Monday, March 13, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey A Star is Re-Born



How are we going to find out about women in science? Certainly not from textbooks. When Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA, no one mentioned Rosalind Franklin but without her work, the genetic code could not have been cracked. Thank heavens there’s a play about Franklin. And bless the Flat Earth Theatre for their splendid production of SILENT/SKY (playing through March 25th) about the Harvard Observatory women who singlehandedly mapped the skies.

Bet you’ve never heard of Henrietta Leavitt! Without her groundbreaking method of measuring distances in space (based on time and the brightness of pulsing stars) astronomers like Edwin Powell Hubble would never have been able to discover the existence of other galaxies or formulate the famous “Hubble Constant” (about the ratio between a distant galaxy and the rate at which it’s receding from us).

You, no doubt, recognize the Hubble name from the giant orbiting space telescope launched in 1990. Imagine my surprise, when I turned to my trusty, dog-eared copy of Webster’s New World Encyclopedia for the correct spelling of Hubble … and found that Hubble is credited for Leavitt’s work with Cepheid variable stars! (Why am I not surprised!)

If you want the real storyand a first rate play, to bootyou must see Lauren Gunderson’s lovely SILENT/SKY which chronicles three actual female “computers” (i.e. star counters) at Harvardand the appealing back story Gunderson imagines for them. Her dialogue is smart-as-a-whip and plenty witty, viewing these turn of the century women with a twenty-first century eye!

If Gunderson’s name seems familiar, you may have seen Theatre On Fire’s crackerjack production of her EXIT PURSUED BY A BEAR a couple of seasons ago. Boy, can she write! There you sit, learning intricate scientific theories without even feeling the pinchbecause the story and the characters are so damned compelling.

Director Dori A. Robinson’s production is just as compelling, with (dare I say) a star turn from Erin Eva Butcher as the unsatisfied Ph.D. mathematician relegated to repetitious star counting. Leavitt left Wisconsin for Cambridge so she could view the sky through the Observatory telescope. She is thwarted from the get-go by an officious male supervisor (Marcus Hunter in a nifty “transformation” role) and by her two co-counters who see little value in a confrontation with Harvard’s male establishment.

Annie Cannon’s resolve is softened as the play progresses (Cassandra Meyer as the tough scientist/suffragette) while Juliet Bowler as the Scottish Williamina Fleming provides gentle comic relief. Leavitt’s supportive but disapproving sister (a charming Brenna Sweet) is the playwright’s invention, as is Hunter’s smitten supervisor, both conjured to provide contrast to Leavitt’s cloistered observatory life.

See it for the remarkable script or the superb Flat Earth production: This is what a fringe company can do with good material and a boatload of passion!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey From Soup to Nuts



Heidi Schreck’s GRAND CONCOURSE (playing @ SpeakEasy Stage through April 1st) makes you think of Grand Central Station but it’s actually a soup kitchen where lost souls in transit can hear a kind word, enjoy a hearty bowl of soup and move onto the next shelter or their next crisis. It’s also a mecca where some come to find solace, even redemption through the act of volunteering.

The kitchen is run by a take charge nun (Melinda Lopez in a solid performance) who is having a crisis of faith herself, wondering if one bowl of sustenance can really make a difference to the needy people she serves. Sometimes, to her surprise, a volunteer (Ally Dawson in an intense performance) may need more help than the homeless.

Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s lovely, lyrical production is full of sweet humor, from the cheeky young caretaker/handyman (Alejandro Simoes at his most charming) who isn’t sure he’s ready to marry his sweetheart just yetand from Thomas Derrah in a tour de force as a delightful, down-on-his-luck, bi-polar regular who, despite being forbidden to, sneaks in to the church at night to sleep in the sanctuary.

These four characters collide, with extremely serious consequences that, curiously, don’t develop dramatically until the very end of the play, leaving us to wonder what will happen to these desperate people. We can only guess… which makes the piece a series of painterly vignettes not unlike Elmer Rice’s slice-of-life STREET SCENE.

