Monday, August 20, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Living Forever Is The Best Revenge By Beverly Creasey

When you think of writers who have been political prisoners, you might cite Vaclav Havel, Alexandr Solzhenitisyn or Ken Saro-Wiwa (who was executed because of the content of his plays). Add to the list Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned and broken for crimes against the state.

Bad Habit’s lovely production of Moises Kaufman’s GROSS INDECENCY (at the BCA through Aug.26th) is performed in the round: a heady barrage of court transcripts, actual letters and Wilde’s own transcendent words.

Director Liz Fenstermaker’s ingenious staging follows Wilde’s attempt to sue the Marques of Queensberry for libel, to his fall from grace when, at the Marques’ urging, the court faced about and charged Wilde with “gross indecency.” It took two trials to convict him. Sentenced to two years of hard labor, he emerged dispirited and ill (and died not long thereafter). Always at the ready with a quip, he announced as he left the Reading Gaol, “If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.”

Kaufman clearly demonstrates how Wilde’s idealistic hubris led to his own downfall but he makes the case that the disapproving “powers that be” were more than delighted to bring down the “high priest of decadence.” Straight laced Victorians themselves may have been indulging ---but always behind closed doors. On the eve of Wilde’s sodomy trial, Kaufman tells us, some six hundred Englishmen fled to France, afraid they might be the crown’s next target.

Aside from the wealth of information about Wilde and the Victorian era, not to mention the hilarious epigrams, the play resonates to beat the band with present day parallels about human rights. What sets the Bad Habit production apart is Fenstermaker’s passionate cast and the circular staging which reaches its apex when Wilde (John Geoffrion) and Lord Douglas (Kyle Cherry) enfold each other in the very center of the action, bathed in (Erik Fox’s) glorious light. It’s breathtaking.

Geoffrion captures both the peacock and the wounded sparrow in Wilde, splaying his fingers erotically around Douglas’ leg at his most confidant and collapsing his shoulders into his chest at the realization of defeat. Each and every characterization is meticulously drawn, from David Lutheran’s villainous Marques to Matthew Murphy’s scrupulous attorney, from Gabriel Graetz dogged defense attorney to Brooks Reeves’ loyal friend, from Cherry’s sweet but callous Douglas to each of Wilde’s manipulated accusers. BAD HABIT PRODUCTIONS once again prove their mettle. Don’t miss out.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW A Romeo to Reckon With By Beverly Creasey

Happy Medium’s ROMEO AND JULIET (at the BCA through Aug. 25th) has two things which make it stand out from countless others: Director Paula Plum and the astonishing performance of Johnnie L. McQuarley as Romeo. He thrilled in TROILUS AND CRESSIDA earlier this year and here he makes the hot blooded and ill advised teenager a revelation.

Plum’s actors (a mix of her acting students, promising newcomers and professional veterans) make you pay attention to secondary and tertiary characters that, in most productions, would melt into the background or merely serve to move the play along. Case in point: William Schuller’s apothecary (whom Romeo approaches to buy an illegal drug) and Arthur Waldstein as the utilitarian priest, Friar Lawrence. I never fully realized before that the apothecary has a story, too, and I’ve certainly never seen such a horrified friar, stricken over his part in the tragedy.

Sharon Squires, a veteran of the famous Roxbury Outreach Shakespeare Experience, injects gravitas into her small but memorable role as Romeo’s despairing mother. Angie Jepson’s fight sequences electrify the production with realistic hand to hand combat and chilling death scenes for Michael Underhill as Tybalt, Joey Pelletier as Mercutio and Jesse Wood as Paris. Kiki Samko makes a formidable Prince and an alluring dancer at the ball where Romeo first sees Juliet (a demure Lauren Elias).

Some of the Happy Medium performers resort to shouting (which swallows up the lines so much that they’re useless) and others seem to be underplaying their roles, relying on a wing and a prayer to get the gist across. Nevertheless, this R&J is plenty energetic and well worth the visit to see a performer like McQuarley command the stage.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Loverly LADY at Reagle By Beverly Creasey

Here’s what the Reagle Music Theatre does better than anyone else: They can amass forty or more choristers on stage for a production number. That’s eighty tapping, twirling, accomplished feet, dancing and acting (and singing, of course) the heck out of a showstopper like “Get Me to the Church on Time.” They practically bring down the house.

Yes, Reagle has a British accent this month, presenting (husband and wife) Broadway actors, Sarah Pfisterer and Rick Hilsabeck, in MY FAIR LADY (through Aug. 19th). Yes, Pfisterer and Hilsabeck have gorgeous voices but so do the local actors Reagle is famous for. Artistic director Robert Eagle has a history of mixing Boston area actors (both Equity and Community) with Broadway pros for maximum result.

Director Larry Sousa bumps up the comedy in this MY FAIR LADY, affording extra giggles for those of us who’ve seen it a hundred times. Even Eliza gets some shtick to pull off but the best thing in Sousa’s show is Harold “Jerry” Walker as Alfred P. Doolittle. Eliza’s raucous dad steals the show “With a Little Bit of Luck” and his fond farewell to the ladies as he struggles to get himself to the altar. Sousa, music director Dan Rodriguez and choreographer Rachel Bertone fashion an English hoedown with dustmen, flower girls, buskers and Pearly royalty for the wild and wooly celebration---in direct contrast to the hilarious inertia of the Ascot Gavotte.

