Monday, March 28, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey ORANGE IS THE NEW CRITIC



SpeakEasy Stage’s provocative BOOTYCANDY (playing through April 9th) has enough solid star turns in it to almost make you forget Robert O’Hara’s bizarre, disjoined script. At one point, women in orange prison jumpsuits put a stop to the show, complaining that what’s going on isn’t “in character” for the protagonist. (And they claim to be “British,” for some unexplained reason, to boot!) Their timing was perfect: That’s exactly what I was thinking about a character that breaks really bad. His violent behavior is just not believable. And convincing a friend to go along? Not believable, either and the playwright can’t get away with it simply by commenting on it.

Clever skits start out hilariously (like Maurice Parent’s adorable, inquisitive six year old or Johnny Lee Davenport’s righteous Reverend Benson), then wear out their welcome when they run too long. It’s as if O’Hara can’t find an ending for the vignette(s) but when he gets serious (John Kuntz convincing a mugger to leave him alone), his writing soars. Lucky for O’Hara, director Summer L. Williams has a dream cast to inhabit all the loosely connected roles.

I’m sorry to say I also had problems identifying recurring characters because of their shift in age or situation but what was always clear was the caliber of performance. From Tiffany Nichole Greene’s exasperated young mother trying her best not to address a six year old’s questions about sexto Jackie Davis’ terrifying alpha mom at the dinner tableto the aforementioned powerful men in the play, the cast is the reason to see this wobbly, pretty raw script. Note: There is nudity and adult content, as they say at the movies.

Friday, March 18, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Half Baked but Wholly Filling



If you remember THE MRS. POTATOHEAD show from their salad days, you’ll be rejoicing that Margaret Ann Brady and Dorothy Dwyer (and friends) are back with a “New Old” set of comedy sketches BUT it only runs through this weekend (March 19th). The ladies are up to their old tricks, this time at Charlestown Working Theater, with their in your face stand-up and sit-down brand of shenanigans. They’re joined for the musical bits by Lucy Holstedt and she’s even game for a few of the riotous comedy sketches.

 If you’re familiar with the dare I say feminist calypso number, it’s in there, with three times the bite. Dwyer predicts “you will be singing it later” and she’s not kidding, she who lived the seamy side of Irish step dancing. Yes, tough kids like Dwyer made mincemeat of their competition back in the day. (And she still performs, just for us, in every sense of the phrase.)

Brady shows off her sharp character work, first as a hardscrabble survivor in Afghanistan and then as a wild, sobered up, garrulous alcoholic, and more. (She turns the Max Burbank piece into a tour de force.) To paraphrase one of their pithy retorts, what these women can do with a few bricks and cardboard a left arm is truly remarkable. If you like your humor dark and a wee bit on the raw side, this potato mash-up will more than satisfy.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

August Wilson Comes To Life in Huntington’s ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ (5 Stars) By Michael Hoban



‘August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned’ – By August Wilson; Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler; Scenic Design and Projection Design by David Gallo; Costume Design by Constanza Romero; Lighting Design by Thom Weaver; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through April 3.

The Huntington Theatre’s spellbinding production of ‘August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned’ should not to be missed by anyone who sincerely appreciates the art of storytelling. What makes this one-man show so fascinating is that it barely makes mention of the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize (and Tony Award) winning works, but instead focuses on his life growing up in the racially segregated Fort Hill District of Pittsburgh. It’s like attending an art exhibition comprised entirely of the early sketches of Picasso, where even though none of the masterworks are on display, the brilliance still shines through. 

Long time Wilson collaborator Eugene Lee plays Wilson (who originally performed the one-man autobiographical play himself) and thoroughly owns the character, from the just-below-the-surface seething at the humiliations doled out by his white bosses to the loving impressions of the influential characters in his life. Lee weaves a tapestry of vignettes from his early boyhood through his development as a poet, but stops short of his writing career. Each of the stories, entertaining in their own right, teaches a larger lesson that would shape Wilson’s thinking. But there is no soapbox in sight, just a series of heartfelt and poignant anecdotes that need no embellishment to paint a stark portrait of black life in a northern American city in the 1960’s.

