Tuesday, April 23, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Wrapped in an Enigma By Beverly Creasey

Toward the end of Flat Earth Theatre’s ENIGMA VARIATIONS (playing @ Arsenal Arts through April 27th) the principal character, a noted writer, complains that a work of art needs more than “flashes of brilliance.” Director Sarah Gazdowicz tries to increase the “light” by casting three actors to play the mercurial novelist—and another three to play the curious journalist who has come to interview him.

It’s a clever gambit: All the players appear on stage at the same time, creating soft ripples and reflections, as if a chard of mirror were amplifying the characters. Alas, despite the inspired iterations, ENIGMA VARIATIONS displays only momentary heat.

Jeremy Sams’ translation of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s weighty play takes a long time to percolate (with ponderous speeches as if this were Ibsen) before it gathers the emotional momentum to fuel a meaningful ending. (Perhaps something was lost in translation?)

Until you trip to the reason for all the philosophical embroidery, you’re (at least I was) left wondering why all the meandering about art as “forgery of life” and love at its best as a long distance relationship and whether it’s possible to really know another person or not. It’s a lot of talk and practically no action, without much “variation” on the theme—and precious little connection, to boot, to Elgar’s famous orchestral divertimenti (referenced in the title).

I kept thinking it would work so much better as a novel—although I must admit that the last moment of the play is quite satisfying. My hat is off to Flat Earth for undertaking such a difficult and dense drama. Judging by what they bring to a script (like last year’s IRNE nominated PILLOWMAN) they’re a company to watch.

Monday, April 22, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Boisterous, Boffo BOUNCERS By Beverly Creasey

If you’re a fan of Guy Ritchie’s outlandish films about British working class blokes (like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) then BOUNCERS is the comedy for you. As you may have perceived, BOUNCERS (playing through April 27th—they may add a few more shows—check at their website: stickballproductions.com) is set in and around a scrappy English after hours club, with bouncers to keep the order. Fittingly, you can see the play up close and personal in a hole-in-the-wall club in Central Square.

John Godber’s gritty slice of raucous nightlife was a big hit in the U.K. but this is its first outing in New England. Director Bill Doncaster raises the energy—and the decibels—to fever pitch. You can feel the reverberations of a packed nightspot at the Cantab, as soon as the four bouncers (who play everyone else, too) start to chant and shout and sing, “Get down, Get up and Get Together.”

There’s little plot (one character has a through line) but who cares? The dialogue is outrageous and their off the wall antics keep you convulsed. They embrace the raunchy with gusto, as if they have no idea it’s offensive. The playwright switches situations and characters back and forth very quickly and thanks to the crackerjack cast, you know immediately where you are (even without a set). They’re the bouncers, then they’re drunken wannabes trying to get past the gate. They’re four girls celebrating a birthday, they’re clueless headbangers, they’re in a hair salon, they’re in the loo. My favorite bits were the Mohawk coiffed punks wanting admission and a Swedish video which had been played too many times.

Joe Siriani as “Lucky” Eric makes you feel truly sorry for his streak of bad breaks. Poor lug, the ex-wife even comes into his club with a new guy just to rub it in. Siriani shows us his mass of conflicting emotions just below the surface. He wants to be kind. He wants to protect the women he sees making fools of themselves—but he’s plenty angry and he wants revenge.

Put a creepy red light on James Bocock and he’s the nasty deejay who thinks up contests just to get the women to take off their knickers and bras. Patrick Curran only has to widen his eyes to scare away “undesirables” at the door and as for Seyi Ayorinde, he has charisma to spare. Everone plays female, too, a la Monty Python, in a style that’s audacious but not quite caricature. BOUNCERS is rank. BOUNCERS is raw…but it’s funny as hell, too.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Too Brilliantly Close for Any Comfort By Beverly Creasey

If you haven’t discovered BAD HABIT Productions for yourself, allow me to introduce you to one of the brightest theater companies in town. Their ARCADIA two seasons ago picked up top honors at the Independent Reviewers Awards. Their GROSS INDECENCY was one of the best plays I saw last year. (Check to see if they do it at this year’s IRNE Awards on April 29th.) Here they go again with Patrick Marber’s CLOSER, his brilliantly cynical account of mating and dating in the new millennium (playing at the BCA thru April 28th).

In Marber’s opinion, people only want what they don’t have. Then they risk everything to get it and once they get it, they don’t want it anymore. The same goes for love. They chase it. They squander it. They lose it and they regret it. (CLOSER has been filmed with Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman but Leonard Maltin cautions in his movie guide that it’s much better as a play.) I’m here to say it’s a ferocious play and director Susanna Harris Noon doesn’t stint on the cruelty. The Bad Habit production almost takes your breath away, it’s so savage (in the appropriate scenes, I mean). And these are Brits (!) behaving badly.