Cecil Beaton would be pleased with the black and white splendor at the Ascot Races--- and Eliza’s pained efforts to contain her excitement over her horse (another wonderful comic touch) made the number even more delicious. How she could resist Robert St. Laurence as Freddie is beyond me. His serenade “On the Street Where You Live” is one of this musical’s highlights…and he makes her “Show Me” even funnier by being totally clueless.

Kudos to Donna Sorbello for a wry and elegant performance as Henry’s supremely wise mother and to the Cockney Quartet, made especially delightful with David Carney’s flawless, orchestral whistling. The only hitch is Reagle’s pesky sound system (which in past performances screamed feedback but that has evidently been fixed). Alas, opening night featured major amplification and distortion problems with the microphones, especially on the high notes for the two leads.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Double Play By Beverly Creasey

If you’re a fan of the Olympics, you’re probably obsessed with Usain Bolt of Jamaica after his triumphant double double, cinched yesterday and all over the news today. But another double double happened in Watertown last evening.

The Titanic Theatre Company debuted with Charles Busch’s THE THIRD STORY, a raucous romp brimming with double entendre, double agents and body doubles, not to mention double dealing and double talk. Would you expect anything else from a Charles Busch show?

THE THIRD STORY (at Arsenal Arts Center until August 18th) sprints through the outrageous stereotypes found in gangster movies and melds them to the mad scientist genre. Of course it does. The wacky back story has a mother and son screenwriter team trying to put together a boffo script. The writing plot serves as an excuse for a larger than life mother-in-drag who’s not so keen on her daughter-in-law and a smoldering scientist who has created the most adorable monster since Peter Boyle. Then there’s the fairy tale.

Director Adam Zahler teases out every bit of comedy there is in Busch’s hilariously lame script. It’s not easy to write over-the-top dialogue which floats from laugh to laugh (and never lands with a thud). What a cast Zahler has to make merry with! Dying is easy, as the old saw goes. Comedy is hard. There’s not a wink out of place or a sideways glance thrown asunder.

Rick Park (who can play anything: serial killers, sharks, you name it) is on his game with the two Queenie roles (one a ruthless mobster mom and the other a sweet, Rain Man afflicted serial killer) and one scheming, Russian sorceress. Nancy Stevenson dresses him, at one point, in gold lamé and heels and (s)he’s simply irresistible. And can he deliver a putdown!

Jordan Sobel (the bespectacled, milquetoast screenwriter inventing all the twists and turns) doubles as Queenie’s tough as nails gangster son who’s married to Erin Eva Butcher’s sexy moll. Butcher doubles as the peasant girl in love with a prince. Shelly Brown plays Sobel’s overpowering mother and then a German scientist jealous of Alisha Jansky’s accomplishments in the lab.

Jansky is a scream as the up tight, no nonsense scientist who creates life in a petri dish, then lets her hair down in a sultry epiphany courtesy of Sobel’s hunky mobster. Brett Milanowski (as the “botched experiment” in a bad suit) amazes with evolving Darwinian gestures: He’s part frog, almost human, then more human than most.

Michael Ricca (who is an expert on old movies) provides the authentic “movie” soundtrack, which is funny all by itself…and Marc Harpin has fashioned the perfect backdrop for THE THIRD STORY: an empty page for a stage full of shenanigans, with a spotlight (lighting by Christopher Brusberg) on an old fashioned typewriter.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Masterful Lesson from Athol By Beverly Creasey

“MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys is Athol Fugard’s visionary masterpiece about compassion, faith and betrayal (and so much more). The characters in “MASTER HAROLD” dream about a “social reformer,” a man of “magnitude” who will set history right. It’s as if the playwright could see the future of South Africa, when Nelson Mandela would be that man.

“MASTER HAROLD” was banned in South Africa (but presented in the States, first at Yale Repertory Theater, then on Broadway) as were many of Fugard’s plays about apartheid. “MASTER HAROLD” is above all a play about humanity. Thanks to director Benny Sato Ambush’s remarkable production at Gloucester Stage (through Aug. 12th) we can witness transformation through the power of words.

A lonely white child, whose father is an alcoholic and whose mother is busy with the family business, is shown kindness by the two black employees in his mother’s tea shop. That boy is now a teenager when the play begins. He’s smart as a whip but he still suffers with sadness and shame over his father’s public behavior and he doesn’t know much about life. It’s clear to us, but not to him, that Sam (Johnny Lee Davenport) has been a surrogate father, teaching the boy (Peter Mark Kendall) to believe in himself. Any joy for life has come from his friendship with Sam and Willie (Anthony Wills, Jr.), not from his family.

