Monday, February 23, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey TERRA FIRMA



Ted Tally’s TERRA NOVA (presented by the Flat Earth Theatre @ Arsenal Arts Center through Feb. 28th) is one of those dark plays of substance, wherein white men prove their mettle by invading or climbing or discovering someplace where “no one has been before.” (Of course they mean no one with pale skin.) The “new territory” in Tally’s play is Antarctica. Poor Captain Scott of the British Royal Navy: He thought the frozen landscape could be claimed for England. Then a Norwegian beat him to it.

That’s all you need to know. The rest is soul searching, some flashback scenes and a great deal of hallucination. I can clearly see why a company of men would love to get their game on with TERRA NOVA. It has lots of juicy parts and oodles of hazards for the actors to negotiate. And the company delivers. National pride, moral rectitude and colonialism all take a righteous hit from Tally: Dying for what you believe in isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Captain Scott (Chris Chiampa) thinks, dreams and breathes his competition, so much so that Amundsen (Samuel Frank) appears to him in his imagination, taunting him each step of the way. Believe it or not, Scott’s men marched on foot for 1600 grueling miles where Amundsen took along dogs to haul his sleds (and then be slaughtered for food when provisions ran out). Amundsen dismisses Scott’s contention that the Norwegians have engaged in unsportsmanlike behavior: “There’s nothing more dangerous, Amundsen says, “than a man of good intentions.”

The one female role in TERRA NOVA is Scott’s wife, deftly portrayed by Kamela Dolinova. When he turns his thoughts to her, Scott softens and we see his restless, vulnerable side. Chiampa summons bouts of bluster to cover up his fears, where Frank as his rival towers over the Brits, physically and metaphorically.

Director Jake Scaltreto gets lovely ensemble work from his cast. Each man in Scott’s expedition is fully drawn so that we feel we know them individually. James Hayward is the principled physician on the team. Kevin Kordis is the hothead. Robin Gabrielli is so loyal to Scott and England that he makes a foolish sacrifice to keep them on track and an impish Matt Arnold always has a quip to ease another’s suffering. If only there were more evocative plays like TERRA NOVA for a company of women! (Please don’t recommend ON THE VERGE to me. I’m afraid I think it’s deadly.)


  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Play It Again Sam



Dan LeFranc’s roundelay, THE BIG MEAL (at Zeitgeist Stage through March 7th), follows two ordinary twenty-somethings, named Sam and Nicole, through courtship (beginning with an impulsive hook up) and marriage to life’s tragic inevitabilities.

The trick in THE BIG MEAL is that different actors portray a character as (s)he grows up, switching at the drop of a hat. It’s a bit confusing at first (and at last) but in between it all makes sense: Little brats may mature to become (more or less) responsible adults but the conversations remain the same over four generations. LeFranc makes the dialogue banal on purpose because (I assume) most conversation is.

This leaves the emotional life of the play up to a director to fill in the blanks. David Miller deftly creates the humor and the depth between the lines, chiefly aided by Peter Brown as a crusty old coot, a feisty in-law and in his most touching turn, as a man facing down dementia. Shelley Brown, too, gives a strong performance as the mother, grandmother and best of all, as a woman alone, looking at a future without a partner. The younger actors play, well…young, which isn’t nearly as interesting as what the older actors get to play. How often does that happen! Of course, that’s from my older, biased perspective.

Monday, February 16, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey TAKE MY PANTS, PLEASE



Sometimes those George S. Kaufman or S. J. Perelman vehicles for the Marx Brothers work like gangbusters. (I could watch A NIGHT AT THE OPERA over and over.) Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you’re aware of how simplistic the scripts are. Mostly you give yourself over to the shenanigans and laugh at the flimsiest of jokes. For example, Kaufman’s COCOANUTS works chiefly because the Brothers can put it over. When Groucho quips about prison, “Twelve years at Leavenworth or eleven years at twelve-worth,” the groaner is accompanied by his flashing eyes and those painted on house shingles which twitch like browsand you’re more than happy to give over a giggle or two to that fabulous face.

