Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Georgia Lyman does the impossible. She performs alone on the stage at New Rep in Lee Blessing’s wildly eccentric CHESAPEAKE (running through Dec. 16th), playing not one, but five indelible characters. Blessing’s clever premise places a struggling performance artist at odds with a right wing politician who wants to pull the plug on the NEA.

Sound familiar? Back in the late ‘80s Senator Jesse Helms et al objected to artists like Karen Finley and Andres Serrano being awarded grants for material the religious right considered to be obscene. Boston City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neill even vowed to prevent the travelling Mapplethorpe exhibit from seeing the light of day at the I.C.A. He didn’t and it did. The NEA has been under attack ever since, especially this election year…but now the right is aiming at PBS. We live in strange times.

Blessing names his nasty, fictional politician Therm Pooley (a name reminiscent of the late Strom Thurmond perhaps) who in CHESAPEAKE is famous for his proposal to “tax gays for their high risk lifestyle.” When he targets Lyman’s performance artist, she sets her sights on him, even contemplating kidnapping his dog.

She describes another performance artist whose work inspired her to take up the banner: a performer who whacked a frying pan one thousand times at seven second intervals. I immediately flashed back to Robert Wilson’s THE CIVIL WARS at the A.R.T. when a child bounces a ball 450 times. Just when you thought the interminable bouncing was over, a film of said enterprise began to screen at the top of the set just so you wouldn’t forget. (I never have.)

Performance art has waned in Boston of late but for years The MOBIUS Group hosted a ream of performances like Mary Novotny-Jones’ annual blindfolded walk around the perimeter of MOBIUS’ warehouse roof: risky business indeed and just what Blessing honors and satirizes at the same time with CHESAPEAKE.

Lyman’s tour de force as the intrepid artist and dogjacker and everyone else is the must see performance of the season. Kudos to Lyman and director Doug Lockwood. Blessings’s play delivers a coup all by itself with a second act you could never imagine. We were all guessing at intermission where CHESAPEAKE would go and we were all wrong. I don’t want to give anything away but if New Rep were to enter Lucky at Westminster, the dog would win every ribbon in the show.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Know It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Love it) By Beverly Creasey

Once in a great while you witness a production which takes your breath away…and leaves you exhilarated for days and days. You marvel at what a director can do with material you’ve seen before and weren’t especially moved by.

What director Kaitlin Chantry does with Tom Stoppard’s ROCK ‘n’ ROLL at the Longwood is simply extraordinary. Stoppard is my favorite playwright. I adore his high flying ideas (which literally flew in JUMPERS) but which sometimes fall flat in productions that can’t handle the delicate balance (to quote my second favorite playwright) between the intellect and the emotions. Chantry handles it like a Stradivarius or should I say a Stratocaster.

Stoppard’s plays are not easy. They’re not the kind of theater you let wash over you. You have to pay close attention to every wrinkle. I don’t mean for this to sound like drudgery. Stoppard’s wit rewards your efforts a thousand fold. That said, I will concede that ROCK ‘n’ ROLL is one of his densest scripts (perhaps because of his connection to the subject matter, having spent his childhood years in Czechoslovakia).

Chantry’s cast rocks the play, led by Anthony Mullin in a tour de force as Max, the irascible old guard communist who believes that “everything is economic, even social relations.” Stoppard has a grand time putting hilarious pronouncements into his mouth, like his dismissal of ‘history.’ “[There’s been] no history since 1968,” he barks, “only pseudo-history.” Mullin’s powerful presence dominates the production, lighting up the philosophy lessons with the sardonic twinkle in his eye.

Comic performances abound: Matthew Zahnzinger is wonderful as the shallow, self-serving, future ex-husband of Max’s daughter. Lisa Lokshin is delightful as the uptight literary student flummoxed by Sappho, in her tutorial with Max’s long suffering (from both Max and cancer) wife, beautifully portrayed by Joy Lambertson. Stoppard engineers her return after death as her grown daughter, who now looks “so much like her mother.” Anna Waldron, too, returns as her own daughter, definitely inheriting her mother’s stubborn streak. And Meredith Saran pulls off a nifty comic turn as an arrogant, seductive student with designs on Max.

On the serious side, the pros and cons of Czech resistance are deftly debated by James Aitchison as Jan (standing in for President Vaclav Havel who, in fact, was imprisoned by the communists for his dissident views) and Michael Chateauneuf as Ferdinand (named for Havel’s “Ferdinand” plays, accused by Jan of “moral exhibitionism”). Both young men are devout fans of British and American rock ‘n roll, which figures in Stoppard’s play as the symbol, if not the agent provocateur, of revolution in Czechoslovakia.