Lee does open the show with something of a (very dark) joke, however. “My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job,” he says to nervous laughter, before dropping the hammer of truth. “But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.” 

But that’s pretty much where any sermonizing on racial injustice ends. That powerful statement serves only as a device to ground the audience in reality, and when we catch our breath following the bleak reminder, Lee launches into a series of stories about the people who influenced Wilson during his late teens and early twenties. Each new scene is announced by the tap-tap-tap of an old manual typewriter, forming words spelled out on a backdrop composed of hundreds of individual sheets of typing paper in David Gallo’s imaginative set. 

So we see a quote from his mother, “Something is not always better than nothing” appear on the pages, which leads to a story about how she taught him (by example) to maintain his dignity, even if it meant postponing the immediate gratification he could achieve by settling for less. That lesson shows up later when he is treated as a second class citizen by his bosses, and he decides to walk away from jobs despite desperately needing the money. And while he hurts in the short term, the building blocks of character are being put in place. That same attitude shows up in the character of Troy Maxson in the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning “Fences”, as he becomes the first "colored" trash truck driver by not accepting that second class treatment.

Not all the lessons are moral ones, and there are several parables important for his survival – like how to keep your mouth shut in street society – and these make for the most entertaining stories of the evening. Wilson’s snatches of street corner/nightlife in some ways reminded me of the description of black life in the 40’s in the Boston chapters of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written by Alex Haley), except that the jukeboxes that blared Erskine Hawkins and Duke Ellington now played Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. There’s a tale about a man who insults another man’s wife (for which he pays the ultimate price) that perfectly exemplifies street justice and its own code of honor; and a story about Wilson’s well-intentioned introduction of his friend, junkie/poet Chawley Williams, to a famous white actor (and fellow heroin addict) which erupts in violence that nearly kills Chawley, and later, Wilson. And there are touching moments as well. After teasing the audience with the title “Oral Sex”, Lee switches direction and spins the tale of Wilson’s first kiss to schoolmate Catherine Moran during the Christmas pageant, and it’s very sweet.

At 100 minutes with no intermission, one would think the production would drag at times, but Lee’s engaging portrayal makes this show as awe-inspiring as the John Coltrane solo on “Giant Steps”. See it. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/how-i-learned-what-i-learned/

Monday, March 14, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Everybody Dance Now



You know the old “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland? Well, Flat Earth Theatre’s production of TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE LESBO (playing through March 26th) seems like one of those scripts—and just to complicate matters—the characters in the play are also putting on a show. It’s a show within a show within a script that feels like this is its first outing (so to speak). It isn’t. It turns out playwright Gina Young is from L.A. with lots of credits to her name. So much for my theory.

TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE LESBO follows the whole class (gays and straights included) through the agony of fitting in and especially not fitting in. Any teen who feels “different” is gently lampooned in Young’s mostly entertaining script: From the shy boys that bullies hang on coat racks by the “gay loop” on their shirt backs to the girls with fem “crushes” who just aren’t interested in boys, to the amazement of the boys. “I don’t want to do you. I want to be you!” says a charismatic Kathleen C. Lewis.

Young’s sexploration scenes are hilarious, with ill-informed teens describing horrific, heterosexual misinformation. Teachers aren’t spared, either, with the clueless Miss Applebutter (a wonderful Julia Alvarez) pitching the wrong kid out of class. (I think I had her for English in high school.) Nasty girls at a sleepover exclude one girl and play a cruel “truth or dare” game (without the dare part) on another.

There are a few scenes which seem completely out of place (like the drama school “neutral mask” scene) which is why I assumed TALES was a developmental play. There’s even an instance where the kids discuss adding another scene to the play within the play and Alvarez’ character says there’s no room for anything else. Amen to that.

