Friday, December 30, 2011

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Cry Uncle By Beverly Creasey

Pre-revolutionary Mother Russia was Chekhov’s metaphor for all his plays: the loneliness of an endless landscape, the vast national disappointments and the overwhelming resignation of her people to a life of suffering. UNCLE VANYA (playing at Apollinaire Theatre Company through January 15th) is considered one of Chekhov’s best works, with its unhappy, mismatched couples and its doomed ideals.

Vanya faces the realization he’s been passed by. He can no longer tolerate the myopic status quo … and he is especially appalled by the presence in his house of a beautiful woman who cannot be his. UNCLE VANYA is full of characters confronting their futility.

Vanya’s niece has to face the fact that the doctor she adores does not return her affection. The doctor only has eyes for the “professor’s” young wife and passion only for nature, which he sees ravaged by “progress.” (Craig Lucas’s quirky adaptation turns the doctor into a late 19th century Al Gore, warning everyone about pollution and global warming. And Lucas tarts up the language so that characters speak in 21st century epithets. I’m not so sure it works exactly but it doesn’t do any lasting harm. The emotional struggles are what make UNCLE VANYA percolate.)

Artistic director/production director Danielle Fauteux Jacques had the brilliant idea of staging each act in a different part of the Chelsea Theatre Works so that when the characters move to a new locale, so does the audience. The first act is set in the garden so we are treated to a backdrop of breathtaking birches, painted by set designer Nathan Lee. His interiors, too, are so authentic that we feel we have been taken on an intimate tour of the twenty-six room estate. One of the salons is lit only by candlelight (again the genius of Fauteux Jacques), reminding me of the gorgeous orange glow Stanley Kubrick achieved without artificial light in Barry Lyndon.

John Kuntz as Vanya seems Russian to the bone, his magnificent desperation simmering just below the surface. (You fear it may erupt at any moment.) Ronald Lacey is thoroughly charming as the doctor whose feelings for birches and beasts, not people, somehow ennoble him. Marissa Rae Roberts manages to make the privileged young wife (to Bill Salem’s pompous windbag) eminently sympathetic, while Erin Eva Butcher captures the tragic hopelessness of willing sacrifice.

Even the smaller roles speak volumes in the hands of remarkable actors like Kevin Fennessy and Ann Carpenter. All the elements fuse to make this UNCLE VANYA especially memorable.

Monday, December 19, 2011

QUICK TAKE REVIEW All Those Christmas Carols, God Bless Them, Every One By Beverly Creasey

I think I’d seen them all (but one): The Huntington’s, New Rep’s, North Shore’s A Christmas Carol: Each wonderful in its own way, all honoring Dickens’ genius. And now I’ve experienced the Hanover Theatre’s sumptuous production. Troy Siebels’ adaptation abounds with musical treasures and technical wizardry. Marley flies in to warn Scrooge! Thick fog pours onto London’s crowded streets. Menacing clouds churn and spark with lightening for ghostly effect.

Olde English carols fill the Hanover Theatre with song…and best of all is the organ. I was smitten even before the play began. There it was, centerstage, gleaming white with golden fleurs des lises… gilding the lily, so to speak. I thought I had been transported to the 1940s when Wurlitzers graced every theater and movie house. Music director Timothy Evans played lively dances from The Nutcracker ballet on that magnificent instrument and I was sold. Then it magically descended from view so the show could begin.

The Hanover production celebrates spectacle and the children in the audience respond to it. Not a peep, did I hear from even the smallest onlooker. For the grownups, Siebels’ version boasts some immensely clever touches, like the brothers of Christmas Present. The ghost always mentions them but I’ve never seen them before! And the surprise ending is a delight, as well. The Hanover production telescopes the action so that several scenes have been jettisoned. I didn’t miss Dickens’ lighthouse chapter but I did wish we had seen more of Fan and Belle. (And I wish the sound technicians could eliminate the unfortunate reverb.)

Dale Place as Scrooge undergoes a joyous reclamation after a harrowing night with the spirits: John Davin as the ferocious, airborne Marley, Tori Heinlein as the sweet voiced Ghost of Christmas Past, Peter Adams as the munificent Ghost of Christmas Present and the scary, silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, accomplished with frightening organ chords, swirling smoke clouds and Eric McGowan on stilts.

