Friday, February 28, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey THE 2014 AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATRE FESTIVAL (through March 1st at the BCA)

Robert Johnson Jr.’s sobering play, STOP AND FRISK, about racial profiling in an unfair legal system, is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was written twenty years ago. If only it didn’t resonate so loudly. In fact, “stand your ground” laws have proliferated while many lament that our constitutional rights have been thrown out the window.

When Johnson first wrote STOP AND FRISK, a yuppie white man had just shot his pregnant wife as they drove home from their childbirth class. He claimed an African American man had shot them in a carjacking gone wrong. Everyone believed him. It was 24/7 on the network news. Police undertook a massive manhunt, even arresting and charging an innocent man. No one suspected the husband even though statistics indicate that, with murder, it’s more likely to be a family member.

Even though Johnson mentions the incident, STOP AND FRISK isn’t just an indictment of the law, it’s a poignant story of a fiercely loyal family. Johnny Peterson’s mother will do everything in her power to prove her son’s innocence when he’s falsely arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He merely sat on a stoop to talk with two friends he hadn’t seen in a while. The police decide to hassle the teens and when they protest, the patrolmen rough them up and to their delight, find cocaine on the young man already known to them. The three get charged with possession.

Johnson creates warm, vibrant characters to populate his play and director Jacqui Parker found an extraordinary cast (some from her OUR PLACE theater program) to make us care deeply about them. I saw the play the first time round, with Parker herself and the late Tom Grimes, and it struck a mighty chord. I’m happy to say the chord is ringing again with the new cast.

Kinson Theodoris gives a powerful, charismatic performance as the young poet/ protagonist wrongly accused. Karimah Williams as his mother breaks your heart as she paces her kitchen waiting in vain for Johnny to come home. Valerie Lee returns to the stage (Hooray!) after a seven year hiatus and knocks us out with her firecracker performance as mother’s wisecracking homeless best friend. Eboni Baptiste makes Johnny’s attorney a no nonsense career woman with a affectionate soft spot for the aspiring writer.

Every actor in the show makes his/her role stand out, right down to the court officer (Evelyn Wynn, with only 2 or 3 lines) who shakes her finger at the witness and gets a well earned laugh. Parker and company demonstrate with plenty of style that Boston needs THE AFRICAN AMERICAN FESTIVAL. Welcome back.

Monday, February 24, 2014


With virtually no plot and only one central question: “Should Bobby get married?” COMPANY is the Dear Abby of musicals. In fact George Furth and Stephen Sondheim pioneered the fragmented, nonlinear, non-story driven musical so popular with today’s composers.

The Moonbox production of COMPANY (playing through March 1st) has some knockout numbers but unfortunately the Roberts Theatre’s sound system bedeviled the show straight through on the night I attended. COMPANY always opens with funny messages left on Bobby’s phone machine but we could hardly make them out they were so garbled.

Then the pesky amplifiers (IF only they hadn’t used mics) crackled and worst, distorted the quality of the voices so that everyone seemed nasal from where I sat on the right. (It wreaked havoc with the balance between orchestra and singers, too, and alas, the orchestra drowned out some dialogue and more importantly, some of the lyrics, even with the strong singers.) Maybe it wasn’t a problem in other sections of the audience.

 Now I have a big question for Dear Abby: Why was the orchestra on stage (a great idea) but facing the left wall and not us? From where I sat all I could see were their backs and a little of their sides. (Abby is probably going to say it’s the only way they fit on stage but it just looked so wrong.)

Here’s what was right with director Allison Olivia Choat’s production: Some crackerjack performances and delicious choreography from Rachel Bertone. The vaudeville “circus” number (What Would We Do Without You), with ambivalent Bobby (a cheeky David Carney) wonderfully out of sync with his married friends, simply brought down the house.

