Sunday, September 30, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey BURGESS Goes Mamet One Better

Eleanor Burgess’ brilliant two hander, THE NICETIES, may have used David Mamet’s OLEANNA structure (student confronts teacher/ professor gets rattled/ says and does untoward things/ consequences ensue) but that’s where the comparison ends. THE NICETIES isn’t about radical feminism. Racism and history are at odds in the Huntington’s savvy production (playing through Oct. 6th) and unlike the static Mamet play, I truly enjoyed Burgess’ serious and often humorous writing.

The law of unintended consequences, however, has intervened in my review because I saw Burgess’ extraordinary play mere hours after I watched Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh testify before Congress on Sept. 27 (prior to Senator Flake’s successful maneuver for an F.B.I. investigation). Words like prep school, bravery, hearings and death threats jumped across the footlights at me, clanging like “The Anvil Chorus.” Suddenly, Burgess’ play became an indictment of the current (hopeless, helpless) state of our democracy, when, in fact, she sets her play in 2016 before the car wreck of an alt-right government.

Burgess is concerned with the bias of history, especially American historywritten, as the pundits say, by the victors. So why should we be surprised that there are few accounts from African slaves or Native-Americans of what transpired? The young African-American student whose paper is being skewered for both grammar and content (by her elegant but pretentious white professor) makes the case that she’s carrying around “real history” in her skin and bones. (Fats Waller made the case seventy years ago about “what is on my face” in his searing “Black and Blue.” Yet African-Americans today still find their lives endangered by the color of their skin.)

Jordan Boatman’s Zoe is audacious and impetuous and her professor (Lisa Banes, oozing a Seven Sisters superiority) doesn’t much like her tone. She tries to tell the student she’s sympatico: “I get it,” she says. And you know the response to that! The back and forth is exciting stuff. You think the teacher has a point (about books being better than Google for academic reference material), then you side with the student (about the importance of demonstrations and marches over classes). It’s a marvelous debate until it goes very wrong.

You’re even drawn into the argument at the center of their academic disagreement: that revolutions don’t work. The professor maintains that the repressive government which is violently overthrown makes way for yet another repressive regime, citing Russia, Iran and Cuba. The student is sure that in America’s case, “democracy was fertilized by oppression” but her professor isn’t signing on, especially without proof.

Director Kimberly Senior gets a clever dramatic rhythm going on stage for the two dynamic performers and Act I hurtles by. The second act resolution, for me, is less satisfying than the set-up but whether we favor one point of view over the other, Burgess manages to make both characters compelling and sympathetic.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey “Not a Puppet… Not a Puppet” Fred is us.

You must MEET FRED, at the Boston Center for the Arts only through Sept. 30th so hurry! He’s a plucky little fellow who just wants “to be a regular guy.”… But it’s not so easy for someone who needs help to get around. The PUPPET SHOWPLACE in Brookline (celebrating its 45th year) is instrumental in bringing FRED all the way from Wales to Boston as part of FRED’s cross country tour. (The Showplace presents ingenious puppet performances for adults, in addition to their children’s shows and their riotous puppet SLAMS.)

Two Welsh companies conceived MEET FRED, their hilarious and deeply touching theater piece about a puppet and his existential existence. The puppeteers from Blind Summit joined up with the Hijinx organization, which creates extraordinary work performed by actors with and without learning disabilities… and the result of their merger is remarkable.

Fred resembles those small, featureless, wooden models with hinged appendages, used to practice drawing the human figure. No face, just an oval head perched on a moveable torso. But FRED is definitely not made of wood. He’s soft cloth, animated by three puppeteers in black who recede, like the puppeteers in WAR HORSE did. We experience Fred’s enormous struggle to stand up (literally and figuratively) in a world not particularly interested in him. He’s got heart and gumption and he’s determined to make his mark. (Dan McGowan, Morgan Thomas and Sam Harding work every joint and sinew the little guy has, with McGowan supplying Fred’s charming, squeaky and sometimes defiant voice.)

Lucky for us, Fred’s adventures take him into Monty Python territory: He meets a hostile job councilor in Richard Newnham, a bewildered human date in Lindsay Foster and a fifty mile per hour hurricane, conjured up by director Ben Pettit-Wade and stage manager Gareth John.

If you have seen Boston’s IMAGINARY BEASTS, then you’re familiar with the seamless mix of puppetry and humanity for creating profoundly moving theater. This is the Welsh version of the Beasts. When Fred expresses deep sorrow, you’ll feel it, too. But mostly, the show mines laughter born out of the everyday frustrations we all experience. Fred really is all of us.

Monday, September 24, 2018


We’re not safe from President Trump, even in the theater. He gets a mention or two in SpeakEasy’s comedy and the whole evening at Zeitgeist. First let’s cover the crazy, funny love at SpeakEasy Stage.

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY (playing through Oct. 13th) is Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize winning comedy (and some ‘drama’ too) about a gloriously dysfunctional family living in a rent controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. The action swirls around Pops, who left the police force when he was shot by a fellow officer who didn’t know he was NYPD. Guirgis could have, but he doesn’t, get righteous about the shooter being white and Pops, African American. (We go there in our heads, though. You can’t help thinking of all the horrific shootings of African-Americans in the news. And we all know now, if we didn’t before, that a Black man isn’t even safe in his own apartment.)