Noon’s cast is perfection. Angela Keefe can play gamine, then dangerous… pathetic, then powerful as the ex-stripper who is the object of affection, at one time or another, of both Glen Moore’s sophisticated, shallow novelist and Brooks Reeves’ desperate, exasperating dermatologist. Crystal Lisbon, too, is sensational as the photographer who knowingly acts against her own interests and throws in with a man she knows eventually will throw her over. You’ve never seen so many bad choices.

Marber’s dialogue is smart and hip---and yes, funny. You won’t guess where the play is going, even though you know there are only four characters. You wouldn’t want to get close to these people in real life but on stage, they’re riveting. Don’t miss the chance to see what a crackerjack company can do with a script.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Madness trumps Black Comedy By Beverly Creasey

The law of unintended consequences kicked in with a punch to the gut on press night (two days after the Marathon bombings) for BEOWULF: A Songplay by Banana Bag and Bodice (at Oberon through May 5th). As you may remember from high school, BEOWULF is the Norse saga in which the hero, Beowulf, defeats the evil monster Grendel.

 In the year 700, King Hrothgar enlists the help of Beowulf because Grendel has been killing—and maiming—his subjects. The Banana Bag and Bodice players happily describe body parts everywhere. (This is intended as a darkly comic piece.) When Beowulf asks the King what the face of evil looks like, the King replies, “like you and me” and when Beowulf defeats the monster, his bloody, severed arm is brandished proudly by the triumphant hero.

Unfortunately for the Banana company, my response to their satirical take on the epic is colored by the tragic events of April 15th. I just couldn’t find the sight of a grisly limb at all funny and their prescient take on “evil” looking like everyman sent my mind back to the Boston Marathon finish line. Other than that, I did admire their musicianship but their hi-jinks left me cold. Oh, and you don’t learn much about BEOWULF…but that’s their point, that it’s a work of “aggressive boredom” and they’re making it entertaining.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Scandanavian Scalawag invades Wheelock By Beverly Creasey

The Wheelock Family Theatre celebrates families, children and children’s literature like no other theater in town. Audiences bursting with tots (who watch spellbound with nary a peep) come to Wheelock to see their favorite books come alive: Books like THE CAT IN THE HAT or THE SECRET GARDEN or ANNE OF GREEN GABLES…and now PIPPI LONGSTOCKING (playing through May 12th).

Pippi’s Swedish author, Astrid Lindgrin, made up stories to amuse her daughter while she was recovering from pneumonia. Back in 1946, a book about a little girl who doesn’t obey grownups was an anomaly. Little girls wore white gloves and hats in the ‘40s. They didn’t sail the South Seas and elude the police. Lindgrin was honored with the Hans Christian Andersen award and lived to be ninety-four, working tirelessly her entire life for legislation to benefit children and protect animals from abuse.

Animals figure prominently in PIPPI LONGSTOCKING. Pippi lives in a house with animal companions, not humans. An expressive monkey and an attentive horse (in the kitchen!) help Pippi when she needs it. For the most part Pippi can handle everything by herself. She can best a weight lifter, overpower two burglars and outmaneuver the police.

Director Wendy Lement’s PIPPI has some lovely surprises. Instead of ASL interpreters standing at the side of the stage, Lement makes them part of the show, interacting with Pippi, moving among the characters and dancing as they sign. Adrianna Kathryn Neefus and Desiree Weems are delightful, sashaying and boogying along with the chorus. The hip hop music, too, composed by Peter Stewart, becomes integral to every scene and sets the mood for the whole production. The horse (Elbert Joseph) gyrates to the beat, the police (John Davin and Mark Linehan) can’t help responding to the rhythms---even the criminals (Ricardo Engermann and Margaret Ann Brady) get down.

Sirena Abalian’s non-stop Pippi even paints graffiti on the walls---when she isn’t eluding Donna Sorbello’s frazzled welfare worker or disrupting Kortney Adams’ classroom. The performances are charming and the children in the audience when I attended adored Pippi’s outrageous behavior. They didn’t seem to notice that the pacing was awfully slow (on opening weekend). They didn’t care either that the set changes took a bit too long (hauling out the main frame of the house and turning the huge side pieces). Now that’s only an adult opinion and as we’ve learned in PIPPI, adult opinions merit a whoopee cushion! Enough said.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Dynamite Group Dynamic By Beverly Creasey

Elizabeth Dupré’s THINKING OF YOU (through April 20th @ Boston Playwrights’ Theatre) happens entirely over one weekend, when a lively group of greeting card employees are stuck on an island (Martha’s Vineyard perhaps?) for a corporate retreat. Oh, no. That sounds like the setting for one of those scary movies but it isn’t. It’s a smart little comedy.

