Monday, September 26, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Death Becomes Her

Sarah J. Mann’s quirky SHE LOOKS GOOD IN BLACK (produced by Exiled Theatre @ BPT through Oct. 2nd) throws a number of clever curves at the audience while masquerading as outrageous comedy… or is it comic tragedy? Mann’s off kilter take on the concept of grief work is refreshing. This particular widow (Cailin Doran) is distraught but not particularly over the death of her husband. She likes wearing slinky, tight, black spandex.

Doran makes her a woman aching for approval (with a smidgeon of vulnerability), craving to be desired by everyone, by anyone, including the gravedigger who has just interred her husband’s body. He turns out to be a Zen master/philosopher/grief counselor (and something much much more grave). Alexander Rankine gives a memorable performance as her curious, extremely spooky mentor.

Mann doesn’t just jumble together a collection of oddballs. Her characters have inner lives, granted mostly of desperation, but their torment shapes the playand makes us think seriously about sufferingeven as we’re laughing at the bizarre trajectory of the play (which I cannot divulge). The dialogue is witty and Mann’s ideas are delightfully, disturbingly eccentric. Director James Wilkinson keeps the unconventional material remarkably lighthearted.

John Kinde delivers the one pensive, sobering monologue of the piece in flashback for the day of their wedding. Then we’re quickly returned to the widow’s pursuit of some sort of release. As entertaining as I thought the dialogue was, I missed a good portion of it, when actors dropped their voices at the end of a phrase or when they turned toward a fellow actor. I wish I could have heard it all.

Monday, September 19, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SIGNIFICANT Performance

Joshua Harmon’s SIGNIFICANT OTHER is an actor’s dream. The quirky play (@ SpeakEasy Stage through Oct. 8th) has it all: an unusual number of dicey monologues which can make or break an actor; optimum face time; and the play comes with a rep: Harmon takes it to Broadway after the SpeakEasy run, sadly with another cast.

Greg Maraio should be going. His tour de force, as the gay everyman who just wants to get married and have kids, is the main reason to see the production. His misadventures fill the play with hilarious disasters, like the overwrought e-mail he should never, never have sent (which turns out to be one of the best physical bits in the show). His “wallowing and spiraling” is the stuff of classic comedy. Maraio turns out to be a master of the soliloquy (one of which is wordless!) as well, but as funny as he is, he makes us care for this hapless romantic.

Harmon gives him three best friends, all female, all of whom (unintentionally, of course) will neglect him when they find someone and get married. (Why Harmon doesn’t give him male friends is a mystery to me. He lives in New York City for heaven sakes. There must be a zillion gay bars and I know there are a zillion theaters, but I digress.)

Back to the play: Maraio gets to be plenty serious as well, pouring out his heartand his resentmentto one of the deserters at her bachelorette party. Jordan Clark gives as good as she gets in a nifty, angry monologue/response.

Director Paul Daigneault gets strong comic performances from the rest of the cast, too, from Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Kris Sidberry (as his BFFs), from Kathy St. George as his wise Jewish grandma, and especially from Eddie Shields, superb in three different roles, with charisma to spare. When you triple roles, each has to be distinct. (Alas, the other triple performer seemed the same each time). Shields is a bona fide chameleon but anyone who saw SpeakEasy’s Casa Valentina last season knows that. He’s an asset to any production.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The Kindness of Time

Before the brilliance of STREETCAR or SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER or any of his full length masterpieces, Tennessee Williams collected characters: crazy, genteel ladies, kindly doctors, coarse, greedy brutes, tormented alcoholics, failed writers and absent men who “fell in love with long distance,” to name but a few of his recurring themes. It’s clear he abhorred men of “force and power” and vain, domineering women. He certainly wrote what he knew best, basing many characters on his own mother and sister.

Zeitgeist Stage Company’s EIGHT BY TENN (playing through Oct. 8th) presents eight One Act plays with characters you will recognize at once from his exceptional full lengths: the women committed to mental institutions, the compromised women reviled by society, husbands ejecting their wives’ relations, characters living by the parliamentary “code” of the old guard, characters grappling with their sexuality, the colorful residents in the close quarters of New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, and the woman-child he calls “Baby Doll.”

What EIGHT BY TENN ends up confirming is the power of those full length dramas, not so much his shorter works. What I wish I had learned from EIGHT BY TENN is how the luminous full lengths evolved from these flawed character studies. To me, many of the short plays seemed disjointed and overblown. Where did he learn the rich narrative form which burns like a fire in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA or CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF? Was it simply the fullness of time or experience?

Director David Miller embraces the exaggerated, outsized tone (of a good many) of the One Acts by presenting stylized, larger than life portrayals for the characters. This is punctuated by Matthew Good’s very loud, bombastic music from the classical canon to introduce each one, like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre for the vulnerable, doomed MADONNA of the evening’s last play. A few of the vignettes are more accessible, in my opinion, because they feature more naturalistic acting. (One of Williams’ women fittingly delivers a line condemning “abstract expressionism” as passé.)

I’m afraid I think it’s awfully difficult to relate to characters who are lurching about and practically screeching their dialogue. (They’re not “real” enough to identify with… and what’s more, I don’t understand why some actresses raise the pitch of their voices to “grating” in order to portray Southern belles.) I do understand the concept of matching the production to the hysteria of the writing but it’s just so distracting when it’s over the top. The style which I think works best for Williams, and worked best for Zeitgeist (alas, employed only in a couple of the pieces) is “heightened realism.”