Shonna Cirone’s sensational freak out with Peter Mill in her Not Getting Married Today (with hilarious operatics from Teresa Winner Blume) hit the spot and Katie Clark as the airline stewardess scored with Barcelona. Lisa Dempsey whirled like a dervish in her erotic dance solo—and Dan Rodriguez’ orchestra sounded great all by itself. In short, the parts were better than the whole in this endeavor and I’m Sorry/Grateful, to quote the song: Sorry I have to say that but grateful, nevertheless, that I saw the show.


Most people (and most scholars) view Willy Loman as a tragic hero, the “low man on the totem pole,” devoting (and sacrificing) his life to capitalism, only to be crushed by the system, not unlike today’s auto workers whose jobs have disappeared due to outsourcing. Spiro Veloudos’ production of Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN (playing @ Lyric Stage through March 15th) looks a lot deeper into Willy’s character.

 That dream Willy is chasing is flawed from the get-go. You can’t just “walk into the jungle” as he imagines his brother Ben did, and emerge in three years with diamonds. And you can’t succeed with just a shoeshine and a smile. Veloudos and Ken Baltin have uncovered a stubborn, belligerent man who is quick to fly off the handle, quick to blame everyone but himself. Baltin’s Willy condones (and encourages) his sons to steal lumber from a construction site. Is it any surprise that they cheat and philander when his fatherly advice is to glad hand your way through life?

While Willy is bent on pursuing “The American Dream,” his family is falling apart. His absence as a husband and father is keenly obvious in Veloudos’ production. Baltin doesn’t romanticize Willy one whit. With his Willy we’re “paying attention” to his every unkind word, his every lumbering movement. I was surprised that Baltin managed to elicit my sympathy (for a moment) when he foolishly, selfishly turns down a generous offer of work.

Paula Plum plays his wife as a sweet, reticent soul who keeps trying to comfort her unhappy, non-responsive husband---and we can see the fear on Plum’s face when she isn’t able to prevent an outburst or a fight between Willy and his older son, Biff. Kelby T. Aken gives a powerful performance as the second generation failure in the making. His breakdown makes the tragedy in SALESMAN resonate, even more (for me) than Willy’s death.

Joseph Marrella is the younger brother who has learned from his father to exaggerate his importance, lie about his job and gad about, picking up women. Lovely comic relief comes in the character of Bernard, the studious kid they all ridicule. He’s the one who’ll go places, of course, and he won’t be selling anything. Victor L. Shopov is delightful as the bespectacled boy who morphs into a confidant, successful adult. Larry Coen plays his father, getting laughs in the first act and a strong scene in the second, when he tries to help the family.

Miller’s largest character in the play is the symbolic Ben, the figment/memory fragment of Willy’s imagination, the heroic “American” ideal of the adventurer/explorer who triumphantly returns with the spoils. Will McGarrahan strides onto the set looking cinematic and bigger than life, like Robert Mitchum ready to conquer the world. It’s a skillful effort from McGarrahanwhich gave me chills at the end, when he urges Willy toward the death in the title of the play.

Friday, February 21, 2014


Early Christopher Durang was venomous. He strode onto the scene with a spectacularly damning indictment of the Catholic Church (and this was before revelations of pedophilia). The Church lashed back and priests told parishioners to stay away from SISTER MARY IGNATIUS. There were picketers and counter-protesters outside the theaters. Good times!

The latter Christopher Durang is clever and cheeky but mostly just plain silly. Mind you, that’s OK. I’m always thankful for reasons to giggle. And laugh we all did at Happy Medium Theatre’s BABY WITH THE BATHWATER (playing through Feb. 22nd).

Director Lizette M. Morris has a first rate cast to screw up poor baby’s upbringing. If Mommy and Daddy weren’t frightening enough, Durang summons the Nanny from hell. Then a stranger appears at baby’s cradle to insure some heavyweight anxiety.

Morris and Dierdre Benson create maximum laughs with an ingenious little ’50s house outfitted with skewed planked walls so we can see who’s coming and going and who’s standing in the rain. (Even the rain is hilarious!) Their vintage commercials (“See the USA in your Chevrolet”) add the delicious frosting to the cake.