Robert Brustein and Hankus Netsky’s klezmer musical, THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE, (based on an 1893 novel by Israel Zangwill) reminded me of those Marx Brothers scripts. The new musical (@ New Rep through March 1st) is shot through with sardonic asides and winks to the audience, like Groucho’s conspiratorial nods, as if to freely admit that the joke is plenty lame. Like those madhouse Marx Brothers movies, Brustein et al owe a considerable debt to the zany crew who deliver the goods, especially Jeremiah Kissel and Will LeBow, who finesse any number of variations on the Henny Youngman standby, “Take my wife, please.” (Substitute fish, pants, daughter, anything you like.) Kissel and LeBow make it dance like Nijinsky.

Brustein moves Zangwill’s trickster, “SCHNORRER” plot to New York City, outside a Yiddish theater which has seen better days. He sprinkles delightful Yiddish phrases throughout (and laboriously explains them) which made me wish he had explained less and demonstrated more. His out of work actors, he tells us, performed Yiddish versions of HAMLET and LEAR back in the day. So why couldn’t we hear a line or two? If only he had trusted that his audience would get it even if they don’t speak Yiddish. (I’ll bet the cadence which is almost identical in Yiddish and English would have tripped the listeners to the familiar Shakespearean speech.)

Director Matthew ‘Motl’ Didner runs his cast from pillar to post to connect the rather thin dots of plot, which have LeBow and the Yiddish actors outsmarting a smarmy movie producer (Kissel at his very best) and talking him out of his money and his pants, not to mention his salmon (all enshrined deliciously in song), thereby bestowing enough cash on LeBow’s daughter (Abby Goldfarb) and her penniless beau (Remo Airaldi) to get married. Alex Pollock, Kathy St. George and Ken Cheeseman add their considerable comic talents to the hilarity.

Although I liked (loved) Netsky’s score a lot more than I liked the book or the lyrics, I have to admit I share LeBow’s generous sentiments when his character pronounces to Kissel, “Against my will, I’m feeling some affection for you.” That I did for THE KING OF SECOND AVENUE...in spite of myself.

Friday, January 23, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Future Shock



The thirty-somethings in Ken Urban’s A FUTURE PERFECT (playing @ BCA through Feb. 7th) worship their pluperfect past while they grapple with an uncertain present, not to mention a daunting future. Should they have children? Abandon their dreams? Feel guilty about making money?

Urban’s characters almost discuss post-feminist backlash, child labor in China, and racism in Americabut they always stop short. They skirt issues at the heart of their life plans and avoid any meaningful self-examination because, I presume, that’s what people do in “real” life and Urban is writing about those people.

Pregnancy looms large in the lives of these two couples but they only worry that a baby will keep them too busy to socialize…or play in a band. No one mentions the perils their children will face in this increasingly dangerous world. No one considers overpopulation and decreasing resources as reasons to think twice. Instead of being amused with their shortsightedness, I was frustrated.

Urban has several scenes where two band mates, who cut their teeth on ‘90s indie rock, get together to jam. (It’s a peculiar demographic to target in a play as most audiences are generally much older and will compare the sound track to classic rock ‘n roll and, in my case, will find it wanting). So it’s not my favorite genre. You’d think at least I could enjoy the act of making music but I found it so restrained, I couldn’t believe they were real musicians. Guitarists move their shoulders or their heads or their torsos. They tap their feet. They get into the rhythm. Not so in the SpeakEasy production.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara has a game cast. Brian Hastert lets us know, with his constant waffling and sidestepping body language, what it’s like to be married to a Hell on wheels advertising executive. Marianna Bassham’s character has no filter. She says what she’s thinking and she doesn’t care about betraying a trust.

Nael Nacer and Chelsea Diehl are the more sympathetic couple. At one point Nacer’s character makes up with Bassham and I couldn’t believe he would forgive her so readily. I don’t know why he did. It felt like we were missing a scene.

Hastert plays a writer on a kids TV show so we get to meet one of the child actors and an adorable puppet. Uatchet Jin Juch has the plum role in the play. She interacts sweetly with the puppet for a video they’re shooting. Then she interacts with the humans as a bored, self assured preteen and she pulls both off smartly.

Most perplexing of all is a “breakthrough” song Hastert’s character writes at the very end of the play about “simple comforts.” The catchy hook is repeated several times: “Bread in a Basket. Cake and a casket.” I’m OK with the bread and the cake but the casket part isn’t very comforting at my age. I must have misheard. I’m sure we’ll laugh about this when someone tells me the real lyric.

