrence Mann, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Jenn Thompson, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Kevin Connors, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Rob Ruggiero, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Brian Feehan, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Choreography: Katie Spelman, “Oklahoma! ,” Goodspeed Musicals; Christopher d’Amboise, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Kelli Barclay, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Todd L. Underwood, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse
Ensemble: Cast of “Avenue Q” (Weston Chandler Long, James Fairchild, Ashley Brooke, Peej Mele, E J Zimmerman, Abena Mensah-Bonsu and Colleen Welsh ), Playhouse on Park; Cast of “The Wolves” (Shannon Keegan, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien, Carolyn Cutillo, Emily Murphy, Caitlin Zoz, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman, Karla Gallegos, Megan Byrne), TheaterWorks; Cast of “The Chosen” (Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz) Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “The Game’s Afoot” (Erik Bloomquist, Victoria Bundonis, Molly Densmore, Katrina Ferguson, Michael Iannucci, Craig MacDonald, Maggie McGlone-Jennings, Beverly J. Taylor), Ivoryton Playhouse.
Featured actor in a play: James Cusati-Moyer, “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre;
Peter Francis James, “Romeo and Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Tom Pecinka, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Dan Hiatt, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Jason Bowen, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre
Featured actress in a play: Judith Ivy, “Fireflies,” Long Wharf Theatre; Darrie Lawrence, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Carly Polistina, “The Crucible,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Sierra Boggess, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Helen Cespedes, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage
Featured actor in a musical: Matt Faucher, “Oklahoma!,” Goodspeed Musicals; Joe Callahan, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Sean MacLaughlin, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; David Garrison, “The Will Rogers Follies,” Goodspeed Musicals; Cory Candelet, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Features actress in a musical: Jodi Stevens, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Gizel Jimenez, “Oklahoma!” Goodspeed Musicals; Nora Fox, “Saturday Night Fever,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Megan O’Callaghan, “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Kimberly Immanuel, “The Fantasticks,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Projection design: Yana Birykova, “Grounded,”Westport Country Playhouse; Luke Cantarella, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals; Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Wladimiro A. Woyno R., “Kiss,” Yale Repertory Theatre.
Set design: Emona Stoykova, “An Enemy of the People,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Alexander Dodge, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Andrew Boyce, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; David Lewis, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Playhouse on Park; Martin Scott Marchitto, “The Fantasticks.” ,Ivoryton Playhouse
Costume design: Linda Cho, “Rags,” Goodspeed Musicals’ Linda Cho, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Joshua Pearson, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hartford Stage; Fabian Fidel Aguilar, “Romeo & Juliet,” Westport Country Playhouse; Leon Dobkowski, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” TheaterWorks.
Lighting design: Ben Stanton, “The Age of Innocence,” Hartford Stage; Michael Chybowski, “1776,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre; Stephen Strawbridge, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Matthew Richards, “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3,”Yale Repertory Theatre.
Sound design: Frederick Kennedy, “Native Son,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Kate Marvin, “Grounded,” Westport Country Playhouse; Fitz Patton; “Appropriate,” Westport Country Playhouse; Jane Shaw, “A Lesson from Aloes,” Hartford Stage; Robert Kaplowitz, “Office Hour,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Debut: Shannon Keegan, “The Wolves,” TheaterWorks; Megan O’Callaghan, “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Fun Home,” Music Theatre of Connecticut; Noah Kierserman, “Newsies,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre.
DIRECTIONS: Westport Country Playhouse is at 25 Powers Court in Westport, just off Route (Exits 17 or 18 off I-91 brings you to Rt. 1.) www.westportplayhouse.org.
By Karen Isaacs
“Flyin’ West” which is now at Westport Country Playhouse through June 16, is a play you want to like. After all playwright Pearl Cleage is telling an inspiring story of Nicodemus, Kansas a town established by African-Americans following the Civil War – many were slaves who traveled west and became homesteaders, finally able to own their land.
Even more inspiring is that some of these people were women who came alone or with other women and succeeded in taming the prairie.
