Wednesday, October 28, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The LADIES who Lunch

Heart & Dagger Productions takes us back to 1956 with 5 LESBIANS EATING A QUICHE (by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood, playing @ BCA through Nov. 30th). Sadly it’s a year I remember well. Air raid sirens blared every day at noon so we’d know what to do if someone (Everyone knew it would be those Russians: Everyone was wrong) dropped a hydrogen bomb on our placid neighborhood. Preparedness, by the way, meant “duck and cover” as if hiding under a school desk could prevent radiation from scorching our skin.

No one is more pleased than I to witness a silly spoof of those chilling days of yesteryear. 5 LESBIANS is deliriously daft, purposely lame (think PSYCHO BEACH PARTY) and mercifully short. Director Joey C. Pelletier (who also directed that BEACH PARTY a couple of years ago) knows his way around send-up. His secret formula is speed and light and lots of energy. (That sounds suspiciously like Einstein’s theory of relativity… but no matter!)

The ladies of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein call each other “widow” because the L-word wasn’t regularly invoked in the ‘50s (nor was the H-word: gay men were called “artistic”) but I digress. The Linder/Hobgood play isn’t much concerned with historical accuracy. It’s hysterical accuracy they’re going for.

Many homes back then had “cold closets” stocked with canned goods and provisions they believed would last through a nuclear winter…(Just one, mind you, in a tiny tar papered closet with the whole family until the air was safe in spring). Hence the quiche. The Sisters of Gertrude Stein are gathered for their annual bake-off so there are 56 pies vying for Best Quiche when Kaboom! Luckily the butch building committee chairwoman had the foresight to install a safety door which automatically seals in case of a nuclear event.

The bad news: They are the last people on earth. The good news: They have enough quiche to last at least until the radiation drifts out to sea. But wait. “Someone left the cake out in the rain… and it took so long to bake it and [they’ll] never have the recipe again.” Just kidding. That song won’t be written for at least ten more years. But those quiches are outside the hermetically sealed room. What will they do? Furthermore, how will they populate this brave new world?

The clever, Saturday Night Live-like jokes fly by like missiles. Well, some land with a thud. The modus operandi is to just keep ‘em coming. There’s even a heady reference to Pope Joan (who “passed” for male and became the only female Pope in Vatican history… which led thereafter to the practice of genital checking via a special chair the Cardinals could crawl beneath. I’m told one can find that chair in the Vatican Museum.) Oops. More digression inspired by Linder and Hobgood’s “Pope Jones”/“Pope Joans” reference.

What makes 5 LESBIANS work is Pelletier’s remarkable, madcap cast. Erin Rae Zalaski is a hoot as the perky but rigid event organizer. Melissa Barker as the building and grounds engineer has just the right swagger to declare she’s a “big, ol’ lesbian” when the time comes to fess up. (The audience gets to, too!) Elizabeth Battey does daffy like it’s mother’s milkand she gets the best moment in the play, hands down. She has a blast and so do we. That’s all I’m saying.

Best of all are Laurie Singletary as the Society’s president and mother hen (She lays down laughs like a chicken lays eggs, by the dozens) and Lauren Foster as the newest member of Singletary’s brood. All she wants is for her pie to win first place. When the quiches become scarce as… well… hen’s teeth (I can’t help myself), she runs at the banquet table, jumps onto the remaining quiche and has her way with it in a wild, erotic frenzy.

And there’s a nifty vegetarian endorsement in the play which sealed the deal for me. The only problem is that I’ve been craving quiche ever since.

Monday, October 19, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Classy Vintage Cabaret

The American Classics folks have been celebrating the American songbook for over twenty-five years with intimate cabaret concerts and concert revivals of early musicals by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and Cole Porter, just to name a few. Unless you were around in the ‘30s and ‘40s to see the originals, you wouldn’t know what their first efforts sounded like (and sometimes bombed like), were it not for American Classics’ often hilarious recreations.

Their current concert entitled YIP AND IRA highlights the friendship and collaboration of Yip Harburg (most famous for the songs he composed with Harold Arlen for the movie THE WIZARD OF OZ) and Ira Gershwin (most famous for his partnership with his brother, George). Harburg and Gershwin sat next to each other in high school and shared an affection for the witty lyrics Gilbert penned for his and Sullivan’s British operettas. Harburg credited Gershwin for encouraging him to write song lyrics.