Denise Drago is truly scary as the irrationally unprepared mother who would rather have given birth to a best seller. Jeremy Towle makes father loopy in Act I but just wait ‘til Act II some thirty years later, when he’s thoroughly bonkers, swatting away at imaginary owls. Nicole Howard gets to play several roles to the hilt, especially the noxious nanny, as does Drew Linehan, who gets laughs just by tilting her walk in Act I.

Mike Budwey as Baby Daisy (don’t ask, it’s a DNA thing) gets terrific mileage out of his ten years of sessions with an unseen shrink (a funny, Austrian voiced Benson), recounting his fears of buses and laundry. His deer in the headlights ride on the therapist’s elevator is niftily crafted by lighting designer Greg Jutkiewicz.

Costumer Megan Becker scores with her fifties dresses and Daisy’s azure sweater the exact color of Budwey’s eyes. The great thing about the Factory space is that you see everything up close, down to every exacting absurdist detail.

Monday, February 17, 2014


Bless Zeitgeist Stage for continuing to bring us Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinary plays. Ayckbourn junkies especially rejoice when we can see a new one. NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH (playing through March 1st) is Ayckbourn’s 75th. This particular play, written in 2011, is a bit of a departure. It’s a tragedy of sorts, wrapped in the folds of a dark comedy. The tragedy is announced from the get go. Then Ayckbourn shrewdlyand hilariouslyshows us how it transpired.

You have to be a master craftsman to get audiences to laugh at the absurdity of “stand your ground” and at the same time be keenly aware of the tragic consequences. I thought of Trayvon Martin early on when the head of a British neighborhood watch group furiously chases a teenager off his property. Director David Miller navigates both of Ayckbourn’s intentions seamlessly. You’re laughing. Then you’re cringing at the possibilities for disaster when amateurs arm themselves for “protection.”

Sound designer David Reiffel has us bouncing along with a snatch of English music hall fluff, then Beethoven’s 7th plunges into our gut, reminding us that someone has been killed. I think I heard “Ombra Mai Fu” (“Oh Tree”) from Handel’s Xerxes to anticipate the opening scene in the park. Reiffel and Miller are the perfect match for Ayckbourn’s genius.

Miller has a wonderful cast to “turn a nice, peaceful community into a military zone,” in order for Bluebell Hill’s “vulnerable” residents to protect themselves. The watch group is organized by a middle aged brother and sister who have just purchased a house in the development. Shelley Brown as the zealot sister justifies their “call to action” as a “Christian” ideal. She’s marvelously frightening as her fervor escalates.

Bob Mussett as her brother doesn’t start out as a full on lunatic, so named by his nemesis (the powerhouse Damon Singletary), but he soon succumbs when the sexpot wife of another watch member loosens her scarf in his direction. Ashley Risteen provides plenty of heat to melt his “practicing pacifist” flesh. Watching Mussett writhe in guilt and embarrassment is reason alone to see the play.

Lynn R. Guerra’s non-stop hand wringing and Ann Marie Shea’s eager gossiping (and you don’t want to get Victor Brandalise started) add to the comic trajectory BUT it’s Robert Bonotto in a tour de force who steals the play away with his unbridled ecstasy over the idea of medieval torture.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Peter Floyd’s lovely ABSENCE (@ Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through March 3rd) is a poignant, even redemptive story about “forgetery” (my own mother’s invented word for her frightening slide into dementia). Like Arthur Kopit’s heroine in WINGS, Helen can’t process what people are saying. Like Kopit, Floyd immerses us in Helen’s point of view so we can experience the confusing gibberish she’s struggling with as she loses her ability to understand words or remember people. (My absolute favorite of Floyd’s nonsensical phrases: “It’s trellis in the unconditional dirt.”)

Conventional wisdom about dementia and Alzheimer’s maintains that whatever difficult qualities the person exhibited prior to onset, will worsen with the disease. But if you’ve seen the exquisite film, IRIS, you know that the opposite can occur. Murdoch became a pussy cat, as did my formidable mother.

