Friday, January 23, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Future Shock

The thirty-somethings in Ken Urban’s A FUTURE PERFECT (playing @ BCA through Feb. 7th) worship their pluperfect past while they grapple with an uncertain present, not to mention a daunting future. Should they have children? Abandon their dreams? Feel guilty about making money?

Urban’s characters almost discuss post-feminist backlash, child labor in China, and racism in Americabut they always stop short. They skirt issues at the heart of their life plans and avoid any meaningful self-examination because, I presume, that’s what people do in “real” life and Urban is writing about those people.

Pregnancy looms large in the lives of these two couples but they only worry that a baby will keep them too busy to socialize…or play in a band. No one mentions the perils their children will face in this increasingly dangerous world. No one considers overpopulation and decreasing resources as reasons to think twice. Instead of being amused with their shortsightedness, I was frustrated.

Urban has several scenes where two band mates, who cut their teeth on ‘90s indie rock, get together to jam. (It’s a peculiar demographic to target in a play as most audiences are generally much older and will compare the sound track to classic rock ‘n roll and, in my case, will find it wanting). So it’s not my favorite genre. You’d think at least I could enjoy the act of making music but I found it so restrained, I couldn’t believe they were real musicians. Guitarists move their shoulders or their heads or their torsos. They tap their feet. They get into the rhythm. Not so in the SpeakEasy production.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara has a game cast. Brian Hastert lets us know, with his constant waffling and sidestepping body language, what it’s like to be married to a Hell on wheels advertising executive. Marianna Bassham’s character has no filter. She says what she’s thinking and she doesn’t care about betraying a trust.

Nael Nacer and Chelsea Diehl are the more sympathetic couple. At one point Nacer’s character makes up with Bassham and I couldn’t believe he would forgive her so readily. I don’t know why he did. It felt like we were missing a scene.

Hastert plays a writer on a kids TV show so we get to meet one of the child actors and an adorable puppet. Uatchet Jin Juch has the plum role in the play. She interacts sweetly with the puppet for a video they’re shooting. Then she interacts with the humans as a bored, self assured preteen and she pulls both off smartly.

Most perplexing of all is a “breakthrough” song Hastert’s character writes at the very end of the play about “simple comforts.” The catchy hook is repeated several times: “Bread in a Basket. Cake and a casket.” I’m OK with the bread and the cake but the casket part isn’t very comforting at my age. I must have misheard. I’m sure we’ll laugh about this when someone tells me the real lyric.

Monday, January 19, 2015

REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Three FROG Night

Imaginary Beasts’ TALE OF THE FROG PRINCE (@ BCA through Feb. 7th) might sound as if it’s child’s play—but it’s far more. Children will adore the outsized comedy but their parents will recognize the artistry and appreciate the allusions behind, in front of, and on top of the fairy tale.

The Beasts specialize in staging Pantos (from the Latin ‘pantomimus,’ meaning player of many parts), a unique British entertainment popularized in the 18th century (which grew out of the earlier Italian commedia dell’arte) combining burlesque, ballet, acrobatics, transformations, topical song, splendid costumes, stock characters and witty poetry. To this day, Pantos are performed in England, usually on Dec. 26th which in the U.K. and Canada is “Boxing Day.”

Matthew Woods and company utilize the Panto form to send up popular culture while they’re spinning out their ornamented story. This year’s show embraces all things aquatic, including frogs (who are represented by both puppets and human actors), a dragonfly and an exquisite underwater ballet, not to mention the Beasts’ hilarious references to CFCs, BPAs, ground water pollution and other poisons which endanger our water.

You can rhapsodize all day about their historically accurate Panto but what really floats the metaphorical boat is their exquisite ensemble work. Imaginary Beasts has an extraordinarily versatile cast who can clown, dance and act up a storm, even when little members of the audience get rambunctious. Interacting with the crowd is part and parcel of a Panto: We get to boo and hiss the villains and cry out to warn the righteous characters when catastrophe is imminent. The wee ones at my performance sat on the edge of their chairs, waiting for the next opportunity to do so.