Forgiveness is a theme, as is sacrifice, as is the church itself, whose (metaphorical) cracked, damaged stained glass windows tower over Jenna McFarland Lord’s spiffy, spacious kitchen. I left the play, reminded of the fact that most downtown historical (Protestant) churches allow the homeless to sleep in their outside entryways but not inside their buildings. (This is because they’re afraid of the damage strangers might wreak on the plumbing and religious artifacts they hold so dear. Really? Could they not employ a caretaker to watch over a few beds in their basements?)

I left with other questions, too, about what forgiveness is, for example: what it can and can’t do. Schreck sure knows how to get an audience thinking.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The Perilous Fight



Ike Holter’s edgy, passionate script, ironically called EXIT STRATEGY, is exactly the type of play Zeitgeist Stage can sink its creative teeth into. Some of director David Miller’s best work has been in plays which center around students in crisis. (I’m remembering his sensitive staging of SPRING AWAKENING and his powerful take on PUNK ROCK).

Holter wrote EXIT STRATEGY two years ago to focus attention on the unsound and unsafe state of our inner city schoolsbut the play couldn’t be more timely, now that Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education. It’s quite clear that Mr. Trump, instead of the old presidential promise of “a chicken in every pot,” has installed a fox in every henhouse.

EXIT STRATEGY (playing through March 11th) grabs hold of the audience with its characters’ quirky rhythms and truncated, staccato dialogue. Their fragmented speech anticipates the looming disintegration of their schooland their lives. They’re barely coping, without enough books or computers or time… barely functioning, certainly not concentrating on learning when they all know in their hearts what’s coming: The school will be closed to save money, if not today, then at the end of the year, and the money saved will be funneled into “better” schools in “better” neighborhoods, for students who are already advantaged.

Miller has a first rate cast: Maureen Adduci and Robert Bonotto are sublime as the older, battle worn teachers. Bonotto, especially, breaks your heart with a poignant revelation. Holter invents several heartrending moments that we don’t see coming, one of which has Johnny Quinones’ name on it.

The playwright gives Matthew Fagerberg’s character quite a journey, too, from toeing the management line to joining the opposition. Fagerberg gives a bold, compelling performance. Victoria George, as well, gives a wry performance as the teacher with the patience of Job, sweetly deferring to the mania around her.

What a cast Miller has assembled! Lillian Gomes is simply delightful as the excitable English teacher: The stage lights up when she enters. (And she rocks Elizabeth Cole Sheehan’s gorgeous costumes!) Jalani Dottin-Coye, too, is quite a find. He gives a tour de force as the smart-as-a-whip student who galvanizes the faculty and inspires righteous resistance. He’s funny. He’s charismatic. He’s a presence.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

NOT SO QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Revolution at New Rep



The New Repertory Theatre’s splendid BRECHT ON BRECHT (playing through March 5th) was chosen well before the election. Director Jim Petosa ironically remarked that they thought it would be a small jab in the eye of the new, ceiling shattering administration. Irony, mother’s milk to Bertholt Brecht! Instead the show rivals the sobering surrealism we’re encountering daily.

Brecht revolutionized modern theater with his stark subject matter… and by departing from traditional dramatic strictures: No more sitting in the dark. No more complacency. No identifying with sympathetic or idealistic characters. He staged the consequences of, say, a botched Navy Seal raid. He would put the bloody, mangled bodies of Yemeni innocents center stage, just so we’d recoil. Here is the cruelty of the real world, he would say. No more pretending. No more lovely fantasies. Lights on. Get ready to squirm.

Oh, he fantasized (with the aid of a defiant, dissonant, sneering score from Kurt Weill for The Threepenny Opera) but they were Pirate Jenny’s revenge fantasies, of a ship with eight sails and fifty canons opening fire. Petosa stages her song for the New Rep production with Jenny (the wonderful Christine Hamel) looking down over the crowd she would obliterate if she could, for treating her so badly. And Petosa gets even more traction by transforming Hamel into the actual figurehead on the bowsprit of the deadly vessel!