The very best part of the show happens when they (mostly the males sing lead) burst into song for no apparent reason. Their parodies of pop songs are spot on, with clever stand-in lyrics, for example in their Bohemian Rhapsody (Instead of a ‘devil,’ there’s “a detention hall with a table set aside for me.” Likewise, I Think We’re Alone Now and Hungry Eyes get a suggestive make-over. (The males in the cast are all deft vocalists.)

Director Mariagrazia LaFauci’s cast is pleasing, with fine work all around, especially from Malari Martin, Alvarez and Lewis. It’s the script that needs tightening. It’s just too long and too scattered for satire but I’m sure junior high students will eat it up.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Oddball TERRAPIN TALE



We meet the tortoise of the title only once—and she’s on her back (Becca Lewis cleverly supported by a shelf of bent backs). What makes SONIC LIFE OF A GIANT TORTOISE (@ Apollinaire Theatre through March 13th) utterly disarming is director Danielle Fauteux Jacques’ animated imagery and her acute sense of whimsy. Toshiki Okada’s impressionistic tone poem centers on the desperate desire “to live more fully.” (Okada is renown in Japan for articulating the collective angst of her generation.)

Her characters strain under “the banality of day to day existence,” planted in front of their computers. For all they know, someone may be watching them “through their screens.” (The joke is, we are watching them!) More than one actor shares a character so (s)he (Lewis/Trip Venturella) tells us in no uncertain terms that “(s)he’s not living like (s)he should be.” The characters riff on loneliness and death, while they settle for partners with whom they share very little. He (the droll Quentin James) likes staying home. She (a deadpan Lewis) wants to travel.

Okada skillfully works Japanese myth into their humdrum lives so that a trip across town involves a hundred years, just like the ancient tale of the fisherman who rescued a turtle/princess and lived with her without realizing eons had passed. Jacques mines gentle humor from the characters’ earnest but failed attempts to alter their fate. She gets lots of laughs from their recreation, namely their disco dancing, some of which lights them up in time with the music. Deniz Khateri, Paola Ferrer and James are hilarious ducking and sliding across the dance floor. The whole effort lasts only an hour by the human clock but in tortoise time, who knows!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Correlation or Causality?



The visual arts are getting a boost from the theater world this month. Who knew that two different plays would celebrate the faux painter Antrios! Perhaps celebrate isn’t the right verb. Maybe ‘indict’ is more to the point. Bridge Rep opens MJ Halberstadt’s clever THE LAUNCH PRIZE this week (running through March 20th) and Arts After Hours hosts Yasmina Reza’s ART through March 19th. Antrios passes off an art student’s work as his own in THE LAUNCH PRIZE and he’s painted the controversial white-on-white canvas at the center of Reza’s ART. Busy fellow!

The coveted prize in Halberstadt’s keen, fast paced little play will kick start only one career but four friends have applied for it. Halberstadt constructs four scenarios for us, allowing us to see what could happen in each case, like crime dramas do now on TV. He ramps up the competition by introducing the notion that organizations seem to be reflecting more diversity in their awards (the Academy Awards, notwithstanding.) Is that because of more opportunities for artists of color, he posits, and therefore more excellence OR are awards weighted in favor of diverse artists the way they were for whites in the past?

The four art students in THE LAUNCH PRIZE are conveniently a white male, an African-American woman, an Asian-American woman and a Hispanic male. Despite the predictable posturing and resentments, Halberstadt has created compelling characters who are far more than stand-ins for their genealogy.

Director Tiffany Nichole Greene’s cast is first class, with lively performances from Angela K. Thomas as the driven artist who will postpone her wedding to fulfill the obligations of the prize; from Bari Robinson as the charming, canny operator who is ready to exploit the economic advantages of winning; from Katharine Chen Lerner who refuses to sign her paintings so as not to give away her background; and from John Tracey as the affable “white guy” who sweetly tries but just doesn’t “get it.”