AC producing directors/founders Brad Conner and Ben Sears are renowned for their scholarship on the golden age of popular song in America. Their intriguing back stories about the composers and lyricists are almost as delightful as their concerts. Their program notes make Wikipedia green with envy. No one throws their playbills away. The information is invaluable.

If you missed YIP & IRA, then you missed Ethan Sagin’s highly amusing, personally illustrated version of Harburg and Arlen’s risqué (for 1939) “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which became a staple over the years for Groucho Marx. AC regular Joei Marshall Perry brought a lovely, wistful sweetness to the Gershwins’ gorgeous “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Conner and Sears broke us up with the Gershwins’ deliciously comparative “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” (Conner got extra laughs with the “Oyster-Erster” lyric.) He does triple duty, singing, accompanying the performers at the piano, showing us the elegant music underneath the lyrics.

Yip and Ira wrote a mock French take off on Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (with music by Arlen) called “C’est la Vie” with Sagin, Christina English and Joshua Louis Smith as the gleeful ménage a trios. Gay Paris really was when Sagin and Smith leave the charming English high and dry… and us giggling over their antics.

Teresa Winner Blume knows how to deliver a Weill song (Ira and Kurt Weill’s sardonic masterpiece “The Saga of Jenny” from LADY IN THE DARK) and the entire company joined in exquisite harmony for Harburg and Arlen’s incomparable “Over the Rainbow.”

Their next concert will be a cabaret event on Feb. 19 and 21 featuring the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Fifty Shades of Black & White

Experimentation is what keeps theater fresh. Hopefully that experimentation can bring something new to a work, something which can enhance it and still respect the original. (I saw a RIGOLETTO last season with an ending which took the whole audience’s collective breath away and transformed forever the way I will look at Verdi’s masterpiece.)
I think that’s what the creative team behind Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s new, black & white production of WEST SIDE STORY were hoping to do (at the Strand through Oct. 24th). The highlight of any WEST SIDE STORY production has to be the choreography. After all, Jerome Robbins imagined the musical with dance at its core. Wendy Hall’s rousing choreography for Leonard Bernstein’s gorgeous music carries the Fiddlehead show.
Hall gives the Jets explosive (pow! pop!) leaps and aggressive bounds (with arms stretching backward like Romulan “birds of prey”). The Sharks’ movements are more elegant and plenty erotic, perfectly illustrating the palpable excitement building in the music. Charles Pelz’s twenty piece orchestra (which includes stellar musicians like Jeff Leonard and Louis Toth) fills the cavernous hall with Bernstein’s throbbing melodies. The music alone could tell the whole “star-crossed” story. (Kudos to producer Meg Fofonoff for finding a way to fix the Strand’s old, creaky sound system.)

Alas, I’m very sorry to say that I don’t know what the black and white theme is supposed to represent in Fiddlehead’s pallid version of the Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim musical. The WIZARD OF OZ used B&W for Dorothy’s pre-Oz, humdrum life and color for her spectacular, hallucinated adventure. I get that but in WSS director Stacey Stephens gives us color only for wounds, a yellow rose, and the fantasy ballet in Act II. Steven Spielberg used color once, at the end of SCHINDLER’S LIST. I get the ‘death” symbolism in Spielberg’s movie but I don’t understand Fiddlehead’s metaphor: The real world is pale? Only bloodshed can give it pallor? (And since yellow usually means cowardiceWhat are we to make of that?)

Stephens directed as well as designed the costumes for his high concept but those B&W frocks cause a whole lot of havoc: When Maria tries on her party dress (which should be white by the way) she complains to Anita that white is for babies and she’ll be “the only one at the dance in a white dress.” NO. Everyone at the dance is in a white dress. The only variety is in shades of grey. (The male characters wear white for the Sharks and black for the Jets. Perhaps Stephens is saying the Sharks are the good guys and the Jets are the bad guys. Old cowboy movies indicated good and evil that way.)

As a result of the lack of color, everyone looks washed out, like some unseen Dracula drained the life blood from the musical. The only passion comes from the glorious music and the vital choreography (which, too, is unfortunately undermined by those colorless costumes and a lack of space. The rear portion of the stage is littered with ladders, chairs, all sorts of detritus which could have been pushed back so that the Jets could snap their fingers and advance more than three steps toward the audience.)

Inconsistencies (where the dialogue does not reflect what is happening in this production) and odd choices undermine the story. (SPOILER ALERT: For example, Maria has to traverse the whole width of the stage to reach Chino after he shoots Tony. Then Chino inexplicably drops to his knees as if to propose marriage. Instead he thrusts the gun toward Maria, head bowed as though he expected to be knighted.) I haven’t a clue.

