Monday, September 30, 2013


History we all know: 1620. Plymouth Plantation. The Mass. Bay Colony. Brave ancestors who came to these shores seeking religious freedom and refuge from English persecution.

Well, not exactly. William Gibson’s searing indictment of our earliest founding fathers, GOODLY CREATURES (presented by Hub Theatre at the First and Second Church stage through Oct.6th) sets the record straight: the “Divine Slaughter” of 700 Pequot men, women and children while they slept, ex-communication (and worse) of citizens who didn’t toe the Puritan party line, condemnation of women who “meddle in men’s business” and accusations of heresy, sedition and witchcraft.

The characters in GOODLY CREATURES are quite familiar to Mass. residents. State House statuary celebrates our first governor and the city of Winthrop bears his name. Although Anne Hutchinson, too, has a statue, her fate at the hands of Governor Winthrop was anything but “Christian” and no town is named for her.

Gibson slowly and deliberately sets up the colonial conflict in Act I. You’re so busy trying to tell all the ministers apart—(What’s that old saw about too many ministers spoiling the cloth?)—that you hardly have time to absorb all their semantic squabbles: “Good works…good words…a good spirit” all seem compatible to us but those Puritans were adept at splitting hairs. In fact, these protestant ministers, whose ancestors went to great lengths to separate from the Catholic Church, end up having the same objections about worshippers speaking directly to God without sanctioned intermediaries.

The good news is that Gibson has written a rousing Act II. When the dominoes start to fall, collapsing in Anne’s direction, the play catches fire. Now that you know who’s who, it’s riveting to watch the disaster unfold AND BECOME OUR SACRED HISTORY! While you are at the Church (founded by Winthrop et al), look for his statue outside. Inside you’ll find a display case with the church chronology and portraits of the very ministers in the play who are so threatened by Anne.

Director John Geoffrion has gathered an accomplished cast, headed by Nancy Finn as the headstrong Anne Hutchinson and Phil Thompson as her nemesis, Governor Winthrop. The charismatic Finn gives Anne warmth and humor as well as a touch of hubris to keep her from seeing what’s coming. Thompson, as well, makes us understand the conviction beneath Winthrop’s misguided actions, so that his character isn’t merely a villain (as opposed to the real Winthrop who plotted Massachusetts’ first mass murder: “A nation of 700 wiped out of history,” his character/narrator confesses in the play.)

Craig Houk as Anne’s husband provides a welcome playfulness to the somber proceedings, acknowledging that he “never wins in an argument” with his wife. Robert Orzalli and Floyd Richardson as Anne’s immutable foes add plenty of chills. Morgan Bernhard supplies the nobility as an evenhanded governor and Cristhian Mancinas Garcia, the excitement of a revolutionary firebrand. But it’s Jack Schultz as Anne’s mentor who gets to break our hearts (and hers) when he feels he can no longer support her case.

Hub Theatre is a bright, new company on the Boston scene. One of the things which make it unique is its pay-what-you-can tickets. Their productions are lively and spirited and definitely worth a visit. Do see GOODLY CREATURES for the history you never got in school!

Monday, September 23, 2013


Nina Raine’s TRIBES (at SpeakEasy Stage through Oct 12th) is a play about different, sometimes warring communities. In this often funny drama of ideas, assimilation is the nub. Should a Deaf person immerse himself in the deaf world or straddle both the deaf and hearing worlds? What is language? If it isn’t spoken and heard, how else do we communicate? The family in TRIBES has not taught ASL to their deaf son because, they say, it would marginalize him. That decision, they discover, will ignite a firestorm.

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, written in 1980, covers similar territory when a Deaf woman falls in love with a hearing man. Should she struggle in a world which does little to accommodate her or find fulfillment in the deaf world? (CHILDREN was written before cochlear implants, which raised a ruckus among child rights activists, you may remember, because the child had no say in the decision for surgery.) Raine sidesteps the cochlear issue altogether in favor of a domestic free-for-all where the value of “language” is debated at fever pitch.