The Hanover Christmas Carol has many a pleasure, the Fezziwig party being one, with Ilyse Robbins’ spirited reels and Steve Gagliastro’s effusive wassailing to spur on the revelry. Micah Tougas, too, gives a memorable performance as the heartbroken Belle. Ross MacDonald makes a daunting Fred and Sean Patrick Hopkins a fine Cratchit. Bill Mootos, Meredith Stypinski, Laura DeGiacomo et al conspire to make this version unforgettable.


This is just my personal opinion. I’m sure many would disagree with me. BIG is the Maltby/Shire musical (with book by John Weidman based on the Tom Hanks film) about a kid who gets his wish at 12 to be bigger. It’s the be-careful-what you-wish-for kind of story. If the musical were more whimsical, it might be charming but as is, when a 12 year old boy starts canoodling with a 33 year old woman, to me it’s just plain creepy. So he turns 13. Big deal. So she doesn’t know his real age. Even so, the “ick” factor kept me from appreciating the songs. And since I’m carping, Saddam Hussein jokes aren’t funny anymore, now that he’s been executed.

On the plus side, Turtle Lane Playhouse has a hero in Mark Estano who stepped in to the “bigger” Josh role at the very last minute when the show lost its lead. He and Sebastian Hoffman (as his best friend) provide the sparks in the TLP production. Hoffman’s “Little White Polish Boy from Jersey Talkin’ Rap.” song is simply delightful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Rifling through Christmases Past By Beverly Creasey

I don’t think Jean Shepherd’s A CHRISTMAS STORY could have a more delightful dramatization than New Repertory Theatre’s. Director Diego Arciniegas’ witty production (playing at Arsenal Arts through Dec. 24th) makes Philip Grecian’s adaptation pulse with naughty nostalgia: It’s a look back at the good old days through a wiser, slightly sardonic lens.

Barlow Adamson is perfection as the narrator fondly recalling those “festering years of childhood.” We all recognize the bullies at school, the dreadful gifts from maiden aunties and the embarrassing parents. We’ve been there. A CHRISTMAS STORY cleverly manages to be totally charming even as it pokes fun at life in the Midwest in1950. Life anywhere in 1950 was bizarre. (I speak from experience!)

Bless them, Arciniegas and company mine humor from the nooks and crannies of the story, in addition to the comedy built in to the script: Take Santa for instance. Gerard Slattery as the scary Mr. Claus has a Sweeney Toddesque barber chair perched atop a department store mountain of snow. For a split second Santa contemplates pitching the children into the abyss below. Just for a second. Not to worry.

Owen Doyle, too, delivers deliciously caustic pronouncements as father. Poor man, even back in the ‘50s, women ran the show. Stacey Fischer is hilarious as the power behind (and in front of) the throne. Margaret Anne Brady, as well, gets extra mileage from her comic turns. I don’t know which is funnier: her undulating English teacher or her stint as a hardboiled Christmas tree vendor. Even Andrew Cekala, as young Ralphie, steals laughter by the carload as he ogles (and caresses) the shapely gam at the base of father’s prized lamp.

All the children are marvelous, from Cekala’s cheeky Ralphie, determined at all costs to get that official Red Ryder air rifle; to David Farwell’s obstreperous little brother; to Charlie Brodigan’s benighted Flick, lisping adorably after the incident with the light pole. Shepherd would be so pleased. Don’t miss out.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Jolly Roger! By Beverly Creasey

In case you haven’t felt the loss, I should tell you that Gilbert & Sullivan hasn’t been performed “often” in Boston in recent years – so a production of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE anywhere is reason to celebrate. You only have to travel to Dedham to see the revival (of both the production and the producer, Fiddlehead Theatre) It’s a semi-professional collaboration with seasoned singers in the leads and a chorus of community theater regulars as pirates, police and pretty maidens.

If you’re not a Savoyard, you may have come to G&S via the movie, a comic tour de force starring Kevin Kline as the loveable, dotty Pirate King. Most productions I’ve seen since the movie have borrowed Kline’s “simpleminded” shenanigans. Since all art is “borrowed” to some degree, one might as well steal from the best. The Fiddlehead production does, but curiously, not for the King’s first appearance and his signature song! Better Far to Live and Die [a Pirate King] is sung, alas, without shtick. But once the talented Samuel Perwin embraces the fact that his character is a bit dense, he gallops away with the show. (I just would have preferred to see him with a running start.)

“Take heart,” as Mabel would say. After a shaky first scene (with pirates bumping into each other to grab their sherry) the Fiddlehead production gels and the company of eighteen manage to coexist on the postage stamp stage without looking trapped. They even dance on the head of a pin in Kristin Kuznezov’s clever, telegraphed choreography. The singing is solid and Brendan Shapiro’s orchestra is a delight, right down to Renee Hagelberg’s impressive trumpet contributions.