Stoppard peppers the play with rock references like Syd Barrett and Ed Sanders’ Fugs and even ends the play at the Lennon wall in Prague. (Lenin gets no mention.) And, best of all, we are treated to glorious music between scenes (on John Randell’s exquisite Brit/Czech sets), from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to Gerry Garcia.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Silence is Not Always Golden By Beverly Creasey

Chaim Potok’s novel, THE CHOSEN, has been adapted into a play, a movie, even a Broadway musical. The dramatic version up at the Lyric Stage (through November 17th) was adapted by Potok himself and Aaron Posner. The author uses the past participle in his story (as in God’s Chosen People) to address choices: The disastrous choices made by nations to ignore what was happening in Germany; and personal choices that parents make in rearing their children, specifically the unfortunate choice one father makes to shut out his son---and the loving way another chooses to nurture his.

It’s ironic that the spiritual leader of his Hasidic community (Joel Colodner in a magnificent performance) in 1940s Brooklyn should give his son the silent treatment (he says, to teach him humility) when the silence of world leaders who knew about the Holocaust had such dire consequences. Luke Murtha plays his wounded son with such gentle sadness that our hearts go out to him, despite the fact that he brains another boy with a baseball in a game against students from a reformed Jewish neighborhood (whom the Hasidic spiritual leader calls “non-Jews”).

Murtha’s and Zachary Eisenstat’s characters become fast friends, after apologies are offered and accepted. The play follows the boys from middle school through university, making important choices on their own. Daniel Gidron’s cast makes their small stories resonate large. Murtha and Eisenstat are delightfully yin and yang, learning from their differences. Charles Linshaw sometimes voices Eisenstat’s character as the narrator, which is a bit confusing at first until you absorb the conceit. Will McGarrahan gives the other father a warm, bemused personality, in contrast to the rabbi’s unyielding silence.

Monday, November 12, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS Portraits of America in Musical Form By Beverly Creasey

The American musical reinvents itself all the time but what always stays the same is the artifice. Take THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. The Meredith Wilson/Richard Morris musical creates an entertaining portrait of the spunky upstart from Missouri who survived the Titanic disaster, among other achievements --- but you wouldn’t call it biography. You would call it a rousing good time, “big brass band, Meredith Wilson-style.”

 I don’t know of any revivals since the Broadway run in the ‘60s so if Wellesley College Theatre hadn’t presented it this past weekend, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see it on stage. Nora Hussey’s theater students (and some ringers from the Wellesley professional theatre) made that yarn believable, about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. This was America just before the turn of the 20th century when dreamers rushed to Colorado to strike it rich in the silver mines. Molly’s husband hits a vein and the rest is, well, artifice.

Co-director David Costa catches lightning in a bottle, giving us a spirited taste of the Wild West (from the settler perspective, of course) where prospectors, gamblers and prostitutes live it up after a hard day at the mines, dancing and singing and brawling their hearts out. (Kudos to Jenny Tang for the lively music and to Colleen Royal for the boisterous dance.)

More than a few of those men are portrayed by women (this being a women’s college) and they’re portrayed exceptionally well. All the characters ring true, with standout performances from Marge Dunn as the unstoppable Molly, from Will Bouvier as her exceedingly patient husband and from John Davin as her wisecracking, truth-telling, whiskey swilling father. In the supporting roles, Charlotte Peed has a touching turnaround as a snobby socialite and Will Keary makes us feel sorry for a Prince!

One musical which isn’t dated in the least is Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows reveled in artifice, leading those Damon Runyon characters from pillar to post in search of a place for a crap game. This was the ‘40s when men were men and gamblers wore suits and ties! Of course, we know the creators are playing fast and loose with reality but that’s what makes the musical pay off.

The North Shore Music Theatre’s current version of the classic is now my favorite, with simply delicious performances from Jonathan Hammond as an overburdened Nathan Detroit (poor fellow, he’s stressed to the max) to Mylinda Hull as his beloved, insistant fiancĂ© (fourteen years makes one a bit hysterical). Where do I start? Mark Martino’s exuberant production even enlivens the romantic plot (Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah), which I confess I usually dismiss. Kevin Vortman and Kelly McCormick are charming AND FUNNY, to boot!