But Guirgis has many more fish to fry in his play. This shooting is only one. His brilliant, hilarious dialogue turns some heavy plot twists into comic gold. Just when you think the Act I set-up is a little top heavy, some surprising magical realism ties up every loose end… and you never see the cogs that turn the dramatic wheel. Tyrees Allen is superb as the irascible Pops. Everyone in director Tiffany Nichole Greene’s sharp cast is in top form, especially Alajandro Simoes as a recovering drug and sugar addict, Stewart Evan Smith as Pops’ world weary, depressed son and Octavia Chavez-Richmond as the son’s wacky girlfriend BUT it’s Celeste Oliva who steals the show as the red hot church lady. Don’t miss out on Guirgis’ love fest.

Much closer to the vest is Jon Robin Baitz’ cautionary tale entitled VICUÑA (playing @ Zeitgeist Stage through Oct. 6th). Without Baitz’ immensely serious prologue and epilogue (which he added after the election) VICUÑA seems like a SNL send-up of the candidate. What makes it remarkable is that Baitz wrote it during the 2016 presidential campaign, when no one thought Trump could win… making VICUÑA the first theatrical imagining of a Trump presidency. As absurd as he could make his play, of course, HE HAD NO IDEA.

That’s the problem with the original script about the candidate and his tailor, now presented as the first act. We’ve been there and done that. And once we’ve experienced the entire evening, it’s the rewrites that pack the punch. For cryin’ out loud, he made me think of DR. STRANGELOVE (when Keenan Wynn’s colonel discovers Peter Sellers’ RAF officer breaking into a vending machine and utters one of my favorite lines, “What kind of a suit do you call that, fella?”) and that gets Baitz at least mentioned in the same paragraph with Stanley Kubrick.

The nifty, sartorial magic in VICUÑA and some heavy post-apocalyptic comeuppance for everyone (except you-know-who) gives the flimsy material of the first act some weight. The new scenes are messy and some threads are lost but you can’t dismiss Baitz’ righteousness. Director David Miller even keeps the house lights on the whole time, making us complicit in the abomination that is upon us in real life.

Miller’s cast is first rate, with Robert Bonotto leading the pack as the astute tailor, shrewdly turning Baitz’ lines into witty repartee. Steve Auger has the formidable task of turning Trump funny when it’s almost impossible for us to think anything he does is humorous. Likewise with Srin Chakravorty, as Trump’s daughter but Chakravorty has the epilogue to make her human. Jaime Hernandez gives a riveting, edgy performance as the tailor’s apprentice and Evelyn Holley gets to make the congressional republicans almost as despicable as the current crop.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

LONG TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Exquisite Suffering

You know from the play’s title that it won’t be a walk in the park but James Wilkinson’s flawless production of HANG (at the Arlington Masonic Temple through Sept. 30th) will be one of the best plays about pain and retribution you’ll see this fall. The playwright, Debbie Tucker Green, is British and her subject matter for HANG plays out in real time all over the globe.

Our news outlets cover all Trump all the time so we don’t hear much about the rest of the world but BBC radio (on NPR in the wee hours of the A.M.) plunges you into world news, with first hand accounts of horrors and atrocities (some perpetrated by our drones). You hear news from the World Court in The Hague, trying to work out (imperfect, impossible) solutions to redress wrongs. You hear about “truth and reconciliation” panels where perpetrators face their victims and admit to their actions. Miraculous stories, like Mandela forgiving the Afrikaners, like Tutsis and Hutus forgiving each other. It’s war inventing a new aftermath for itself.

All this and more floods your consciousness as you take in the play. You feel the blood rushing to your brain to absorb it all, as you try to figure out what has happened to the witness sitting so uncomfortably in a spare government office. Here’s the extraordinary craft and craftiness of the playwright: Green doesn’t tell us much at all. What isn’t said in Green’s play is what lurks in the Pinteresque pauses: The alchemy in her writing makes those powerful silences fairly scream in our souls. The three women in the play speak an economy of words because no one wants to dredge up the pain the witness has suffered. We have to fill in the gaps. We have to imagine the crime.

We think we know. Certainly the title gives us a clue but just who will or has been hanged? My brain is working in overdrive trying to figure out what countries sanction hanging so I know where these women are. But do I need to know where they are? I know Nigeria hangs dissidents because playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged for merely writing his ideas. (I can barely keep it together writing this review. It’s no picnic having to tap these memories of atrocities I store in my brain.) Green gives us another hint, about the children who survived the crime. Their childhood has been stolen, she tells us. Green says the children are now “hollow” and “mute.” And my brain rushes to the Mexican border where three thousand children have been separated from their parents, and are now living in cages in Texas, sleeping on a floor, muted, covered with silver sheets of mylar.

