Monday, May 26, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS By Beverly Creasey ART and VIOLENCE LEBENSRAUM and ASSASSINS find a way for us to look at the unbearable

Artists try to help us comprehend the unthinkable by deconstructing a violent event or by satirizing it, when facing it head on is too painful. The murder of six million is too horrific to fully contemplate. How many of us would watch Schindler’s List again? Israel Horovitz’s clever LEBENSRAUM (@ Happy Medium Theatre through May 25th) approaches the subject of the Holocaust from a decidedly odd but nevertheless compelling angle.

Horovitz invents a contemporary Germany where a chancellor might announce a restoration of “living space” to six million Jews, an invitation to reestablish a community in Germanyas amends for the six million-plus who were put to death in WWII. He maintains that his country is “drowning in a sea of guilt” but as you might suspect, not everyone agrees with him. Some forty characters, pro and con, are portrayed by just three actors, in a whirlwind production helmed by Brett Marks.

The action unfolds so quickly that at one point, R. Nelson Lacey plays two characters in the same scene, at the same time, in furious debate with each other. He manages this by switching hats, voices and body language. It’s a marvelous, hilarious feat which happily injects some humor into a sad but predictable story of history repeating itself. Audrey Lynn Sylvia and Michael Underhill provide the sweet, star crossed romance of the piece, as well as all the townspeople, immigrants and politicians who rush to take sides.

Germany isn’t the only country grappling with its past. Stephen Sondheim makes the case in ASSASSINS (@ Hovey Players through May 31st) that our national obsession with guns, violence and presidential assassination began a long time ago, specifically with John Wilkes Booth. Sondheim and book writer John Weidman were roundly criticized for glorifying violence when ASSASSINS debuted (and immediately closed) but opinions change over time and the piece is now accepted as a sardonic indictment of gun violence.

When you see ASSASSINS now, you realize how prescient Sondheim and Weidman were in 1991. For one thing, their shooting gallery proprietor hands customers a gun as a cure for “feeling misunderstood”and this was years before the current epidemic of teenage boys who shoot their classmates for exactly that reason.

And if your heart doesn’t skip a beat when you hear about the would-be assassin who planned to “drop a 747 on the White House” twenty-seven years before 9-11, then you’ve been living on another planet. (Ironically, a second attempt to stage the musical was scheduled for the fall of 2001 but the attacks of September 11th ended those plans.)

The musical just won’t work without a charismatic John Wilkes Booth. He’s the “connection” for all the assassins and he’s the sole reason that Lee Harvey Oswald decides to throw in with them. He’s a presence throughout the musical, just watching…and waiting. He’s the center of the universe and you can’t take your eyes off him: Ronny Pompeo’s performance is nothing short of thrilling. You know he’s a villain but you’re drawn to his life force and you’re astonished that you feel sympathy for the devil.

Bill Stambaugh, too, turns in an unforgettable performance, a comic coup, as wannabe-assassin Sam Byck, who makes tape recordings for politicians (and for Sondheim collaborator Leonard Bernstein), threatening mayhem as payback for his rotten life. Would you believe, Stambaugh elevates shouting to an art form!

And who would have imagined that the Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore scenes would be so delightful! (I’ve seen more than half a dozen productions of ASSASSINS and this is the first time those scenes have worked for me.) Rebecca Shor is deliciously funny as the wacky Moore (a modern day descendant of Mrs. Lovett) and paired with Jessica Dee as the bonky Fromme, they’re gangbusters.

Director Kristin Hughes’ vision includes a kinder, gentler Oswald and Christhian Mancinas-Garcia makes you truly believe he was a pawn (whether you buy the lone gunman theory or not). It’s a fresh approach and it pays off. Hughes has a number of small touches which make a big (positive) impact on the musical. She ups the ante for visceral emotion in the piece, too. I was in the last row in the intimate fifty seat house and when those guns were pointed in my direction, I felt my skin crawl and my stomach tighten until the choreography shifted their crosshairs.