Who knew that ART would prove such a popular play? Arts After Hours’ dazzling production (reviewed earlier) is being followed by Hub Theatre’s production next month, starring IRNE nominees Victor Shopov, Bob Mussett and John Geoffrion. I can’t wait to see their version.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey TRUTH OR DARE



You won’t find a smarter, sleeker production of Yasmina Reza’s award winning ART (translated by Christopher Hampton) than the one at Arts After Hours (running through March 19th). Where is Arts After Hours, you ask? It’s in Lynn, a burb where the arts are flourishing. It’s worth the drive, as is the Peabody Essex Museum (my favorite Massachusetts museum), next door in Salem. You could do both in the same day. Both are connected by Reza’s play.

ART is a fast little comedy-with-drama which pits three friends of longstanding against each other because of a painting: a seemingly all white canvas which the most prosperous of the three has purchased for $200,000. If you’re thinking The Emperor’s New Clothes, so is the collector’s best friend… and he says so in no uncertain terms. And as you might have guessed, the collector takes great umbrage.

So, do you support your friends even when you think they’ve embarked on a fool’s errand? Do you question their judgment? That conundrum is at the heart of the playas is the age old argument about what exactly makes something “art.” Marcel Duchamp challenged preconceptions of “what art is” by presenting a “ready made” toilet at an exhibition in 1917. Kasimir Malevich’s 1918 “white on white” paintings (the inspiration for the artwork in Reza’s play) certainly took abstract painting to great lengths to achieve “purity of form.”

Director Fran Weinberg’s production is fiercely intelligent, with three remarkable actors seamlessly inhabiting their roles. Anthony Mullin makes the collector elegant and arrogant, the kind of man who never makes a mistake. (Of course, when he realizes that he has, it’s all the more satisfying for the audience.) Jason Myatt gives an extraordinary performance as the friend who can’t hide his contempt for the painting, and therefore, for its proud new owner despite a fifteen year friendship. When the fur flies and the collector hurls insults back at him, Myatt shows us he’s wounded to the core, his face registering genuine shock, hurt and even surprise.

Thomas Grenon has the plum role of the reluctant mediator, the guy who just wants everyone to get along. Try as he might to intercede, he fails so brilliantly that he himself becomes the target of their wrath. Grenon has a hilarious monologue about the women who are tormenting him nonstop over wedding plans, portraying first his nasty, disagreeable mother, then his domineering, unrelenting fianc√©. Poor man, there’s no peace even with his friends. He can’t find respite anywhere.

William Endslow’s revolving wall makes scene changes effortless. The director deliberately calls attention to them by having the actors notice the new incoming wallwhich translates to even more delightful humor when the collector spies an encroaching, inferior painting. Jeff Gardiner’s evocative lighting makes the inexpensive painting appear garish (at least to me as a fan of abstract art) and guides us to the characters’ inner thoughts. All the elements in Weinberg’s production conspire to sculpt a lovely, thoughtful work of ART.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Zeitgeist Serves Up Small Town Life with ‘Cakewalk’ (4 Stars) By Michael Hoban



Cakewalk - Written by Colleen Curran. Directed by David J. Miller. Scenic Design by David Miller; Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design by J. Jumbelic; Costume Design by Jess Huang. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston through March 19.

The descriptive phrase “light and fluffy” is not one that most people would associate with Zeitgeist Stage Company and director David Miller, but with the Cakewalk, the company takes on a straight comedy and delivers an entertaining production – with nary a social message in sight. Zeitgeist and Miller have been responsible for some of the most powerful productions in local theater in recent years, including the brilliantly brutal Punk Rock in 2013, last year’s Bent (which won the IRNE Award for Best Play and Best Director – Fringe) and this past fall’s Boys in the Band. But with ‘Cakewalk’, a lighthearted comedy about a small town cake baking contest, Zeitgeist allows us to walk out of the theater with a smile rather than an emotionally challenged psyche. 

