Sunday, October 19, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Unsettling Memento



Theatre on Fire, in its tenth year of staging edgy, inquisitive theater, is presenting IT FELT EMPTY WHEN THE HEART WENT AT FIRST BUT IS ALRIGHT NOW (playing through Nov. 1st) written by British Blackburn Prize winning playwright, Lucy Kirkwood. Because TOF is turning 10 this season, all tickets at every show are $10! That’s reason to celebrate!

Kirkwood’s play, which might have taken a hard look at human trafficking, doesn’t delve nearly deeply enough. It’s content to be a character study of a naive young Russian émigré whose spirit is broken by a lover who is in truth a pimp. Why she fails to realize immediately what’s going on in front of heris beyond me but let’s say it’s Kirkwood’s poetic license driving the story.

We meet Dijana in three different scenes (not in chronological order) which demonstrate how she copes psychologically with her disturbing, new life in England. Director Maureen Shea’s visceral production features two remarkable actresses: Elizabeth Milanovich as the disillusioned, delusional Russian woman and Obehi Janice as perhaps her only friend in the world.

When the scenes change, we change our locale, from the downstairs playing area to the upstairs space and back again. The light loves Milanovich in the first scene: She glows as she relates her plan to buy her way out of prostitution. But the luminosity fades as her situation worsens. Designer Chris Bocchiaro doubles back with the upstairs lighting so that Milanovich is silhouetted against a window overlooking the actual street below us. Brittle, end of summer ivy leaves crush against the glass, trapped by the wind forcing them against the pane, a nifty metaphor for the girl’s falling fortunes.

Milanovich is a quivering mass of cheery denial which eventually gives way to fearful twitches reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve’s in Roman Polanski’s REPULSION. The actress’ stamina is simply astonishing, carrying two thirds of the play all by herself (and her Russian is spot on, to boot.). We certainly feel sorry for the poor, broken girl who clings to fantasies. Milanovich generates plenty of heat with her portrayal but Kirkwood doesn’t shed much light on the subject of sexual slavery. The character with much more dimension (and promise) is Janice’s tough, confidant roommate but she, alas, is limited to only one scene.

In the realm of the bizarre, this has been a week for dramas about prostitutes, from the doomed Camille character in Boston Lyric Opera’s stunning La Traviata to Cameron Cronin’s show stopping courtesan in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s wild COMEDY OF ERRORS to TOF’s fragile portrait of innocence betrayed.

Friday, October 17, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Merry Mix-Up @ Actors’ Shakespeare Project



The ASP’s wild and wooly take on Shakespeare’s shortest (and funniest) play, THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, is only running through Oct. 19th so race to the Brighton High School or you’ll miss one of the best shows of the season.

Shakespeare borrowed the bones of his plot from Plautus’ earlier version but not content to have only one set of twins to run amok, the Bard added a second set to be their servants, thereby quadrupling the laughter. (Each twosome of man and manservant has the same names as the other couple, just to solidify the confusion. You can see why nerves are gloriously frayed.)

Director David R. Gammons ups the complications a wee bit more by setting the comedy in a down at heel country circus where an impatient ringleader (Cameron M. Cronin of Imaginary Beasts fame) puts his performers through their paces. The more exasperated Cronin becomes, the better for us. He gripes endlessly at the troupe’s hilarious missteps, consulting a miniature, suede bound collector’s copy of the script. The only thing more delicious is a resentful Cronin all dolled up in red wig and gown to play a courtesan because he’s run out of performers.

The ERRORS do get sorted out and the misunderstandings ironed out but not before reaching wit’s end: Plungers are drawn as weapons, dinnerware goes air born and an elephant trumpets his protest from back stage. A goodly half the actors double and triple roles, without regard to age or gender so a pink bewigged, bearded Richard Snee becomes the coy sister of one twin’s wife. Snee pulls it off so demurely, we can see why the other twin is smitten! Gammons’ game actors manage the controlled hysteria like skillful jugglers, never “run[ning] the humour out of breath.”

Jesse Hinson’s twin desperately gestures his lines as if we haven’t heard or understood them. Omar Robinson, as Hinson’s twin, likewise shouts his dialogue…which stands to reason as each is mirror to the other, in appearance and dubious judgment. Susan S. McGinnis and Eddie Shields join the romp of mistaken identities as the servants. (It’s Gail Astrid Buckley’s inspired costumes which really identify the characters.) Without the “hat”-“no hat” device we would have no hope of separating Sarah Newhouse’s characters who appear together, simultaneously!