This is a family that shouts a lot but hardly ever listens. Raine has given almost everyone a different affliction. Father is a bully. Mother swallows her suffering. Sister has no self confidence and a severely mentally ill brother is hearing accusatory voices. The only well adjusted member of the family seems to be the brother who is deaf. (If only Raine had not given him “Annie Dookhan” syndrome, a condition we’re painfully familiar with here in Boston when Dookhan falsified evidence in hundreds of court cases, causing those convictions to be overturned). It doesn’t add anything, except distraction, to the story.

Raine runs rings around the debate with metaphors: The voices which taunt the brother, the mother finally finding her voice in writing, the sister who has majored in voice and the Deaf son given a voice through sign language. You can imagine the din. I even felt overwhelmed by the family and I could go home without them.

I did take away something extremely valuable from the play, though. It raises issues we should all be thinking about in a self absorbed hearing world. And it jogged my memory, reminding me how miraculous ‘hearing with your eyes’ can be. Two lovely instances have been restored to me.

When PHANTOM OF THE OPERA first toured, my newspaper sent me to the blockbuster musical with a group of Deaf students who would experience the music through sign language. The ASL interpreter followed the rising notes of an aria with her hand, grabbing the high note at the top with her fist, her hand descending with the music slowly to her chest. The students “ahh’d” following the arc of the sound perfectly. They gasped at the thrill of what they saw in the face and hands of the interpreter and what they could clearly see/hear as her hands sculpted the air. (We were too far away to see any facial expressions on the performers.) She acted/signed the entire musical with her whole being and it remains one of the most exquisite performances I’ve ever witnessed.

When my friend, Janine, was taking Lamaze classes, her instructor suggested she learn “baby” sign language, too. She signed to her gorgeous baby girl right from birth and so did we. This babe in arms signed until she learned spoken language. I remember a game she loved to play with me. By signing “light” she could get me to turn off and on the overhead light as many times as she wanted, laughing with delight at how easy it was to control an adult. When we went outside, she would point to the sun and sign “light,” knowing full well, I’m sure, that I couldn’t switch that one off or on. We all stopped signing when she began to talk and I, for one, miss it.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara has a stellar cast to transform Raine’s ideas into human beings. Adrianne Krstansky and Patrick Shea as the parents have an uphill battle because of their self-centered point-of-view, “protecting” their son from Deaf people. At one point, O’Gara has Krstansky and Shea trekking the perimeter of the stage, following each other, arguing about nothing, making us laugh and making us realize what Billy and his siblings have endured. It’s no wonder James Caverly as Billy can’t wait to get away from them. Caverly gives a tour de force as the young man who discovers freedom in the palm of his hand.

Erica Spyres, too, dazzles as his tour guide into the Deaf community. Raine cleverly uses the piano to show what Spyres’ character is feeling as she loses her hearing. Arshan Gailus’ soaring sound design treats us to Mozart and Callas so we know what Kathryn Myles’ singer aspires to (and probably will not achieve). Garrett Herzig’s graphics of sound waves let us “see” Mozart’s notes undulate as living vibrations not just as music, an ingenious way for the hearing audience to alter their perspective for a moment.

Nael Nacer breaks your heart as the brother losing his hold on reality, frightened that he is losing his brother, too. That relationship is the one which gives TRIBES its real frailty and humanity.

Friday, September 20, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Method to their Madness

Hurry to the Modern Theatre, next to the Paramount downtown, because the Harbor Stage Company has brought its lovely, quirky, condensed production of THE SEAGULL to Boston for this weekend only (through Sept. 22nd).

If you’re expecting languorous, reverential Chekhov, director Robert Kropf’s adaptation is not. In fact, if it were not for the mention of Moscow, you might think it takes place in America. Kropf jettisons subtext (and several characters) for a visceral, transparent emotional energy which drives (and dooms) the characters. The acting, especially, is more contemporary than the usual stylized elegance we’ve come to associate (mistakenly, I think) with Chekhov.