I guess it’s a clever trick to put Anita in a tub in a balcony loge after she says she’s going home to shower but we can’t hear her that far away and the lustrous quintet has become a quartet without her. What’s more, she can’t be seen by that side of the audience. But pulling off her underpants in the pseudo “rape” scene (which is usually stopped by Tony’s boss long before it goes that far) is just gratuitous and grotesque.
For the most part, the Fiddlehead production lacks a sense of playfulness. The characters dressed in black made me think of mourning clothes way before any of the violence takes place. Thankfully, they do achieve some welcome comic relief in the naughty “Officer Krupke” number.

Many of the performances have that extra something which sets them apart from everyone else: Theo Lencicki as Riff has it. Kim Corbett has charisma as Maria. Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva is a striking, threatening Bernardo. Pamela Turpen is a fiery Anita. Daniel Boudreau stands out as the creepy detective and John Davin makes the drugstore owner a mensch. And I mustn’t forget the dancers. Thank heaven for the dancers.

Friday, October 16, 2015


David Ives’ cautionary comedy about embracing who you are (or suffer the consequences) is getting a crackerjack outing at the Central Sq. Theater. I can’t imagine a better production than the Titanic Theatre Company’s. THE POLISH JOKE (playing through this weekend only) is filled to the brim with Ives’ famous sardonic wit, like banishing the perennially happy to “an asylum for the criminally content.” Problem is when he gets serious about ethnic backgrounds (Polish in this case), the play flags a bitbecause we’ve become accustomed to a laugh a minute and the switch halts the momentum. (To his credit, Ives gets quickly back on track.)

Director Sarah Gazdowicz has an extraordinary cast who can perform outlandish scenarios at breakneck speed. Gazdowicz’s talented actors deftly manage playing in the round (except it’s a rectangle)not an easy task when you have to ensure that all sides of the audience can clearly see and hear. Titanic is fortunate to have actors with good instincts and exquisite comic timing. One of my favorite funny men, Matthew Zahnzinger, gets to show how it’s done in several hilarious turns: Just when I thought he’d reached his zenith as a salty old priest, he re-entered as a briny-brogued, step dancing dervish. (I’m still raving about his maniacal gigue.)

William Bowry, too, makes comedic hay of a whole passel of wonderfully deranged characters, as does Janelle Mills and Becca A. Lewis. Dan Prior has the toughest row to hoe as the man at the center of the play who denies his heritage (until a motorbus engineers an epiphany). He has to be believable both as a child and as the hapless everyman who doesn’t see the forest for the trees. We have to root for him even when he’s being blissfully, exasperatingly naïve. He is and we do. And we laugh…a lot.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS EINSTEIN’S DREAM and A NUMBER By Beverly Creasey Time in a Bottle

Were it nor for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Jim Croce might not have thought of saving TIME in a bottle. TIME connects two plays (running in repertory) at the Central Square Theater and it informs another one up at New Repertory Theatre. EINSTEIN’S DREAMS and COPENHAGEN are chain reacting in Central Sq. on alternating days through Nov. 15th (with the same cast in each)… and A NUMBER is multiplying in Watertown through Nov. 1st..

The two plays at Central Sq. (produced by Underground Railway Theater and M.I.T. Catalyst Collaborative) are related by physics, of course, but more importantly, they’re related by apocalypse. Einstein wrote to President Truman imploring him not to use the atomic bomb and there would be no bomb to warn about, were it not for the atomic explorations of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

EINSTEIN’S DREAMS (adapted by Wesley Savick from the Alan Lightman bestseller) is a theatrical fantasia in which Einstein’s extraordinary ideas come and go like the characters he remembers. The play itself is, like Einstein’s “reconception of time,” a reconceptualization of his ideas bouncing against a clever backdrop of comedy, movement, music and dance.

Theater, it turns out, is the perfect medium for an explication of Einstein’s work precisely because it can skip around in time, defying the laws of nature. Time is compressed to fit into a short play… and concurrently, expanded to include Einstein’s past, present and future. Savick bends time backwards on itself (mimicking Einstein’s “reciprocity theory”) because time is not a limiting factor on stage: We can observe Einstein at several different points in his life. For example, we are able to observe him at work in the patent office, daydreaming about energy and mass, light years, so to speak, before his famous E = mc2.

The Einstein we meet on stage speculates that the dimensions of time could be blurred so that we might meet our deceased parents again… or if time were frozen, we could savor one moment for as long as we like (although that didn’t work out so well for Faust). Each idea and speculation is illustrated with music or photographs and the inventive gestural language of the three actors.