For heightened realism to work, however, you need actors the caliber of Michelle Dowd and Damon Singletary. It was a master class in suspense and restraint when they were on stage. The material worked through them and you were focused only on their dialogue, only on the horrific tragedy about to take place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Prime Directive

Memory isn’t what it used to be… or rather, the lack of memory isn’t. Now it’s a crisis. Used to be what happened to your aging grandparents. Nowadays everyone is deathly afraid of losing their memory. Alzheimer meds are big business. Brain studies drive Big Pharma research, which translates to big bucks… and maybe a cure. There’s that hope anyway.

We now know how memory is stored and retrieved… and altered every time it’s called to mind. Here’s a genuine surprise: It turns out that memories are far from static. They’re reassembled with every recallwhich may be what got Jordan Harrison thinking about how we’ll handle memory loss in the future. Harrison’s quirky, wildly imaginative play called MARJORIE PRIME (playing through Oct. 9th) is getting a thought provoking production at the Central Square Theater, sensitively directed for the Nora Company by M. Bevin O’Gara on a stunning set designed by Sara Brown.

Harrison gets at some thorny issues in MARJORIE PRIME, chiefly, how does one go on after the death of a loved one? The remedy, in the widow Marjorie’s case, is to have her husband back, recreated via Artificial Intelligence. This may seem capricious and harmless to us but some scientists (including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking) see the potential for destruction if the very machines we’ve invited in to help us, end up viewing humans as the problem.

Marjorie is lovingly portrayed by Sarah deLima: She intuits the fragilityand the witof an 85 year old, capturing the woman’s keen awareness of her own frailty. Marjorie offhandedly suggests that losing memories is nature’s way of un-burdening us, making us lighter and thereby making it easier to leave this earth. (Come to think of it, what a lovely way to look at senility!) When she reminisces about the violin, though, tracing a Vivaldi melody in her mind and hands, our hearts are broken over the loss of her beloved music.

Alejandro Simoes is thoroughly delightful as her cheery “prime computer,” (i.e. the sophisticated robot programmed to be a youthful version of her late husband.) His charming performance is a delightful mixture of bewilderment, earnest determination and the eagerness of a puppy.

The playwright takes several side trips with the plot, introducing a big dose of family pathology, which in one instance is transferred mother to daughter for two different generations, and another which insures a legacy of relentless suffering and guilt. (I’m trying not to divulge particulars.) Once the play is concluded, we’re able to see the through line, but each jog is a bit of a jolt until you catch the rhythm. Lee Mikeska Gardner wears her daughterly exasperation like a heavy winter overcoat she cannot remove. The oppressive weight on her slender shoulders is palpable.

Perhaps the most difficult role in the play is Barlow Adamson’s as the kindest of son-in-laws, the long suffering husband and desperate help mate to the two women (and one more, an unseen daughter) at the center of his life. Adamson and deLima have a charming interplay and the drama’s sweetest moments.

Happily, director O’Gara manages to stave off gloom and doom in a play primarily about death, not an easy feat. Harrison ends the piece with a whimsical, even amusing interlude for the replicants. Or maybe Hawking was right. These artificial beings don’t need their humans any more to justify their existence.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Life Trumps Art

Jamie Pachino’s THE RETURN TO MORALITY (a Titanic Theatre production in Central Square through Sept. 25th) is a timely tale of an author embraced by the ultra right for his slick new book on “old fashioned” morality. Trouble is, the work is satire… but the publicists promoting it warn the writer to keep his mouth shut, all the way to the bank. He does and becomes the darling of the alt-right. They even want him to speak at their national convention.

One might imagine what that does to his soul. We do learn what it does to his marriage but the playwright doesn’t dwell on his inner life so much as the outward effects of his newfound celebrity. His wife goes so far as to blame the book for stoking the climate of hate in the world.

IRNE award winning director Michelle Aguillon has a crackerjack cast headed up by Adam Siladi and Alisha Jansky as the conflicted author and his horrified wife. The humor in the piece is provided by the secondary characters, who double and triple roles: especially Phil Thompson as a spectacularly ruthless, wheeler dealer publisher/and a scary right wing operative (and more), and Laura Baronet as a posture coach/a quirky hair and make-up stylist/and a seductive student with an agenda of her own.

Jennifer McCartney provides laughs as the production assistant with an unintelligible French accent/as the always polite and a little bland Meredith Viera (and more). But it’s Regine Vital who lights up the stage with the plum role of the indignant (at last, someone can recognize the truth!) talk show host/and as the respectful cop in the “good cop-bad cop” scenario (and more).

Alas, the height of the ceiling in the black box space caused some of the softer dialogue to float up, up and away, as did the two-sided playing area when the actors faced away from one side. (It’s an easy fix to have the women speak louder and have the actors “cheat,” that is, to turn three-quarters so both sides of the audience can hear.)

More problematic, for me anyway, is that real life right now is much more outrageous and downright dangerous than any fiction could portray. While the play presents clear parallels to Mr. Trump and his ilk, it only serves to distract me away from what’s happening on stage, to focus my mind on the most current shockwave. I’ll borrow from Dorothy Parker: One can barely keep up with the “fresh hell.” I’m afraid it’s the law of unintended consequences that Pachino’s play pales in comparison.