Your eagle eye (and keen ear) can find a variation of a Danny Kaye bit (“the chalice with the palace, not the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”) and an inspired “mushroom” version of Trepak from The Nutcracker. Speaking of Tchaikovsky, Kiki Samko and company’s brilliant choreography for the Swan Lake spoof is made twice as delicious by Cameron Cronin’s incomparable pas de chat in a tulle tutu.

Of course every element meshes perfectly in THE FROG PRINCE, but it’s Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s sublime, jaw dropping costumes which tie it all together. Joey C. Peletier, in the grand “Dame” role of Her Majesty the Queen, gets three different, gorgeous gowns to swoop in; Director/actor Matthew Woods as the Wicked Water Valkyrie is dressed and coiffed as if Betty Grable were playing Marie Antoinette: High hair, great gams... and the snarl of Rin Tin Tin. The vibrant colors in the material Talbot-Minkin finds reminded me of the eye-popping illustrations in the Little Golden Books of the 50’s.

Elizabeth Pearson (in the “Boy” hero role) works one of the frog “body puppets” (by Pearson and Jill Rogati) so earnestly that you look to the puppet’s mouth, not hers, for her dialogue. Later in the story she becomes the puppet itself via a green amphibian costume. (My favorite bit of inventive magic is Rogati's book hat for Noah Simes’ “Oracle.”)

Samko gets sweet laughter as the slow going, but fast thinking Mother Snail. Her “travel” secret is so sublimely silly that you can’t wait for it to recur; the same with Amy Meyer’s encyclopedic Dragon Fly. What fun to see Bob Mussett as a flustered Lord Chancellor (with a nod to the Mikado); Molly Kimmerling delights as the Good Fairy and Erin Eva Butcher as the princess everyone wants to woo, could charm the fish out of the sea. Mikey DiLoreto as a Marx Brother-inhabited skunk named Coco honks his assent and his disapproval, just like Harpo. Sound (Woods and Dierdre Benson) plays a large part in the comedy. Benson punctuates jokes with a loud ding of a hotel desk bell from her perch above the audience.

William Schuller portrays the Valkyrie’s smarmy son, who wants to marry Butcher’s wild child princess and Michael Underhill races from pillar to post to aid the frog prince. Michael Chodos thoroughly transforms himself into a slithering leech, right down to his inverted, invertebrate mouth! Suffice it to say, see all these Beasts (and more) to witness a historically informed performance of a Panto… or see it for the outrageous puns and clever couplets… or go for the chance to sing “Jeremiah was a Bull Frog”….You know they had to go there.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Having just seen Wellesley Summer Theatre’s splendid ORLANDO (playing through Feb. 2nd), I’m convinced that playwright Sarah Ruhl is the perfect writer to give Virginia Woolf’s novel a life on the stage. (You also may want to find Sally Porter’s opulent 1993 film with Tilda Swinton as ORLANDO and the late, great Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth. It’s an extraordinary movie.)

Both Woolf and Ruhl commit fully to fantasy in their writing. You might say that without Woolf’s experimentation and innovative contributions to modern literature, Ruhl’s celebrated magical realism would not be possible. Nora Hussey helms WST’s vivid production of one poet’s “historical” adventure (and transformation) over the centuries. Woolf deliberately resolved to reduce plot and story in favor of characters that “experience” life for themselves. Her Orlando explores and experiences the social and cultural mores of the time, commenting (delightfully) on the “spirit of the age.”

Except for the character of Orlando, the actors in director Nora Hussey’s deft production are universal players in a masque, who set a scene and change character as quickly as they change costumes. Their wry musings as a cheeky Greek chorus, like the stone chorus in Ruhl’s EURIDICE, are a part of the play’s many pleasures.

David Towlun’s enormous mirrors at either end of the stage are the sole set pieces, reminding us that Orlando is searching for his true self, not just a reflection of the time. (And, of course, we know that a reflection in a mirror reverses itself.) Woolf, the quintessential feminist, creates a male character (who despite his sex can think and feel with an acute awareness) who then, surprise, surprise, becomes a woman. No explanation. You just have to accept the reversal.