Stephen Peters and Bethany Aiken make the ensemble numbers pop. (In fact, the singing makes you forget all about a little orchestral lapse at the top of the show.) The characterizations are so well drawn, the pastiche material is handled so well and the performers are so in tune with each other that this may be the best ensemble work I’ve seen this year.

Monday, May 19, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Witty, Worthy WOODS

Sondheim fans never tire of his ingenious wordplay or his intricate melodies, embellished to dovetail with his seemingly endless rhymes. Nowhere are those cheeky rhymes more playful than in INTO THE WOODS. We have reason to rejoice this spring: The Lyric Stage’s production of INTO THE WOODS (extended through June 15th) revels in Sondheim and James Lapine’s delicious, sardonic deconstruction of Grimm’s famous fairy tales.

The first act concludes with happy endings all around but Act II reveals the rest of the story and it’s not so “happy ever after.” The princes get bored. Rapunzel goes bonkers and a giant climbs down that beanstalk looking for revenge. Sondheim’s “trick of the woods” is matched by the magic from director Spiro Veloudos and his creative team.

David Towlun’s denuded forest seems to be changing shape behind Scott Clyve’s haunting, chiaroscuro lighting! Elisabetta Polito’s costumes not only reflect their wearer’s character but they enhance the story. (Wait ‘til you see Little Red’s cape for Act II!) Music director Catherine Stornetta gets wonderful singing from the entire cast. (Sometimes you find that good singing doesn’t necessarily mean good acting but Veloudos’ company marries the two.)

Will McGarrahan is just wry enough as the narrator and slyly mysterious as the wizened old man. Erica Spyres makes Cinderella just sweet enough but not cloying. Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Sam Simahk are hilariously self-absorbed as the “charming” but not “sincere” princes. John Ambrosino and Lisa Yuen are a spirited Baker and his wife. Maritza Bostic is adorably stubborn as Little Red. Her scenes with Parent as the swaggering wolf are irresistible. Every performance is a delight, from Maureen Keiller’s nasty stepmother to Jeff Mahoney’s self-important steward.

It seems peculiar, in a show where every moment is a joy, to single out one or two performers as standouts when every actor already stands out in relief, (perhaps, in my case, it’s because I haven’t always loved what other actors have done with the parts) but in the Lyric’s WOODS, Gregory Balla gives a faultless performance as Jack. He makes the boy far more than a dimwitted dolt. He’s so deadpan earnest that you can forgive his naïveté and his bad manners where giants are concerned.

Aimee Doherty gives a daring performance as the witch. She’s funny, she’s wicked. She can deliver the patter song about the beans with panache and she can turn on a dime in Act II when she’s on the losing side. She stares, dumbstruck, and your heart goes out to her. Her tour de force is one of the thousands of reasons to see the Lyric’s INTO THE WOODS. In short, it’s “unmistakable bliss.”

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Rod McLachlan’s curious play, GOOD TELEVISION (playing through May 17th at Zeitgeist Stage Company), is actually based in reality: A show called INTERVENTION ran for 13 seasons on A&E, turning a camera on real families as they confronted their addicted sister/brother/daughter/son/mother etc. 

McLachlin spends Act I mostly with the television crew as they plan their next intervention episode---which is in essence an ambushbecause if the addict knew ahead of time, he would bolt and there wouldn’t be a show. McLachlin introduces us to the professional counselor (Christine Power) who skillfully interviews the participants (and persuades, or rather, manipulates them into signing on the dotted line).

We meet the current producer (Shelley Brown) who wants to keep three million viewers glued to her show, the film school grad (Tasia Jones) who wants to “make a difference” and the new boss (William Bowry) who is, as the WHO would say, “just like the old boss.” Oh, and there’s the obligatory addict (Ben Lewin) without a snowball’s chance in hell of recovering. So, do they waste a show on someone with no hope? So far, so GOOD.

Alas, in Act II McLachlan throws everything but the kitchenette sink at the dysfunctional South Carolina family, as if one reason for the son’s addiction isn’t nearly enough. No wonder the trailer home looks so spacious. It has to contain two cameras, light poles, the TV crew, that kitchen, several bedrooms, a fist fight and enough pathology for a half dozen shows.