Everyone wears his heart on his sleeve, making Kropf’s adaptation a lot funnier than some (and Chekhov did insist that all his plays were comedies) and a lot brasher than most. See it for Brenda Withers’ conniving, imperious actress, mother to the tortured young writer, played with twitchy, feral intensity by Alex Pollock. See it for Stacy Fischer’s hilarious turn as the depressed Masha, “dragging her life behind her.”

Masha is hopelessly in love with the actress’ son but he is in love with someone else who’s in love with someone else who’s…. They all are, except for the doctor, portrayed by Lewis D. Wheeler as an eminently sensible chap who finds all the intrigue amusing.

The summer residents suffer from the heat and the boredom and the pain of rejection. Jonathan Fielding as the famous poet is tired of writing and weary of his lover’s histrionics when an earnest, innocent creature, played with sweet fragility by Amanda Collins, takes an interest in him. He fans the flame and the delicate balance of relationships, never steady in the first place, begins to tip.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Writing about writing is tough. How do you show something that’s so personal and internal? Theresa Rebeck has done it in spades with SEMINAR. Her deliciously poison pen cuts through the crap and exposes the charlatans who claim to be able to judge and teach. Fresh from a Broadway run last year, SEMINAR, now up at Stoneham Theatre (through Sept. 29th), is raucous and ruthless in its sardonic depiction of the “literary pursuit.”

And absolutely true. Having sat through numerous seminars on writing, I can tell you there really are literary lions (with lots of prestigious awards after their names) who, during a seminar, dwell on a first sentence of a student’s work, only the first sentence, frittering away the whole session with tales of their own importance or flights of their own fancy…ruining the writer’s chance for some constructive criticism. Rebeck sends them up royally in SEMINAR.

And she doesn’t spare the know-it-alls in class who wax on about the genius of Lowell’s own Jack Kerouac either…or the female students who sleep with the famous author to further their careers. She has them all for dinner in SEMINAR. And, best of all, we get to eavesdrop on the real “creative process.”

It’s Stoneham’s good fortune to have Liz Hayes in the role of the up and coming writer suffering the slings and arrows that Rebeck herself dodged along the path to her success (on Broadway, in film and television). Hayes is a deft comedienne and she reminded me of Rebeck right from her first hilarious obscenity!

(My editor thinks I should include a disclaimer because I have a slight bias with SEMINAR. Rebeck had her start in Boston in the ‘80s when we weathered the nasty critics together, our plays often on the same bill. As you can see, I’ve switched sides… always mindful, I hope, of the need to be constructive.)

Director Weylin Symes gets fine comic work from Jesse Hinson as the pompous “golden boy” who is sure a piece of his will be accepted by a fist rate magazine, from Jordan Ahnquist as the sensitive guy who’d rather be kind than brutally honest to his fellow writers…and from Sophorl Ngin as the opportunist who will do what she has to do to get ahead.

You really need the novelist teaching this seminar to be a dangerous charmer. Christopher Tarjan certainly has the disdain down but, alas, not quite enough charisma to keep these writers coming back to him for advice after he’s cut them to the quick. Then again, I saw the show on opening day. It may shake out when they run it a bit.

SEMINAR brought me back to the glorious days when we were innocent of the slaughter ahead, when we loved to write for the love of writing. Theater held the promise of wonder and surprise and that’s still true. (I don’t know how people cope without it!)

I especially loved the “in” jokes in SEMINAR but the Stoneham audience laughed in abundance and I’m pretty sure they weren’t all playwrights. SEMINAR works whether you’ve been there or not because we’ve all felt the sting of criticism. It’s a universal. And Rebeck is top of her game at making us laugh at ourselves.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


New Repertory Theatre opens its 30th season with the profoundly moving drama, THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance (playing through Sept. 29th). It was good to visit the play again, to reestablish that it’s an important work of ideas about compassion and transcendence. I hadn’t seen it since the ‘70s except in movie form, which is very different from the play. In the movie version we don’t have to imagine the deformities which made this poor, wronged man a side show spectacle. (The movie make-up artists have done the work for us.) The use of our imagination is one of the elements which sets the play apart.