Debra Wise and Steven Barkhimer are the charming supporting players who anchor Robert Najarian as Einstein. They dance with him. They joke with him. They are the electrons to his vibrant nucleus. He jumps for joy when contemplating the world and its mathematical possibilities. Najarian fairly bursts with energy in Wesley Savick’s vibrant production (so much energy that I had a bit of trouble making out his dialogue, coming at us at lightening speed through a thick German accent.) I have no doubt that Najarian and Savick will iron out that wrinkle in time!
My COPENHAGEN review will follow as soon as I see the play.

NUMBER, Please

Caryl Churchill’s A NUMBER (at New Rep through Nov. 1st) takes cloning and ingeniously adds the factor of TIME to the procedure: Each clone in Churchill’s imagining has been incubated over and over from the same DNA. Churchill is asking if they’re actually the same each time. Does it matter that each was cloned years apart? Since nature has been removed from the equation, does nurture matter to a clone?

Christina Todesco’s giant “bug zapper” towers buzz ominously as a clearly distressed son (Nael Nacer) asks his father (Dale Place) about his origins. Then another son appears who looks exactly like the first one and he asks relatively the same questions but he’s plenty angry. Perhaps with good reason.
Director Clay Hopper creates a forced calm on stage which increases our apprehension as more and more information surfaces. We’re watching intently to learn who these people are. Having seen the measured filmed version (A NUMBER) with Tom Wilkinson and Rhys Ifans, I must say I prefer the stage play. Watching Place slowly unravel and Nacer triumph in three distinct roles make this NUMBER add up to compelling theater.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right… No, it’s not a Stealers Wheel reunion. It’s Theatre on Fire’s outrageous CLOWN BAR (playing @ Charlestown Working Theatre through Oct. 24th). This “Clown Noir” (by Adam Szymkowicz) sends a tough talking detective (in fedora and trench coat just like those old movie sleuths) to a notorious burlesque/clown cafe in search of the lowlife who killed his brother.

If you know the authentic “milieu” of clowndom, then you know that clown violence is always funny, just like Harold Lloyd in a Model T careening off a cliff. You just give yourself over to the premise. Clowns with gunsand I don’t mean the NRAare like spit takes and pratfalls and small cars with twelve occupants. The territory is surreal and the comedy is black (and a touch blue).

Director Darren Evans has a crackerjack cast of zanies and “underground” operators anyone of whom coulda dunnit. Christopher Sherwood Davis’ cop is all business until he’s reunited with the stripper (Emma Goodman) he’s always adored. The story really takes off when Goodman does. Then she and the cop engage in the funniest foreplay this side of Ringling Brothers. Just pulling his tie off is a sizeable victory.

The pièce de résistance is the arrival of Bobo, the capo of the Russian clown mafia. (Who knew there even was such an organization?) Jeff Gill does menace like nobody else (having previously terrified us at Theatre on Fire as an uneven handed avenger and as the powerful, punishing Old Testament God). He’s even scary when he’s whispering.

No one wants to mess with Bobo or his sister (Chelsea Ruscio) who wears an apron bloodier than Mrs. Lovett’s. Not Terry Torres’ gruff voiced prankster nor Craig Houk’s sleazy intimidator nor Annie Jean Hochheiser’s sweet trickster nor Marcus Hunter’s inexplicably named Giggles nor Christopher Wagner’s bizarre crooner. Especially not Macmillan Leslie’s jonesing Pagliacci. Even us. Word to the wise: Give him a wide berth.

If you like your clowns sullen and contentious, then this creepy circus is for you. B Y O popcorn. They supply the noses.

Monday, October 5, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Penitents Behind Bars

Note: You want to root for a new company like MAIDEN PHOENIX, dedicated to finding more opportunities for female theater artists. And you really want to support their current effort, an examination of the prisons women build for themselves, aided and abetted by pop culture and the fashion industry. (Thin, white waifs with attitude stare out from glossy magazine pages in S&M poses, thanks singlehandedly to photographer Helmut Newton back in the ‘80s, but I’ll bitch about that in another article). The women in MISS PENETENTIARY are still (after all these years) desperate to be desired and desperate to be liked by everyone. Where did the feminists of the ‘60s go wrong? We thought we exploded the Cinderella myth. We thought we had the ERA in our grasp. Well, no. But we thought we raised the next generation(s) to be independent, proud and self-confidant. What happened?
We thought Roe v. Wade sealed the deal but here we are again, 100 years after Margaret Sanger founded the first birth control clinic, defending Planned Parenthood. We thought “our bodies were our own” but the Right Wing and Bill Cosby think they belong to them. What?
SO as a show of support for Planned Parenthood, MAIDEN PHOENIX is donating the proceeds from their October 8th show to PP. That’s putting your money where your play is!