Ambush’s lyrical production slowly builds (without you even knowing it) to a horrific crescendo when the boy either can rise above the whites only politics in South Africa or embrace apartheid and cast his friends aside. It’s a searing moment, made even more urgent by Davenport’s explosion of emotion, unleashing Sam’s hidden pain. Wills’ character seems as frightened as we are, sitting on the edge of our seats. And watching Kendall, cowering in a corner with Davenport looming above him, we see the powerlessness black Africans have felt for centuries. We feel Sam’s righteous rage and we hope against hope the boy will not make the wrong choice.

The intimacy of a small theater only adds to the immediacy of the story. Even if you saw “MASTER HAROLD” back in the day, Ambush’s version is a revelation. Do not miss it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Zombie Exhibitionism By Beverly Creasey

The New Exhibition Room folks embrace the realm of the bizarre with their undead double feature, THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE IS HERE (at the Boston Playwrights Theatre through August 25th). Fans of zombie cult movies will recognize the “whatever you do, don’t go outside” and the “you didn’t lock the door?” motifs---but that’s not the surprise in this APOCALYPSE. They seem to be channeling Russ Meyer as well as George Romero. For a minute I thought I was at a Gold Dust Orphans show.

Evidently zombies like sex, in all its permutations. Zombies can even procreate. And a zombie delivery (oh yes, stirrups and all) can be mighty dicey. The characters lurch their way through the lamest of zombie plots (penned by Dawn Simmons and Nora Long), succumbing one by one. Some even win your heart. Terrance Haddad’s zombie has lost power of speech but his chirps and whines and uncoordinated moves are so delightful, he wins the heart of fellow creature Hannah Husband. (She elevates donning a shoe to an art form.)

Speaking of art, Jackie Frances sits in a back corner of the stage (it’s a shame it isn’t the front corner) working on a painting while the blood bath rages. It’s too bad we don’t see the completed work at curtain call. (More of Frances’ intricate creations hang in the lobby.) The New Exhibition troupe likes mixing art forms so we’re also treated to some lovely rock ballads by Michael Glashow, as counterpoint to the mayhem.

Even stage manager Dierdre Benson becomes part of the show, echoing our inner thoughts about the air conditioning as she exits grumbling, to remedy the blackout on stage. As it turns out, art mirrors life in this case. All of Allston, starting one block away from the BPT, lost their electricity earlier in the day. Driving home through dark streets, past closed businesses and no pedestrians was certainly spooky. (I kept a watchful eye for zombies.)

Omar Robinson has a field day in Simmons’ piece as a cop who’s been bitten but is resisting the zombie transformation with all his might…and he gets to strut in his hilarious dancing shoes (in flashback) in Long’s play. Lyndsay Allyn Cox's character cannot bring herself to dispatch her bitten beloved, as is the practice preached by a diabolically randy minister played by Bryan Daley.

What, Allyn Cox wonders, will be the fate of her unborn, perhaps undead, baby? Should she have an abortion? Will the state (Bob Mussett, all “up in her business”) allow it? You get the gist or rather the grist for the zombie mill (and there is one on stage!) Yuck! Ewwww! Need I say more?

Thursday, August 2, 2012


PASSION PLAY is Sarah Ruhl’s wild and wooly triptych about innocence and corruption (from the Elizabethan age to the 1980s). Like Caryl Churchill before her, Ruhl cuts a swath out of history, anchoring her tome to the individual stories of history’s unsuspecting participants.

The play is unruly but the performances are game changers. The new kids on the block call themselves The Circuit Theatre Company. (They tour several venues in August, the last on the circuit being Oberon on August 12th) These young performers set the bar awfully high for the rest of Boston’s eighty or so companies. They all play instruments, sing like pros and act the heck out of Ruhl’s uneven, but nevertheless chilling, allegory. Have patience with the first section. It’s an overlong set-up for the next two which will repeat dialogue, characters and the “Passion Play” setting from the first. Mercifully the next two fly by. (If only they could fast forward the first!)

The medieval miracle play has made its way to Elizabethan England (in Part I) where, like it is in Germany still, the parts for the Passion Play are cast by dint of citizenship. The very best villager, for example, plays Christ… leading, as you might imagine, to jealousy and rancor. Same deal for parts two and three, only the year and the politics are changed.

Ruhl weaves fairy tales, the Holocaust and Viet Nam into her tapestry of human tragedy, ending the piece with a lovely vision of hope (which conjures Emily Dickenson’s definition: “the thing with feathers that perches in your soul”). The Circuit troupe make it soar. They can make your blood run cold, too, when they create the sounds of a train in Nazi Germany. All throughout the play, music and sound ratchet up the stakes. (The only problem for Circuit is that the music sometimes makes it hard to hear the actors over the cello, for instance.)

All the performances are simply extraordinary in director Skylar Fox’s production, with the remarkable Justin Phillips heading up the cast as a pitiable fisherman, a gay German soldier and a tortured Viet Nam Vet, all of whom play Pontius Pilate in each era’s “Passion Play” and each of whom drives the action. Madeline Schulman as Mary is outstanding, as are Sam Bell-Gurwitz as Christ and Natalie McDonald as the next Mary. Christopher Annas-Lee, Caleb Bromberg and Louis Loftis supply ample comedy and Emma Johnson is the piece de resistance as QEI, Hitler and Ronald Reagan.