In the play, we have four women and two men. Miss Leah is a former slave who after her husband died, was an early settler. She survived and now is staying for a while with two other women. Miss Leah is the voice of remembrance; she talks of the multiple children she had as a slave that were sold within days of birth and the children she later had that all died.
She is staying with two sisters: Sophie is the older and in charge. She is a no-nonsense woman who is proud to own her land and manage the property. At the beginning (1898), she is upset because while speculators have arrived and are making offers to buy the land from the settlers. She wants to keep Nicodemus a black community.
Fanny, her younger sister, is gentler and sweeter. She is being quietly courted by Wil Parish.
Into this mix arrives the youngest sister, Minnie who had married and has been living in London. Her husband, Frank Charles, is from New Orleans and is of mixed race; he is light enough to pass as white. His self-hatred is palable.
While the speculators are important to the plot, they are not the central conflict of the play. It is Frank who provides the conflict; he needs money and when the two older sisters give Minnie a deed to one-third of the land on her 21st birthday, he sees his chance.
Cleage has written a play that verges on melodrama, right down to the curtain line ending the first act. Director Seret Scott has intensified the melodramatic elements of the play rather than down-playing them.
Frank, played by Michael Chenevert is the villain of the piece. As written, he has few redeeming qualities though it is possible to understand his anger and even his disdain for blacks. But as directed by Scott, he is the typical melodrama villain. It is easy to picture him with a top hat and cape and mustache that all the silent film villains had. He is just evil. This in many ways unbalances the play though you are hoping that he does not succeed. It would be better if it were easier to comprehend his feelings.
In the same way, the other characters become two rather than three dimensional. Fanny, played by Brittany Bradford seems to be much too sweet and naïve for a woman in her 20s who has been mainly raised on the prairie. It is as though she is the author’s way of presenting the “traditional” view of women and marriage.
The other characters are the same – more stereotype and less developed as fully rounded people. In no case do you see complexity and this is a failing of the play intensified by the direction.
Brenda Pressley does the best job as Miss Leah; she does seem to present various aspects of the woman. Nikiya Matthis is able to bring out some of Sophie’s personality but again, the playwright hasn’t given her a real person to portray.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has created a wonderful set of the house and surrounding land and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting sets the mood and time.
The story of Nicodemus, Kansas is an aspiring one that is too little known. I just wish that “Flyin’ West” told that story better.
For tickets visit Westport Playhouseor call 888-927-7529.
By Karen Isaacs
“This Land Is Your Land” is a song almost all of us know. School children learn it. But do you know who wrote it? If you’ve forgotten, it was Woody Guthrie, a man who helped revive and popularize folk music in America.
Woody Sez- the life & music of Woody Guthrie — now at Westport Country Playhouse intersperses his life story, mostly told by David M. Lutkin as Woody, with renditions of the music he made so famous.
Guthrie lived a hard-scrabble life. He was born in Oklahoma but lived in both Texas and California as well as New York City. While he had brief periods of affluence, for the most part his life was the same as the farmers, oil rig workers and dust bowl refugees. He hopped rails, went to bed hungry, did whatever manual labor was available.
Yet while doing that Guthrie was a wandering minstrel who helped preserve classic folk songs as well as creating new ones that touched on social protest and political observation. A staunch member of the political left — and a good friend to many who were blacklisted in the ’40s and ’50s, Guthrie also wrote a newspaper column, “Woody Sez” — hence the title of the show — that commented on political and social issues in a rural dialect.
He wrote of the dust bowl, the Okies and Arkies who went to California to try to survive, to the union members who fought the bosses and even the merchant marines who helped win World War II. He was one of them.
Along the way he collected folk songs and wrote hundreds of others. Alan Lomax, the great folklorist recorded him for the Library Congress series.
When he came to New York he “hung out” with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Burl Ives and other great singer/writers. He was a founding member of the Almanacs, a folk group that helped lead to the Weavers and the folk revival.
Woody Sez started life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and has since been performed in both the US and England where it was nominated for a “best musical” award. It recently finished a successful run at NYC’s Irish Rep.