Paige Clark masters five (six counting the sideshow conceit) characters with aplomb and Ryan O’Connor towers over the proceedings with vacant, back ringed eyes, in a skeletal costume inspired, perhaps, by a Tim Burton movie. His “hollow eyed” schoolmaster is the “living dead man” Shakespeare describes. Even his Nell is frightening. Adding to the humor are David Wilson’s musical and sound punctuations. O HAPPY DAY, indeed. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey All In The Game



Bill Doncaster’s TWO BOYS LOST (presented by Stickball Productions through Oct. 25th) is a riveting tale of one stressed out familyIt could be any family, give or take a bad break or twoon Christmas Eve. Christmas does that to people but bickering is already an art to the Molineaux clan. They can implode just as easily over calzone as they can over Jimmy, the schizophrenic son whose demons keep him homeless and terrified.

In his few lucid moments, Jimmy worries about his brother, Eddie, who has taken on the responsibility and burden of rescuing him. As boys, they played at saving each other from pirates and sundry dangers, calling themselves “the two lost boys.” Now it’s true. Jimmy is lost in train tunnels and brain tunnels. His loving brother feels he’s lost control of his life, on call 24/7 to rescue Jimmy from street situations, police stations and thieves who will even steal his shoes. If that’s not enough to push a man over the edge, Eddie has a nasty ex who tries to keep him from seeing his son. And he has his own demanding mother to contend with.

Doncaster writes lovely, funny dialogue for solid, compelling characters. When the sister arrives back at her mother’s after running errands, she finds her brother and mother going at it hammer and tong. “Is this still or again?” she quips sarcastically. And Doncaster cleverly creates a character with clear vision and enough distance to see every other character’s flaws. Eddie’s treasure of a second wife is the calm, cool voice of reason.

Happily, director James Peter Sotis has a dream cast to animate these complex characters: Cheryl McMahon is a force to be reckoned with as Ma, the proud, strong-willed, difficult to please mother who lays down the law for the Molineaux family. Ma has her reasons and McMahon manages to soften her character so we can see she’s not made of stone. James Bocock gives a powerful performance as Eddie, awash in heartbreak, as he watches his brother and his dreams slip away. Jade Guerra as “the good wife” radiates wisdom and strengthand she’s delightfully funny, as well.

As Jimmy, Brett Milanowski skillfully captures the visceral pain of mental illness: We see it eating at him, torturing him with guilt and paranoia. Shawna Ciampa, too, as Jimmy and Eddie’s sister, captures the fragility that comes from constant worry.

The evening opens with a treat, a curtain raiser, a cheeky, comic ten minute piece called STEP ON ME by Lisa Wagner Erickson. It sounds masochistic…well, it is masochistic, but not in the conventional sense. Liz Michael Hartford and Michael Towers taunt and tease each other until she submits to his entreaties, but not in the conventional way. That’s all I’m saying about it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey ROGUE GALLERY



Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s controversial musical, ASSASSINS, is back to remind us how violent these United States are. This time out New Repertory Theatre is assembling the shooting gallery, playing through Oct. 26th appropriately enough, at the Arsenal Center.

The musical is a conundrum. The historical context is fascinating. The message that someone can make a name for him/herself by assassination is chilling and the songs are gorgeousbut perverse in the mouths of these evildoers. “Everybody’s Got the Right [to a Dream]” is one of Sondheim’s loveliest but the dream, in this case, involves a gun and a president.
 

When ASSASSINS debuted, audiences were shocked at what seemed like a glorification of violence. A quarter of a century later, I’m horrified to say, people are more than familiar with news of mass murder ( from children killing their classmates to homegrown and foreign terrorism to the “collateral damage” from drone and missile attacks we hear about every day on the news). Now ASSASSINS seems more of a cautionary taleand sad, solid evidence that our country has always had a fascination with violence.
 

The shadow of recent history casts a frightening resonance on the musical that it didn’t have before. Most surprising is the vignette about the failed presidential assassin, Sam Byck, who planned to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House way before 9-11. Ironically, after the musical’s first disappointing outing, Sondheim and Weidman were ready to try it again. Time had passed. Backers were found and they were scheduled to open in November of 2001. Then 9-11 happened and they didn’t.



Director Jim Petosa’s straightforward production unfolds on a giant American flag (set design by Kamilla Kurmenbekova) whose stars all display black bullet holes, repeated in carnival proprietor/cheerleader Benjamin Evett’s patriotic coat (by Chelsea Kerl).