Wayne W. Pretlow rocks the “Sit Down” number and Michael Lichtefeld’s “Luck Be a Lady” ballet literally levitates. Craig Barna’s little extras in the music department are divine and Paula Peasley-Ninestein’s costumes are to die for. From the ingenious “Fugue for Tinhorns” opening to the final “Guys and Dolls” closing anthem, not one second is uninspired.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing By Beverly Creasey

Just in time for the presidential election, AMERICAN CLASSICS paid tribute to those pesky SWING STATES (AND THE OTHERS) this past weekend. The great American songbook contains a wealth of material about, or inspired by, the places we come from---or go to, in the case of California. Ben Sears, Brad Conner and company introduced us to some songs we didn’t know (“When It’s Cactus Time in Arizona”) and regaled us with favorites like “Carolina in the Morning,” performed to easy, Southern perfection by Peter Miller accompanying himself on ukulele. (Miller niftily proved the old adage that sometimes simplicity is best: A man, his uke and a fabulous lyric: We hung on every word, hungered for another chorus and felt like we would perish when it was too soon over.)

Now Tennessee, it turns out, has eight state songs. One of the loveliest with the sweetest chorus is “Rocky Top,” sung ‘mountain style’ by Tennessee native Joei Marshall Perry, Miller (banjo and vocals) and Buffie Groves (guitar and vocals). Later in the show, Perry brought home the gorgeous Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell “Georgia on My Mind.”.

Perry and Eric Bronner were droll wind-up figures from a diorama about Romney’s adopted states. Host Peter A. Carey ran to the rescue when Utah (Perry) and Massachusetts (Bronner) needed rewinding. President Obama got his due in a spoofy “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” (which brought back memories for me of Arthur Godfrey’s old radio show). Later on in the program, Bronner’s soft, lilting lullaby, “Kentucky Babe” took our breath away.

Cynthia Mork delivered the heavenly “Stars Fell on Alabama” and made pleasant harmony with Sears in “An Old Fashioned Home in New Hampshire.” Caroline Musica, who hails from the pine tree state, sang the charming “Spending Your Vacation in Maine” while Conner’s piano phrasing echoed the water lapping at the shoreline. Conner crooned the John Denver hit, “Country Roads” (which mistakenly places the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia ---but all is forgiven since it’s such a beautiful song). Sears finessed a little Jolson on “Swanee” and the entire ensemble (plus Barry Low on accordion) strutted “the Pennsylvania Polka.”

What would an evening about the states be without the rousing anthem from “Oklahoma?” The ensemble made the Rogers & Hammerstein showstopper sound like a stage crowded full of territory folk celebrating their brand new state. It takes two elements to make a good show: a great idea and skillful execution. American Classics has both the innovative ideas and the best people to carry them off.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


What makes Marshall Hughes’ presentation of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (playing through Nov. 3rd) exceptional, aside from the lovely production, are the guest speakers he has invited to bear witness to genocide in all corners of the world today.

At today’s performance, Elfadel Arbab recounted his horrific escape from Darfur, where Sudanese soldiers set fire to his village, trapping families in their homes in order to eradicate any evidence of their existence. Since these villagers have no birth certificates, when their bodies are burned, the government can claim the genocide never happened. Arbab only escaped when a thick plume of smoke from an oil fire gave him cover.

Emerald Johnson read a frightening account of four women in Rwanda who spent ninety days in a tiny bathroom, expecting to be discovered by Hutu soldiers every minute of the day and night. One of the four Tutsis voiced their ordeal as “dying alive…a thousand times.” Hughes works these accounts seamlessly into the body of the play, to remind us that genocide did not end with the Nazis, despite promises of “Never Again.”

Wendy Kesselman’s remarkable new version of ANNE’s story weaves in historical material so that when her benefactress, Miep Gies (Holly Newman) arrives with food, she brings disturbing news (for us as well as the Frank family) of trains departing once a week… then twice a week for the camps. We still marvel at their patience with daily life hiding in a storage loft in Holland--- but the timeline information grounds the story and makes their suffering even more visceral. Kesselman gives license to the adult concerns (about why the Allied forces were taking so long) which Anne might not have known or written about in her diary.

Ron Murphy’s sonorous baritone echoes through the play with Hebrew songs of prayer. Anne (Whitney Sandford) and her sister (Lauren Foster) join their mother (Lida McGirr) and father (Cliff Blake) in sharing quarters with another family (Chris Wrenn, Julie Draper and Ethan Hermanson) and a stranded dentist (Francesco Tisch). Everyone handles the material beautifully, with McGirr adding gentle humor in the early scenes and searing torment in the latter. Blake adds depth to the steady father role and delivers the devastating final account of their fates so powerfully, you cannot help but sob in your seat.

Foster adds sweet vocals in the cramped Hannukah celebration. Hermanson makes a charming boyfriend for Sandford’s Anne. Alas, the RCC acoustics cause some of the dialogue to be lost, but the emotions come through completely.