Dupré’s dialogue is hip and funny. The characters are charming (except for the villain, a management enforcer who you know will get her comeuppance). Each character is played with swagger and personality. All the threads of the story are woven carefully (if a bit slowly) into the plot(s): the Red Sox angle, the sister unable to let go of her grief (in Truly, Madly, Deeply fashion), a liquor soaked love confession and a delicious worker uprising.

Act II really comes to life with “the plan” to stick it to management. Dupré achieves screwball status with the hilarious character of the pretzel inhaler and the delightful conspiracy for payback. It’s then that the focus gels. (It’s a little blurry up ‘til then.)

 Danielle Lucas’ cast is wonderful, from Drew Linehan’s devoted, conflicted sister to Preston Graveline’s wisecracking, protective brother, from Laurie Singletary’s nasty, uptight boss to Stephen Kyle’s deadly announcement-happy corporate toady.

Andrew Hicks gets the plum role of the “pit bull” salesman whose frustration in Act II is a thing of beauty. David Lucas gets lots of laughs as the salesman with the next highest figures (and a secret he doesn’t want anyone to know). Jennifer Reddish adds sparkle as the cheeky I. T. expert. (Of course, the joke is that no one knows what she does.) Damon Singletary is a standout as the reluctant, forty something co-worker who throws in with the young saboteurs and finds the radical within him (with a nifty John Carlos solidarity salute).

Downsizing has never been so rewarding.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mythical, Magical BEASTS By Beverly Creasey

 The small (but mighty in effort) IMAGINARY BEASTS theater company fuses puppet arts to human movement, gestural language to text, and story to myth for a feast of images, sounds, music and laughter. If you’ve attended any of their entertaining WINTER PANTOs, you know their wildly creative approach to theater making. Now they’ve turned their imaginative spirit toward Thornton Wilder. This being the 75th anniversary of OUR TOWN, BEASTS founder/director Matthew Woods was reminded of a set of miniatures by Wilder he saw as a student (written when Wilder, himself, was a college student).

Thereby, LITTLE GIANTS, The Miniature Plays of Thornton Wilder came into being at Imaginary Beasts (playing @BCA through April 27th) and the Beasts provide the most delightful settings for the little gems. (Not since Allston’s Double Edge Theater departed for western Mass, have I seen such elegant ensemble work.)

From Molly Kimmerling’s powerful muse to William Schuller’s destructive mermaid, from Amanda Goble’s fragile Moth of Versailles to Cameron Cronin’s outrageous Mme. Flamenco, the singular characters dance in your head long after the evening ends. The stories linger, wandering about in your consciousness. You marvel at how Jill Rogati’s wooden boy elicits such an emotional response. You giggle, remembering how wonderfully exasperating Poornima Kirby is, obsessing about her tea.

You fear for Amy Meyer’s wounded prince, bound up by Kimmerling and Kamelia Aly—who slowly knot a swath of silk (which gloriously unfurls in another story to form the undulating ocean)—and you anticipate with dread, who Tim Hoover, as Mozart’s mysterious visitor, really is.

But my favorite vignette was devised by Woods and the company, not Wilder. This charming prelude to the Mozart piece introduces Gabriel Graetz as an exacting conductor and Beth Pearson as a reluctant singer entangled in a monumental struggle to elicit her performance. For one thing, she’d rather be sleeping under her box. For another, she lacks confidence. For another, she won’t open her lips. Their ornamentation on a theme is simply priceless.

Everyone shines in multiple roles, subtly lit by Erich Hagen and adorned in gorgeous, inventive costumes by Cotton Talbot-Minkin. The centerpiece of Woods’ set (at one end of the playing area) is a large, raked circular platform which can become a stage or a hill (for Cronin to tumble down) or upended, a barricade, a sun, any number of possibilities. Sound, too, is just as important, from the crack of the commedia dell’arte (slap) stick to the sweep of a dulcimer to the strains of THE MAGIC FLUTE, every musical choice enhances the magic. Do not miss it!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW LYRIC Goes to the Movies By Beverly Creasey

The first act of Lynn Nottage’s BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK (at Lyric Stage through April 27th) is a merry send-up of Hollywood missteps, specifically in vintage movies where African-American actors almost always appeared as maids, slaves and chauffeurs. Not that contemporary movies fare a whole lot better. If you remember, Octavia Spencer got an Oscar last year for her role as a maid in THE HELP. But I digress.