Orlando simply awakens to find himself a womanbut the feminine Orlando is not content to be the “obedient, chaste” creature society would like her to be. Her rebellion makes the Act II Orlando much more compelling than the male version …although Catherine LeClair’s adolescent passion is plenty amusing as he pines for the Russian Princess (a charming Elizabeth Yancey). Their romp under a blanket of fur is hilarious.

Orlando’s adventures take him all over the world and through three centuries, from the Elizabethan to the Jazz age, looking for an “other” self. Woolf fashioned Orlando after her longtime love, the poet Vita Sackville-West, who descended from a line of poets, all male until the literary gene switched gender in the twentieth century, from male to female! Hah!

LeClair glows from within as the female Orlando, enjoying her new body, happily chiding the male establishment for its strictures. Everyone glows for heavens sake, in Graham Edmundson’s gorgeous, orangey, Elizabethan lighting and everyone moves with grace to Sophori Ngin’s choreography.

Lovely performances abound, from John Davin’s delicious turn as the entitled Queen Elizabeth I (in a regal gown by Emily Woods Hogue); to Woody Gaul as the outlandish Romanian Archduchess (in a garish gown, on purpose) and as her alter ego, the dashing Archduke; to the Shakespeareans, John Kinsherf and Victoria George, in a “non-traditional” reversal of the Othello and Desdemona death scene.

And I haven’t even credited the hysterical fly, the yapping dog, the maids or the washerwomen, all exquisitely drawn. Don’t miss this lively rendering of Woolf’s masterpiece.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


I’m a Walt McGough fan. He invents quirky characters and always gives them intelligent dialogue…but I just don’t get extra-terrestrial/zombie plays and CHALK (playing at BPT through Jan.26th) is about an alien invasion. Everyone but me loves INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (both incarnations), don’t they? Oh dear. They sent out the wrong reviewer.

Here’s the low down: McGough’s zombie aliens have to eat humans alive in order to get nourishment from their memories, not from “brains” as is widely (incorrectly) believed. This gives some aliens terrible indigestion which is evidently how you know they’re youngsters. (I wondered if they threw back people with Alzheimer’s or impaired memory but McGough didn’t go there.)

However, should you ever hear that the body snatchers have invaded, grab some chalk (or baby powder because they can’t tell the difference with their inferior noses) and mark your territory. That’s what Christine Power does and it works pretty well for her…that is, until the mother and child reunion. Fresh Ink director Sarah Gazdowicz gets impressive performances from Power as mother and Caroline Rose Markham as the wild child Power is determined to rescue.

Markham moves like an animal on the prowl. When she rolls her eyes up into her lids and snarls, she’s positively frightening. Neon is somehow involved in her transformation but I couldn’t figure it out. I’m afraid I’m hopelessly at sea where zombies and aliens are concerned but if that’s your cup of tea, enjoy the ride.

Friday, January 9, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SPIKED in the End Zone

Chekhov insisted his plays were comedies. Indeed there are very funny characters like Masha in THE SEAGULL who wears her depression like an oversized Russian greatcoat that threatens to consume her whole. Yet the overwhelming sadness of his characters’ wasted lives and crushed ambitions seems so tragic (at least it does to us Americans-maybe not to Russians)and, surprise, surprise, it turns out, it’s so ripe for parody.

Playwrights are lining up left and right to borrow Chekhov’s characters for their spoofs. This last season I saw three untouched (up) Chekhov productions and two out and out spoofs. Aaron Posner’s STUPID F***ING BIRD lifted THE SEAGULL to hilarious heights at the Apollinaire Theatre last season and now Christopher Durang’s Tony winning VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (at the Huntington Theatre through Feb. 1st) crams that SEAGULL, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, UNCLE VANYA and those THREE SISTERS, not to mention a refugee from THE ORESTEIA into one outrageous send-up.

