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.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey BRINGING UP BABY



Most productions I’ve seen of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (@ Lyric Stage through Feb. 12th) have bitten right into the “meat” of Albee’s savage play, taking no time at all to warm up to the fireworks. George and Martha usually battle hammer and tong from the get-go but director Scott Edmiston is more interested in the couple’s inner, emotional life. Oh, Edmiston gets the play where it’s going, certainly, but he gives us time to figure out what’s eating these people… which makes it a much, much sadder play.

Likewise Honey and Nick: They’re definitely not the main event but Albee uses their presence to ferret out George and Martha’s secretswhile they’re inadvertently revealing their own. Edmiston doesn’t view them as caricatures or comic relief but as casualties. As George and Martha, Steven Barkhimer and Paula Plum seem comfortable with each other, not “old shoe” comfortable, rather “old foe” comfortable, like so many long married couples. As Honey and Nick, Erica Spyres and Dan Whelton seem (on purpose, of course) uncomfortable with each other, like so many mismatched newlyweds. As I watched, I thought that these young people would become George and Martha in twenty years… the “historical inevitability” George is fond of bestowing on an idea. (That never occurred to me before!)

You don’t get a lot of time to ponder the physics in the ferocious Burton/Taylor movie, which by the by Albee hated. He hated the director (“Mike Nichols trying to prove he could be serious”) and he felt betrayed by the studio which he claimed had promised to cast Betty Davis and James Mason. (I can’t imagine Davis and Mason…and what the heck do you do with the “what a dump” business?) As fond as I am of the film, I had time this time to think of the parallels with John Osbourne’s frightening LOOK BACK IN ANGER and with Albee’s other plays where the American Dream self-destructs. To paraphrase George, just when you learn the game, they change the rules. What a country!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Virtuoso Panto 2017



The Imaginary Beasts are renowned for their delightfully bizarre and totally kid-friendly takes on the historical British panto form. Imagine Italian commedia dell’ arte mashed up with Saturday Night Live’s irreverent brand of comedy (the old, really clever SNL). No stone is left unturned and no turn, as Diana Rigg famously said, is left unstoned.

Matthew Woods and company’s modus operandi is to pile contemporary politics, pop culture and slapstick comedy onto helpless fairy tales, then reap the whirlwind (as in gales of laughter). Even classical ballet makes an appearance from time to time. This year they thrash the alt-right, not to mention trashing plotlines left and right as they meander their way to the focal subject of THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA.

This year, instead of one villain, there is a village full. (The more the merrier, I say.) The nasty queen (Molly Kimmerling) has built a wall around her kingdom, no doubt planning to make her serfs pay for it. She spreads fake news and hangs around with a Nazi storm trooper named “Stompundstammer.” Did I hear someone say “No, he’s not”… Oh, yes, he is. (Not just the kids have a ball playing that game with the indignant Bob Mussett!)

The silly stuff entertains the children and the cheeky stuff keeps the rest of us happy… even nostalgic (when they sang David Bowie’s “If you say run, I’ll run to you”). And when Cameron Cronin’s naughty Nurse Nonny croons “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” even Streisand wouldn’t dare. Joey C. Pelletier’s baddie threatens to melt the polar ice cap while Matthew Woods’ Pirate captain disguised as a pirate captain threatens to demolish any hope of a foreign accent. Mayhem rules.

Fortunately, kindness saves the day. Sarah Gazdowicz minds her peas and queues as well as the underground gap and Amy Meyer brings reason to chaos. Melissa Barker and Alice Rittershaus leap on and off to strains of Les Sylphides, followed closely (and sometimes led) by the most adorable mice ever puppeted. Sarah J. Mann (as the prince) gets his princess (Rebecca Lehrhoff-Joy) now that the pea is at last spoken for.

There’s more shtick from sidekicks Tom Rash and William Schuller and mustache twirling (sans mustache) from Noah Simes, all while James Sims tickles the keyboard and tried to keep a modicum of order on stage… Not possible of course. Cotton Talbot-Minkin again proves she can sew rings around any costumer in town, with Mussett’s extremely loud jodhpurs taking the prize for best pants. (Possibly a new category at the IRNE Awards next year.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Double Indemnity



If Joe Orton and Martin McDonough had a love child, it would be Alistair McDowall. He’s the twenty-something British playwright hailed as the next important writer to come out of the U.K. Lucky for us in the colonies, Apollinaire Theatre Company is giving his gritty BRILLIANT ADVENTURES a bang up outing through Jan. 21st. And while you’re there, check out the flashy new spaces Apollinaire has opened up (including a new teen theater) in the Chelsea Theatre Works.

Here’s the skinny. Two brothers can’t live together and it seems they can’t live apart from each other either. The elder brother has always looked out for his fragile, younger siblingalbeit a bit unwisely since he’s a low level drug dealer who attracts unsavory customers to his brother’s flat. Think of the wonderfully funny but harrowing Guy Ritchie caper film, SNATCH, and there you have it.

A really nasty bloke wants in on a device invented by the sweet, geeky brother. He thinks it will make millions but the teenager says no. Brooks Reeves is even more frightening in BRILLIANT ADVENTURES than he was as the sadist in CLOSER. He says there are three ways (he’s got a cockney accent so he says “free”) to get what he wants: One is money which the teen refuses. Two is sex which doesn’t apply in this situation and free is violence. (I turned my head away for the torture bit but I could still hear it.) If it weren’t for the cheeky humor and blissfully bizarre characters, this would not be my cuppa tea. As it is so sardonically deft, I’d gladly have a second cup.

Reeves is superbly cold and creepy. Michael Underhill is perfection as the misguided older brother with Sam Terry and Eric McGowan thoroughly charming as the brainy teen(s). Geoff Van Wyck adds even more laughter as a completely unconvincing wannabe tough. Dev Luthra, who spends most of the play hunkered down out of the way, gets a show stopping monologue at the top of Act II.

The playwright makes things work that you wouldn’t think would, like Luthra’s curious character or the off the wall “invention.” Danielle Fauteux Jaques brilliantly directs the comedy as if it all were completely normal everyday farewhich is what makes it tick on so smashingly, like clockwork.