Saturday, May 30, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey THE ENDURING SISTERS at Wellesley Summer Theatre

The Russians in Chekhov’s plays almost always struggle with feelings of insignificance. With his haunting THREE SISTERS (playing through June 21st), Chekhov foreshadows the revolution he didn’t live to see“There’s a storm coming to clean out our society.”And he mourns a generation living in the past: Each sister wants to love and be loved but two choose the wrong partner and one accepts “God’s will” to stay unmarried, honoring restrictions as tightly bound as their hair.

Director Marta Rainer’s lovely, heartbreaking production manages to capture the sisters’ palpable desperation and send it directly across the footlights. What at first may seem to be the arch concerns of Chekhov’s privileged characters still resonates today: Is happiness possible? Can we make a difference in the world? Why are people suffering? Is there greater meaning in life? Can we start over again…and when it’s revealed that no one in this play, aristocratic or otherwise, will be happynot even the school precept who insists he iswe’re left as bereft as the sisters.

Rainer and company mine the characters’ raw emotions even as they try to control their outward affect. It’s a delicate dance, cleverly mirrored at the start and play’s end in an actual slowly measured, winding circular dance. The remarkable ensemble work at WST benefits even the smallest of roles: John Davin and Charlotte Peed are the aging servants on whom hard work has taken its toll. Davin thankfully provides some lighter moments when he can no longer hear the directives of his demanding employers. Zack Georgian and Dan Prior as the carefree young soldiers at the fringes of the tapestry make an indelible impression as well, one trying to please Irina with small gifts and one trying to delay the future by taking photos of the present.

Zena Chatilla as the innocent Irina, whose twentieth birthday brings everyone together in the first act, slowly discovers that life holds no satisfaction for her. Angela Bilkic as her sister Masha, has her spirit crushed by a loveless marriage (to Shelley Bolman’s pompous schoolmaster) and an unfulfilled romance with the dashing colonel (Woody Gaul) who is mired in a hopeless marriage of his own. Gaul provides a welcome laugh with saucer eyes when Bolman offers a Latin phrase designed to impress.

You can feel the spark between Gaul and Bilkic, the same spark noticeably missing from the brother’s union with a ferocious woman (Marge Dunn) who controls his every move. Samuel L. Warton plays the tragic son whom father “educated with a vengeance” for a career as a professor but who ends up as a glorified clerk. Sacrifice gallops through the family, with Caitlin Graham as the oldest sister, Olga, throwing herself into teaching. There aren’t many victories for the sisters but Olga gets one when Dunn’s tightfisted Natasha threatens to banish Peed’s loyal servant. (Just to make Dunn’s character more villainous, Chekhov even references another orchard when Dunn threatens to cut down their trees.)

Charles Linshaw as the brash, headstrong Baron who rhapsodizes about the value of “work” while avoiding it altogether and Daniel Boudreau as the unsophisticated dinner guest who seems to place his foot in his mouth as often as his glass of vodka, both unfortunately set their cap for Irina.  John Kinsherf as Chekhov’s physician stand-in, regrets everything, drowns himself in drink and consoles himself with the notion that nothing matters at all. Because they all interact so seamlessly with each other in WST’s compelling production, you hope against hope that one, just one of them will escape with some joy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Zeitgeist Stage again lives up to its stellar reputation for producing compelling, edgy scripts. Jeff Talbott’s THE SUBMISSION (playing through May 30th) is a juggernaut. Director David Miller takes your breath away and doesn’t let go ‘til the final scene. You don’t get an intermission and you don’t get to breathe during lightening fast scene changes eitherunless you’re impervious to the Krupa-esque blitz riffs in J. Jumbelic’s brilliant sound design.

What’s going on to fuel this runaway train? A gay, white writer is tired of just getting readings of his work so he writes a “Black” play and submits it to the prestigious Humana Festival under a pseudonym, an ethnic sounding (he thinks) female name. Just as he hoped, it’s gobbled up by the Humana folks and now they want to meet him (her). What’s to be done? He hires an African-American actress to be him. The result? Fireworks.

What a cast Miller has assembled: They play off each other like electric charges, each igniting the fuse in the other. Victor Shopov is the driven playwright who can’t see the forest for the trees and Aina Adler is the ferocious, righteous actress who takes him on. Matthew Fagerberg is the loyal friend stuck in the middle of the morass and Diego Buscaglia is the playwright’s clear headed husband. He’s the only one who can see “landmines” in those woods. (Buscaglia gets a wonderfully funny AMERICAN BUFFALO moment, ranting off stage about everyone’s stupidity.)

As Tavis Smiley would say, let’s unpack Talbott’s subtext. The story itself is riveting but as a bonus, Talbott gets to drag out all the nasty gripes that whites have about Blacks and that straights have about gaysand place them in the minds and mouths of his characters. You know, the accusation that Blacks get awards because of political correctness and that a “gay mafia” is running American theater.

When Talbott’s playwright asserts that gays are the “new underclass,” the actress is enraged. (People will be taking sides over this play for sure.) What is indisputable, the angered actress says, is that a gay man can hide his sexuality if he wants to but an African-American cannot hide his identity. (As the Fats Waller lyric goes, “I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case…”) What the two have in common, of course, is the discrimination they both face but she won’t let him equate the two.