It’s the psychiatric stuff that had me shaking my head and raising my hackles. Much is made of whether or not poor Clemmy is (gasp) gay—and why he “turned” gay and headed for the meth dealer. The family equates “gay” with pathology and none of the professionals refute it. The sister’s husband, now gone, evidently forced himself on the boy, which trumps the brutality visited on him by his father! According to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV-TR, pedophiles are more likely to be heterosexual. And is it even necessary to point out that homosexuality is not pathological?

In addition, the playwright plays fast and loose with turn around time. The sister (Jenny Reagan) learns what her husband did to her brother, exits in denial and not two minutes later reenters with apologies all around for not noticing (in a trailer, mind you). This family can skip years of therapy for the two minute cure!

Act I had me hooked but I didn’t buy any of Act II despite some terrific performances from director David Miller’s cast.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Keep Calm and CARRIE On

 Speakeasy Stage’s production of the reworked (Gore/Pitchford/Cohen) musical, CARRIE (playing through June 7th) isn’t the infamous, over-the-top, l988 version everyone claims to have seen. This iteration jettisoned 7 or 8 songs, boasts a new second act and sells itself as a cautionary tale about bullying.

Having taught high school, I know how cruel students can be to one another but poor Carrie bears a double burden: The kids make fun of her in class and her religiously obsessed mother abuses her at home to keep her “pure.”

Director Paul Melone has a solid cast to work with but the earnestness of the piece has the curious effect of undercutting the storyand because we all know the ending, there goes the suspense. At the close of Act I, when Kerry A. Dowling as the mother backs wide eyed into a corner, imagining what terrible things could happen to her daughter (“I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance”), we get a taste for that Joan Crawford/ “Mommie Dearest,” permission-to-laugh camp. But no, Act II is as serious as Act I.

The first lively production number (“In”) reminded me of SPRING AWAKENING (and Larry Sousa’s choreography for the cocky high school kids reflects their anarchic, “Chew my Ass” attitude). Later I thought I heard the telltale chords of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR when Carrie wreaks her Old Testament fire and brimstone revenge on the lot. In between, though, it just seemed to lumber along. The telekinetic special effects are nifty and Nicholas James Connell’s smart music direction means fine singing all around.

Elizabeth Erardi certainly conveys Carrie’s naïve helplessness but Dowling dominates the stage as the crazy mother. She does elicit our (short held) sympathy, believe it or not, in her desperate “When There’s No One.” Sarah Drake makes Carrie’s kind friend believable, as does Joe Longthorne as her beau.

The bad guys are portrayed with relish by Paige Berkovitz and Phil Tayler. Kudos to Tayler for making deadly lyrics like “I know what you think. If I was your daddy, I’d buy you a drink” seem sincere. Shonna Cirone gives the concerned gym teacher a good heart, despite her dubious advice about attracting men with make-up. I didn’t see the original version, mind you, but I, for one, would have welcomed a little camp.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey KISS of Death

KISS ME KATE’s opening number, Another Op’nin’, Another Show [in Boston Philly and Baltimo’] is Cole Porter’s masterful contribution to the show business anthem collection. All the great musicals of the era had one. In the Longwood Players’ troubled production (running through next weekend), you’re apprehensive way before the first number, listening to the painful overture. And it doesn’t help their cause that Porter’s lyrics for the show within the show recount the cast’s jitters: “Three weeks and it couldn’t be worse” or “at one week you wonder will it ever be right.” I’m very sorry to say I’m wondering if it will.

When I saw it opening weekend the orchestra wasn’t ready. If only the violins could play the whole score in pizzicato. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about the screech. If only the horn would mute. And the choreography: Alas, it wasn’t anywhere close to being ready. Many of the performers aren’t dancers so why ask them to execute leaps they can’t possibly master? And why aim for the lowest common denominator by having a woman plunge her male dance partner’s head into her ample bosom. (I’ve never seen that move in dance notation.) Just as cringe worthy were the transitions in the choreography: Some of the dancers stood marking time between steps as if someone had said “At ease.”

