Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A REVIEW and A SOAPBOX By Beverly Creasey HOORAY for PROVOCATEURS



Zeitgeist Stage again lives up to its stellar reputation for producing compelling, edgy scripts. Jeff Talbott’s THE SUBMISSION (playing through May 30th) is a juggernaut. Director David Miller takes your breath away and doesn’t let go ‘til the final scene. You don’t get an intermission and you don’t get to breathe during lightening fast scene changes eitherunless you’re impervious to the Krupa-esque blitz riffs in J. Jumbelic’s brilliant sound design.

What’s going on to fuel this runaway train? A gay, white writer is tired of just getting readings of his work so he writes a “Black” play and submits it to the prestigious Humana Festival under a pseudonym, an ethnic sounding (he thinks) female name. Just as he hoped, it’s gobbled up by the Humana folks and now they want to meet him (her). What’s to be done? He hires an African-American actress to be him. The result? Fireworks.

What a cast Miller has assembled: They play off each other like electric charges, each igniting the fuse in the other. Victor Shopov is the driven playwright who can’t see the forest for the trees and Aina Adler is the ferocious, righteous actress who takes him on. Matthew Fagerberg is the loyal friend stuck in the middle of the morass and Diego Buscaglia is the playwright’s clear headed husband. He’s the only one who can see “landmines” in those woods. (Buscaglia gets a wonderfully funny AMERICAN BUFFALO moment, ranting off stage about everyone’s stupidity.)

As Tavis Smiley would say, let’s unpack Talbott’s subtext. The story itself is riveting but as a bonus, Talbott gets to drag out all the nasty gripes that whites have about Blacks and that straights have about gaysand place them in the minds and mouths of his characters. You know, the accusation that Blacks get awards because of political correctness and that a “gay mafia” is running American theater.

When Talbott’s playwright asserts that gays are the “new underclass,” the actress is enraged. (People will be taking sides over this play for sure.) What is indisputable, the angered actress says, is that a gay man can hide his sexuality if he wants to but an African-American cannot hide his identity. (As the Fats Waller lyric goes, “I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case…”) What the two have in common, of course, is the discrimination they both face but she won’t let him equate the two.

The gay “mafia” claim in SUBMISSION is deliberately absurd and the audience laughs in unisonbut when the playwright complains about the practice of non-traditional castingHe’s tired of seeing a “Black Mrs. Cratchitt in A CHRISTMAS CAROL”he’s making the assumption that’s shared by a lot of people, that actors of color have found a place in American theater. Have they? How about turnabout? Is it fair play?

A critic I know used the fair play phrase when I was up in arms about a significant number of designated diverse roles being given wholesale to white actors where it makes no sense morally or dramatically: Like the white actress in A CHORUS LINE spouting dialogue about how hard it is to be Asian-American, or the white actor in SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (twice, two different companies) claiming to be “the brother you call…” Is there really so much work available for actors of color that they don’t miss the occasional loss of a role?

Is it really OK to cast an all Black show like THE WIZ with (a few or a lot of) white actors? Is it OK to cast white actors when no actors of color audition? Is it OK to cast a white singer in blackface? The Metropolitan Opera is about to do it again. The last Othello they had in blackface (on the HD transmission year before last) perspired so heavily that his makeup ironically refused to stay on his face, obscenely sliding down his costume. Why they’re doing it again is beyond me but let’s just stick to theater. The facts are that actors of color do not have lots of work. The playing field is not even… so kudos to Zeitgeist for reenergizing the discussion.

Don’t miss SUBMISSION for any reason, including price because Wednesdays are pay-what-you-can!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey MOTHERS and Troubadours



Terrence McNally loves opera. It figures in plays like THE LISBON TRAVIATA and one, MASTER CLASS, even places prima donna assoluta Maria Callas center stage. McNally often appears on the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday radio broadcasts as a panelist for their delightful “Opera Quiz.” I reference all this because MOTHERS AND SONS (@ SpeakEasy Stage through June 6th) seems to me to be his most operatic script.