Laura Neubauer’s MISS PENETENTIARY (@ BPT through Oct. 17th) is a wry look at the bars women set for themselvesand around themselveswith self-loathing, perfectionism and defeatism, not to mention those Jimmy Choo six inch heels. The play opens with a nifty chuckle. Just like the orphans in ANNIE, the inmates scrub the floor of their jail in syncopated rhythm. Each hopes to escape by scrubbing the hardest and by winning a beauty contest. Hence the play’s title.

Part theater of the absurd, part theater of revolt and part sermon, MISS PENETENTIARY has five capable actresses, under Alyce Householter’s smart direction, playing the heck out of Neubauer’s meandering script. Neubauer takes considerable pains to introduce each character, so much so that you’re not sure who the central character is for quite some time, given all the posturing.

Each inmate gets plenty of meaty dialogue and a hurdle to overcome. Often these obstacles occupy several scenes when one would suffice. Neubauer’s conceit has lots of promise but it gets bogged down in unintended contradictions: For instance, Gret (Kim Klasner) thinks she isn’t attractive (when all she needs is confidence in herself) and how does she get the confidence? By putting on make-up and styling her hair? Surely that isn’t the point Neubauer wants to make. In fact, Neubauer goes to great lengths to sabotage the idea of beauty pageants but sometimes her focus is a bit blurry.

Perhaps sending up pageants makes the play clearly a comedy (with wonderfully funny choreography by Kaitee Treadway and smashing music by Christopher Higgins) where tackling illiteracy and overcoming drug addiction make the play a serious endeavor. Can they coexist? Perhaps but I couldn’t see it gel. It’s not easy to make a script work the first (or last) time out. The Maiden Phoenix people are taking a big risk with a new play. And we need new plays by women! Neubauer is extremely fortunate to have Klasner, Dayenne Walters, Elissa Palma, Caitlin Gjerdrum and Holly Cinnamon to strut her stuff.  

Friday, October 2, 2015


Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative APPROPRIATE (at SpeakEasy Stage through Oct. 10th) has at its core the belief that objects have power. Some people wear a cross or a Chai as a talisman against evil. On a smaller scale some save four leaf clovers or baby shoes as keepsakes.

The charged objects in APPROPRIATE are old photographs of Black men hanging from trees, as in Billie Holiday’s searing “Strange Fruit.” It’s estimated that by the mid-nineteenth century, ninety-five million Africans had been abducted and transported to the New World, where they were forced into slavery. The lynching didn’t stop with the twentieth century, either. These photos evidently belonged to the recently deceased white man whose children have assembled at his dilapidated “plantation” house in Arkansas to dispose of the home and his possessions.

At first they’re horrified: Should the photos be destroyed? None of the children wants to believe they belonged to their father… and yet he was a severe man and a daughter-in-law claims he was an anti-Semite. The pictures are a horrific reminder of what happened, perhaps, on this very plantation years ago. Who would want to keep photos of mass murder? Certainly no one would want to profit from another human being’s suffering. And yet… They soon discover via the internet that collectors will pay top dollar for such artifacts. The moral question Jacob-Jenkins poses is should these white people profit from the deaths of tortured Black men?

Jacob-Jenkins’ clever story fleshes out the power of these photos: Are the spirits of these murdered men captured within the photographs (as Native Americans used to believe)? Are their spirits in the house? I am reminded of August Wilson’s THE PIANO LESSON where the ghosts of slavery figure prominently in his cautionary tale about inheritance.

While the siblings squabble about their share of the estate, we witness their problems emerge. Each is wounded in some way and their petty interests are often humorous. However, the play seems to wander way off kilter by having their insults devolve into a full scale donnybrook where life and limb are threatened. It’s played for laughs but to me it seemed, to borrow from the title, inappropriate. I believed the narrative wholeheartedly until the incompatible knock-down drag-out free-for-all.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara gets powerful performances all around, with standout work from Melinda Lopez as the frazzled sister who ended up as caretaker for her ailing father, from Bryan T. Donovan as her take charge but is soon overwhelmed brother, and from Ashley Risteen as a hilarious hippie-dippy earth child who knows bad karma when she sees it.