Music director Matthew Stern’s ensemble delivers the songs with conviction and humor. Standout performances include Mark Linehan’s commanding Booth (whose final prayer is especially, surprisingly touching), Brad Peloquin’s quirky, almost childlike assassin and Kevin Patrick Martin’s desperate, lonely gunman. Their seemingly innocent, lilting trio (“All you have to do is crook your little finger…”) morphs into a barbershop quartet (by adding a female assassin) becoming, despite its gentle tune, passionless instruction for a shooting.

Also affecting are Harrison Bryan (although his over the top Italian accent kept me from making out some of the lyrics and maybe it’s just because I saw SWEENEY TODD a week ago, but he sounds a lot like Pirelli, Sweeney’s nemesis), McCaela Donovan and Paula Langton as inept, ineffectual wannabes, Casey Tucker as a proud, determined Emma Goldman and Peter S. Adams as the wacky Sam Byck (although placing him at the far end of the stage each time meant we had difficulty (and I was in the center section) hearing all of his rant.

Best of all, in a tour de force is Evan Gambardella, first as the balladeer, there at the start to chronicle the first assassination, then as a confused, reluctant Lee Harvey Oswald, entreated by all the other assassins, to give them historical importance. When he gives himself over to his brothers/sisters in arms, we feel sorry for him. Even if you don’t subscribe to the lone gunman theory, the Oswald segment works as theater and Gambardella creates a character you won’t soon forget.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

NOT SO QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Another Knockout Production from Imaginary Beasts



While Picasso and Braque were busy in Paris deconstructing modern art, cubists in Russia, too, were laying waste to form and content. While Malevich and the Suprematists were radicalizing painting, Daniil Ivanovitch Iuvachev (later known as Daniil Kharms) and friends were knocking the stuffing out of formal literature. Kharms and his associates advocated a theater without logic or connection. KNOCK! THE DANIIL KHARMS PROJECT (caroming around the BCA through Oct. 18th) is the IMAGINARY BEASTS’ stunning take on Kharms’ surreal life and work. Don’t miss it.

The Beasts already embrace gestural language, musicality, physicality and a wild imagination to enliven their productions so Kharms would seem the perfect fit for such an adventurous company. And to think, the world might never have seen Kharms’ work: Stalin imprisoned him for his avant-garde, anti-socialist bent and later, even after he joined the Soviet Writers’ Union, he was again arrested and banned from publishing. He died in 1942 of starvation in one of the republic’s infamous, so called “mental hospitals.” Miraculously, a friend rescued his manuscripts, which didn’t surface until the 1960s. A lively, new translation by Irina Yakubovskaya found its way to the Beasts and the result is a world premiere—and to quote their press, a “once-in-a-lifetime event.” And that it is.

Michael McMahan’s adroit adaptation combines not only Kharms’ poetry, plays and short stories but actual elements of the author’s harrowing lifeso that odd, little stage inventions coexist with snatches of peculiar conversations, bits of nonsense dialogue and Kharms’ revelatory black humor. Director Matthew Woods and company add their trademark wizardry for a performance of breathtaking visuals and hilarious commedia del’arte.

Kharms’ seemingly lunatic vignettes build to a menacing dread. A parade of “buffoons” follows a man pulling a sled, confiscating the pages which fall out of his suitcase. Then in another scene, they form an endless line so no one can get ahead. They may waddle in their billowing great coats and sport red clown noses but we instinctively know they’re the automatons who represent repression.

The man slowly, laboriously pulling the sled behind him (Michael Chodos) is the embodiment of Kharms himself as we imagine him, slightly bent over resigned to his fate, plodding headlong into a snow storm. Happily, the exquisite, swirling snow effect (caught in Christopher Bocchiaro’s almost blinding back light) is repeated throughout, since it’s one of the loveliest visuals in the performance.

Images speed by your visual field, sparking recognition and resonance: so many references, so many connections to what may seem at first to have none. It’s exhilarating. It’s thrilling. And it’s full of surprises. A dangerous Joey Pelletier tells us his wife has run away. (And we know why: He plucks a fly out of the air for an afternoon snack like Dracula’s assistant, Renfield.) He warns us not to “go around with peasants.” You’d certainly want to steer clear of him, although Sarah Gazdowicz manages to cleverly outmaneuver the scary watchman.

William Schuller (as the writer) is presented a desk by his exceedingly elderly aunt (Molly Kimmerling) but he doesn’t seem to know which way is up. Just when we think the Beasts have exhausted all the bizarre and delightful positions Schuller can assume and still not be able to write, they slide a chair sideways onto/under him for the frosting on the cake in one of the best sight gags ever.