A mother has traveled all the way from Texas to New York City for “revenge,” she tells us, not once but twice. Her son, she maintains, was not gay before he came to New York and she wants to know who infected him with AIDS and killed him twenty years ago. Not only does she embrace denial with a vengeance, she foolishly entertains the notion that patient zero might be still alive.

The opera canon is certainly full of characters bent on payback but one jumped across the footlights to me the moment this mother confesses her “real” motivation. The gypsy Acuzena sings not one, but two “revenge” arias in Verdi’s IL TROVATORE because of a dead son. And what ruin she wreaks!

Nancy E. Carroll plays the steely mother from hell who asks outright of her son’s former partner, “Why haven’t you been punished?” Michael Kaye gives an exquisitely wrought performance as the overly patient and impossibly kind man who grieved and found a second chance at loveand who inexplicably doesn’t pitch the woman out on her ear. Carroll’s character has ice in her veins and comic timing in her bones, so that a delayed barb makes us laugh as we’re horrified by her conduct.

McNally crafts a nifty balance between the two and director Paul Daigneault gets top notch performances all around. (There are two more characters, Kaye’s hip, younger husband, portrayed with an edge by Nile Hawver and an adorable son, played with a lot of heart by Liam Lurker). Kaye’s character has a raft of touching speeches about what was lost to the world when its best and brightest were taken in their primeand Kaye eloquently conveys a lifelong sorrow hiding just below the surface. It’s a lovely turn.

I was reminded of the inappropriate mother in Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN when Carroll’s character tells Kaye about a liaison she confessed to her son… not to mention her line, “I lost a son: Can I order another?” which had THE MIKADO intruding into my thoughts. All this larger (and much more peculiar) than life behavior kept me interested in how this woman would exact her pound of flesh.

Then McNally makes an about face, abandons the operatic and magically reforms her without any ghosts of Christmas past! He spends a lot of time and effort showing us that this woman is incapable of love (even as she claims her son was the incapable one). I just couldn’t buy the instant milk and cookie reformation.


Monday, May 11, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Longwood Rocks GUYS AND DOLLS



I seldom pass up the opportunity to see GUYS AND DOLLS. It’s one of my favorite musicals and Kaitlyn Chantry is one of my favorite directors. When she helms a musical, you know it will be sharp, exciting and full of surprises. (She changed my mind about CHESS for heavens sake!)

The good news is that Longwood Players cast James Weeden as Nicely-Nicely to kick up his heels and kick up the production several notches. He even made me forget the screeching violins and a mute that reduced the trumpet to what sounded like a kazoo. Who cares: Weeden and the other loveable tough guys rock that famous boat like gangbusters in music director Jason Luciana’s inspired, elongated New Orleans jazz version of “Sit Down.” They marched the audience into a frenzy and afforded stage manager Veronica Haakonsen and crew a nifty coup as they changed the set right around the parade.

Jason Hair-Wynn’s smart, flashy choreography had those rough and tumble gamblers moving and jumping in an organic dice-throwing triumph for “Luck Be a Lady.” Not one of them couldn’t dance and not a one didn’t look like an authentic heavy. (More often than not, the toughs look like dancers rather than criminals but not in Chantry’s production.)

Weeden, Michael Chateauneuf and Patrick Harris set the bar high from the get-go, pouring over their racing forms in the “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Then Fran Betlyon makes influenza pay dividends in “Adelaide’s Lament.” Betlyon and James Aitchison (as Nathan Detroit) turn their boxing match into gold in a hilarious, nose to nose “Sue Me.” The straight romance, for April Pressel and Ben Jamieson’s characters, offers a few chuckles as well, but let’s face it, it’s those pesky thugs who really deliver the goods.

The bad news? Longwood’s GUYS AND DOLLS closed this weekend.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Eight weeks to Detonation



Ronan Noone has written a cheeky little comedy of manners, a cautionary tale about spreading gossipwhere no good can come from even a germ of speculation because it’s apt to infect everyone. SCENES FROM AN ADULTERY (playing at New Rep through May 17) is a smart three hander (I was going to say threesome but, no) about friends who hang out over dinner or fetch up at a local bar where liquor tends to loosen tongues and wreak havoc.