George Tabori’s sampler of writings and songs brought me immediately back to the heyday of the American Repertory Theater under the helm of Robert Brustein, when they staged production after production of Büchner and Brecht which dispatched us stunned, horrified and converted (Brecht the socialist would have been so pleased) into the night.

In The Theatre of Revolt, Brustein’s breathtaking analysis of “Modern theater from Ibsen to Genet,” he deftly analyzes the duality in Brecht’s writing about the evil man heaps upon his fellow man. Is it in man’s very nature or the evils of society that cause such mayhem? Brustein maintains that Brecht doesn’t answer the question. “His point,” Brustein elegantly posits, “is that the world must be changed; his counterpoint is that the world will always be the same.”

Tabori’s selections for this “savage” revue include a chilling musing from Brecht’s late writings inspired by Eastern religions. “Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House” embraces Brecht’s affinity for the nothingness of the “void,” as the inhabitants of a house burn because they refuse to leave; as well as the sardonic “optimism” of the gentlemen in “Of Poor B. B.” who say “Things will improve,” to which Brecht adds “And I don’t ask when.”

A number of Brecht’s collaborations are represented in the piece, especially with Weill, which the talented troupe nimbly embraces. Yet another of Brecht’s disorienting devices (borrowed from the Berlin cabarets) is to deliver searing lyrics as if they were a lullaby, then suddenly shock the audience into submission. Music director Matthew Stern (who is wheeled out trussed up like a faceless René Magritte portrait) plays cascades of lovely, melodic notes which descend underneath the most lethal of lyrics in The Threepenny Opera, sung by Mack the Knife.

The incomparable Brad Daniel Peloquin recounts Mackie’s lurid adventures in the softest, sweetest of tones until Stern manufactures pure violence out of the piano, jolting us out of our seats with a crash bang. Then they return to Peloquin’s dulcet tenor and gorgeous accompaniment to finish the aria. (Somewhere-somewhere Brecht is smiling. If smiling is allowed. If there is a somewhere.)

The cast march gleefully in formation for the sardonic “Let’s all go barmy. We love the army.” Of course those rifles will be pointed at us. Carla Martinez and Hamel illustrate masochistic womankind for us, refusing well-to-do suitors in favor of more exciting heels with an arrogant, cynical “Sorry.” Then Martinez rages and rhapsodizes about the “rat” she can’t stop loving in “Surabaya Johnny.” Jake Murphy as the soldier and Martinez as “the mouse” sing about fleeting happiness “in the room where we play house.” They all sing “Show me the way to the next whisky bar,” perhaps next to “Moritat,” the most familiar song in the show (to rockers, that is), thanks to Jim Morrison and the Doors.

Perhaps the most memorable (and most frightening) quote of the performance is “Although we stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” I don’t know about the rest of my audience but my heart was dragging on the ground. Thank heavens they ended on a hopeful note, with that old, fantastic Spanish moon!



* My only quibble (and it’s very, very small) is that the works from which the scenes and songs were chosen were not identified in the program…And Ryan Bates’ backdrop full of wide, watching eyes were not identified either. I think one eye belonged to Richard Wagner? And one to Man Ray. Jim Pitosa kindly told me the startling close-up is the chanteuse, Brissai, and that Genet got into the act but who were the other famous eyes? I would love to know. A small, small matter indeed.

Monday, February 6, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Full Tilt Ayckbourn



If you saw the Huntington’s delicious production of Alan Ayckbourn’s BEDROOM FARCE, then you know he’s a master of contemporary comedy (with over eighty plays in his resume) and a witty wordsmith in the tradition of Oscar Wilde. (Just about everyone I know marks THE NORMAN CONQUESTS their favorite.)