Except for Matthew Kossack’s vibrant, polished Too Darn Hot solo, the dance numbers (especially the clunky Tarantella) weigh the show down. The principle performers sing well enough but their acting (and you ought to be interpreting the songs as well as the role) leaves a lot to be desired. My chief complaint is their incessant mugging to the audience. This is the one show where mugging is crucial to the story and it belongs only to the mugs. The gangsters who have arrived to settle a gambling debt and find themselves thrust on stage during a production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW get to do the mugging because they don’t know any better. Nobody else should be waving or winking or pointing to people in the audience.

Happily, the thugs not only steal the show, they steal our hearts as well. What a delight to see a number which works like, well, gangbusters! Andy LeBrun and James Aitchison resuscitate the musical single-, no, double- handedly with their hilarious Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

Last but not least, when you have a solid, proven, veteran performer like Anthony Mullin as the Southern suitor of the leading lady, why oh why would you cut his song? It doesn’t make sense. In fact, it’s integral in order for the leading lady to decide that she doesn’t want to live in Georgia “from this moment on.”

I know sometimes things go awry. And sometimes things can be fixed. Here’s hoping next weekend it all comes together.


New Rep’s final main stage show of the season (running through May 25th) is Eric Overmyer’s ON THE VERGE, the l985 play that put him on the map. (They have two more in partnership with the Boston Center for American Performance @ B.U.’s Studio 210.)

I’m afraid I think ON THE VERGE is dated, denseand awfully long, at that. Overmyer’s references may have been topical at the time but now they’re passé. Audiences under 65 have no clue about Burma Shave signage or what Norman Mailer’s first novel was. To misquote the peripatetic explorers, it’s “extremely hard to hack your way through this thicket” of repetitive verbiage.

New Rep’s press material describes the play as if it has a feminist slant: Three Victorian women “escape the conventions of their society…by embarking on a safari through time that leads them to the possibilities of liberation, empowerment and beyond.” I don’t think so. One of the women (Christine Hamel) ends up sacrificing all she’s learned for a motorcyclist and a surf board. Another (Adrianne Krstansky) gives up her scientific travels for a gambler (“1955 suits me, she gushes”). The third (Paula Langton) carries on, to explore her newfound “voluptuousness.” Betty Friedan is flipping in her grave.

It’s the third who channels landmarks of the future like “off shore drilling, venture capitalism and no fault insurance.” No mention of the women’s vote, civil rights, feminism or the anti-war movement. Only the gambler has heard of Satchel Paige. Since most of the female characters don’t change much, except to be acted upon, it’s the male (Benjamin Evett) in the cast who has the juicy roles of the cannibal (You are what you eat), the Yeti, Mr. Coffee and more. We can’t wait for Evett to reappear.

Overmyer starts out on the right track, telling us that “civilizing the world is women’s mission,” but he loses his way by settling for 1955. I’ve been there. It wasn’t so great for anyone who wasn’t white or male. But, as one of the characters says in disagreement, maybe it’s “only me.”

Monday, May 5, 2014


 If I hadn’t met the playwright at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre after his show, I would swear Larry David, not Larry Jay Tish, was the author. THE LAST JEWS: An Apocalyptic Comedy (playing through May 11th) has Curb Your Enthusiasm irreverence written all over it. And that’s a compliment. It’s not easy to send up the world and its atrocities without sounding callous.

Director Margaret Ann Brady finds the perfect comic tone for the material: It’s not at all dismissive of the pain we inflict on each other but she taps into an absurdist vein (the one right next to the pain) which has us shaking our heads while we’re laughing at the crazy premise: Canada, believe it or not, is the aggressor (in some future time warp). They’ve attributed the ozone problem in the Northwest Territories to methane in the Jewish community for some wacky reason…so the Sierra Club has stepped in to save the endangered Jews.