Gaspar (Ciaran Crawford) has seen the wife of an (offstage) friend being affectionate with another man. Instead of telling the friend, he tells Tony (Peter Stray) who doesn’t tell his wife (Leda Uberbacher)who finds out and is plenty upset he didn’t share the story with her as soon as he heard it. Trust, or what passes for trust, becomes pivotal in SCENES. Where should your allegiance be: With your spouse or your best friend? Do you have to share everything with your wife? Are there rules? Each of Noone’s characters believes, and behaves differently, leading to hilarious consequences when what’s good for the goose isn’t exactly what’s good for the gander.

Crawford, as the lone bachelor, has a wonderful, show stopping speech about the ten certain steps to ruin in a relationship, reminiscent of Touchstone’s seven levels of the “lie” in As You Like It, from the “retort courteous” to the “lie removed” to the “lie direct.” Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary keeps up a brisk pace which adds immeasurably to the amusement. Stray’s physical meltdown is delightful, as are Uberbacher’s indignant fits. It’s not easy to write comedy but Noone has the touch. (Except for what seemed to me an out of character slap, SCENES succeeds wildly as a gleefully cynical rompand, hooray, I didn’t see the end coming!)

Friday, April 24, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Wave Your Freak Flag @ Wheelock Family Theatre



Director Shelley Bolman puts the Wheelock touch on SHREK THE MUSICAL (frolicking through May 24th). The Broadway musical by David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori is based on the first animated feature to win an Oscar (which is itself based on William Steig’s picture book).

You may recall that Michael Meyers and Eddie Murphy voiced Shrek the ogre and his donkey side kick in the DreamWorks film. Wheelock has Christopher Chew and Maurice Emmanuel Parent to make their SHREK sheer joy. You can’t help but fall in love with these two hapless creatures.

If you’re a longtime Wheelock fan, you’ll recognize characters from their shows, like Peter Pan and Pippi Longstocking, popping up when the nasty little Prince (Mark Linehan on his knees with dancing legs attached!) exiles all the fairy tale “freaks” to Shrek’s back yard. Needless to say, Shrek is not happy about the relocation.

Adults and children alike will delight in the irreverent humor, with the grownup references sailing over the kiddies’ heads. Parents will chuckle to learn that in ogre families, the kids leave home at seven! Lindsay-Abaire had great fun peppering the musical with cheeky spoofs of other movies and musicals: GYPSY, THE MUSIC MAN, 42nd STREET, DREAMGIRLS, LES MIZ, BABE all take a hit but it’s an affectionate jab which doesn’t spoil the innocence of the story.

The ogre who’d rather be alone discovers that he can allow others into his life. There’s a big message about tolerance in the musical but Shrek’s journey is what makes it a treat. Shrek and the Princess he’s been looking for (Shonna Cirone) have a delicious duet (a la Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better”) called “I Think I Got You Beat.” Simply hilarious! The songs are more than clever, with “Keep Your Freak Flag Waving” a lovely, foot stomping anthem for standing proud and celebrating being different.

Charles Baldwin’s quirky costumes reflect all the characters’ personalities, with the Donkey’s getup a highlight. How he managed to costume this cast of thousands is beyond me. There’s a marvelous huge dragon (gorgeously sung by Brittany Rolfs), even a tiny Puss in Boots passes by. Michael Stern’s music direction is one of the chief reasons that SHREK sounds as good as it looks. I laughed even more than the children in the audience. Then just when you think the show has ended, they lift it even higher with everyone singing the 1960s Monkeys’ hit, “I’m a Believer.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Cleverly Assembled AKIMBO



David Lindsay Abaire’s wacky, totally charming comedy about life and death, first love and coping with monumental disappointment is getting a nearly perfect production from the folks at MOONBOX. KIMBERLY AKIMBO (playing through April 26th) has to embrace a slightly stilted comic style in order to pull off the absurdity without losing our heartfelt sympathy for this dysfunctional familyand without losing sight of the genuine gravity in the play.

And can this family cope! Mother carries on even though she’s pregnant and accident prone: When we first see her, she sports two wrist casts up to her elbows from carpal tunnel surgery and she can’t even maneuver a spoon. Her 15 year old daughter has a rare form of progeria which ages her four and a half times faster than the rest of us. She has the organs of a sixty-four year old and her prognosis is dire but she is determined to do everything a teenager would.