The old Lyric Stage Company on Charles Street introduced Boston to Ayckbourn’s brand of physical comedy over thirty years ago, producing many of his farces, among them a smashing version (or should I say versions) of his INTIMATE EXCHANGES (which have over sixteen permutations.) Happily, it has resurfaced this month at the Nora Theatre in Central Square.

The current, spiffy production (playing through Feb. 12th) is directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. It’s a slow starter but once the machine gets momentum, it works like gangbusters. Mind you, you have to have a taste for British farce… and it always takes an audience ten minutes or so to acclimate to the English accents and the rhythms of farce. As they say, tragedy is easy. Comedy is hard. It has to be just light enough and just fast enough to explode in the vicinity of your hypothalamus.

Acykbourn’s conceit (and he always has one) is that two actors play four people, exiting just as their alternate character arrives, barely missing their alter ego, as it were. The Nora production adds audience participation (not to worry) to the mix in that we vote at intermission for one of two possible endings.

Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane portray an unhappy husband and wife, their cheeky gardener and an overexcited teenager who flirts shamelessly with the willing grounds keeper. The wife, too, is tempted by the attentive gardener who then falls head over heels for her, annoying the teenager no end… while the husband drowns his career troubles in whisky, hardly aware of the Sturm and Drang swirling about him.

The physical comedy is superb (the relentless hiccups being my favorite), the double entendres are hilarious and the character delineations are spot on. Changing character is easier for an actress because she has wigs to help out. An actor must change his looks with his wits (and in this case, a mustache). I don’t know how Ziane managed it, but his eyebrows remained in the usual place as the gardener but leapt downward, knitting together like the top of an inverted triangle as the disapproving husband, practically meeting in his semi-scowl. He hardly needed that mustache! His monologue on “the ten reasons why one is driven to drink” is reason alone to see the play.

Bedard as the headmaster’s neglected wife, too, handles the twin states of exasperation and confusion like a seasoned comedienne. Both actors covey their characters, to a large extent, through their vocal pitch and I couldn’t keep from noticing that Bedard in wife mode sounds exactly like Debra Wise, the co-founder of The Central Square Theatre, something I found fascinating but not particularly germane to the production. Suffice it to say, if you like Ayckbourn, do take in this little gem.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SOLIDARITY FOREVER



Unemployed coal workers trusting the government to reopen their mines and restore their jobs? No, it’s not the West Virginians who believe Trump’s campaign promises. It’s the plot of BILLY ELLIOT, a plucky gem of a musical based on the film of the same name about striking mine workers in Great Britain. The 1980s were the Thatcher years when the “Iron Lady” broke the unions and put 200,000 men out of work. At the center of one impoverished coal family is a boy who dreams of becoming a dancer and a dad who expects his sons to follow in his dusty footsteps.

The heroic story of BILLY ELLIOT(@ Wheelock Family Theatre through Feb. 26th) is a heart wrencher and the remarkable Wheelock production is packed with show stoppers. Director Susan Kosoff makes every scene resonate and choreographer Laurel Conrad makes each and every member of the cast a dazzling dancer, even the miners! Jon Goldberg’s orchestra transfuses the Elton John/Lee Hall score directly into your blood stream: You cannot keep from moving to the beat, especially in the anthemsand there’s more than one in this infectious pop musical.

Billy (the astonishing Seth Judice) fell into dance purely by mistake. He was supposed to be taking boxing lessons to toughen him up, as he’s the baby of the family. His mother (a loving Gigi Watson) has died and he’s trying to cope. Luckily he has a supportive grandmother (a spunky Cheryl D. Singleton) who, once upon a time, loved to dance, and a best friend (a charming Shane Boucher) who marches to the beat of a different drum.