Cakewalk is essentially an edgier version of Prairie Home Companion with a rural Vermont town standing in for Lake Woebegon and its denizens. It’s the Fourth of July, 1984 and in addition to the parade and pet costume contest, there’s the annual Cakewalk, where contestants vie for a trip to Paris, awarded to the baker with the most appealing confection. The entire play is set in the kitchen of quaint country inn, where contestants eagerly wait for the judging to begin while exchanging the weirdness of small town living. 

There’s Sister Vivien Leigh Cleary, a nun questioning her dedication to the convent life; Martha, her best friend and operator of the Heaven On Earth organic caf√©, who set the local gossip mill atwitter by living with her husband before getting married; Ruby Abel, an overzealous den mother fueled by a lifetime of regret that will do anything to win; Taylor Abbott, the directionally challenged archeologist; and Augusta Connors Hancock, a wealthy matron who decides to finally “do something for herself” by unfathomably entering her daughter Tiffany’s wedding cake in the contest – which may not be such a bad idea, given that Tiffany hasn’t a clue as to why she’s getting married – or much else for that matter. 

There is some clever writing in Curran’s work (“some have pettiness thrust upon them”), and there are lots of adroit tricks with names (all of the women in Ruby’s family are named after gems – which they clearly are not) that provide unexpected laughs. The performances are generally very good, anchored by the angelic Victoria George as the conflicted nun and a very funny turn by Matt Fagerberg as the addled archeologist. Aina Adler gives a heartfelt performance as the counter-culture restaurant owner (who may have more than a cake in the oven), and her barbed exchanges with the deranged Ruby are the basis for any semblance of dramatic tension in this comedy. 

As Ruby, Kelley Estes takes her character from a mere annoying shrew to someone who is borderline clinically disturbed – to great comic effect. Ruby’s lifetime of disappointments (which we learn about in a monologue, complete with pantomimed baton twirling) has transformed her from what would have normally been a neighborhood busybody to someone who looks like they’ll eventually end up as a headshaking story on the six o’clock news. Maureen Adduci and Ashley Risteen are effective as the self-centered mother and daughter team who bicker over the appropriate role of the wedding cake in their respective lives. 

In the end, ‘Cakewalk’ is a cute little charmer, but those hoping for a little more grit from Zeitgeist will have to wait until the spring for A Great Wilderness – the gay conversion therapy drama from Samuel Hunter, who gave us the The Whale (of which Speakeasy Stage produced a compelling production in 2014). For more info, go to: http://www.zeitgeiststage.com/index.html

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Half Baked Promenade



Having discovered the Great British Bake-Off when I tuned in by mistake looking for Downton Abbey, I now know that baking competitions can be surprisingly fascinating. Zeitgeist Stage takes the art of baking semi-seriously with Colleen Curran’s CAKEWALK (playing through March 19th). Director David Miller has a lively cast who excel at farce. In fact, there’s a spectacularly delicious “banana peel” moment which opens Act II—but don’t dawdle at intermission or you’ll miss it.

Victoria George is simply delightful as the sweet nun tempted by forbidden fruit. She has entered the bake off so she can use the prize money to send an elderly nun to Lourdes. Aina Adler gives a feisty, charismatic performance as her best friend and confidante but it’s Matt Fagerberg who takes the cake as the agile absent minded archeologist. (His character’s name alone makes him heaven sent).

Problem is, the play wanders into melodrama which slows the cooking time way down. The playwright mixes up conflict for two characters who are oil and water: Then she wants us to believe they can congeal despite the laws of physics. She attempts this twice but once you introduce racism, the play ceases to be funny. A farce about cut throat bakers has to have batter light enough to rise and stay airborne. They say some cooks purposely leave out an ingredient when they share a recipe. I’m afraid too many ingredients went into this overly layered cake.