My favorite number, the exquisite Hail, Poetry is indeed a divine emollient in a mostly winning production. Director Margaret Fofonoff has first rate comic actors as the Major General (Ray O’Hare), the Police Sergeant (David Schrag) and the piratical maid of all work (Jo Jo Karlin). These accomplished comedians know how to get a laugh without mugging to the audience.

As the lovers, Michael S. Dunavant and Heather Karwowski sing beautifully (although Karwowski’s powerful “operatic” coloratura obscures Gilbert’s lyrics some of the time). Fiddlehead also gets remarkable work from Omar Najmi as the King’s first mate and from Melanie Leinbach, Margaret Plouffe and Maya Murphy as three of the Major General’s countless daughters. Experience it for Sullivan’s gorgeous melodies and for the wittiest libretto and lyrics Gilbert ever wrote.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

QUICK TAKE REVIEW HIGH Society By Beverly Creasey

Reason enough to see Matthew Lombardo’s HIGH (at the Cutler Majestic through Dec. 11th) is Kathleen Turner as a foul mouthed nun at war with the world and her faith. Add to that the stellar performances of Timothy Altmeyer as the director of a Catholic treatment center and the astonishing Evan Jonigkeit as the addict who doesn’t want the nun’s help.

The material in HIGH follows the same sensationalistic formula you’ll find on television’s CSI dramas. You know Sister Jamie will unravel all the lurid details behind young Cody’s addiction like a dogged forensic investigator but what sets HIGH above television fare is her unorthodox approach. Lombardo wraps the story around issues of faith. “Fear of the unknown,” Sister tells the boy, “is the ultimate rush.”

Although the nudity and violence in Act I seemed out of character and gratuitous to me, Act II has a number of clever revelations and a thought provoking ending. Turner has a lovely prayer in Act II in which she bullies and bargains with God to “meet [her] half way.”

Alas, the acoustics at the Cutler Majestic made hearing a bit difficult when Turner walked to the opposite side of the stage. I wish I had heard all of the witty dialogue but the laughter on the other side of the audience and the silence on mine meant we missed that delicious delivery and some of Lombardo’s redemptive humor. Hopefully the powers “on high” at the theater can adjust the sound for the rest of the run because you don’t want to miss one second of that famous honey and molasses, sultry, world weary voice.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Rooms with a Viewing By Beverly Creasey

Jeffrey Hatcher has strung together three clever monologues connected by death, or rather by a particular funeral home (and mourners familiar to all three of the deceased). His play THREE VIEWINGS (at New Repertory Theatre through Dec. 18th) begins with an acerbic little piece about an undertaker who takes a real estate agent under his wing not for financial, but for personal profit. It’s a rather creepy practice whereby the agent can hand out her business card to the vulnerable bereaved …a sort of “Sorry for your loss: I can get you top dollar for your mother/father’s house now that she/he’s gone” arrangement.

Joel Colodner plays the funeral director so effectively that he makes us understand his desperate motives (He’s in love with the woman), something the second piece almost achieves but doesn’t quite. Christine Power plays a jewel thief who works wakes. She approaches an open casket, leans in to kiss the departed and off come the rings and brooches. Hatcher would like us to laugh as if it were Grace Kelly heisting a diamond necklace in To Catch a Thief. Granted, Power does have that cool, sophisticated demeanor down pat but Hatcher’s dialogue makes her crass and the ghoulishness of the whole operation can’t be undone, in my opinion, by a shocking revelation at the very last moment.

The third monologue has Mafioso jokes galore (not to mention a spam casserole) for the amusement of the audience but I didn’t feel that the mounting problems of a widow (Adrianne Krstansky) left destitute by a “wheeler-dealer” husband were to be taken seriously, given all the shtick. On the plus side, director Jim Petosa’s cast certainly keeps us interested and the hour and a half (without an intermission) zips by.

I’ve been thinking about THREE VIEWINGS and its subject matter. I saw the show at a matinee with an audience full of senior citizens who were not laughing at the “elderly” humor. Not at all. The younger members of the audience laughed heartily at the joke about rushing a cremation, for instance. I cringed. Maybe the closer you are to death, the less funny it seems. Maybe the more wakes you attend, the more appreciation you have for their power to comfort. Then again, I find Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One hilarious. Go figure.