Kosoff’s spirited ensemble adds an element of electricity you don’t often see in such abundance. Every song works like gangbusters. The big production numbers pay off handsomely and the “small” moments that tug on your heartstrings will have you reaching for your tissues more than once. The righteous, pounding Solidarity number weaves together marching strikers, responding police and little girls in tutus, without collision or confrontation, in a choreographic feat which would give the Radio City Rockettes pause.

The Wheelock production has a cast of stellar performers, many of whom headline shows around town. For instance, Aimee Doherty as the dance teacher who corrals Billy into her class, plays her flinty on the outside while letting us know she’s pleased to no end to be able to mentor and stand up for the sweet, talented boy. That means she’s taking on Neil Gustafson as his stalwart, unyielding father and Jared Troilo as his hot headed, macho brother. Gustafson has a shattering song about his dead wife, Deep Into The Ground, which he nails in a heart breaking solo.

Peter S. Adams is another local star who shines as Big Davey, coalminer, hard-boiled striker and –would you believe, he’s kicking up his heels in the production numbers! Mark Soucy, too, crisply leads the police in riot formation, as they parade in the choreographed pandemonium. John Davin, as well, delivers lots of laughs as the hard-nosed boxing instructor not afraid to flatten his young charges.

Gary Thomas Ng nearly steals the show in the “boogie” scene as the stodgy rehearsal pianist who can “shuffle off to Buffalo” with the best of them! Speaking of scene stealing, a wee actor named Ben Choi-Harris is pretty good at theater larceny. Lily Ramras gets to play the bratty ballet dancer, daughter of the teacher and she’s awfully good at it, too. Byron Darden is quite amusing as the “posh dad” at the big audition and Will Christmann is a standout as the future Billy.

If you know the musical, you’ll be surprised how well this tightened version tells the story and you’ll be astonished at what Matthew T. Lazure has done with a compact set; with Franklin Meissner Jr’s captivating lighting, with Melissa Miller’s ingenious costumes and most of all, with the ensemble of players who give it their all.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Mouth to Hand Existence



AVENUE Q this isn’t. Robert Askins’ much touted play, HAND TO GOD (@ SpeakEasy Stage Company through Feb. 4th), is more CHUCKIE meets THE EXORCIST than child’s play. Poor Jason, (the likeable Eliott Purcell). His father just died. His mom (Marianna Bassham) is falling apart and she needs his help launching a puppet ministry at the local church.

It’s no surprise that Jason’s puppet can utter things the teenager wouldn’t dare to and before you can say Roxanna Myhrum, her nasty little puppet creation has taken over. “Tyrone” has the satanic voice of the devil and some demonic objectives, as well. The flummoxed pastor (Lewis D. Wheeler) wonders if it’s the puppet who’s possessed or the boy whose arm animates it. (Purcell’s voice gets a strenuous workout, shifting from normal range to terrifying growl when Tyrone is in control.)

Tyrone’s blue language, and even bluer behavior made the play a sensation in New York but you can hear “language” (the warning on X-rated films) exactly like this on Showtime or HBO and as for the play’s shocking sexual scenes, you can see much more explicit depictions on TV. There’s the rub: You don’t usually see it on stage… unless Ryan Landry is cleverly presenting it as satire. (If Askins intended HAND TO GOD as satire, we have to know what is being ridiculed and we don’t.) It seems to me that all the controversy surrounding the play is a tempest in a teapot or more exactly, a tempest in a toilet.

At times Askins clearly wants us to take the puppet’s philosophical analyses quite seriouslybut the playwright’s attempts at moralizing are so caught up in the carnage and the carnal frenzy, that any message is simply overpowered. (David R. Gammons’ cast does amaze but again, alas, they’re overpowered by the gratuitous material.)

To boot, I couldn’t untangle a lot of what Tyrone was saying because of his deep, gravelly voice. Thank heaven, seated next to me was an audience member who repeated out loud anything he found amusing. (You know, people who talk during a show as if they’re in their own living room.) In this case, I was grateful for the help although I did not share the man’s sense of humor.