David M. Lutken, who plays Woody, not only devised the show (with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and Andy Teirstein) but also serves as the music director. Lutken has the lean look that we associate with Guthrie and a casual friendly manner that brings the audience into the story of Woody’s life.
His life had many tragic elements. His mother, who ended her life in a mental institution, is thought to have set several fires, one of which killed his older sister. She is believed to have suffered from the genetic neurological Huntington’s Disease. His father had both economic ups and downs and ended up leaving his children in Oklahoma while he went to work in Texas. Some people suspect the father also suffered from the disease, for which there is no cure. Woody himself developed Huntington’s Disease and died in 1967 after having spent years in a variety of mental institutions. The disease causes both physical ailments and mental disorders.
The show opens with “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and ends with “This Land Is Your Land’: but in between are over 20 other Guthrie songs from “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain”, “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Union Maid,” and “Do Re Mi” and lesser known works (to me) such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Oklahoma Hills,’ “Dust Storm Disaster” and more.
Lutken is joined by three talented musicians/actors who not only play a variety of roles — Will Geer, Guthrie’s mother and his sister, Pete Seeger and his radio partner Lefty Lou — but play multiple folk instruments including mandolin, banjo, violin and others.
David Finch, Leenya Rideout and Katie Barton all bring charm and musicality to the show. All have performed the show before, with Russell a member of the original cast.
The set by Luke Cantarella is flexible and simple — some large photos of Woody, instruments placed around the stage, and a barnlike feel.
This is a well performed and fascinating remembrance of an important man in American musical history. It would be an excellent show for teens and young adults who would find the stories of America in the ’20s and ’30s more compelling than any history book.
Woody Sez runs through Jan. 20. For tickets visit Westport Country Playhouse
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
Romeo & Juliet is so familiar to most of us, that sometimes attending a performance gives you that “what, again?” feeling.
That vanishes in the production currently at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 19.
Director Mark Lamos has always had a sure hand with Shakespeare and he proves it once again. Many years ago, at Hartford Stage he directed a production that has remained in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I wondered if he could do it again. This production may not reach the heights of that previous one – or my memory may be playing tricks on me – but it is a very good production in all its aspects.
You may be surprised at the emotional response you will have to this piece; after all we know the ending. You may also be surprised because Juliet, played wonderfully by Nicole Rodenburg, is not your usual petite, very slender Juliet. She still looks like teenager, but she is taller and has some substance to her. She’s not Calista Flockhart, who was Juliet in the Hartford production.
But Rodenburg convinces us that she is that willful teenager who so easily becomes infatuated and so determinedly opposes her father’s wishes.
But what I remember most about this production is the energy of the ensemble cast, the boyishness of Romeo’s friends, the violent anger of Juliet’s father.
This Romeo & Juliet is more an ensemble piece than one focusing only on the young lovers. Felicity Jones Latta is a garrulous and funny Nurse without seeming to milk the laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Friar Lawrence more anguished at the outcome. Peter Francis James isn’t your doddering old monk but a man of action who is dismayed when circumstances makes plan go all awry.
You can also point to the rough and tumble enthusiasm of James Cusati-Moyer as Romeo and his friends, Cole Francum as Paris and Tyler as Benvolio. These are truly teenagers who explode with energy and immaturity.
The fights and sword play were deftly choreographed by Michael Rossmy, the fight director.
Michael Yeargan has created a set that looks like a Renaissance tapestry or painting. It is filled with incredible detail and helps compensate for the minimal furniture on stage. One small complaint is that the balcony on the right of stage is so close to the front of the stage, that the view of anyone sitting on the side is partially blocked. I was craning my neck to see some of the balcony scene, despite sitting on the aisle.
To complement the set, Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created wonderful costumes that are inspired by the period.
Lamos has lighting designer Matthew Richard use soft, misty lighting at times, and bright sunlight at others. Only the balcony scene, a night scene, was too brightly lit. You did not sense that a moon was out.