Her father is depressed, poor fellow, and he drinks. And there’s an aunt who’s just gotten out of prison and turns up on their doorstep needing money, a place to stay, and accessories to pull off her next felony. Abaire writes such funny material that you forget about the peril underneath the humor. Director Allison Olivia Choate gets exceptional performances all around from her remarkable actors and she manages to pull off a completely disarming production, so sweet that you don’t even mind the blue language. In fact you’re amused by it.

MOONBOX is fortunate to have veteran actress Sheridan Thomas in the role of the plucky teenage daughter. Thomas makes the girl coquettish, na├»ve and full of wonder, despite knowing that time is running out. Lucas Cardona is a delight as her awkward teenaged pal who’s hoping to be more than friends. Their innocent romance gives us all hope.

Micah Greene is a hoot as the self-absorbed pregnant mother and Andrew Winson makes father immensely endearing. Shana Dirik is a firecracker as the recidivist aunt, popping in and out of scenes with endless energy and wild schemes. Dirik’s performance is a tour de force, exploding with excitement in brilliant contrast to her niece’s cautionary, slow paced existence. Choate and company get lovely resonance from the projection at play’s end, mirroring her childhood lamp.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SLAM BAM THANK YOU, BEASTS



If you missed their award winning KNOCK! The Daniil Kharms Project, you missed IMAGINARY BEASTS’ visually stunning foray into the world of the Russian “suprematists.” The revolutionary art movement originated by the painter Malevich championed a visceral form of art far outside realism. (When you see Malevich’s paintings, you think at first that they’re Picasso or Braque’s cubist work: Same inspiration, different countries!) Now imagine theater which has been “deconstructed” by Kharms and his fellow writers, down to its basic elements, without logic or plot. Stalin did not approve. Kharms did not survive. But his work did.

Last season’s KNOCK! introduced Kharms himself (as the BEASTS imagine him) as a character in his own writings, a surprisingly rich concept because the audience gets to experience his loss, as the writer pulls a sled behind him in a blinding snowstorm. We watched in horror as pages from the manuscript blew off the sled, lost forever, as he trudged along unawares.

The BEASTS continue their examination of Kharms’ work with an adaptation of his Elizaveta Bam, translated by Zova Derman. BETTY BAM! plays through May 2nd with five actresses portraying Betty and three directors contributing scenes in different styles. We’re introduced to a terrified Betty, moving along a wall as far from her front door as she can retreat because the police are trying to gain access. The scene plays like a silent film, her arms outstretched as she backs away from a window, her mouth fixed in exaggerated horror.

In the course of the playor rather, the experiment (Don’t expect a play)we see Betty’s predicament over and over, slightly altered each timeor rather interruptedby canned laughter or rhythmic clapping or a vaudeville bitand multiplied with more BETTYs. The BEASTS are pushing us out of our comfort zoneconfusing us, diverting our attention with an intruder (which worked on my theater companions like gangbusters!)then delighting us with oversized mice and shadow puppets and lots of eggs. There are chanting BETTYs (reminiscent of Shakespeare’s witches) and a walking coat: images galore that we’re struggling to put together. And that’s the point of deconstructing. You can’t reassemble it.

The BEASTS’ ensemble players work together seamlessly. You can say the same of the team. Lighting (Christopher Bocchiaro), costumes (Cotton Talbot-Minkin), set (Matthew Woods and Candido Soares), sound (Chris Larson) are all of a piece, intermingling with ideas from directors’ Woods, Joey C. Peletier and Michael Underhill.

Then BEAST performers/collaborators set to work: Sarah Gazdowicz, Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer, Beth Pearson and Kiki Samko as the same/different BETTY incarnations, along with Cameron Cronin and William Schuller as the commie/not quite Keystone cops, all contribute to the whole. To single out one part of the whole over another is impossible. I know. I know. Kharms himself says: “Impossible is a stupid, empty word.” OK. I’ll try again. I can’t/I won’t single out anyone. IMAGINARY BEASTS are the finest ensemble in town.