Exiled Theatre specializes in tough scripts. Somebody has to. I’m a firm believer in the change that words can make. Exiled is committed to “visceral” work which “fosters conversation,” it says in their mission statement. So far, and I’ve been to most of their plays, they do that. Here, director Wilkinson deftly molds the silences in HANG down to the millisecond. The three actresses working so feverishly NOT to say what has happened, do the impossible. They tell us in a shudder. In a helpless shrug, In a clenched jaw. In a forced kindness.

Angela Gunn and Angele Maraj portray the infuriating, supercilious bureaucrats trying so hard not to offend. Thankfully, they supply a (very) small window of humor, as they try, stumbling over each other, to coax a “decision” from the witness. They’re quite wonderful, placing their collective feet into their own mouths.

Imani Powell in a tour de force as the victim/witness (?), physically conveys how difficult it is, not only to testify about this crime, but how difficult it is to live with the crime still coursing through her veins. She sits like someone whose body has been restored to her but nothing in the restoration helps. Perhaps her organs, including her brain, have been returned to her but in the wrong order. She looks whole but inside she’s a jumble. When her patience with the bureaucrats runs out, we’re delighted that she can tell them off in no uncertain terms, that their proffered “concern” won’t do anything for her.  The point of the play, I think, is to ask can anything help after an atrocity?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

INTERVIEW with Composer Steven Bergman The Long Awaited Studio Recording of “Jack the Ripper: The Whitechapel Musical” By Beverly Creasey

JACK THE RIPPER, THE WHITECHAPEL MUSICAL by Steven Bergman and Christopher-Michael DiGrazia is a Gothic juggernaut, driven by Bergman’s dark, hypnotic score. If you missed it on stage, the premiere Studio Recording is now available on CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes, where you can discover what makes this retelling of the tale shockingly unique.

You’ll find, surprisingly, that it’s the women of the story who interested Bergman and DiGrazia. “We’ve given voice to the victims,” Bergman emphasizes. “[The story] is told from their perspective… the tale is such juicy fodder for a musical. [It has] all the elements… a great story, an unsolved mystery… It gave Christopher and I the opportunity to take an actual piece of history, and (figuratively, of course) flesh out what was missing in an attempt to give audiences an engaging story.”

Right from the get-go, the sinister, foreboding Story of the Century carries us into the heart of tabloid journalism. Bergman tells, “The Jack the Ripper murders were one of the first instances of sensationalism in the press, and we strove to make sure the listener makes the connection between this case, and the ‘fake news’ we have to endure today.” We then meet Jack (Matt Phillipps), as he gives us insight into his contorted perspective with the chilling Finger of God.  The scenes shifts to the Brittania pub, where we meet the women who, DiGrazia writes in the intro, “become immortal at the edge of a knife.” The Likes of Us (featuring Lori L’Italien and Agatha Babbitt) and Here and Now (performed by Maryann Zschau, Kathryn Howell, and Broadway’s Cristin J. Miller) are just two of the powerful songs which allow the humanity of these victims to seep through their sad souls. Other powerful performances on this recording include Cilla (Michael Levesque as the conflicted Inspector Abberline), and Walls Closing In (Holly Jennings as the young prostitute, Mary Kelly).

Most Ripper vehicles sensationalize the murders, concentrating on the Ripper’s ghoulish exploits, his victims merely a footnote to history. Speculation for more than a century has fueled theories which link the Ripper to the royal family… Queen Victoria’s son drew attention at the time for carousing from night ‘til dawn, often with ladies of the evening. One theory about why the murders abruptly ceased sent the Ripper to America! “Precisely because the murders are unsolved,” Bergman explains, “we were afforded dramatic license to fill in the pieces.” From Johnny Depp in From Hell, to Jack Palance’s terrifying performance in the 1953 Man in the Attic, there has been no shortage of conjecture as to the identity of the killer.  Sherlock Holmes’ help has been enlisted in several films and an Italian-Spanish entry into the horror genre even depicts the Ripper as a cannibal… but my favorite is Peter O’Toole’s wild and wooly performance in The Ruling Class.

I’ve seen two versions of the Bergman/DiGrazia musical, years apart, with major revisions built into the current one. (The music is Bergman’s. DiGrazia wrote the book but they both shared in the lyrics.) The new recording represents for Bergman “the way I heard [the songs] in my imagination.” After a 25-year creative process, he cites Smarter Than You, a humorous face-off between Abberline and the Gentlemen of the Press as to who knows more about the best method for capturing the slayer, among his favorite songs on this recording. “I wrote this piece while on a national tour over twenty years ago.  We had stopped in Indiana for the night, and there was a piano in the lobby, so I sat down to give it a play, and came up with the opening accompaniment.”

Several of the songs have benefitted from the passage of time. Mary’s Reminder is one of the last songs to have been written for the show. Placed near the end of the show, it features the ghosts of all the women and allows Bergman and DiGrazia one final opportunity to reinforce and gruesome nature of the killings.

Bergman hopes this recording of “Jack the Ripper: The Whitechapel Musical,” will entice perspective producers into bringing Jack to the stage for years to come.  In the meantime, listeners can enjoy the premiere of a new musical through the digital outlets mentioned above.