Tuesday, February 23, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The CONVERT Reverts

The cast in Underground Railway’s impressive production of THE CONVERT (playing through Feb. 28th) is the chief reason to see the play. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s actors all give extraordinary performances. Over a half century ago, Lorraine Hansberry’s exquisitely painful LES BLANCS covered similar territory, that is, colonial oppression in Africa. Now Danai Gurira’s play, THE CONVERT, concentrates its focus on Africa’s religious conversions at the end of the nineteenth century.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent in a remarkable tour de force manages to make the overzealous, overbearing Catholic proselytizer totally charming. When his housekeeper (Liana Asim in a superb comic turn) outfoxes him and tells him she has a convert-in-the-making for him, we’re in on the conspiracy. The girl (a luminous Adobuere Ebiama) just wants to escape her nasty uncle. The first act has an abundance of gentle humor, most of it at the preacher’s expense. Parent struts and grumbles his objections to folk traditions, but you know he has a good heart and his concerns, albeit misguided, are sincere.

 The playwright introduces us slowly and carefully to the other characters, clearly leading us to believe that only one, the covert’s greedy uncle, has bad intentions. But when three of the characters entirely change their personality to become violent for a shocking finish, it’s just not credible.

Even more upsetting, is the playwright’s explanation for the abrupt transformations: She tells us they have reverted to their “tribal” nature, equating tribal mores with what the preacher calls “savage ways.” If we are to believe that, then we’re buying into the spurious European, white view of what is and is not civilized. Act one held such promise with such rich characterizations. Alas, acts two and three are derailed by plot twists that dramatically make no sense.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Soaring Lessons from MARY POPPINS

Director/choreographer Russell Garrett’s charming MARY POPPINS (@ Wheelock Family Theatre through Feb. 28th) has all the elements of the beloved film plus the most inventive choreography I’ve seen this season. Garrett’s deliciously original, wildly gestural dance vocabulary for the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious showstopper is one of the reasons to see Wheelock’s production of the musical.

The other reasons are the strong, crisp performances: Lisa Yuen is a fierce, take charge Mary; Andrew Giordano as father has a joyous reclamation reminiscent of Dickens’ most famous epiphany; Shana Dirik tears up the stage as the “holy terror” of nannies; Dan Reardon as the chimney sweep leads the company in a roof raising tap extravaganza in Act II. But this MARY POPPINS has something more to offer than the fanciful tale of an enchanted nanny.

Gamalia Pharms (as the bird woman) is at the very heart of the story: What do we want for our children, if not to learn compassion, for their fellow human beings… and for all sentient creatures. It’s no accident that birds figure so importantly in the narrative. Mary teaches the children to look beyond themselves.

Mary frees the nasty nanny’s caged lark from its prison and when she sees a woman selling crumbs for the birds, she encourages the children to “look beyond what [they] see” and join her in an act of selflessness. Pharms delivers a beatific performance and her lovely, simple Feed the Birds has double resonance when father realizes he has been sleep walking through life. When he encounters and engages Pharms with her birds, we know he has reclaimed his humanity.

The Wheelock production has it all: gentle performances like Laura D. DeGiacomo as mother, sparkling turns from Cameron Levesque and Eowyn Young as the children and a company who make the dancing pop.

Monday, February 15, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Consequences and TRUTH

BACK THE NIGHT (@ BPT through Feb. 28th) is Melinda Lopez’ deeply disturbing new play about violence against women… and about how easy it is (at least it is in her play) for women to lie to get what they want. The big lie in BACK THE NIGHT (as in the “Take Back the Night” movement) was inspired by the Rolling Stone article on campus rape which they were forced to retract when it was discovered that the woman had fabricated her story. Ben Franklin famously said that “half a truth is often a great lie.” The full truth is that one out of every two women has experienced some form of violence in her life.

The half truth/half lie issue in BACK THE NIGHT is distressing enough but Lopez’ presentation itself is even more problematic. Every male character in BACK THE NIGHT is a prince (except for 60 seconds with an inane college president). The main character’s gay best friend is true blue. Her best female friend has a boyfriend who sets out to find who attacked Cassie. He even grills his fraternity brothers, who raise thousands of dollars for charity, and prove to be above reproach. Even the campus cop is the soul of discretion, gingerly and gently interviewing Cassie after the (alleged) attack.

On the other hand, every female character (with the exception of sixty seconds with an ER doc) is either dishonest, disloyal or dissembling. Cassie’s best female friend betrays her by telling the boyfriend and the gay friend that she doubts what Cassie is claiming. An ambitious female dean is itching to use the attack as an excuse to get rid of their ineffectual president. Cassie’s best friend’s mother is running for the Senate and she sees an opportunity for national press coverage of her campaign. A march is planned and the press takes over the campus. Cassie herself gets so much attention, not to mention the thousands of followers she gets on her website, that she can write her own ticket job-wise.

The axiomatic conclusion in BACK THE NIGHT is that all men are good and all women schemers. I’m pretty sure Lopez doesn’t mean to suggest this but when you present example after example of something in a play, it takes on greater significance beyond the play. Perhaps there have been so many rewrites that this escaped notice. There must have been cuts, otherwise how do you explain the lesbian subtext which went nowhere…or the painful relationship between the Senate candidate and her daughter which pops up and never resolves. Developmental theater isn’t easy but Lopez’ play resonates like gangbusters when one of the best friends asks the other at the very end, “How can we live knowing these bad things happen for no reason?” Indeed, how?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Reshaping History

Kirsten Greenidge’s new play, BALTIMORE (running through Feb. 28th @ B.U. Studio Theatre on Huntington Ave.) is a measured, deliberate examination of how we deal with race and racism in the twenty first century. Greenidge draws inspiration from writers like Countee Cullen (whose Harlem Renaissance poem supplies Greenidge her title) and Toni Morrison (whose The Bluest Eye is a heartbreaking story about an African-American child who wants to be white).