The gay “mafia” claim in SUBMISSION is deliberately absurd and the audience laughs in unisonbut when the playwright complains about the practice of non-traditional castingHe’s tired of seeing a “Black Mrs. Cratchitt in A CHRISTMAS CAROL”he’s making the assumption that’s shared by a lot of people, that actors of color have found a place in American theater. Have they? How about turnabout? Is it fair play?

A critic I know used the fair play phrase when I was up in arms about a significant number of designated diverse roles being given wholesale to white actors where it makes no sense morally or dramatically: Like the white actress in A CHORUS LINE spouting dialogue about how hard it is to be Asian-American, or the white actor in SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (twice, two different companies) claiming to be “the brother you call…” Is there really so much work available for actors of color that they don’t miss the occasional loss of a role?

Is it really OK to cast an all Black show like THE WIZ with (a few or a lot of) white actors? Is it OK to cast white actors when no actors of color audition? Is it OK to cast a white singer in blackface? The Metropolitan Opera is about to do it again. The last Othello they had in blackface (on the HD transmission year before last) perspired so heavily that his makeup ironically refused to stay on his face, obscenely sliding down his costume. Why they’re doing it again is beyond me but let’s just stick to theater. The facts are that actors of color do not have lots of work. The playing field is not even… so kudos to Zeitgeist for reenergizing the discussion.

Don’t miss SUBMISSION for any reason, including price because Wednesdays are pay-what-you-can!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey MOTHERS and Troubadours

Terrence McNally loves opera. It figures in plays like THE LISBON TRAVIATA and one, MASTER CLASS, even places prima donna assoluta Maria Callas center stage. McNally often appears on the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday radio broadcasts as a panelist for their delightful “Opera Quiz.” I reference all this because MOTHERS AND SONS (@ SpeakEasy Stage through June 6th) seems to me to be his most operatic script.

A mother has traveled all the way from Texas to New York City for “revenge,” she tells us, not once but twice. Her son, she maintains, was not gay before he came to New York and she wants to know who infected him with AIDS and killed him twenty years ago. Not only does she embrace denial with a vengeance, she foolishly entertains the notion that patient zero might be still alive.

The opera canon is certainly full of characters bent on payback but one jumped across the footlights to me the moment this mother confesses her “real” motivation. The gypsy Acuzena sings not one, but two “revenge” arias in Verdi’s IL TROVATORE because of a dead son. And what ruin she wreaks!

Nancy E. Carroll plays the steely mother from hell who asks outright of her son’s former partner, “Why haven’t you been punished?” Michael Kaye gives an exquisitely wrought performance as the overly patient and impossibly kind man who grieved and found a second chance at loveand who inexplicably doesn’t pitch the woman out on her ear. Carroll’s character has ice in her veins and comic timing in her bones, so that a delayed barb makes us laugh as we’re horrified by her conduct.

McNally crafts a nifty balance between the two and director Paul Daigneault gets top notch performances all around. (There are two more characters, Kaye’s hip, younger husband, portrayed with an edge by Nile Hawver and an adorable son, played with a lot of heart by Liam Lurker). Kaye’s character has a raft of touching speeches about what was lost to the world when its best and brightest were taken in their primeand Kaye eloquently conveys a lifelong sorrow hiding just below the surface. It’s a lovely turn.

I was reminded of the inappropriate mother in Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN when Carroll’s character tells Kaye about a liaison she confessed to her son… not to mention her line, “I lost a son: Can I order another?” which had THE MIKADO intruding into my thoughts. All this larger (and much more peculiar) than life behavior kept me interested in how this woman would exact her pound of flesh.

Then McNally makes an about face, abandons the operatic and magically reforms her without any ghosts of Christmas past! He spends a lot of time and effort showing us that this woman is incapable of love (even as she claims her son was the incapable one). I just couldn’t buy the instant milk and cookie reformation.

Monday, May 11, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Longwood Rocks GUYS AND DOLLS

I seldom pass up the opportunity to see GUYS AND DOLLS. It’s one of my favorite musicals and Kaitlyn Chantry is one of my favorite directors. When she helms a musical, you know it will be sharp, exciting and full of surprises. (She changed my mind about CHESS for heavens sake!)

The good news is that Longwood Players cast James Weeden as Nicely-Nicely to kick up his heels and kick up the production several notches. He even made me forget the screeching violins and a mute that reduced the trumpet to what sounded like a kazoo. Who cares: Weeden and the other loveable tough guys rock that famous boat like gangbusters in music director Jason Luciana’s inspired, elongated New Orleans jazz version of “Sit Down.” They marched the audience into a frenzy and afforded stage manager Veronica Haakonsen and crew a nifty coup as they changed the set right around the parade.

Jason Hair-Wynn’s smart, flashy choreography had those rough and tumble gamblers moving and jumping in an organic dice-throwing triumph for “Luck Be a Lady.” Not one of them couldn’t dance and not a one didn’t look like an authentic heavy. (More often than not, the toughs look like dancers rather than criminals but not in Chantry’s production.)

Weeden, Michael Chateauneuf and Patrick Harris set the bar high from the get-go, pouring over their racing forms in the “Fugue for Tinhorns.” Then Fran Betlyon makes influenza pay dividends in “Adelaide’s Lament.” Betlyon and James Aitchison (as Nathan Detroit) turn their boxing match into gold in a hilarious, nose to nose “Sue Me.” The straight romance, for April Pressel and Ben Jamieson’s characters, offers a few chuckles as well, but let’s face it, it’s those pesky thugs who really deliver the goods.

The bad news? Longwood’s GUYS AND DOLLS closed this weekend.