Pomerance deftly establishes how cruel we humans can be to someone considered “the other,” whether it be race, ethnicity, sexual preference, mental acuity or physical disability. Because John Merrick was derided as an “elephant” man, considered “animal” rather than “human,” we can include the cruel way we treat our animals, as well, experimenting on them and slaughtering them because we think they can’t feel, in the lessons we learn from the play.

Pomerance certainly couldn’t have foreseen in the l970s the effect the internet would have on the proliferation of bullying—but as you hear Merrick recount the taunts and violence he endured in Victorian times, you realize there’s resonance there as well. Tim Spears gives a breathtakingly vulnerable performance as the man who suffered the unthinkable and emerges with a radiance of spirit nothing short of remarkable when kindness replaces cruelty and ignorance.

Merrick is rescued by a physician, elegantly portrayed by Michael Kaye, who is keenly aware that Merrick is still on display, albeit in much more comfortable circumstances at the hospital. Just as the doctor in EQUUS struggles with the realization that he may be as troubled as his patient, Pomerance’s surgeon wrestles with “the illusion” that is his success (a trend in ‘70s drama).

Pomerance goes to great lengths to connect the dots and balance all his metaphors by play’s end but it’s Merrick’s connections which make the story touch the soul. When nurses cannot hide their shock and revulsion, the doctor hires an actress to spend time with Merrick. Director Jim Petosa’s production soars when Valerie Leonard as Mrs. Kendal befriends the sweetly innocent, disarming man. And when Pomerance eliminates her in favor of the doctor’s moral crisis, the play isn’t nearly as compelling.

Joel Colodner gives multiple, powerful performances, especially as the wretched sideshow hustler, then as a Bishop who voices the religious beliefs of the times—as do all the other performers who double roles. Oboist Louis Toth punctuates crucial moments and eases scene changes with lovely snatches of melody and evocative runs of notes, composed in collaboration with sound designer David Reiffel. It’s a surprising and welcome (and not at all obtrusive) addition to the show.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


The Lyric Stage is blessed to have two master comedians in their raucous production of Richard Bean’s ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (playing through Oct. 12th). The success of the spoof based on Goldoni’s 18th century THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS (now set, British music hall style, in the 1960s) depends entirely on who’s taking the pratfalls.

In director Spiro Veloudos’ freewheeling production, Neil A. Casey reigns supreme as an ambitious bloke who signs on to work full time for two bosses, laboring feverishly to keep each one from knowing about the other. Casey not only splits his time when the bosses aren’t looking, he splits his personality—so that a conversation with himself (“I shouldn’t do it. Yes, I should. No. Yes.”) quickly becomes a raging argument which devolves into a knock down drag out affair, when his left hand lands an uppercut which isn’t defended by his right because he wasn’t paying attention.

More comic bliss is supplied in abundance by John Davin, in the role of an ancient waiter who has seen better days and evidently never thought of getting his eyes checked. He keeps running into doors, walls, furniture, anything that can send him reeling across the stage. We clearly see the obstacles heading in his direction where he does not, which is the sure fire, banana peel formula for sensational slapstick.

The cast juggles Bean’s godawful puns, carrying on bravely in the face of a convoluted plot about gangsters and murder victims and true love. The set-up in Act I is molasses paced but once the audience gets all the characters straight, and the exposition is in place, the train (or should I say ‘bus’) starts to roll. This is one of those times you have to sit back, forget about the lame-as-they-come jokes and let the physical comedy pull you along.

You can even join in. There’s plenty of room for audience participation. You’re encouraged to sing along with the corny songs proffered by Catherine Stornetta’s jaunty skiffle band. One enthusiastic audience member at my performance was inspired to take the stage and dance! No one seemed to mind.

My audience was so delighted by the give and take that at one point during the show, we assumed a rather trepidacious fellow making his way down the side stairs, was part of the play. All eyes were on him as he tried to exit the ramp but seeing actors headed his way, turned and instead, ascended the steep central stairs to the upper level. I thought this was a brilliant bit until I saw an usher grab him at the top of the stairs. I assume she guided the poor man safely to the men’s room. (The point being once you’ve given yourself over to the spirit of the silliness, you’re ready and willing to laugh at anything and who doesn’t need laughter desperately these days?)