Floyd starts Helen out as a strong willed, self sufficient woman who brooks no interference so we get to see the frustration her family encounters, trying to cope. Floyd slowly ratchets up her helplessness, her vulnerability and her desperation. Little by little, our allegiance shifts and we find ourselves pulling for Helen to somehow reconcile with her frazzled daughter and in some miraculous way to find peace. Hooray for Floyd. He finds a nifty dramatic way to pull it all off.

Suffice it to say, ABSENCE speaks to me because I’ve been there, done that but I think even if you haven’t had a brush with dementia, you can appreciate the story telling and the real ring of truth…and you’ll be impressed with director Megan Schy Gleeson’s extraordinary cast.

Joanna Merlin was ill so Kippy Goldfarb took over the role of Helen at my performance and gave an astonishing tour de force. When Helen and her granddaughter (a spirited Beverly Diaz) have their harrowing scene together, a “Please, please” from Goldfarb reduced me to tears (and I don’t cry easily at the theater). And tears again, when the wonderful Anne Gottlieb, as Helen’s longsuffering daughter, rails at her mother and in a moment of “clarity,” Goldfarb is able to comfort her.

Bill Mootos provides the welcome laughter (and solace) in ABSENCE, Cheryl D. Singleton, the professional kindness and Dale Place, the grounding in reality. Don’t miss this remarkable glimpse into the terrible workings of the mind.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014


The Broadway version of THE COLOR PURPLE (and the Broadway tour) played in big houses where even if you had a seat in the orchestra, you were still pretty far away. My recollection of the musical, believe it or not, is that it was lovely but not particularly exciting. And before I saw SpeakEasy’s production, I couldn’t remember any of the songs.

Leave it to director Paul Daigneault to know it would work like a house afire in a small theater. SpeakEasy Stage’s THE COLOR PURPLE (playing at the BCA through Feb.8th) raises the roof with its foot stomping ensemble numbers, its high stakes drama and those hilarious quips from the gossiping “Greek chorus” telling you “who’s hoochie coochin’ with who.” You’re right in the thick of it, even if you’re seated in the back of the Wimberly. And you’ll leave singing Shug Avery’s “Push Da Button,” I guarantee it.

Daigneault and music director Nicholas James Connell have assembled an extraordinary group of performers who summon each of Alice Walker’s characters to vibrant life and who embody the Russell/Willis/Bray songs with a powerful urgency. Marsha Norman’s book captures the desperation and joy in Walker’s harrowing story of Celie (an intense Lovely Hoffman) and her sister (a shimmering Aubin Wise) as they try to escape an abusive father (David Jiles, Jr. who is a strong presence in several roles). Alas, Celie’s escape only lands her in the clutches of another frightening man (Maurice Emmanuel Parent who transforms himself brilliantly in the course of the story).

Christian Bufford’s choreography for SpeakEasy is one of the reasons it pulses with energy. The high spirits and humor in the dancing lift the performance off the stage. Crystin Gilmore as Shug, the red hot crooner everyone wants to hear, especially Celie’s smitten husband, Mister, is another reason to see SpeakEasy’s production. Her erotic delivery of a lyric is a sight to hear and behold…and Parent’s tortured gyrations when she sings are downright hilarious in the middle of the spectacular rhythmic dance.

 Valerie Houston, as Sofia, too, makes this production radiate with electricity. Her “Hell, No!” to a “man with a raised hand” song is one of the show’s gems. Her crowing relationship to her subservient husband (the wonderfully funny Jared Dixon) is the comedic counterbalance to Celie’s woes. Anich D’Jae gives a wry performance as the squeaky voiced rival to Sofia. (Hell, no, she doesn’t stand a chance.)

Some of Boston’s best performers grace the SpeakEasy show: Cliff Odle, Kelton Washington and Kira Cowan shine in multiple roles. Each and every actor adds to the forceful scope of the story. With THE COLOR PURPLE, SpeakEasy demonstrates why they’re one of Boston’s best theaters.