Christopher Durang mined the same laughter-born-of-shame in his riotous HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM but Nottage adds another layer, offering a follow-up in Act II, so we can meet the characters decades later, still talking about their seminal roles.

Nottage takes well aimed swipes at several icons of American cinema, for example, loosely blending SHOWBOAT (filmed three times and in every version a white actress in “coffee” make-up plays the mixed race role Lena Horne could have devoured) with GONE WITH THE WIND (Nottage crosses state lines and transforms GWTW into THE BELLE OF NEW ORLEANS).

In BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK a starlet named Gloria Mitchell (who may be “passing” for white) is as anxious to land the role of the Southern Belle (who may be passing for white) as is her maid, Vera Stark, to land the cringe worthy servant role in the aforementioned melodrama. (Hang in there. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.) Nottage spoofs the whole genre, from soup to nuts, aided and abetted in the Lyric production by Jonathan Carr, the wunderkind who filmed the outrageous faux movie results.

Director Summer L. Williams gets hilarious performances from the entire ensemble, with Kami Rushell Smith a standout as Vera Stark. Hannah Husband is deliciously distracted as Vera’s employer/confidante/sister? (This is sounding like Faye Dunaway in CHINATOWN), with Kris Sidberry a smash hit as the smart cookie who hoodwinks a pompous Russian film director (the wonderful Gregory Balla) and a dyspeptic producer (the wry Kelby T. Akin). Lyndsay Allyn Cox almost steals away the show as Vera’s wisecracking gal pal and Terrell Donnell Sledge makes marvelous music as his own one-man band.

Act II is art imitating art imitating life. Nottage reunites Vera and Gloria years later on a television talk show. That public appearance is then dissected in a university forum by a present day filmmaker and two experts in the field of historical and cultural literacy. (The abundance of debate makes Act II less rewarding than the first act but still plenty funny).  

Here’s what intrigued me. Why would Nottage visit the characters again later? Might Vera’s public appearance in the ‘60s have been inspired by Butterfly McQueen? This occurs to me because McQueen, who played GWTW’s most famous character (OK, maybe Scarlet is more famous), made appearances at colleges in the late ‘60s. I saw her at Boston University, holding forth on any number of subjects with that incongruous, squeaky, little “Prissy” voice. Of course, what the students really wanted to hear was that infamous line about “birthin’ babies!” Shameful as those images are, they’re the ones we remember.

Hats off to Nottage for showing how ridiculous, not to mention immoral, the practice of restricting roles is.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Amelia Broome (as Maria Callas) kneels in supplication to God and tremulously speaks the lines which have just been sung without much emotion by her student in Terrence McNally’s MASTER CLASS (at New Repertory Theatre through April 21st). For that fleeting moment, I saw Callas in Broome’s performance—and my heart skipped a beat.

The difficulty in a play about someone so familiar (to opera lovers/singers) is that we know what Callas looked like, sounded like, spoke like: The way she drew herself up to command the stage with sheer will and backbone. We reveled in the thrill of that glorious vibrato which could pierce your soul, those full, daring low notes, her plummeting descents. She sang like it was life or death. (Mind you, not everyone loved the wobble and many voices were/are sweeter but she had that something no one has seen since.)

Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman and company make a brave effort but McNally has set them up for an impossible task. When the script introduces her recorded voice, I couldn’t pay attention to his dialogue. When Broome speaks over the recording with a particularly unpleasant reminiscence of Onassis, I couldn’t concentrate and as McNally has Callas tell us, “listening takes concentration.” Now this may not be an issue for non-opera/non-Callas loving audience members.

When McNally brings out the coquette in Callas (which was in full flower at Symphony Hall toward the end of her career: she had us eating out of her hand), the script is a delight: McNally has her complain about a taciturn stagehand who doesn’t know who she is—and he has her dish about rivals she thought were “plotting her downfall.” Broome makes us conspirators in her naughty asides.

John Traub’s floating instruments are an evocative backdrop for the opera stories Callas recalls but it’s the singers who subject themselves to her withering criticism who supply the drama in Master Class. Brendon Shapiro as the pianist is a charming foil for Callas and Erica Spyres supplies the innocence of the lamb to slaughter. Darren T. Anderson impresses with Cavaradossi’s opening salvo but Lindsay Conrad is the wonderful surprise, whose shimmering vibrato reminded me of Callas!