Michael Underhill is no slouch in the contortions department, either. His gravity defying coup also involves a chair and an inability to employ it in the accepted mode. Every scene is a revelation (but not in the sense of complete, rational understanding). You have to let it all wash over you subjectively and give yourself over to the ride. Chris Larson’s sound design and Woods’ brilliant country “door” set, not to mention the musical choices which build the emotional impact of the scenes, all serve to reinforce the authentic “Russian” feel of the material. Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s whimsical costume designs (especially for Chodos’ snow scene and for Mariagrazia LaFauci’s ethereal “angel of death”) are simply incomparable. I could hold forth for hours about the production and the talented ensemble. Suffice it to say I’m immensely grateful to learn about Kharms and to have witnessed another inspirational offering from the Beasts. They’re like no other company around.

Monday, September 22, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey NIE WIEDER




Zeitgeist Stage is honoring the 35th anniversary of the Holocaust play, BENT, Martin Sherman’s frightening, ultimately redemptive play about the gay men who perished, along with the Jews and gypsies, in Hitler’s concentration camps. Director David Miller’s production (running through Oct. 11th) features two powerful performances by Victor L. Shopov and Brooks Reeves as the imprisoned men who will be each other’s salvation.  

Zeitgeist is known for its tightly knit, compact productions in the Black Box at the BCA. For BENT they have moved to the comparatively spacious Plaza theater, next to the box space but with the move come some complications. The first scene in Max’s living room makes it seem like a sprawling penthouse. Just using the imaginary bathroom takes precious seconds to get offstage. And placing the decadent, cross-dressed cabaret chanteuse (whom Miller uses for running satirical effect) in front of the apartment space puts “Greta” much too close to the audience.

Some opening weekend jitters distracted from the story early on but by the time Shopov and Reeves are the sole players on stage (except for the Nazi guards), the horror and the beauty of their relationship carries the play toward its chilling conclusion. A lovely performance by Robert Bonotto, as Max’s closeted uncle is one of the pleasures of Miller’s productions. Mikey DiLoreto, too, scores points as the dancer who, like the uncle, thinks the Nazis won’t come for him.

Thomas Grenon is terrifying as the sadistic lieutenant who forces Max to perform unspeakable acts in order to save himself. Shopov’s transformation, in response to Reeves’ luminous humanity, more than makes up for the small production problems. This is a major play which deserves to be seen. The German phrase, “Nie wieder” meaning “never again” serves as both apology and pledge but we know full well that it has happened again, all over the world.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey FAR FAR AWAY



FAR FROM HEAVEN (@ SpeakEasy Stage through Oct. 11th) is a musical remake of the 2002 Todd Haynes movie of the same namewhich itself is an homage/remake of the 1955 Douglas Sirk Technicolor soap opera, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (which was also adapted, brilliantly I might add, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder but that has nothing to do with this). They all center round a woman whose “picture perfect” life is turned upside downwho then turns to her gardener for support, thereby scandalizing friends, family and, it seems, the whole world: Certainly, her whole world.

The scandal in the 1955 film stems from the difference in their ages and social positions: The housewife is considerably older and wealthier than the gardener. In the 2002 FAR FROM HEAVEN movie, the scandal is race and social status. I’m swept away every time I see the corny Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman vehicle (Turner Classic Movies loves Sirk) but the musical, alas, just didn’t do it for me. It should have. The book by Richard Greenberg avoids a whitewash of the 1950s. I grew up in the homophobic, racist, republican decade: No picnic if you were poor or gay or African-American. All I can say about the ‘50s is thank God for the ‘60s.

Director Scott Edmiston and music director Steven Bergman have a talented cast to interpret the material but the problem, I think, with FAR FROM HEAVEN is the material. No matter how you approach it, you’re still stuck with Michael Korie’s impossible lyrics. Poor Jennifer Ellis rhapsodizes about “Heaven [having created] Connecticut” and being “sure they broke the mold.” It’s supposed to show her naïveté but it’s so bloody bland and it works against the story. Ditto her dialogue: She wants to go to Florida because everything there is “pink!” Good Lord.

Scott Frankel’s score is so dissonant, I didn’t think I could weather another distorted merry-go-round plunge down the scale. I had high hopes for the song, “What’s it like being THE ONLY ONE” (for the white housewife and the Black gardener) but then they did it to death. Charles Schoonmaker’s period costumes (some more 40s than 50s) are gorgeous, especially the chocolate/mocha/beige cocktail dresses and I got a kick out of David Connolly’s hipster, jazzy “chair” choreography for the guys on a bench outside the office.

For me, the acid test is whether or not other musicals cross my mind while I’m watching. I’m truly sorry to say they did and when Maurice Emmanuel Parent boards the train for a better life in Baltimore, all I could think of was: He’ll meet John Waters and be in a much better musical there.