Lamos has kept this play set in 15th-16th Italy. We aren’t transported to modern day or another country.
This Romeo & Juliet is a brisk, energetic and absorbing production. No, it isn’t the “best ever” but it is well worth a visit.
For tickets, contact Westport Playhouse.
By Karen Isaacs
Every year as theaters announce their up-coming seasons, certain productions pique my interest. I circle their dates on my calendar in anticipation.
So what have I circled for this up-coming year? Connecticut theaters offer a good mixture of the new, the classics, the familiar, and the rare. I have circled some of each.
(One caveat: Goodspeed, Ivoryton and Westport have not announced their productions for the first half of 2018. I’m sure some of those would have made my list).
Rags at Goodspeed Musicals (Oct. 6 –Dec. 10). This isn’t a new musical, but one of those shows that “failed” on Broadway but has developed a devoted following. Its authors, Charles Strouse (Bye, Bye Birdie,) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin), have worked on the show extensively with a new book writer (David Thompson) and the revised version has been performed to good reviews. This show about turn-of-the-20th century Jewish immigrants seems timely; the score is excellent.
Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story at Seven Angels Theater, (Feb. 15 – March 11). I’m not sure if this is a one-woman show or not, but it focuses on the life and career of vaudeville star Sophie Tucker.
The Bridges of Madison County at MTC (Nov. 3-19). I love Jason Robert Brown’s score for this adaptation of the novel. I’ll be interested in how director Kevin Connors handles it on the smaller stage. I suspect it will increase the intimacy and emotional impact.
Oklahoma at Goodspeed (through Sept. 27). I’ve already seen this production and while it is quite good, it disappointed me. It didn’t live up to all I had hoped it would be.
I like Shakespeare and Connecticut is blessed with two directors who have a track record of outstanding productions of Shakespeare. Each is directing a work this fall.
Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse (Oct. 31 to Nov. 19). Artistic Director Mark Lamos directed one of the best productions of this tragedy at Hartford Stage years ago. I still remember it and hope this production will live up to his earlier one.
Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage (Sept. 7 to Oct. 8). Artistic Director Darko Tresjnak has given Connecticut an almost annual Shakespeare production including terrific productions of MacBeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and a riotous A Comedy of Errors. Now he is turning his hand to this classic comedy. It’s bound to be good.
It seems as though Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is having a resurgence; there were two productions in New York last season and now it is opening Yale Rep’s season (Oct 6 -28). This play is about individual responsibility, courage, economics, and environmental health, yet it was written almost 140 years ago.
Dramas & Comedies (New, Familiar & Rare)
Matthew Lopez is a fine younger playwright, whose works I’ve enjoyed (The Whipping Man, Reverberation), so I’m looking forward to The Legend of Georgia McBride at TheaterWorks (March 15 – April 22). It’s about a young man, a former Elvis impersonator who becomes a successful drag queen.
Fireflies (Oct. 11 – Nov. 5) at Long Wharf is featuring an outstanding cast including Jane Alexander. For that reason alone, it’s on my list.
The Connecticut Rep is doing Our Country’s Good (Nov. 30 – Dec. 9). It premiered at Hartford Stage many years ago and is a fascinating look at the founding of Australia and the power of theater to transform people.
Almost all of Hartford Stage’s productions sound interesting, but if I am to pick just one it would be Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act, (May 10- June 3). Why? Athol Fugard is one of the great playwrights and this is an earlier work, plus it reveals more about life under apartheid in South Africa.
It’s also hard to pick which Yale Rep play will astound me: I am unfamiliar with many of them. But if forced to circle just one on my calendar, it would be Kiss, (April 27-May) by Guillermo Calederón. Why? The description sounds interesting: about people surviving in Damascus.
I did not get to see Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist off-Broadway, so I’m looking forward to the Playhouse on Park production, April 11-29. It’s about a young man who visits an elderly cousin in Warsaw who is a Holocaust survivor.
These twelve selections are just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the other scheduled productions, including those at the Bushnell, sound very interesting. So check them all out. Connecticut has amazing theater!