The action of the play swirls around an act of racist graffiti in a college dorm which houses most of the students of color. The white “artist” in question thinks the drawing is “a joke” in this post-racial era and she doesn’t see why everyone is so upset. The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, no less, opined last session that racism is a mere relic of the past. Lord knows, plenty of white people cite President Obama as evidence. (Then how do they explain the horrifying epidemic of young Black men killed by police? But I digress.)

For some reason the actors in the BCAP/New Rep co-production deliver Greenidge’s thoughtful, considered dialogue as if this were a Mamet play. Alas, that halting, pausing Mamet style of speech only serves to make the actors look like they’ve forgotten their lines.

Speaking of lines, the sightlines of three separate playing areas necessitated my swiveling my head like an owl to see directly behind me. Since I’m not a feathered creature, when I turned around as far as I could, rows of audience members were directly in front of me and not the stage. One audience member pulled my focus right to her, as she gesticulated and threw her hands up to her face a number of times, sometimes covering her eyes. At first I thought she was someone in terrible distress.

Then I noticed she was mouthing dialogue. When I had both the actors and her in my field of vision, I realized they were synchronized as if she were willing their words and gestures. Was she someone’s mother who had heard the lines so many times that she was on automatic pilot? The director? Mrs. Worthington?

The point is, however, I was so distracted that I cannot write a cogent review. Sorry, Kirsten.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Melts Like Butter

Kirsten Greenidge’s deeply flawed but endlessly charming characters in MILK LIKE SUGAR (@ BCA through Feb. 27th) win over your heart even as you hope against hope they won’t repeat the mistakes of an earlier generation. Greenidge’s dialogue just melts in their mouths and bounces against our eardrums, as three bright high school girls pledge to be friends forever, sharing birthdays, shopping, tattoos and, sadly, pregnancy.

Greenidge was inspired by news headlines a couple of years back which reported that students at Gloucester High had joined a “pregnancy pact.” The rumors were false but the idea for a play stuck. The three teenagers in MILK LIKE SUGAR know what’s trending on the net. They know a “Coach bag” is high on “the list” of what’s in. So are tattoos and clubbing. Even old school magazines like Vogue pitch to teenagers now, with page after page of models with tattoos and expensive handbags, not to mention the flagrant influences in pop music and on television.

What these sixteen year olds don’t know is the sobering side of motherhood. Their emotions are overwhelmed by outrageous notions of baby showers and oodles of gifts. The future for them means a newer version of an iphone. They think a baby will provide unconditional love: Talisha (Shazi Raja) says it outright. “What else we got?”

College isn’t even on the table for economic reasons and when a classmate voices his plan to get an education (with good grades and financial aid), Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) doesn’t believe him. And she doesn’t heed his warning about getting pregnant. Even Annie’s mother (Ramona Lisa Alexander) tries, having been there herself. Why isn’t anyone getting through? A teenage brain is developing. It doesn’t have impulse control… and Greenidge doesn’t offer up any rosy, “feel good” solutions… but she does give us hope. There’s always hope.

The best thing Greenidge gives us is a delightful window into popular culture. These are good girls, smart girls. They’re not into drugs. They drink a little but that’s not what drives them. They want something out of life. They just don’t know how to get it. Greenidge’s play doesn’t feel like a cautionary tale. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching a train wreck. We’re in on their spontaneity and their joyous, hilarious (but shortsighted) innocence.

Booker T. Washington famously said that “Character is power.” These girls have character to spare. They just don’t recognize their power. Greenidge creates powerful characters all around, like Alexander’s stressed-to-the-max mother who takes righteous umbrage at Shanae Burch’s evangelical pronouncement, “Jesus will provide.” Her reaction is priceless and so are the performances of Raja, Carmichael and Carolina Sanchez in director Bevin O’Gara’s hip, hopping, heartbreaking production.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Picketing The New Repertory Theatre for its production of THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (playing through Feb. 28th)? Why in heavens’ name? Because it blasphemes? First of all, it doesn’t. Playwright Colm Toibin paints Mary as a mother….who, like any other mother, would rather not see her son crucified. In director Jim Petosa’s take on the (one woman) play, Mary is already defeated. She tells us she thinks she’s being watched: “They” want the story to have a particular slant but her “memory is a jumble of confusion.” She feels guilt and she feels resentment because her son was “used” by those who wanted change. She struggles under the burden of a mother’s grief but she doesn’t rail against God or the Church or the movement.

Secondly, the New Rep version never reaches fever pitch. You’d be hard pressed to find anything stronger than a mother’s lament that it wasn’t worth the pain. Paula Langton plays her as the frailest of creatures with barely the strength to go on. Langton shows us her profound suffering with one gesture, not with words. She wishes, she says, with all her heart that she could have held him after they took him down from the cross. Then she outstretches her empty arms, lingers in the pose and we see Michelangelo’s Pieta. We’re moved by that gesture alone to feel the sacrifice. Isn’t that what religion is about? Making us feel? And by the by, since the gospels were written eighty years after the fact, when witnesses and disciples were long gone, who’s to say whose version is sacrosanct!

As for picketing, I remember Christopher Durang’s wonderfully outrageous farce, SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU, which was the first in a long line of “nun” send ups (which no one thinks a second thought about now). They picketed in New York. They picketed in Boston. I saw both productions. As I recall, the picketers did not know it was satire. I presume The Catholic Church understands satire now, as various incarnations of NUNSENSE play their church basements. And not a peep was uttered when Tir Na mounted THE RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER (Yes, that winemaker.) a few months ago.

There are lots of injustices in the world to protest about. This molehill is no mountain by any stretch of the imagination.