Monday, January 19, 2015

REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Three FROG Night


Imaginary Beasts’ TALE OF THE FROG PRINCE (@ BCA through Feb. 7th) might sound as if it’s child’s play—but it’s far more. Children will adore the outsized comedy but their parents will recognize the artistry and appreciate the allusions behind, in front of, and on top of the fairy tale.

The Beasts specialize in staging Pantos (from the Latin ‘pantomimus,’ meaning player of many parts), a unique British entertainment popularized in the 18th century (which grew out of the earlier Italian commedia dell’arte) combining burlesque, ballet, acrobatics, transformations, topical song, splendid costumes, stock characters and witty poetry. To this day, Pantos are performed in England, usually on Dec. 26th which in the U.K. and Canada is “Boxing Day.”

Matthew Woods and company utilize the Panto form to send up popular culture while they’re spinning out their ornamented story. This year’s show embraces all things aquatic, including frogs (who are represented by both puppets and human actors), a dragonfly and an exquisite underwater ballet, not to mention the Beasts’ hilarious references to CFCs, BPAs, ground water pollution and other poisons which endanger our water.

You can rhapsodize all day about their historically accurate Panto but what really floats the metaphorical boat is their exquisite ensemble work. Imaginary Beasts has an extraordinarily versatile cast who can clown, dance and act up a storm, even when little members of the audience get rambunctious. Interacting with the crowd is part and parcel of a Panto: We get to boo and hiss the villains and cry out to warn the righteous characters when catastrophe is imminent. The wee ones at my performance sat on the edge of their chairs, waiting for the next opportunity to do so.

Your eagle eye (and keen ear) can find a variation of a Danny Kaye bit (“the chalice with the palace, not the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”) and an inspired “mushroom” version of Trepak from The Nutcracker. Speaking of Tchaikovsky, Kiki Samko and company’s brilliant choreography for the Swan Lake spoof is made twice as delicious by Cameron Cronin’s incomparable pas de chat in a tulle tutu.

Of course every element meshes perfectly in THE FROG PRINCE, but it’s Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s sublime, jaw dropping costumes which tie it all together. Joey C. Peletier, in the grand “Dame” role of Her Majesty the Queen, gets three different, gorgeous gowns to swoop in; Director/actor Matthew Woods as the Wicked Water Valkyrie is dressed and coiffed as if Betty Grable were playing Marie Antoinette: High hair, great gams... and the snarl of Rin Tin Tin. The vibrant colors in the material Talbot-Minkin finds reminded me of the eye-popping illustrations in the Little Golden Books of the 50’s.

Elizabeth Pearson (in the “Boy” hero role) works one of the frog “body puppets” (by Pearson and Jill Rogati) so earnestly that you look to the puppet’s mouth, not hers, for her dialogue. Later in the story she becomes the puppet itself via a green amphibian costume. (My favorite bit of inventive magic is Rogati's book hat for Noah Simes’ “Oracle.”)

Samko gets sweet laughter as the slow going, but fast thinking Mother Snail. Her “travel” secret is so sublimely silly that you can’t wait for it to recur; the same with Amy Meyer’s encyclopedic Dragon Fly. What fun to see Bob Mussett as a flustered Lord Chancellor (with a nod to the Mikado); Molly Kimmerling delights as the Good Fairy and Erin Eva Butcher as the princess everyone wants to woo, could charm the fish out of the sea. Mikey DiLoreto as a Marx Brother-inhabited skunk named Coco honks his assent and his disapproval, just like Harpo. Sound (Woods and Dierdre Benson) plays a large part in the comedy. Benson punctuates jokes with a loud ding of a hotel desk bell from her perch above the audience.

William Schuller portrays the Valkyrie’s smarmy son, who wants to marry Butcher’s wild child princess and Michael Underhill races from pillar to post to aid the frog prince. Michael Chodos thoroughly transforms himself into a slithering leech, right down to his inverted, invertebrate mouth! Suffice it to say, see all these Beasts (and more) to witness a historically informed performance of a Panto… or see it for the outrageous puns and clever couplets… or go for the chance to sing “Jeremiah was a Bull Frog”….You know they had to go there.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey ORLANDO Magic



Having just seen Wellesley Summer Theatre’s splendid ORLANDO (playing through Feb. 2nd), I’m convinced that playwright Sarah Ruhl is the perfect writer to give Virginia Woolf’s novel a life on the stage. (You also may want to find Sally Porter’s opulent 1993 film with Tilda Swinton as ORLANDO and the late, great Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. It’s an extraordinary movie.)