The poor creatures: Durang takes no prisoners with his guerrilla style of comedy: He keeps you laughing so hard at the sheer absurdity of the mash-up that you’re not thinking very deeply about the play. In fact, the structure of the piece works its way sideways at best. Durang embraces the set-up and the knock down of physical comedy but he interrupts the form with an extended bit of phone business à la Bob Newhart and a soliloquy right out of Seinfeld’s stand-up routines. Mind you, it all works because it is amusing, just not very weighty.

Half the battle is finding comic actors who can make the wacky dialogue fly. Director Jessica Stone has a game cast with several standouts. Marcia DeBonis has the advantage of playing a three dimensional character, someone we can care about, where the rest of the characters are there to put over the comedy, not that DeBonis isn’t a master comedienne.

Sonia laments that she’s fifty-two and hasn’t had a date in decades. If that’s not pathetic enough, she may have to leave behind her clump of ten cherry trees (which she of course calls her “orchard”). The audience adored DeBonis’ sad sack, “incipient bipolar” sister, so much so that they gasped when it looked like she would turn down an opportunity… and they cheered when she reconsidered.

Haneefah Wood hits her dialogue out of the park as the prophetess/housekeeper named Cassandra (because it’s quite delicious to foresee the future, have no one believe you, and be vindicated in seconds flat). She celebrates her prescient gifts with a whoop and a triumphant semi-backbend that kept us in stitches…no matter how many times she did it.

Martin Moran adroitly delivers the rambling paean to the postage stamp and to our “shared national past” (before electronic devices destroyed it). It’s the money shot in the play and the scene which brought home the Tony.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Luke Warm Appreciation

Molly Ivins raised hell. She couldn’t abide slackers and self-serving politiciansand she had a platform to rail about injustice. She excoriated the incompetent and self-righteous in her books and newspaper articles. She got away with it thanks to her considerable Southern charm. Even when the New York Times canned her (for her candor) she didn’t miss a beat. She had charisma to spare and late night television loved her Texas spunk.

Two journalists, Margaret Engel & Allison Engel, penned the one-woman show called RED HOT PATRIOT: THE KICK-ASS WIT OF MOLLY IVINS (up @ Lyric Stage through Jan. 31st) to pay tribute to the late political satirist and fearless muckraker. (The play has a second character to bring Ivins the fast breaking wires from Associated Press but this is Karen MacDonald’s show).

RED HOT PATRIOT should be a tour de force but curiously, the Lyric production starts on a pretty low key with Ivins ruminating about the subject of an article. She calls it “letting the idea steep.” Unfortunately the play steeps for too long. Now I presume director Courtney O’Connor wanted to build intensity in the piece by starting out slowly but “Kick-Ass” is in the title for heaven sakes. We need to see Molly kicking it from the get-go. If you don’t lasso the audience right up front, as Molly might have said, they’ll slip away from you.

Perhaps if she had entered with a cowboy hat (She’s wearing the boots) and some metaphorical guns a-blazing, we’d be more than happy to hop on for the ride but the tepid material doesn’t heat up until pretty late in 75 minute show. The Engels drop lots of names and repeat lots of Ivins’ pithy quotes (like “the trouble with Baptists is they don’t hold ‘em under water long enough”) but there’s no story there…and no fire.

Here’s what works: When Mac Donald sits astride a chair to give us “a history lesson,” she’s excited and engaged and so are we. And it’s a nice touch when Ivins hears her beloved, departed dog calling her. (It reminded me of the recent “controversial” headlines from Pope Francis about animals going to heaven.) What did not work for me is the paraphrase of Tom Joad’s “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there” or the peculiar, intrusive background music intended to punch up a scene.

Ivins famously mocked the news business for “thriving on the weird, the astonishing and the absurd.” Maybe that’s what’s lacking in the Engels’ play: It’s too ordinary. I remember what she looked and sounded like (on TV) and I’m sure that makes it much harder for an actor. She had both democrats and republicans eating out of her hand. I would like to have heard how she did it. But that’s just one opinion.