We meet two young, dedicated Sierra operatives who have located the very last Jews in North America and brought them to a “safe zone” where they can start repopulating. They’re still saving whales and penguins, mind you, but they’ve added homo sapiens to their list. When Morty asks how they found him, the young activist says it was easy. He just tracked supermarket data, Chinese food take-out orders and J-Date websites. The hitch to the Sierra plan is that the woman they’ve abducted (for her own good, of course) knows Morty. She was married to him. Oy veh! You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Tish keeps the adventure light, even adding a Brothers Grimm deus ex machina discovery device to insure a happy ending…but at the same time, we’re fully aware that genocide does occur now, today, in many places in the world so that happy ending isn’t really so happy after all.

Ellen Colton is delightful as the spunky woman they kidnap for Chuck Schwager’s bewildered Morty. Alexandria King and Aiden Kinney are charmingly intense as the very serious Sierra workers and Brad Kelly’s video design for the television news broadcasts is an effective and awfully clever comic coup. Mazel Tov.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


The Brits love broad, bawdy humor, especially on their telly: Monty Python, Benny Hill, Blackadder all made their way across the pond and into the hearts (or the gall bladders) of comedy starved, public television loving Americans. Theatre On Fire experienced wild success staging Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s BLACKADDER (Season 2) a while back and fans have been clamoring for more ever since. So in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Season 4 (which ended the franchise), TOF is presenting that very season of BLACKADDER GOES FORTH LIVE! (@ Charlestown Working Theatre through May 11th).

You may recall Season 2 had Blackadder fending off Elizabethan foes. He’s aged a bit for Season 4, which advances a mere three hundred years. Now Blackadder is fending off Germans and trying to keep from getting killed on the battlefield. The same absurd characters cross the boundaries of time to confound and obstruct Blackadder at every turn. Happily, (most of) the same actors director Darren Evans herded together for the previous production are back in the TOF fold for this incarnation.

The comedy is lame, demented, sophomoric slapstick. You just give yourself over to it and surrender. You won’t stop laughing for a minute and laughter is indeed the best medicine. I dare say that all your internal organs will be refreshed by the endorphins, not just your brain. Who could resist an aerial dogfight performed with go-cart scale planes attached to pilots like hoop skirts, swooping and diving about the stage. (I’m giggling just writing about it.)

Curtis and Elton get to interject some cautionary lessons about colonialism and war into this season along with the belly laughs. The lieutenant thinks they’ll do a little fighting, then it’s “home in time for tea and medals.” Captain Blackadder knows better about the military mindset: “[They’ve] gone to too much trouble to not have a war,” he says wistfully. Director Evans mines every chortle there is in the material but he can turn the tone of the piece on a dime to change the mood, not an easy task when we’re waiting for a cheeky punch line.

TOF splits the entire final season of BLACKADDER into two parts, three episodes in each which means two different nights to choose from. You can see both in any order or just one without any order at all. In fact, BLACKADDER elevates disorder to new heights. It’s a wonder the Allies won the war, given all the confusion behind enemy lines.

Craig Houk is simply beyond reproach as Blackadder. Once you’ve seen him, you will forget Rowan Atkinson entirely. (You can conjure Atkinson up in lots of other movies. It’s not a hardship.) When you see Christopher Sherwood Davis (as the naïve lieutenant) widen those eyes in authentic British astonishment, you just can’t wait for him to be awestruck again. Chris Wagner, thank heavens, returns as the ever so dim, non-hygienic “breath monster” whose chief raison d’être is to get in everyone’s way.

John Geoffrion’s Captain Darling is so wonderfully “stiff upper lip” that I suspect he’s either British or he has served in the RAF. Jason Beals repeats his spectacular entrance from season 2 (which I can’t give away but I can guarantee you’ll be wowed). Michael Steven Costello blusters his way through the war as a wacky, deluded general and Terrence P. Haddad provides a surfeit of maniacal German sneer as Baron von Richthoven. Terry Torres may or may not be a spy and Chelsea Schmidt may or may not be a nurse.

Production values are sky high in TOF’s BLACKADDER with spiffy military costumes from Eric Propp, nifty trench/tent/HQ sets from Luke J. Sutherland, evocative battlefront lighting from Eric Jacobsen and fabulous wearable planes by John J. King. I think they may catch on. Project Runway, look out!