Both Woolf and Ruhl commit fully to fantasy in their writing. You might say that without Woolf’s experimentation and innovative contributions to modern literature, Ruhl’s celebrated magical realism would not be possible. Nora Hussey helms WST’s vivid production of one poet’s “historical” adventure (and transformation) over the centuries. Woolf deliberately resolved to reduce plot and story in favor of characters that “experience” life for themselves. Her Orlando explores and experiences the social and cultural mores of the time, commenting (delightfully) on the “spirit of the age.”

Except for the character of Orlando, the actors in director Nora Hussey’s deft production are universal players in a masque, who set a scene and change character as quickly as they change costumes. Their wry musings as a cheeky Greek chorus, like the stone chorus in Ruhl’s EURIDICE, are a part of the play’s many pleasures.

David Towlun’s enormous mirrors at either end of the stage are the sole set pieces, reminding us that Orlando is searching for his true self, not just a reflection of the time. (And, of course, we know that a reflection in a mirror reverses itself.) Woolf, the quintessential feminist, creates a male character (who despite his sex can think and feel with an acute awareness) who then, surprise, surprise, becomes a woman. No explanation. You just have to accept the reversal.

Orlando simply awakens to find himself a womanbut the feminine Orlando is not content to be the “obedient, chaste” creature society would like her to be. Her rebellion makes the Act II Orlando much more compelling than the male version …although Catherine LeClair’s adolescent passion is plenty amusing as he pines for the Russian Princess (a charming Elizabeth Yancey). Their romp under a blanket of fur is hilarious.

Orlando’s adventures take him all over the world and through three centuries, from the Elizabethan to the Jazz age, looking for an “other” self. Woolf fashioned Orlando after her longtime love, the poet Vita Sackville-West, who descended from a line of poets, all male until the literary gene switched gender in the twentieth century, from male to female! Hah!

LeClair glows from within as the female Orlando, enjoying her new body, happily chiding the male establishment for its strictures. Everyone glows for heavens sake, in Graham Edmundson’s gorgeous, orangey, Elizabethan lighting and everyone moves with grace to Sophori Ngin’s choreography.

Lovely performances abound, from John Davin’s delicious turn as the entitled Queen Elizabeth I (in a regal gown by Emily Woods Hogue); to Woody Gaul as the outlandish Romanian Archduchess (in a garish gown, on purpose) and as her alter ego, the dashing Archduke; to the Shakespeareans, John Kinsherf and Victoria George, in a “non-traditional” reversal of the Othello and Desdemona death scene.

And I haven’t even credited the hysterical fly, the yapping dog, the maids or the washerwomen, all exquisitely drawn. Don’t miss this lively rendering of Woolf’s masterpiece.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey CHALK and AWE



I’m a Walt McGough fan. He invents quirky characters and always gives them intelligent dialogue…but I just don’t get extra-terrestrial/zombie plays and CHALK (playing at BPT through Jan.26th) is about an alien invasion. Everyone but me loves INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (both incarnations), don’t they? Oh dear. They sent out the wrong reviewer.

Here’s the low down: McGough’s zombie aliens have to eat humans alive in order to get nourishment from their memories, not from “brains” as is widely (incorrectly) believed. This gives some aliens terrible indigestion which is evidently how you know they’re youngsters. (I wondered if they threw back people with Alzheimer’s or impaired memory but McGough didn’t go there.)

However, should you ever hear that the body snatchers have invaded, grab some chalk (or baby powder because they can’t tell the difference with their inferior noses) and mark your territory. That’s what Christine Power does and it works pretty well for her…that is, until the mother and child reunion. Fresh Ink director Sarah Gazdowicz gets impressive performances from Power as mother and Caroline Rose Markham as the wild child Power is determined to rescue.

Markham moves like an animal on the prowl. When she rolls her eyes up into her lids and snarls, she’s positively frightening. Neon is somehow involved in her transformation but I couldn’t figure it out. I’m afraid I’m hopelessly at sea where zombies and aliens are concerned but if that’s your cup of tea, enjoy the ride.