The Lyric has a passel of actors who know how to milk a laugh: Larry Coen slings Latin phrases like cream pies. Tiffany Chen stares in magnificent blank bewilderment. McCaela Donovan hilariously loses her patience with biology. Even Alejandro Simoes’ exits are funny.

Dale Place’s yellow shoes set me off. Likewise Aimee Doherty’s pseudo-feminist flounce and Davron S. Monroe’s wonderful wig and even more wonderful head wag. Then there’s Harry McEnerny’s so somber headwaiter and Dan Whelton’s deadly charmer…I could go on and on.

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is no NOISES OFF but the production is. And if you’re a fan of Benny Hill humor, you’ll be in clover ‘til the cows come home. (I’m not a Hill fan and I was won over in spite of myself: “No. Yes!”)

Monday, September 9, 2013


You may know about Restoration comedy from Congreve’s masterpiece, The Way of the World or Wycherley’s The Country Wife, both of which are revived from time to time. You may even know about Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress but do you know the man Marvell called “the best English satirist [and] the most learned among Restoration wits”? Three hundred years later Ezra Pound proclaimed poet/satirist John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, no less than equal to Alexander Pope!

You won’t see a more sumptuous production (with just eight moveable screens for a set!) about the scandalous man of 17th century letters than Bridge Rep’s THE LIBERTINE (in association with Playhouse Creatures Theatre) at the BCA through September 22nd. If the title seems familiar, Stephen Jeffreys’ play was made into a film in 2004, starring Johnny Depp as Wilmot, the libertine, and John Malkovich as King Charles II, often the subject of Wilmot’s ridicule. (I haven’t seen the movie but the play has inspired me to ferret it out.)

THE LIBERTINE offers a hearty portion of the Earl’s adventures, played to hilarious and bawdy perfection by an exemplary cast, led by the charismatic Joseph W. Rodriguez as Wilmot. He’s a rake, a philanderer, a heart breaker and a dissolute charmer. As William Hazlitt famously said, “His contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity.”

The Earl’s “Merry Gang” of satirists included writers Wycherley, George Etherege and Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset. Jeffreys puts Etherege and Sackville into his play as willing sidekicks to the mercurial Earl, whose rapier wit and witty epigrams often came back to bite him. (He was jailed a number of times and convicted of treason when the King overheard a most unflattering diatribe.)

Not content merely to comment on what Grayling calls “the age of riotous immorality,” the Earl lived life to the hilt, even catching the eye of Samuel Pepys. His famous diary recounts the Earl’s unconventional courtship of his wife-to-be: He kidnapped her to illustrate his devotion! Jeffreys works in the historical material with flair, capturing the licentious spirit of the times in his delightfully naughty dialogue but he isn’t long on plot, leaving me wanting something more to unite the highly entertaining scenes. (Aphra Behn’s OR, in a crackerjack production at the Lyric a few seasons ago, deals much more successfully with the same subject matter.)

That said, it’s a high energy, highly entertaining production, thanks to director Eric Tucker’s ingenious staging (especially the comical “commenting” scene from behind the skewed screens) and a cast to cherish: Brooks Reeves first as the playwright Etherege, a reluctant reveler in the Earl’s destructive exploits/then as a humorless portrait painter; Eric Doss as the Earl’s game manservant/then a constable; Daniel Duque-Estrada as the foppish Sackville/then a self-aggrandizing actor; and Troy Barboza as the Earl’s inexperienced, ill-fated, new found conspirator, all performed with panache.

Also well drawn: D’Arcy Dersham as the no nonsense stage manager, Richard Wayne as the overindulgent King Charles, Sarah Koestner as the Earl’s longsuffering wife, Megan O’Leary as the Earl’s favorite prostitute, Olivia D’Ambrosio as the actress beloved of the Earl and the ensemble players, who deliver the cheeky “Signor Dildo” ditty (to new music by Michael Wartofsky).